I noticed them gathering at the bottom of our lane, trundling back and forward, looking lonely somehow. That was it. Nothing more.
I was busy, chasing my tail or whatever I was doing, time passed as it does. Time always seems so certain. It knows where it’s going and heads off to the nearest pit-stop to clock in. Weeks and months pass, sometimes in a blur, quickly anyway.
I did not know he was sitting, well most of the time lying, in his bedroom with the window open, listening to the dog barking at anyone passing its gate, cars changing gear up the hill and all the other noises he knew intimately. There was no clock in his room and he had stopped wearing a watch. He did not see any point in knowing anything about time.
It was the hottest summer in years and everyone complained and trains were derailed, lines were buckled or whatever happened to them. Warmth glided through his open window and the sounds in the street changed. Children played and fought in their backyards and still he lay in bed. It was weeks before he had the idea. He was becoming weaker. He asked for a mirror. He saw himself and was shocked.
I was full of hell; somebody had pulled off my cars’ wing mirror, left it broken-necked. I had a rant, without saying a word about mindless people, stopping short of the death penalty, although stoning seemed a possibility.
My headache was worse, far worse. It was too hot. Most things were wrong, the television was playing vindictive games wanting me to watch programmes I had no interest in. Someone had read the evening paper before me. Everyone was more popular. Everything was a disaster. And those bloody red and blue plastic balls. I picked one up and squeezed it and did not lose any stress or pain. I was just mauling a plastic ball. That was it.
‘Time is what you measure life with’, I have said dozens of times without knowing how important it was to him. His mother went along with all his requests, not that he had many: A particular brand of lemonade, a magazine. His friends visited but he wasn’t interested in talking to them. He was drifting away.
That’s how the doctor had described it, as if her son and his death were somehow very natural, like leaves abandoning trees, floating away on a sudden breeze. He was only fourteen. Death is always sad but this was a tragedy.
The red and blue plastic balls were something else, his mother had bought them in bulk. An untidy plastic bag flopped in the corner of his room. Each morning he had his mother open the bedroom window as wide as possible so he could launch the balls onto the black slate roof, have them wing it down the back lane. They ran after each other, he imagined, like children running down a hill.
The boy and mother lived further up the bank, I did not know everyone in the street and I was really busy. My life was hurtling by. I did not know the boy with cancer who had lost all his hair and was so gaunt. He did not have the strength to move from his bed, yet he knew time was passing him by and desperately wanted to record it with all the million other things him and his mother could have told me.
I began to collect the plastic balls. Like trophies. They see-sawed across the back of my car seat and soon were happily marooned as the boy began to drift away until one day, while his mother sat by him on the bed, his fragile body stopped as if a run-down battery.
His mother threw another set of balls that made their way down the roof, spreading their wings for her son. She sobbed on his pillow and was relieved: his pain was at an end.
I knew nothing of this. It was months later when I met his mother. She told me the boy’s story, his love of the plastic balls and long slow death, quiet bravery, and belief the plastic balls meant something. And they did. They do.
Tom Kelly’s ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published and re-printed his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/behind-the-wall-other-stories-tom-kelly http://www.tomkelly.org.uk