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Tom's Tale
September 22, 2004
by George Rolph

Tom Furnell was a lovely man. Tall, quiet, thoughtful, slow to anger and very loyal. Tom had always worked hard and since leaving school had been a maker of overcoats, a welder, a tarmac layer and had a short stint as an engineer. It was as a mechanic though that Tom excelled.

Tom had worked on many different kinds of machine. Everything from motorcycles to trucks, outboard motors to family saloons. He was naturally gifted around an engine with a wonderful knack of diagnosing the sickness in a cars engine by sticking his ear against the handle of a long screw driver and, while pressing the blade against the engine, listening for what was making the car ill.

Warm, friendly and with an appetite for both fish and chips and life itself, Tom was a man's man.

I first met Tom on my local beach were I lived in Cornwall during the early 1980's. He was sunbathing in a spot next to mine with his wife and two kids and I laughed as his son pulled the back of his swimming trunks out and dumped an ice cream into them. Watching Tom run to the sea in mock horror and dive in, had us all in fits and was the perfect ice breaker. We all got on well and I spent the whole of the rest of their two week holiday in their company and by their invitation.

One evening we set out to do some fishing on a glass-like sea in a friend's boat I had borrowed for the trip. I took him up the coast to two isolated rocky promontories a few miles out to sea known locally as, "Man and his man." We fished, caught Pollock on my home made lures, talked leisurely about life and watched the sun sinking into the Atlantic ocean as the cold beer and sandwiches sank into us. Just two men getting to know each other and swapping tall stories. It was a great six hours at sea with a man who would become a fast friend, even though we would not meet again for five years.

During that trip I learned a lot about Tom. He had much to be proud of. With virtually no education to speak off he had taught himself to read by listening to recordings of radio plays and following along from books borrowed from his library. As his reading improved he went to night school classes and learned the mathematics he would need later as a mechanic. In his spare time he built radio controlled aircraft and he and his young son and daughter would spend hours flying them at a local club.

Tom was a fierce defender of his family. He used to say to me, "They can do what they like to me but if they hurt my family I will hunt them down." I had no doubt he meant it. He was the sort of man who, though gentle and kind, softly spoken and soppy with the wife and kids, would turn suddenly into Conan the Barbarian if anyone threatened his family.

I had seen that for myself one day when a few local lads began picking on his boy and girl as they played on the beach. Tom had told to them to "Clear off out of it" and they had run to their father with tales of the nasty man who had shouted at them. The boys father was a huge Cornishman who liked his cider and little else. He stormed across the sand shouting about how he would tear out Tom's tongue and, when Tom stood to meet him, I watched my new friend fix his adversary with a cold, green eyed stare and say calmly but with a hint of menace, "Don't! Just turn around and go away. I don't want to shut your ugly mouth and embarrass you in front of your kids. They [the kids] did wrong and I told them off. That's the end of it, unless you want to take it further... Trust me, you do not want to take it further!"

I watched the confidence drain from the drunken giant and he muttered something about, "Kids are always falling out," before turning on his heel and walking away. As the bully left, Tom picked up his Pasty, took a bite and then, with a dead pan face said, "Bugger it! He came to kick sand in my face. I think he missed me and hit this bloody pasty." The laughter that followed broke the remaining tension and everyone relaxed and ate their lunch amid jokes and giggles from the kids.

Tom was a man's man and I liked him. I never got to know his wife very well. She seemed distant, calculating, yet pleasant and friendly also. Tom and I talked on the phone every weekend after their holiday ended and he always mentioned that evening at sea. It was a fond memory for us both.

So it came as a huge shock to hear the thin, slurred, broken voice on the end of my telephone when he called me at home after a long time with no contact. I was instantly concerned and I asked him what was wrong. He had spoken slowly at first. Measuring each word carefully before he uttered it. Then his voice gathered pace as the story gathered momentum. Yet each word was slurred as though he were drunk, or the victim of a stroke. The slurring was caused by neither illness or alcohol, but by anti-depressant drugs. The story he told was of a man spiralling down into an abyss of pain after his wife left him for another man and refused to let him see the children he loved so much.

