A child overhears a conversation and thinks that Father is dying
“I’m sorry, Jacob it’s curtains I’m afraid.” Peter straightened as he shook the thermometer that had been beneath Father’s tongue and shook his head sadly. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m upset about it but there it is.”
“It’s not your fault, Peter…” Father’s voice trailed away as Eric rushed from the chamber where he had been about to enter as he caught the tail end of Peter and Father’s conversation. He was horrified! Father dying? No, it couldn’t be!
Running back toward the dining room blinded by his tears Eric smacked straight into Kipper coming the other way.
“Hey Eric, where’s the fire? What’s wrong? Smoke got in your eyes? Why the tears?”
“It’s Father.” Eric blurted, “He’s going to die.”
Kipper stood stock still. “No!” he replied with disbelief, then “How do you know this?”
“I heard Peter tell him, just now. He told him that it was curtains. He’s gonna die Kipper, Father’s gonna die.”
“Now hold on a minute, maybe you’ve got it wrong. Maybe they were talking about something else. What were they doing when they said it?”
“Peter had been taking Father’s temperature.” Eric’s bottom lip trembled as he spoke. He was having a difficult time holding back the tears.
Kipper was speechless. It sounded like Eric could be right. Still he thought it best to ask if he knew exactly what curtains meant.
“How do you know that the phrase ‘its curtains’ means someone is going to die?”
“You know! You were there. Father himself told us. You remember that day we were discussing life and death. Father told us the various words one can use for death. Like passing away or lost and curtains, we all laughed at that, didn’t we?”
Kipper nodded. “Yes I remember. We asked Father what he meant by that and he told us that in a crematorium the curtains close around the coffin near the end of the service. Hence that’s where the phrase is derived.”
“Then its true, he’s going to die?”
“I don’t know, Eric. I just don’t know. Maybe we should ask Vincent.”
“Maybe Father doesn’t want Vincent to know. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to know. Maybe we shouldn’t even know.” Eric’s voice rose tearfully.
“It’s a good job we do. Think how awful it would be if we gave Father a load of grief and then discovered he was dead. Think how guilty we would all feel then.” Kipper told Eric and added, “What we should do is tell the other kids and start doing as much for Father as we can, and that means doing everything we ought to do too.”
“Like what?” Eric gazed up at his friend with wide eyes, made even larger by the glasses he wore.
“Like going to bed on time, like brushing our teeth, like personal hygiene, like handing in our homework on time, like listening intently during lessons. Any less strife we can give Father, the better. Come on let’s go tell the others.”
They fell into step alongside one another intent on their purpose, though their hearts were breaking. Life would never be the same without Father, how would they possibly survive without him?
*** *** ***
“Well thank you for coming, Peter. I hope everything works out.” Father shook his friend’s hand as Peter collected his medical bag and made to leave.
“So do I. It’s a pity but there’s nothing I can do about it. Are you sure about the material and the wood?”
“Well, if you want a second opinion on the style and material, I’m sure Catherine would be only too happy to advise you. She might even know the suitability of the type of wood to use.”
“I might do that, is she due down at any time?” Peter checked his watch it had gone 8 p.m.
“Vincent went up to meet her just before you arrived. If she isn’t coming down you might find them still at the park entrance.”
“Right I’ll go that way out then. Take care, Jacob.”
“I will, thank you. Be well, Peter.”
*** *** ***
Word spread fast among the older children, the younger ones it was decided best not be told and consequently the tunnels were a hive of activity as all the older children planned to meet at 9 p.m. in Kipper’s chamber. Several had been up top and Jamie had been assigned to watch out for them as they came home.
Intending to wait at the park entrance she had encountered Vincent and Catherine cuddled close and had decided to be inconspicuous a few yards away, so that they didn’t become embarrassed by her presence. As Jamie waited she heard footsteps and looking up with a ready smile she saw Peter approaching. “Peter, hi.” She called suddenly aware that in so doing she would alert Vincent and Catherine to her presence. No matter the kids would be home soon and they would surely break the loving couple apart.
