The British Fantasy Society recently reviewed ‘Horror Uncut: Tales Of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease’, and very kind words were said about my short story ‘Ptichka’, which appears in the anthology.
‘Ptichka’ was an interesting story to write. For one thing, it was the first time I’d ever written anything ‘to spec’ – that is, based on a subject matter specific to the anthology. The remit for Horror Uncut was a subject close to my heart. At the time, I was working in the NHS, and was in the unenviable position of watching the system dismantled piece by piece around me – the stealthy encroachment of privatised services, displacing vital NHS services and clinics deemed ‘unnecessary’. Unnecessary to whom? Care of the elderly was farmed out, the stroke unit moved and downsized. In its place, a private endoscopy suite. Staff numbers were slashed – a skeleton crew of exhausted, overworked nurses left behind, barely able to meet the essential needs of their patients, let alone find the time to offer care and support. And then, the spectre of the ‘health tourist’. This insidious myth meant that, in my area of work – the antenatal clinic – migrant women were choosing to forego important tests and checkups for fear that they might be charged money they couldn’t afford. (The fact that most of these women were, under the then-current rules, eligible for NHS care was not properly explained to them.)
This was the seed from which ‘Ptichka’ was born. It was an interesting challenge for me to bring my own personal sense of politics into the realm of storytelling. I tried to get to what, for me at least, is the heart of the matter – human beings, our lives and our health, and the simple truth I hold to that a human being’s innate worth and value cannot be defined in terms of their country of origin. As a healthcare worker my job is not to judge a person worthy or unworthy of NHS care. It is to deliver that care, and that is what I do. ‘Ptichka’ is fiction, but there’s a grain of truth in it – as is befitting a horror story, that truth is taken to an extreme, but from the NHS front lines a lot of what I wrote was scarily plausible. That’s the real horror, I think: the fact that the world I depicted in ‘Ptichka’ might some day become a reality.