Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
Jan's funeral had been booked, the will read and all the legal messing around sorted out. I was now Tom's legal stepfather and although that had been the case since Jan's death, it was now ratified in law.
I'd had a difficult couple of days clearing the house but Maggi had been a star, taking Tom out on her 'tub' as she called it (actually a very fine vintage narrowboat) and whenever Craig saw him on the marina, he'd suggest a kick-about so Tom had been sheltered from most of the trauma. He'd been good at selecting the things he wanted to keep whereas I had to be very brutal with the disposal of all Jan's stuff. I did find a photo album which I kept for Tom as and when the pain of his mum's passing had diminished plus one lovely photo of Jan, Alan and Tom, obviously taken professionally when he was six or seven years old. This I kept out of sight for quite a long time until I was reasonably sure he was mentally strong enough to look at it.
David put me in touch with an estate agent who he held in high regard with a view to putting the house on the market. I was advised against selling as the market was flat but he managed to find me a professional couple, doctors actually, who took the tenancy for a couple of years. This boosted my income and so I split the proceeds between our living costs and Tom's trust fund, after all it was more his due than mine.
Just before the day of the funeral, the marina was swamped with my friends boats wanting to moor there and Kenny did a great job, together with my Tom in sorting them all out with slots, some of them four or five rafted against other craft which either didn't mind or who were going nowhere.
All of my friend's boats displayed black flags, some as a string of bunting, others a single flag hoisted above the forepeak. It was very moving to see and none of this was lost on Tom.
It was a very quiet marina when we left for the church. No Alvis this time but a limo to follow the coffin and the others following on by foot.
The service was brief, just as Jan had requested and Tom was so very good.
He held my hand throughout but I could feel his grip increase when he became really emotional and I would squeeze him back by way of my understanding and support.
The crematorium was very difficult for both of us and especially for Tom as the coffin disappeared behind the curtain. He climbed up onto my lap and sobbed his eyes out so much so that his tears soaked through my jacket as well as my shirt and just about everyone had left the chapel before he managed to regain composure.
It was done now.
A time to look to the future, a time to grow. Not just Tom but me as well.
We hadn't planned a wake as such but as we drove into the marina, someone had erected a marquee. Barbecues were burning and a drinks table was seeing some attention. Anna came to the car as we pulled to a halt and opened the door for us, letting Tom out first and then knelt in front of him holding both his hands.
"Hey big fella? Are you okay?"
"I'm not sure, but I will be."
Tom turned to look at me, questions in his beautiful eyes. I nodded my approval and with that he cried like a baby in Anna's arms but it didn't take long for him to calm down when Craig appeared and suggested a soccer game on the quayside.
Anna turned to me. "And you Stuart? How are you holding up after all you've no one to cuddle?"
"Yes I have Anna? Tom won't let me be on my own to grieve and that I can assure you! We have each other to cling to."
"He's a remarkable young lad, isn't he. I wish I had kids."
"Hell Anna? You've stacks of time for goodness sakes!"
"Yeah but I want the baby-stage out of the way so I can connect with my child, you know, a real engagement?"
"I've a friend with two kids, well I say kids but they must be late teens or early twenties by now, anyhow she told me that at every stage of their life she couldn't wait for them to grow up to the next one. Something she regrets now as she recons she missed every step in her rush for them to grow up rather than enjoying them. You see I don't want Tom to go on to the next step. He'll reach puberty and with that comes the rebellious stage, pushing at the boundaries and the like. God help me!"
Anna giggled. "You might be pleasantly surprised, you never know?"
"Yeah and it just might snow this afternoon as well! I'm not holding my breath on that one."
I understand now why there are wakes after a funeral. Crudely put it's a way of restoring normality and order after a traumatic event and it was working. Tom was having a great time engaging with most of the guys involved in the impromptu soccer game although even I knew twenty aside wasn't the norm! I was happy just wandering around chatting to my friends and socialising and it was later on in the afternoon that Craig managed to escape from the game to talk to me.
"I've got the application documents for that bursary we talked about last week. When you've got a moment I'll go through them with you."
"Thanks Craig. Now's as good a time as any if you want."
Back on his boat, he guided me through the paperwork.
"It's all pretty straight forward however the two most important things are these. Get a couple of good references. Maybe your vicar friend could be one and perhaps one of his school teachers. Nothing too over the top, just good solid factual stuff. The other thing is the bit no one but Tom has control over and that's the all-important interview. Now my take on this is because I've got to know him really quite well, he won't have a problem. He's a very personable lad with very good conversational skills. He's bright and witty so the only thing that might let him down is nerves. He must just go into it and be himself and nothing more. Let his personality shine through and he'll be fine. By the way, I'll be writing a reference as well."
"That's really kind of you! Thanks. I'll get it all filled out and post it off."
"Good. The sooner you do so the sooner he'll get the interview."
