When coasting around the internet I found out that the best lock smiths in the world had come from a place in the Midlands of England since the 1700s and that they have a whole area in Willenhall called 'The Hayes.’ It was just too much synchronicity not to use in a story.
'Speak to him... They say that the hearing is the last thing to go.'
The boy sidled nervously over to the bed, strangely drawn to the cadaverous old man who teetered precariously between life and death. Half-open, black eyes floated back in his head, unfocused on anything, but it was obvious even to the small child that they were unseeing, undiscerning and vacant. It frightened him. Gramps had never looked like this, even when he was really ill.
'It's time to say goodbye to your Great Grandpa. He's going to heaven.'
The child instinctively pulled back, trying to hide amongst his siblings, who had already gathered at the bedside.
He had seen dead bodies before, all laid out in their Sunday best to be viewed before burial but this was the first time he had been exposed to the actual process of dying.
The old man heaved a laboured, rasping breath as his ebbing life force guttered like a candle in a draught. The startled child turned and grasped at his mother's legs with both arms as he buried his tear stained face into her linen dress.
She ran her fingers gently through the boy's hair as she cooed in reassurance. 'Don't be scared, my love. He's just Gramps. He's the man who used to tell you all those stories you loved so much. He's still the same man.'
The child turned and looked down at the old man, the already pallid skin looking as though it was made of tallow as his toothless, open mouth groaned unnervingly.
The woman took a step forward and grasped the old man's hand as the boy's eyes fixed on the puffs of thin, white hair which stood upright on the wizened skull.
'Hannibal, Hannibal, we're all here,' the old man stirred. 'See, he can hear us. The whole family's here. We've come to tell you how much we love you.'
'We're here for you,' Hannibal Heyes' son whispered as a burning sob caught in the back of his throat.
The little boy watched his grandfather's dark eyes fill with tears as he took hold of the old man's other hand and clasped it to his mouth in a long, heartfelt kiss. He had never seen any kind of weakness in this stoic man before. Hannibal Heyes' son had become the patriarch of the family as the child's great grandfather became more and more infirm as his nineties slowly approached.
The old man's face twitched, almost adopting the ghost of his once glittering smile, communicating that he knew that they were there, wrapping their love around him like a blanket. His body seemed to relax, his consciousness falling into the inky embrace of oblivion, towards the safety of nihilty.
A fortress of family stood around the bed, transmitting poignant goodwill. He had made it at last. No more running, no more lies.
The little group watched as he exhaled once more before his chest remained still, just as it had done so many times in the last two days, but this time it was to remain inert as the last earthly remains of Hannibal Heyes finally lay inanimate.
He was dead but it had happened peacefully in his own bed and in the very heart of his family. Just as he'd dreamed.
'He's gone, God bless him,' the little boy's mother murmured in a breaking voice as a flood of tears swept into her eyes. 'It was just as he wanted it. At home, with all his family around him.'
The child started to wail, shocked at the strength of the loss that suddenly hit him. 'Gramps?'
'Sssh, darling, he's in heaven now. He's with our little Jessica and his old friend. Remember all the stories he used to tell you about their adventures? They'll be up there right now, planning another one.'
Hannibal's son gave a watery smile. 'I can see them now. He'll walk up to him and slap him on the back before he puts an hand on his shoulder and asks what took him so long,' his voice rasped with emotion. 'Then they'll catch up over a drink, they'll laugh, talk... remember...'
The woman wiped away tears before she looked at her husband and her father in law. 'He'll be missed. He was a real character. We'll never see his like again.'
'Yup, a really big hole,' the man looked at his wife with lost eyes. 'Do you want any help laying him out?'
She shook her head. 'No. Beth and I can manage.'
'I'll go and see the Mertons, Ma. They're expectin' this,' murmured the woman's eldest son.
'Thanks. They'll have the coffin ready. We went to the funeral parlour and ordered it last week.'
Hannibal's son stood, surreptitiously wiping an eye as he struggled to regain his composure.
'Well, I don't know about you lot, but I need a drink. If those two are up there crackin' open a bottle I don't see any reason why we can't join them.'
The boy's oldest brother paused and glanced at his father before darting a look at the young boy backhanding away tears and mucus from his moist face. 'I think it's time that the little 'uns know the truth about old gramps. Don't you pa?'
