Will could not detect the slightest flicker of curiosity from the apothecary as he handed over a paper bag containing a vial.
Outside the shop, he thought how easy it would be. Easy to find a quiet place, remove the cap, down the contents in one gulp and wait for oblivion.
He raised his right hand and kissed the gold signet ring on his finger.
Walking on, he rejoined Jack under an oak tree on the village green.
“Did he have the right medicine, pa?” asked Jack.
“Yes son, I’ll be fine now.”
A month later, his shoulders sagging like a spent athlete, his eyes ringed by grey skin, Will sat on a low wall. Fifty yards away, two peacocks kept their distance. Mist lingered in the gaps between lines of elm trees.
Between sculpted shrubs and beds of spring flowers, Jack darted like a multi-coloured dynamo, tumbling and pulling faces.
Thin, gaunt, in drab, tattered clothes, Will studied Jack’s movements against the backdrop of a manor house’s verdant grounds, which stretched towards the horizon.
“Good, that’s funny,” said Will, “You have my gift, but with new tricks of your own.”
“I want to learn all your routines,” said Jack, with a broad smile and bright chestnut eyes.
“I know. And it must be soon. His Lordship’s charity won’t last forever. I no longer amuse, so you must keep us both. Now, come sit awhile.”
Jack sat beside him. “Pa, I can remember when you left. Ma warned I might never see you again, yet the money you sent us told me you’d return one day.”
“It was hard on us all, but the chance was rare, not to be refused. Lord knows, I had no other talent.”
“Tell me about life at court.” Jack’s voice was eager.
“At first, it was just as you’d imagine – jewellery, fine clothes, lavish banquets. When a prince leads a glorious, carefree life, his jester’s work is easy. I was a stray cat walking with a lion. I spoke the truth and he would take heed. But I was foolish to forget that princes become kings. Their enemies circle like buzzards. By his side, I faced the same darkness as he. My own words began to drip poison. I couldn’t have foreseen that the dangers would grow so great.”
“How did he die?”
“He grew weak and made many mistakes. Too high up the mountain he was, to see through the murk. When he discovered his daughters were not as he wished, his rage freed demons from their shackles.”
“Why did you leave?”
“A jester can also fall prey to demons, mark my words. I knew then I had to leave the royal household.”
“Kings may have you executed in a moment’s fancy.”
“True. Yet I wonder if I could’ve done more to prevent his death. Since he died, a phantom hound has been my constant companion. This ring is all I have left to remember our times together.” He kissed his gold ring.
Jack put his arm around his father’s shoulder. “Don’t say that, pa. The sadness will end.”
“You sound like your dear mother. I miss her every day.”
“So do I. I’m glad we can give each other solace.” He hugged his father. “But I shan’t call myself a jester until I make you laugh.”
Clouds of thistledown drifted across the gardens, as they rose and headed for the kitchen. There were chores to do. Whatever cook commanded.
After dining on scraps and leftovers, Will and Jack perched on gravestones in the nearby churchyard, eating apples. The air was warm and clear.
Twenty feet away, two bare-chested men were standing in a freshly dug grave, resting from their day’s labours.
A dishevelled vagrant shuffled up to the graveside. “Who’s to be buried ‘ere then?”
“You’d better beware it ain’t you!” snapped one of the men.
“I’m not so foolish. Tis bigger than most, is it for a lord?”
The men ignored him.
“Tis for the mayor, I’ll wager. I ‘eard he died last Sunday.” The vagrant became agitated. “Why don’t you answer? You’re no better than me!”
“Be gone, you mangy cur!”
The vagrant untied his string belt and dropped his trousers, displaying his behind.
The men voiced their disgust. One of them threw a clump of earth at his bare white skin.
“Bullseye!” cried Jack.
For the first time in months, Will laughed. So did Jack. They rocked back and forth.
That night, while Jack slept, Will took a stroll down to the river. He reclined on a grass bank and basked in the moonlight.
He was proud of his son. The boy was making progress yet still had much to learn. Only he had the power to teach him.
With a sigh, he sat up, took the vial from his pocket and removed the cap.
He poured the contents into the fast-flowing water.
Tim Dadswell is a retired civil servant living in Norfolk. He has had work published in and by Ink, Sweat & Tears and Cocktails with Miss Austen. He won second prize in a Brilliant Flash Fiction contest and was a runner-up in a Writers’ Forum flash fiction competition.