“Hello, Jamie you’re a little off the beaten track aren’t you?” Peter slowed as he came up alongside her.
“I’m waiting for some of the kids. They went up top and are due back any moment. Have you been to see Father?”
“How is he?”
Peter looked at Jamie oddly. “How is he?” He questioned mystified; Jamie’s tone had portrayed that Father had been unwell. The concern was evident in her question.
“He’s fine. No problems there, Jamie.” Peter laughed, suddenly wondering if Jamie had something to relate to the patriarch of the tunnels and was testing his frame of mind before she ventured in.
Just then and before she could comment further Vincent and Catherine came into view having heard voices. Catherine greeted Peter warmly with a giant bear hug, and asked how he was and knowing about the problem added, “How’s everything going? Do you need any help?”
“Actually yes. I was hoping I would see you. Father said you’d be down here. There is something you might be able to help with as it happens.”
“Of course, if I can help I will. What is it ,Peter?”
Taking her arm Peter moved toward the exit and Vincent and Jamie took up step a few feet behind them.
“Well you know the problem, so I won’t need to go into details, but I was hoping that you might be able to advise me on the types of material and also the wood. There are so many styles and so many grains that I wouldn’t know where to begin, and I do so want it to be perfect. Having managed superbly with things like that after your father died Father thought that you would be just the person to be able to help.”
Behind him, Jamie covered her mouth to disguise a shocked gasp, but Vincent heard and looked down at her with concern nonetheless. “What is it, Jamie?”
“It’s nothing.” Jamie recovered quickly and was more than glad when the large sliding door just ahead of them opened and a small group of tunnel children stepped through. “Hi, gang.” She called as cheerily as possible; “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Why?” They all wanted to know.
“Come with me and I’ll fill you in.” The group of children walked down the tunnel and was soon out of sight shouting their hellos and goodbyes to the three adults they had passed on the way in.
Vincent watched them go remembering days gone by when he and Devin were boys, then he returned his attention back to Catherine and Peter who were deep in conversation about various materials that would be required.
*** *** ***
“Its true!” Jamie announced as she entered Kipper’s chamber, startling the assembled group. “Peter and Catherine were discussing the type of wood for the coffin and the material to be used inside. I can’t believe it!” Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks.
“We have to do something. We can’t let Father die without showing him how much we love him. Look, let’s discuss this tonight, no matter how long it takes.” The group of children nodded unable to speak as tears gathered in their eyes and they were still discussing how they could make Father’s last days happy ones long after midnight.
*** *** ***
“Well that was a day to remember.” Father told Vincent as each dismissed their last class for the day. “All homework done, all pupils listening intently, several hands up asking questions, whatever has got into the classes today I do not know, but I hope they keep it up.”
Vincent nodded, “I wish I could say the same. But my classes were very subdued. They didn’t appear to be listening at all, and any questions that were asked were often related to you.”
“To me? How so?” The two men walked side by side toward the dining room eager to enjoy dinner. Vincent wasn’t meeting Catherine till after eight, hours yet to enjoy his father’s company.
“They surprised me. Kept asking how you were, some even asked how old you were. Others asked if I’d know if you were feeling unwell. I couldn’t understand their questions neither would they tell me the source of them when prompted.”
“Must be after something. Either that or they are planning a surprise birthday party for me.” Father laughed, he hadn’t a clue why so much interest had been taken in him that day, only grateful that Vincent had so obviously pulled the short straw when it came to a well-behaved class for the day. He couldn’t fault his classes, why he’d not had to raise his voice at anyone, not even once.
They reached the dining room and took up a seat alongside one another intending to see what William had prepared before going up and serving themselves.
“Father? Can I get you your dinner? It’s chicken stew and dumplings.” Brook approached and waited for his reply.
“Well, yes thank you, Brook.” Father looked on after Brook’s retreating back before glancing at Vincent. “See?”
“I don’t know, Father. Maybe they are after something? A night club perhaps. They could be planning a trip to a night club in an unsavoury area.”
