Turn on the radio, take the first sentence you heard, and then use it as the start of a character sketch…
“I heard that he lost two front teeth in a fight, and half a finger in a sledging accident, is that right?” Simon’s eyebrows were raised in question. I permitted myself an inward laugh.
I hadn’t seen Thom since the argument, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if it was true. Even as a boy, he had always gone around the neighbourhood like a pinball caught between the bumpers, as furious and careless in his movements, a demented marionette. In all my memories of that time, Thom had scabs on his knees, or tape around his glasses. We would return to the classroom covered with mud and grass stains from wild skidding kickarounds, and mum would insist on me wearing my tattiest clothes before Thom came over to play.
Age did not tranquillise Thom. His chaotic energy deepened in adolescence. The essays that Mr Harrington used to describe as ‘quite brilliant’ would be yanked from the depths of Thom’s bag; we all remembered the time that he delved in the bottom of his bag for one of them, and hauled out a ball of scrawled A4 loosely wrapped around a decaying banana skin. With his left hand, Thom underarmed the banana skin halfway across the classroom into the bin. With the inky fingers of his right he flattened out the paper on the table and scraped away the slippery worst of the banana, before presenting Harrington with his work, pushing his glasses back up his nose, hooking one thumb into his belt loop to give his wilted trousers a yank, and sagging triumphantly back into his seat.
He was the kind of person about whom you could believe any rumour. My first thought on hearing about the teeth was not about the fight – the ‘how’ of it hardly mattered – but about his playing. Knowing Thom’s luck, the finger would have been an unimportant one, used only to hold the instrument rather than depress the valves. As for the teeth, I could picture him turning up, bloodied and with two teeth wrapped in toilet paper, grinning a wonky grin at the dentist: “I’ve had thish acshident, could you put theshe back in plashe for me?” He would then have phoned whoever he was standing in with that week, lying and charming his way out of the gigs, telling them that his trumpet had been stolen, or that his mother had died (for maybe the dozenth time), or that he’d been kicked out by a girlfriend – this at least being plausible – or anything else that would get Thom Bishop off the hook.
And that was the thing with Thom: the antics and the scrapes would amuse you, and you’d dress for yourself the thousand tiny cuts made by his inattentiveness, his disorganisation, his forgetfulness. You indulged him, because your own existence seemed sluggish and grey by comparison, and because on some level, you wanted to be him. When you fell out, if you bullied or cajoled him into listening to your grievance, he would make some clumsy gesture of redress; often, these had their own ham-fisted charm. But they never resulted in change, he never learned, and you’d soon be back where you’d started. And after the argument, I no longer wanted to know.
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