Hi everyone! This is a little exploration of how I imagined Tom Riddle's childhood might have looked like. It nagged at me and wanted to be written, so here it is. A part of it is taken from another story of mine, Hypocrisy.
I know that Tom Riddle is often portrayed as a quite disturbing child, but I can't agree with that fully...in my opinion, he couldn't have been completely evil as a child- growing up in an orphanage in the 30s can't have been fun. So here's my attempt at him. Please tell me what you think! And I am sorry for any mistakes, English is not my first language :-) If they make you scream then please tell me! :) Rated T for the conditions at the orphanage and for some twisted thoughts from Tom.
Disclaimer: There are a few references to Adam Smith, Rudyard Kipling and a few lines from Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, as well as of course the character of Tom Riddle, which I absolutely claim no ownership to.
It was a cold winter this year and the horses hitched up to the rickety cart were stomping their hooves agitatedly, each harsh snort leaving white clouds in the frigid air. It was so cold that their fur was coated with thin ice layers and small icicles hung from the hair around their snouts. They were two thin, stringy creatures – underfed and badly-cared-for, yet the same could be said about their owner, a shivering man with a thin coat and an unhealthy pallor who stood next to the cart, rubbing his bare red hands.
But then, this winter there were many malnourished horses and people such as this man. Ever since the Great Crash had hit the American stock market in the late Twenties, a recession had broken out that had swapped across the Atlantic Ocean and was now well into its sixth year in the United Kingdom.
Politicians with bowler hats and monocles spent their time trying to find a solution for this dilemma, but they were of little concern to the thin man who still stood there next to his horses, awkwardly scratching his balding heat underneath his tartan-patterned cap. He was pondering the meagre revenue he had made that day, collecting rags in exchange for petty wares of all sorts and shapes. But people had told him they were not interested in them because it was a cold and long winter and they needed the rags to plug holes in window frames.
Exhaling harshly, the ragman wondered how he would scratch up the pennies needed to feed the horses, let alone him, on the next day. He let his weary gaze wander up the street- the narrow red brick houses, people who looked sadder each day- "Aye, 'tis a harsh world, 'tis, Moll-" he finally told the horse right next to him, patting its stringy brown fur. But when he looked to the right, along the cloth-covered cart and let his gaze wander farther, he let out a string of curses. Thieves!
Two little filthy boys, one pale as snow and black-haired wearing some kind of grey uniform clothes that the ragman vaguely recognised and another one with red hair and freckles, clambering out of the back of the cart, running away with some of his silver buttons! Little devils.
He willed his old legs to move forward and ran after them, incensed, swinging a cane- "Ye wait, ye little bastards! Ye wait 'til me catches ye!"
But to no avail and the ragman didn't stand a chance against the long pale legs of the two boys. Panting, they huddled together in a back alley, pressed into the shadows of an entrance, watching as the ragman ran past them on the main street, nearly losing his equilibrium in the snowy slew as he shouted obscenities at the top of his lungs.
Once he was gone, the red-haired boy took the other's elbow. "Come along," he said confidently and led the other farther into the maze of back alleys and finally into a back yard. A heavy-faced woman in her forties in a long black dress carrying a basket with laundry to a cellar entrance sighed as she caught sight of them.
"It's you again, Jack, isn't it? Who'd you bring along this time?"
"It's me, Miss Margaret," the red-haired boy who looked to be about twelve years, confirmed with a cheeky grin on his dirty face. "This is Tom. He's from the orphanage."
Miss Margaret Thompson let her weary gaze flit over the pale boy, who was holding her gaze defiantly. Grey uniform clothes, thin grey gloves and threadbare boots. A too-thin face with earnest blue eyes that looked far too old for a child, but she had seen her fair share of those in her time. Finally she sighed.
"I s'ppose you lot don't get much to eat there either, don't you? Well, there is some porridge left in the kitchen. Be sure to clean the bowls when you lot are done." She let out another heavy sigh and put the basket with the laundry down, adjusting her heavy knot of black hair resting at the nape of her neck. "Ye haven't been stealing again, Jack, have ye?"
"No, Miss Margaret," Jack said innocently and hid the silver buttons behind his back. "Of course not."
She sighed and picked the basket up again, carefully making her way down the slippery cellar stairs. "I don't know why I put up with you, Jackie lad."
The boy, Jack, merely grinned and told his companion gamely: "It's because she loves me, really." Tom, the younger and paler boy next to him, was silent and followed Jack without a word into a small kitchen. On an immaculately-cleaned ancient hearth was a blackened pot filled with porridge.
Jack, obviously familiar with the kitchen interior opened a wooden cupboard at the back of the room, fetching two metal bowls and two spoons. After he had poured the porridge into the bowls, he handed one to the boy and motioned to a rickety table in the middle of the room.
"Take a seat." When they finally sat, Jack released a huge sigh and dug into the porridge. "Now that's what I call life."
Tom eyed him doubtfully, but ate his porridge just as greedily.
"You don't get much there, do you?" Jack inquired, pushing the sleeves of his overly-long coat back so they wouldn't fall into his food.
"Miss Cole says that money is tight," Tom reiterated dully, as if he had been asked this particular question too often already. "She says that we should be grateful some rich gents are giving us some money so we can have one meal a day, as meagre as that might be."
"Nonsense," Jack exclaimed. "You should come with me."
"And what," Tom retorted, a hint of defiance colouring his formerly emotionless voice now, "live on the streets like you do? Steal and beg? Be spat upon by the entire City? Miss Margaret can't always be so big-hearted, now can she?" He motioned to their surroundings with his spoon. "It certainly doesn't look as if she were doing so well herself, I bet."
"Bloody hell, Tom," Jack commented, "sometimes you sound like the grown-ups do. You don't live much better than us. Only difference is that you got yourself a fixed place to sleep every night."
"It's unjust!" Tom exploded suddenly and strangely enough, the candle flickering faintly in the corner suddenly fell over, as if moved by some violent gust of air. The table shook slightly. Jack looked around apprehensively. Without acknowledging his panic, Tom went on angrily. "I see those rich little boys with their Dads and Mums every day. With their warm mittens and warm coats and perfect shiny shoes. Why are they better than we are? We look the same. Only they are a bit cleaner."