“Then they are going about it the wrong way! Being kind to me would only make me more aware of what nice children they are and how much more I would worry about them attending such a place. Now if they were all little rotters, I’d gladly send them out with my blessing!” Father retorted merrily. Vincent knew he didn't mean that and he laughed. At that moment Brook returned with Father’s plate filled with a generous helping of chicken stew. “Oh I’ll never eat all that!” Father looked down at the large helping.
“Seems you have mine piled on top too. Brook did you get me some dinner?”
Brook shook her head, “No sorry, Vincent, I thought you could get it yourself.”
“That settles it.” Father mumbled so only Vincent could hear; “They are definitely after something.”
*** *** ***
And so it went on, every which way Father turned the children were there. “Can I help you, Father? Can I fetch you some tea, Father? Father, here William has just made a fresh batch of cookies. I sneaked some out for you.” Things like that it was all very nice, but Father found himself on tender hooks anticipating their bombshell at any moment.
Finally he could stand it no longer. He waited until he had most of them in his and Vincent’s joint history class and just after Kipper brought up his chair for him and helped seat him upon it, noting that they didn’t bring one for Vincent, Father started to speak.
“Now look here. I don’t know what is going on, but you children have been too nice to me just lately. You are beginning to smother me. So let’s have it, what is it that you want? Come on tell me?”
From one to the other the children looked at each other unable to voice their thoughts. Slowly one by one they looked to Kipper and then to Eric who had started all of this.
“We know that you aren’t well, Father.” Kipper began. That was an understatement.
“Not well? Of course I’m well. Oh, there’s the usual arthritis, but I’m used to that. Nothing else is wrong with me.”
The class glanced from one to the other. Mixed feelings assailed them with embarrassment and hope taking equal priority.
“You’re not dying?” Eric asked timidly.
Father almost fell off his chair. “Dying! Me! Whatever gave you that idea?”
All eyes turned to Eric. He wished the floor would open up and swallow him. Some of the others had given up all their savings to buy Father his last box of his favourite Belgian chocolates and they had bought him two boxes before that too, and he hadn’t even shared them!
“I heard you.”
“Speak up, Eric.” Father’s voice rose as he strained his ears to hear the boy’s whispered reply.
“I heard you…and Peter.” He spoke louder this time.
Vincent leaned forward and holding out a hand to Eric beckoned him to come close.
Looking only in Vincent’s direction Eric took up the offer and was soon feeling better surrounded by Vincent’s loving arms as he feared Father was about to blow a gasket.
“You were eavesdropping?” Sternly Father admonished the child.
“No, no, Father. Not eavesdropping. I was coming to see you and I heard what you and Peter were saying. I left as soon as I heard.”
“And drew the wrong conclusions no doubt. So exactly what did you overhear?”
“I heard Peter say it was curtains for you.” Eric’s bottom lip trembled and he felt decidedly stupid as he realised he’d made a grave mistake. Maybe grave was an inappropriate word in the circumstances. Why did he have to be reminded?
Despite everything, Father started to laugh causing curious glances to pass from child to child seated around the chamber. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all thought Eric. That thought was short lived.
“You stupid boy!”
Eric cringed and burying his face tightly against Vincent’s chest was relieved only when he felt Vincent’s strong arms around him holding him tight. “It’s all right, Eric, it’s all right. Anyone can make a mistake.” Vincent soothed while glaring at Father.
Contrite, Father apologised at once. “I’m sorry, Eric. That was just shock speaking, please forgive me. But had you of not overheard the conversation between Peter and I none of this ghastly mistake would have occurred, and had you stayed long enough to hear the rest of our conversation you would know that we were speaking about Peter’s apartment being refurbished.”
There was silence as everyone absorbed that piece of information.
“Refurbished, Father?” His cheeks streaked with tears, Eric had finally looked up and asked.
“Yes, refurbished.” Father reached out a hand and ruffled Eric’s hair. “Peter wanted to have blinds put up at the windows, but the old frames would be unable to take the weight of the fittings. And he was left with no choice but to have curtains again.”
“Oh!” A huge sigh of relief came from everyone seated on the floor.
