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Your Wellbeing: Kindness sometimes emerges in unexpected places – and people.

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex.

I first met Tommy in 1988. He was well known among churches and priests in Newham, Watham Forest, and Redbridge where did his rounds, knocking on doors and asking for handouts.

He had come into St. Bart’s Centre in East Ham, where I was loosely based as a kind of freelance pastoral care worker, and wanted to ‘talk to someone about God’. Barely seconds into our conversation Tommy unveiled his real motive: “Chris, can you lend me a fiver?” (Of course the word “lend” in this context requires quotation marks.) Tommy and I more or less had a falling out during that first encounter.

While I did not oblige Tommy on that occasion there have been many times over the years where I have shelled out for a sandwich and cup of coffee or found some tasks he could do for which he was duly paid.

I continued to bump into Tommy over the years and his open gambit, was invariably, “Chris, could you lend me a fiver?” often prefaced by, “I know you will probably say no, but…” Sometimes I would get him a sandwich and drink, sometimes not. But somehow Tommy, even at this most irritating – like the time he did some paid gardening work at the Conflict and Change charity where I was employed, but scarpered off without finishing it – would make me smile.

At one stage Tommy seemed to have disappeared and I jumped to the conclusion after several months that he had died. This wasn’t an unwarranted conclusion in that many of the Tommies I have known had expired from a rough existence on the streets. I was also aware of some of Tommy’s significant health issues. At the time I wrote a poem about it:

Tommy is dead:

the carnivore streets

ate his flesh and

spat out the memory.

 

The streets that ate him

belch the rumour

of his passing, the slender

ghost of recollection. 

But, as it turned out, he was very much among the living: 

Wait! News! Tommy lives:

He was not consumed

by savage streets, just plying

his trade abroad:

 

and now he’s back with,

tales of woe and

begging hands to ruin

this fine elegy!

Bastard! 

Of course, I meant that last word affectionately.

In early 2012, thanks to the downturn in the economy and austerity policies, Conflict and Change hit hard times and I found myself unemployed - a situation that continued much longer than I had expected. Life had become rather challenging. It had gotten to the point where I was getting anxious about buying a cup of tea or coffee. I was certainly worrying about the wider implications for my family.

Invariably I still bumped into Tommy on the streets of Ilford, where I lived, cadging money or food from passers-by. Sometimes he would be hanging out or waking in the High Road. In one of my last encounters with Tommy he asked followed the usual ritual, ‘Chris, you will probably say no, but….’ (On this occasion I was not able to shell out for the usual coffee and sandwich.) He also asked if I was still working in East Ham, as he had not seen me there for some time. I let him know that I was no longer employed at Conflict and Change but was now eagerly looking for work. His response was oddly considerate.

A few days later I was sitting in the local library, writing out job applications and working on other ‘projects’. Tommy walked into the café and saw me sitting at the table, working.

His opening gambit somehow touched me: “Chris, can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

His simple act of unexpected kindness makes me smile, even now.


By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Friday, 9 August 2019

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