It was a sad beginning for any young soul and Mrs Cole remembered how she had been the first to hold the babe, all bloodied and warm, while the rest of the staff held out for the poor woman: half-gasping, still bleeding, laid back across cotton sheets. God took the babe’s mother within the hour, sparing her only precious moments in which to name the child. Pink and squirming the tiny creature was held out to the dying woman and Mrs Cole remembered how the words had fluttered out of her pale, ugly lips. Tom Marvolo Riddle was a poor gypsy’s boy and the only orphan ever to have been birthed at the heart of M. J Wool’s charitable institution.
In the weeks that followed the child was past from women to woman, nurse to nurse, and laid into a plain but adequate cot erected in the sparse, white-washed room they had made do as a nursery. It was not Wool’s custom to take in any child until the age of four. Unwanted babes were usually sent to state ran crèches until they were of age. You see, to any other but God a spare child was a burden. No one wanted to foster and to those select few comfortable in their resources blood meant more than charity. Wool’s, as all orphanages, was not so much an establishment for those without parents but those born without legitimacy. Up and down the corridors there were more bastards per room than true orphans. No one was ever adopted.
In the year of 1926 every crèche available to them was full and Mrs Cole returned passing the homogenous lines of screaming cots with the sorry news that Tom Riddle would be staying. So Tom, a child of winter, was the only one in the nursery. His cot stood towards the centre on the checked tiled floor and he made so little noise that once or twice the nurse had hesitated before the closed blanket, thinking death had stolen the infant while he slept, though it hadn’t and Tom stirred, fretful with life, whenever his nose was placed in front of the wet-nurse’s breast. At the smell of milk his little nostrils would quiver and his lips would fasten to the teat, small mouth greedy - the vivacious thirst present in all children longing to live. This is how the staff had known Tom was going to be a full time resident at Wool’s. More so than a strong heart beat or an extra blanket, it was the will to survive that saw a babe through to childhood.
Mrs Cole had held Tom many times since he was first pushed into her arms and she watched as he grew hair just like all the other babes she had held. She ran her fingers through it and felt it soft and fine like wisps of raven down and when she bent forward and smelled the sleeping babe he had smelt divine, like soft soap and peach. His skin, fragile white, was soft to the touch and his cries rarely ever surfaced. In the midst of chaos generated by older children, baby Tom was a delight to raise, an idyllic infant, still and silent in his cot. He had hands and feet like a boy, toes and fingers, nose and ears - yet - and all the staff felt - not just Mrs Cole - that this babe and now this child had something lacking. Some unproven fact but a fact none the less that this boy, despite his seraphic face, blinking up at the world like a pale doll, was somehow less than human.
How could you explain to anyone other than those who had been in the boy’s company that when you looked in his eye’s that it wasn’t a child that stared back at you but an animal. You see, even as that obliging infant the boy had possessed a cold intelligence that extended beyond that of any normal child. An innate sense of knowing. Often, Tom would sit at the back of the classroom with his eye’s starring out the window, blank and cold, looking out at a world beyond the fog of London. Yet, as soon as you had finished firing a question at him he shot back an answer nearly as fast and usually correct. Mrs Cole felt as if he could stare past her and somehow see all her weakness, know all her fears, without ever needing to understand her as a human being.
While most children collected scraps of paraphernalia bright with colour and pretty pictures, Tom collected secrets. She couldn’t prove it but Tom knew. How he knew she didn’t know and yet …he didn’t know. Strangely despite the boy’s quite cunning, the cold meticulous calculation, Tom had a naivety when it came to people; where the most basic instinct present in all humans about humankind was somehow absent. It was as if emotion eluded the boy. As a small child Tom heard all words literally and could not distinguish the nuance of emotion in the voice when the same words were spoken differently, and when this happened, as it often did, he would just stop and stare at you. Brown eyes wide with indignation, it was if he was trying to pull the meaning from your own. Before Tom had worked out what it meant to be five the rest of the class had turned eight and so on and so forth. No respecter of hierarchy Tom was and remained outside the group. Emotionally stunted and there it was that word again - lacking.
There was an absence in the boy that rendered him less, made him not as worthy as the rest of them, before God or anyone else. He didn’t belong to their world. His world was filthy and dark, full of long twisting tunnels, dry earth and scales. Mrs Cole had met common strays with more empathy for mankind than Tom Riddle.
