When she thought of dying, which wasn’t very often because Meryl was a child almost completely distracted by life; she thought about Henry. Henry had been an old man many years before Meryl was even born, before she was even an idea her father had brought home from work one day. ‘Come on love’, he’d pleaded with Meryl’s mother, ‘everyone’s got one, some even have two or three.’ Meryl’s Mother wasn’t convinced at first. ‘Well what do you want one of those for?’ She’d asked and then added with an element of distaste, ‘How do we, you know, get one?’
Meryl’s Father had the procedure written down, just in case he forgot, ‘First you got to relax, take a bath, glass of wine, game of crib, that sort of thing. Then you work up a bit of a sweat and nine months later you have a baby! Remarkable isn’t it? Obviously there are a few minor details I’ve overlooked in the telling, but I think that’s the gist of it.’
Sure enough, one hot bath, some scented candles, a rather intense game of crib and nine months later Meryl was born at home, in a birthing pool. She wasn’t sure if the story, told by her father frequently, was the whole truth or not, she suspected not. It seemed more plausible that her parents had had, in a moment of passion, unprotected sex with one another, that sort of thing happened to grownups all the time.
Henry had lived a life, possibly two by the time Meryl took notice of him, real notice that is. He’d always been there, like the oak tree at the bottom of the garden. Only it took a while before the interesting oak tree, like the equally interesting old man, grabbed her attention.
It had started with a chat about something peculiar, something she’d been mulling over while eating a piece of her mother’s toffee apple torte. Her mother, after barely any deliberation, opted not to have any more children. She decided to replace any lingering maternal desires with baking; something about her father missing out some of the more notable facts associated with procreation and child birth. As a result her baked goods were not only ‘melt in the mouth’ delicious, but were also made with real affection and Meryl received, and ate, the lion’s share of that affection.
Meryl had taken to sitting in one of the lower boughs of the oak tree, high enough for an uninterrupted view of the neighbouring gardens and without the need for specialist climbing equipment; such as a ladder or a rope. She had mastered the art of climbing to her favourite viewpoint with the obligatory torte wedged firmly in her mouth; leaving her hands free to find the familiar knots and branches on the ascent. To get down she swung out onto a sturdy branch and dangled her legs above the ground below, letting go and freefalling into the soft grass cuttings her father kept for composting.
It had been in the tree that day, whilst mulling and eating simultaneously, that she had noticed Henry appear at the low fence that separated their gardens. ‘Keeping watch are you?’ he’d said smiling, ‘look out for Mrs Grubber at number four, she has a catapult, fires it at cats and children with equal spite and distaste, can’t see the difference between the two, cats and children are both vermin as far as she is concerned. Dammed good shot too.’
Meryl blinked, considered the legitimacy of Henry’s statement and decided it was probably true, Mrs Grubber looked like a troll, or a close approximation of the troll she had living in her head, filed under the lengthy title, ‘weird and wonderful creatures of folklore that more than likely exist; really.’ The troll shared a fascinating section of her imagination and kept company with a whole host of other creatures such as pixies, fairies, banshees, unicorns and dragons. A sub category had been drawn up to cover the less likely to exist creatures such as Kraken, Dwarves, gnomes and mermaids. Trolls, as far as she was aware, but couldn’t be totally sure, ate cats and children, so with that in mind Mrs Grubber was more than likely a troll.
‘No actually, I’m just mulling over a question, one I’ve come up with, I’m just not sure it’s the right question now.’
‘Well I decided that one good question can take you a life time to answer, all you really need is one really good conundrum. It would be like a chewing gum that never loses its flavour; you could take it out and stick it somewhere safe until you felt like having a little chew. I chew on ideas, well I suppose most of us do, don’t you think?’
‘I do believe you are right, children and women often are you know? And you fit both categories don’t you?’
‘What’s your question?’ asked Henry politely.
Meryl took a moment to look Henry over, give him her full scrutiny. He had a face like a walnut, a friendly walnut, but a walnut all the same. His voice was warm with a hint of something Polish in it and when he spoke his eyes, sapphire blue, held her gaze and said as much, if not more, than his voice. He always wore a suit, come winter or summer, with a hanky discreetly placed in his breast pocket. It was never a boastful, self important hanky like some of those wedding hankies, it wasn’t red or anything, and it never stuck out of Henry’s pocket like it owned the place; like a rooster in a hen pen. She liked him.
‘Well if I tell you that, you will start mulling on my question and probably get the answer before me won’t you? Then I’d have to think of a new one all over again. Then again, as I said, I’m not convinced it’s the right question for me, if I decide I don’t want it, you can have it. Still it’s a bit of a risk, me telling you don’t you think?’
‘Yes, yes more than likely, I hadn’t thought of that. Tell you what, I’ll tell you a secret and if you like it, you tell me your question; ok?’
‘Ok it’s a deal’ she said finally. ‘Tell me your secret, it better be good’. Meryl settled into the bough and made herself comfortable, old people took a while to tell secrets, it normally involved a lot of back story and preamble. Her Aunt Mable had spent a whole lunchtime telling everyone her secret, it wasn’t even very good; just something about bumping into an old flame, and how she had arranged to meet him in the park but not told Uncle Simon.
‘I have a day to live’ said Henry smiling.
‘Is that it?’ asked Meryl a bit too readily she thought, with hindsight. She sat up again and regarded her neighbour, he probably understood her question as, ‘is that it, a day to live!’ not ‘is that it, what a rubbish story.’ He didn’t seem to be upset either way.
