An Extraordinary Short Story in Four Parts (a quick peek)
The painting that inspired this story, by Brigida Michopoulos
“Peter,” the Sister called from across the freshly mowed lawn, “could you come over here please, when you have a few minutes?”
I wondered what she wanted. I’d already put the mower back in the shed, and all the gardening tools were neatly in the wheelbarrow, and I’d swept the pathway so there was absolutely nothing the residents could trip over. I just hoped she wasn’t going to tell me I wasn’t needed anymore. I relied on my summer job; the university accommodation in London was going to cost my parents a pretty penny, so I was trying to help them out as much as I could. Apart from that, I actually enjoyed the work, and if I was going to be ‘let go’, I know it sounds odd, but I think I’d miss one of the old residents that I’ve got to know here. He is a physically frail gentleman, but with a mind as sharp as a pin. He sits on the bench in the herb garden every afternoon, and seeks me out when I’ve finished my duties. He loves to give me advice and share his knowledge- especially in unusual things like, how to ‘read’ the clouds and ‘listen’ to nature. I think he likes talking to me because of my choosing to do chemistry, and I’m genuinely interested in what he has to say. He’s taught me about the herbs, and the wild plants that I’d thought were weeds, and even the soil. So if I were asked to leave, I’d hate to not see him anymore. Despite the vast age gap, I like him.
“Peter,” she called again.”
“I’m coming, Sister,” I replied. I ran across the lawn to where she stood by the conservatory doors. “Yes, Sister?”
“Peter, you know the gentleman, Mr. Fisher, who loves to talk to you while you work…”
“Yes,” I interrupted, “I was just thinking about him. Why do you ask?”
“Well, during the week, Peter, he took a rather bad turn for the worse. He has pneumonia, I’m afraid. I don’t think he will be coming outside again for some time.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Can I see him? I mean during visiting hours, of course…”
“Peter, he asked me to find you, and take you to him.”
“That sounds ominous,” I said, almost joking. “He’s not dying is he?” I sounded a bit flippant, but it wasn’t meant to be.
She ignored my question.
“He has been writing all week while he has had the strength. And yesterday, I noticed, while I was putting his notebook away for him, that at the top of the first page was your name, Peter. I think you should know he is very fond of you. In fact he often speaks of you.” She smiled kindly. “You know he has no children, and his wife died many years ago, don’t you?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Will he be all right?”
She hesitated. “I think you’d better come with me.”
I took my boots off and left them by the French doors outside, and followed the Sister into the nursing home. I couldn’t believe he was dying, he seemed fine last weekend; it didn’t seem fair or right. Perhaps they had made a mistake and the Sister was talking about someone else…
“Mr. Fisher, Peter is here to see you,” I heard her say quietly as I waited outside his door. She turned to me and nodded for me to enter.
Propped up on four pillows, the white-haired gentleman opened his eyes and smiled. He didn’t look well at all. I was surprised to see the change in him; His skin was grey and sunken. I stood by the door and hesitated before I entered. He indicated for me to come in and sit down next to him by patting the bed at his side.
“Thank you, Sister, that will be all for now,” he whispered. She was straightening the blanket at his feet and had tucked it in as tight as a straight jacket.
“Sister…” he said again, looking at her, and she took the hint and left the room. He waited until her footsteps had faded away down the corridor.
“Peter, my boy, please sit. I can’t talk very loudly at the moment,” he said. His voice seemed weak. “So please listen carefully. I can’t repeat this; I haven’t the strength. There is no one in this world more worthy of receiving what I am about to give you, than you are.”
“Oh, Mr. Fisher, please, I don’t want anything… I…”
“Let me finish, please Peter…” he said, putting his hand on my arm to stop me interrupting. “What I have for you is no ordinary gift. I give you a secret. A heavy secret. And it is a secret you must keep. Can you promise me Peter, you can keep my secret?”
He sounded quite desperate, almost pleading.
“I promise.” I said, wondering what on earth it was. I wasn’t sure I really wanted it; I didn’t really like secrets. But he smiled at me, happy with my reply.
“It's not all bad, “ he said. “It really depends what you do with it, you see.” His eyes closed and he said nothing for a minute. His arm dropped limply over the edge of the bed and I leaped to my feet with fear. Then I realized that he hadn’t died, he was only pointing to something under the bed, and I relaxed, feeling embarrassed at my reaction.
“The box, Peter,” he muttered. “Under here…”
I bent down and looked under his bed as directed. There was an old, weathered mahogany box, about twelve inches by six. He patted the spot next to him on his bed again, this time for the box. I placed it next to his hand, and waited for further instructions. He turned his head slightly towards the bedside table, and pointed to the drawer with his weak finger.
“Keys,” he whispered. He coughed, and a young nurse, who must have been listening outside the door, popped her head around the door. He put his hand up towards her to let her know he was all right, or more likely to stop her coming in. When he had finished coughing and she had disappeared again, he indicated for me to open the drawer of the side table, which I did.
Amongst his little bottles of medication and few personal effects, were three keys on a thick, round brass key ring. The keys looked as old as he did, and I looked at him for confirmation before picking them up. He nodded, and pointed to the right key.
“It’s yours,” he said. “I’m leaving the box to you, Peter. Take care of its contents, my boy, very good care, and take good care of yourself... it has given me much pleasure to know...”
Then he started coughing again, and he couldn’t stop. I put the box down on the floor and ran into the corridor to find the nurse. She was already running towards me with the Sister. She didn’t let me back in the room.
She asked me to leave.
When I returned the following morning to see him, I was stunned to learn that Mr. Fisher had died during the night. I was quite taken aback; we hadn’t finished our conversation, or even said goodbye. I stood looking at the empty bed. It didn’t seem right, or fair. I wanted him back. I didn’t understand why he died before we’d finished talking; I knew he had more to say to me.
