A Man Called Tommy

This pow­er­ful short story by Suzi Bar­ton be­gins in the Six­ties.

The People's Friend Special - - COOKERY -

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

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