A Man Called Tommy
This powerful short story by Suzi Barton begins in the Sixties.
He came to live with us when I was young, and was soon one of the family . . .
ITHINK I was afraid of the man at first. He sat opposite me at the table and observed me over the top of his glasses, his small eyes seeming to peer deep into my soul.
My seven-year-old self wanted to look brave and I stared back, trying to appear confident.
“This is Tommy.” My mother introduced him to me over the dinner table. “He is coming to live with us for a while.”
It was as simple as that. By the sound of it, Tommy wasn’t going to be around for long.
I was used to that: there had been others who had also sat at the table. Some had not stayed long; others for quite some time.
There had been a newly qualified police constable who had been transferred to the area, a musician who had left his wife, and once there had been a young woman who had taken up her first teaching position in the local primary school.
Anyone who needed a home was very welcome. Lodgers, they were called, and we always seemed to have one.
It transpired that the man had come to work at the same place as my father and had asked him if he knew of anywhere that he could live.
The spare room was, at that time, unoccupied, and my father knew the money would come in more than handy.
For a long time, I could never refer to the man as Tommy. He was very quiet, but obviously very intelligent. He was a man of routine.
Every day he would go to work – in some kind of engineer role – and in the evenings he would complete “The Times” crossword in less than an hour.
He read books with titles I could not pronounce.
He rarely spoke, just sat in the same chair with a book in his hand, occasionally looking at me over the rims of his thick, sturdy glasses.
At 10 o’clock on the dot he would put on his overcoat and perch a tweed trilby on his head, then saunter out to the local pub.
If I had followed, I would have seen him sitting alone in the corner, consuming a glass or two of whisky before returning home and going straight to bed.
He led a monotonous, solitary and very, very private life.
My mother’s predictions about him staying “for a while” were wrong; Tommy was still living in the spare room nearly 10 years later.
By that time I had become a rebellious teenager who was confident enough to start calling him by his given name.
It was slightly embarrassing, explaining him to my friends as the lodger.
Sometimes Tommy would be sitting in the chair having a quiet drink when I arrived home late and my parents were already in bed.
Still, he never judged me or said anything.
In those turbulent teenage years I found out that he was a good listener. Tommy rarely spoke, but he listened.
Over the years, Tommy became part of the family.
He only gave us tiny fragments of information about his life before he came to us, usually indecipherable ramblings when he had had a whisky.
He would mumble that he had retired from the military, and every month an envelope came for him, which my mother said was his pension cheque.
He didn’t seem to mix with anyone and, trying to make him feel included, my mother asked him if he would like to accompany us on our family holiday.
He refused, saying that he would feel unsafe if he left the country, but my mother was having none of it, so eventually he consented.
It was the only time he