He told me how, in the three years since she left, he had seen his children once -- in a tiny room in the court house -- where he had tried in vain to get custody and later, simple access to his flesh and blood. He cried as he told me what had happened on that occasion.

Apparently, he had been walking down a corridor in the court when a female solicitor's clerk opened a door just as he passed. He glanced through the door and saw his children standing near his seated ex-wife.

"I had to see them." He told me. "I just wanted to hug them and let them know I love them."

He had brushed past the clerk and the lawyers crowded together in that small room and headed for his kids. The lawyers all rushed in front of him. Inserting themselves into the gap between him and his children. To Tom this was intolerable. Like the bully on the beach all those years before, these men in their sharp suits, posh voices and their greed filled eyes represented a threat to his family.

"GET OUT OF MY WAY!" He had roared.

The lawyers refused. The female clerk began making a call on her mobile phone. Tom tried to push past the assembled lawyers to get to his children. He looked over the closest lawyer's shoulder and saw -- he told me -- his wife sitting calmly, holding the impassive children's hands, and smiling at him.

At that moment Tom said, "Something broke inside me."

He said he was angry, confused, frightened and deeply hurt.

"What hurt the most was the kids. They didn't come to me. Normally they would come to me but they didn't. They all just looked at me with this dead look in their eyes. As if I don't matter anymore."

Tom told me that as he fought to make sense of what was happening and why they were not letting him near his children, he was also fighting a powerful urge to start swinging his fists at the gloating shoal of lawyers before him. They had no right to keep a father from hugging his kids. They were his kids not theirs. Yet it seemed they had stolen them, like well dressed gypsies. They were keeping the children from him behind some invisible force field called "Family Law." Tom was not a lawyer. Tom was a father. Yet now he had to fight himself. He instinctively knew that if he hit one of these preened vultures he would lose any slim chance of seeing his children again. He could not grasp the way the situation in that room was running out of control. If they had just let him hug them he would have left peaceably.

Then the police came in.

The police had entered the crowded room behind him. Summoned by a mobile phone call from the female clerk. Tom told me how he had felt a sudden sharp pain on the top of his head and found himself falling backwards. He said the policeman had grabbed the hair on top of his head, twisted it, then dragged him backwards to the ground. As they cuffed him, Tom began to roar in emotional pain and distress, "I want to see my children! I just want to see my fucking children you bastards!"

As they dragged him into the corridor outside Tom said one of the police officers stood on his knee. "It might have been accidental but it made me scream in pain. My leg was bent over sideways and the pressure on my knee-joint really hurt." For the first time he heard his sons voice call out to him. "Dad! Dad? Are you OK?" That concerned call had given Tom a glimmer of hope.

As he related this to me, I hated those policemen too. I hated them for hurting a man who just could not understand why his children were not allowed to love him anymore. I hated them because, even though they were, "just doing their job," their "job" was no defence for what they were doing. Some of them may be fathers also. 'How would they have felt?' I reasoned. Why didn't they tell the lawyers to leave and let a father hug his children?

Later, in a court hearing, the judge told him that he had already demonstrated he was an unfit parent by his "violent and emotional outburst in this very building."

The truth is, Tom was the only fit parent in that room that day!

All contact was refused.

Tom broke.

After that call I never heard from Tom again, yet his thin and broken voice still haunts me. Once, when I was walking along Shaftsbury Avenue in London's West End, I found myself looking for Tom's face among the homeless and the derelict sleeping in the doorways. I hope he is well and that somehow he managed to see his son and daughter again. I hope that his wife will someday pay for the pain she poured into Tom's once proud heart. I hope his children will track him down, understand his agony and help him to heal. Finally, I hope that the judge never sleeps well again.

Let the men be fathers! Let the people say, "No More Silence!" Let our hearts never get so hard that a man's pain means less that a child's when they are kept from each other by overpaid vultures and laws made for revenge and not, as is so often claimed, in the best interests of the child.

In the name of God, it is time to stop this abuse of fathers and their children.

No More Silence.

Copyright © George Rolph August 2004

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