The fallow child did not know he cast a shadow. It rested profoundly on his story, diminished the colours—warped them. The earth, the heavens, and everything between, left him detached, bereft of wonder. But Tommy did not know.
His clothes reflected the same perspective: faded denim jeans and jacket, grey V-necked jumper, and white shirt, buttoned to the very top. Plimsolls, once white with blue edging, now scuffed and discoloured by frequent visits to Ashton Woods. His mousy, shoulder length hair a shadow too, its fringe a peeper’s curtain. Atop his head a flat cap, plaid and worn, rescued from his father’s work shed at the foot of the garden. It was a tad too big and rocked gently on his ears as he walked.
Tommy lived on the edge of Brigby Town, hidden from its rum soaked bars and choked docks. Cove Street, the spine of the community, granted thoroughfare for locals and outsiders alike. On either side, terraced houses, their well maintained front gardens, a façade.
Thorald Street ran perpendicular to Cove Street and borrowed a little of the pomp for the first half dozen houses, before giving up on the deceit. Tommy lived where both Streets converged, one corner flat and one house in.
His father’s voice ghosted through the front room window. “Be back before five. Your mother’s making tea and you still have that homework to do.”
“Yeah, alright,” Tommy said, his reflection in the glass superimposed on the stern figure of his father. Instantly, he looked away and walked. “See you in a bit.” He offered the words to the pavement.
It was the summer holidays and still school hunted him like a determined hound. Only six months and he would be free. He knew it would be the longest six months of his life. At fifteen, he thought he had suffered enough. The calendar disagreed.
Acrid air stung his sinuses and throat as he entered Cove Street. The throng of pedestrians and traffic withered him, like a callow soul stumbling into a whorehouse. It always took a while for his pulse to settle. The scrutiny of others, especially eager eyed outsiders, made him weary. Their looks crawled in through his eyes. If he did not peep, they could not enter.
On Tommy’s side of the street, relative quiet, the occasional local ambling by, absentmindedness informed by oft trodden pathways. However, on the other side, bedlam, with patrons flitting between shops, smiles broadened after each purchase, bags fattened after each visit.
There were many shops: A pet shop with large windows, displayed nothing more than bags of seed and empty cages, another selling trinkets tinkled incessantly. An old post office, a butcher’s, a baker’s, a grocery store, but Tommy’s favourite, a sweet shop called ‘Candy Land’. Its heady aroma competed easily with fumes from the traffic.
A grand title for such a small shop, he thought.
Candy Land’s red and white canopy shaded the window, granting shoppers a clear view of the confectionaries within. Tilted slightly to best display its wares, a wide shelf ran the window’s length, replete with wedding cakes, butter cakes, sponge cakes; a cake for every occasion. Beyond, on the counter, and floor to ceiling shelving, jars, tin boxes and fancy platters—all fit to burst or overflow with a myriad of many coloured sweets—seduction for sweet-toothed patrons. Each tinkle of the bell above the door, satisfaction guaranteed. Tommy yearned to cross that street, enter Aladdin’s cave.
As usual, he stopped outside number 87 and searched for an imaginary lost key. It must be an odd sight, this sallow youth patting pockets, fumbling inside them repeatedly whilst still feigning puzzlement. The occupant of 87—bloated meat in a pinafore—sometimes rapped her knuckle on the window and gestured with her hand for him to move on. His refusal only ever inspired a shrug of surrender as she turned, fading behind the reflection of the shops across the way.
Occasionally he peeked out at Candy Land from beneath his fringe, ate his fill and retired back behind the hush. Each snapshot, played like a zoetrope in his minds eye.
A black car entered his peripheral view, clearer after each peek. There were two in the front seats and one on the backseat. A black-suited gentleman drove the vehicle, tanned leather gloves still on the wheel, even after parking. Beside him a woman, neck proud, hair braided and twirled into a bun. An impractical, blue, lacy hat sat at a jaunty angle. The figure in the back was young; he could just make out their profile through the glint on the glass. The mother and father, he assumed, turned and spoke to their offspring, and then all three opened their doors simultaneously and stepped out. Tommy stopped his vigil for a moment, took solace once more from the ground, before he dared lift his head slowly, carefully.
A young girl, about his age, stood there, pinched the sides of her lemon dress with dainty fingers and swayed her body. One after the other, her feet turned in with the momentum, and her free, auburn hair swished rhythmically.
Tommy found himself captivated, all pretence of lost keys forgotten, fear of scrutiny erased. She pushed the shadows from her—this yellow flower in the gloom. There was a feeling here. It gripped him, challenged him. As she neared Candy Land, parents either side, she turned and looked his way, tilting her head inquisitively. Tommy snapped back from her study, chose the ground as an anchor, and walked on.
By just gone 3 o’clock, Tommy arrived at his favourite clearing in Ashton Woods. A solitary Carrion Crow, lost in the shifting canopy, called out in acknowledgement of a brother. The old oak trees, with their crooked trunks and crippled limbs, reached into the clearing, their shadows playing tag with sunbeams on starved earth, while the birch, outnumbered and suffocated, looked like pale impostors jostled in the crush. Here and there, large flowers bloomed, leant away from the shade of the trees, hungry for the sun, while their daintier cousins poked out from the patchy grass, adding hue to the otherwise featureless enclave. A tree stump formed a makeshift seat and here he perched.
In this solitude, Tommy felt free to consider anything. The good, the bad and the indifferent, mere incidents, reduced, distilled and evaluated. He was Lord over this kingdom, the ruler of all things him.
He held out his right hand, watched it intently until the tremble dissipated and then—after making a gentle fist—brought the lemon girl into the clearing. There she was, a mirage shimmering in the sunlight, a memory of unsullied joy.
“Who are you?” Tommy stood and folded his arms.
The lemon girl swayed, hair ethereal, kissed in the heat.
“Where are you from?” He took a step forward; arms unlocked and dropped by his sides.
Two taller figures appeared, one either side, smoke beside a bright, flickering light.
“Would you be my friend?” At the impossibility of the question, he closed his eyes, her image still alight in his thoughts.
She turned as if she heard; a question in her eyes too.
Startled, Tommy snapped open his eyes, watched as the two other images smouldered, grew thick about the girl, snuffed the flame and coalesced into a figure he knew oh so well: his father.
“You still have that homework to do,” Tommy mimicked with a sneer.
His shadowy father stepped further into the clearing, left leg swung unnaturally as if pulling extra weight. It had not always been that way. Once upon a time, when Tommy was eight and his life contained nothing of the world, his father was able bodied and kindly. After the accident, the change began, birthed by resentment, nurtured by inadequacy. Although the change had been gradual, hints of its growth burst through in moments of uncharacteristic irritation. And so, an erstwhile playful father withdrew behind the daily publications, or relocated to the work shed. The very last lesson his father ever taught him was how to be alone.