"Just get used to it, Tom," Jack sighed. "Ever since I knew you you've been going on about that. Trust me. It won't change."
"You would know that," Tom snorted, "because you are so much older and smarter, right?"
"Three years," Jack replied airily, "they make all the difference."
Tom laughed, a sound rarely heard on the brooding, quiet boy and Jack grinned over the table at his friend.
"Come on, now, Tom," he cajoled, "places to go. We gotta lose those buttons, no? I know just the place where we might get the promise of a hot meal for them."
Icy chills swept across the street and whirled up freshly-fallen snow that had not yet been sullied by the cars and carts on this early London morning. The snow bit into the cheeks of the few people that were outside at this early hour and many of them huddled deeper into their dark coats, mumbled swears escaping some of them past chapped bloodied lips.
Tom bit his lip so hard that he could taste blood and swung his gaze again to the stately Manor whose entrance gate he was currently standing in front of. This was all part of the bet he'd entered with Jack and he definitely wasn't going to lose it. Tom had never liked losing. So there he was, standing in the wee hours of dawn in front of one of the most sumptuous estates in all of Mayfair, London.
This had been part of the bet because when asked where said bet should take place, Jack had smiled a shark-like grin: "Mayfair. Pick any house you like, pick anything you like. But you have to prove that it is from one of castles of those haves."
So here he was, on this unfriendly December morning, the cold making him feel colder and colder the longer he stood there motionlessly. Eventually, he reached a decision. There was an imposing black iron gate surrounding the property, but Tom was a good climber and he took care not to hurt his legs on the sharp metal tips of the gate when he climbed over it.
The metal rods were freezing and his unprotected hands reddened, while the tips of the fingers began to spout blood when he had arrived on the ground at the other side. Tom quickly sneaked away from the unprotected area in front of the stately grey house where everyone who dared to look past the heavy velvet curtains covering most of the windows would immediately see him and cowered down in the snow behind a hut that appeared to be something like a garden shed.
He pressed his fingers in the snow, so hard that it hurt, but the pain was bad enough that it overpowered both the pain from the cold and his bleeding fingers. Then, when his head was clear, Tom thought.
Jack had told him to bring something that clearly proved that he had got it in one of the houses. A bet, he'd said and he'd laughed, telling Tom that if he proved himself they could make a lot of money and maybe have a decent warm meal this Christmas, not stale bread and leftovers collected by the City Charity organisation.
Tom had thought about joining Jack and the homeless boys before- it seemed better than the orphanage where everyone hated him anyway, but then he thought about sleeping in house entrances and being chased by the Bobbies- it sure was not such a tremendously cheerful thing like Jack would have him believe.
Tom liked Jack. Jack was bigger and stronger than Tom, he could have easily hurt him, but he hadn't. The bigger boys in the orphanage liked to pick on the younger ones- they needed to ascertain who the leaders were. They picked on Tom an awful lot. Tom knew he was different. He was special, not like them, those boys with the well-mended clothes yet the empty look in the eyes. He did not cry at night for his Mum like even some of the older ones did. They all couldn't do the things he could do- he could make closed doors open. Talk to snakes. Make people hurt who had hurt him.
He had been awed, had even run to talk to Miss Cole about it, when he had been younger and had first discovered he could talk to snakes. Looking back, he realised it had not been a smart decision for Miss Cole had made him wash his mouth out with the dreaded curd soap and had scolded him not to tell lies. So he had never said anything else about his ability again. Most of the time he couldn't control it though- it happened when he was really angry. The week before he'd made a window explode…not that he'd meant to, really, but William who had sat right beside said window had said very crude and unfriendly things about Tom's parentage…
Tom didn't really know his parents, but he knew that they had to have been great people. They must have been Lords…and then there had been this terrible family tragedy, leaving his father dead and his mother selling her last jewels to keep them alive. Then she had come to the orphanage and she had tried to hold on for him, but the winter had been too hard and the birth too strenuous…so she'd died. She had been a real Lady, beautiful and kind and she had loved him. She had loved her son. So much. No matter what Miss Cole had said, the one time he'd asked. "She was such a weak creature, your mother. Not very pretty. You don't take after her. She died of a broken heart, I wager, didn't have enough strength to hold on- not even for you."
Tom's heart lurched when he thought of it. It was not true! Miss Cole was a liar and he hated her! His mother had loved him. She must have. His father would have loved him too. They had both been special, just like Tom was now. He would show Miss Cole and the others that he was special. They would all see, all, all, all….
Biting his teeth down on his tongue, Tom thought again about Jack.
Jack didn't know that Tom was special. He had never told him.
Jack had been nice to him and Tom didn't want to lose that. Deep inside he was scared to see the same disgusted and fearful look on Jack's freckled face that the other children in the orphanage wore.
No, Tom would not tell Jack.
But there was no harm in using his abilities for his good now, was there? He stood on his tiptoes and gazed through a frost-crusted window into the garden shed. The pale blue light of morning allowed him to make out a few things inside- mostly garden tools…but then he saw it. His breath hitched.
A bicycle. Not one of those rickety old things that the old woman from opposite the orphanage owned, Mrs. Hurst, who complained about it every time she rode it- no.
A real bicycle.
Its frame was silver and it gleamed even in the dim light through the window.
Tom pressed his nose against the window, unawares that he was even doing so in an effort to get even closer.
He had never had a bicycle.
The only things he owned were his two grey sets of clothes and a nicer, black set for the holidays, plus an edition of "Brehm's Life of Animals" – a huge book with faded golden letters on the cover- and a small straw bear that he hid underneath his pillow because he was too old for it.
But he'd never had something as wonderful and exciting as a bicycle and here it was, put aside in an old garden shed.
Those people didn't even need it, did they?
Tom felt a righteous burst of anger. He was sure the people living in this house got to eat delicious casserole every day and meat every weekend.
They probably had enough money to buy a hundred bicycles.
