Thomas Murdock rode down the steepest hill in our very steep city on a skateboard. He was sat toes forward and ass down as he slammed uncontrollably into the bumper of a parked car. An exhaust pipe pierced his shin skin and drove through his tibia. We were young and none of us knew what direction was.
When we were in secondary school, Thomas decided it would be a good idea to set Matthew Peterson’s hair on fire with a Bunsen burner during science class. Matthew would always give me some of his twenty pence gummy sweets during Math class. He never washed, and in all honesty smelt like shit. That wasn’t his fault though, he was kind, and he was my friend.
I sat with him for two years by the window, next to an old white radiator which the janitor could never control the heat of, especially throughout June when the temperature peaked and the insignificance of long division to unruly 12-year-olds became ever more apparent.
I didn’t see it happen but I do remember the intoxicating smell in that old antique science lab, week-long unwashed hair freshly set alight. I know now looking back, that there is something extraordinarily wrong with the management of a school that fails to see how damaging this could be and only temporarily excludes a child for a week for setting another child’s hair on fire.
I would see Thomas from time to time many years later and be given little hints that he was unable to find direction. Sometimes, I would see him board morning buses, with a can of strong cider in hand. Later he would still have the can, whilst shouting at his children.
I never kept in touch with Matthew but he had a kind heart. I presume that like so many of my friends he slipped through the cracks and probably ended up being replaced by a self-service checkout counter. I do remember that at some stage, towards the last years of school, Matthew would just hang around alone at lunch. Chewing on those sweets. All of that early sense of friendship we knew, which sprouted from being in a new place together and naturally wanting to talk and share was ruined when I had to start looking out for myself by not walking across a field of intimidation with a friend who, through no fault of his own, attracted trouble.
The thought of this makes me truly sad, that Thomas who was once my friend too, turned into something so unruly and unlikeable because the support just wasn’t there. I couldn’t do anything to help and this was a terrible way to learn how not to behave. The lack of direction propagated trouble, and it left us silenced and confused in the face of horrific bullying.