I drove over to see Thomas’ parents on Saturday morning. I had planned to go Friday evening after work, but by the time I got home, had a hot shower, heated up a microwave dinner, and settled into my armchair by the fire, there was a not hope in Hell of me venturing out again. While streaming numerous episodes of my favorite childhood cartoons, I fell asleep, oblivious to the snow falling heavy outside.
I hated sleeping alone in my bed, so I mostly slept in my armchair. After a day of work and an evening of cartoons, there was little time for any real self-reflection, something I appreciated. Self-reflection on the direction I thought my life was taking caused me nothing but anxiety.
On Friday night, I took Thomas’ advice to help me fall asleep, and left an electronica CD on repeat.
Deep down, I knew these sorts of evenings alone were not good for me. I hadn’t been out in a long time. Six months previous I had broken up with my fiancée of two years, Gemma. We had met down the local one Friday evening, on live-band night. I had been impressed by her knowledge of music, and she found my awkwardness cute. I was nowhere near as awkward as Thomas, but I still struggled around women. I used to always carry gum and a lighter as a pretense for starting an interaction, but I never knew how to follow the laughs and the nods of the first ten seconds. Gemma had become drunk and simply stuck in her tongue in my mouth. When we woke up the next day at her place she wanted to see me again, and the relationship hadn’t really felt like any work after that.
The snow had settled a good half a foot by the morning. All the hedges, trees, and lawns were caked in bright gleaming glistening white snow. Peering out through the kitchen window, holding my coffee mug, I could see the farmers’ fields were also covered, oceans of white, and the boundaries between the fields were no longer visible. A thought about nature being the great equalizer entered my head, but I didn’t feel intellectual enough to develop it.
After breakfast, I put on my green wellingtons and duffle coat, and wrapped my blue and white Chelsea FC scarf around my neck before stepping out into the cold, into the brisk crisp air. The Land Rover’s back wheels spun a little at first getting out of the driveway, although I was soon on my way. I kept to ten miles under the speed limit to avoid sliding off the roads, but I was also in no hurry to see Thomas’ parents.
Did they think it was a bad idea for Thomas to travel, is that why they had his passport? And how did Rachel know Thomas’ parents were holding it, what had she said to them?
I pulled up at their house and parked on the curb in front of the foot high wall that ran between the front garden and the pavement. I had to guess where the curb naturally dipped under the snow so I could get the car up, and I ended up hitting the high end and jolted the car twice as the back wheel followed.
The driveway and the front lawn ran steep down from the pavement to the front door, and I had to be careful not to slip and land on my backside. I found the doorstep with both feet and felt like I’d found dry land.
I rang the doorbell.
Roy opened it and stood aside for me to enter. “Come in, Matthew.”
I kicked my wellington boots on the step to get rid of some of the excess snow and stepped into the warmth of their house. Roy closed the door. “You can leave your boots there, and then just come on through to the living room.”
“Thank you,” I said, straining to pull my foot out from deep down in the rubber. As much as I loved my wellies, they could easily turn into one-sided Chinese finger traps. The first one slid off and took my sock with it.
I had never been inside Roy and Diane’s house before, except to use the bathroom once during the summer cook-out. In the hallway leading from the front door was the same yellow rug that Thomas had in his house. There was even the same mirror framed within the silver Sun on the wall, although there was no phone chair underneath. The wallpaper was floral, and something about the smell made me think that it hadn’t been redecorated in a few years.
I rescued my sock and pulled the other boot from my foot. Just as I hung my coat up, Diane appeared in the doorway to the living room, wearing blue jeans, a gray sweat top, and pale yellow slippers. She had recently dyed her short curly hair a sort of burnt sienna and was still in great physical shape for being in her fifties. “Do you take milk and sugar?”
“Milk, please,” I replied. “No sugar.” I followed her into the room and onto the beige carpet. A few sparkly Christmas decorations were dangling from the ceiling, and a five foot plastic tree stood in a red pot by the living room window, fully decorated with silver and gold baubles. Christmas cards were also hanging over a piece of pink wool that had been tacked to the wall.
Roy was sitting in a white armchair with red and green floral patterns, and his hands hovered over a small gas fire. The settee matched the chair, and I took a seat at the end nearest to Roy. The TV was on, showing a football match between Arsenal and Hull, but Roy had muted the sound. Three painted landscapes hung on the walls around the living room, along with five family portraits, charting the life of Thomas from a baby through to his young adult years.
Diane came back from the kitchen with two cups of tea and handed one to me and one to Roy. “Thank you,” I said, relishing the opportunity to put some heat into my body. “Thanks dear,” said Roy, accepting the cup. She retreated back into the kitchen, and reappeared with her own drink and sat down at the other end of the settee.
“Matthew,” Roy began. “I asked Rachel to get you to come over, because there’re a few things about Thomas that I want you to know before you travel on Monday.”