A decision formed in his head. He would steal the bicycle. Maybe they didn't even need to sell it for a hot meal on Christmas. Maybe he could ride the bicycle and Jack could sit on the pannier rack- they could go all the way to the River with that bike and back without taking too much time and without Miss Cole suspecting a thing! So caught up was he in his excitement that he failed to see the small figure in the blue dress, as pale as a ghost, who had been watching him from the house.
Instead, Tom crept to the door of the garden shed. It was locked, but that did not deter him. He concentrated on all the taunts and evil sneers aimed his way in the orphanage, on all the hate that had accumulated in him over the years and stared intensely at the door. It clicked open. Tom could barely restrain himself from a whoop of glee.
Forgotten was the cold, the injustice and even Miss Cole's announcement that the entire orphanage had to go to early evening mass service today.
Tom was about to run inside and snatch the bicycle, when a high voice interrupted him.
"You shouldn't do that."
Tom felt a nasty feeling of shock run through his veins, like ice water. He turned slowly.
Standing there facing him was a girl of his age in a pale blue dress. She was of a pallid complexion and her head was crowned by two blond braids reaching in an orderly fashion to her waist. Light green eyes watched him in a shrewd manner.
Deducing that she was alone, Tom laughed. "You're just a little girl, how would you stop me?"
"I'll scream," she said nonchalantly.
Tom felt another nasty jolt go through him. He poured as much menace in his voice as he possibly could and hissed: "You don't who you are dealing with."
"You are from Wool's orphanage."
That threw him for a loop and he could say with absolute certainty that he had rarely been as surprised as in that moment.
"Why would you say that?"
The girl turned away from him and looked back to the grey Manor behind them.
"Your clothes give it away. My Mum took me in the summer to a picnic in Hyde Park. Your orphanage was there and you sang carols. My Dad gave you money."
Tom felt an immediate burst of anger and humiliation and grabbed the girl's arm harshly. It was very thin beneath the layers of blue silk.
"You –" he started but the girl cut him off.
"Even if you don't steal anything, you are going to be in trouble. The gatekeeper is going to arrive any minute now and he will hear my screams."
As if on cue, the entrance gate swung open with a nasty sound and a black Ford rolled inside. It was an old model, not as modern as the ones Tom had seen standing on the street sides on his way here this morning, it rather looked as if it had been built at the beginning of the Twenties. A balding man in his fifties shut the car door with a bang and got out.
He was wearing a flat dark cap and a long dark coat. The man spat in his bare hands and rubbed them together, swearing quietly before catching sight of them and looking quite apologetic.
"Miss Mary, what are you doing outside at such an ungodly hour already? Who is your friend?" He gave Tom an unfriendly, deeply suspicious look, staring at his shabby clothing.
"My piano lesson is earlier today and I wanted to catch some air beforehand," the girl at Tom's side explained airily, "and this, Mister Jenkins, is a friend of mine. He visits me today as part of Daddy's charity project. You can ask him about him if you like." She raised her little chin haughtily.
The gatekeeper raised his hands and gave a false wide grin. "Of course I believe you, Miss Mary. I'll be off then. Have a nice time with your friend."
Mary waited until he had climbed the narrow staircase leading to a side door in the Manor that Tom saw only now and then she grabbed his hand and pulled him back behind the garden shed.
"What now?" he asked testily.
She gave him a wide grin. "I am Mary," and she stuck out her white hand. "How do you do?"
Tom didn't take the proffered hand, but he gave the girl a cold look. "What do you want?"
"This is not a proper way for a gentleman to introduce himself," Mary scolded.
"Now give me your hand, say your name, and tell me where you are from and what you want here."
Tom decided to lie.
"My name is Harold Jones, I am from Green Fields orphanage- not Wool's orphanage- and I wanted to steal the bicycle."
"You lie," she told him bluntly and shook her head. The braids flew from one side to the other. "What if I give you the bicycle?"
When Tom continued to stare at her mutely, she continued: "We make a deal. You tell me your name and you promise me that you are going to return. I give you the bicycle and promise not to tell a soul. No one is going to miss the old thing anyway. "When Tom stayed silent, she added a snide "And please don't tell me you're not from Wool's Orphanage. It's written on your coat."
Tom looked down on the coat. In very small letters it said underneath his breast pocket "Wool's Orphanage." He smiled crookedly, recognising her wit. "You are sharp, I'll give you that. But why would you give me the bicycle?"
Mary glared at him. "I'll tell you after you shake my hand and introduce yourself properly."
Tom was tired of this game. "Tom Riddle, at your service," he muttered sarcastically, shaking her hand. "Now what?"
"You are awfully impolite," she tsked.
Tom smirked while she glared at him. "Now for my part of the deal," she continued sweetly, "I want to learn how to be like you."
Again he hadn't expected that. "What?"
"You should say: Beg your pardon," she informed him, then repeated: "I want to learn how to be like you. You are special."
Tom shook his head. "You are crazy," he said matter-of-factly.
Mary scoffed at him and went over to the door of the garden shed, wrenching it open unceremoniously, her dress swinging in soft blue circles. "That door was locked."
"You're crazy and you're imagining things," Tom told her.
"No. It was locked. Dad locked it yesterday evening and I watched him."
"Oh you watched him!" Tom mocked. "Did you now?"
She glared at him for a moment, the pale green eyes shooting daggers, and then threw her hair back in a manner suitable for a film diva- but certainly not for a little girl.
"You will return," she told him, "and you will tell me your secret! In the meantime, wait here. I got something for you."
Tom watched in silence as she departed without another word and ran up to the house.
He did think about running away right there and then, but his pride and good reason forced him to stay put.
This girl was cunning, almost up to a level where he could acknowledge her and that meant something. If she knew he was from Wool's Orphanage she could use it to hurt him. Tom liked scheming; he liked it more than anything else and as such he recognised others' schemes fairly quickly. The cold had returned with a vengeance though and an icy gust of air made him shiver.
The girl, Mary, returned in a matter of minutes, carrying what seemed to be a huge tome.
"This is for you," she said casually and dumped the tome in his hands.
Tom nearly cried out in pain as the book's weight was dropped into his mangled and sensitive hands.
He bit his tongue for he was not about to show weakness in front of her, then took the book. "What is it?"