Tommy recalled the day, when the outside flooded in and washed him up on the shores of a distant island. It was Wednesday, June 4[SUP]th[/SUP] 1968 at 6:45 to be exact.
His mother had almost finished straightening the living room, adjusting things just so in preparation for his father’s return. Stirred by the bustle of excitement, Tommy made several visits to the garden window, standing on tiptoe to catch the first glimpse of a father three months in absence. The sea was a selfish mistress, but put food on the table and yielded sea faring yarns aplenty. It seemed every voyage offered taller and taller tales, told in bolder and bolder ways, and all of them ended with a treasure found, a mixed bag of Fizz Bombs, Pear Drops and Toffee Crumble, presented to him by his father as if they were bars of sparkling gold.
“Staring won’t make him come home any faster you know,” his mother said, joining him by the window. She reached her hand around him and eased his hair away from his eyes. “This hair of yours. It’s taking on a life of its own. It’s getting messier than your bedroom.” She laughed, dropped her hand and placed it on his shoulder.
“It’s alright, mum.” Tommy shook his head, undoing his mother’s good work. “I like it like this.” Then, after again fixing on the gate: “Dad’s hair’s like this anyway.”
“But he’s always at sea, son. There’s no room for a barbers when you’re swashbuckling on the open seas and digging up chests.” She brought her hands up besides her face and wiggled her fingers. “Oooooo. … Too busy fighting off skeletons or harpooning sea monsters.”
“Got to look good for the mermaids though … right?”
“I’m not sure about that, son.” She ruffled his hair and gently pushed his head.
Tommy turned around and smiled. “You might be a mermaid for all I know.”
His mother stepped back from the window, looked down at her legs. “Oh, I never thought about that. Perhaps your dad bonked me on the head and kidnapped me. Come to think of it, I am a little bit floppy when I walk.” She waddled around the room, the look of discovery in her eyes. “Oh dear, oh dear, just look at that. Do you think we should call the police and have him arrested for kidnapping a maiden of the sea?”
“Naaaa,” Tommy said, “I quite like having you as a mum.”
“And I quite like having you as a son,” his mother said, and returned to finish off her chores.
Mother eyed Tommy from her customary last visit of the day; an old Edwardian display cabinet made of walnut, with cambered front, polished within an inch of its life. There, in prime position, framed by the intricate gold inlay etched onto the central glass panel, her most cherished possession, a glass tulip. It gleamed amongst the other ornaments therein. The juggler, the pirate, the orphan girl, the conjurer, the huge array of fragile finery, (formed from stretched, coiled, dripped molten glass) extras to the star centre stage. She turned the tiny, ornate brass key on her final task, placed it atop the cabinet, and patted it softly.
The phone rang in the hall.
“Dad?” Tommy asked excitedly and lowered himself from the tips of his toes.
“No, son,” his mother said, warmth in her cheeks. She glanced at the Grandfather clock tick-tocking in the corner of the room. “He’ll be home soon.”
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock …
When she returned from the hall, Tommy sensed something wrong. It was in her gait, a dead weight that pulled at the whole room, like iron filings to a magnet. Nervous lips tried forming a question many times before finally they relented:
“What’s the matter, mum?” The words hung in the charged air.
“Your dad’s had an accident,” his mother said to no one in particular, as if testing the words, and in testing, would find them impostors. Carefully, she placed her weight onto a chair and took Tommy’s hand gently in her own. “It’s quite bad, son. They say … he might not be able to walk properly again.” The burden relinquished, she cried. Not Hollywood tears, the guttural unrehearsed grief of abject defeat, the tears no son should ever witness.
Tortured were the following days, the papers printed easily consumable paragraphs of the accident, nibbles to make a tragedy palatable for the tea sippers and puffy nosed sots, rocking in their bunks. On his father’s request, Tommy stayed with neighbours while his mother visited the hospital, something he begrudged, could never understand; and then the day came for his father’s release.
Lowered a little from the usual elevation of his toes—terrified of what he may see but excited to see his father nonetheless—Tommy stared at the back garden gate through the window above the sink. Many things could be taking place outside the confines of the garden, but the fixation was the gate and nothing more. He glared resolutely at the one single spot, made a photograph of it, an indelible moment stretched beyond limits. Any sudden movement would startle him.
“Dad!” He tripped over himself, leant dinner plates slipped apart, clattered along the corrugated draining board, a cup still spinning as he snatched at the handle of the backdoor and yanked it open. “Dad.”
His mother thanked the ambulance driver for his help, closed the garden gate; father leant at her shoulder, head askew, slack and groggy. He took a short, uncertain hop as Tommy’s mother eased towards the house. A crutch jammed deep into his armpit, lifted his shoulder and jacket abnormally. Muted, Tommy let his sight drop, and what was absent filled him with terror, with sorrow, with hatred for the mistress. He ran into the work shed, slammed the door behind, and swore he would never love the sea.
There were many visitors the following week. They teamed in and out with endless regularity, all sorrowful, offering words of support and commiserations. Even though his father welcomed them with a smile and a nod of gratitude, he looked emptied out, stolen away a piece at a time, and there was nothing Tommy could do to stop it. After his father was fitted with a wooden prosthetic, Tommy hoped things would improve. Nothing changed though. He would watch his father practice walking on it day after day, only to see despair grow in his eyes, and the storyteller die.
When Tommy arrived home, at 5:07, his parents were sat at the kitchen table, a quarter into their meal. Father had taken a break from eating, head buried in the paper. Only the snap of the pages as Tommy sat down indicated what he feared most, but it was enough.
“I’m sorry I’m a bit late,” he said quietly, not wanting to intrude upon the solemnity, “my watch stopped. Forgot to wind it.” He knew his father knew it had been a lie.
“I said 5 o’clock.” His father spoke from behind the Telegraph. He lowered it, only his eyes—permanently narrowed against the cold of the North Sea—and wavy hair, visible over the top. “Is it asking too much for you to do what I ask? It seems to me, you forget to wind that watch of yours far too often.”
“Sorry, dad.” Tommy picked up his fork, stabbed a sausage, held it to his mouth and bit. “This is nice, mum,” he said in the hope of ending the discomfort.
Another snap of the paper greeted him. Mother tried thawing the moment with a smile, but it froze and cracked. They ate the rest of the meal in relative silence. Only metal tapped against porcelain and the distant tick-tock of the Grandfather clock intruded.
“I’m off upstairs to do my homework,” Tommy announced into the din of static, shot a glance his father’s way in the hope of praise. The Telegraph did not move.
