Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
And so life went on. I visited Janet and Tom every Tuesday and Thursday evening on the excuse that I was helping him with his maths but if truth be told I just wanted to be near him. I would go back to the boat with confused emotions. I knew my feelings for him were more than just paternal and whilst I would try and brush them aside as best I could, I would find myself playing out various scenarios in my mind and that disturbed me.
At the house I had time to study him as he worked and I would try and rationalise exactly what I found so wonderful about him. He was a small boy for his age -- perhaps four foot six inches tall and whilst he was slender he had good muscle definition for his age. Small hands and feet, dark brown hair cut to regulation length and dark brown eyes set wide above high cheek bones and lips I so wanted to kiss and never stop.
Yes. To me he was nothing short of perfection and I ached for him.
This did nothing but fuel the fire of love that burned out of control deep inside me and I knew that he would only have to come on to me one more time and I would be powerless to resist thus committing what for me was a cardinal sin, that of robbing a young boy of his innocence and childhood.
To me there were just two options open. Cut and run or stay put and hope that I had the will-power to contain my feelings. Either course of action would be painful but the first wouldn't just hurt me but also Tom and Janet so it had to be the latter.
Tom was always a regular visitor to the boat, sometimes just for the day but more often than not he would sleep over but a week before the school summer holidays I managed to persuade Janet to visit as well. She had always refused in the past saying that it was a man thing and she didn't want to intrude. Quite what she thought she would be intruding on beat me but I never forced the issue as it gave me more prime time with Tom and him with me however on this occasion she accepted. I planned a BBQ hoping that the shitty weather that had dogged us for the past couple of weeks would improve so it was with a sense of relief when that day dawned bright and clear.
They arrived at three in the afternoon so I lit the BBQ and we settled in to a bottle of wine, waiting for the charcoal to catch. Janet produced an envelope.
"Something I think you'd like to see Stu."
Tom groaned inwardly. "It's my end of year school report."
I started to read through it and the deeper I went into it the broader my grin became! Aside from French his grades didn't dip below a `B' but the best was the last. Mathematics. "A minus! Tom you're a bloody genius!
Toms face fairly lit up! "Mum you never told me I got an `A'? Wow!!"
"No I didn't! I wanted it to be a surprise for when we were together and you know who you have to thank for that don't you."
Tom hurled himself at me and clung on for dear life. "I... I don't know what to say?"
"I think the way you are choking the life out of Stu says pretty much everything! Did you read the teachers comment Stu? He says `The most marvellous turn-around in achievement I have ever seen in all my years of teaching. Thomas's work is well thought out and well presented. He has participated in class with great enthusiasm and his new-found love of the subject truly confounds me. Very well done Tom!'
I received a letter from the school today. He asks if I can go to the school on Monday afternoon to see him. What are your plans Stu because I'd like you to come with me if possible?"
"Well okay I can do that but he only asks for you."
"If you were Toms Dad then he would ask for both of us and let's face it, you're as close to him as any father could be so I think it's right you should be there. Will you come?"
Now I'm not given to blushing but here I am with a face like a damned beetroot! Janet smiled and nodded her head.
"That says more than words ever could. With the possible exception of myself, no one loves my son more than you."
Arriving at the school gates the following Monday afternoon we met Tom. He was talking to his friend Paul who when he saw me, eyed me suspiciously and raced off on his bike. Janet suggested that Tom waited in the car whilst we had our meeting.
We reported in at the reception and after a few minutes a rather jolly old gentleman introduced himself.
"I'm Graham Frost, Thomas's mathematics teacher and you must be Thomas' mother. It's very nice to meet you!"
"Likewise Mr Frost. May I introduce you to my very dear friend Stuart Mailing? I hope you don't mind but I asked him to come with me this afternoon."
"You're very welcome Mr Mailing. A pleasure to meet you. Shall we all go through to my study?"
We sat down around a table and Frost poured us some coffee before parking his rather portly frame beside us.