The younger children looked mystified as the child's eldest brother put on his hat with a slight smile. He was clearly already privy to this family secret. The grandfather looked pensively at his son and his grandchildren.
'Yup,' he stated commandingly. 'It was all a long time ago and he's the reason we all live where we do. He had to come here to make a fresh start. What harm can it do now? The children should know. In a way, we should be proud.'
Grandpa Heyes poured the amber liquid into a glass and lifted it up to savour the clarity before he addressed the little group of young faces around the huge kitchen table.
'The country was a bit of a mess after the war and money wasn't worth much. People didn't trust a paper dollar. They wanted gold, silver or goods. Times were hard and young men were driven to do what they could to survive and your gramps was one of them,' he flicked up his eyebrows. 'He wasn't always proud of what he did, but he found he had a talent. A real skill, in fact.'
The children watched their grandfather sit back on his ladder-back chair and drink deeply before he put his glass back on the table.
'What was he good at?' asked the little, dark girl at the end of the table, her long ringlets jiggling with every movement.
Grandfather Heyes flicked up an eyebrow. 'Your Gramp's father was English. He came from a town called Willenhall. In fact, there's a whole area there called 'The Hayes', named after the family who used to own a lot of land around there. They were quite rich and powerful by all accounts. Normans they were; the Normans ran the whole of England from 1066 until 1154 and many of them still had lands and titles for hundreds and hundreds of years later,' he gave the children a dimpled smile. 'That's the stock you come from, kids. Real, good stock.'
He drank in the children's eyes widening with amazement at the news that they were descended such an illuminated line before he continued. 'The spelling has changed quite a lot over the generations, but then folks couldn't agree on how to spell almost any name until recent times.'
He took another sip of his drink.
'Now, Willenhall is famous in England for making locks. The best locks there were in the world at the time and your Gramp's pa was real good at it. He came over to the States as a master craftsman and made sure that his son, your Gramps, learned the business. And Gramps did learn it, real well. In the end there was nothing that he didn't know about locks.'
The boy's father strode over to the large chest in the corner and pulled open the lid with a creak and lifted out an enormous, leather bound book. 'This is one of his books. There are three more in here and they're real precious to us,' he stroked the leather with the palm of his hand. 'They tell us everything there is about how to build locks, but they're history to us. A link to where we come from. The family tree in the bible and these books tell us all we know about our ancestors.'
Grandfather Heyes smiled gently as the precious tome was replaced in the safety of the chest before continuing. 'Now, we've always been real honest folks but things were terrible after the war. He was desperate, hungry and alone so when he was at his very lowest he did a real bad thing.'
All eyes darted over to the source of a gasp. 'What did he do?' whispered the little girl from the corner of the table.
The little boy's father darted a look at grandfather Heyes before he grimaced slightly in shame. 'He used all his knowledge of locks to steal.'
Shock palpably rippled down the long kitchen table. 'No!!'
The little boy's father shook his head in resignation. 'I'm afraid so.'
'Gramps was a thief?' demanded the little boy.
'Not just any thief. In fact, he led a band of criminals. His old friend was also a criminal and they worked together.'
'I don't believe that my Gramps was a thief! Why are you telling me this? He was a good man.' the little boy's eyes started to fill with defensive tears which spilled over until they ran down his cheeks in hot, angry streams.
The boy's father strode over to him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. 'I know, son. I was shocked too when I found out but he was a good man.'
'A real good man,' added Grandpa Heyes. 'He never hurt anyone, he tried to help people whenever he could and he realised that what he was doing was bad; real bad. He and his old friend stopped and tried to live honestly but folks kept hunting them so they eventually they took off and laid low for the longest time.'
'It took years,' murmured the little boy's father, 'but at long last they settled down, got married and had a family. But they never, ever felt safe. They spent their whole lives looking over their shoulders, waiting for their whole lives to be dragged away from them.'
The little boy glanced up. He hadn't noticed his mother return to the huge kitchen until she spoke.
'That's why it was so important to him that we were all there at the end. He never thought he'd know that kind of peace. I think it meant the whole world to him.'
Grandpa Heyes nodded. 'Yes. It was everything to him. If you learn anything from this, children, you must know how important family is to you. He lost everything and desperately wanted it back but he was always terrified that it would all be taken away from him again.'
The little boy nodded sagely. His family were the whole world to him and it was unimaginable to him to be on his own, without that soft place to fall. Gramps must have been really unhappy.
