Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

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The Independent Online

The dilemma presented its horns before breakfast, when a relative rang. "I can't believe he's gone," she said. "Thank goodness he didn't suffer. From what we can gather he didn't feel any pain but my worry now is, how on earth are you going to tell Louis?"

It was our worry too and once Matthew and I had got our own reactions to this sudden death out of the way (it didn't take long because much as we hadn't wished the deceased any ill we weren't exactly close) we set to deciding how the news was going to be broken to Louis who was far more emotionally involved than we were. How do you tell a nine-year-old such a thing? Death is such a very difficult subject. And this was such a freak accident.

Matthew was all for a quick, clean announcement, but I felt that would be too traumatic and we should do it in stages; start with hints of a mysterious illness, then the next day say there has been a turn for the worse, the day after that things wouldn't be looking at all good on the health front and by the weekend, when the ground had been well and truly laid we would gently announce the actual departure.

The flaw in this plan lay with the possibility that Louis might answer the phone in the meantime and hear the news from someone else. "People will be bound to want to offer condolences," said Matthew, parental angst etched on his brow. "Besides, much as it was a sudden end it was hardly unexpected. The man was dicing with death every day of his working life; it's just that nobody predicted a stingray. A crocodile, a cobra, even a Komodo dragon, fair enough, but a stingray? Who could have foreseen that?"

Louis became interested in Steve Irwin at the age of four and his Discovery Channel documentaries were watched, recorded and re-watched over and over again. While Matthew and I found that at first we were well able to resist the Crocodile Hunter's larrikin charms, there was no denying it (unfortunate khaki shorts, irritating manner, nature presented as circus act - all that aside), Mr Irwin did appear to be a force for good and, crikey mate!, he really was instilling in Louis a passion for wildlife and the planet. It was because of Steve that business cards embossed with the words "Professional Reptile Hunter" were requested as fifth birthday present.

For his sixth Louis asked for a leopard gecko and a year later he had become so persistent with the nagging that his wish was granted. He now has two and I have a tortoise called Miles. In short, we were all affected by Steve Irwin.

Matthew would give up his Michael Winner impersonations for weeks on end in favour of his Aussie-accented, "What a beaut, what a little darling, what a sweetheart" repertoire. There were times when even Louis would ask for respite when Matthew would answer the phone with "G'day", say "No worries" if we thanked him for anything, leave the house with the words "Back this arvo", and constantly grappled the dog (a West Highland terrier) to the ground exclaiming: "You're an ugly brute, aren't you mate?"

Louis, meanwhile, decided that his ambition was to work in Irwin's Queensland zoo and become a world-renowned reptile expert, and I began studying anaconda husbandry. And now the hero is dead, and after hours of debate we still can't decide how to break the news.

A text message arrived from a friend. "Don't want to intrude on private grief," it read, "but tell Louis I am thinking of him and please pass on condolences." We couldn't, though, because a day later Louis still hadn't been told. All four televisions in the house were unplugged (we pretended that a Thames Water employee had dug through a cable), newspapers were banned and the phones were switched to silent mode.

"This can't go on," I said, "he'll have to be told today. School starts tomorrow and he's bound to hear it there."

"You tell him then," said Matthew. "It would be much better coming from you."

"No," I said, "you are the one who must tell him. Father to son."

"Oh no, no, no, no. It would be wrong for me to do it. I can't pretend to grieve for someone who once said that John Howard, a man who incarcerated Indonesian immigrants on a boat in order to win an election, was the greatest Prime Minister the world has ever seen."

"Oh that's silly," I said, pouring Matthew a whisky, which is something I have never, ever done before without being repeatedly asked. "While Louis may be very well up on indigenous Australian wildlife, he has no knowledge whatsoever of that nation's foreign policy. That is a pathetic excuse."

"All right," said Matthew, "but you know what it means don't you? It means we'll be up all night watching Crocodile Hunter the movie, where our hero gets mixed up with the CIA and a crocodile who has swallowed a tracking device. Pass the hemlock."

Matthew told Louis about the death of Steve Irwin at 7pm that evening. At 7.05pm, Louis came to me looking grave.

"Poor Dad," he said, "he seems really upset. Do you think it would cheer him up if I lent him some Crocodile Hunter episodes this evening? He could watch the movie featuring the CIA and the crocodile that has swallowed a tracking device. He always loved that one."

"Yes," I said, "good idea."

"And do you think he'd mind if I didn't watch it with him only I'm right in the middle of reading David Attenborough's autobiography, Life on Air."

"No," I said. "I don't think he'd mind at all."