As always, Tommy examined his bedroom. No matter how many times he asked his mother not to move things, she would insist on tidying; which actually meant, putting his belongings where she thought his belongings should be. It infuriated him. He wanted to jumble the room, turn the neatness into a resemblance of him, but he could never bring himself to do so. His mother meant well, he understood.
For a complaint free tomorrow, homework had to be his priority today. His mother had placed the homework on the dressing table, along with a brush and a comb, aligned perfectly with the textbook. Tommy looked at himself in the mirror there, at the peeper’s curtain. What better place for a comb, and what better place for the bait, he thought. He plucked up the homework and sat in a chair by the window.
The homework was maths. He despised it more than any other lesson, not because of ineptness but rather the penalty for it. He often wondered—as he watched Mr Sundley, a dandruff dusted prune, reach into his cupboard of solutions—how a cane across his hand would improve things. Stoicism was at least some recompense and imbued him with a deep stillness: holding out a steadfast hand, calmly eyeing the teacher as he rose on his haunches, flinching not one iota as the cane fizzed down, and accepting the sting at his fingertips as if nothing had taken place.
When light finally succumbed to darkness, he closed the textbook, placed it on the bedside table, and slipped between the cool, freshly washed sheets. For a long time he lay there, images of the lemon girl occupied him utterly. Until sleep stole her away.
The internal clock, usually reliantly late, brought wakefulness early the following morning. Tommy tugged the sheets back over his face in the hope he drifted back off, brought the afternoon closer, but without luck. He was alert and hopeful, something alien to this teenage version of a childhood self. Breakfast tasted good, and the telegraph did not snap. The finished homework lay there on Father’s coffee table, a bulwark, a promise kept.
The Grandfather clock mocked him with its minutes. He battled time all morning, kicked a ball, the wall, the gate and carved his initials on the back of the work shed, anything to diminish the space between now and a second chance encounter with the lemon girl. Each frivolity ended with a face off against the Grandfather clock. Until eventually, afternoon arrived, something he found himself ill prepared for. Would she even be there? Would she notice him again? Doubt turned time into an ally, a battle better lost. Therefore, it was with reluctance and dread he set off.
As Tommy once again faced the clatter of Cove Street, he realised the improbability of his hope. He saw the lemon girl but once, at a particular time. Asking fate to intervene and serve up a miracle, dragged at his heals, threatened to have him about face and slink back home in embarrassment. However, he fought the urge and stood now at the usual spot, going through his routine. Luckily, 87 had drawn their curtains, leaving only the babble, weave and thrum of vehicles and pedestrians to tolerate.
For what felt an age, he waited, the dream slipping away, even though his eyes held hope. He could feel his heart beat, the tingle of tension in his fingers and the slickness of his sweaty palms. Then, there it was, the black car with its dainty passenger. He caught himself, the impatience threatened to unleash, garner unwanted attention. Strangely, he felt obligated to stay calm for the lemon girl, as if she had expectations of him. This was irrational, he knew, but it held him fast against any sudden over-expressions of happiness.
This time the lemon girl did not approach the shop with her parents, instead, she meandered around on the pavement between the car and Candy Land. Still there though, the joy Tommy had found so endearing. She looked everywhere but at him, the edges of her interests formed a Tommy shaped hole. Then, as if the mould fell away, revealing the true nature of what it concealed, she focused directly upon him. In lieu of gazing at the ground, he jammed his fidgety hands into his jeans pockets. They were eager betrayers, his eyes now, defocused and indiscriminate.
After a while he realised it was the game or the girl. He must choose, so choose he did. Their eyes met, not meaningfully, more a moment when both acknowledged the absurdity of it all. She smiled, he smiled, she laughed, he laughed, and for the first time in many years, Tommy swept his hair from his eyes, tipped the cap and tugged it back down to fix his fringe in place. He took his right hand from the pocket, raised it as high as he dare, palm out in acknowledgement. She reciprocated confidently, quickly, glanced over her shoulder towards Candy Land. Her parents had left the shop and headed towards the car. The lemon girl gave one last curt, tight-lipped smile and skipped off to join them; Tommy left stranded, hands in no man’s land.
“Wait,” He shouted, as the lemon girl climbed into the backseat of the car. “My name’s Tommy … To-mm-y.” He mouthed it in the hope if the sound did not reach her, the mime would. He walked on when the car pulled out. “Tommy.” As the car accelerated, he jogged alongside. “My name is Tommy.” His voice cracked in a tight throat.
He did not care he fled the shadow, shed his ghostly self, that all eyes were upon him. Everything he cared about sat in the car, moving further and further away, and he needed to catch it.
The lemon girl was at the back window now, watching him as he sprinted with everything he had. She brought her lips to the window, breathed a mist upon it and with her finger wrote ‘T’.
Ashton Woods sang a melody. The light breeze ruffled a bluebell sea, while foxglove sentinels, nodding each after the other from the weight of a bumblebee, welcomed Tommy to their domain. Once the image of solemnity, oak and birch seemed eased of such burden, the creak and rasp a counterpoint to the songbirds flitting between their branches. It was the sun though that commanded the stage, flooded the sanctuary with blissful heat, and conjured vibrancy from the paleness of before.
The lemon girl danced in nature’s spotlight, as Tommy thought her into existence. He watched her intently, imagined her voice speaking his name. It was a sweet voice, so soft, so impractical, but the voice he wanted. As she spun, the drowsy air lifted her lemon dress, exposing the ankles and calves of a fortunate life, of sitting by the fountain, or plucking daises on a lazy afternoon.
Somewhere, on the very edge of his reverie, Tommy heard a sound, unfamiliar at first, a discordant at odds with his magnum opus. He held the lemon girl fast, fought the final curtain, but the sound boomed louder and louder, until he loosed his grip and the whole world tumbled in. From somewhere in the wood, a dog barked furiously. Within the shadow beneath the canopies, symmetry, alien to the snarl of limbs, consolidated into a familiar image: An old abandoned storage building, a field of wheat and a German Shepherd woofing with everything it could muster.
Tommy was eleven when the German Shepherd herded him towards the storage building, terrorised him up onto its sagging roof.
“Go away,” he yelled, waving his arms in the vain attempt at persuasion. His impotence only added a snarl to the gnashing and barking. “Shoo … shoo.” Even as a child, he knew such orders were reserved for Toy Poodles or Chihuahuas. Still, it worked for his neighbour once and there was no harm in trying. “Shoo,” he shouted, hoping volume would lend it authority.