'Your Gramps was a very handsome man in his day,' his mother added, glancing proudly round the table. 'But all the Heyes men are; especially my boys. It's such a shame that we have no way of seeing what he looked like, but there are no pictures; none. He was quite old when I met him, but his smile was a heart stopper. I couldn't wait to meet his grandson when he spoke to me in the general store. He married late, so your pa and I were about the same age.'
'You said we should be proud, Pa. Why? Why would we be proud of a thief?' asked the oldest girl at the table.
'He stole, but he did more good in his life than many who just go to church and do little else. Besides,' Granpa Heyes tilted back on his chair. 'Remember what the good book says ''there is joy in the presence of the god of angels over one sinner that repenteth''. Gramps repented and there was no one straighter than him once he realised how wrong he'd been. He was a good, kind, clever man, a wonderful father and a loyal friend. You can't say that about a lot of men, I'm proud to call him my father. Very proud.'
Mrs. Heyes looked deeply into her father-in-law's eyes as she gave him a slight nod of agreement. 'He was a unique man. Special.'
'Ma?' the little boy toyed with his mashed potatoes. 'I can read.'
Mrs. Heyes glanced over at her son. 'Yes, darling. You're very bright. You read well for your age.'
The boy pursed his lips before he dipped his spoon in the gravy and sucked the bowl clean. 'Ma...?'
She flicked up an eyebrow and looked at him quizzically. There was something coming. She knew her boy well and he was setting her up to get something he wanted.
'Ma,can I see the books? Gramps' big books?'
She arched her eyebrows and gave him a look of surprise. 'Sure, when you're old enough.'
The boy's petted lip swelled as huge, brown eyes widened. 'Please? I'll be real careful. If you sit with me I won't even touch them. You can turn the pages. Please?'
'No, son,' replied his father firmly. 'They're valuable and old. When you're bigger.'
'But, Ma. You always said that I should read everythin' I could so I could learn. That's somethin' I can learn right here, somethin' I can't learn anywhere else.'
'The word is 'something' not somethin',' replied his mother, firmly, mentally agreeing with her son but trying not to show it. 'Your father has already made that decision. You can read them when you grow up a bit.'
The boy started to hang his head, but the cogs of manipulation were still visibly whirring.
'Eat up. It's getting cold.'
The boy's head jerked up as the germ of an idea danced in his dark eyes. 'Pa? How about you teach me about locks then. Not with books; you show me?'
'I don't know anything about locks son. Gramps never taught me.'
'Oh. Well, how about I sit with you when you read the books a bit at a time and we learn together. It could be my job when I grow up. I'd love that, Pa. Can we? Can we do that? Please? Can we?'
His father exhaled in exasperation. 'I don't have time, son. I'm tired when I've finished on the farm. I'd like you to have a good trade and a future but let's leave it until you're older. You're only six. There's plenty of time.'
'Then maybe ma could...'
'Hannibal, you've been told. When you're older you can learn from your Gramp's books. Just because you're named after him I hope you don't follow in his footsteps in everything,' snorted his mother.
'I wouldn't do that. I could never steal and leave my family. I'll be good, honest. I just want to learn about locks. I like knowing how things work,' the boy replied with eyes like a wounded puppy.
The boy's eldest brother snickered from across the table. 'Gramps was great fun, but what a name. Hannibal might have been a good idea in the last century, but this is 1856. You were sure in your cups that night, Pa. I remember you and Gramps gettin' drunk and deciding to call him that, just like you'd tried with every boy that came before him. I'm sure glad that ma was well enough to shout you down after I was born. He even got you to call my sister Hannah. He was determined that name would carry on in the family.'
The boy scowled at his big brother before he spoke. He had to put up with endless jibes about such a pretentious epithet. 'I just find locks interesting, that's all. I'll be good because I couldn't just leave my family like he had to. I just couldn't.'
Mrs Heyes smiled softly at her husband as she used her most persuasive tone. 'How about I take him through a few pages a day? He won't even have to touch the pages. You know he's bright. Those books and a few pieces of hardware on the table could set him on a path that'll give him skills for the rest of his life.
'I don't know...,' her husband replied, uncertainly.
'Go on, I'll look after the books,' she smiled, engagingly, her pretty face dimpling in the way her husband found so endearing. 'What harm could it do?'