My Father Running with a Dead Boy
A short story about a young man who learns about his father's act of heroism.
At my father’s funeral an old man in a crumpled black suit gets up to speak. He rises slowly on old man’s legs from among the dark suits and neatly combed heads, murmuring apologies for flattened toes and kicked handbags. For a moment I think that he is my father. The same old man’s shuffling walk. But then I see that, no, they are different people. This man’s nose is larger, more Roman.
It’s a good turn out. Better than I would have thought for a man as quiet and solitary as my father. I close my eyes and see him coming towards me walking as he always did, stiffly, head down, shoulders hunched over as though moving into a strong wind. By the time I was 10 my father was already an old man, slow and careful in his movements. No cricket on the back lawn or kicks with the rugby ball down at the park.
I dread the awkward silence which always hovers near us. Soon I will begin to talk about the rugby or the latest rates increase although I don’t really care about either and then inevitably, hating the cliché, I will work my way around to the rainy spell we’ve had lately. What does he think, will it be a hard winter?
I open my eyes and my father vanishes.
Someone has forgotten to turn the heating on. The church is a meat-locker despite the sunlight coming through the stained glass window behind the coffin. I stare at the colours on the pale carpet where the filtered light spreads like spilt fizzy drink – Fanta, Mello Yello, Raspberry, Lemon-Lime.
Several people have already spoken. My father’s boss from the insurance office said a few words. He took a piece of paper from his pocket, smoothed it with fat sweaty fingers and, head down, mumbled into the microphone. From the front row I stared at his waist where the black suit bulged out over his belt.
“A sad day for family and friends sorely missed a diligent worker cared about his job in thirty years never a complaint punctual a good provider a great loss our condolences to Helen and Greg.”
The old man in the crumpled suit moves across in front of me. He wades into the pool of spilt drink which splashes up over his black shoes and halfway up his legs, taps the microphone with a thin finger. I see that there are dark spots on the back of his hands. Surprisingly he seems to change his mind about the microphone and steps around in front of it.
“I hope you can hear me. Never liked these things much.” His voice is deeper and stronger than I had expected. It’s an actor’s voice or someone who’s used to telling a good yarn. A younger man’s voice.
Out of the corner of my eye I think that I see my father shuffling forward to listen, shoulders stooped. But when I turn my head there is nothing. A thick drape stirred by a draught in a shadowy corner.
“I don’t expect many of you know me. My name’s Reginald Black but Ray used to call me Blacky and after that most other people did too. I was Ray’s best mate right though from when we were about sixteen to when I moved up to Napier. That was when I was twenty-five. A fair few years ago now. We used to play rugby together on a Saturday for Brighton and we’d go to the local afterwards for a few beers. On a Friday night we’d drive to the dances in town hoping to meet a couple of girls who wouldn’t mind going for a ride in Ray’s car after it was all over. Most weeks we’d find a couple who were game.
And then, amazingly, he winks, a slow old man’s wink and he’s looking right at me when he does it. A few people laugh nervously unsure if this type of talk is suitable for a funeral. The old man’s skin is very brown and I have a sudden image of him down on his knees digging in rich black soil, a tomato plant in his dirt caked hand.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice my father shuffle forward again. I don’t turn to look this time and he remains there in the corner listening.
“But what I mostly remember about Ray is the time he carried the dead boy home.” I look up, not sure if I have heard the old man correctly. “We were both still living with our parents at the time. We must have been twenty or so. We lived down by the beach and Ray was building a small sailboat in the shed out the back. Nothing fancy. Just something to potter around in on weekends and sometimes I’d go over and give him a hand. We’d take the frame out and put it on a couple of saw horses. It was good working outside like that. Ray’s parent’s house backed onto a reserve down by the estuary. Big pine trees kept the wind off and we could hear the surf as we worked if the wind was right.
“This particular day, I remember it was hot and Ray wasn’t wearing a shirt. He was brown and covered in sweat and sawdust from the work. As we sanded down the hull we’d seen a couple of kids playing in the reserve, running in and out of the trees, shouting and laughing, playing cops and robbers or such like. One of them was Trevor O’Brien. His mother lived two doors down from Ray. They had a dog with them.
“Then after a while we heard the dog barking. The barking went on and on and not like when the kids were playing near us either. The dog was pretty good then. It was a strange barking, all high and excited like it had treed a possum or maybe gotten itself tangled up in a fence. After a bit of that, Ray and me looked at each other and I remember Ray said something like, ‘Let’s go and have a look, eh?”
