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SHORT STORY Tales from the Midlands; OLD TOM BY STEVE SANT.

Byline: STEVE SANT

SHE saw him the moment she entered the residents' lounge. The old man was on all fours, his ear pressed right up against the television speaker.

"Oh God, Pauline! Give me a hand quick."

Care nurses Pauline and Jan lifted the man back into an armchair.

He seemed none the worse; he was wheezing, of course, but he was always wheezing; he was 102, after all.

Jan checked under his thin wispy hairline for cuts or bruises, but he was fine.

"How did we manage that Tom?" she asked in her loudest mother talking to a child voice. It was the only way with the very, very old residents. "Did you tumble, eh?" Tom tried to speak but his words were almost inaudible. Pauline put her ear close to his lips. A smile broke out across her face.

"Says he didn't fall, just couldn't hear the TV."

The two women laughed. The TV could be heard in the car park outside of the Sunset Retirement Home. The volume wouldn't go any higher, but still at least half of the 24 residents couldn't hear it and the subtitles were no good either, they couldn't see those. Tom pointed at the screen and spoke again. Pauline put her ear close to his lips once more.

"What's you?" she said into his ear. "He says that's him on the telly, bless him."

The two women looked at the television and saw it was a news item about the funeral of Harry Patch, the last fighting Tommy from the Great War.

"Would he remember that?" said Pauline.

"Suppose he would. He's 102, so he'd be what about 12 when it finished".

"You are clever, Jan," said Pauline.

Jan thought not for the first time that anyone who believed a person clever because they knew such rudimentary facts really ought to go back to school for a bit, but she just said: "Come on, let's get on."

Tom's hearing was gone but his eyesight remained good. He sat staring at the screen as images of the Great War flashed before him, images he knew, images he had experienced first-hand.

"It's all in me box," he said and smiled to himself.

Nobody heard him.

"Morning Jan," said Pauline as she rushed into work some weeks later. "The 74 was late again. Sorry."

"No matter, love, old Tom's gone in room 9, went in the night. Clare found him on the floor, poor old soul. We're waiting for Doctor Khan but could you make a start on clearing his room?" Pauline said she would. Later that morning Pauline appeared in the office where Jan and Doctor Khan were discussing Coronation Street over a cup of tea.

"Oh sorry," said Pauline. "No need, dear," said Jan. "What have you got there?" "It's Tom's stuff, three black bags. Shall I send it to the charity shop? He never had any family visit, did he?" "Better just leave it in here, love. He has a next of kin on his records. I've tried the number but it doesn't exist anymore so I'll do a letter," said Jan.

Pauline piled the three bags in the corner then appeared again holding a battered old shoe box. "And there was this," she said.

"Put it with the bags, love," said Jan and got back to trying to remember the name of Ken Barlow's first wife which was, Doctor Khan admitted, "before his time".

Later that day Jan sat down to write a letter to Tom's next of kin. Brian Charles Dupont, son of Thomas Charles Dupont. He'd be 80 himself now, she thought, and wondered if he was perhaps not an uncaring son, but ill himself or even dead.

Then she noticed the shoebox balanced somewhat awkwardly on top of the three black bin liners that were Tom's 102 year-old life. She wondered if it contained any other phone numbers or addresses, grandkids perhaps.

Two hundred miles away a week later Frank Goody sat staring at a TV screen in Brixham, Devon. There was nothing wrong with Frank's hearing despite his advanced age. The reporter was speaking from outside an old people's home in the Midlands. "And so it seems that Thomas Dupont was, in fact, a deserter named Donald Bassett from Kent. He took an identity tag from a French soldier in May 1918 and assumed the life of a wounded French soldier.

"He moved to England after marrying an English nurse who had looked after him. He placed his own identification on a corpse. Donald Bassett's family have always believed he was killed in action in 1918. He even has a grave in a war cemetry in France.

"It can only be assumed he remained silent about his past for fear of court martial, but prior to his desertion Donald Bassett had indeed seen much action, including on the Somme in 1916, and so this man, who had knocked a full ten years off his real age when moving to England in 1922, was, in fact, the last fighting Tommy."

The camera panned away and the reporter patted an old shoe box. "It's all here, in this box."

"That's me, not him," shouted Frank Goody, alarming fellow residents at the Sea View Home For Retired Servicemen in Brixham.

"What's you Arthur?" said care assistant Rosemary Leach.

"Oh nothing."

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Title Annotation:Letters
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jun 5, 2011
Words:996
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