'He's dead,’ said Emily.
'How do you know?'
'Because he is.’
He certainly looked dead. 'Perhaps he's having a sleep?' Bill suggested, without much hope.
'No. He's dead. He's dead.'
With that, the two of them burst into tragic tears. With an arm for each, Bill tried to comfort them. Anna pushed her face into his stomach and wound her arms around his thigh, but Emily stood rigid, sobbing uncontrollably, her skinny arms crossed over her bony chest, as though she were trying to hold herself together.
It was terrible. His first instinct was to free himself and go to the foot of the stairs and yell for help. Clodagh would know what to do ...
And then he thought, No. Here was a chance to show his mettle. Here was a chance to break down the barriers; to cope on his own, and earn their respect.
He calmed them down at last. Found a clean tea towel to use as a handkerchief, led them to the window seat, and sat them down, one on either side of him.
'Now,’ he said. 'Listen.’
'He's dead. Gilbert's dead.’
'Yes, I know he's dead. But when people, or pets, that we're fond of, die, what we do is to bury them decently, give them a beautiful funeral. So why don't the pair of you go out into the garden and find a really peaceful spot, where you can dig a nice hole. And I'll see if I can rustle up an old cigar box or something to use as a coffin for Gilbert. And you can make wreaths to put on the top of his grave, and perhaps a little cross.’
The two pairs of blue eyes, watchful as ever, slowly showed some interest. Tears were still wet on their cheeks, but drama and high tragedy had great appeal, and were too attractive to resist.
'When Mrs Donkins in the village died, her daughter wore a black veil on her hat,’ Emily remembered.
'Perhaps your mother can find a black veil for your hat.’
'There's one in the dressing-up box.’
‘There you are. You can wear that!'
'What am I going to wear?' Anna wanted to know.
‘I'm sure Mummy will find something for you.’
'I want to make the cross.’
'No. I do.’
He interrupted quickly. 'The first thing to do is decide on a good place. Why don't you both nip off and do that, while I cook you some breakfast. And then after breakfast …’
But they did not listen for more. On the instant, they were up and away, not able to wait. At the back door, Emily stopped.
'We'll need a spade,’ she said, in her most businesslike manner.
'You'll find a trowel in the toolshed.’
They sped across the garden, brimming with enthusiasm, all sorrow forgotten in the excitement of a real, grown-up funeral, with black veils on their hats. With mixed feelings, he watched them go. The little scene had left him drained, and ravenously hungry. Grinning wryly to himself, he went back to the stove and began frying up the bacon.
As he did this, there came the sound of soft footsteps on the stair, and the next moment his wife appeared through the door. She wore her nightdress and a loose cotton dressing gown. Her hair was all over her shoulders, her feet bare, her eyes still cloudy with sleep.
'What was all that about?' she asked, through a yawn.
'Hello, my darling. Did we wake you?'
'Was somebody crying?'
'Yes. Emily and Anna. Gilbert is dead.’
'Gilbert? Oh, no. I don't believe it.’
He went to kiss her. 'I'm afraid it's true.’
'Oh, poor Emily.’ She drew away from his embrace. 'He's really dead?'
'See for yourself.’
Clodagh went to the fish tank and peered inside. 'But why?'
'I don't know. I don't know much about goldfish. Perhaps he ate something that disagreed with him.’
'But he wouldn't just die, like that.’
'You obviously know more about goldfish than I do.’
'When I was Anna's age, I had goldfish of my own. They were called Sambo and Goldy.’
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