My first pet was a goldfish named Jimmy. I can’t remember who christened him. It may have been me. As a boy I was a Jimmy and it was probably the first name that came to mind when I was given the fish. It must have been at the beginning of the “long 1960s”. I was very young, maybe four, so my memories of that time are few and far between.

I do remember something specific about Jimmy the goldfish though. That was the day I was told my pet had died. I don’t think that Jimmy and I were particularly close. So I was not especially saddened by the news. Being a fish Jimmy lived in a glass bowl full of water. So I probably peered in at him from time to time. Maybe I sprinkled some fish food into his bowl. But I doubt if there was ever any tactile bonding between us. (For his sake, I hope not.)

In fact the reason I remember Jimmy at all is because of the news of his death. Perhaps in an attempt to soften the blow, my father told me that the goldfish had died as a patient in the nearby general hospital. I was too young to understand that St. Kevin’s was restricted to ill humans. But something about my father’s story did not compute. Perhaps at a subconscious level I realised I was being lied to.

It is unlikely that this was the first deception I encountered in my short life. Although I cannot recall exactly when I was given the usual spiel about Santa Claus, I suspect it was earlier. Although eventually I must have uncovered the truth about the fictitious fat man, I have no recollection of how or when. But clearly the news about Jimmy the goldfish left an indelible imprint on my childish mind.

Why do adults lie to small kids? I did it myself when our boys were little. Often the fib is intended to smooth over some uncomfortable truth that the adult feels is too harsh for a child to absorb. Or it may simply be easier for an adult to fob off a child’s question about something complicated with the first thing that comes to mind. I suspect a combination of both lay behind my dad’s explanation of Jimmy’s sudden disappearance. No intention to dupe or deceive me – just a man trying to let his son down as lightly as possible.

Children’s ideas about death are a mystery to me. Over the course of the 1960s several elderly relatives died, including my maternal grandparents. I was pretty close to “Ganga”, for instance. He was well into his eighties and confined to bed when I used to visit. He died when I was seven but I have no memory of his passing. Whatever I was told must have gone in one ear and out the other. Same with my grandmother who died a few years later. No memories of their actual deaths, and certainly no trauma.

In fact the first funeral I remember was that of an elderly aunt, my grandmother’s sister. I suspect the only reason the event stuck in my mind is because of an awkward incident I witnessed. My aunt was a large woman and the coffin must have been a little wider than normal. Maybe no one said anything to the gravediggers because they had dug the standard-sized hole in the ground. Once the prayers were over the casket was about to be lowered into the grave. However almost immediately it got stuck and there was a delay as they tried to make the opening bigger. 

When I was a boy, widows wore black for several months after their husbands died. And there was a lot of weeping and keening at wakes and funerals. People felt pain and sadness when death visited their families. But (to this young boy at any rate) there seemed to be an unspoken acceptance of death as the inevitable end to life. Although a source of grief for those left behind, death was seen as a natural occurrence. 

Is that still the case today? Or in our minds have we severed the link that used to exist between life and death? Instead of being accepted as the completion of one’s time on earth, is death now perceived almost as a curse to be put off as long as possible? Indeed, has an irrational fear of death contributed to the current public hysteria over the so-called pandemic?

Millions of my fellow citizens believe that a deadly virus now threatens our society. So convinced are they of this threat that they are prepared to surrender their hard-won civil rights in order to defeat it. 

In the face of deception of this magnitude, how trivial that little lie about my goldfish seems now.