“And the material?” Jamie asked, “The styles and the wood? They weren’t for a coffin?”
Both Vincent and Father laughed heartily at that. “No…” Father began at last as his laughter subsided. “They were materials for the type of curtains and the frames that would eventually need replacing when Peter could afford to have it done. Catherine was helping him choose the style.”
“Oh.” Everyone remarked once more as enlightenment dawned bright and clear as a new day.
“So you aren’t dying?” Eric asked just to be sure.
His eyes bright with humour Father shook his head.
“And we needn’t have tried so hard to make you happy?”
Father shook his head.
“And we needn’t have clubbed together to buy those chocolates!” Several voices asked together.
Father laughed heartily and again shook his head.
“I’ll kill you, Eric!” A surge of bodies leapt from the floor and aimed toward Eric who once again sought refuge in Vincent’s arms.
“Now, now. Children!” Father rose to his feet intent on bringing order back into the class. They ignored him seeking out Eric instead intent on making him pay, even though Vincent held them back and away from Eric at arms length.
“QUIET!” Father bellowed with dismay as no one batted an eyelid.
He tried again even louder. “I SAID, QUIET!”
Still no response from the children, all hell had broken loose, they were out for Eric’s blood.
“Oh…Oh…” Father clutched at his chest, “Oh help me.”
Instantly, the class quietened. “Father! What is it! Father?”
“Quick, Vincent help him, he’s having a heart attack! Oh we’re sorry, Father, we’re sorry. Vincent come on, help him!”
Dutifully, Vincent set Eric aside and went to his father’s aid. His eyes were closed, his face contorted in pain, his hands clutched to his chest. He looked like he was dead.
Deathly silence filled the chamber as all the children each feeling guilty for his actions and each fearful of the situation watched with wide open eyes as grinning, Vincent went through the motions of examining his parent feeling for a pulse, heartbeat and breathing.
“Do that again and I’ll…”
Vincent chuckled. “You’ll do what, Father?” Again he tickled the older man around the ribs with his clawed fingertips. It never failed.
“Vin…cent…st…op… that…tick…les!” Father exclaimed bringing a rush of relief to every child as they realised they had been had. Father was only joking, only pretended to have had a heart attack so as to get their attention. Well it had worked! It had really worked, too well perhaps.
Suddenly Jamie realised something and explained it to the children. One by one, they understood. Just as they had been taught to love and put others ahead of themselves, they realised that affection and responsibility and love was not only applicable to those in trouble, or those that were ill, or those that were dying. It was applicable to anyone at all times, for any reason. They should have been grateful that Father wasn’t going to die, and all they had been concerned with was getting their revenge on Eric. It hadn’t been his fault. In the same circumstances, they may have concluded the same thing overhearing only part of a conversation.
“I’m sorry, Eric.” They spoke one by one.
“Yeah, me too.” They came to hug their adoptive brother, before turning to Father, “I’m sorry, Father. I’m pleased you’re not dying.” They mumbled after their apology.
Father nodded, patting their hands, and tousling their hair as they filed past before coming to rest back in their positions upon the floor to await the beginning of their overdue history class.
When all were seated waiting patiently Father looked at them. Tears be-dimmed his eyes as he looked and looked and said nothing. They were such fine children, and they had been taught a fine lesson this day. Finer than any history class.
As they waited in anticipation Father told them, “Class dismissed.”
They stared at him open mouthed. “For real? We can go?” Eric cried hopefully.
Father nodded, “I understand it’s a lovely day up top, go enjoy the sunshine, take the whole day off.”
There was silence, and then suddenly uproar…”Oh, Father, you’re the best!” They rushed as one, almost bowling him over as they hugged him tightly and kissed his cheeks.
“Yes, I am aren’t I?” Father remarked. When they had all gone he started chuckling softly as he went over the events of the past half-hour and imagined the fun they would have up in the park that day.
Vincent stood and helped his father to his feet and hugged him tightly. “You certainly are the best, Father.” He told him sincerely, remembering how he and Devin might not have got off so lightly years ago. “You most certainly are.”
*** *** ***
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