Sunday, 11 May 2008

Lessons in Mortality

I spent Saturday at the Edge Hill Short Story conference in Liverpool. It was a lovely day full of inspiration but it was interrupted by several frantic phone calls from my mother. Turns out the old snot might turn out to be more significant than we thought: It looks as though Leo might have asthma.

Today he was coughing a lot but he still managed to keep us entertained as we celebrated Mum's birthday. I will take him to the Doctor's tomorrow to find out more. He likes the doctors with its play area surrounded by a white picket fence. He also loves the huge fish tank in the waiting room. Last time we were there, once he had grown tired of the aeroplane, the castle, the garage and the washing machine, he ventured beyond the picket fence to the fish tank.

"Where octopus gone?" He asked, remembering a cruel trick I'd played on him last time we were there. (Get in your buggy and I'll show you the octopus).

Soon though he was distracted by the miniscule baby fish, gazing up, mouth gaping, shouting "Orange one, Nemo" and "Ooh look! Bubbles!". Admittedly, I was quite fascinated myself and enjoyed watching the impossibly tiny creatures darting around, with their miniature eyes and functioning gills and fins - until I spotted a dead one at the bottom. It was bigger than the others, silver, on its side, eyes wide open, clearly dead.

I marched over to the receptionist, leaving Leo staring into the Octopus's Garden, determined to find the octopus.

"Excuse me, I think one of your fish is dead," I said awkwardly. She rolled her eyes"Not another one!" and made her way over to the tank.

"I'm almost certain it's dead" I said, with a tiny flicker of hope that he might be revived. He was definitely dead though.

"It's dead it's dead!!" shouted Leo.

Since when did you know about death? I thought. I don't want to conceal anything from Leo, but I wondered whether he had learnt about it at nursery or whether it was just somehow inherent.

"DEAD! DEAD!" He shouted, louder still, in the waiting room full of unwell people. The chairs face the fish tank in rows so Leo had quite an audience. I looked at the receptionist for help. How does one deal with a toddler discovering the notion of mortality for the first time? Leo cheers and waves when an ambulance passes. I needed to let him know that the death of the fish was not a happy occasion.

"Ahhh poor fish", I said, in my best Mum voice, "He's died. Isn't it sad?"

Leo moved closer and stroked his small sticky fingers across the tank where the dead fish gleamed on the gravel "Oh dear!" He exclaimed. "Fishy's dead, Leo fix it!"

I wasn't expecting that.

"I'm sorry Leo" I said, discovering a lump in my throat "I'm afraid you can't fix it. He's died, so that means he's gone. Forever".

The receptionist and I looked at each other sheepishly, wondering how to deal with this most delicate of matters. How to tell Leo with his happy, expectant, cherubic face that nothing or no one lasts forever.

As it happened, we were saved by the bell. The chirpy, doorbell chime sounded to call the next patient through.

"DING DONG!" imitated Leo, turning away from the fish tank, instantly forgetting the death scene and grinning at his captive audience.

"Ding dong," I repeated, with a nervous giggle, hoping that the fish episode was over.

"Ding dong the fish is dead!" exclaimed the receptionist.

And all of us: The receptionist and me, then Leo, then the audience, fell into fits of laughter.

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