Almanac Real Life: Tommy


Tommy is uncomfortable talking about himself. He returns my intrusive questions with an embarrassed expression, a shrug, a scoff, raised eyebrows, or shake of the head.


It’s our first meeting. He sits opposite, across a cheap brown desk, in a featureless brown office. More of a cubicle, really. He sits at a 45 degree angle, left shoulder towards me, as if to keep me at bay. I can read his eyes: who’s this tosser?


Tommy has come to Collingwood – once hard times, working class, now Hipster Central – to complete a social housing application and deal with other immediate housing issues. The social worker at the hospital sent him down. The hospital is doing tests on his chronic leg and hand pain.


On the other side of the thin walls, rough sleepers, many mentally and physically ill, queue for emergency accommodation. One kicks off, shrill screams pierce the reception area, waking those asleep on the couches. Tommy tenses, relaxes, shakes his head.


Tommy’s in his mid-60s. Tiny, like a jockey or bantamweight. Thick British accent, leathery face. Neat presentation – polo shirt tucked into his blue jeans.


Wiry, muscular, vertebrae protruding at the top of his spine. Not an inch of fat, he’s been a working man his whole life.


Tommy’s proud; never asked anyone for anything.


But he’s also a fatalist. It is what it is. Better than being dead.


We get most of the way through the online application, but there’s a problem: Tommy can’t get photo ID because he doesn’t have a birth certificate. No photo ID may mean we can’t submit his application.


Born somewhere in Great Britain, he’s not sure where, Tommy doesn’t know the names of his birth parents. He knows his birthdate and that he was fostered out early.


The social worker at the hospital has searched Australia and Great Britain. There’s no record of his birth, orphanage, adoption, departure from GB, arrival in Australia, citizenship.


He always paid taxes when he drew a wage, so they were able to get him on the aged pension.


Home Affairs say Tommy is a citizen but they won’t give him a certificate without photo ID. The term they use is embedded because he has been here so long.


In the weeks that follow we meet a handful of times.


Eventually, DHHS accepts his ATO and Centrelink details as ID and we’re able to complete his housing application.


Tommy lives in a tiny room above a Richmond pub. It’s the size of a small bedroom and dusty and grey. The one window is painted shut. The cold grips him tight in winter and in summer, the heat seeps through the walls early in the day and never seems to leave.


Walls and shelves are jammed with military memorabilia, books and models. There’s a wardrobe, single bed, desk with small fan, lamp, tools and plastic containers full of spare parts.


Tommy doesn’t pay rent or receive a wage. He pays his way downstairs, wiping tables, changing barrels, collecting empties, odd jobs. He enjoys game days at the G the most with the front bar full and buzzing with atmosphere and laughter. He doesn’t mix with the punters, preferring to keep on the move, doing his work, keeping his head down. He eats from the kitchen and uses the washing machine.


Tommy’s lived at the pub for a decade. Every day he rises early, reads both newspapers back to front. He listens to talk-back and can’t believe the complaining that goes on. People don’t know how good they have it. Those who haven’t have got to get off their arses and have a go.


When his hands are feeling ok, he builds his models. Detailed, painstaking, patient. He can point to any and tell me which war, which battle.


Due to his age, Tommy’s application is quickly approved and miraculously, within weeks, he receives an offer for a one bedroom, 10th floor property, over 55s block, north of the city. It’s spacious, with clean walls, recently renovated. The Salvos are on the ground floor with a calendar of social events, independence building activities and a footy tipping comp. Outside, there’s a community garden.


A week later, after the sign-up, we sit in a nearby cafe. Tommy complains about the coffee and tells me about his life: growing up with kind but elderly foster parents. They were scholars and the house was full of books. Their own children were older, so Tommy spent much of his childhood alone.


He left for Australia nineteen years old, a ten pound Pom. He recalls staring gobsmacked at Sydney Harbour as it sparkled below as the QANTAS aeroplane came into land. He’s never left, never kept in contact with family.


He’s worked across the country – removalist, builder, carpenter. Anything. No kids, never married, he lived with two partners, but could never settle. It was always him who left.


Tommy says, As the song goes, I’ve never felt love before.


He’s only real mate died of cancer years ago.


I visited Tommy after he moved into his new property. The unit was spotless, every inch utilised, everything in its place. His models displayed proudly, desk under the window. Views stretched beyond Melbourne’s docks into western Victoria.


Tommy was in his man cave. But he was struggling without the din of the pub crowd, tenants screaming out at night, and he wanted his own little garden to read the paper. He was depressed and some days felt like throwing his models down the rubbish shute. He was drinking more and life lacked purpose. He wanted a transfer.


I took him downstairs and we spoke with the Salvos. Tommy looked at the calendar. Woodwork classes. I can help with that, he said with a shrug. He made an appointment with one of the workers to show him how to use a computer and the internet for Centrelink and to pay bills. Later, I linked him in with an agency offering employment support.


I checked in with Tommy again last week. He was at Bunnings with the Salvos buying resources for the woodwork group. He told me he’s also receiving help with his resume.


Things are ok, he said. Hold off on the transfer for now.


  1. You’ve just got to admire a bloke like Tommy who, in spite of being up against it from the word ‘go’, has taken on the world, mostly on his own terms, and survived. There’s more than a hint of Sheffield steel about his grit and resilience. And, with a little assistance from those who are there to help, he’s survived yet another battle or three and seems to be in a fairly reasonable place. More power to you, Tommy! And well done to you and your type, Andrew, for helping him to unravel the knots of bureaucracy to get him what he deserves – his identity, a roof over his head and a purpose for the times ahead. A great story!

  2. Andrew – what a great story. Until finishing reading this, the only Tommy I ever really knew was Tommy Ruff, an excellent fighting and eating fish in SA and WA (where it’s known as Herring) waters. Tommies are a close relation to Australian Salmon but don’t grow as big.

  3. Terrific stuff Starks. Tommy sounds a champ. Lot of blokes who are manual workers – salt of the earth; never asked for anything – dunno what to do when the body gives out. Never thought about the future. Coping with today was always more than a challenge. Remember a bloke like Tommy whose eyes lit up when I took him to the local Mens Shed. Great places. Oughta be more of ’em. Regards to you both.

  4. This is an important piece, Starkers.
    Shining a light on a lifestyle of which many would not be aware.
    So glad that the story ended on a positive note, “for now”.
    Well played, Starkers.

  5. E.regnans says

    Love it, A Starkie.
    Thank you for bringing Tommy into our lives.
    I found this is a beautifully written and observed story,
    Go well.

Leave a Comment