We seemed to have known Tommo forever. From the first time we’d trudged to the town’s major public school with parents at a tender age Tommo had been in our line of vision. He’d been standing alone waiting patiently for admission, a tall gangling figure in shabby hand me down school uniform which indicated there must have been male siblings who’d passed through these classrooms in the past. We were so overawed by the fact this would be our first day at school we’d hung around the protective presence of parents and watched developments with a mixture of awe, anticipation and mild fear. At the time we’d casually included Tommo in this mix of new experiences but kept that sight in the periphery of our memory. It was only later we drew on those first impressions to fit him into a box of his own.
Later when the initial awe of our first day at school was long past and we’d become used to routines of a school we began to assess and categorize our fellow students. We were country kids and prone to the slang of the emerging culture having seeds in old mining days when desperate men came to make their fortune one way or other. The miners, the emerging entrepreneurs and those who found farming the lands around more profitable than an average dirt turner or river prospector had moved on. It was a time of war for the spoils of the land between many races trying their luck and development of the language Strine, which was supposed to be the latter part of the word Australian. It was a corruption of English which teachers in our present generation were gamely striving to drive out in favour of proper English.
One of the cardinal rules of Strine was to shorten words. People on the move didn’t have time to sit around and chat, particularly to divulge personal information which could endanger one. So, when addressing others that address would need to be short and to level the playing field but show respect an appropriate adjective added. To illustrate, a Mr Tomlinson would be properly referred to as bloody Tommo. So, Trevor Tomlinson should properly be referred to as bloody Tommo, but when speaking face to face you would rightly say Tommo. The same applied to all the others met under different circumstances. There were exceptions to the rule. When addressing a parent much greater respect was required or in those days a bruised backside would act as a caution for future expression. It was also expected to show that respect to other parents when referring to them in the home, but at school Strine ruled.
None of this of course was meant to be derogatory, in fact those terms could be expressed in a variety of ways. They could be expressed with correct inflection of the voice or flick of the eye to express scorn or a similar negative emotion, or they could be expressed as friendship and affection. Such was the complexity of the world we grew up in.
Over time as we moved from primary to the higher grades and education aroused our curiosity we had time to evaluate each other and form opinions of each other’s makeup and personality. Those with complementary personalities gradually drifted together to form lifelong relationships, and some found their way sometimes voluntarily and sometimes cruelly to the perimeter of our emerging society. High School seemed to be the dividing line where those who were from dysfunctional backgrounds either made a turn around and tried to join in the mainstream or left never to be heard of again.
Tommo was one of those who’d emerged from a dysfunctional home. Over years information on Tommo’s background seeped through despite him being a person of few words. He was bigger than the rest of us, muscular and strong. We’d seen him smash a substantial piece of timber with his hand to demonstrate martial arts at the request of a teacher who’d seen him at work in a martial arts class and was on a campaign to interest other students in learning how to protect themselves. It was just beginning to be a nasty world where modern society was not much different to the chaos and lawlessness of old goldrush days. We all gave Tommo enormous respect after that demonstration, but attempts to get close to him were rebuffed after school hours.
Tommo’s father it turned out was a drunkard and a gambler. Apparently, he was known to police for other reasons too. The large family had spawned in shack five miles from town. Tommo had walked those five miles faithfully every day since primary education. Apart from his martial arts classes in town sponsored by the local police he did not hang around. There was working to do back at the shack chopping wood for their wood fired stove and the copper boiler down the back yard where clothes were boiled then rinsed until clean. His long-suffering Mother had endured many beatings until Tommo was old enough to come to her rescue with his martial arts training and face his father down. It had only taken one knockout punch to convince his father to take Tommo’s warnings seriously in future. The rest of the brood had left home as soon as they were old enough and game enough to hit the road and fend for themselves. But Tommo stayed on for the protection of his Mother who he’d somehow come to love despite the disfunction of his early years.
Tommo being taller and more well built than the average kid his age could easily be mistaken as an adult in early High School days. One day his father enticed him into a pub on some pretext and over protests forced one after another beer into him until he was too drunk to walk home. It was one of those rare occasions when he was driven home. Tommo was violently sick next day and missed school much to the amusement of his father who claimed to have done this to teach his son the evils of drink. It was then Tommo decided enough was enough and after intensive martial arts training he’d challenged his father when his Mother was being attacked and knocked his Father unconscious. While the Father’s lifestyle didn’t change he no longer attacked his wife or son after that confrontation.
It was probably because of the deep humiliation of his background Tommo avoided close relationships. His conversations were short and to the point, and surprisingly he rose over time from bottom of the class to near the top in grades. Teachers began to take an interest in him seeing potential and searched for ways to help him break the cycle of poverty and economic exclusion of the poor through scholarships.
