The two friends were members of the Middlesex Regiment and had been in the battle for Hong Kong in 1941 before both being captured by the Japanese and interned in a POW camp until 1945. They were in some ways very lucky because they came home, when many others didn’t. After the war they returned to the town they both left years before and took up work in one of the many large industries outside of London. They were more than friends, they were brothers, linked by exposure to the horrors of men and the love found in times of life threatening adversity.
Norman never married. He just never got round to it despite becoming a strong man of few words that attracted women. It just never happened and when asked why, in moments of drunkenness, which were few, he would say through tears that rolled down his weathered cheeks, that he felt guilty being happy when so many men didn’t come home. It was a common behaviour amongst those that made it back, and to see a man crying whilst in deep discussion over a pint of beer was a common sight back then.
Tom, however, returned to his sweetheart Mary and were married within a year, once his weight and health improved that is. Norman was his best man at the wedding, and despite knowing that his regular trips to the pub and fishing expeditions might be curtailed by Tom’s new love, it transpired that the unit became a threesome. Norman was often invited for dinner and on occasion they shared a car on camping trips in summer. They all got on well and that is how Mary wanted it. She knew the two men had an unspoken bond that she could not compete with, and therefore embraced it and took the best that she could from it.
In the years that followed Tom and Mary had three children. Two girls and a boy all born two years apart. They grew up in loving household and had the added love and support from Uncle Norman. They grew up fast and decided that 1960’s Britain was too stuck in its ways and rebelled like many teenagers of the time. They lost one daughter in a motorbike accident and also their son, which to Tom and Norman’s concern, joined the army. He was subsequently killed in Aden within his first year of service. The surviving daughter emigrated to Australia and on one occasion Tom and Mary purchased airline tickets, with Norman’s financial help, to visit her. She never travelled back to Britain and her parents never boarded an aircraft again, preferring to pitch a tent on the South Downs and take walking holidays, sometimes with Norman.
Tom had suffered with both dysentery and malaria as a POW as did many, however, repeated malaria attacks over the years and being a heavy smoker took its toll on Tom. His breathing became more laboured as the years past until a tank of oxygen became a common site Mary’s kitchen. One day, whilst sitting on the tow path of the local canal, fishing, Tom took Norman into his confidence and explained, in words he found hard to find, that he needed his good friend’s help. When the lengthy conversation was over, the two men shook hands and sat for a while just holding their grasp as if to acknowledge that they had a deep respect and love for each other.
And so, in the final ten years of Tom’s life, Norman would arrive for Sunday lunch every week without fail. Regular as clockwork Norman would knock twice on the back door, let himself in and deposit two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale on the table and hand Mary a small bunch of flowers. Always the same beer, and always a small bunch of seasonal flowers. The two men would sit in the front room, Tom with his oxygen tank now permanently next to his chair, drink their one bottle of beer in glasses and talk about the old days. Mary would serve dinner and three would eat and enjoy each others company without any talk of war. After the meal Norman and Mary would clear the table and wash up, Tom would return to his chair, take his medication and eventually fall asleep.
After hanging up the damp tea towels and placing leftovers in the refrigerator, Norman and Mary would would check that Tom was comfortable, and taking each others hand they would alight the stairs to the spare room. Every Sunday was the same, Norman would help his good friends in something that they as a couple could not manage, but was important to them. Tom trusted and loved the two closest people in his life and the arrangement met everyone’s needs.
When Tom eventually died, Norman still came for Sunday lunch, and yet never again visited the spare bedroom with Mary. The arrangement was about the three of them as friends, and now there were two, it didn’t seem right. They were happy with each other’s company, and at nearly 80 years of age, they agreed the stairs were challenge enough!