"It's called Oliver Twist," Mary replied in a hush, as if it was a secret. "It's been written by a man called Charles Dickens. You might like it."
Tom stared at the book in his hands and only looked up again when something gleaming and silver in the slowly changing light of dawn caught his attention.
Mary had dragged the bicycle from the garden shed and was now watching him imperiously.
"Take it," she announced, holding the bicycle out to him. "If you are not back here on Wednesday morning, I will know where to find you. You will get in trouble and I will tell everyone that you are a thief."
Tom stared at her and then at the bicycle. Temptation began to unfurl in his stomach, making the gnawing feeling of hunger that was always there a little more poignant.
"What if I don't take the bicycle and don't return?"
She smiled at him very slowly. There was a strange glint in her eyes. "Then I will tell my Daddy that you came into our property without the proper al-lo-wance." Mary dragged the last word out.
"Fine," Tom ground out, annoyed at having been bested by a girl. But when he thought about the implications of her words and remembered the welts on his back left by the cane of the Minister some months ago, he knew what intelligence dictated.
"Now go," she made a shooing motion with her hand. "Before everyone wakes up."
Tom was quick to follow this time. After he had rounded a corner he tried the bicycle out. When he did attempt to mount it though, he first took a good tumble into the snow. Spluttering he came to his feet quickly, feeling foolish and vowed to practice first. No matter how much the encounter with the girl had left him feeling at odds, he couldn't help but allow a small smile to spread across his face as he grasped the handles of the bike.
Later, sitting on the stairs in front of the orphanage, having hidden the bicycle away, Tom fingered the cover of the book. It was a nice cover, even with pictures of people on the front. OLIVER TWIST it said in golden lettering, reminiscent of his own book up in his room. There were some other books in the orphanage, gifts from well-meaning rich people- books that all the other children had long since deemed as boring, but Tom had read them all.
Books about long-dead authors, books about economists and their thoughts about demand and supply, history books- he did not understand everything yet, but he liked tracing the black letters that made up the words with his fingers. Some things he did understand though- "'The poor man … is ashamed of his poverty", as stated by one Adam Smith. Tom could understand that. He didn't like having next to nothing, but he had long since vowed to change that when he was older.
He was special and he would show them all.
On rare days, new books arrived or the new arrivals brought books with them from their home. They soon learned that there was no private property in the Orphanage. The older boys who also liked to hurt Tom soon showed them. Sometimes, though, Tom got to read a few of the books and he had read with baited breath about adventures taking place in a different world. Lying in his bed at night he stared up at the grey ceiling and imagined walking the green tea fields of China, swimming through the African rivers and climbing the wild expanses of the Rocky Mountains in the United States of America!
But reality set in too soon, mostly in the form of a wet rag to the face and a cruel "Wake up, Tommie boy! Wouldn't want to see you miss this bright day!"
This book though… he hadn't read. Of course he had heard about Charles Dickens, but none of his books had ever been among those of the new arrivals. The rich gents who gifted them with books usually didn't hold Dickens's books about the working class in high appraisal either.
Tom tucked his legs underneath him and thought of the girl, Mary. She had not given him the book because she was benevolent and she had certainly not given him the bicycle out of the sheer kindness of her heart.
She had given him those things because she expected something of him in return. That, Tom could understand. He knew those giving-receiving kinds of relationships well. But the little Miss Mary didn't know who she had taken it up with this time. He would not be made use of. But maybe, for now…and his look dropped again to the book…could he use it to his advantage.
Slowly, he opened the book.
But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once- a parish child- the orphan of a workhouse- the humble, half-starved drudge- to be cuffed and buffeted through the world- despised by all, and pitied by none.
As soon as he had read that sentence, Tom was hooked.
"I don't see why we can't sell it, Tom," Jack ground out impatiently. He was again stroking the frame of the bicycle in awe. "We would get real money for it- we could have roast turkey and Christmas pudding on Christmas." He looked excited.
Tom didn't reply because he was busy trying to find the words to describe what was fluttering around in his mind- with this bike, they could go explore the whole city, go even further, race through Hyde Park- go faster than everyone else and forget about Misses Coles and Orphanages and stew and hunger- see only blue skies and sunshine. He took the newspaper that Jack had been looking at prior to his arrival up and stared at the pictures of a moustached man, attempting to divert the attention of his friend until he could find the proper words for his feelings about the bicycle.
"Who is that?"
"Some politician from Germany called Hitters or something. They compare him with the other man from Italy."
"Hitler," Tom corrected automatically and when Jack looked at him in surprise, he elaborated: "I've heard about him in the Newsreel. Miss Cole takes us to watch it every Sunday. We get free entry." He frowned and shook his dark head. "Do you think he will come and attack London? They seem to think he is a danger." He pointed at the newspaper.
"I don't know," Jack replied impatiently and swiped a dirty hand through his fiery locks. "But if he does, we won't be missed if they get to us. Orphans and Street Boys are hardly people that count. So we should make the best of everything and sell that bloody bicycle."
"Let's wait for a few more days, Jackie," Tom cajoled.
"Fine," Jack gave in. "But we will talk about this again."
Tom didn't heed that last sentence; he was too busy beaming widely at his friend.
"Come now," Jack said, "You want to try it?"
Tom scowled. "I can't," he admitted. "I fell off last time."
Jack grinned at him. "I'll show you." Tom was able to go for a few rounds in the backyard they were situated in with Jack holding the handlebar and guiding him. After some time, he was able to go by himself, albeit wobbly. Things were so much quicker that way! In a show of unrestrained wantonness, Tom let go of the handlebar and let out a shout of glee.
"You have to concentrate harder then!"
Mary's long braids danced from side to the other as she shook her head angrily. "I am trying, Tom, why can't you see that?"
"Well, you are obviously not trying hard enough," Tom shot back. True to his word, he had returned to the Manor.
Half of him had entertained the notion that Mary might simply have forgotten about their meeting but alas, she had not. He had been attempting to teach the girl about what he could do for about the last hour, but to no avail. Part of him knew why it was that she could not do the same things like him. She was not special enough. The same part rejoiced at the thought that he was the only one who was special, but a different part of him rejected that idea.
