Tom Bagshot was, by nature, cautious. He had joined the Circle eight weeks ago and had slowly managed to become a regular member without ever really registering on the consciousness of the other members. He joined in discussions whenever he could do so unobtrusively, but only because not to do so would draw unwanted attention. He was a Ninja member: like John Paul Jones*, unheralded, but always good to have around. A human fitted carpet, useful for when somebody drops the china, but barely noticed otherwise. Ironically, it was the appearance of Jeff – an even more introverted character – that alerted some of the other members to the presence of Tom and the realisation that they knew very little about him.
He had assumed a position in the Circle between Penny and Jane, and he appeared to be perfectly happy with the arrangement. In truth, Tom was perfectly happy with most things in general. He had no great regrets, he kept himself to himself and in the main the others were happy with that. He looked like a man who would not have too much of a story to tell. He would say himself, that whatever his ‘best days’ were, he had left them behind him long ago. He was not prone to bitterness: things could be better, but they could also be worse. The glass may well be half empty, but at least it was because he had drunk the other half.
The one slight niggle that Tom carried around with him was that everybody always seemed to assume that they knew him, that they had known him for years. Every time he sat on a bus, somebody was bound to sit, fidgeting uncomfortably beside to him before, unable to contain themselves any longer, asking “Excuse me. I don’t mean to be rude, but do I know you from somewhere?”
“I don’t believe so,” was his stock reply, but it only seemed to spur his new companion into suggesting a thousand ways in which they may have been acquainted: “Did you teach at St Giles Junior School in 1975?”, or “Were you in that thing on the telly with the robot?”, or “I think you delivered my sister…” He couldn’t get away from it, but he had to admit that in the great scheme of things, it was little more than the mildest of irritations.
He had developed the ability to blend in with the background most of the time: other people knew he was there, but unless they fell over him, they never troubled him too much. And then Jeff joined the Circle and everybody introduced themselves to him until, eventually, all eyes turned on Tom. “Tom Bagshot,” he had said with absolutely no intention of pushing the narrative any further, but his ‘cloak of invisibility’ had been tugged from his shoulders and he was left exposed. Deidre was first to spot his discomfort and she would never forgive herself if she missed the opportunity to deepen it. “You’ve never really told us anything about yourself, Tom,” she said. “We’d all love to know.”
“There’s not much to tell really,” he said, falling back onto an overused mantra which he knew would not suffice on this occasion.
“Well, are you married?” asked Penny, who could not have regretted it more quickly if she had tried.
“No,” said Tom, conscious of saving her blushes. “I have no family. A lifelong bachelor I’m afraid. I think I may well have met a few Mrs Rights along the way, but unfortunately they were all attached to Mr Rights – or at least to Mr OKs, but still much bigger than me…”
Tom was certainly not ready to admit to the Circle that he was gay: he had never admitted it to his parents, his friends or even himself come to that, until very recently. His father had died thinking that his son was just unusually shy around women; a typical only child with a slightly strange taste in clothes. His mother died knowing it all, desperate for him to confide in her, but knowing that the time had passed long ago, so she did what mothers do and quietly enquired on the (shamefully few) occasions when Tom visited her, whether he had any ‘special friends’. He certainly could not have told her that the only person he had ever really got close to was a man with whom he had shared a cell in Strangeways prison. It was a shame about him. Tom would have liked to protect him, but fighting was not in his nature, besides, if the price of peace was to leave a cellmate to his fate then so be it. No point in getting your own face messed up over it. Tom regretted his inaction of course; he had smelled a whole lot better than most of the people with whom he was forced to share a cell, and there had been many of them over the years.
But his days of crime were all behind him now: he had decided to go straight – you must make you own mind up – on the day of his last trial after the judge had insisted on referring to him as a ‘common conman’. That hurt. He could live with ‘conman’ – although he preferred ‘hustler’ which sounded so much more glamorous – but ‘common’: it was so annoying. Tom Bagshot – or whatever he was called at that time: it is so easy to forget – was many things, but definitely not common. You don’t get to be ‘Europe’s Most Wanted’ by being common. You don’t get to see yourself on the front page of the newspapers by being ‘common’. You don’t get to have your face telegraphed across the world. It was all so very demeaning…
“It’s just that…” Tom’s attention was dragged back into the room by Penny who was staring at him, he thought, in a most peculiar fashion. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” she said, “but don’t I know you from somewhere?”
*The lesser-known bassist, keyboard player and songwriting member of Led Zeppelin