“It was cold in the shade of the pines after being in the sun. There was no undergrowth just a thick mat of brown pine needles on the ground. We walked at first, a good excuse for a break, but as the dog’s barks got louder Ray started running. I don’t know why, I never asked. He just started running. Ray went up a trail between the lupins and I lost sight of him in the sand hills. I followed and came to a clearing with walls of sand all around. Not the sloping, dry white sand that you get down by the water but a harder mixture of sand and earth and clay that made steeper walls. It had been raining a bit that week and the sand was wet and dark. All around the top lupins blocked out the sun. It was like being in a pit. The dog was over in one corner whimpering and digging in the sand.
“By the time I arrived Ray was down on his knees with his back to me and he was digging too. ‘What’s happening? What’s going on?’ You see, even then I still didn’t understand. But when I got close enough to see properly I understood all right. Sticking out of the sand was a kid’s foot and part of his leg. Trevor O’Brien and his cobber had gotten bored with cops and robbers so they’d dug a tunnel into the hard sand wall. They’d dug a pretty good tunnel too, big enough for them to both crawl inside. There was a good sized pile of sand next to where Ray was kneeling so I reckoned they’d dug back a fair ways. A great little tunnel. Until it collapsed in on top of them.
“Ray grabbed the kid’s leg and pulled. He was a big bloke, big broad shoulders and back. With Ray pulling, that kid came out of the sand like a cork coming out of a bottle. It was Trevor’s friend. Ray never even looked at him. He just handed him to me like a sack of potatoes. ‘Get him to my place. Get a doctor.’ And then he was down on his knees again, digging.
“A ten year old kid weighs a fair bit but I ran with him bouncing up and down on my shoulder all the way to the house. Ray’s mum had been a nurse during the war and she knew what to do although she got a hell of a surprise when I crashed through her kitchen door. I watched, sucking down air in great gulps, as she cleared the sand out of the kid’s mouth and blew into him. He was lying on the kitchen table. I watched his chest rise up with every blow that Ray’s mum put into him. When the doctor finally arrived the kid was coughing up sand but I didn’t wait to see what happened. I ran back through the trees to Ray.
“He was still digging. He’d had the idea of digging down from above on more of an angle. The sand was wetter higher up from the rain and didn’t cave in so easy plus the roots of the lupins held it together more. He’d dug enough so that only his legs from the knees down still showed. I hollered at him that I was there and he yelled back for me to help move the sand piling up in the entrance to his tunnel. He was pushing it back between his legs and I grabbed the sand and flung it away until my shoulders ached but no matter how much sand I moved Ray always pushed out more. After a while not even his feet showed and I had to lean right into the tunnel to scoop out the sand. All the time the dog sat and watched and whined.
“A long time after, I heard Ray shout something I didn’t understand and he pushed out more sand and then he began backing out of the hole. I grabbed his legs and pulled. Ray was dragging the kid by the shoulders but as soon as I saw him I knew that Trevor was dead. Mostly from his eyes. They were half open and the eyeballs were covered in sand and some ran out from his nose and the corners of his mouth.
“Ray was gasping from the digging but he held the dead boy in front of him like a baby and began to run. I ran along behind but even with the kid Ray was faster than me. He fair flew between the trees. I remember that his feet flicked up dry pine needles as he passed. The dog ran behind barking.”
The old man pauses and looks out over the people. Out of the corner of my eye my father moves again, shuffling way. He’s heard enough.
“I was right. Trevor O’Brien was dead. As near as I can figure it he was under the sand for half an hour. We went to the funeral. Mrs O’Brien’s husband had died of a heart attack a few years before and she only had the one child so she took it badly. Ray took it pretty hard to – that it hadn’t saved them both.
“Well, I reckon that’s all I want to say. After I moved to Napier we lost touch. Neither of us were great letter writers but Ray was a good mate, a good person. For years after, he’d visit Mrs O’Brien, help out with repairs around the house and gardening and such. And you know, when he was digging that tunnel all I could think of was that it was going to cave in like the other one and then Ray would be dead too. But when I asked him about it after, he said he hadn’t even thought about that. He was just thinking about the boy.”
Stepping off the carpet the old man begins the long walk up the aisle. His walking stick clicks and clatters on the stone floor. As he passes me he turns his head and nods. His eyes are the same shade of blue as my father’s.
After the echo of the final hymn has faded from the rafters I help to carry my father’s coffin up the aisle. It slides easily into the waiting hearse. A small river runs by the church and as we wait for someone to bring around the car I walk away over the lawn and down to the water.
Looking across to the opposite bank I see a young man with blonde wavy hair standing under a tree. He is not wearing a shirt and the reflection of the light off the water plays over his tanned body. He is sweating and damp sand clings to his skin in patches.
In his arms he holds a dead boy. He cradles him gently as though the boy weighs nothing, a baby. The young man looks at me for a long moment and then smiles gently, happy to be alive and young. Turning, he begins to run. He runs along the river bank, smooth and easy despite the boy in his arms. His feet kick up dry pine needles as he passes.
I watch until my father disappears between the tall trunks of the pine trees.