"I'm so pleased that you were able to come this afternoon because the thing is, I'm lost for words. The meteoric escalation in young Tom's grades is unprecedented to the point where I was wondering if he was cheating! Not the case. I set a rather knotty problem for the class to solve and your boy was the only one in the entire class to get the correct answer. I then asked him to redo his calculation on the blackboard in front of everyone and it was a good job I don't have a heart condition. His methodology was just... Well... Perfect and his calculations -- without using any aids other than his brain were spot on the mark! Now I've been teaching for over thirty-five years and I have never seen anything like it and I've had the privilege to teach some very bright pupils. Please tell me how this transformation took place?"
Janet nodded her head in my direction. "It's all down to Stuart here. He managed to spark interest in him and he's just gone from strength to strength."
"Really! Well Mr Mailing you performed a miracle with this young man! Like to tell me how? I would be very interested!"
"Application. Applied mathematics. I used his interest in other areas and gave him some practical examples of how maths could be used to solve practical problems. In truth the rest was up to him. I'm not a teaching professional like yourself."
"Maybe you should be!"
"No chance! I'm very fond of Tom so in that way it was easy in as much as he would listen to me. One-on-one I could probably do if the kid wanted to learn but you have to do battle with classes of what, - twenty, thirty pupils some of which have only one goal and that is to get away from school each day as fast as possible? I couldn't do it Mr Frost and I take my hat off to you, I really do!"
"Ha!! Your point is well made but there are rewards and I'm not referring to the bright pupils but sometimes for those who under-achieve. One girl for example. Had no idea of even the basics! Four years after leaving school she wrote to me. She had started her own business and was prepared to pay me for private tuition! I refused of course --- payment I mean but helped her get an HNC in accounting! From a complete no-brainer to HNC? I can retire in a years time a happy man!"
"I understand exactly what you mean! Tom was, by his own admission a complete no-hoper. It's just that spark that's needed and with the number of kids you have under your wing there's no way you can tailor your approach to all of them in a way that suits their individual needs. An impossible task!"
"Yes possibly so Mr Mailing. None the less you've done a wonderful job with, may I say, a wonderful young man. His behaviour has improved beyond all recognition as well. He is a delight to be around. Anyway I've taken up too much of your time already. Keep up the good work both of you! It'll be my last year next year and I can't wait! Please let Tom know how very pleased I am with him!"
Back at their house we talked about what Mr Frost had said and it became apparent that something was on Janet's mind. I didn't dig for fear of overturning what had otherwise been a fabulous day. None the less something was bothering her.
Tom went to bed and we separately said our good-nights to him. He looked almost frightened when I left his room and I so much wanted to stay with him and to understand what was troubling him but that wasn't an option.
I came back down the stairs and Janet looked up at me. Gone the rosy cheeks of elation and pride but replaced by a greyness I'd not seen before.
"Are you alright Jan? You look really off-colour?"
"Another time Stu. Not tonight but soon please. There are things that have to be discussed. I'm not up to driving you home tonight. -- Sorry but you'll have to walk back. Thank you for tonight. It made such a difference knowing that someone else…….. Please Stu! I need to be on my own for a while."
That night I had trouble sleeping. Tom had been justifiably pleased with his school report but there had been an undertow of melancholy throughout the evening with both he and Janet very subdued.
I didn't see either of them until the following Thursday when the school year ended for the summer. Tom called me to ask if he could come to the boat that evening and stay over until the Saturday morning much to my relief. I had started to worry that maybe I had said or done something to make him feel he wasn't welcome however he arrived still in his school uniform carrying an overnight bag.
He was still very subdued but I thought better of questioning him thinking that if he wanted to talk it was better instigated by him rather than me but as we cuddled up in bed on the Friday night, I had to try and get to the bottom of whatever was troubling him.
"Tell me to shut up and mind my own business if you want but you've something bothering you, haven't you? Do you want to talk about it?"
It seemed like an age before he answered me.
