A boy like Tommy Sloane

It was before the thunder and lightning that word went out – the boy Tommy Sloane is missing – but with the rain and the wind coming, well, even if they wanted to go there was Tim Spivey’s voice at the end of the phone reminding them there was no good reason to risk life and limb at this stage. Then the wind blew up and those who hadn’t shifted their piles of rotting leaves watched them lift and scatter, all that debris collected and dispersing because none of them could muster a thing inside them to move it before now. They’d meant to clean up but then there were the fires on the edge of town taking up weeks and levelling all those dwellings so all that was left was the chimneys still gently smoking. After that, the three Wilson brothers driving out by the lake died hitting a burnt-out tree. It was Wren Currington, the postman, who found them, faces up to the trunk, their heads bust open and Mickey, the youngest, with his legs outside the body of the car as if they were waiting for him.

So, it was just Tommy Sloane’s mama who walked into the storm calling out Tommy Sloane, come out right this minute. Tommy Sloane, I swear you better show your face before… but she never said what she was going to do because it was a front and she wouldn’t do anything except rough the back of his strawberry blond hair and push him ahead of her like he was some tiny, amber-coloured lamb.

Tommy Sloane was a wee thing and when he was born, they called him little gumnut because his whole head was hard like a stone and they couldn’t find the spot where you were supposed to be able to stick your finger clean through his skull, as if he was already set before he entered the world. He suckled on his mother but in the end, he stayed thin and so they gave him a bottle, which still didn’t help much except he grew attached to it. Even when he was a lad of seven he kept one in his backpack like a lucky charm, so when his mama found it on the road out to the bay she knew it wasn’t good.

Plenty of people saw her come back in the rain holding the bottle like a babe in her arms and how lightning split a tree dead in her wake so it burned like the hand of God almost laid a finger on her. Tommy Sloane’s brother and sister stood there at the door and watched as soon after the hail spit at them until the paddock was white. Then they took up the ice in buckets and put it in the fridge for Tommy because he always liked to make a snowman and they put the top hat they always stuck on it up on the bench so it was ready.

Tommy Sloane’s sister said is it really a bad one, bad as they are saying. But it was only as bad as they wanted it to be, was what their mama replied. There was no excuse for them not coming out, for leaving their boy out there alone, she said angrily. There was wind for sure. And the rain filled up the gutters and ran itself like Niagara Falls for a full 15 minutes, but then it was done, like it had something to say and that was that, like Tommy Sloane’s daddy who lit the air with smoke and ash when he cracked the shits about something but once he was done, it was forgotten and the fire was out. Not like his mama. She put a grudge under her pillow and left it there like a tooth waiting for a fairy to come and take it.

So they waited and while they did they wished they’d called people cowards for not coming out and didn’t they know a boy’s life was at stake, even if it was a boy like Tommy who wouldn’t have anyone but his family to sit in the first pew of the church to mourn him, not like the Wilson boys where they couldn’t fit everyone in and the football jerseys they’d slung over their heads each weekend lay atop their coffins and the boys that played with them and against them hung their heads. All that show was for them and there wouldn’t be a thing for Tommy Sloane, if that was where it was headed.

So, when the storm finally lifted, sunlight cut the grey clouds in two and the grass in the meadows glowered as if in its bend and sway it was hiding something. Someone at the other end of town put out the call – perhaps now they could go looking for the boy because it wouldn’t look good if they didn’t do something.

But the afternoon light was fading as, in a line, the people from town walked out all the way to the gully where the water in the river now clipped the bitumen. From there they rolled out past the last town house which had been boarded up some two years earlier and had finally lost its roof before they came upon the sodden ploughed fields that nobody could do nothing with for weeks now and what seed had been sowed was done for. Ahead of that lay the bay.

It was hours later, just before dawn, that someone found Tommy’s skiff torn to pieces high on rocks and a crowd of them watched as waves went on punching bits of it at the shore, expecting Tommy Sloane would be washed up too.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "A boy like Tommy Sloane".

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