The boy’s mind lived on a lake. In a big house on a lake. He didn’t see the house as near or next to the lake, but on it. Not floating, just on it. People lived on lakes, after all. Not people like him, to be sure, but people in stories, or people you heard talked about. Pliny had lived on
. He wanted to live
on a lake. And you had to live in a house, everybody did, so the house had to
be on the lake. So his mind lived in a big house on a lake. Lake
At the age of seven Tom was almost entirely mind. He had a body, he was a normal boy, and lived a normal boy’s life, but it was only his mind he was aware of. His mind could do what it liked, and the life his mind lived was by far the most interesting thing about him, even to Tom himself.
He knew the lake intimately. He moved about with confidence. He knew where the waves were, where to find shallow and deep water, where the fish always congregated. He knew the greenness of its borders, the part with rushes, the long grass, the worn place where a boat he never saw had been let down and drawn up over and over again.
It was not an especially large lake. It was as big as it had to be. Oddly enough, despite his detailed knowledge of it, he could not have said exactly how large it was. It didn’t seem to matter. It was very roughly circular, but flattened a little one side, indented on another, and the banks were full of imperfections which Tom thought of as perfections. He was used to talk of imperfections, in paintings mostly, but he always misheard the word and assumed it meant the little things which made something even better.
Usually his mind explored the lake from above, soaring high, at times skimming the surface to dip his hair into the crests of the waves. He rested on it too, and watched the birds in the distance trying to drink without getting their feathers wet, or the reflections of the clouds shimmering and breaking up and reforming in different patterns. The sky was always blue, but there were clouds in the water.
It wasn’t really a swimming lake. He swam when it was hot or he was annoyed about something. His favourite place for swimming was in the shallow water near the bank with the short, soft grass, because then he could lie in it to dry. But sometimes he swam in the deep water right in the middle, just to show it didn’t bother him. Swimming in pools, or in the sea when they went on holiday, he didn’t like very much. His body felt heavy and the water powerful. In the lake it didn’t matter.
He fished sometimes because there were fish to catch. No one else ever came to the lake to fish, or for anything else, so someone had to catch the fish. Tom didn’t use a rod and line, he didn’t know how to. He fished with his mind, relieving the lake of its piscine excess and passing the time happily, being part of it all. He couldn’t have given a name to the fish, they were just fish. Silver things about eight to ten inches long. Shiny, attractive creatures, with a bit of life about the eyes, moving languorously together in a group that never took any form but always seemed about to. The colours changed too, when they turned sideways and the lighter belly was visible. At times they all did it together, and it was as though a lamp had been shone on the water.
He didn’t eat the fish. He didn’t do anything with them exactly. He fished with his mind and they stayed there until they were forgotten. They went wherever fish do go when the fishermen have finished with them.
He knew the house well, too. It wasn’t important, but since there had to be a house he was glad it was a good house, a big one. His body had to live in a house that was much too small, and he didn’t like it at all. There were only the three of them and they kept falling over each other. And there were always visitors, as well. His mother loved guests.
So he liked the house on the lake because it was big and empty. Only his mind lived there, and no one ever came to visit, but the house was always clean and warm, and there was always roast beef and buttered buns whenever he wanted them. It was more or less a low box of light grey stone, with a lot of rooms he didn’t use but liked going into, especially the upper ones which were full of chests overflowing with wonderful objects that you could play with, dress up in or just look at for the sheer pleasure of having them. He found old dolls and cricket bats, lace bonnets and leather trousers, yellowed railway tickets to towns he had never heard of, notes and coins from faraway countries some of which he was sure no longer existed, ornate lamps for hanging on brackets or standing on tables, woollen blankets with initials sewn into them, pocket watches that still ticked if you shook them, hourglasses, single earrings, little tin boxes with pictures on the lid, cases made of calfskin and rubber for keeping things that had now been lost, wooden games that children played with long ago and still had most of the pieces, marbles and conkers, rock cakes so hard they were like real rocks, wigs and false moustaches, dried-up paints and tiny mirrors, plastic binoculars and metal knives with blades for doing a hundred different things, books with stories, magazines with pictures, albums half-filled with stamps or cartoons or newspaper clippings or scribblings in unreadable writing. There was always more to be found, always another passageway, a hidden door, and more treasure beyond.
All the rooms had large windows and a view of the lake. Most had the same view, his favourite one; the foreground speckled with water so close he could see the individual drops, giving way to a more even surface, then just a suggestion of silver-grey and in the background the lively green of the long grass that the birds loved to swoop over and which was always in the sun.
