“The hardest part is going through the black gate,” I told Brownson. “After that it gets easier.”
I don’t know why I was reminiscing about my schooldays, when I was a man in my seventies who was resting in bed just prior to my imminent life-threatening surgery. For some reason I was harking back to long ago when I had been trying to comfort my friend Brownson. We were both five years old, and he had a congenital birth defect: an injured leg, and it was encased in an iron frame, and the other boys made fun of him because he couldn’t play or run as we could.
“Don’t let anyone know you’ve been blubbing,” I urged him, hoping his tear-stained face wouldn’t be obvious when we entered the schoolyard. “And remember what I told you yesterday – you can kick someone with your iron leg and it’ll really hurt them, like you clobbered Matheson the other day.”
This was a long ago time, in an old-fashioned school, where there were no girls, boys wore shorts, called each other by their surnames, regularly got caned if we broke the rules, punched and fought each other and were ridiculed if we cried. The boys weren’t bad or nasty, just energetic, unimaginative and unsympathetic, much like I imagine boys today might be without the mitigating effect of enlightened teachers and the presence of little girls.
“I hate school. You see, everything’s wonderful at home,” Brownson told me, getting upset all over again. “I talk to my Dad for an hour every morning about science, I wave him off to work, and then I’m with Mummy and we do everything together. I hate leaving her.”
“We all hate leaving our mums,” I confided to him. “But you can’t ever tell anyone! We just have to go through the rotten old gate, start the day and hope for the best. It’s not so bad, really, is it?”
Our friend Mason arrived at that point, and the three of us went down the alley, through the hated little black gate and into the school playground, to enter the fray of what we later recognised as the maelstrom and occasional ecstasies and miseries that they call life.
Brownson wasn’t bullied any more once he started kicking his oppressors with his iron leg. But prior to that, whenever anyone picked on Brownson, Mason and I would stick up for him, and I’m really glad about that. It’s always gone into my box of things I’m proud of doing in my life, along with, years later, when I chatted to an old lady when I was working at an old people’s home, and subsequently contacted the War Graves Commission to get her a photo of the grave of her brother, who’d been killed on the Somme in 1916. There’s another, much bigger box in my life, labelled Things I’m ashamed of doing, when to my horror I’ve unwittingly said and done tactless cruel things and needlessly hurt people. But I rarely go to that box, I just let it simmer with embarrassment on its own.
How did my existence on earth come down to this, I wondered when I woke up? Lying in bed, wondering if the surgery was going to be successful, my wife gone home, my children with their own families, and me with my grizzly imagination pondering on the imminent prospect of pints of my own blood on the surgeon’s tunic, his bone-saw slicing into my chest. . . Oh God, I cringed inside, it didn’t bear imagining. . .
And then, to my amazement, soon after the anaesthetist had done his stuff and time had gone into its blessed ‘operation limbo’, I saw Brownson again in another weird dream. I could recognise him, but he was no longer a small boy, for now he was an old man like me, with a silver beard and a bald head, but with his same, brave, cheerful smile that I always remembered.
“The hard bit is just taking the walk over there.” Brownson pointed up to a kind of hill, where I could see this blinding white light. “It’s really not so bad at all. The only hard part is leaving your family. I had a wife and children and grandchildren. Leaving them was massively hard, but we just have to do it. I’m here to help, just in case. But it may not be your time yet. . .”
And suddenly I was overwhelmed with sadness that I’d lost touch with him since leaving school, and we’d spent all our adult lives in different parts of the world.
“Once a good friend, always a good friend,” explained Brownson, apparently reading my mind. “I won’t leave you alone, old pal.”
And then I woke up to see faces all around, and someone saying I’m taking the breathing tube out, and voices louder than I’ve ever heard in my life, as if they were shouting in my ear.
“Phew! That was a hairy one! At one point I never thought we’d bring him back,” shouted the tactless surgeon to someone in a booming voice.
I fell asleep again, seeing Brownson’s smiling face, a little boy once again this time, cheerfully passing through that little black gate with me and Mason by his side.
(picture courtesy Herbert Aust from Pixabay)