Thursday 2 April 2009

Finally acting on Reg's good advice

14st 13lb, 6.0 units. Today I had to leave home early for a meeting in the southern part of the county. Although I am as renowned for my pinpoint promptness as Mrs H is for being late for everything, I have a long-standing blank spot about the Tyne Valley and points beyond it. I remain dumbly convinced that it will only take me an hour to drive there, despite repeated empirical evidence that it actually requires at least 15 minutes longer than that. Today was no exception, with the added annoyance that I had not allowed myself enough time to take the scenic cross-country route through Rothbury and Cambo, which would have been most enjoyable, with the roof of the convertible down and my closely cropped white hair being ruffled by the wind. At least by speeding (not in any illegal sense) along some of the county’s few dual carriageways I was able to pitch up only 10 minutes later than specified.

I think I got away with it.

After this I had a more leisurely drive into Newcastle, through places like Stocksfield and Riding Mill which I had hitherto only known as dots on the railway map of Britain. I encountered no fewer than five sets of temporary traffic lights on this comparatively short trip, as the local authorities worked themselves into a frenzy to spend the remainder of their budgets before the end of the financial year on Sunday, and thus avoid a clawback in 2009/10. I had a most enjoyable lunch at the Hotel du Vin on City Road with a fellow columnist and a distinguished local educationalist who displayed a refreshing lack of discretion and political correctness, but whose best interests I intend to serve by silence. It was warm enough to eat most of our meal outdoors on the terrace, which was an unexpected bonus.

After this, bearing in mind the gridlock of yesterday, I drove home via an alternative route that took me close to the suburban street where I grew up. I could not resist a detour to look at the very house. The leaded windows and wooden front door had been replaced in “sensible” uPVC, and the twin “lucky” rowan trees and yellow privet hedge that I spent so much of my teenage years trimming had been bulldozed along with the rest of the front garden, now block paved to provide additional parking space and an appropriate home for two huge wheelie bins.

I was reassured, somehow, by the fact that the beech hedge I remembered old Reg Foster planting at number 44 next door in the late 1960s was still flourishing. Reg was a thin man with a moustache who knew a great deal about DIY, gardening and the natural world, and what little understanding I possess of any of the above I absorbed from him (though sadly I am conscious of having forgotten far more than I have retained). He lived with his mother until she died of old age, then on his own, taking early retirement to spend more time on his multifarious hobbies: painting, fishing, playing his baby grand piano, growing his own vegetables, playing golf. He certainly never owned a television, and if he possessed a wireless or a gramophone they were never audible in our semi-detached des res on the other side of the party wall. He was particularly proud of his refrigerator, which was a sort of polystyrene box that worked through water evaporating from a saucer-shaped indentation in the top. I swear I am not making this up.

I envied Reg. (Well, maybe not his fridge.) His was always the sort of lifestyle to which I aspired. It was probably just as well, then, that my mother asked me to accompany her on a hospital visit when I was at home for a university vacation in the mid-1970s, and Reg was suffering from what proved to be a fatal dose of pernicious anaemia. He was no great age, and while he was certainly the sickest person I had ever seen up to that point, I did not realize that I was seeing him for the last time. It was the only occasion so far on which I have received advice from someone on their deathbed. He had little energy, but he made his points forcefully in a quavering voice. “They will tell you that accountancy isn’t boring,” he said. “Don’t believe them.” I took that one on board right away, and think I can safely say that I am never going to make the mistake of acquiring an accountancy qualification now.

Then he said “Your mother is a good woman.” (Tick.) “You don’t want to end up on your own like me. Get married.”

Well, it has taken me a good long time to act on your advice, Reg, but good women are hard to track down these days (as I guess you must have found in your day, too – or did you just leave it a bit too late?) But then you never had the advantage of the Internet to help you in the quest. At least I never forgot your wise words, and have finally and improbably ended up married to what I think is one of the very best.

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