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Tom-Tom surprised everyone
By Colin O’Sullivan
Tom-Tom surprised everyone. One minute he was sitting like the rest of us at the meeting, our binders open in front of us, our pens in our breast pockets, our calculators out and all eyes on the chart as the strategy leader for that day, Jim Perkins, was herding us through profit margins and the other finer points of fiscal fantasy that no one was really up for on that hot, humid day; the next minute, well, the next…Tom-Tom just surprised everyone. Tom-Tom surprised every single one of us that day. Tom-Tom got up…and he danced.
Tom-Tom once inherited a pair of small drums, mini congas or something, from some uncle’s African visit, that’s how Tom Shea became known as Tom-Tom, for the soft tapping rhythms he would make at night while watching TV when the kids were asleep. He wasn’t really that interested in music, no more than the rest of us forty-year-olds in the company. He had his record collection and we had ours. He wasn’t a musician; never really spoke about music at all as far as I can recall. But as Perkins flipped the next Venn Diagram on the chart that day, it was Tom-Tom who flipped right along with it. He just turned. All of a sudden. Turned loose. It was Tom-Tom who surprised everyone. He got up and he danced.
His choice of song was also surprising, for as Tom-Tom swayed to the centre of the meeting-room floor he started singing Bob Marley’s “Stir it up.” Tom-Tom wasn’t into reggae as far as anyone was aware; in fact no one in the office had ever shown any real love for that genre of music. But when Tom-Tom began we couldn’t take our eyes off him. He just danced his way into the middle and swayed and gyrated and his voice got louder and louder as he sang the simple song. He smiled too, this otherworldly smile, as if in some terrific trance that excluded the rest of us and was for him alone. He closed his eyes and he tossed his head back and forth as the words of the song echoed around the room. He flounced and spun and his feet made a great thumping rhythm on the floor. We all watched him. What else could we do? Perkins watched with his mouth open not knowing how to put an end to it. We all just stared, enthralled, in awe at the sheer unexpectedness of the mad moment. I might be wrong but I think some of us were dying to get up and join him, to gyrate right there alongside his slight and wiry frame, even on that hot, clammy day, even the heftiest of us I believe wanted to get up and shake along too. But none of us budged. We could feel the sticky leather of the seats under our bums, wet and sweaty, but none of us made a single move.
We speculated for weeks afterwards, at the vending machine, or bending to the refrigerator, or standing at the urinals, as to why Tom-Tom had done what he did that particular day. We never asked him about it and he quit soon after, found another job somewhere – no one knows where he and the family ended up. So what was it? Some kind of breakdown? Can breakdowns look so content? Trouble at home? But Marie was the perfect wife and no one heard even a hint of unrest, it couldn’t have been that. His kids were fine and healthy too: Gemma and Johnny, straight-A kids, rule-abiding, pleasant, the kind of kids you’d see on Mothers’ Day adverts giving hugs, calendar kids.
Job stress? Could that have been it? Perhaps, but didn’t everyone have that? Wasn’t every man in that office half-strangled by the noose of the tie they hung around their neck every morning, and wasn’t every woman dying to escape from those tight business skirts and into a comfortable pair of old well-worn jeans? Everyone had stress. If you didn’t have stress you weren’t doing your job properly. It wasn’t that. Couldn’t have been that. What was it though? What was it?
When the song was finished that afternoon, Tom-Tom sat down, still smiling, and took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his brow. He said nothing and we said nothing either and Perkins reached into the drawer to get another black marker, because the last one was running out, and the lines on the flip-chart were looking weak.