My mother often used to say to me, “You’re not big and you’re not clever,” and this short story is a bit like that.
I wrote “Thomas” about six years ago and I post it here not because it’s award winning material, or even something I’m particularly proud of, but because despite its short length, its naivety, and it’s obvious flaws, there’s just something I really like about it.
Thomas is simple, sentimental, and slow paced, but the core idea — an old man just trying to exist and failing to understand the significance of the events going on around him — is something that I find myself coming back to again and again, and seems to have a lot of relevance to modern events.
So, if you’re reading this, know that it’s not great, but hopefully you’ll find something interesting here.
By Karl Rivers
THE AMBULANCE DIDN’T come again this morning.
Thomas looked out to the garden where a bird skipped across the grass and darted into the plump hedge that surrounded his little patch of land. The sun penetrated the foliage creating dark shards of shadow on the ground. Thomas raised himself out of his chair on weary arms and felt the cool breeze on his crepe paper cheeks. His back crooked, he walked slowly through the conservatory, collecting a small wooden trug on the way. The smooth curve of the handle felt good against his calloused hands.
He made his way through the garden, the heat of the warming sun on his head. At the top, by a small patch of turned earth, he dropped the trug. He knelt, slowly at first, then his legs took too much weight and he collapsed, catching himself with outstretched arms. For a moment he sat, composed himself, and picked up a red handled trowel sticking out of the dirt. He began to dig scraping layers of dirt away. His flannel trousers quickly dirtying. After a short struggle with the earth, a couple of small, pale potatoes appeared. He turned them over in his hands, examining them, and brushing the dirt off on his jacket. Not as impressive as he would have liked, but they would make a meal. He placed them in his trug, took a moment to rest, and then struggled to his feet.
In the corner of the garden a fluorescent blue Calendula, Ella’s favourite, reached skyward. From his trouser pocket Thomas took a worn pair of secateurs and cut the stem of several flowers before laying them across the trug. That was enough. He made his way back to the house settling his goods on a small table in the conservatory.
“Potatoes are good again, Ella,” he said to himself.
From under a mahogany sideboard he pulled a small wooden box, the lacquer scratched and worn. He licked his thumb, wiped a scuff mark off the top, and lifted the lid. Inside was a tray of pocket watches of differing styles and sizes. He picked one out and turned it over in his hand. The glass was slightly opaque but you could still make out the hands gentle movement behind. He opened the back and wound the mechanism before slipping it into his shirt pocket and replacing the box.
Thomas checked the wall clock. James was late again. He picked up the telephone, and pressed in a number. Silence. He tried once more. Nothing. He let out a sigh and replaced the receiver. On the shelf above the phone a daguerreotype, the faded image of a young woman, rested against a china vase.
He tried the phone once more but there was still no answer.
The view from the patio windows caught Thomas’ eye. He stared out into the bright summer garden and paused before sliding the door closed and turning the key. He picked up the flowers from the trug before walking back to the living room. A couple of apples, from a tree at the bottom of the garden, were stuffed into his pocket. He tucked a few stems of Calendula under his arm and made his way to the porch. On the way he collected the daguerreotype, placing it in his inside jacket.
Once out the front door, without the protection of the greenery from the garden, the heat hit him. He stepped out into the white hot sun. Locking the door, he placed the key under a brick near a neatly trimmed rose bush. He stopped, leaning unsteadily on his walking stick which he kept by the door. He looked down the row of cottages, only five here. Each lawn was neatly mown, bushes trimmed. A proud smile ironed out some of the creasing on his skin.
Thomas walked to the end of the drive and on to the dirt path that lead to the main road which wound its way out of the village. At the end of the path a small brick built bridge arched over a narrow brook. There weren’t many villages as quaint as this in the East of England anymore. Had you gone to the trouble of looking it up on a map you would have noticed that it was nestled in a tiny patch of countryside between two large towns. Only a narrow stretch of greenbelt land prevented it being consumed by urban sprawl. Despite this Thomas had noticed the changes; the village shop and Post Office had been closed and converted into a holiday home by a family who he knew only by name. The occasional lost lorry driver would make a futile attempt at traversing the low bridge. The convertible sports cars that would barrel through with no regard for children playing by Jacob’s field.
The brook, which ran parallel to the dirt road, was dry. Thomas couldn’t remember it being this dry before. He picked a pebble from the ground and threw it into the brook bed. The stone landed with a dull thud on the cracked, dry earth below. He stood on the bridge and looked down the arid waterway. If you had a mind to, you could follow the brook all the way to the next village. He’d done it once, when he was younger. He and Johnny Grimes had walked from here to Camberwell, they had just started and kept on walking. When they got back he’d had fierce beating from his Dad.
The old man started off down the road following it up and out of the village. For a young man this wasn’t such a distance, but for Thomas it took the best part of an hour. He hadn’t walked this far in years. It conjured up memories of his childhood, games played, tree houses built, and boyish injuries. The memories acted as an anaesthetic to the pain in his back — made him move.
Further along Thomas came across a wooden bench. A little plaque attached to the back of the seat was dedicated to someone, but it was too faded to read. He sat, took a small plastic bottle from his satchel and fumbled with the lid. He took a few clumsy sips. Thomas sat a while, enjoying the rest and the warming breeze. The heat was pleasant.
The firm road made walking easier, but the natural rise and fall of the countryside were punishment to his old bones. He struggled, forcing himself up inclines. Using his stick to prop himself up. The feeling of isolation when he reached the bottom of an incline was desperate. Either direction was a battle that needed equal fight. Several times he considered sitting down and waiting for a passer-by.
The ambulance lay front first in the ditch, a rear wheel raised like the paw of injured puppy. Thomas stopped, took a deep breath and surveyed the situation. There was no hope of reaching a handle to open it, so he banged on the back door of the ambulance with his stick. There was no response. He perched on the top of the ditch and leaned across as far as he could without falling. There was no-one in the driver’s seat, that much he could see. Bindweed and thorns had curled its way in a helix through the wing-mirrors and was attempting to force its way in through the rubber seal of the driver’s door. He pushed himself from the brim of the ditch with his stick and slumped back on to the road.
He continued his walk. Along the way three more abandoned cars were left discarded across the road. One in the ditch, which continued to follow the road for most of the distance, one sitting across the road at right angles, and a third, its front pitched up on a rock like a bucking horse.
He took another sip of water, sat on the embankment, and ate an apple. These were Ella’s favourite. The air was cooler now. He checked his pocket watch, he’d been walking for almost three hours. Not far in front he could make out the sign for Buckingham.
The church sat on an incline above the road. It was surrounded by a stone wall overgrown with ivy and bindweed. Thomas clambered up the steep cobble path that entered the church yard. He’d been here on many occasions. The cobble path, now worn and missing a few stones, used to be firm and friendly. Now it threatened to crumble underneath him and fling him to the ground with a single mis-step. He peered into the church porch but the familiar woodwork of the door would no longer move — it had never been locked to him before.
Thomas walked around the church, off the cobble path, and through some low hanging trees to a row of three grave stones. He took the Calendula from his bag — they were slightly tatty, but Ella would still have enjoyed them — and placed the flowers on one of the graves. He lent on the upright stone and breathed a sigh.
The sun was low now and drew long shadows from the grave stones. Over undulating hills, a red sun lay its waning rays across the thick green of the English countryside. On the horizon, where once the bright dome of city lights emanated lifting darkness from so many people, all that was visible were pin pricks of random orange flickers.
Thomas sat on the grass and rested his forehead against the cool head stone, “Hope you like the flowers, Ella,” he said.
As the sun dropped below the horizon Thomas closed his eyes and was finally at rest.