"What's a bursary Stu?"
I'd been explaining to Tom what I was trying to do in an attempt to further his education and whilst it was far from being a certainty that we'd be successful, it had to be worth a shot.
"Well it's kind of like a grant. Most of these public schools operate a charitable trust with the aim of helping families with bright children who couldn't otherwise afford the fees, to enrol in that school."
"Wow. Get to go to Rugby!"
"Hang on a bit! It's nowhere near a done deal yet! Sure we've got some wonderful references but there's still the interview and the other thing to remember is that there will be lots of other kids, boys and girls hoping for the same outcome so competition will be fierce."
"Will you be with me for the interview?"
"I think they'll probably want to interview me but no, you will be on your own when they want to talk to you."
Oh my God! I'm nervous already!"
"Look, it's like this. They will be expecting you to be nervous. After all it's a very big deal and if you went into it all cock-sure and gobby it would make them think you weren't bothered about the situation or that you didn't care if you got in. Like Craig said, just go in there and be yourself. Try not to give just 'yes and no' answers but also don't gabble on. If we don't succeed, well at least we can say that we tried our hardest."
"What if we only get a half bursary. Then what."
"I'll find a way for you if that's the case."
"That was a first for me and no mistake!"
Craig took a sip of his drink before continuing.
"The bursary panel interviewed me this afternoon. Apparently it's highly unusual for a member of staff to submit a reference and when they asked me to attend, I wondered if it had been a mistake on my part to do so but as it was they were fine with it. I gave them a bit of background, I hope you don't mind, just a little of the circumstances surrounding the passing of your wife, his obvious sporting abilities and so on."
"That's fine with me, anything to boost his chances has got to be welcome."
"They asked me to give you this letter. I would guess it's an interview date."
I took the letter and opened it, taken aback at what I read.
"Bloody-hell they don't hang about, do they!"
"How do you mean?"
"Tomorrow morning at eleven!"
"That's probably why they asked me to give it to you rather than trusting the postal system. Can you make it okay? I mean with such short notice, I'm sure they would rearrange if you couldn't?"
"We'll be there right enough!"
We arrived at the school at the allotted time and were shown into an ante-room where we were asked to wait. Ten minutes later a young lady came through, smiled at us both and ushered me into the next room to face a panel of five rather serious looking men and women. God! It was like my first ever job interview! My stomach had so many butterflies fluttering around and I briefly wondered how, if I felt like this, how would Tom feel?
The lady sitting in the centre of the interview panel introduced herself.
"Thank you for being so prompt and our apologies for arranging today at such short notice. I'm Professor Gillman, Doctor Mailing," laying a heavy emphasis on the doctor. "You hadn't indicated you professional title, could you explain why not please?"
"I tend only to use my title of doctor only in a professional capacity. I find people can be put off by it or at best assume I'm a doctor of medicine."
"In what capacity do work doctor? Do you teach?"
"I work as a consultant physicist, my latest project was working as head of one of the teams with the Cerne Foundation's particle accelerator in Switzerland."
"A nuclear physicist then."
"All physics is nuclear to some degree, Professor."
An elderly gentleman sitting to left of Professor Gillman spoke up.
"Quite so. Quite so Doctor! Well said that man!"
The interview progressed along less controversial lines although I feared that my little spat with Gillman might have done some damage so I was much relieved when she smiled at me and said, "Very interesting, Dr Mailing. Thank you very much! Most enlightening. May I ask you to show your stepson in please?"
I left the room feeling a little happier and beckoned Tom over to me and gave him a big hug.
"Your turn soldier. Just remember what we talked about. Just be yourself and nothing more. You'll be just fine!"
Tom stood up straight, smiled at me without saying a word, the heavy door closing behind him.
We've all been there I would guess. You know the sort of scenario. Every hour you look at your watch but only two minutes has passed. This was such an event. That forty-five minutes seemed like a lifetime and I looked up sharply when the young lady from earlier walked towards me, again smiling.
"Dr Mailing? The panel have asked you to join them again please."
"Ah! Dr Mailing, please take a seat."
Was it just wishful thinking on my part or did Professor Gillman look rather less severe! She continued.
"Following our conversations with you earlier, we had, depending on how young Thomas interviewed, provisionally pencilled in a half bursary for him but I have to say and we are all of us in complete agreement, that because of what we heard from this delightful young man, his measured, polite and eloquent conversation despite his obvious nervousness, we would like to offer a full bursary commencing at the beginning of the autumn term which starts in four weeks."
Tom grabbed my hand, his smile lighting up the room!
"I'm overwhelmed Professor and all of you! Thank you so very much!"
"And you young Thomas. How do you feel?"
"I'm very excited and very grateful. Thank you."
"Good. Very good indeed! Now what I suggest is that we get a senior boarder to show Tom around the school whilst we talk about other more practical things. Is that alright with you Doctor?"
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