She and the rest of the staff attributed his…strangeness,to his gypsy heritage. The travellers were frightening folk. Their way was a departure from God’s grace; sharing their tents with animals, dabbling in magic, crystal gazing, paganism and she had even heard - grave robbing. They were mostly thieves and wickedly non-Christian. Ever since the curious night Tom’s mother had come staggering up the orphanages front steps, they had speculated about her origins. In the staff room, close to the heater to keep warm, they had talked: dark hair, dark eyes, swathed in eccentric and ragged clothes… they had decided she had been a circus runaway. Rest her soul, she had been ugly, with eyes that rolled to the side like a hammer head shark, looking like some ugly goggle-eyed wader bird. With her back slightly hunched and sideways stare she could have been the child of two siblings. Gypsies were known to keep their circles tight, always traveling, heaven knew them to be inbred. Yet Tom had been born not some half-baked ape but a child of stupendous beauty. His beauty grew with him each year and Mrs Cole envisioned him growing into a lithe, graceful charming whose delicate face would haunt girls’ hearts and then leave them to break. It was such a shame that such beauty was wasted on one so strange. Beneath the boy’s maturing superficial appeal lay a charmless void. Looking past the delicate hazel of the eyes one would trip and find themselves drowning in the black wells freezing at their centres.
There was danger in the boy. He was no bully. Bullies were common place among child and adult alike, and there was nothing common about Tom Riddle. Bullies were loud and Tom was silent. He was the most silent child she had met. He asked her for nothing but accused her of everything. Everything about the boy was a lie. He was the most contradictory creature she had ever met. From his naive scrambles, his half grasped ideas about what the other children instinctually understood, Tom grew quickly and alarmingly into a skilled liar. A charmer and she suspected a thief.
He never exercised this charm back at the orphanage, not with her or anyone who had known him growing up. For them he gave nothing but cold silence, deliberating these moments with an even colder smile. Instead, he practiced his allure out in London, were she would here tales of a shy and gentile orphan, considerate and mature in his dealings with the people he encountered. When she heard people praise him a shudder would pass through her. Like his gypsy kin Tom was a performer. This young showman was able to dazzle his audience briefly but unable to continue the act. Between performances he grew strange, always solitary, and unable to cope in crowds; as if the normal instinct for commune was replaced with a need to sneak behind, unseen and unknown in the shadows. She recalled when they had once insisted him be seated in the middle of class, age six, he had refused and when Mr Lomax had tried to drag the boy his tiny limbs had furled up like a wild cat. Kicking and screaming he knocked over wooden desks, ink spilling all over the floor and then bizarrely the window had cracked and little Amy had cried out as her nose ran suddenly with blood.
Strange chaos seamed to follow the boy wherever he went. Erupting about him in times of stress or whenever he went particularly silent. Week long periods, where Mrs Cole knew his quiet withdrawal was only to mask his wicked and unholy contemplations, after which someone, inexplicably, came to suffer.
As with most establishments children slept in dormitories. When Tom turned four he was naturally placed with his peers. The poor bastard Emanuel Singer and genuine orphan Billy Stubbs were among them. Together they joined the boy’s ward ages four to ten and Tom was forced to forget the room he had spent the first years of his life in. He had tugged at her skirt and begged and she had slapped him away and called him silly. He did not sleep that night but had stood at the far side of the long room bellowing like a wounded dog, provoking the older boys to rise from their beds. They had tried to explain to him and had lost their tempers. With high shrieks ricocheting around Mrs Cole’s bedroom and along the corridor, she and another staff member came rushing to the boys’ ward and found a tangle of limbs and Tom, red in the face from crying, latched into the older boy’s hand with his little milk teeth doing their best to draw blood. The next day all the boys’ apart from Tom started with influenza. She and the staff had to run about with buckets, mopping sick and being sneezed on, and when Tom mournfully requested to be allowed to return to his room they allowed him.