He had tried to explain this, once. To tell them where his mind lived and what this place was like. He had already learnt that it wasn’t a good idea. And it wasn’t just adults who wouldn’t listen; his school friends thought he was strange, too. So now he told no one. People didn’t like to hear things they weren’t expecting, things they had to think hard about to understand. They preferred to believe that they weren’t true.
At that age Tom never questioned the truth of things. Things were or were not. There was nothing to consider, to question, to argue, puzzle or worry about. People did, of course, but he knew that adults were rarely sure of things and were always worried about whether they were right. He knew they doubted themselves from the way they insisted so often that they had behaved correctly, as distinct from whoever they were talking about, who had invariably behaved badly. And they didn’t seem to convince anyone, even themselves. He wondered why this was, and whether he would become like it himself. He hoped he would not, and that he would never forget how to distinguish the truth. The truth is what is. The rest is false.
He didn’t question things but he knew others did not understand even the simplest things, and could not see what was, when it was in front of them, or someone was telling it to them. It was so much easier just to know, but adults liked to complicate things for reasons of their own, and they didn’t listen properly. Other children, children his age, real people, were usually afraid, and didn’t want to listen. So in the end he told no one and his mind shared its house with no one. He found it was better that way. He liked it more. He had wanted to share the house with his mother; he thought she would like it; it was big and probably difficult to keep clean but he would tell her he didn’t mind if it was untidy and a bit dusty. It would have been very agreeable to swim with her in the shallower water where she wouldn’t be afraid, and to fish with her for hours, resting above the water, moving only the eyes until they caught a flash of colour or the streak of motion, then the swift, effortless glide to collect the trophy by the pure exercise of desire.
But he had accepted that it could not be. His mother did not understand, and would never be able to join him. It was a disappointment but one that he had stopped thinking about. He had wondered if his friend Jeremy would share it with him, if only sometimes, but Jeremy had thought it was a game, and had tried to play it. Completely hopeless. Tom had become exasperated and had given up. He still played with Jeremy, in the places his body went, but they could not share the dwellings of their minds. He wondered where Jeremy’s mind lived, and assumed he could never know, any more that Jeremy could know the lake, where now his mind lived alone, and was happy that way.
He took little notice of his body, which was just something he had to carry round with him. He had little need to attend to it since others invariably did. He sometimes felt like eating, but he was never hungry as he was always fed before the feeling became uncomfortable. He was sometimes tired, but he was regularly sent to bed just as his eyes began to close. He was occasionally ill but that didn’t matter because everything stopped then, until he was better. He was used to those who complained all the time about their aches and pains, their likes and dislikes, their whims and appetites as though they expected other people to be interested in these things. Perhaps they were; adults seemed to talk about little else, and they were constantly absorbed in these conversations. Perhaps that was what conversation was; Tom himself had never found any particular use for speech; perhaps he would have to learn to talk about dull matters of no importance all the time, in order to become a proper adult; perhaps he could be a different sort, a better sort, of adult, a new kind. Perhaps he would never be one. He had been a child for ever so long, for as long as he could remember, for ever. He had never seen a child turn into an adult, such a change was outside his experience. Sometimes people spoke of ‘when you grow up,’ usually in respect of some fault they had seen in him which would have to be removed by some mysterious means before he reached that state. Or at times it was to ask ‘what he wanted to be when he grew up.’ He knew this referred to a job. He always said he wanted to be a surveyor, like his father, though he had no idea what his father did, except that when he talked about it it sounded very boring. In any case he didn’t want to grow up and he didn’t want to have to do anything. He had learnt, in this too, not to attempt to tell the truth. He had once said he wanted to be a fisherman, as in the only thing he liked doing that adults did for money. A thousand questions had followed, questions that showed incomprehension, horror, misdirected curiosity, and the inevitable urge to persuade him he was wrong. There was talk, which didn’t include him but didn’t explicitly exclude him either, of finding out what was behind it, of how it was just a phase, of how he would grow out of it, or would respond to reason. Tom understood none of this; only that he had given the wrong answer, and to seek to tell the truth was a serious mistake. So he said his magic word, almost meaningless, in response to this question, and everyone seemed happy with it and no one asked questions.
He disliked being spoken to, partly for this reason. You rarely knew what they expected you to say- to give the wrong answer was to become the centre of all kinds of attention, the wrong kinds. You couldn’t know the right answer, except to the questions that were constantly repeated, and which you learnt to answer through experience. The truth was no guide. They didn’t like the truth. He didn’t understand why this was, because they always demanded the truth, reminded him that good boys told the truth, but it was very clear that they did not want to hear the truth. You had to learn the answer to every question, a complicated task he hoped he could avoid for a long time. His mind was happy on the lake. No one tried to trick him with questions, or with lies.