Being special and knowing it was one thing, being alone with that knowledge was the other.
Mary eventually gave up trying to open the door of the garden shed with her mind and without much ado, plopped down on the little bench behind the garden shed next to Tom. For a while they were both silent. Tom shivered; the weather had only got colder in the last days. Additionally, to the snow and cold, a thick impenetrable fog had arisen, covering the streets of London with a white blanket. A faint drizzle had come up as well. Tom drew his knees to his chest.
"Have you read the book?" Mary asked.
"I am about halfway through," Tom replied carelessly.
"I imagine it's a big adventure, isn't it?" At Tom's inquiring look, the girl continued quickly.
"Living so free like you do, like Oliver Twist does. You don't have to follow rules and regulations all the time. You can get dirty all you want and if you want to play in the mud no one tells you to stop."
"Free?" Tom scoffed. "Playing in the mud? I will surely get lots of blows if I try that! How little you know." He thought of the Minister and his belt and cane, shivering some more.
Mary peeked at him from underneath her fingers. "I am never allowed to play with other children," she said sadly. "Mum says they are all not good enough for me because they belong to the lower class."
Tom had no idea what he could possibly say to that, so he remained silent.
"My Dad is different though," Mary continued and she perked up suddenly. "He says that he loves me. He said that he loves all children."
A happy grin stole on her face as she jumped to her feet. "I got to return inside for my Latin lessons now, Tom. This is for you."
With these words she pushed a few pence in his cold hand. Tom refused to take them.
"Is this some kind of trick?" he asked, his eyes narrowed.
"No," Mary assured him, looking bemused. "It's a gift. From a friend to another. They tell us in church to be good. So I am being good."
Tom shrugged and eventually pocketed the money, but he vowed to stay away from the Orphanage as long as he possibly could on this day, if it was a trick.
Miss Cole didn't know of his trips to the outside world, she just assumed that he was in the house somewhere, reading, and Tom wasn't about to let her know that he had found a way out via the rainwater down pipe long ago.
Mary was set to go and Tom got to his feet as well. "You've got to return on Monday," Mary reminded him and the imperious tone of voice was back. Out of the sudden she came very close to his ear. "Maybe you can be my Oliver Twist."
Then she turned around and ran to the Manor, long braids bouncing on her back. Tom watched her go and turned to climb back over the entrance gate. Her own personal Oliver Twist? What could she have meant? When he was at the end of the street, he glanced back.
Mary's house seemed to tower over all the other houses in the street, which were by no means small either. Tom couldn't help but wonder if it was so much fun to be living in such a cold large house without being able to go outside any time. He doubted very much that Mary had a rainwater downpipe she could slide down on.
The coins jingling in the pocket of his threadbare trouser pocket made thoughts of Mary go away. A small smile quirked the corners of his mouth- he couldn't wait to tell Jack! They'd have something to eat today for sure.
Tom was in a good mood as he returned to the orphanage that day. He even smiled at Miss Cole, who looked at him suspiciously. Even from her alcohol-induced stupor she knew that Tom smiling was never a good sign. But Tom wasn't about to do anything to anyone.
A few weeks passed and with them came regular visits to Mary, from which he always returned with a few coins.
After a visit to Mary, on one of the cold days in late December on his way back to the orphanage, Tom first hitched a ride on the tube, unafraid of inspectors because he knew that there were none so early in the morning. He paid no heed to the icy weather as he got out on the station closest to the orphanage, passing horse carts and a few cars, weaving through the usual crowd of black-clad people and finally arriving in front of the orphanage.
The girl who helped Miss Cole out sometimes was outside, her heavy form laden with two huge buckets of water. "Let me help with that, Miss Jill," Tom cried, sneaking up to her and pretending that he had just come out of the common room to his right.
Anyone in the orphanage would have known that Tom Riddle would never be in the common room with the other children or doing something as mundane as playing with toys, but people liked to say that Miss Jill was a bit slow.
Tom didn't mind it. She gave him sweets sometimes and left him alone for the most part, unlike the other girls who helped Miss Cole around the orphanage, who liked to call him freak.
Miss Jill's weary face stretched into a wide grin, which lit up her indulgent features.
"Tom," she greeted warm-heartedly. "It's quite alright, dear, I can handle it."
Tom jogged to keep up with her as she walked down the cellar stairs. He realised that the water was probably for the laundry room. The orphanage was equipped with running water, an accomplishment Miss Cole was quite proud of for it hadn't been so long ago that running water had been a scarcity, especially in this part of London. Sometimes, though, on cold days, the pipes froze and if they were unlucky, even broke.
Miss Jill carrying water down to the laundry room could only mean that it had happened yet again.
Tom's good mood evaporated as he thought of the consequences that usually followed when the pipes froze. He hated taking baths in the orphanage with a passion, but when the pipes froze he hated them all the more.
It meant taking a plunge into a wooden tub filled with freezing water fetched from the outside, usually with two or more boys at the same time.
If you got there first, the water was not muddied, but if you were one of the last, you'd have freezing dirty water that you even had to share with others.
So Tom asked with certain dread: "Miss Jill, are the pipes frozen again?"
She gave him a sympathetic look and some of the water splashed down her dirty pinafore as she turned to look at him. "Yes, Tom, they are. You are right."
"Oh no!" Tom said with feeling.
"I am sorry," Miss Jill commented. "Could you open the door, please?"
Tom held the heavy oak door open for her and followed her finally into the murky gloom of the laundry room. Ice flowers were coating the small window pane, high up in the wall. Tom looked at them and shivered some more.
Miss Jill had set the buckets down and fastened her modest white headscarf more securely, trying to keep the cold out.
"There is a package with books for the Sunday service. It has to be brought to Minister Brown;" she commented and added in an even more off-handed fashion:
"Miss Cole mentioned to me today morning that today afternoon will be bath day."
Tom smirked as he realised the implications. If he brought the books to Minister Brown, he'd be too late for the bath day and chances were Miss Cole would simply forget about him.
"Thank you, Miss Jill," he called with a smile.