Still the dog barked, its echo ringing across the wheat fields. Tommy gazed out, beyond the beast, scoured the horizon for possible salvation. Nothing for a while but then, there, just over the shifting, golden crests came three figures. Clearly, the commotion drew their attention. At first, he felt rescued, a trio plus him would surly be ample and see off the hound. Just before he called for help, he recognised the lead boy as Phil Lowry, with two of his acolytes in tow. Hoping they had not spotted him, he slid on his bottom backwards. Shoulders hunched, he found the lowest point on the opposite side of the roof. They kept coming, closer and closer, the German Shepherd, turned craven mongrel, scooted off down a muddy track that sliced the field in two.
“We see you, Tommy me old mate.” It was the voice of Lowry, deeper than his age. “Come on down, we’re not going to hurt you. Are we lads?”
No words came from the others. Tommy assumed only nods of agreement.
“Look, there’s three of us and one of you. If we wanted to climb up there and throw you down we could, but we don’t want to do that. All we want is a little bit of a friendly chat. A chinwag between school mates.”
Reluctantly Tommy stood, eased his way back across the loose tiles to the stack of broken boxes he used to climb up. “I’m coming down.” He understood trouble waited there. “What you lot been doing during the holidays?” Striking up a conversation seemed all he had left. Perhaps he could endear himself, distract them from whatever they had in mind, but the response soon scuppered that notion:
“Hunting, we’ve been hunting.”
The moment his feet hit the dirt, Lowry set upon him, his thick forearm a dead weight on Tommy’s slight shoulders. The two other boys, unfamiliar to him, seemed reluctant and instead followed at distance, as Lowry lead him towards the huge double doors of the storage building.
“Now, why would you climb on the roof when you have a perfectly good hiding place in there?” Lowry said, pointing at the double doors. “You could have hurt yourself couldn’t you. And that’s the last thing we’d want, isn’t it lads.”
The two boys nodded unenthusiastically, but then, as if catching themselves, nodded vigorously, a determined “yes” for emphasis. Lowry looked at them both, sized them up and returned his attention to the doors.
“Open them, lads.” He about-faced Tommy, gripped both shoulders with meaty hands, squeezing a fraction too hard. “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. What are we going to do with you? You’re always sloping around keeping yourself to yourself. It’s not sociable you know. Someone might get the wrong impression and take it personally.”
Dust, and Flakes of rotted wood, fell from a small beam as the two boys yanked it up from its rusted, L-shaped moorings, one on each door, then, worked their fingers into the gap and prized them open. The stink of desertion and old hay wafted out.
“Jesus,” Lowry said, “Smells like old farts and dead cats. Now, Tommy me old mate, I think it’s only fair we show you a better hiding place. It’ll save you a lot of trouble in the future.” He shoved Tommy into the building. “Make yourself comfortable and see how it feels.”
With resignation, Tommy walked deeper into the storage building. He understood what the three boys would do, understood there was no chance of changing the outcome. Why not just let it happen. Tommy stood in the centre of the building as the interior darkened, and listened as the boys placed the bar back on the brackets, not once turning, not once speaking.
“OK, there, Tommy?” Lowly said, his voice raised a tone or two. “We’ll be back later. It’ll give you time to get used to your new hiding place. Enjoy yourself.” And with that, only the sound of footfalls diminishing into a breeze.
A few dislodged slates afforded the interior minimal light. Scant sunbeams struck across the floor, slashes from a bright knife. The strongest cut a pathway along the uneven, stone slabs, across a pile of hay in one corner, and up to a weathered scythe hung on crumbled brickwork. The illumination failed to penetrate the edges and corners, leaving him stranded in a cooled splash of daylight. He felt watched, as if he was a single cell creature, and the whole of humanity inspected him through a microscope, shame magnified.
A scurry to the left snapped him free of his torpor, tiny feet shifted debris. A mouse or rat, perhaps? Whatever it was, it had moved onto a more complex challenge because its feet quickened, became frantic, and then the distinct sound of miniscule claws shifting on cardboard. He took this moment of relative quiet to ease towards the corner, the hay and the one stroke of sodium light. There he took stock, examined the hay for dampness. It seemed dry, if a little yellowed by age and daylight starvation. He pulled at the pile, loosed it from its settled state, and fashioned a nest there. It was comfortable and warm, a womb amid the dereliction. For a while, he let the slit of light play on his face, until shame returned and he leant away into the shadows, defeated.
Although the flimsy stalks of hay afforded him naught in terms of protection from whatever else lurked, he took comfort from the natural bedding, and slowly, against his better judgement, drifted off into deep sleep. There he lay, released for a while, face peaceful.
“Tommy … Tommy …”
The words slipped into his dreams, unreal, distant and intangible, echoes of wakefulness.
The image of a hand gripped Tommy’s shoulder and shook it vigorously, something he stiffened against, the snap of a rested neck waking him instantly. He could hear someone struggling to lift the wooden beam from the doors, and then pull one side open wide enough to slip through.
“Tommy,” His mother said and approached him tentatively, as if dealing with a trapped animal, not wanting it to be fearful, giving it time to absorb kindness. “It’s your mum, Tommy.”
“I know,” he said from the darkness of the corner.
“Come on then.” She reached down expecting a hand that did not come. “Are you alright? Mrs Bryson told me all about what happened. Her son’s said sorry.” She left that thought there for a moment, a pause clearly designed to give Tommy some consolation. “I’ll be having words with that Lowry kid, you mark my words. If he thinks he can do that to my son, he’s got another thing coming.”
Tommy stood up and walked forward. “Leave it, mum. You’ll just make things worse.”
“What, and let that little sod get away with it?”
“I said leave it.” His abruptness startled his mother.
“Tommy, that’s not like you, is it now.”
They both walked home in silence. Tommy held his mother’s hand much of the way. His mother turned to him now and then, smiled softly before joining Tommy in his gaze ahead.
When Tommy walked in through his back garden gate, his father was leant deep into the engine of his red Cortina, tapping and rattling with tools. He looked the unfortunate victim of a vicious attack by a huge, blue land creature, half-bitten, all oiled up and ready for swallowing. Tommy peeped into the maw of the Cortina.
“Could you do me a favour?” the Cortina said, the arm of his father flopped roughly in the direction of the work shed. “Get me the file from my toolbox. It’s the small triangular file. Near the top, with a red handle.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said. “Red handle you say?”
“Yes, it should be laid on the top of the screws and bolts. Thanks.”
“Back in a sec’.” The smell of freshly planed wood and creosote greeted Tommy as he entered the shed. As usual, it was ship shape, with everything in its rightful place, only the toolbox sat at an angle on the workbench broke the symmetry of a well-maintained space. Tommy could see why a messy mind would seek such refuge. He had done so himself many times. He found the toolbox already open, the file in clear view, which he immediately returned to his father. “There you go, dad.”
“Cheers, son.” The Hand that took it squeezed the hand that offered it, just a little.