Mrs Cole was appalled to see such a socially inept child grow to float so skilfully, so artfully, on humanity’s’ surface. Age three Tom had struggled with his laces and had a habit of repeatedly lacing his shoes in the corner of the yard, while the other children fought for their turn at hopscotch. Kindly, the nurse had bent to assist the boy and when she touched his shoes he had stopped, slowly raised his head looked her wide in the eye and slapped her. After detention he later asked Mrs Cole ‘if God sent people who slapped to hell’, she said, ‘yes, he does if they keep doing it’. He went silent in deep introspection and Mrs Cole regretted trying to bully obedience from him in this way when she later found him trying to place his hand in the kitchen oven. In all her years of experience with odd and troubled children she had never came close to fathoming Tom. To all the world he was a foreigner and when she later learned of ‘the people in the grass’, Mrs Cole remembered how she had felt clammy with revulsion, some unspeakable truth nibbling at the back of her mind.
On the orphans’ first outing they had taken them to the countryside and allowed them the privilege to wander freely. Tom had returned wide-eyed with excitement, chattering to himself as he smiled. When Mrs Cole pried into the lad’s giddy musings he had told her he had met people living in the grass and that when he grew up he would like to be like them. Afterwards hidden away in his room Mrs Cole had spied him drawing. Pages and pages of bizarre scribbles had littered his desk, with tight clusters of multi coloured spots furiously outlined in deep black crayon. Curiously she asked him what he was drawing. His hand slid over the papers and he fixed her with an intense scrutiny before deciding he would like to share with her. In his high child’s voice he explained how the people living in the grass tasted smell and saw with heat, and he patted the contours of his face with enthusiasm. Mrs Cole could not resist and inquired as to what these people were. Tom slipped out a page from the masses of swirls and pointed to a crude sausage shape, curled slightly with a purple fork sticking out from one end. Mrs Cole had burst out laughing and Tom bolted upright, turning to stare down at his drawing as if it had been wounded. Gently, Mrs Cole explained how snakes weren’t people but animals and how Tom had been silly to think them people. She told him how animals can’t be people because they don’t have souls that only people -real human beings -have souls.
Slowly Tom blinked and then he burst out in his own tinkling laughter, shaking his head. ‘But they make eggs and we make eggs – I came from an egg!’, he had said, and she quietly came to sit on his bed about to extend her hand before she remembered that Tom didn’t like to be touched. ‘No, Tom’, and she began to tell him about his mother and how she had died, and that despite how sad it was not to have family that he was fortunate to live here in Wool’s Orphanage. Mrs Cole asked him to think about all the poor children out there without food or shelter, all the boys and girls without an education or a church to go to and how nice it must be for Tom to have all these things. His blank, unguarded stare encouraged her, and she smiled down at him as his finely lashed eyes batted in confusion. ‘What is dying?’ asked his small voice. His confusion had been evident and Mrs Cole had marvelled at what children did and didn’t know.
She had continued to smile in what she hoped was a warm and motherly way. ‘Do you remember Anabelle, how she wasn’t there after Christmas, how we all gathered in church and how sad we all felt?’ Tom nodded slowly. ‘Well she died. She got sick and the angels came to take her soul up to heaven and left her body behind for us to bury’.
Tom hadn’t looked at her but continued to gaze intently at his desk, asking her, ‘Do angels like snakes?’
Mrs Cole replied bluntly, ‘No.’ Then she remembered how she had faltered before considering, ‘well yes, angels like snakes, god loves all his creatures – just some more than others…’
‘Do you like snakes?’
She remembered how she didn’t answer but that the silence was quickly broken when Tom asked her another question, ‘What happens to people’s bodies after they die?’
Mrs Cole had paused, carefully thinking about how to frame such morose subject for someone so young. She talked about bones, asking Tom to think about the chickens they sometimes ate on Sunday, how when they were finished eating there was nothing left but bones. She remembered how he had sat for a while and she thought she had seen his small lips mouth ‘to nothing’, then suddenly he had blurted out, an insolent ringing in the air - ‘Will I die?’ - and she had replied with the only word she could: Yes.
Mrs Cole never forgot the people in the grass, and she remembered with cold nausea the grotesque hissing noises Tom had made while learning to talk. Her mother had told her tales when she was a girl about changelings, how fairies came to steal people’s babe’s and replace them with their own. In her wilder moments, when she thought she just might believe in ghosts and such, she had wandered if on a dark winter’s morning, lonely in his cot, the real Tom had been snatched -and Mrs Cole half imagined a creature covered in scales, blinking out at the world with silted crimson eyes, its forked tongue wagging in the dark.
