Around 25 years ago, when I was an apprentice electrician for the MoD, I would wait each summer morning for the bus to work at the submarine Base. An older guy, Tommy, whose name I had gleaned from the other bus stop folk who spoke to him, would usually be waiting there at that time in the morning, too.
I quietly observed that Tommy was pretty eccentric. Even then he had a bit of a stoop to him and a face full of character. He would wait seemingly indefinitely on the bin lorry picking him up on the way past and he’d chat away about this and that to everyone who shared the bus shelter. I didn’t know what he was on about half the time, but I would still humour him on his chosen subject of the day because I liked Tommy.
Even though I was a naive young man, somehow I was astute enough to appreciate that the world needed more people like him. He was a bin man, which, let’s be honest, is regarded as the lowest of working class jobs, but that didn’t stop Tommy talking to anyone and everyone as an equal. Apprentice electrician or bank manager – it didn’t matter to him and it’s a trait that I thought was admirable.
He was a kind man with it. One time he saw me running in the distance and asked the driver of the bus I was clearly going to miss to wait for me. That was a big deal to me – I didn’t have the best timekeeping record as an apprentice and Tommy probably saved my bacon that day.
Fast forward twenty or so years and I’ve served my apprenticeship, gone back college, started a new career path, left the town “forever” and reluctantly come back again. Each morning on my walk to the station I would pass (the now retired) Tommy, either out for a walk or toiling away in his garden, so I’d say “‘morning, Tommy!” as I went by, just like I used to. As ever he’d return the gesture and, if I had a rare couple of minutes to spare, I would stop and ask how he was keeping.
It felt odd that I was back in my hometown after so many years. Much had changed in the time I had been away, while some things were eerily familiar, but Tommy was a touchstone, of sorts, who reminded me of simpler times.
One July morning during the long, glorious summer of 2014 I rolled down his street on my skateboard, bound for the station. I was videoing the road ahead for an Instagram clip, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted Tommy in his garden. I bid him good morning and turned the camera lens toward him as I went by. As usual he cheerily returned the sentiment. When I watched the clip back on the train I couldn’t help but smile at Tommy’s reflexive response – the man had spent his life greeting anyone and everyone in the same way and he was quick on the draw.
Then came the time a few months back when I was running crazy late for the train. I knew if I fought my way through the traffic to the station or even parked at my mother’s house, I would miss it. I really had to make that train, so, feeling guilty for doing so, I reluctantly parked outside Tommy’s and made it in the nick of time.
There are signs in the street asking drivers to be respectful of residents, but I knew Tommy didn’t have a car so I figured that for one day it would be okay. That night I promptly collected my car on the way home and thought nothing more of it.
A couple of days later I was walking by and saw Tommy at his door. He beat me to the punch and began talking before I could say anything. I smiled at him, but before I could pull my earphones out he was in full flow. It took a few seconds to realise he was actually angry with me for parking by his house. My smile collapsed, but for a change I was in plenty of time so I stopped to try and explain myself.
“Tommy, you know me, you know my parents, you know I don’t do it all the time so I thought it would be okay seeing as it was an emergency.” I pleaded with him, “I’ve been back in the town 8 years and I’ve only parked here once.” He wouldn’t have it, waving me away he turned his back and returned to his house.
I was crestfallen – so much so that I posted about what happened on Facebook. Most people who responded thought he was just a grumpy old man with no tolerance, but that wasn’t any consolation. I knew I would barely see him over the winter months, but I resolved to mend things over time. Come the spring he would be out in his garden at the crack of dawn every dry day again and that’s when I would get back into the old routine with him soon enough. All it would take was time.
On Friday the 3rd of March I was later heading into work than usual after a visit to the hospital and was walking the last bit to the station. As I rounded the bend I was startled to see a hearse and funeral car parked outside Tommy’s house. My heart sank. I instinctively knew it would be him in the coffin.
I walked by the forlorn scene, torn between being respectful and looking back over my shoulder in dismay. When I got to the station platform I overheard a girl on her phone talking about seeing the funeral cars. When she had finished her call I said that I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but heard what she was talking about and asked if she knew if it was Tommy who had died. She told me she didn’t actually know him or his name, but that he was the wee old guy with a stoop who had always waved and said good morning when she went for the train.
“Yes,” I sighed. “That was Tommy.”
Like the girl at the station, I never actually knew him either. And, now I think about it, he probably didn’t even know my name. I was just another passing face in the cast of many that he would always take the time to say good morning to.
Despite the one sided anonymity, I’m really sad that I didn’t have enough time to make amends for upsetting him.
Now, after countless “good morning’s” between us, all that’s left to be said is “Goodnight, Tommy.”