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Tom’s Story

Not Tom. This is just a stock photograph. Throughout this article names and identities have been altered to protect the besieged.

I’ll call him Tom.

Tom is eighteen years old and he lives in a typical English village.   That is, a small community of chocolate-box cottages with a shop and a pub surrounding a placid village pond.   The outer perimeter of this idyll was blessed in 1948 with the addition of a small clutch of social housing, and again in 1985 by a further estate of featureless rabbit hutches which their developer sold as ‘desirable executive homes’.   Commentators at the time suggested (quite unfairly) that the developer had only built them to give the social housing tenants something to rob.

Today the owners of the chocolate box cottages huddle by their wood-burning stoves to the tune of the picturesque village street, which is filled with window-rattling heavy traffic.  Taken over by a large brewery the pub was run down and closed in 2006.  It remains boarded up and empty.  The village pond is far from empty.  Abandoned by any wildlife two generations since, it is full of old car tires and the occasional shopping cart.

In Tom’s council-built estate many prospective Banksies have bequeathed their efforts to the critical eyes of those short-stay tenants who come, desecrate and depart. Detritus adorns those places the planners intended as recreation areas:  abandoned furniture, abandoned cars, abandoned needles.

The ‘executive homes’ gaze out upon all this with tombstone inscrutability.   Owners do their best to pretend they have nothing to do with the village.  They never use the village store, for example, preferring to drive to a larger town nearby.

Tom drives too, though the cars he drives are rarely his own.  The village store, or the area outside it, is where Tom spends most of his time.   He and his friends, seated on their pedal-cycles or just on the pavement filter the store’s customers:  the chocolate-box people are intimidated by him and unwilling to shop there.  Soon the store will go the way of the pub, and the village will have no facilities at all.

Tom does not work.  There are no jobs in the village, but this is not his real problem.  His parents have never worked or provided him with a role model:  in the benefits culture there are no disciplines and few routines, so the nearest Tom ever got to either was during his brief, sporadic relationship with school.

Academia has no place for him.  He is disruptive; he is not bright.  Any spark of brilliance there might have been was extinguished promptly by teachers who singled him out as a butt for ‘class humor’, leaving him with a dread of the desk and the dusty room, and a phobic terror of examinations.

Nevertheless, Tom does work, albeit in unskilled labor and the ‘cash economy’.  With his benefits and irregular extra earnings he has enough to finance his expensive smart-phone and trainers.  Perhaps his purchasing choices are more responsible than anything else for society’s verdict.  They belie his real poverty, giving the impression that he is living well on the benevolence of The State when he really has very little of any worth.

Tom is eighteen.  His girlfriend is pregnant.  He walks with his hood up and his head down.  People say that if he looks up it is only to check out your roof for any loose lead.  He drives stolen cars fast and recklessly, because he likes it.  One day the magistrates’ patience will wear out.

I know that this is not a new story.  It is entrée to a genre that promulgates a certain view of British society which, however accurate, will win no friends at the tourist board.  It is one view, but it is the crossroads at which I stand, because Tom, or someone very like him, is the ‘hero’ of my next book.

This is the book I need to write.  It is the tale of all the Toms I have met and known down the years, people not equipped to meet the demands of the technological society, the ‘no hopers’ who are not that way of their own making, but who simply landed on the wrong planet at the wrong time.  Real people with real value, and with a real morality which sadly all too few of the gifted, great and good appear to share.

Tom deserves his story, but how, from where I sit, do I truly get inside his head?  Where is his future and from where does he dredge the one thing we all seek, his shred of hope?



The Coming of Winter

A watery sun set about clearing the glaze of night-time snow, turning tiny icicles along the gutter edges into teardrops, sending little runnels of melt-water through the virgin white into hidden gutters and tinkling drains.  By noon it might have been a spring day, for any trace there was of the early chill had gone, and the three chestnut trees on the green were bare again.  But then, as afternoon began, the old trees shook themselves a little: a harsh breeze rattled doors, set the wind-chimes in Katie’s yard jangling discordantly.  A grey sky-mountain loomed in the east, pursuing the sun.  It came quickly, its indigo base oozing menace; and around two pm the snow began in earnest.

Not a gentle blessing of bridal-white flakes, this:  no soft breeze to choreograph fairy swirls and dances.  No, this was an assault, a flaying scourge in needles of ice, scouring doors, slapping windows, screeching through rafters.  Within minutes the work of morning was undone, and all the green was white again.  From fairy swirls to dervish whirls, from dance to riotous affray, winter moved in.

Her packing completed by late morning, Katie had witnessed this military advance from her front window.  A pathetically small stack of cardboard cartons lined up by the kitchen wall represented all she owned and, she admitted to herself unhappily, it was not much.  She could tell herself, if she liked, that possessions were ‘not her thing’, that she far more enjoyed the content of life than its ornamentation:  but really she knew she had little to show for her celebration of living.  And, right now, she did not feel like celebrating.

Laura’s account of Jace Harter’s past had set her back on her heels more than somewhat:  she could understand how someone who had been so ravaged by relationships with women might be suspicious of all women; suspicious, and not as she had first thought jealous or afraid, of her.  Given that past, she knew how much his apology the previous morning must have cost him; she had a glimpse through the façade to the real qualities of the man behind it.

And now there was Ben.  Oh, she was far too wise to build castles, dream dreams, on the strength of one day.  She knew so little of Ben, had still evaded that essential question.  But there was no doubting the intimacy between them, or the spark which lay waiting to be kindled.

So, to go or stay?  That afternoon, winter made her mind up for her.

Excerpt from The Butterfly Man, by Frederick Anderson.Image