His mother busied herself in the kitchen, flitted from one place to the next, as if stuck for things to do but determined to find something nonetheless.
“Why’s dad messing about with the car?” Tommy asked as he sat at the table.
“He’s determined to drive the thing,” she said, still picking through a myriad of possible tasks, already done but perhaps not perfectly. “I’m not happy about it at all. I’ve told him I can drive him wherever he wants to go but no. … That man’s so stubborn sometimes. It’s enough to send you round the bend. He’s been perfectly fine using the bus all this time. Why he’s suddenly decided he needs his car is beyond me.” She resigned herself to a single spot, paused in exasperation and then sat by Tommy. “I don’t know Tommy. He won’t accept help and he won’t take no for an answer. The fools going to hurt himself trying to drive with that stupid leg.”
“I’m sure he’ll be alright, mum,” Tommy said, buttering toast. “You’re worrying yourself over nothing. He’s fought bigger monsters than that car.”
“I’m glad you think so.” She realised the reference. “Oh, yeah. It’s been such a long time since he told those yarns of his. I kind of miss ‘em.”
“You having some toast, mum?” He indicated the pile of cooled toast with his knife.
“I’ve eaten, son.” She sighed and placed her palms on the table resolutely, drew a line on the last few fraught minutes. “How’s your day been anyway?” She had not quite shelved her worry but Tommy understood he could help stack it.
“It’s been a good day, all things considered,” he said. He pulled down his mouth and tightened his chin, threw in a nod for good measure. “Yeah, a good day.”
“Glad to hear it.” She nipped the peak of his hat, lifted it slightly. “Why are you still wearing this tatty old thing?” She laughed. “By the time you’re big enough for it, it’ll have fallen to pieces.”
“It was dad’s.” He replied and took a bite of toast.
“And now your dad’s tatty and falling to bits,” she said. A laugh fell from her mouth, almost convincing. “If you want I can fix that tear on the side. It’ll stop it getting worse … and it will give me something to do.”
“Okay.” Tommy removed the cap and handed it over. “I think I’ll go and help dad with the car. ‘ Get a trade’, he used to say. That’s probably why he used to let me help.”
“I’d leave it, Tommy. I think he might just want some time to himself.”
The day stretched out before him, beyond his grasp, each second counted down; tomorrow, an epoch away, a point of impossible odds. All he could think about was the ‘T’, the simple communication turned missive by her breath. If it were to be this and only this then he would be satisfied. He had found solace in their brief exchange; enough for a lifetime, enough for a malnourished spirit.
He stood at 87, blurry eyed and eager. Time, with its army of seconds, minutes and hours had battled him through the night, tossed him in his sheets, prized his eyes open early, and dragged him through a painful morning. If fate had a timetable then the Lemon Girl should arrive in just under a minute. He had prayed for a second miracle and found salvation, but asking for a third stretched hopes beyond impossible. And yet, even as he settled a covetous mind, the car appeared ahead.
Taking stock of himself, Tommy swept his hair aside and straightened his cap, hands two uncomfortable passengers. When she alighted from the vehicle, she moved in front of the bonnet and waved. A grin upon her face flushed Tommy’s own, something that inspired unrehearsed repayment. There was kindred-ness, as if he had known the Lemon Girl all his life and they were meeting for the first time in many years. Although he sensed this meeting would be short, as it had been before, he lived there, occupied the space and cherished the moments. They gazed at each other for the duration, bound together as one. Love, Tommy thought. Is this love?
When her parents returned, the Lemon Girl pulled strands of her hair beneath her nose and pouted to hold them in place, forming a silly moustache. A kiss disguised perhaps. He could not be certain and so held onto his own, watching yet again a brief encounter end and the car drive off. Her soft face grew distant in the back window, the tumult of Cove Street slipped back in, displaced the calm with the roar and growl of traffic.
Each day brought them closer together, Tommy’s hands no longer gooseberries. The road seemed to narrow, the Lemon Girl more vibrant by the day. She would dance sometimes, pull faces other times, skip, sneak a peak though her fingers and poke her tongue through the gaps. Tommy would pull his cap down over his eyes, pretend to be lost, his hands feeling the air in front of him; grip the bottom of his denim jacket and curtsy, or pull the best ugly face he could manage. It was a wonderful week of inference and mime, of a strengthening bond between two people; strangers at any other time but there, at Candy Land.
On the fifth day, Tommy brought along his running trophy, held it aloft in pride, pointing to it and then at himself. The Lemon Girl looked pleased for him, held her hands at her cheeks and mouthed ‘Wow’. They both laughed. Tommy lowered the Trophy, shyness for boasting still there, turning his shoulders in beneath his jacket. This made the Lemon Girl laugh even more. He touched his lips, head tilted down and to the side in mock shame. Then, she was gone again, Tommy left holding a trophy he longed for her to hold.
As he walked to Ashton Woods, he pondered on the black car, the driver and the Lemon Girl. For the Car to appear within seconds every day, surely the Lemon Girl must live close by. If it were a long way, he would expect jams, crossings and traffic lights to vary the times, so living nearby seemed the obvious deduction. Why always Candy Land though, and not any other shop? Then it dawned on him: maybe they were the new owners? Maybe they were collecting their earnings and paying the staff? Time and place, it all made sense.
Having postponed any further speculation, Tommy arrived at the clearing, and sat upon his throne. Butterflies and birds fluttered about inside the enclave, the green greener than ever, the flowers more plentiful and colourful. Even the gnarled oaks, twisted ogres of a week past, looked like old sages dressed in leafy robes. A fitting stage for my Lemon Girl, Tommy thought, and then there she was.
She sat amongst the speedwell and buttercups, fingers interlocked around her knees, looking out at the grandeur of the woods. Tommy stood, gripped the trophy, held fast against an urge to join her. He had never done so before. To watch was enough. To feel was ample. She had freed an emotion though. A long forgotten part of him yearned for fulfilment. Would it be selfish of him to sip a little, taste its sweetness, if only for a short while? Nervously he walked forward, placing his feet gently on the soft grass. She turned as he neared and held out her hand.
“I think it’s about time you crossed that road and met me in person, Tommy,” she said, her voice as sweet as he imagined. She returned her gaze to the majesty. “Isn’t it just a beautiful day.”
Tommy said nothing. He sat beside her and placed the trophy down. She reached forward and touched it, once again turning to him, a smile in her eyes.
“You should be very proud of this, Tommy.”
There the two of them sat, two united as one, gazing out at a world falling away, shedding every stubborn shadow, every drop of fear, every worm of doubt. Tommy placed his head to her shoulder. The Lemon Girl took his hand, and time ran away with the day.