"I don't……..I mean I can't…….. Mum asked me not to……..say anything to you."
I could feel his body shake as he tried to stop himself from crying. I turned over so we were face to face and held him tight to me. There was nothing sexual about this but I could feel his pain and just felt the need to protect him somehow.
"Let it go Tom. Give in to those tears. It isn't good to bottle it all up inside. No more questions I promise."
For a full fifteen minutes he sobbed his eyes out. My chest was saturated with his tears but finally he calmed down and reached over for some tissues and blew his nose.
"Thanks. I feel loads better now."
"Good. I'm pleased. Just remember that you mean the world to me and if and when the time comes to talk, I'm here for you always."
The next day Tom did seem brighter. We tidied up the boat and with him at the helm we motored down to the service quay to get the effluent tanks pumped clear.
I look back now after all these years and still marvel at how proficient he was with the boat -- thinking ahead and structuring every manoeuvre as if he was born into it. He was more than good enough to take the boat down by himself but I was new here and didn't want to upset the harbour master!
With lunch out of the way Tom made ready to leave telling me that he was sleeping over at Paul's house that evening but actually wished he could stay with me but Janet had made the arrangements already.
"Summer's here bud. We can go out for a week or more so long as Mum says it's okay!"
Tom smiled weakly up at me.
"Yes. You must talk to her."
With that he was gone turning once to wave at me leaving me alone with my thoughts.
Later that afternoon I tried to call Janet but the phone just rang out.
The same result that evening and the following morning and I rationalised that perhaps she'd taken the opportunity to get away for the weekend but deep inside I was afraid. No I was scared that something was going down. Something serious.
"Stu? It's Janet. I'm really sorry it's so late but I had to make sure Tom was asleep before I called you."
I glanced at the clock. Midnight.
"Anytime is okay. What's the problem? Are you two alright?"
Without directly answering my question she went on.
"I need to talk with you. Soon. Can you make tomorrow evening or should I say this evening say around 6.30? Paul's folk are taking the boys to Disney Land in Paris for a couple of days so I'll have the house to myself. Please Stu you have to say yes?"
"Yes of course I'll be there but…….."
"Tomorrow Stu. -- Thank you." And with that the phone went dead.
No sleep for the remainder of that night despite a couple of very large brandies. Every possibility went through my mind. Was she going to re-marry? Maybe her new man didn't think I was a good guy for Tom to be around. Was Tom unwell? Was she unwell? Were they moving out of the area?
Had she thought my behaviour with Tom inappropriate and was going to the police?
The next day dragged like no other as I just stumbled from one half-finished job to another until the time came to set off and on arrival my hand was visibly shaking as I pushed the doorbell.
Janet let me in and offered me a seat. Walking to the drinks cabinet she said "You like a good brandy don't you? Alan was given this, it's a good vintage and right now I need one and I think you will as well – probably the entire bottle by the time I've finished!"
She took a seat right beside me, took a large mouthful of her drink and took hold of my hand. With great composure she started to explain.
"It isn't good news Stu. For a while now I've not been feeling 100%, nothing I could put my finger on, just odd and out of sorts so I decided to go to my doctor and get checked out. A few days later he called me in and told me that one of the blood tests was suspect and he was referring me to hospital for further investigations as there was a possibility I might have cancer."
She paused to take another sip of her drink and I downed mine in one, my hand shaking so much that the glass rattled as I sat it back down on the table.
"So this weekend I was admitted to hospital and they put the rule over me and the upshot of it all is yes. I have cancer."
I interrupted her.
"But these days the understanding of it means there are effective treatments out there."
"For some. Unfortunately not mine. I have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The symptoms don't become apparent until it's too late for any effective treatment. The most they can do is give me chemotherapy and even then at best I've perhaps twelve months to live. Stu I've declined treatment. Knowing that the clock is ticking down with each passing day would make me suicidal."
"How…….. How long?"
"Three weeks but now I need you to do the most single biggest favour ever!
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