‘Well this isn’t what I was expecting,’ I sighed to myself with disappointment.
I had arrived in Galashiels, Scotland, to start my fashion degree at Heriot-Watt University, and it was the quietest place I had ever been to.
There was no one around.
It was a far cry from the buzzing uni town I’d expected.
The place had a B&Q, a Wilkos and an Argos, and that was about it.
It certainly wasn’t the buzzy city life I envisaged.
‘You’ll be fine!’ my mum, Collette, 54, and her partner Vincent, 57, assured me, as we made up my single bed in my tiny room. ‘It’s quite pleasant really, you’ll make friends and settle in.’
Little did I know, I would make lots of pals.
But one, in particular, was very special.
Seeing as there wasn’t much to do in my new home, I got a job at the Ladbrokes bookmakers to fill my time and earn a bit of extra cash while I could.
All of the guys that came in to place their bets were really chatty and friendly and I got on with all of them well.
But there was something about one in particular – 94-year-old Tommy – which made me warm to him.
I could tell he was lonely – there was just something in his eyes.
I knew he wanted to talk.
He came in most days to put 2p bets on.
He wasn’t a massive gambler. I could sense that – it was the social side that was important to him. He just wanted to have a natter.
‘Hello Tommy,’ I greeted him warmly every day. ‘How’s it going today?’
He filled me in on his day, chatting about what he’d had for lunch or what he had been watching on the TV.
But we started chatting more and more every time and he started to hang around until closing time.
I loved him keeping me company and despite our 74 year age gap, we had loads in common.
We loved listening to old music and getting a pint and he taught me loads about history while I told him all about my passion for fashion.
‘What are you up to this week then Tommy?’ I asked him.
‘Oh you know,’ he said in his broad Scottish accent. ‘Same old – a walk in the park perhaps, a bit of TV, Fish and chip for tea and watching Strictly on Saturday.’
‘Fish and chips,’ I said. ‘Very nice’.
He stood there explaining how much he loved Strictly Come Dancing while I grabbed my bag and put my coat on and started heading out the door.
‘I love dancing too Tommy,’ I laughed. He was such a funny guy with so much life left in him. I wanted to keep him company.
‘Come and have dinner with me sometime Tommy,’ I said, zipping up my jacket.
‘What’s your favourite? Fish and chips?’ I asked him. ‘I’ll make it for you – whatever you fancy.’
Funnily enough, it was actually Tommy who ended up making me dinner.
I went over to his bungalow for fried eggs, chips and bacon once.
‘This is delicious, thank you,’ I beamed, a ravenous student, tucking in.
‘You’re welcome,’ he smiled.
We both enjoyed each other’s company.
‘What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever done Tommy?’ I said as I shoved my ketchup-drenched chunky chips into my mouth.
‘Oh, where do I start?’ he chuckled.
He told me about how he lived in Egypt, how he was the first man to bring Weetabix to Scotland and how he used to sell cigarettes before becoming a taxi driver.
He opened up about his sons – Jeff, 58, Hugh, 66, and Derek, 68 – and his wife, Margaret, who used to be a nurse, and who died in 2014.
But what surprised me most was how progressive Tommy was.
He was real feminist and had such an open mind – his young spirit was definitely why we bonded so quickly.
Soon our meals together became a weekly event and I looked forward to them.
I had four other close mates, my own age, who I lived with at uni and Tommy got to meet them soon enough. They instantly loved him too.
He drove us to and from uni every day which definitely beat the bus.
He was always there 10 minutes early and we all squeezed into his car.
‘Morning girls,’ he’d always say. ‘What’s it gonna be on the radio today?’ – always choosing to blast out an old classic.
He wasn’t just our taxi driver though – even though he was an insanely good driver for a 94-year-old – we often went to Wetherspoons together and got in a few pints.
He looked like a right ladies man having four 20-year-olds hanging off his arm.
He obviously never thought about it like that though. In fact, he loved to joke about our boyfriends or lack of.
‘What about him over there?’ he chuckled, pointing towards a group of lads hanging around the bar.
‘Haha no way,’ I giggled. Tommy and I bonded over a lot but one thing we never saw eye to eye on was our taste in men.
My friends loved it too – none of them batted an eyelid.
He just loved chatting to anyone and having people around and he gave us so much wisdom, it was so refreshing.
After three years of uni, Tommy was truly my best friend so I invited him to my graduation.
‘Get your best suit together Tommy!’ I told him. ‘You’re coming to my graduation ceremony.’
He was overjoyed and so excited.
‘I’m going to be the last one on the dancefloor,’ he said.
He met my mum and was part of all the photos – because he really was truly part of my family and I couldn’t have got through uni without him.
But my course came to an end and it was time for me to leave.
We grabbed a coffee and sat in St Andrews, Edinburgh, Scotland.
‘This won’t change our friendship,’ I said to Tommy, softening the blow that I was going to be moving to New York to start a job in marketing for the year.
I was worried about him – we had become such a huge part of each other’s lives, our weekly dinners and bingo trips were part of the routine.
Of course, he was thrilled for me.
‘That’s amazing Aofie,’ he said. ‘You’re such a star, it’s going to be amazing.’
But I could see him welling up.
‘I’ll call you everyday Tommy, I promise,’ I said.
‘I know,’ he said. He told me to put ‘New York, New York’ by Frank Sinatra on and we danced to it together – it was his way of showing me he was going to be OK.
We hugged each other and cried for ages, still not believing that we weren’t going to see each other for a whole year.
The first thing I did when I arrived in my new apartment was call Tommy.
‘I’m here!’ I said, shouting down the phone.
He was thrilled for me – embarking on a new adventure.
Nine months later and I haven’t missed a single day, especially when the coronavirus pandemic hit and Tommy had to shield on his own.
‘I can’t do anything Aoife,’ he would say to me. ‘It’s so hard.’
I did everything I could to make him feel better – reassuring him that I would be back soon to keep him company.
I can’t wait to get back to the UK to see Tommy again.
He’s had a difficult year so I’m going to take him to the seaside to have fish and chips and we’re going to catch up – just like the old days.
We really are best friends and I’m so lucky to have Tommy in my life, I never thought I would find such a valuable friendship at university – let alone with someone 94 years old.
But we really are the best of friends and nothing will ever change that.