At Tom’s Flat
Tom in his living room
And so it turns out that Tom the Sailor, who was living in a van near Brick Lane, has had a flat all along but the conditions were such he would rather not stay there even in the severest winter weather. “If you saw it, you wouldn’t believe it!” he declared, conjuring both the enigma and wonder of it – and by way of issuing an invitation to me to visit. A gentleman of soulful character, Tom is to be seen almost every day on Brick Lane with his dog Matty, and is blessed with a gift for rhetoric and storytelling that I find irresistible – which explains how I came to find myself sitting at the front of the top deck on a bus with him going through Bethnal Green yesterday on the way to his flat.
“Do you know why I sit on the front of the bus? Because I can see what’s being thrown out, that’s the big advantage of a bus. You’re high up and you can see everything, if you’ve got a trained eye like mine. It’s better than a lorry, or a car, or a bike. Look there’s a bed there being thrown out! And when you do see something, you get off. I can’t believe the gear I find. I can tell by the way it’s piled up whether it’s on the way in or on the way out. These are the things you look for, you train yourself. Last week, I saw this gear, coming out of one of the wheelie bins. I got off and went through the lot, there was cine-cameras and cameras, handbags and lipstick of all sorts, all brand new. It had to be the Poles, they always throw everything out when they move. My Christ! I had it all in big black bag and I got back on the bus, and I struggled.”
During this speech, Tom was scanning the kerb on either side, as eagle-eyed and alert as a hunter, focusing on the familiar bins, the dumpsters and places where people abandon things which comprise the landmarks along his route and that have provided the source of his trading income on Brick Lane for decades. “There’s so much to tell, but the story you would learn it’s unbelievable,” he assured me as we reached the stop where we had to get off, “Just remember, I used to have a beautiful home.”
As we navigated the narrow lanes to reach Tom’s flat, he made a few detours to examine some piles of debris and peek inside a few bins. “See I can’t help it!” he informed me with a helpless grin, spreading his hands demonstratively, as if to renounce responsibility for these habitual actions.
When we reached the entrance to the block, Tom showed me a new sign warning tenants not to put anything in corridors – raising his eyebrows in disdain – and then as we approached his flat – with a defiant gesture – he indicated a dressing table next to the front door. Then, “Man, I’ve got to get a torch,” he announced theatrically, to himself, before turning to me and emphasising, “Remember, there’s a reason for everything.”
He opened the red door and went inside, and I followed in anticipation. The smell was ripe, and the air was heavy and humid. Two rooms were crowded with junk leaving narrow passages littered with old newspapers and waste paper, just wide enough to walk through. Following Tom’s flickering torch, I entered the living room where the contents were stacked almost to the ceiling. I concentrated upon Tom’s speech to avert my attention from retching in the foul atmosphere. He showed me the power meter that had been cut off but still clocked up a tariff. He explained the newspapers were because of a flood and pointed out the holes in the ceiling where the water came through. He told me that the possessions of his wife who died of cancer were under the pile. And he told me that he was the last resident remaining from when he moved in thirteen years ago, now that the building has been sold off to a management company.
In the next room, Matty was sleeping upon a mattress which, on further examination, belonged to a bed submerged under the clutter. Beside it were Matty’s water dish and food bowl, and a portable stove where Tom cooked for himself without leaving the bed. Tom told me he lived here happily until three years ago when he let his son have it for a year. Since then, his son moved on and Tom became so alienated by the interventions of the new management company that he preferred to sleep in his van. Yet now the van is sold, he is back in the flat and resolute that nothing will remove him.
I found the grief of the place unbearable, as if someone had died there long ago and Tom was the ghost of that person lingering among the debris of a life. ”Why don’t you get rid of all this stuff?” I asked, impatient to dispel the torpid mood of stagnation,”Why don’t you sell it?” Tom looked at me critically and shook his head in disappointment. “You don’t understand, do you?” he said.
“You don’t understand an orphan. My wife didn’t understand an orphan. My kids didn’t understand an orphan. Only I understand an orphan, because I was born an orphan. You might say ‘You’ve got kids, so you’re not an orphan anymore,’ but you’re wrong. An orphan is one who never had a mother and father. If you’ve never seen or known them, you are an orphan. You think as an orphan.
If you knew what I have gone through you wouldn’t believe it. In an orphanage, you go from a cot to a bed in a dormitory and you don’t know what they’re going to do to you in there. One boy says, ‘Do you want a pillow fight with me?’ and you say ‘Yes’ and grab your pillow, and he hits you on the head with a pillow case that has got something metal in it. You put your hand up and it cuts your fingers open – Look! I still have the scar – but you don’t tell anyone, you cover your hands, and next day they find you in the bed unconscious and blood everywhere. They never dare do it again. Do you know why? When I came back, I stabbed the geezer. They got the message – Stay away from me! And this was how I was brought up.”
We were walking back through the streets and Tom spoke his thoughts out loud to counteract my silence. “I haven’t told you the stories, I’ve only made a start. If I told you all the stories you wouldn’t believe it.” he asserted again. ”Are you with me?” he kept repeating after each statement, to disturb the mass of thoughts that were whirling in my head.
“Are you lonely?” I asked him when we were sat together on the top of the bus again.”I am not lonely, I’ve got my dog. He’s with me twenty-four hours a day. He sleeps in my bed because he likes the smell of me.” Tom barked in reply, his eyes glittering as he returned to his monologue about the perceived conspiracy to remove him from his flat, and asserting his passion to resist it with fighting talk. “If you’ve been sunk in a sailing ship in the Atlantic as a young man and survived that – I was only thirteen at the time – what harm can they do to me?” he insisted.
And then Tom brought out a spare travelcard with eight pounds on it and offered it to me, as a gift to console my unspoken distress at his flat. “What they’re doing to me is keeping me going – it’s the excitement. I don’t care, it just flows off of me. I can’t complain, I have had a good life. I’ve got three boys and a girl.” he admitted, apparently reconciled to his circumstance. I took the travelcard in my hand, touched by his generosity. I was overwhelmed by Tom’s flat. “Have you got a bit wiser now?” he asked.
“I can see what’s being thrown out, that’s the big advantage of a bus.”
“Man, I’ve got to get a torch.”
“Remember, there’s a reason for everything.”
“I am not lonely, I’ve got my dog.”
“If I told you all the stories you wouldn’t believe it.”
Tom the Sailor, more formally known as Thomas Frederick Hewson Finch.
Tom outside the eighteenth century Drapers’ Almshouses across the road from his flat.
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