These words brought some comfort, because I was half expecting him to be opposed to Thomas going, or that he was mad at me for Thomas even being asked to go on this trip.
“Thomas has traveled before,” he continued. “But it wasn’t easy.” At this moment he chose to pause and drink his tea. I looked to Diane, but she too had raised her cup to her lips.
“Why wasn’t it easy?” I asked, looking from one to the other. My colon felt like it had morphed into a python and had begun to squeeze.
“You know that he likes his games,” said Roy. “I would work with that. Tell him that you’re going to do all the talking but his character has to be silent.”
Diane nodded. “If Thomas isn’t in a familiar environment, he finds it hard to put rules to it.”
I’d only ever used games to open up conversation, never to manipulate his behavior. “I kind of know what you mean, but can you just explain?”
“Well, take for example, his house or Hygieia,” she said, lowering her tea into her lap. “When he’s in those places he knows what to expect. And once he knows what to expect he can relax and just get on with being Thomas.”
Roy leaned towards me and raised his voice. “But if he’s not in his house or Hygieia, he doesn’t know what to do, and so it’ll be up to you to give him some rules to follow.”
His words struck deep in my chest. The gravity and responsibility of accompanying Thomas to Aspen seemed immense. Give him rules? I didn’t have authority over him.
“I have to ask,” I said, squirming in my seat, “is this a good idea?” I looked from Diane to Roy. “Like, on a scale of one to ten where one is catastrophic and ten is fantastic, how would you rate the idea of Thomas going on a business trip?”
Roy put his empty teacup down on the floor by his feet. “It’ll be good for him,” he said.
“Six,” said Diane, “No, five,” she corrected.
I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. “Five?” I repeated. “That’s not that good, is it?”
“Don’t worry the lad,” said Roy, leaning over the armrest. “I think it’s great that you’re going. I don’t want to give you the impression that it’ll be easy, because it won’t. But we’ll be really grateful if you go with Thomas and help him to get exposed to more travel and different environments.”
“He does really like you,” added Diane, swirling her cup. “He doesn’t find it as hard to talk to you. If he has to go on a business trip, I’m glad you’re going with him.”
“So, as long as I just give him some rules to go by, he’ll be fine?” I said, fishing for some much needed reassurance.
“And music,” said Diane. “He’ll listen to music for hours, and you won’t hear a peep out of him.”
“Okay,” I nodded, and finished my tea. “Rules and music. Anything else?”
Diane and Roy caught each other’s gaze. At first their faces were blank, but then simultaneously their eyes opened and the color drained from their faces.
I sighed, “Go on then. Let’s have it.”
“Sometimes Thomas likes to make up his own rules,” said Diane. “I have no idea why this happens or when it will happen, but you’ll have to be ready for it.”
“If you think he’s just made up his own rules,” said Roy, “and you can spot this by a sudden change in his expression and a heightened attentiveness to his surroundings, then my advice is to move him.”
This was getting crazy. “Move him?” I asked. “Where?”
“Preferably away from people. Like into your hotel room.”
I felt like a rug had been pulled out from under me, and I was tumbling arse over tit. “Why, does he become dangerous?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“Oh, no,” reassured Roy. “It’s just he might attract the attention of law enforcement.”
Before I could digest this, Diane continued. “There was one time at this zoo, in France. It was a very busy day and the zoo had many visitors. Thomas was listening to his Walkman and strolling with us between the animal exhibits. People were filming and taking pictures of the animals, you know, laughing and joking, and having a good time. Then all of a sudden, Thomas got it in his head that he had to take pictures of all the humans visiting the zoo.”
This I had not expected. “What?”
“He took his camera,” said Roy, “and ran around the zoo snapping shots of all the visitors. Some were amused by this, but others weren’t, especially the parents of young children, who thought Thomas was some sort of creep. The police were called, and by the time we caught up with Thomas, two French policemen were trying to restrain him.”
“You’re joking?” I asked, stunned.
“It took a long time to explain to them that Thomas is different, and that he didn’t mean any harm or offence. We had to turn the SD card of the camera over to the police, but they eventually let him go.”
Diane laughed abruptly, before returning to her tea in nostalgia.
“O-kay,” I said, feeling unnerved. “I’ll try to keep a look out for any sudden changes in his attitude.”
Roy picked up his teacup and stood up. “You can always give us a call, if you’re worried. You’ve got our number, haven’t you?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Good. If you’re really worried, call day or night, it doesn’t matter.”
“I appreciate that, thank you,” I said, handing Roy my cup, too. He disappeared into the kitchen.
Diane stood up. “Let me go and get you Thomas’ passport,” she said, and left the room.
I sat alone on the couch. I wasn’t even sure what I was thinking, I just felt a growing negativity in my bowels. Determined not to give it too much thought, I reached over and took the TV remote from Roy’s armchair and put the sound back on for the last five minutes of the football game.