The tinkle of the little porcelain bell his mother kept at her bedside summoned Rick to her chamber. He hurried to her door without delay – the bell always signalled something important.
He knocked softly.
“Come in.” His mother’s voice wheezed. The effort to call out cost her a couple of minutes of wracking coughs. Rick cringed to hear it. Mother was surely in her last days – but then, he had thought so for as long as he could remember. Still she clung to life.
But today she had rung the bell.
He pushed the door open just enough to admit his slender frame over the threshold.
The room was in darkness, as always. Thick curtains kept the daylight at bay and the air was thick and stale, hot and pestilent, as though every cough that had ever issued from her birdlike body was still there, hanging in front of his face.
She beckoned him to her bedside. Rick could hardly bear to look at her but the sight of him had the opposite effect on her. His mother seemed suddenly invigorated. She managed to sit up.
“Son!” she gasped. If she didn’t actually use her voice, the coughing would sometimes let her off. “How you’ve grown! I forget – the days go by and I forget.” She reached for his hand but Rick contrived to keep just beyond her reach. “Here!” she stretched to reach something from the bedside table. Bottles of medicines and jars of pills plunged to floor. Her hand seized on a parcel, like the talon of an osprey snatching a fish from a stream. She sat back, panting until she recovered from the exertion, and then her spindly fingers plucked at the parcel, unwrapping the cloth that enclosed the contents.
“It is time,” she announced, her watery eyes gleaming with pride. “You are old enough now.”
Rick recognised the object at once: his father’s knife! He had seen it before, on illicit incursions into his mother’s room, while she was sleeping, and had marvelled at its sleekness, its beauty, its silent power…
“Take it!” She offered up the knife on the cloth. Rick did not need to be told twice. His fingers closed around the hilt and he twisted his fist this way and that so he could examine the blade from every angle. The weapon felt light in his grasp; his mother seemed to read his thoughts.
“Do not be deceived!” she warned. “It feels like a feather but it has the power to take a life in one stroke. And that is a heavy responsibility for a young man’s heart. Use it sparingly – it were better not used at all – but the having of it is enough. You are a man now, my son, and it is fitting your father’s blade should be yours.”
Rick was barely listening. He was captivated by the blade’s edge. How many ribs had it scraped against? And whose? How many throats had it sliced? How many eyes had it gouged? Cheeks slashed? Bellies broached?
It looked completely new, unused.
But that could not be true. Tales of his father, who had died while Rick was coiled in the womb, danced in his memory. It had been a knife that had taken his father’s life. But whose? For surely the victor in any combat claimed the loser’s blade? And yet, here it was, unmarked and solitary.
Rick found his mother’s eyes were on him. With hawk-like acuity, she looked into his soul.
“Ah, your father… It is time you heard the truth. Your dad fell on his own knife and bled to death before I found him. Stupid twat. I’d told him to fix that bit of stair carpet countless times but did he? Did he bollocks! Now, be a sweetheart and fetch me forty Superkings before the shop shuts. You’ll be all right going through the precinct at this time of night with that penknife in your pocket. Go on; piss off out of it. Make your mother proud.”
Rick stuffed the knife into his tracksuit bottoms and strode out with his head held high.