He scampered the stairs up, intent on getting to the books. But someone blocked his way. It was one of the bigger boys, Billy Stubbs. Tom remembered that it had been Billy along with Dennis Bishop a few years prior, who had helped kill his friend, a smooth garden snake. He remembered that day well…
Near Wool's Orphanage, London, Summer 1933
"I wish I could be like you," the dark-haired pale boy told the snake dozing in the sun, small face smeared with tears. He had barely escaped this time. They had hunted him all through the orphanage, Dennis Bishop who was a few years older than him leading them, calling him freak for he had made the windows explode the day before. But he hadn't meant to! Thankfully there had been an opened window and he had been able to climb outside quickly and run away, albeit earning bruised knees in the process.
The snake raised its head and hissed, but Tom wasn't afraid. This snake was of the non-venomous kind, he had read up on them in the huge volume of Brehm's Life of Animals, a book with faded golden letters he had found in the orphanage's attic. They had never bothered to look for him in the attic before that was why he was often up there.
"Oh, don't make such a fuss," he told the snake superiorly. "You are non-venomous, I read up on you."
The snake seemed to cock its head. "You are a smart little boy."
Tom blinked, turning around, looking for the owner of the voice in slight panic. There was no one. Puzzled he turned back to the snake.
There was a sigh. "Or maybe not."
Tom's eyes grew wide. "Did you just talk to me?"
"No. You are hearing voices." The voice sounded a little annoyed.
"It was you," Tom accused.
A little noise that sounded like hissing laughter came. "Of course it was me, lad. So pray tell me, why would you want to be like me?"
Tom decided that he'd give up on being confused by the snake. So maybe he was crazy, it was what everyone told him all day long anyway. Completely unafraid, he ran his small hand over the smooth brown scales of the snake, which felt surprisingly dry and sun-warmed.
"You can just lie in the sun and enjoy the day," he told the snake sadly. "They don't call you freak. You don't have to run so they don't hurt you."
The snake hissed sympathetically. "A couple of boys tried to attack me yesterday with stones, but I was able to frighten them and chase them away. Normally, humans don't like me either."
Tom and the snake sat outside for the entire day, trading stories. The little boy had never felt so accepted before. In the evening, when it was time to sneak back inside before they closed the gates, the snake told him: "Come back tomorrow, laddie. I enjoyed talking to you."
And that was what Tom did, nearly every other day he met the snake in the sunny spot beyond the orphanage, until one day when the same cruel bullies from the orphanage killed his friend with a few well-aimed stones, Dennis Bishop and Billy Stubbs among them. Tom vowed to get revenge on them on that day.
Wool's Orphanage, London 1936
"I am not afraid of you anymore," Tom told Billy, raising his chin defiantly.
"You should be," Billy commented, an ugly sneer gracing his features. "You will get in trouble. I know that you sneak out sometimes. I will tell Miss Cole and she will tell the Minister and you will get caned."
"You know that I can speak to snakes," Tom reminded him coldly. "You should be afraid of me, not the other way round."
Billy's grin wavered a little, but he remained steadfast. "Little Tommy's going to get in trouble…" he sang.
Tom concentrated hard and the lamp right next to Billy on the wall exploded into a thousand tiny shards that rained down around Billy.
The boy paled. "You freak," he stuttered weakly, pointing a finger at Tom.
Tom smirked and gathered the package with the books up. "Ta-ta, Billy," he said nonchalantly. When he was out of the front door he heard: "Billy! You clumsy boy! Did you break that lamp!"
"It was Tom!"
"Oh of course, Tom is not even here! It's not right to blame others for your own mistakes!"
Tom allowed his smirk to widen and quickly gained ground.
The books were quickly delivered to the Minister's house. Luckily it was not him, who opened the door and took the books, but a sickly-looking pale young woman. She was the Minister's housekeeper, and, as the adults liked to say – Tom had heard although he hadn't been meant to- good for other things for the Minister. Tom had no idea what they meant. Maybe she didn't only look after the Minister's house but made also a wicked Christmas Pudding?
At any rate, he was glad to leave the Minister's house besides the gray towering mass of the church behind- the man was very quick with his cane even at only perceived wrongdoings.
Jack was at his usual hideout when Tom arrived from the Minister's house.
"Tom!" He looked genuinely glad to see him.
"See what I got," Tom announced and held out the coins Mary had given him that morning.
Jack's pale face lit up. "That's-"a sudden coughing fit bent him nearly double, "that's brilliant!"
"Are you ill?" Tom asked in concern.
"It's okay," Jack assured him. He tugged at Tom's arm. "Come on! There is a bakery nearby. They sell the best pastries found in the entire of London!"
Later, as they sat in the doorway of a red-bricked house and ate their pastries, smearing jam everywhere, Jack asked conversationally.
"So, what's new with that Mary girl?"
Tom had told Jack only very little about Mary. He had omitted that the bicycle had been given to him freely and he had certainly not told him anything about the few strange lessons they had had so far, where he tried to teach her how to open a door with her mind but always failed miserably. But he had told him of the book she'd given him.
"I read that book she gave me," Tom replied slowly, licking a spot of jam from his fist.
"Oliver Twist. It's about an orphaned boy. He gets to London and has to join a band of pickpockets." He sneered.
"It has a very fairytale-like ending. The boy is in reality the son of a noblewoman and he gets taken in by a rich man in the end."
Jack guffawed, smearing the jam all over his face as he wiped his face with a dirty hand.
"I wonder where that rich man lives," he snickered, nearly rolling around on the ground in his mirth. "I should very much like to see him and make sure that he exists!"
Tom had joined him in his laughter, but stopped after a while. Jack sat up straight when he caught sight of Tom's serious face.
"What's the matter, Tom?"
Tom frowned. "Mary said that I was to be her Oliver Twist. Does that mean she wants to take me in?"
Jack regarded him earnestly. "She can't make such decisions," he told Tom, sounding very wise. "She probably didn't even speak with her parents about it. Be careful, Tommy. Those rich gents are worse than anything found in East End."
Tom scowled. He hated being called Tommy and Jack knew it.
Sensing Tom's souring mood, Jack attempted to light the atmosphere up. "What do you know, Tom?" he grinned, "in the end you will become a rich little Lord in that house."
