ㅤOn the morning of his 34th birthday, Tommy Morris sat up in bed and hit his head on the ceiling. He collapsed back onto his pillow and rubbed the sore spot on his forehead. With his other hand, he touched the newly exposed patch of plaster. It matched several other spots on the ceiling where the paint had fallen away. Tommy swung his legs over the side of the top bunk and jumped down onto the carpet with a thud. He looked around at his childhood bedroom.
ㅤSunlight bled through the gaps beneath the curtains and the digital alarm clock on the shelf told him that it was a Thursday morning. Time to get ready for work. He took a shirt, trousers, and a tie out of the wardrobe and put them on. A thick layer of dust coated the mantelpiece. Tommy ran a finger through it, but it came away clean.
ㅤHe checked inside the briefcase that stood by the bedroom door. It was full of documents, some files, and a stapler. He decided that was everything he needed for the day, and headed downstairs for breakfast.
ㅤAs he ate his toast, Tommy’s eyes wandered. Framed on the wall was a landscape painting of an English countryside scene. In the foreground, willows grew on the banks of a winding river. Behind, a church spire protruded from behind a row of stone cottages. Tommy was struck by a sudden memory. He shouted through to the kitchen.
ㅤ“Mum, do you remember the name of that boy in my class who was in that accident, by the river?” Tommy remembered their teacher telling the class that the boy had drowned playing near the river that ran near the outskirts of the town. The whole class had been shocked to hear the news. Tommy hadn’t been sad at the time, although now he wasn’t sure why.
ㅤ“I’m not sure darling. Have you got your lunchbox?”
ㅤ“I’ve got it. Thanks, Mum.” Tommy picked up the brightly coloured lunch box, and put it in the briefcase. The bus was waiting outside the front of his house. He got on and asked the driver: “One ticket to work, please.” The bus driver prodded a few buttons on his control panel, the machine whirred for a few seconds, and a paper ticket popped out. Tommy took the ticket, which read:
ㅤFrom: Tommy’s House
ㅤTo: The Office
ㅤTommy took a seat by the window. He couldn’t stop thinking about the painting, and the boy who had drowned. It was still bothering him when he sat down at his desk on the fourth floor of the office block. Tommy’s best friend Kyle sat at the next desk over.
ㅤ“Do you remember the boy at our school who drowned?” Tommy asked. Kyle looked over at his friend and thought for a moment.
ㅤ“No, I don’t think so.”
ㅤTommy frowned. He was sure that Kyle had been more sad than anyone when their teacher had broken the news to them.
ㅤ“Are you really, really sure?”
ㅤ“I’m sure. Sorry, Tommy, I can’t talk right now, I have lots of emails to do.”
ㅤTommy spent most of the morning doodling on his notepad. He was drawing plans for a new theme park he was going to build in the park near his house. It had roller coasters shaped like dragons and a log flume and dodgems painted with flames and lightning bolts.
ㅤAt 11:30 his boss stopped by his desk to tell him what a fantastic job he was doing, and that the company was going to promote him soon. Tommy and Kyle played a few games of hangman on the big whiteboard. Tommy’s words were MAGNET and JELLYFISH. Kyle’s words were LEMONADE and NAPKIN. Then the bell rang and it was time for lunch.
ㅤTommy and Kyle went outside to sit on a bench in the park. Tommy tried to press Kyle for an answer.
ㅤ“Are you sure that you don’t remember him at all?”
ㅤ“I’m sure.” Kyle replied.
ㅤ“Sure about what?”
ㅤ“That I’m not supposed to talk about the river.”
ㅤ“I didn’t say it was in the river.”
ㅤ“I just can’t...” Kyle trailed off.
ㅤ“You do! You do remember him.” Kyle wouldn’t make eye contact. Tommy pushed him, tears of anger welling up in his eyes.
ㅤ“Stop it. That’s mean.”
ㅤ“I hate you!” Tommy shouted as he wiped away the tears now streaming down his face. He took off in a sprint away from the park bench. He ran across the road, past the office block and into the suburbs.
ㅤTommy remembered the route well. Left at the corner shop, turn right before the petrol station. Him and Kyle used to ride their bikes this way when they were little. The buildings became smaller and less crowded as he ran, and he burst through the rusted gate that marked the outer limits of the town, into the open countryside.
ㅤTommy could hear rushing water. He slowed to a walk as the banks of the river came into view. A metal fence had been constructed on either side of the river, and a yellow sign warned against crossing it. The fence was rusted and old, but Tommy felt sure he had never seen it before. He looked upstream, at the small wooden footbridge. He looked downstream, at the river stretching away across the field and towards the canal beyond. A small pile of brightly coloured objects at the base of one of the fence posts caught his eye.
ㅤHe walked over to it. A bouquet of flowers, a football, a toy metal robot. Tommy studied the robot. He had had one just like it when he was a kid. As he picked up the toy, it knocked the bouquet to one side, revealing a metal plaque set in stone.
ㅤOur little boy, we miss you every day.
ㅤ~ Mum and Dad x
ㅤThe sun was setting when Tommy turned the handle on the front door. The familiar motion calmed him. His dad greeted him in the hallway.
ㅤ“Alright Tommy, how was work? Footie’s on if you want to watch.” He nodded towards the living room door.
ㅤ“Good, thanks. I’ll be there in a second, I have something to sort out.” Tommy smiled at his dad as he walked towards the dining room. He stopped in front of the painting of the river. Now he looked closer, the calm surface of the river was just a thin veneer belying the turbulent current that ran beneath. A current that could drag you down and choke you as you tumbled, helpless. Tommy saw the stones that cut your hands and the weeds that tangled your feet. Tommy could hear the blood pumping in his ears.
ㅤTommy’s trance was interrupted by a cheer from the living room. His father’s voice carried down the hallway.
ㅤ“Tommy, come and watch this! They’ve scored an absolute screamer.”
ㅤ“There in a second,” he shouted back. Tommy took one last look at the painting before he lifted it off the wall. In the attic, he wrapped it in an old sheet and slid the whole lot behind a few boxes of moth-eaten baby clothes.
ㅤTommy spent the rest of the evening in front of the TV and allowed himself to be distracted by the football highlights. As he lay in bed that night, he ran his fingers over the dent in the ceiling and wondered if he would remember any of this the next morning.