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We were asked to write about something hidden, hiding or disguised. That idea fell into the vast, yawning emptiness that was my mind and I got completely stuck. Finally, in desperation, I tried to write about a child who could disguise himself as anything at all. Suddenly a whole story was there -- I had a beginning, a middle and an end. It turned out to be rather weird (but's that no bad thing) and I'm not at all sure what it means, or even if it means anything at all. But I think I might have been writing about the reality that underlies the things we think are real. In other words I dived right into the middle of Philip K. Dick territory. He did it better, of course...

Tommy's Birthday

On the evening before his eighth birthday, Tommy’s mother tucked him up in bed and gave him a goodnight kiss. "Tell me again the story about how old our house is," said Tommy sleepily, "and tell me about the grey men."

His mother sat down on the edge of the bed. "All right," she said, "but you must promise to go straight to sleep when I’ve finished telling you."

"I promise," said Tommy, settling down to listen to the old, familiar tale.

"Our house is very, very old," said his mother. "When we extended the cellar a few years before you were born, we found traces of a stone age house beneath the foundations of this one. I think our family must have lived here on this land for thousands and thousands of years."

"Is a thousand years a long time?" asked Tommy.

"It’s a very long time for us," said his mother, "but I think it might be a very short time for the grey men."

"Who are the grey men?" asked Tommy.

"I don’t know," said Tommy’s mother. "All I know is that once in every generation a grey man comes to visit our house. He comes down out of the mist that shrouds the mountains and when his visit is over the mist takes him away again. A grey man came to see me before you were born. He’s the reason why you are so good at disguising yourself. He’s the reason why the man you call dad isn’t really your father."

"Can I still call him dad?" asked Tommy.

"Of course you can," said his mother. "That’s how he thinks of himself, and so do I. But never forget the truth that lies behind the truth. The grey men have kept our family here in a house on this land for as long as there have been people to live in it." She sounded reflective, and perhaps a little bitter. "Sometimes I think we belong to the grey men in the same way that the sheep and cows in our paddocks belong to us." Her voice died away as she realised that Tommy had fallen asleep. He had disguised himself as a ginger pussy cat, his favourite disguise for bedtime. Cats fall asleep so easily. She stroked him gently and scratched him behind his ears. He purred softly, and arched his back, enjoying the sensation of her fingers in his fur, but he didn’t wake up. She tip-toed quietly out of the room and closed the door behind her, leaving Tommy to dream of mice.

* * * *

The next morning Tommy’s mum and dad came in to his bedroom to wish him happy birthday. "Come on, Tommy," said his dad in a hearty voice, "rise and shine and say hello to your birthday."

"I’ve baked a birthday cake with eight candles on it for you," said his mum. "Come downstairs and have breakfast, then you can blow out the candles and make a wish."

Tommy was wide awake now, keen and eager to get on with his birthday. He’d put aside his cat disguise and he was himself again. "OK," he said. "I’ll be there in a minute. Don’t start the party without me."

"We won’t," said his dad, and they left him to get dressed while they prepared a special breakfast for him. It isn’t every day that you become eight years old.

The breakfast birthday cake sat in the middle of the kitchen table with all eight candles burning merrily. Tommy disguised himself as a baby elephant. He knew that elephants can build up huge air pressure in their trunks which makes them really good at blowing out candles. But he also knew that the kitchen was far too small to contain a full grown elephant, so he compromised. He blew very hard and all eight candles went out simultaneously. Then Tommy stopped being an elephant, closed his eyes and made a private wish that mum and dad had bought him a smartphone of his very own for a birthday present.

"Well done, Tommy," said his mother. She cut slices of cake for all of them and they munched in happy silence for a few minutes. When they had all eaten enough, she said, "Now you can unwrap your present."

She handed Tommy a parcel, wrapped in grey paper. It was far too large to be a smartphone, but Tommy didn’t really mind, though he did feel a little sad that he’d wasted a perfectly good wish. Eagerly he tore the paper off the parcel to reveal a very large box inside which was a very small smartphone.

