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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Paul Radcliffe: What Is the Song the Children Sing?

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Art by Bernice Holtzman 2024

What is the Song the Children Sing?

 

Paul Radcliffe

 

  What is the song the children sing

   When doorway lilacs bloom in spring?’

             Rudyard Kipling,’ A Counting Out Song’

 

       The little girl was lost, and the little girl was sad. She felt she had always been sad and she did not know why. She knew her name was Rosalind, and there were other things she remembered. Mummy. Daddy. They had always looked unhappy when she thought about it. Well, not always, but sometimes when they thought she wasn’t looking. Why would they be unhappy? And they had told her the headaches would soon go away. Everything would be okay soon, then she wouldn’t be so sleepy all the time and maybe we would all go home. They never said when we would all go home. They always said ‘soon.’ But she didn’t know when ‘soon’ was. Maybe nobody did.

          Go home. Go home for strawberry ice cream and stories and the nice things. The teddy bears and the books and the cartoons. But Rosalind had never gone home with Mummy and Daddy. Not ever. They had left her, but it wasn’t their fault. Rosalind remembered being in the hospital. It was a scary place sometimes, lots of funny noises and strange smells. It was nicer in that quiet little room that was only for very special children. The nurses had told her that, and they were very nice. The headaches didn’t go away. Sometimes she felt sick as well, so sick she didn’t even want the ice cream. And everyone likes ice cream. Especially strawberry. And the light, of course. it hurt her eyes so she squeezed them shut. Mummy and Daddy just turned off the light. There was just a little one in the corner. At home, in her own room—ROSALIND’S ROOM, it had said on the door. She had had her own lamp by her bed. On the wall, there were shiny pictures of kittens playing. She would say goodnight to the kittens just before she fell asleep. She loved kittens. So happy and so silly. She could see Mummy and Daddy, but they were shadows, like the pumpkin faces and candles at Halloween. It had been harder and harder to hear what they were saying, and she had just wanted to sleep. When she was asleep, the headaches went away. She thought they waited outside the door, and Rosalind had wished they would go away. Bad, bad naughty headaches. And one day they went away, and they had never come back. That was good. But she was lost, and that was bad. She was looking down a long corridor. There were signs on the walls, but she couldn’t read some of the words. They were too long. She began to walk down the corridor, and Rosalind guessed it was night. It was so quiet. And then she remembered. It was the hospital, the scary place with the funny smells and the noises. She looked down, and on the polished floor she saw a toy duck. An old, yellow toy duck with the red, soft beak almost hanging off. It was Diddley. Diddley had been a Christmas present when she was very little. He had always been in the quiet room with her. She had cuddled him while she waited for the headaches to go away. And he was here, in the corridor, and she picked him up. She did not know how he got there, but she was happy. He had always been with her, just like her friends had until the headaches came, and she couldn’t play anymore. She had hated that, that she couldn’t play, and she had told Diddley all about that. And when she couldn’t play with her friends, Diddley was always there. He was with her now. Now, when she was lost. She was remembering some other things now. Going to sleep for a long time in the quiet room, the special room where the headaches finally, finally went away. Rosalind thought she remembered something. A long walk to a charity shop, a place full of second-hand things that people no longer wanted or cared about. She had gone there because Mr Fuzzypants was there—she did not know how—and he was a teddy bear, her favourite even more than Diddley. She had brought him out, and she could not think how she had done it. At first, it was like reading a book from the end instead of the beginning. You were left trying to guess what had happened before. She had not opened the door of the shop. She was just there. It was not hard to find Mr Fuzzypants. He was waiting for her. A very special teddy bear, thrown on top of a heap of broken toys. They must have put him there by mistake. He was missing an eye, but never mind, the other one still worked. He was an old bear now. She had sometimes heard people say things change when you get older. She really wasn’t sure what they meant. Rosalind did not know she would never become older, and that this was not a choice. She had taken Mr Fuzzypants home, not far from the hospital. She had put him on a red cushion in the living room. He liked watching television with Rosalind. They liked all the same shows, and watched them together. The little girl had left Mr Fuzzypants there, and she did not know quite why she had left. But it was home, and one of the many sadnesses of children is the belief that home will always be there. If they are lucky, they can keep the memories somewhere safe but the place will become something else—and so will the people—and it will not be what they remember. Still, somehow, she had left and she was back in the hospital. Back in the corridor. Rosalind was holding on to Diddley, swinging gently but gripping him tightly, just as she had in the special room when she had whispered to him. Diddley had whispered back, but only she could hear. But she did hear.