Tommy sat in his bedroom, by the window, gazing out at the star filled night, and the multitude of tiny illuminations, spread like a jewels across Brigby, a poor imitation of the heavens, although a decent attempt he thought.
Arriving home in darkness cost him dearly. The fury his father meted out while not physical shook him. Even his mother contributed. Not the equal of his father’s rage—she never had that in her—but certainly, on a level he never thought her capable. The list of punishments included washing father’s car, ironing, and mowing the lawn, though nothing compared with what Lowry endured; never the belt buckle or slipper; never a bruised eye or broken tooth. For that, Tommy was thankful. While he lay there in bed, he rehearsed the meeting the following day: what he would say, how he would say it, but above all else, how he would remain calm and collected. That was the worry slumber eventually eased.
In the morning, he set about his chores, prioritised ironing, which included a pair of black trousers, green shirt and blue jumper. Clothes he seldom wore before but was keen on wearing now. By noon, every task had been finished, except for washing father’s car. That he would leave until the last minute, a small demonstration of resistance, which elicited grumbles and shuffled pages from father, buried as ever behind the local rag. Mother looked out across the table as she ate, focused on the space ahead, as if she longed to be there. There was a tight, thin thread between all three, a delicate thread any ill-advised word could snap.
After mealtime, Tommy set about the task of washing Father’s car, each spatter of water from the hosepipe, each wipe, each polish, a painful reminder of the indignity he felt. Eventually, he finished the job, and there it sat, the huge blue land creature, sparkling clean. If he had a harpoon, he would pierce that beast a thousand times. The bucket, he placed down hard near the backdoor to announce the task done, then stole through the curdled hush, and took the stairs, two at a time.
Hair combed, cap adjusted, Tommy took stock in the full-length wardrobe mirror. He turned and angled, examined the freshly ironed outfit before slipping on his blazer, black minus a school emblem, a request hard fought for and won. Highly polished black shoes finished off the ensemble perfectly, and there he stood, remade.
Head upright, strides confident, he headed for the rendezvous, the shroud lifted from the world, clarity wherever he looked. Candy Land spilled colour, painting the fronts of neighbouring shops, up onto the roofs and above to a brilliant azure sky. With a smile, he waited, eager to meet her face to face.
Gazing intently down the road, he anticipated her arrival, everything rehearsed the night before ran on a loop through a head a-buzz with expectation. Anxiously, he checked his watch for the umpteenth time. She was late, no doubt about it. Perhaps heavy traffic, he thought, or worse, the car had broken down. He prayed for the former, feared the latter. Minute after minute he waited, certain the next car would be the car. Fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour passed. Nothing. No matter how many times he checked his watch he could not wish away a simple truth, but he tried.
He felt stranded, trapped between disappointment and hope.
Resigned and despondent, he ambled home, turned every other second, prayed for a glimpse of the car. He rationalised as best he could, gripped his fingers against the pent up angst. She had been there, always. It would be wrong of him to expect perfection from the Lemon Girl on every occasion. He was blessed she turned up regularly, or even at all, and that thought nursed him through the day. It only bore him so far though, the night spent twisting in his sheets, plumping the pillow, and staring up wide-eyed into the darkness.
The following morning dragged like no other. A day’s buffer had taken the edge off the friction between him and his parents. It still lingered like a shallow breath, a gasp between moments of relative normality when eyes met unprepared, but nothing like the crackle of firewood that lit the night of his late return.
Tommy’s eyes were deep-set and dark from lack of sleep, his face waxen and drawn. A lethargy infused him, dragged him around as if an unwilling participant of time, the Lemon Girl all that held him upright. But for her, he would have slumped into some hidden corner and wept. The work shed would have to do.
“Are you alright, Tommy?” His mother leant around the shed door, peeping in.
“What do you expect, all laughs and giggles?” He forced his foot out quickly, made contact with the shed’s wooden wall with the flat of his foot, shaking the shed and everything inside.
“You’re acting like a spoilt little brat, Tommy.” His mother had opened the door now and stepped partway inside. “Look at you. You look like you haven’t slept for a week, and I’m just worried.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you are.” He looked her in the eyes, dared a reaction.
“What the hell do you expect?” Anger percolated and then dissipated. “You came home in the dead of night with not so much as an explanation or a ‘sorry’. We were worried, Tommy. We didn’t know where you were. Something could have happened to you.” Exasperated, she sighed, her neck sunk into her shoulders.
“Like you’d care, anyway. Does anybody care?”
“I haven’t got time for your self pity, boy.” She leant over him. “Sometimes I wish you and your father would clear off somewhere. Two pees in a fuckin’ pod.” Abruptly she turned and left, leaving Tommy with ‘sorry’ dead in his mouth.
Brooding over the confrontation with his mother, and worrying about the Lemon Girl, Tommy settled in, his knuckle tapping on a tin of Dulux White Enamel by his side, hypnotic. Time marched on relentlessly, and before he knew it, his watch signalled now or never.
Nothing could have prepared him for what confronted him on rounding the corner into Cove Street. An unimaginable horror awaited. His world tilted off its axis, hope shaken out through the souls of his feet. Across the street from 87, Candy Land had been boarded up, the canopy removed, the colour stolen, just a flat, featureless canvas, a hole punched through his world. He felt dizzy, as if his innards had mutinied, and unified, where rocking their accumulated weight, first one way and then the other, in an attempt to topple him. Everyone stopped, turned as one, and with a collective whisper, the grinning mannequins spoke:
You’re a fool, Tommy, a fool. Did you really think she would want you? Did you really think she would be your friend? That road was always too wide. Too much has passed between you and the other side, boy. She was a fraud. She played you like the fool you are. You’re nothing, Tommy, nothing.
“Leave me alone!” He held his hands to his ears, pressed hard.
Come on now, you knew this is what would happen. It was too good to be true. You felt that deep down didn’t you? Nobody loves you. You’re an embarrassment. You know that, we all know that. You’ll never be anything. The teachers have told you a million times. The other pupils avoid you at school because of it. Even your own father avoids you because of it, boy
He ran, the mannequins trailing behind, their viper jeers and jibes struck at his back, hissed in the wind about his ears, coiled inside—remnants that burrowed deep. They itched in his skull. He wanted to scratch them loose, tear them out through tightened scalp. Tears crept down his face, skin taut, slick, lungs on fire, throat scoured and raw.
The clearing greeted him with derision. Oak and birch pressed in, greedy for a piece of him, bemoaned the impostor. Flowers shrivelled away as if from corrupted meat, and a murder of crows mocked him with rasps of boy, boy, boy … boy . In the very centre of the enclave, a casket of shadows had hatched, bled across the ground and squealed beneath the glower of the trees. And still the din raged: boy, boy … boy, boy.