"Fooled you!" said his father gleefully. But Tommy didn’t care. It was a wonderful phone and he hadn’t wasted a wish after all. He poked at it happily for a few minutes before his father said, "Now we’ll never lose you. As long as you have your phone with you, we will always know where you are."

"Does that mean we can’t play hide and seek any more?" asked Tommy, sounding disappointed. Hide and seek was his favourite game and he’d been looking forward to playing it today because today was his special day and besides, he’d had a wonderful idea about how to hide himself where he’d never be found.

"Of course we can play it," said his mother. "You’ll just have to leave your phone behind when you go and hide. That way we won’t be able to track you down."

"Let’s do it now," said Tommy, putting his phone in his pocket. "I’ll hide myself while you count up to a hundred. Then you can come and look for me."

"All right," said his father, and he started to count.

Tommy raced off into the lounge and put his phone down on a coffee table. Then he stood beside the settee and disguised himself as a matching armchair. I’m hiding in plain sight, he thought smugly to himself. He hoped that his parents wouldn’t notice that they now had one more armchair than they’d had yesterday. He didn’t think they would – the lounge was already over supplied with furniture that his parents had inherited from countless earlier generations. One more chair wouldn’t make any real difference to the clutter.

He watched his increasingly frantic parents as they hunted for him high and low but completely failed to find him. His father made a pot of tea and Tommy watched as they drank it and discussed his disappearance. His mother actually sat down in Tommy for a few minutes which Tommy found a little annoying because her body blocked his view of the room and he couldn’t see what his father was doing.

"I think we are going to have to go back to the grey men," said his mother at last. "Tommy’s never disappeared for so long before. I’m sure he must have got himself into some sort of trouble. We need a grey man to rescue him. I hate to admit it, but it’s the only way."

Tommy started to feel worried. His mother’s stories about the grey men had always frightened him and he really didn’t want to get them involved. This game was getting out of hand. He decided to end it by removing his disguise. But no matter how hard he tried, he found that he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stop being an armchair, and that frightened him even more than the thought of the grey men.

"I’ll go," said Tommy’s father. "It can get a bit rough and dangerous out there in the mist."

"OK," agreed his mother. She sat down in Tommy again, and waited for a grey man to come.

* * * *

Much later in the day, when the mist around the mountains had begun to darken with the slow coming of the night, Tommy’s father arrived back home with a grey man. The grey man looked around the lounge with interest and spotted Tommy immediately. "Ah," he said, "I see what you’ve done. You’ve disguised yourself as an armchair and now you can’t change back."

How do you know that, thought Tommy.

"You aren’t the first one to do that kind of thing," said the grey man, "and I doubt if you will be the last. I suspect this is the very first time you’ve disguised yourself as something that isn’t alive."

That’s right, thought Tommy.

"Removing a disguise from something that isn’t alive is a very different and much more difficult skill than removing it from something that lives and breathes," said the grey man. "Let me show you." He removed the disguise from the armchair and Tommy stood there looking a little bit ashamed of himself.

"Oh," said Tommy. "So that’s how you do it. I can do that. I’m sure I can, now that I know how it works."

"We haven’t finished yet," said the grey man. "You are still in disguise. I think it’s time to remove it all the way, don’t you?"

Tommy looked puzzled. "What do you mean?" he asked. "I’m Tommy now, just like I’ve always been. Tommy isn’t a disguise."

"Yes he is," said the grey man. "Use the lesson you’ve just learned one more time. When you use that skill on something that is alive, it takes away the final disguise and it shows everyone the real truth that hides beneath the surface of the skin."

"I’ll try," said Tommy. He did as he was told, and then Tommy wasn’t Tommy any more.

The newly born grey boy looked at the grey man with something approaching tenderness. "I think it’s time for you to come with me," said the grey man, "back into the mists where you belong."

"Tommy!" wailed his mother. "Tommy!"

"Take your phone with you, Tommy," said his father. "That way at least we’ll always know where you are. It will be a comfort to us."

The grey boy put the phone into his pocket. Then, hand in hand, the grey man and the grey boy walked together out of the house and dissolved into the mist.

"Phones don’t work where we’re going," said the grey man.

"I know," said the grey boy.

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