Benjamin stood on the doorstep, smiling. I was shocked. He had aged a great deal in the years since I had last seen him. He had always been a tall, upright man, perhaps even a little over-weight – but now he was thin and shorter than I remembered. I invited him in and took his small suitcase from him. He expressed his gratitude at my giving him a room. We chatted casually as I made him some tea. He refused anything else. Just tea, he wanted. And then he told me. He had cancer. The tests were to see how far it had gone and whether it was worth doing any further treatment.
I was shocked at his comment.
‘Surely a life at any time is worth fighting for?’ I said.
He smiled at me gently.
‘I’m almost eighty, Ben,’ he said, ‘I’ve had a good life. My only regret is that nothing I have ever done will be remembered. Oh, I suppose there are students whose lives I’ve helped to shape. Some of them may even be grateful to me if they ever think of me at all. But I have never married, had children or written a paper on anything that is of lasting value.’
I did not know how to respond. I felt sad at Benjamin’s acceptance of a life he considered futile that was now drawing to a close. All of this was new to me. I could not understand this acceptance of death and the regret of a life considered worthless. Young as I was at the time, I still had the hope of all these things before me. I dreamt of achievements, of one beautiful girl with whom I would share my life, of children. I could not imagine facing death with only regrets. Then I remembered.
I ran up to my room and flung open the cupboard door, picked up the box and carried it down stairs. I explained to Benjamin what had happened the previous afternoon. How I had found and then broken the jar. Was it my imagination or did life pour into the man? He had been tired and his voice had shaken a little as he spoke of his illness and his regrets. He had slumped into one of my chairs by the gas fire I had turned on for his comfort. But now he sat up, and his eyes shone with supressed excitement. As I knelt down I put the box on the little table in front of him and opened it up. Piece by piece I removed the newspaper. I did not want to take a piece of the jar out with the crumpled paper and shatter it even more on the hearth, or even lose it in the pile of newspaper that was growing on the floor.
At last the jar was visible. With shaking hands Benjamin reached out and touched it with an almost reverent gesture. Somehow I understood how he felt. The jar and its contents commanded a respect that I could not explain. Benjamin asked me to lift it out of the box. By this time his hands were shaking so much that he could not manage it. Was he in pain? Was this old age, or could it have been excitement?
I picked up the jar and he moved the box out of the way. The broken pieces and the seal were still inside, but Benjamin’s eyes were glued to the jar. Placing it on the table I sat back on my heels and waited. He just stared at it. I wondered what was going on in his clever mind. What was he thinking? Leaning forward, he once again touched the jar gently.
It was sideways on to him and he turned it, taking his time, examining the base first, then the other side and finally the top. He was in no hurry. He seemed to be drinking in the experience as a thirsty man savours his second glass of water; one sip at a time; tasting and appreciating each drop. I got up and moved a standing lamp closer to him so that the light was better. He looked up at me with shining eyes.
‘Tell me again,’ he whispered, and once again I explained, in greater detail, how I had found the jar.
‘I wonder …’, he said, his voice stronger now. ‘Yes, it just could be …’
‘Could be what?’ I asked.
‘I don’t want to say any more at the moment’, he said. ‘Can you give me some time to examine this properly under good conditions, and then let you know what I think it could be?’
‘Of course,’ I replied, although I have to admit I was disappointed that I would not have an immediate answer to the question that was on both our minds. What had I found? Surely he could have given me a hint.
That night we wrapped the jar and each individual piece in newspaper and put them all into a more substantial box. We shared supper together – I enjoyed the steak I had prepared; Benjamin ate very little, but insisted that he enjoyed the meal I had made for him. He tired quickly after supper and went up to bed. He just drank a cup of weak tea for breakfast before I drove him to the station where he would catch the train to go home. He promised me that he would get a taxi the other end, for the box with its precious contents and its packing was heavy. I persuaded him to accept the taxi fare from me. I hope that he did use a taxi. I did not like to think of him struggling on a bus.
Several weeks passed. At first I was impatient to find out what he had discovered. Days turned to weeks and then to months and then I had important exams at the end of the academic year. The memory of my discovery faded, pushed aside by all the other time-consuming things that were happening. Before I knew it, it was the spring term again and a year had slipped away. From time to time I wondered about Benjamin but never tried to contact him and I heard nothing from him. Perhaps it was all a flash in the pan and I pushed the whole idea of treasure to the back of my mind.