Snatching up a branch, he set about the clearing. He thrashed the bluebells, the buttercups, speedwell, hacked at the foxgloves until they lay dead at his feet. Almost spent, he rounded on the tree stump. Blow after blow rained down on the throne, the seat, the perch, the stump, and then finally, he fell to his knees exhausted, vision awash with tears, anger left with nowhere to hide.
He snarled at the mud, clambered up and confronting the world. Still dizzy and overdosed on adrenaline, he began his long, stumbling journey home, the shadows always one step ahead, the town an abstract of disconnected symmetry. It angled and twisted with each jolt of his head, careened into view before it shrunk and folded into the next wave of bricks and mortar. It pulsed with his pulse, bled with his sweat, a carnival of corruption.
Hands before him now, he shredding the scene, ripping a hole through which to pass. The ghouls of Cove Street gathered, loomed in assessing this funny little jester. Spittle on his lips, he raged at them, repelled them for the masquerade they were. He faltered a moment across from Candy Land, the floor spun up to meet him, palms slamming into the pavement. Tears again, no, not tears again. One last push, he thought. Gripping a gate, he pulled himself to his feet, toppled onward, feet planted hard against a rocked inner self.
Finally, he shouldered open the gate, staggered past the blue, glimmering beast, over freshly mowed grass, and into the work shed. There, he held onto the shelves, still disorientated, still spinning. The world shrank, a focused spark of blinding light. Sting at his fingertips … sting at his fingertips … sting at his finger tips … the slice from a bright knife, followed into a dark dark corner.
When Tommy came round, he found himself sprawled on the work-shed floor, twisted uncomfortably. Nausea gripped his gut; mockery swam at the edges of his vision. No longer the circus of before, he clambered up, vomited, hoping the purge would rid him of aberration and disgrace. They stuck though, bristled at his neck, bringing gooseflesh.
From somewhere outside of his discomfort, he heard weeping. He shook his head to clear it and wished he had not. The world spun, threatened another collapse, but he braced against it, righted himself and looked blurrily through the shed window at his home.
His watch read 7:14. He had been out cold for a good three hours, and whilst in the thrall of that thick, black blanket, life had continued, leading to this mystery of anguish. The weeping was weak, ripples following crashed waves, fingers digging into wet sand. Tommy speculated, knew instinctively his lateness could not be the only reason, dread slipping in as sickness departed.
The backdoor was ajar. He palmed it wider. His mother knelt there beside the walnut cabinet, cradled something on her lap, beneath stooped shoulders. Tommy parted his lips to speak, praying the next word spoken would meet her softly. “Mum?’
When she turned, he saw the frailty of her face, a wrung out expression there, and beyond that nothingness, just a void deep behind her eyes. On her lap, held in loose, trembling fingers, the glass tulip.
“You know this was the first thing your father bought me.” Her voice left a mouth barely moving. She moistened dry lips with her tongue and continued: “He said it reminded him of me. A couple of scruffy kids really. That’s all we were. But together, we were more. Much more.”
Tommy understood the unspoken, tears streaming down his face. A chasm opened in the room, something he felt he could not cross until invited.
“He loved you, son. More than anything in the world, he loved you.”
He found himself beside her, carried by the words.
“This all grew from this one simple tulip. Isn’t that wonderful.” She looked at the cabinet. “Each trip, one new treasure.” The thought put a smile on her face. A genuine smile filled with memories and warmth. “I used to put them on anything, you know, until he bought me this cabinet. ‘These are fragile you silly sausage,’ he would say to me. ‘You need somewhere safe to put them.’ And then one Christmas, there it was, with all the treasures inside.”
“He brought me sweets,” Tommy said, placing his own memories beside his mother’s. “Fizz Bombs, Pear Drops and Toffee Crumble. I used to remember the story he’d just told me as I was eating them, nearly word for word.”
His mother touched his hand and stood, placed the tulip centre stage and reverently closed the cabinet doors. She prepared herself and Tommy knew why. Honesty had been the backbone of her upbringing, and she could not abide minced words. Tommy followed her to the dining table and sat.
“Your father couldn’t brake fast enough at the bottom of Seven-Hills Street, and went straight into oncoming traffic. I’m going down to identify the body at nine ‘o’clock.” She said it plainly, without emotion. “And I want you to stay here.”
“I want to come and see him with you,” Tommy said and leant forward.
“No, Tommy. I’ll need you to stay here, son.”
“But, mum, I want to say goodbye.”
“You’ll get to say goodbye, Tommy. Please understand. I don’t want you to see him like that. It was a bad crash. Do you know what I’m saying? A bad crash.” She tightened her lips, titled her head.
Tommy knew better than to argue but struggled to hide frustration.
His mother took his hand and held it tightly. “I know this isn’t what you want to hear. It’s for the best. Your father wouldn’t want you to see him like that. He saw what it did to you when he lost his leg. I saw what it did to you when he lost his leg. You’re clearly having a bad time of it at the moment and this would only make it worse.”
Tommy grew angry inside, despite the situation. “Nothing happened to me when he lost his leg,” he said, faltered, holding the next words prisoner for a while behind his teeth, “it was father that changed, not me.” He withdrew his hand. “He stopped talking to me. It wasn’t me.”
“When your father first came home, it broke his heart to see you run from him and hide in the shed. You’d always run to him, Tommy, always.” She looked down at the table, swallowed, held it together. “And then, when everyone was coming round to wish him well. … All he wanted to do was hold you. He felt like there was this gap and it got bigger and bigger, and there was nothing he could do about it. He was a good man. He couldn’t just ask them to leave. They’d come to wish him well. Friends, neighbours, workmates, family. So many people, Tommy.”
“But … he wouldn’t come near me.”
“No, Tommy.” She took his hand again. “You wouldn’t go near him. Can’t you remember? You spent all your time in that shed, away from us, away from him. He loved you, Tommy.” Reaching out, she removed his cap. “He put this cap in there, hoping it would remind you of him, hoping it would help you get back to your old self. That didn’t work, so he decided perhaps if he could walk without his crutch, that would be enough. It only made him angry he couldn’t be the father you needed, and that’s all he ever wanted.”
The procession of cars and hearses moved slowly down Cove Street. Tommy looked straight through the front window, only vaguely aware of the people on the pavement removing hats out of respect. He was a shimmer behind glass, a profile in mourning. Only once did he dare let his vigil stray, drawn against his will, to a shop and its promise of hope.
There were dozens of faces at the funeral, most Tommy knew, and some he did not. The focus of attention much of the time, he remained silent; let his mother speak for him. He found it easier, less stressful, and his mother, the ever-resilient woman, held council for the both of them. He watched the coffin lowered into the hole, listened to the sermon, comments from acquaintances, and threw a hand full of dirt into the grave. Then, the black-clad mourners turned and scattered back to their lives.
