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Your wellbeing: an act of kindness

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

I first met Tommy some months after my arrival in the UK in 1987.

I was loosely based at a church and community centre in the east end of London - multi tasking between doing a bit of research for a community-development organisation, community mediation and pastoral care in my local parish. 

Tommy was renowned among clergy in a generous cross-section of east end boroughs. He would show up at vicarages and church offices begging for hand-outs - not always at convenient hours. Some folks would give him a pound or two, some would send him packing, and others were in the habit of getting him to do some odd job for which he was paid. I had done all three in the long years of my acquaintance with Tommy.

For many years I would bump into Tommy on the streets of Newham and Redbridge, occasionally buying him a coffee and a sandwich or finding a piece of work for him to do around our office in East Ham.

He would sometimes try it on: e.g., on one occasion, claiming that he needed £30 for a bus to Southend as his mother was very sick. (She actually lived in Romford and I think was very well.) Tommy was quite transparent and his ruses easily sussed. He could also be very honest and admit the whole fraud when he saw that no money was forth coming.

Tommy was a real character. He vanished for some months at one stage; I have known a number of street people who seemed to disappear from their usual haunts, only for news that they had died to eventually reach my ears, and I assumed the worst. I even wrote a poem about Tommy’s death – only for him to eventually turn up again, which called for a re-editing of the poem.

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.

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!

Ruined elegy or not, it was good to see Tommy again and have him badger me for a hand-out once more.

When the organisation I had worked with for many years began to go belly up in the economic downturn, I left and was unemployed for the better part of two years before finding work – here at Sussex, as it happened.

During this rather difficult period I encountered Tommy on the street. The ritual still intact, he asked me if he could ‘borrow’ a fiver. (Apart from the creative use of the word ‘borrow’, he was so used to me by this stage that he would always add, ‘you will probably say no’ – which I most often did, before sitting down with him and buying him a cup of coffee and a sandwich.)

I told Tommy that I had actually been unemployed for several months and was not in a position to give him a fiver and, in jest, asked if he might lend me a few quid. Tommy just laughed and we parted.

A week later I was sitting in the public library’s café with my laptop, continuing with the feverish business of searching for jobs, when Tommy came in and made a beeline for me.  He approached me and, I must admit, I was moved somewhat to hear him ask the question: ‘Chris, can I buy you a cup of coffee?’

And there we sat, drinking the coffee that was Tommy’s treat. Somehow I remember it as the best coffee ever. And Tommy’s kindness still glows in the memory.

I hope Tommy is still out there somewhere plying his trade. It was the tiniest act of humanity, but one I will always remember.

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Posted on behalf of: Chaplaincy
Last updated: Tuesday, 14 November 2017

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