The Reading List, 8/3/2014 »« “Atheists in America”, Melanie E. Brewster on Atheists Talk

Saturday Storytime: Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley

I do like stories that send me off to find out more about real people, like this one by Octavia Cade.

When little Tommy Flowers was presented with a baby sister, he was disappointed to find that she was not a Meccano set. Her head lacked the simple geometry of strips and cogs and angle girders, and her fingers were innocent of gears. What was worse was the fact that she cried so—wailed, really, and nothing comprehensible at that. There was nowhere for him to build in peace, and even the construction sets he did have paled when he couldn’t hear their connective clicks for crying.

If he could have used his dad’s bricks to build a wall between himself and the cot he would have. “You wouldn’t be able to hear her if you did that,” said his dad, bringing him a glass of milk and an apple for his supper, and that was the point.

“It’s not like she can talk, is it,” said Tommy. “So I wouldn’t be missing out on much.”

“She’s talking,” said his dad. “In her own way. It don’t sound like much now, but you’ll figure it out.”

Tommy bolted plates together, tightening the nuts carefully, with deliberation, a milk moustache on his face. The empty glass sat beside him, near clear but for the last pale drops slithering to the bottom. He lay on his tummy, cogs around him, and when his sister squawked from her place in her cot, he glanced at her, automatically, through the smeared material of glass.

It was in his way. He couldn’t help it.

What are you doing? said the glass. The milk drops had coalesced, moving upwards, forming wet, sloppy letters on the inside of the glass—letters that soon lost their form and dribbled down into disassembled alphabets.

The glass wasn’t warm, or cold. Tommy snatched it up to his ear, but it didn’t make any sort of sound, and when he put his finger in, gingerly, and then his tongue, the drips of milk remaining didn’t taste any different that they usually did.

His sister squawked again, interrogative.

What are you doing? said the glass. Tommy had cleaned out most of the remaining milk with his tongue, so the letters were much fainter than before. He looked at his sister, and she looked back, her head cocked on one side and fat, gearless fingers gripping the bars of the cot in fascinated earnest.

“I’m building,” he said, feeling stupid. He didn’t say it very loudly, in case he was going crazy, in which case it would be best if dad didn’t hear him, but he said it nonetheless. He reached out with one hand, blind, and felt a girder piece press into one palm. “Look,” he said, waving it at his sister. “You make the pieces fit together. For trains, and cranes, and . . . all sorts.”

His sister gave a little chirrup.

Can I have a train? said his milk glass, and Tommy resigned himself to building to order, and to a baby that stumbled after him through the house, clutching a milk bottle that bubbled What are you doing, Tommy? What are you doing? What are you doing?

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