Tom laughed, too. "Then I will make them take you in, too!" he snorted. "We will be Lords Jack and Tom in the stately manor of Lady Mary! Away from that miserable orphanage."
"Come, now," Jack said, "they are not all that bad in the orphanage, are they?"
"Amy is not that bad," Tom admitted reluctantly, "and Dennis isn't as bad either anymore, since I taught him some manners."
Jack laughed, but soon his laughter faded to coughing, worse than before.
"Jack!" Tom cried and sprang to his feet, rushing over to his friend who was bent over and unable to answer. "What's the matter with you? Jack? Jack!"
Jack finally stopped coughing, but remained curled op on himself, wheezing weakly. When he finally raised his head Tom gasped.
Jack's mouth was smeared with red- at first Tom thought it might be the jam from the pastries, but it wasn't….
"Jack!" he gasped, "Jack! A boy in the orphanage coughed up blood, too. He, he," Tom rarely stammered, being a quite precocious child, but this shook him to boot.
"That boy died. Jack! You need to go and see a doctor!"
"A doctor?" Jack laughed. "I am fine," he said, "I am fine."
Tom stared at the cold stone slabs of the house entrance and at a few twigs lying there and wished for a big fire. Miss Cole had said that children who were sick needed to be warm.
Tom had had to stay in bed before, when he had been really sick. Fortunately he usually healed fast.
Sudden warmth made him look up. A small fire had sprung up.
Triumph in his eyes, Tom looked to Jack, expecting to see gratitude. But instead, it was fear that shone out of Jack's eyes. He looked ghost-like in the flickering shadows of the flames.
"You- you made that fire!" he stammered and backed away, getting to his feet quickly. "The children all said it, but I never believed it. You-you can do- magic- you…are….you must be…"
Without finishing the sentence, he quickly ran away.
"Jack!" Tom yelled; his voice breaking and filled with tears that he would later deny to himself. "Don't go!"
But it was too late.
Tom spent the next days in a sullen mood and mostly inside. There was no reason to risk the wrath of Miss Cole now that Jack hated him. Billy watched him, but when Tom showed no signs of wanting to sneak out, Billy started to look disappointed.
On a cold Monday, Christmas having passed without a word from Jack and without the wonderful meal they had promised to have, Tom sneaked out again. He had promised Mary he'd come and although he was in a dreadful mood, he had had an idea. Jack was sick and even though Tom was not sure Mary's father could help, Mary had said that he liked all children, right? So he had to know who could help Jack.
Mary was waiting for him with a smile when he arrived on that day.
"You got to help me," was the first thing that bubbled over his lips as he caught sight of her. "Please."
Asking for help was not one of Tom's favourite things to do. No one at the Orphanage helped one another, not even if you asked for it. You were rather likely to get laughed at.
When he had told Mary of Jack, she looked shrewd. "He is your friend and I will ask my Daddy, "she promised, "but then you will have to stay."
"I will have to stay?" Tom caught her sleeve just as she was about to run away. "What do you mean?"
"I told my Daddy that I found Oliver Twist and I want him to take you in," Mary confessed in a secretive whisper, smiling greatly. "Wait here!"
Tom was left to stand there alone. Mary's words had stirred up something in him. He wondered what it had to be like- to live with a family, to have Christmas pudding around a huge table with warm candlelight….and a sleigh with horses. Warm loving embraces from family members and a Dad that was proud of you.
A part of him craved it, longed for it, cried out for it even, but the bigger part of him was afraid. He had heard of rich people who took poor children in and made them do horrible things. Miss Cole had warned them never to go with anyone who was nice to them. Also, what if they found out that Tom was different? That he could never be like their rosy, smiling children with the golden locks and pretty clothes?
His musings were cut short as the door opened again and a middle-aged man with a moustache, wearing a dressing gown and a decidedly sleepy lock followed Mary, who tugged him impatiently after her.
"That is him, Daddy," she beamed and pointed at Tom. "My Oliver Twist."
That woke the man up. Mary's father measured Tom from head to toe. "My God," he exclaimed suddenly," he is from Wool's Orphanage, is he not?"
"Yes," Mary said, smiling proudly. "It says so on his coat. I found out the second I saw him."
"What are you doing with him?" Mary's father exploded, turning to his daughter. "Keep away from the likes of him!"
Tom stiffened. Mary threw her father an accusing glare. "But Daddy, you said you liked all children!"
"Oh Mary, dear," her father said slowly, ruffling her hair, "children who are like you. He can never be like you."
Turning to Tom, he shouted: "Keep away from my daughter! Isn't it enough that I donate to your orphanage? Go away, where you belong! Don't come back!"
Tom trembled. He barely heard Mary's enraged shouts. Getting over the gate was a blur and his fingers bled because he could barely grasp the iron bars through his upset haze of tears and rage. He stumbled away from the house, the street along, barely seeing anything through a thick film of tears.
The cold bit at him and tore at his clothes, but he barely felt it through his clothes.
Arriving at the orphanage, he was greeted through his tears and the blood on his fingers by the imposing figure of the Minister.
"Snuck out without allowance, have you?" he cackled. "Well, I'll teach you manners!"
The children who had gathered behind the Minister in the door frame looked mostly at him without pity, but there was a measure of sympathy in Amy's gentle face.
When he woke up that night, having fallen asleep on his bed after the thorough beating, Tom got to his feet quietly. It was in the middle of the night and no one was awake as Tom got dressed. He hissed a little when the clothes touched his mangled back. However, Amy stood suddenly in the doorway to the boys' sleeping dorm in her white nightdress, watching him calmly. Tom was struck with a sudden memory of Mary, but Amy's braids were brown and there was a measure of weariness in her young eyes that reminded Tom that Amy knew more of life than Mary ever would.
"Where are you going?"
Tom shouldered past her. "Away," he said calmly. She made no move to hold him back.
His meagre belongings firmly put into a linen bag, Tom slid down the rainwater down pipe. He was sore all over and his feet hurt, but he paid it no heed. Everything inside of him felt rugged and bleeding anyway.
The street where Jack had led him a month ago, but which might have been ages for all that Tom knew, was as deserted as it had been when Tom had first come there. He wasn't sure why exactly he had decided to go there, but he couldn't make himself stop either. When he knocked a few times, the heavy-faced woman called Miss Margaret opened.