“I believe this is for you,” the young nurse said, handing me the box. “He was insisting between his attacks last night that we made sure you got it. There’s not much inside, only a notebook; I had a look, and a dirty lump of rock in a hanky, crazy old man! Rumour has it that he was a tramp or something living in the woods. But look after that box, Peter,” she said. “I think it looks antique if you ask me; Perhaps you could sell it and get something for it.”
I looked at her in disgust through my tears, and took the box home.
I was unable to open the box for some time. I had it in my room for at least a week, and I just stared at it. Even my mother’s curiosity didn’t induce me to open it. I had been very moved by the whole experience; in fact it was my first encounter with death. Both sets of Grandparents were still alive, and I have to say, I didn’t really feel as close to any of them as I had done to Mr. Fisher. It was a bit odd really, and I felt guilty about it, but it was true. I think it was because Mr. Fisher had spent time with me, and spoke to me as an equal, even when he was teaching me. He had sparked my interest in Ancient Greek and Latin, and told me that it may prove more useful to me one day than I realised. He had told me about the rocks and minerals in the area, and encouraged me to learn the chemical formulas for everything and anything, which I did of course, as I loved chemistry. He told me the story of Ulysses and he read Homer and Cicero out loud while I worked in the garden, and only two weekends ago he had given me a recipe for nettle soup, which he suggested my mother made for me, as I’d never really done any cooking before. He knew the Latin names of every plant and insect, and enjoyed telling me about his honeybees and elderberry wine making. He had recently introduced me to Ferdowsi’s amazing Epic of Shahnameh, the story of the Persian Kings, and now he was gone, and we hadn’t even got a quarter of the way through it. I had so many questions for him, about everything; questions that I’ll never know the answers to. And there was a now void in my life that none of my Grandparents or anyone could ever fill.
So I just delayed opening the box. I stared at it for over a week, wishing he were back. I felt numb. I didn’t want the box; I wanted him. And I didn’t understand why he had to die. Why did he have to go? We were enjoying each other’s company so well.
I asked my mother if she would take me to his burial, so I could say goodbye properly. It didn't really help though; it was a very sad experience seeing him going into the ground in that pretty church yard. No one else was there, only the Sister form the nursing home, and us.
Later that week I slowly began to wonder what on earth Mr. Fisher’s secret could have been that he had wanted only me to know, and why he had me swear never to reveal it. It began to worry me.
My mind started racing. I began to wonder if he had done something bad, and it was a confession of some kind. My mind ran wild in the night, and I even found myself wondering if he had perhaps poisoned someone; he did have a vast knowledge of plants and herbs, he could probably have got away with murder! Perhaps it was his wife! Had he done something awful to her?
But I soon dismissed the idea. He was a good man; I had respected him. He was no more capable of killing anyone than I was. He had once told me even to let flies live, as dirty and horrible as they seemed, they all had their place and ‘raison d'etre’ in the world, so if he couldn’t swat a fly, I doubt he could have poisoned his wife. His vast knowledge of plants and animals and the natural elements, was because, I presumed, he had been a gardener all his life; He must have been a gardener, though during all our afternoons together, I had never thought to ask him. Now I wish I had.
By the end of the following week, I finally felt ready to open the box. I went down stairs, made a sandwich, grabbed a coke from the fridge, then went back up to my room and closed the door. I sat crossed legged on my bed with the box in front of me for a few minutes, and then I put the smallest of the three keys in the tiny keyhole and slowly opened the lid.
Sure enough, that young, nosey nurse had been right; the box was almost empty, except for the stone, and of course, his notebook.
I picked up the notebook and opened the first page.
It was addressed to me.
“My Dear Peter,” it said in small, spiky writing. I took a deep breath. I could hear his voice. I couldn’t continue for a minute or so. It gave me an ache in the pit of my stomach. I wish he hadn’t died.
I wiped my eyes, and tried again.
“My Dear Peter,
I have a secret that I have kept for over seventy years. Although I always wanted to, I could never tell anyone about it, and it has weighed heavily upon my shoulders for the best part of my life. Had I told anyone what I saw that late August afternoon in 1939, as a young man of fifteen, no one would have believed me; For what I saw really was beyond belief, even to me. And perhaps those who would have wanted to believe me, had I told them, would have done so for the wrong reasons, and destroyed and ruined everything. What I stumbled across that day in the woods was the kind of thing one only comes across in fairytale books, yet I saw it in reality, only a few hundred yards from my home.
Now, in my old age, I find this heavy burden, this secret that I carry, almost too much to take with me to my grave, and after all these years, I met you. After much internal turmoil, I feel you have been sent to me for a reason. You are the one, Peter that I can at last tell. So I pass the responsibility on to you, and I will write the account as it happened, as accurately and as truthfully as I can. This will not be difficult as I remember it as if it had happened yesterday. It is a double-edged sword in a way, as although I will be clearing my conscience in recalling that afternoon, I will be going back on my word, and passing the burden on to your young shoulders. For this Peter, I am very sorry. Being sworn to secrecy is no laughing matter, but I must share this burden with you, and I hope you can forgive me, as from this day forward your life will change, and it is up to you to act for the better or for the worse. I hope you make the right decision. I trust you know what you must do.”
I sat up. I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to read on or not. This sounded pretty serious. What on earth was he about to tell me? Why hadn’t he mentioned anything of it during our time together in the garden! I skimmed through the notebook. He had a lot to tell me; there were several pages. I sighed and decided to carry on.
“If you were to walk to the end of Harrow Road, Peter, which is where I lived the whole of my childhood and the best part of my twenties, you would basically be at the