‘Isn’t it perfect? This time tomorrow I’ll be with my Elsie’ Said Henry.
‘How’s that perfect?’ Being dead, as far as she was aware, wasn’t perfect for most things.
‘Think about it, I’ll be back in an hour; you can give me your question then if you like, ok?’
With that Henry waved and hobbled away, stopping once to smell a rose in full bloom, before disappearing through the back door of his garage.
Meryl settled down for a bit of pondering, it was a Saturday and she had the whole morning to think. What did he mean it was perfect? Well, she supposed that if he was telling the truth, it meant that no matter what her question was he’d hardly have time to find the answer, what with all the other stuff he had to do before dying. Old people had bucket lists, things that they want to do before they die, Henry would be busy ticking stuff off. She wondered what was left to do on his list and whether she should make her own, then thought better of it. She had to grow up first after all, and that was hard enough.
Was he telling the truth? Was Henry a liar? She didn’t think so, liars have what physiologists call ‘tells’ or ticks’, little subconscious physical warnings like scratching your nose or playing with your hair, Henry didn’t have much hair and he never scratched his nose.
So he was telling the truth, in which case how did he know exactly when death would come for him? No one knows when they will die, not really. No one knows what happens once they are dead either, not with any certainty, Henry couldn’t be totally sure he’d be reunited with his dead wife.
Meryl’s father was an atheist; he believed in science and facts and said that when a person dies all that’s left is the memories held by the living. Meryl’s mother disagreed; she liked to think that, like Meryl’s dead hamster, we all go to heaven; or hell if you are really naughty like Mr O’Brian.
Mr O’Brian had lived down on the canal in a rusty old barge that sat like a sore thumb amongst the other nicely painted barges. Children were told by their parents not to go near him; he had a reputation for ‘interfering’ with little boys and girls. Meryl had pressed her mother for more information on what sort of interference Mr O’Brian inflicted on his victims but once more she had been informed that she was too young to understand. She imagined the interference to be of a sexual nature, but sensed awkwardness and embarrassment in her mother’s voice so decided to not press the question any further. She had promised not to go near him and to report any ‘intrusion’ on his part. Mr O Brian had been found floating face down in the murky canal water; no one mourned his sudden death and in fact most people took a big sigh of relief.
Some people get sick, she knew that, and sometimes the Doctor will say, ‘you’ve only got four weeks to live.’ The Doctor doesn’t say, ‘you will die at eleven thirty ante meridiem on the third of March!’ Henry didn’t seem sick to her, just old and old people dropped dead all the time but with little notice. One minute they are feeding the pigeons in the park and the next their relatives are fighting over the antique figurines in the parlour; only old people had parlours.
All of a sudden Meryl sat bolt upright, losing her balance but regaining it quickly, forgetting for a moment she was in a tree. She felt a wonderful sensation in her mind as the riddle gave way to the answer, she loved that feeling but it was soon superseded by the terror of the reality. Henry intended to take the matter into his own hands, he had decided the time of his own death and this could only mean one thing; he intended to kill himself, to take his own life! Why?
Why would her friendly neighbour, who always seemed so happy and sort of permanent, want to end his own life? She decided to give him her question in return for answers; he might even decide to put off his dying to answer the question. It was a rather good question after all. Pleased with her resolution she stood on the bough of the oak tree; from here she could see into her mother’s kitchen, if she managed to catch her eye her mother might be persuaded to bring Meryl another piece of torte.
A blinding flash, white and hot hit her on the side of the head; she had enough time to see the troll standing, four gardens down, with a limp catapult in her hand and a hungry look upon her evil face. She thought, ‘I’m for the pot now’ before passing out and falling to the ground.
A tunnel of light appeared before her, not a dark, scary tunnel, a pleasant welcoming tunnel that beckoned her to continue. Meryl made her way along the tunnel towards a warm amber glow that, the closer she got, started to take the shape of a person. First it just looked like a muffled, blurry silhouette, neither man nor woman. Then, slowly, it started to take shape; she noticed the hanky first, quiet and unassuming as it was, then the smile, then the suit and then finally the wrinkled, walnut face.
’ Keep coming towards me, don’t go back’ Henry warned her.
‘Why’ Meryl asked sleepily.
‘It’s not your time’ he replied.
‘It’s not yours either is it?’
‘No it’s not, I’m stuck here now, and I’m just going to have to wait it out.’
Meryl tried to move but it hurt, a warning system, pre installed and ready to set off the alarm whenever a body tried to compromise the heeling process, flashed angry red behind her eyes. She opted for stillness. Once the pain had abated and her vision less foggy she asked, ‘Why, why did you want to do it, you know, kill yourself?’
‘I Just had enough of life, I missed my Elsie, I wanted to be the one to decide, it’s my life after all, and I should be able to do as I please with it. I intended to hang myself in the garage, learnt how to hang people during the war, I saw enough people hung badly to know how to do it properly. I had everything planned out, wrote you a letter too, then, before going through with it, I came back to see you as promised, you were lying unconscious on the ground. That Mrs Grubber from number four got you pretty good. I’d watch out for her, I think she might be a troll.’
‘Anyway they carted you off to hospital covered in wires and ventilators, it all looked very serious. I felt partly responsible, so I came here with your mother, the noose still hangs from a beam in my garage; we’ve been here by your bed now for two days’.
‘Where’s my mother?’
‘In the chapel praying, she’ll be back soon’
‘What are we going to do about Mrs Grubber?’
‘I’ll think of something, you leave that with me’
‘Do you believe in fate Henry?’
‘Is that your question?’