"Oh it's you," she said. If Tom hadn't been so upset, he would have wondered why she had obviously been waiting for him and why she was still fully dressed in the middle of the night. As such he simply followed her into the dark house. There were doors to the left and to the right, but Miss Margaret went up a long steep wooden staircase right next to the entrance. She opened a door to a small room with a small bed wherein a pale boy with a shock of red full hair was lying.
"Jackie," Tom whispered and the linen bag slid out his grasp with a dull thud.
"He arrived here a few days ago," Miss Margaret choked out and did not seem to be able to suppress her tears anymore. Instead, she started weeping and broke out into great shuddering sobs. "The doctor says it's galloping consumption. He's only got a few days, the doctor said."
Tom could only stare mutely.
Jack coughed weakly and opened his eyes. "Miss Margaret," he rasped dryly.
"I am here, my boy," she soothed and smoothed the red hair away from his face, "I am here." Tears were slipping down her cheeks. "You've got a visitor," she mumbled and pressed a kiss to Jack's forehead. "I love you, my boy," she added quietly and left.
Tom still stood mutely at the door and Miss Margaret squeezed his shoulder as she walked past.
"Tom," Jack mumbled, attempting a weak grin. "It's you." When Tom made no move to come to him, Jack attempted to get up. That finally set Tom into motion and he crossed the room only to stand next to Jack's bed, staring down at him. The moonlight that came through the window painted Jack's face a ghastly grey.
"Now don't look at me like that," Jack whispered, coughing. "I am sorry for running away that day, Tom. That was silly. You can't help it, can you? That's just how you are."
"No," Tom choked out and was horrified at the sound of his own voice, "I can't."
"I rather think it's wicked," Jack confessed and smiled a very small smile. "You are brilliant." He motioned to the bag in a corner of the room. "I got something for you. I found her under Miss Margaret's stove. "You said you liked snakes."
Tom bent down and opened the bag with trembling hands. "A snake," he muttered dazedly.
"Hello, I am Tom," he hissed out of reflex.
"You can speak snake language?"
"You can speak to snakes, too?" was Jack's weak echoed reply. When Tom turned to him, the snake wrapped around his arm, Jack looked awed. "You are such a special friend, Tommy," he whispered, "and I am glad to know you. What will you name her?"
Tom sat down heavily next to Jack on the bed, looking at his friend's sickly complexion. An idea came to him. "When I was little, you once read a book to me. You had just run away from home and I was unable to read. It was when we first met. I sat on the stairs in front of the orphanage and I had that book- the Jungle Book. By Rudyard Kipling. There was that snake called Nagaina, but-"
"But you couldn't pronounce it and so you called her Nagini," Jack ended the sentence. "What a beautiful name."
The snake called Nagini was smooth and very small, but comforting around Tom's arm.
"Thank you," Tom told Jack finally.
"For what?" With much effort, Jack opened his sticky eyelids. "You are my best friend. That's what friends do, right? Give gifts to each other?"
"I suppose," Tom mumbled hoarsely. Jack didn't reply and his even breathing told Tom that he had fallen asleep. Tom stayed there for the entire night, in that dim, odd-smelling room, listening to Jack's breaths-until they stopped.
He sucked in a harsh breath. "Jack?" No reply came. Tom shook Jack's shoulders. "Jackie!"
Miss Margaret had come in unseen. "It's no use, boy. Leave him." Tom's hands were somehow fixed to Jack's shoulders and he was still shaking him. He could not- he could not- stop-
"Let go!" Miss Margaret repeated, harsher. "Let go, Master Tom," came Nagini's hiss.
Tom let go then as if burned and he bolted from the house, away from Jackie and Miss Margaret and the smell of that room and away and further along the street…
He was not even aware that he was sobbing wildly, until he slipped and fell into the snow in an unknown alley. There he stayed, pounding at the snow with his little fists and screamed and cried until he couldn't make a sound anymore. Nagini stayed at his side, distraught at her new Master's anguish, making little hissing sounds that were supposed to be calming.
Tom had no idea how long he lay there, but when he sat up, the morning was dawning. Tears still slipped down his face, but everything inside of him felt emptier than even the evening before.
"Why are you sitting there in the mud?" a kindly voice inquired.
Tom looked up and saw an old man. "Where is your home?"
"Wool's Orphanage," Tom muttered dully.
The old man took his hand and pulled him to his feet. As if he was a small child. As if he needed guidance. Tom shook his hand free and walked by himself. The man didn't seem to want to leave.
"Happy New Year," the man said.
Tom scowled. "What is happy about it?"
Put out, the man stared at him. Using that momentary distraction to his advantage, Tom ran through back alleys until he couldn't see or hear the man anymore. When he slowed down, he finally realised something. It was the 1st January 1937 and he had turned ten on the day before.
When he arrived at the orphanage, Miss Cole and the Minister were waiting.
"Didn't you have enough last night?" the Minister asked and raised an eyebrow. "Do you want more?"
Miss Cole added: "Billy was kind enough to mention that you seem to be sneaking out all by yourself a lot. It seems we've just caught you red-handed."
The Minister stroked his cane and looked at Tom. Tom went with him willingly.
On that day after his tenth birthday, Tom finally realised the important lessons he had learned that winter.
First, love and death were equally despicable.
Miss Cole had been right.
His mother had died for love for his father and what good had it done her? None whatsoever.
Mary had said that her father loved all children, but love did not seem to be unconditional.
Jackie had been his best friend and he had died. Death and love were nothing worth mentioning, they both brought nothing but hurt.
The second thing Tom had learned was that people would say things they didn't mean. Lying and stealing got you further than being honest.
Trust was nothing desirable and you couldn't trust people.
They would all hurt you again in the end.
The only way to prevail was to be the best and the strongest.
Fear was good.
Fear made people stop hurting him.
When Tom weakly shuffled into his room after his encounter with the Minister, he caught sight of Billy Stubbs in a corridor.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he smiled.
A few days later Tom hung Billy Stubbs's prized rabbit from the rafters.