Mr Petherbridge

I once worked with a guy called Tom. That was a long time ago, back in 1979. He left after a few months to do a full time degree course at Sunderland Uni. We kept in touch, made easier by a good friend of mine (Ian) attending the same course. I guess you could say we were friends too.

We formed a social group, me, my then wife Gill, Ian, Tom and Louise. Things were great for a couple of years and we were a pretty close bunch. But, as they do, some cracks started to form and the group slowly started to dissolve. In Tom’s case, his mother remarried and moved to Wales. Since he was living at home at the time, he ended up moving too. He held back a little while, though, to finish his degree, occupying Louise’s spare room in Washington.

Following his move, in the early 80s, we lost touch. Remember, this was well before the worldwide web, email and mobile phones. It was a shame, but that’s the way things tend to go. And maybe we were all ready to go our different ways.

Around 15 (I’m really not sure) years later, I bumped into Tom while waiting for a bus home after work. He was in the area to visit his Dad (who he didn’t really get on with) and to see old places. At that time, he had a share in an audio company. Our reunion was interrupted by the arrival of my bus. We vaguely committed to keeping in touch; he still had my landline number. It was an awkward meeting, though, and I didn’t really expect to hear from him again.

Rolling forward to 2016/7, something reminded me of Tom. I don’t remember what, but I put his name into a search engine. His name, I should say, was Tom Whelan.

Unexpectedly, his name appeared in a lot of forum entries relating to a now defunct audio company. The company had been based in Barry, where I knew Tom had moved, so I was pretty confident I’d found the right person. His email address was included, so I gave it a shot. Looking back, I’m not sure why I did that. Maybe it was because there were loose ends after group dissolved. Possibly guilt too, since I’d not made an effort to keep in touch all those years ago.

He quickly replied and many email, then WhatsApp, exchanges later, we’d caught up. He’d married a Doctor, a Russian, and was himself self employed in electronics. He travelled daily from Barry to Bristol for work. Our exchanges continues, sometimes with gaps of weeks, even months, but we’d finally managed to keep in touch. Because of his Dad’s past bad behaviour towards his mother, and him too, he’d adopted his mother’s name, Petherbridge.

Before the Pandemic, he travelled to Russia with his wife to spend time with her family. He posted a bar of Russian chocolate to me. There was talk of him visiting the Northeast and a reunion of sorts with Ian. I’d toyed with the idea of making the trip to Barry. I kept him updated after the occasional lunch with Ian.

During my last lunch meeting with Ian, I mentioned my concern that I’d not heard from Tom for a few months. This wasn’t in itself unusual, since we often had those gaps. But this time was different. I’d sent Tom a picture of the building we’d both worked in, in March, but I’d had no response. Ian convinced me that I was probably worrying about nothing, as I would have done for him. Ian sent him a message, just in case.

As more time passed, my concerns returned. Ian hadn’t had a reply and I’d had no reply to an email I’d sent (in case he’d ended up with a new number.

A few months ago, I’d bought a pallet of beer from a brewery in Wales. This was soon followed by another order. The brewery is based in Barry. I asked the brewery if someone could call at Tom’s house, if anyone was passing nearby. Just to check he was ok.

On Monday, I received an email from the Brewery, asking for my number. Knowing that this wasn’t going to be good news, I quickly replied. They rang straight away.

They’d called that morning, but there was no answer at Tom’s house. So the tried a neighbour’s house. The neighbour told them that Tom had fallen ill a few months ago. Just a pee infection, but he’d developed sepsis and passed away.

Both Tom and I knew that we’d never re-establish that friendship from all those years ago. We’d become different people and everything we’d had in common had been left behind. Still, I’ve been feeling pretty sad since that phone call.

Anyway, goodbye Mr Petherbridge. If the pub we used to frequent on a Friday lunchtime still existed, I’d go there and raise a glass to you.

Tom Whelan, New Year, 1982.