          The hospital was close to a hill. Paths wound their way through it and there were secret glades hidden by trees. In one of the shaded places there was a bench. There was a little sign on it, a reminder of someone who could no longer be there but who wanted to be remembered. The harbour glittered below. She had loved seeing the sunlight on the green water. Rosalind had wanted to take the sunshine home with her. When she was even smaller—even before the headaches came—Mummy and Daddy had taken Rosalind up to the playgrounds on the hill. Her friends had come as well. There was a shining slide that had small patches of rust here and there. Some crude, basic swings hung by ropes from an old and battered tree. Rosalind’s favourite was a kind of fixed rocking horse which had room enough for four children, but which was fixed firmly to the ground. They grabbed the metal handles and used them to rock the horse frantically. It would rock so quickly it was as if it was trying to run away, run away from this playground to a field of green grass where the sun was always shining. Sometimes, not always, Rosalind would look over her shoulder when she was leaving, the day growing colder. The blue painted eyes of the rocking horse would look at her, as Mummy and Daddy and her friends were leaving and she lagged behind. She thought the horse wanted her to stay. To be his friend and have adventures.

Rosalind thought it was sad that the children were leaving, and soon there would be no more sunshine. She missed those days on the hill. They seemed far away now. And she was still in that long corridor. Rosalind walked a little way, and she saw doors, big doors with round windows like you might see on a ship. She remembered those doors, and there was a sign next to them. Big letters, big words. She didn’t really know what they meant.

          PAEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY

She was still lost, but she thought she remembered that sign. Those doors. Rosalind put her hands on the doors, and she did not need to push. She was on the other side and looking down a ward. Dim lights and sick children. She saw the quiet room, the special room. Her room. And she went in. There were the kitten pictures and there were cards on the table. Get Well cards. Hope you’ll soon be with us cards. When she had been in this room, she had had cards like that, signed by all the children in her class. Nice to look at if the headaches let her. But she stopped looking at the kittens and the cards. She saw a little boy on the bed, and she knew he was sick. Very sick. One of his hands was outside the sheets. It was very white. Rosalind was still carrying Diddley. Diddley had been her friend. Perhaps the little boy, in the special room where she had been with the kittens and the cards. He was very sick, and Rosalind thought he needed a special friend. Had anyone looked into the room, they would perhaps have seen a gentle, formless shimmering, and a toy duck laid gently on the pillow. Diddley had been her friend, but the little boy needed Diddley, who would whisper to him as he had to Rosalind. Her headaches had gone, she remembered the room, and perhaps she was not quite so lost. Rosalind remembered something now. She drifted into that long corridor. She thought it would be nice to help the children, nice to help them while she waited for Mummy and Daddy. They would take her home. She just had to stay there, and they would find her.

          There is a dark beauty to separation, to distance from those we love and who we know love us. The beauty lies in the anticipation, that the separation will end. Rosalind would stay there, and visit the sick children. She was lost forever to Mummy and Daddy, though she would wait forever down the passing years. Only the children would see her, and some would join her. They would play quietly in the corridor, but sometimes they would sing. It was the song of all the children whose pain had finally gone away. The song was heard only by those children who would soon join them, gathered by the wind and carried to a rocking horse on a hill. Tears fell unseen from painted eyes, but they were not the tears of sadness and separation.

          The song of lost children, no longer lost, and waiting forever.

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Art by Bernice Holtzman 2024

Paul Radcliffe is an Emergency RN. In the past, he worked in an area where children were sometimes afflicted with sickness of Gothic proportions. Some are ghosts now. As a child he visited an aunt in a haunted farmhouse. This explains a lot. Paul has worked in a variety of noisy places unlikely to be on anyone’s list of holiday destinations. He is also a highly suggestible subject for any cat requiring feeding and practicing hypnosis.

Bernice Holtzman’s paintings and collages have appeared in shows at various venues in Manhattan, including the Back Fence in Greenwich Village, the Producer’s Club, the Black Door Gallery on W. 26th St., and one other place she can’t remember, but it was in a basement, and she was well received. She is the Assistant Art Director for Yellow Mama.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2024