“Sir, I think I am going to die.”
“You are,” I said.
“Sir, that’s not a very encouraging thing to say to someone who doesn’t feel very well.”
“Do you know,” I responded, “I think the existentialists would suggest that we cannot enjoy life until we have faced up to the reality of death? Anyway, we have had this conversation before. You are going to die, but in the early years of the 22nd Century.”
“I think I might do my assessment this morning and then ask to go home.”
“Perhaps a good idea.”
When I was a child, death was not discussed. Because it wasn’t discussed, there was a house on Long Sutton village green that for years frightened me. It was 2014 before I confronted those childhood fears.
In the days before natural gas reached our corner of the West of England, there was town gas. No-one ever explained why it was more dangerous than the gas from the North Sea, and no-one ever explained from which town it came. But in our village, people had gas produced by a gasworks.
The danger of such gas only became clear when a mother and her son who lived in the house at the corner of the village green died following a gas leak. It was not a leak in their house, for they had no gas supply, but a leak from the gas main that passed down the street.
Such matters were not discussed with a boy of six, and the curtains of the house seemed always drawn, making it impossible to imagine what it might be like on the inside; but the sight of the house became something frightening. Death is an alien concept when you are six years old, and that someone should die from something that might be obtained by putting sixpence in a meter seemed incomprehensible.
For close on fifty years, it had not been possible to pass through that village without a chill feeling when seeing the house on the green. Perhaps it had been an introduction to death, perhaps it had been a threat to the assumed security and stability of life in 1960s rural England. Perhaps there was something even less tangible.
The house is an attractive building without a hint of a past. It is far removed from anything that might be disturbing. Its persistence in the memory was irrational.
It was not until a summer’s day seven years ago that I drove to Long Sutton, bought an ice cream in the village shop, and sat on a bench contemplating the house. Afterwards, I walked to the churchyard. Had the mother and son been buried there? Probably, but having no recall of their name, the grave would not have been easily found.
Sitting at a meal that evening, I asked my mother, “Who were the mother and son who died from the gas leak?”
“The Thomases? You don’t remember them, do you?”
“I remember them dying, for years I was frightened by their house.”
“Why did you never say?”
But what would have been said? Isn’t that the problem with childhood fears? If there were words, they could be articulated, and then there would have been nothing of which to be frightened.
Perhaps conversations about death are needed with more children than the Year 8 student with the stratospheric IQ who wasn’t feeling well on Friday morning.