Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
No sooner had I put the phone down to Maggi it rang again.
"Stu it's David. I'm sorry but I didn't get much from the boss man. All he said was that you could get the lady's doctor to do it or if she's a church goer then maybe her parish priest. All I can say is just be gentle with him but tell him the truth. It will be very traumatic not just for him but also the two of you."
"I hear you Dave. He's away staying with one of his friends at the moment but he's due back this afternoon around four. We plan on telling him then."
"Well I know you're not much of a believer Stu but never the less my thoughts and indeed my prayers will be with you."
"I know Dave and I appreciate it. I really do. If, like you keep telling me, there is a God up there, just tell him we need all the help we can get will you?"
"You can count on it. Good luck and stay strong for both of them."
What remained of the morning was totally without direction as I seemed to spend a lot of time achieving nothing. At mid-day I took a shower and got dressed, debated lunch but decided that I wasn't hungry. Although I wasn't due at Janet's house until later, I took my car to the shops then onwards to the house.
Janet's car wasn't on the driveway but I could hear the TV through the open window and guessed correctly that Tom had got back early and had let himself in. Tom didn't seem in the slightest surprised to see me but gave me a long cuddle. No words were spoken as he held onto me and it was almost as if he was gaining strength from our physical contact. Finally he released his grip and looked up into my eyes.
"You know the other night?"
"What about it Tom?"
"Well you asked if I had something on my mind and I asked you to talk with Mum?"
"Yes. I remember that."
"Yes I talked to her. Why do you ask?"
"Mum's not very well is she?"
"How do you know that?"
"Dunno. I just feel it inside."
"But she's not is she. Well I mean."
"No Tom she isn't at all well."
"But she will get better, won't she?"
"Let's sit down. Tom, your Mum is very seriously ill. We were going to tell you later today but since you've brought up the subject now? Then I will explain. Mum went to the doctors because she was feeling unwell and he sent her to the hospital to have some tests done. This is why she wanted you to come to the boat last weekend. The news isn't good I'm afraid.
Your Mum has cancer and while many cancers are treatable if caught in the early stages, the form that she has only shows symptoms in the later stages of the illness."
I paused briefly to see tears silently rolling down his pretty face but from God knows where, I managed to stop myself from succumbing to tears myself.
"Tom the doctors have done all that they can. I mean there is nothing more they can do except keep her out of any pain. Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you?"
"Mummy's going to die isn't she."
"I'm so very sorry Tom. I'm afraid that she is."
He just sat there with tears cascading down his face. Not crying as such but almost as if he were trying to get his young head around the news. Then suddenly he screamed and threw himself into my arms and howled the roof down. I thought it would never end. Poor little soul just cried and cried for well over an hour before finally calming down.
We cuddled up in silence before he spoke again.
"What will happen to me?"
"Mummy and I are getting married, not tomorrow but the day after. That will mean I'll be your legal stepdad and when mum goes to heaven I will look after you."
"Thanks. Can I go upstairs to my room please? I want to be alone for a bit."
"Yes of course you can but if there is anything you want, just to talk or if you want a cuddle, I'll be right here. Okay?"
"Okay Stu." And he was gone.
I had done it. He knew now and I was pleased it was over although I did feel somewhat guilty that I'd done it without Janet being there but what else could I have done? Everyone had made the point that we should tell him the truth and tell him gently and he'd asked the question. If I'd fudged the issue that would have almost as bad as lying to him and well, maybe it was better this way. It would have been a damned sight more painful to do had Janet been at home and okay he'll be upset again when she did return, he will have had time to absorb the initial shock at least.
About an hour later I heard Janet's car on the driveway so I went out to meet her.
"How come you're here so early Stu?"
"I needed to be here and I didn't know you had gone out but before we go in…….. Tom was home before I arrived and started asking questions. Janet he knows. I couldn't lie to him and so it just came out. He was frantic at the time but he went up to his room to calm down an hour or so ago and I've not seen him since but I think he's asleep. I went to check on him earlier and he was snoring well."
"I'm sorry but I had to tell him as he was asking me and I've always been up-front with him."
"Oh Stu it wasn't 'Oh God' like that? That has taken a weight off my shoulders. He knows and I know he'll be very upset tonight but……..you've done me a great service in telling him as I was dreading it!"
"Let's go inside and I'll put the kettle on."
"Damn the kettle Stu! I want to go out with a smile on my face. Let's finish that Brandy."
We had a couple of glasses and then I suggested that I go and wake Tom.
Jan was understandably nervous but I held out.
"I've come this far Jan. You have to get this over with otherwise it'll be tomorrow morning. For Tom's sake let him have the time to condition himself and for you to do the same? Can I go and wake him?"
Jan looked up at me and sighed.
"It has to be done hasn't it. Okay. Go and get him up poor lamb."
I peered through his bedroom door, Tom quite obviously still asleep and it seemed such a shame to wake him because if he was anything like me, sleep is the only way for me to escape from my worries and problems and I was about to bring things back into sharp contrast for him. It had to be done though. I gave him a gentle shake.
"Tom? Wake up mate?"
