“Friendlies, can I help you?” said Bernice.
A youthful sigh and then, “No. Nobody can.”
“Well, I’m here to listen, anyway.”
“You won’t want to,” said with another sigh.
“Well, go ahead anyway. And if you don’t want to talk to me, that’s fine as well.”
“I just mean, nobody listens to me for long.” Yet another sigh, and then, “OK. I’m good.”
“My name is Bernice. Would you like to tell me your name?”
“I have a little boy called ‘Tommy’.”
“It’s ‘Tom’, not ‘Tommy’. And I’m not a little boy. See, I knew this wouldn’t work.”
“That was my mistake, Tom. It won’t happen again.”
“It better not. Sorry, it’s a sore point with me.”
“Would you mind telling me how old you are?”
“Yes, I do mind. See? You’re doing it again!”
“I’m sorry, Tom. I won’t ask any more questions if you’d prefer that.”
“I guess it’s my fault. I’m not used to talking to people.”
“That’s a shame.”
“You’re telling me.”
“I’m still listening. We have plenty of time.”
“Well, I do. That’s for sure. Don’t know about anyone else.”
“Are you alone? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want.”
“I’m always alone. I always have been, always will be.”
“It can be nice to be alone, sometimes.”
“If you have the choice.”
Bernice decided to try not saying anything.
There was a long pause, then Tom said: “All right. I’ll talk about it. You think I sound young, don’t you? Well, I’m not. You see I have this condition. You know that ageing thing some kids have?”
Bernice was puzzled. She couldn’t help herself, she asked: “Have you got Progeria?”
“No, you dummy,” said Tom. “I was just explaining I sound younger than I am. I’ve got the opposite of Progeria; ‘Antigeria’, or something. Everyone thinks I’m a kid, but I’m not. I stopped ageing at ten years old. I’ll never look any older.”
Bernice just stopped herself from saying something stupid, like — ‘Oh my!’ She decided to say nothing.
“So while you and everyone else wishes you could be like me, I wish I could get old, but I can’t. It’s called, ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’. Heard of it?”
“I can’t say I have,” said Bernice. That’s funny, she thought, they didn’t mention that during the training. She’d raise it at the next group.
“I’m not surprised,” said Tom. “There aren’t many people with it. Not the real PPS. We’re not talking about guys who drive their wives mental playing Doctor Who in some stupid shed, or Batman in the bedroom.”
Bernice could not believe it was a boy saying these words. But then she could not believe that it wasn’t. He sounded like a boy. “I’m sure you realise the problems I have. I’m too old for school, but I can’t get a job. It’s pointless applying for benefits, I don’t even have a National Insurance number. I’ve fallen off the edge of the Welfare State.”
How could he? There were school inspectors and social workers. It was a clear case of neglect. “But how do you live?” she said, trying to sound neutral.
He did not answer.
“How do you eat? How do you survive?”
“I get by,” Tom said, at last.
“There must be someone who can help you,” Bernice said. He was deluded, for sure.
“No one would want to.”
Bernice just stopped herself from saying something unprofessional, like: ‘I would’. Best to let it lie, let him gradually come round.
“No,” he said, again. “See, I’m not human. I’m a monster. I need to be killed.”
This boy is disturbed, thought Bernice. Then she checked herself. I shouldn’t be judging him. I don’t know all the facts.
“It’s OK,” said Tom. “I’ll have to go, anyway. I’m in a call box and I’ve no more money.”
“Look,” she said, “Don’t go. We’re just around the corner. Why not call in on us? Then we can have a proper chat.” The friendlies often asked ‘difficult cases’ to call round for a chat. And Bernice was curious about this strange, lonely little boy. If he was a boy? Well, that was one of the things she was curious about.
“I shouldn’t, really,” he said.
“Why not? You needn’t stay long, but we can talk face to face.”
Tom sighed. “You wouldn’t want to, really,” he said. “I told you. I’m a freak. I’m a monster. You wouldn’t like me if you saw me.”
Was he disfigured in some way? she wondered. “Why not give me a chance,” she said. “We could be friends. That’s what ‘The Friendlies’ are all about.”
There was a long pause before he spoke. “OK,” he said, and hung up.
Strange, she thought. And he was such a… well, creepy sounding little boy with a fertile imagination.
The knock on the door made her jump. He was nearer than she’d thought.
She opened the door and there he was; in a smart suit, with short cropped hair and rosy cheeks.
See, he was a little boy after all.
“Come in and sit down.”
He stepped inside.
“Would you like something to drink?” Bernice said. “Coffee, or tea?”
“No thank you.”
“No thank you.”
“You were about to tell me how you survived without any money.”
“Oh, I have money,” he said.
“So, where does it come from?”
“People,” he said.
“You mean you beg?”
“No,” he shrugged. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Do you steal it?”
“Not really. I find it. People drop it and I pick it up.”
“That sounds like you do steal it,” she said, trying to sound casual, non judgmental — and failing.
“I warned you,” Tom said.
“I said I was a monster,” Tom explained, patiently. “I said that I don’t get any older. But I only take stuff that isn’t needed anymore.”
“Stuff that isn’t needed?”
“Gee, you’re dumb,” he said. Such a rude little boy. Then he added: “That’s one thing, I won’t feel so bad, when…” His voice trailed off.
“When what?” said Bernice.
“What do you think? You asked how I survive, what I eat? Well, I don’t have to eat. That’s the one thing I don’t have to do. I told you, I don’t get any older. But you will. And that’s why I don’t have any friends. That’s why I can’t get a job or get handouts from the government, or food from a soup kitchen, or any of the other things you’re thinking of. And I don’t creep up on people and bite their necks, or tear their throats out. I don’t have to. Just put me in a room with someone, and I don’t have to do anything.”
He stepped closer.
And then Bernice felt fear for the first time.
“You had to know, didn’t you, Bernice? All that training for this pitiful befriending service, and you couldn’t resist trying to find out about me.”
He took another step, and she looked into his eyes. They were not the eyes of a little boy. “Well, here I am, Bernice,” he said, and his little tongue flicked out as he spoke. “You feeling weak, all of a sudden, Bernice? Is your eyesight getting blurry?”
She stood up, and immediately, she felt dizzy. Yes, everything was a blur.
“Maybe you feel the life draining out of you?” he said. “Well, I did warn you. I don’t have to do anything, not even raise a finger.”
She sat down again. And now raw terror flooded through her, at last.
“You feeling faint now, Bernice? Nearly done. In a second or two you’ll pass out. And then, when they come round to lock up the building, all they will find is a little pile of white powder on your chair…”