Tommo had thought that through but decided if he was going to advance in life he’d do it on his own terms. He’d be under obligation to none, so got a job in town with a sympathetic businessman in league with teachers seeing his potential, and for his hard work was amply rewarded. Apart from money he gave his Mother to offer her a better quality of life every cent earned went into the bank for future education.
In his early High School years Tommo took an interest in a neighbour girl who attended the same school in town. She’d moved onto a farm next to Tommo where her parents were share croppers working the land for the property owner. They’d very little of this world’s goods to call their own and as she was two years younger than Tommo they entrusted their girl to him to see too and from school safely. She patiently waited for him during his after-school work and did her homework at a desk kindly offered by Tommo’s employer. Tommo seemed to have no interest in her other than as a protector and most people thought of them as brother and sister. He looked like an adult, she an early teenager.
So, it was with surprise to all Tommo and Sheila entered with the rest at the formal dance to celebrate Tommo’s class graduation. Tommo had never been to a dance and looked decidedly out of place. Sheila was flushed with excitement. She’d learned to dance in country halls when farmer folk got together occasionally to talk about the price of milk and beef while youngsters learned to dance to the crashing of a piano played by one seemingly possessed. Sheila shyly asked one her friends also partnering a graduate for the night’s dance how they liked the dress Tommo had bought for the occasion. Word spread, and people wonderingly began to study Tommo standing awkwardly near the door as if planning an escape.
Tongues began to wag, and jokes were made making him feel even more out of place. But he hung in there watching as Sheila danced and as he did the insinuations about him having more than a sister interest began to break through consciousness as perhaps truth. Sheila had asked him many times that evening to dance with her, but he’d not wanted to humiliate himself by tripping over his feet trying to learn. Now he wanted to dance with Sheila, to hold her, something he’d never have done before. To return the intimacy he’d seen in her eyes but thrust back. But he’d learned to love his Mother, could it be love extend far beyond that?
So, when Sheila returned flushed with excitement at being there and obviously popular despite her poor background, she asked her handsome suited date for the evening one more time. This time Tommo stepped forward and threw caution to the winds. He’d dance with his Sheila. They stood at the edge of the dancers and just swayed in that place to the music. A calmness enveloped Tommo he’d never known before. He was trilled to hold her and just enjoy the nearness of her, the fresh smell of her. Sheila smiled, she’d dreamed of this moment for years. Even as a younger girl she’d wanted his protection to be a permanent one. Now she was confident in that moment her dreams would be fulfilled.
She stretched up to whisper in his ear and Tommo instinctively bent his head to listen. “I love you Tommo!” Tears rolled down his cheek as he remembered the brutality of his upbringing and his chest began to heave with emotion.
Sheila drew back in surprise. This was not the reaction she’d longed for all these years and tears formed in her eyes too. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered meekly.
Tommo gripped her firmly. “Do you mind if we go outside, I don’t want people to see me like this?” He used the back of his hand to wipe the tears while they made their exit.
Outside and in the dark, he released his grip on Sheila and wept as Sheila’s expression of love swept over him while the girl stood wringing her hands in wretched awkwardness.
Finally, he composed himself. “I’m so sorry to spoil your evening Sheila, no one has ever said they love me before, not even my Mother. She shows it but doesn’t say it. Just hasn’t been done in our house. Could you really love me knowing my background?”
“Of course, I can silly man, I think I’ve loved you forever, but I was having such a good time this evening and am so grateful to you for looking after me and giving me this beautiful dress that it just sort of blurted out. Can’t you love me too, I really want you to?”
“Yes, I can Sheila and you can count on me for my love being a lifetime of love. I will work hard and make a wonderful home for you. I’ll forget any further education and start working to make a home for you now.”
Sheila laughed a happy laugh. “No Tommo, I want to finish my education and I want you to go on and get further education too. I’ll work too so we can do that together, but first I have to finish High School.”
Just then the music started up for another dance. “Can we go back in now Tommo, I was having such a good time in there, and I only want to dance with you now.”
A warm feeling went through Tommo. For the first time in his life he felt loved and needed. He pulled Sheila back to the entrance and they went inside to finish the evening celebration. But now it was a double celebration, they would face the world together as a team after this night was over.
Tommo went on to become a College Teacher and spent the rest of his life seeking out underprivileged kids to encourage toward a better life through education. Sheila did go out to work in those early years of marriage to help make Tommo’s advancement in education possible. Later Sheila attended school and over time was able to get her nursing degree. They raised three children and showered love on them watching with pride as they in turn succeeded in life and raised their families in an atmosphere of love.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2017 All rights reserved”