He opened his eyes and I noticed they were still red-rimmed and his cheeks still flushed from crying. He looked up at me as reality slowly filtered through. He pulled me down on top of him and once again the tears started to flow once more. I so desperately wanted to tell him everything would be okay but my only option was to let him get it out of his system as best he could and if that meant me holding on to him all night then so be it. But Tom is a mentally strong boy and after some few minutes he managed to calm down enough to let me explain that Janet was home and he should really go down and see her.
"I don't know if I can?"
"Tom she needs you right now more than ever. I'm not saying it's going to be easy for either of you but this is something you have to do for both your sakes, okay?"
"You're coming down too, aren't you?"
"Yes. I'm coming with you mate. I'm here for both of you."
Tom just sat there staring at his feet for a couple of moments as if to pluck up courage then stood up.
"I'm ready Stu."
We walked very slowly down the stairs but as soon as he saw Janet, he threw himself into her arms. Not a word was spoken between them. None were necessary. That simple act of embrace spoke volumes. They remained that way for what seemed like an age and eventually I spoke quietly to Janet.
"I'm going to leave you two alone for now. I'm walking back to the boat as I've had a drink but my phone will be on so if there's anything and I mean anything you need, you call me, alright?"
"Thank you Stu. So very considerate of you but I'm sure we'll be okay. We just need time together on our own tonight."
"I'll see you in the morning then."
I held up my phone to reinforce my willingness to return should the need arise and Janet nodded acknowledgement.
The walk back to the boat was lovely with the early evening breeze almost blowing away my sadness. The deed had been done and I was comfortable in the knowledge that it hadn't been as traumatic as I'd feared and they say that time is a powerful healer.
Tonight? Alone together? Probably nowhere near enough time but from now on in, it would get easier that is until…….. I brushed that thought aside.
Back on board I eyed a bottle of wine and judged that perhaps I'd earned it but no sooner had I settled into it, the phone rang. I rushed to pick it up thinking it was Janet but to my relief it was David.
"Well Stu. How did it go I mean assuming you've talked to the young man?"
"Yes Dave, I've talked to him and I think it went far better than I could of hoped for and much better than I expected."
I filled him in with all the details. How I arrived to find Janet was out and Tom had got home early and how he started asking questions.
"Although she wasn't there, I had to tell him anyway and yes of course he was seriously upset but that was a given and I was prepared for that. I was bothered that I'd told him without Janet being there though."
"I think it was a heaven sent opportunity actually. You managed to say what needed to be said and therefore spared Janet the upset of it all and now they can support each other. There is no easy way to tell people news like that. I was at university with a chap that went on to become a doctor. I still stay in contact with him and we've had this discussion in the past. He regularly has to be the bearer of bad news, not only to his patients but also to other family members and he says that no matter how often he has to do it, it never gets any easier but anyway, it sounds as if you did the best job under painful circumstances."
"Dave, I've a favour to ask you."
"Anything so long as it doesn't involve money. I'm just a poor parish priest remember!"
"No nothing like that! I was wondering what you were doing tomorrow morning, that's all?"
"I've nothing pressing, why?"
"Well... I'm getting married and I need a best man."
"Just the registry office in Headingly."
"No you are bloody not! I won't hear of such a thing! I will marry you myself and 'No' is not a word I will accept from you. Do you hear me?"
"But Dave it's not as if it's a joyful occasion?"
"All marriages are joyful you idiot! This one is no exception to that! I know you're doing it for unusual reasons but no matter. Your reasons are very laudable and dare I say Christian to boot. If you want to marry Janet then I WILL DO IT!"
"No damned buts Stu! Who is giving Janet away?"
"Her brother, not that I've met him but Jan speaks highly of him."
"Good! You don't need a best man for the marriage to take place but as young Tom features so much in your life, have you considered him? I mean he could be your best man?"
"Bloody hell! I'd not even considered it!"
"Well there you go then! You will need witnesses but my verger and my dear wife can do that. Oh and by the way. You will have some sort of reception won't you?"
"We weren't, why?"
"You must! We'll get something together at the vicarage."
"But we've got appointments with solicitors that same afternoon Dave."
"Shit! You are something Stu! Invite them to your wedding shit-for-brains!
Do the legal stuff afterwards!"
"Doesn't look as if I've any room to manoeuvre does it?"
"No you bloody don't you stupid wonderful person! You call your legal people first thing tomorrow and leave the rest up to me and I'll call you mid-morning. Alright?"
"Yes boss! Hey? Thank you Dave?"
"No thanks necessary but on a darker note, - when the time comes……..? Well you know what I'm saying. She will have a Christian funeral if that's what she wants and I will be the one to conduct it."
"I don't know what to say."
"Then say nothing you fool! I love you Stu. You've never told me an untruth and I have the utmost respect for you, your morals and your sense of right and wrong. Just continue to do the right thing as I'm sure you will. Now I've got some planning to do so I'll leave you to it. Make those bloody calls man!"
I didn't hear anything from Janet that night. I could but assume that they were coming to terms together in a very personal way and without my interference and that could only be good for them both. I sent a text message to Maggi.
'Thank you wise woman. You have been of more help than you can imagine.'
And then a thought struck me. Invite Maggi! Well why not for heaven's sake! She did put my mind at rest following that dream and in some quirky way she just might be good for all of us.
I suddenly realised just how much the day had taken out of me and so I finished my wine and turned in.
No dreams that night, - just oblivion.
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