I had always loved my Uncle Bill.
My earliest memories are of being in his workshop, watching him tinker with old cars, a hobby I went on to enjoy throughout my life. Looking back on it I can see I must have been a nuisance to him, but he had never once made me feel rejected, indeed he spent a lot of time encouraging me to get involved. The day ‘we’ rebuilt an engine when I was about ten, and I heard it start for the first time, is one of the happiest memories of my life.
Which was why I was so upset when I heard he’d died suddenly at his home in Yorkshire. Auntie Alice had two lovely daughters, agreeable sons-in-law and several grandchildren, so she wasn’t alone, but I knew that she’d be in pieces.
The day I drove up from Kent for the funeral was in cold October, the sky as grey as gunmetal and my gloom exacerbated by a constant drizzle.
~ ~ ~
As we stood around the graveside and each tossed in a handful of soil, I became aware of the powerful smell of Uncle Bill’s pipe smoke, a rich tobacco scent that I always associated with him. I looked around. There were no fires, no one was smoking a pipe nearby, so I knew it had to be some kind of memory trick, for smells can evoke memories like nothing else.
In the house afterwards, Auntie Alice took me into the living room, away from the others, and handed over a large box.
“There you are Jamie love, you have it. Bill brought this fancy car radio to replace the one in his old Jaguar, but he never got round to fitting it. He’d want you to have it.”
“That’s really kind,” I protested, “but what about—”
“No, you and Bill had this thing for cars, he’d have wanted you to have that, and all his tools too. The boys in my family aren’t interested in mechanics. My Bill thought the world of you, lad, he’d have wanted you to have them.”
So I packed all Bill’s ancient wrenches, jacks and goodness knows what else into my Range Rover and drove home later that evening. I’d decided to make a start, then stop at a motorway motel, and finish the journey in the morning.
Funnily enough, my own car radio was broken, and on a long journey a radio is company that I’d really missed. So before setting out, I took Bill’s new radio from the box, and, to my delight, found that taking out my old one and replacing it was only the work of half an hour or so.
Speeding along the motorway, the fog came down suddenly, making it hard to see ahead. I slowed right down and switched on my fog lights.
I’d been listening to a news programme, when it was suddenly interrupted:
This is an important newsflash. There has been a serious pile up on the M1 motorway near to junction 35, involving a number of vehicles and the motorway has been closed. Anyone travelling in a southerly direction will be directed to leave at junction 36 and take another route. Police are on the scene…
Bugger, I thought. Then I considered the poor people involved in the accident: perhaps there’d been fatalities, so my inconvenience was nothing compared to what they were suffering.
It was strange. The announcement had come just before the nine o’clock news, and I was past junction 37, yet I couldn’t see any lights ahead, indicating police presence, or emergency warning signs, telling me that the motorway was closing.
And when I reached junction 36 there were still no warning signs, but I turned off, reaching another road, then parked in the first parking lay-by I came to, so I could look at the map and work out my new route. But tiredness had taken its toll, and, once I’d parked, I fell asleep almost instantly, forgetting to switch the radio off.
Much later I work up abruptly. For some unaccountable reason I felt a frisson of fear. I shivered. Then an announcement came from the radio:
There has been a serious accident on the M1 motorway with several fatalities and a number of vehicles involved. It happened at around 9.20 this evening, and the motorway has just been closed…
The same announcement that I’d heard an hour ago – I looked at my watch and the car clock. They both said 10 o’clock.
But I’d heard the exact same announcement at nine o’clock. Yet the announcer had just said the accident had happened at 9.20, twenty minutes after I’d heard about it.
I shivered again.
Then smelt the familiar scent of Uncle Bill’s tobacco.
And I knew he was sitting right there beside me.
(picture courtesy Brigitte Werner)