But she scolded herself for being so silly and reminded herself that Tom’s sad failings as a boy was down to his gypsy blood. God knew and so had Darwin proved that some blood was better than others. God loved everyone, and those more able had the responsibility to love those less so. The damned were damned either way.
When the boy appeared less strange it was because he had grown more secretive. Long before the event of the strangled rabbit or the trauma of little Amy they had nearly sought the assistance of a psychiatrist. Mrs Cole rarely praised Tom for his character and while others may have applaud Tom for possessing a ‘ fighter’s spirit’ -for always striking back at the older boy’s threatening him in the yard - she saw a delinquent and obdurate child unwilling to accept his place in society. Ever since he was a small boy she had noticed Tom’s desire to conquer, particularly that which inspired fear in him.
She had suspected her revelations about death had had a profound effect on the boy, and watched with unease over the next year as he went about collecting bones, dead insects - once refusing his request to enter the nearby Catholic Church to go look at Jesus as he died on the cross.
One day, alerted by Amy’s screams Mrs Cole came running to find Tom striking furiously out at the girl, daring her to open his bedroom door again. A brisk slap across the face and Tom fell silent. When he was scalded he would usually stare right back at her, quiet with mock deference and rigid with supressed rage. That day his eyes fell to the floor and when Mrs Cole forced him to the side she saw the crumpled form of a dead cat. Its eyelids had been pealed back and its tongue poked from the mouth, its blue-purple glistening with foam. Mrs Cole asked Tom if he had killed the cat and when he replied it was none of her wicked business she had slapped him a second time.
On the night of Tom’s eighth Birthday, years after the conversation concerning his mother, the students and teachers had gathered in the dining hall. All had sat along tables before paintings of various benefactors, which were displayed proudly up high on the wooden walls. New Year’s Eve was a rare exception when they allowed all children past the age of seven to stay awake past midnight. There were already small slices of cake to be eaten, so, after insisting Tom accepted a slim piece, the assembly sung. Tom sat unmoved through the shrill ringing of ‘Happy Birthday dear Tom’. All the children had jeered their words with the exception of little Amy, who had beamed brightly up at him with earnest. When his birthday ended the boy had risen like a monarch from a throne and left the hall in straight-backed silence. Mr Lomax raised his eye brows and the rest continued to drink and eat, chattering over the small assortments of treats the cooks had prepared for them.
Mrs Coal sat with concern for some time. She felt it improper for Tom to miss the community of the years close and had gotten up to walk the long corridors between Tom’s room and the dining hall. Her knuckles came rapping insistently at his door.
When there had been no answer she had knocked harder and finally lost her temper pushing the door hard – but it didn’t give. She remembered how it had opened a fraction and then stopped. Mrs Cole spied the corner of Tom’s bed pushed up behind the door. Furiously she pushed and rammed and when she had finally succeeded breaking the door free, she had stumbled into the small room. Right in front of her puffed and purple, Tom’s face fell from tangles of sheet, pulled taught as his body hung limp. The faded cotton had been tied into a line and looped over the rail across the window.
No one ever talked about the incident after it happened, least of all Tom. They hadn’t needed to call a doctor. She had pulled Tom’s legs up of the floor, untied the knot he had pulled tight from straining and beat his chest until he coughed and spluttered back to life. That night was the first time she had held him since he was an infant. For a moment he had let her, but on finding his strength he had pushed himself from her and she had let him go.
She remembered how furious his thin face had been and watched as he breathed in great gasps of anger. ‘I shall not die’, he had said, ‘death will not beat me!.
Mrs Cole had first thought Tom had meant to kill himself, and then wandered if this outrageous act had been a plea for help or a cry for attention. As ridiculous as his action had been, she had later realised that in some illogical way he had meant to conquer his fear.
Death and the suffering of others was an obsession that had grown with the boy. The two were unanimous. That night in the trembling body and anger of his lost gaze she had understood Tom’s fear of nothing; of not meaning anything. For a second it had affected her, and she, to her shame, had, for a moment, let her faith slip. Mrs Cole had felt the isolation of nothing, of knowing nothing and realised what remained unconquered would return. In a fight he could never win Tom Riddle would be damned, and she, quite honestly, didn’t know if her heart was sorry.