Weeks past before anything resembling normality, and even then, there were moments of silence and stillness, reminders of a space unfilled. Things, once minor, took on an importance beyond them. The paper, a chair, a shed, a hat, all footsteps from the past stepping loudly into the present. Weeks turned into months but still the past persisted, only gentler, fondness alleviating some of the loss. And then it was a year, the minor things became minor once more, and only recollection brought anguish. It became a duty to remember, to dig deep into the past and force pain out from hiding, lest the shadows steal anything left.
Tommy stared at the fresh grass growing were father’s car used to stand, the great, blue land creature gone, and the captain taken with it. Nature could be so cruel.
“Dinner’s on the table, son,” his mother said through the kitchen window. “Don’t let it get cold now.”
“Coming,” Tommy said, his eyes still on the fresh grass as he turned.
Conversation at the dinner table was as banal as always, just random information exchanged to fill the quiet. If Tommy concentrated hard enough, he could hear the pages of a newspaper turned, the occasional snap, bringing him back to his food.
Since leaving school, he had taken to long walks, and stayed well away from the clearing. When walking down Cove Street, he focused ahead. Although he never directly looked across the street, his peripheral view often tested his resolve; his downward view tilted away a fraction to avoid temptation. No matter the whether, he would walk.
And so it was that on the 7[SUP]th[/SUP] of July at 1:35, he set off in the rain.
Only his cap for cover, the rain soon soaked his clothing. It was something he welcomed. He found it sobering, the water creeping in behind his collar a distraction, as it crawled down his back and chest. The storm clouds reflected in the many puddles, rippled outwards as he stepped into the centre, before converging once again into shimmering mirrors. Rain filled his ears with a storm of sound as it tapped on the many surfaces, a chorus of a million tiny percussions; as if a hot earth sizzled, and filled the air with a copper tang.
Amid the greys, on the very edge of everything, a flicker of yellow. It teased him there, a flutter alive in the dew of his eye, struggling to free itself from the tiny cell and fill his vision. He blinked several time to wash it away but the callous deception persisted. Larger now as he neared 87, more urgent, more compelling. Finally, he succumbed. There, with an umbrella over her shoulder, a figure dressed in a lemon coat, looked up at the boarding covering Candy Land.
Heart pounding, he ran across the street, the fear of the road, of the outsiders, washed away with the rain and the lemon girl. This was his second chance and he meant to take it. Almost upon her now, he slowed, gathered himself for the moment when both would recognise the other and all would be right. She turned. He stopped.
“Hello,” A middle-aged woman said, “can I help you?”
“Sorry, I thought you were someone else.” The anguish tore him in two.
“Are you alright?” She said. “Did you know someone who used to run the shop?”
Perhaps there was still a chance, he thought. Did this woman know the owners? And if so, does she know where they live?
“No,” Tommy said, “I used to know a girl who came here. She wore a lemon dress and for a minute I thought you were her.” He looked for signs of recognition in the woman’s face. “I think she was the daughter of the previous owners. You wouldn’t happen to know where they live would you. I’d like to get in touch with her again.”
“When was that?” The woman seemed more than happy to help.
“Last year, just before the shop was closed down.”
“I think you’re mistaken, son.” She searched in her handbag and removed a document. “I’m looking into buying the property, and according to the lease, this shop hasn’t been open for over three years.”
“That can’t be right,” Tommy said. “I used to love Candy Land, came here every day.”
“Take a look.” She held out the paperwork. “This was a chemist’s before it was closed down. It’s never been a sweet shop, dear. Look, it says right here under previous owner.”
Tommy backed away from the document, felt dizzy, that flash of light he had long forgotten, sparking in his eyes again, only this time accompanied by an agony that felt like it would split his forehead. He grimaced against it, the heaviness of the pain pushing his head down.
He stumbled back across a street swimming, as if the storm were in his eyes. Another sudden spark of light:
A woman stood in the window of 87. She looked kindly, plump but motherly. She raised her hand and waved to Tommy, smiling too. There was no resignation there; no dislike of him, just warmth for a boy who often stopped at her house.
“No …” Tommy held his head and headed homeward, the street still a torrent of imagery.
Finally, he reached his back gate and staggered through it, stopped by the fresh grass where his father’s car used to be. Another flash:
His mother thanked the ambulance driver for his help, closed the garden gate; father leant at her shoulder, head askew. He hopped forward as Tommy’s mother eased towards the house, a crutch jammed deep into his armpit, lifted his shoulder and jacket abnormally.
“Ooo arrrr, Jim lad,” He said, closing one eye slightly, “have I got a tale for thee.”
Muted, Tommy let his sight drop. “You’re not my dad. You can’t be my dad.” he said and ran into the work shed. Then to the sea, he shouted: “I hate you.”
He ran into the work shed, held the door closed with his back. This can’t be, he thought. This is not how I remembered. Another flash, another stab of pain behind his eyes and at his forehead. Fearing another image, he gritted teeth against it, holding it at bay, but felt himself tipping, about to plunge deeper than he wished to go. Flash:
His father’s toolbox. Flash. The triangular file. Flash. The garden. Flash. The car. Flash. Beneath the car, file in hand …
Tommy stood still, a world hidden to him until now bearing down on him with cruel clarity. He removed his father’s cap, a face torn, the mask terror. Placing the inside of the cap to his face and burying it there with his palms, he screamed: “No, no, no no.”
The fallow child did not know he cast a shadow.
Tommy put the pen on the table, closed his diary and placed his palm upon it. Here, the threads of his life had been woven together by his hand; a collection of meaning and truth. It solidified the boy, the man, made substance of it, and in so doing, threw light on his humanity. He did not see himself a villain or a hero, just the conduit through which circumstance had written its story. A coin toss, all his worth.
Sun shone in through the window of his room, casting a shadow of bars across the bed, the table and Tommy. Here the truth lay, un-interpreted and real. The cap sat snugly on Tommy’s head. He reached up and felt the stitching where the tear had been, a proud memory, a mother’s love. He went to the window and bathed in the sunlight, looking out at the lawn and its daises, at the fountain glistening there.
Beyond that, he saw the little garden, benches arranged in a circle at the edges, where inmates often went for peace, for clarity. In the centre a miniature throne. A chipped and weathered piper sat there, head tilted upwards as it played its tune.
There were many inmates at Heaven’s Cove Mental Institution, all milling about on the grass, dosed up on medication, lead by helpers, doctors, nurses and carers, wearing lemon uniforms. Tommy smiled, thinking of the name the inmates had given to the small counter were medication was handed out.
They called it ‘Candy Land’.