Tom pulled out a screwdriver, weathered from a lifetime of use, and waved it in my face. With one foot on the dustbin and one flat against the wall he hauled himself onto the windowsill and slipped the screwdriver into a small notch in the frame. The window popped open with a quiet click. ‘Ta dah,’ he said, as he tucked the screwdriver into his back pocket and swung both legs over the sill. ‘Isn’t this, you know, illegal or something?’ I asked, still hovering in the garden behind him. ‘Isn’t what illegal?’ He seemed surprised, turning to face me as he dropped onto his feet. ‘Breaking into someone’s house. Isn’t there a law against that?’ I said, wondering what he had talked me into. ‘It would be,’ he said, ‘if this wasn’t my house.’ That took me by surprise. It was a large, detached house in what my mum would have described as the posh end of this industrial armpit of a town. Tom did not look like he belonged in the posh end of town. Tom looked like he had grown up feral. ‘Don’t you have a door key?’ I asked. ‘My parents didn’t trust me with a door key’. They may have a point, I thought, but Tom had vanished and opened the back door for me. ‘Welcome,’ he said, and bowed. And then he smiled at me. The smile that was all teeth and no fear, tiny creases appearing around his eyes. The smile that drew me out of the garden and into the house. The back door opened into the kitchen, and beyond that the dining room. It was dark in there, the curtains still drawn, and it had the stillness of forgotten places. A dark red carpet with a pattern that pretended to be oriental, and the stale smell of old tea bags and vinegar. Family photos haunted the sideboard, and I ran my fingers over them. Mum, dad, brothers, all with the same freckles and reckless smile. But none of Tom. ‘Are there any photos of you?’ I asked him, ‘I want to see you with a dodgy haircut and missing teeth’. He didn’t smile. Reaching past me he pulled out a photo hidden behind the others. Two half-grown teenagers glowered out, and a young boy of only three or four, unmistakably Tom, kneeling in front and hugging a small dog. He was not looking at the camera, engrossed in the mongrel on his knees. ‘Is that the only one?’ I asked. Tom nodded. ‘My parents are not much into photos of me,’ he said, sliding the frame back into its place behind the others. ‘I’m the mistake.’ There was no anger in the comment, but I could hear the yellow-green tint of bitterness. I could understand it. The bitterness. I was not a mistake - but I was lost. Lost in the aftermath of my mother’s grief. There was a biscuit tin on the sideboard, Christmas leftovers, stars and holly. When Tom flipped the lid off it spun away, flickering silver in the half-light. A thick roll of notes was packed in where the jammie dodgers should have been. When I made a surprised snorting noise Tom laughed and pulled twenty quid out of the centre. ‘You can’t take that,’ I squeaked. ‘I can’. ‘But…but that’s stealing.’ He gave me a look, again with the tang of bitterness. ‘They won’t even notice’. He stuffed the note back into the tin, replaced the lid and parked it back onto the sideboard. Lost I may have been, and usually alone, but I was never abandoned with nothing but a screwdriver and a roll of notes. My mother left the back door unlocked and my bed made, just in case I came home. ‘Come on,’ he said, looking tired, ‘let’s go somewhere warm.’
* * *The café was full, the front windows steamed up, droplets of water running down the glass like rain. Or tears. The waitress barely glanced up, so we chose a table in the corner and sat, both of us with our backs to the wall. Behind the till was the lady from the photograph, Tom’s mum. Her grey hair was pulled back, shards of gold the only sign of colour, an apron tied over a rounding belly. As I watched she chatted to the customers, a steady stream of small talk exchanged for a cuppa and a bacon sandwich. Out of sight a man’s voice rose and fell, calling orders. ‘Tom, what are we doing here?’ I asked. We were not here to eat. Tom nodded in the direction of the lady at the till. ‘To see mum,’ he said. ‘Dad is in the kitchen. I come here if I want to see them. Even if they don’t see me.’ I looked at Tom, so fierce, and wonder how long he had sat here waiting for her to look up. Months, certainly. Years? He settled back in his chair and looked at me. ‘Tom,’ I asked again. ‘Why are we here?’ It was a big question. Huge. So huge it filled the silence as Tom thought about it. ‘I was playing golf,’ he said finally, ‘driving balls off the roof at school.’ That sounded like Tom. I kept quiet, though, in case he stopped talking. ‘And I fell. Mum and dad didn’t even realise I was gone. I wasn’t found until it was too late.’ ‘Too late?’ I echoed. He nodded. ‘Too late. For me anyway. So now I haunt them here. This is my table. How about you?’ I had been half expecting him to ask, but it still made me jump and thump in the place my heart should be. My heart, I miss it sometimes. “Overwhelmed by my condition”, so they said at the hospital, it couldn’t cope any more. ‘I was ill,’ I told him. Tom nodded and took my hand and I held on tight. No-one could see us. It felt good. Two souls in a busy café. No longer lost.
Amanda Thomas is a physiotherapist living in the South-West. After a mis-spent youth and a brief stint overseas, much of it underwater, she returned home, and now lives and works in Bath with her family and a princess dog. When not working or writing she makes it her goal to embarrass her teenage children as much as possible by being spectacularly old and boring. She would spend more time with cats if the dog would let her. And more time writing if the kids would let her.