Wednesday, 19 November 2008
To sup with Death
It is said that to sup with the devil you need a long spoon. To sup with Death you must be just as careful. I had a friend once... he was in an accident and was laid up in hospital for some time. At first he seemed to be recovering very well, but then very suddenly he seemed to be slipping away before our eyes. My grandmother, who had known us since we were both small boys had been to see him. She let us talk before asking me if I would be so kind as to get her a cup of tea. I left the room and soon managed to get some tea. When I returned to the room, my friend had a smile on his face and grandma was patting his hand. She drank the tea and winked at my friend, who's smile became a grin. As we left he promised grandma that he'd remember what she'd said.
"What did you tell him?" I asked her curiously as we drove home.
"I just gave him some advice if a certain person turned up," she said quietly looking out of the window.
My friend had an aunt who was a bit of a busybody and I assumed grandma meant her, so I let it go. But the aunt was not who grandma had in mind. I did not know this until later.
It seems that my friend took a sudden turn for the worse and along with his family, I came to the hospital and stayed the whole night. During the night, a tall skinny man walked past me and I felt a cold feeling as if someone had walked over my grave. But the man continued up the corridor and I turned back to my friend's girlfriend and asked if she wanted some coffee. It would be a long night after all. I went to fetch her coffee and when I returned the tall man was nowhere to be seen.
A little later I heard laughter from along the corridor. It seemed to come from my friend's room and indeed it sounded like him. Yet, knowing as I did that he was dying I was sure it could not be him. I turned to his girlfriend to ask her if she had heard it, but she was trembling and then dissolved into tears. I comforted her as best I could, feeling my own sorrow welling up in me and we wept together at the thought of a life without my friend in it. This is what the death of a close one means - a loss for those left behind, not a tragedy for the one departed.
After some time, the tall man walked back past us and again I felt that cold empty sensation that made my hair stand up. This time, the tall man seemed put out, but I did not know why. I watched him stride along the hall, pause and turn into another corridor and he disappeared from my view. Now I heard laughter and then singing - a silly children's song about crocodiles my friend and I had learned in school. This time, I could not bear it and getting to my feet I headed for his room.
He was sitting up in bed, his arms about himself, singing the crocodile song as loud as he could. Before him on a wheeled hospital table was a tea set. A strange tea set - the cups had little legs, the saucers had little hands to hold the cups; the teapot had both legs and two arms that were long enough to lift the lid off the top. The jug had two little horns, three legs and a generous spout. It looked almost as if I had walked in on them and they had frozen as they were in mid-motion. My friend laughed aloud and patted the side of his bed weakly for me to come and sit with him.
"What on earth...?" I began - but that set him off laughing again.
When he finally managed to calm down he beckoned to me to lean over. When I did so he said quietly,
"If you sup with the devil, use a long spoon, eh?"
"What?" I asked bewildered but that set him roaring with laughter again.
I got up to fetch his girlfriend, but he took my arm and pulled me to my seat again. He nodded at the teaset.
"Lovely isn't it?" he said ironically.
"It's ok, I suppose. A bit weird, but interesting in its own way. Why, do you know the potter?" I asked.
He chuckled at that.
"No, but I know who owns the set," he said.
Then holding my arm firmly, he said, "Well, gentlemen, I suppose your master will be wanting you and I have no use for you."
The teaset suddenly sprang to life and leapt up into the air. The teapot lifted its lid and the teaset disappeared into its open top. All but the jug which was a little late and missed, landing back on the tray as the teapot turned and ran off. The teapot leapt to the floor carefully and ran for the door. The jug ran to the edge of the table and seemed to peer over the edge mournfully. I have never seen a jug look mournful, but that little thing managed it. For pity, I picked up the little thing and placed it on the floor. It turned briefly, bowed and ran after the teapot.
"To sup with Death, it's advisable never to take his tea," my friend said solemnly.
I was speechless - what could one say to such a thing. But I recalled grandma almost instantly and gazing into his eyes I asked him if that's what she'd told him.
"Wise things, grandmas," he said with a smile.
I grinned at him and then went out into the corridor and called his girlfriend. She was overjoyed to see him looking better, but he never said a word about Death trying to take tea with him. Neither did I, there was no point. I knew she would never have believed me. As for grandma, I bought her a large bouquet of flowers and a big teacaddy by way of a thank you to her.
Years later, I saw the jug in a shop and bought it. It has never moved, not even run along the table. At least, not when I've been looking.