My late father, Heartbeat author Peter Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea) in his study. He used to paste rejection letters to his walls to spur him on
The Countryman was my dad, Peter N Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea), who died on 21st April 2017 from prostate cancer.
He was a full-time writer for more than 35 years, and before that, wrote in his spare time from his job as a policeman. He wrote stories based on his experiences and they were turned into the hugely successful TV series Heartbeat. But he also wrote much more, including crime novels, detective novels, short stories, local history books, collections of folk stories and tales, and also columns for local papers.
When he was younger, he used to read the Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times by a well-known writer and local history expert, Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough. The Major had always been an inspiration and source of encouragement to my dad, who dreamed of taking over his column, so when he passed away, Dad was thrilled to be invited to take over. He continued that column for 41 years, and another (Rural View) for around 30 years in the Malton Gazette and Herald. Despite his success, he had a huge sense of loyalty and would not give up the weekly columns, continuing right up until a couple of weeks before his death, although towards the end, they were a struggle for him.
After his death, I began to wonder what would happen to his columns, and felt it would be a shame for them to simply disappear after so many years. With support from my family, I called the editors of the papers who readily agreed to my taking them over, even though I don’t have Dad’s writing pedigree, nor his extensive knowledge of all things country and Yorkshire. But, as my brother pointed out, I do have access to my dad’s archive, 40-plus years’ worth of columns to draw upon.
So I decided to take each column from the same week 40 years ago and see what I could use to inspire my column for today. What I have found is not only a wealth of material, but that it is bringing back some memories that were long-since forgotten, memories of my dad, and of our family, of which he was so proud. And it feels like I am getting to know my dad in a way I never expected nor thought possible. It’s an honour to be able to do it and, step by step, week by week, it is helping me make my way along the long road of grief that his passing has left behind.
As I write this column (about 2 weeks before you will read it) I’m disappointed to have to report that I am yet to hear the uplifting sound of a cuckoo’s call. It is one of those quintessentially British sounds of the countryside that heralds the firm arrival of warmer weather and brings to mind things like afternoon tea, country fairs and cricket on the village green.
But, as my dad says in his column from 13th May 1978, it is a bit of a mystery a to why we associate this bird so firmly with our shores, as it is not a native, but merely an annual visitor who chooses to come here for the summer to breed when its own home in Africa proves too hot to bear.
The cuckoo is a bit like the school bully of the avian world. They pick on small defenceless little birds, like the dunnock or meadow pipit, and when they are not looking, hoick an egg out of the unwitting little birds’ nests and lay their own in its place. After about 12 days, the young cuckoo hatches, and immediately displays its bullying nature by chucking all the other chicks out so that it can have all the food to itself.
When all is said and done, the dunnocks and pipits must be a bit dim not to notice that their cute little fledglings have vanished and been replaced by a ravenous monster that looks nothing like them. But no, they keep on feeding the imposter until they are dwarfed by it, at which point it flies off without a backward glance or even a thank you. Unbelievable.
Cuckoos have always been notoriously difficult to spot, and even more so today, as they sadly find themselves on the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, along with 66 other species. They have halved in number over the past 20 years, with an estimate of 15,000 breeding pairs due here this year.
One in four UK birds are of conservation concern and need some form of action to halt and turn around their decline. In 2015, there were a startling 20 new species added to the red list, which sees many familiar names under threat, such as the herring gull, kittiwake, nightingale, hawfinch, yellowhammer, house sparrow, tree sparrow, starling and song thrush to name just a few. Even more worrying is that some, such as the puffin, turtle dove, pochard and Slavonian grebe, are facing global extinction.
Like I mentioned last week when talking about butterflies, there are things you can do to help, such as to support the RSPB’s and other bird charities’ fundraising and conservation efforts, which are already seeing some successes. Bitterns were considered extinct by the 1870s, and yet now, their population is at the highest it has been for 200 years. Similarly the avocet disappeared from the UK in the 19th century, only to make a tentative return in the 1940s, and now, in a large part thanks to the RSPB and other conservation efforts restoring and preserving their natural habitats, their numbers are healthy again.
While I was writing this piece, I began to wonder about the word ‘cuckold’ and it’s relationship to the bird, and sure enough, they are connected. We are all probably aware that a cuckold is a man whose wife has been unfaithful, but the cuckoo connection stems from where another man’s baby is raised in the home and at the expense of the cuckold. He is a human dunnock.
The first written use of the term is recorded in a 12th or 13th century satirical poem called The Owl and the Nightingale (author unknown), and then it was used again by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in the late 14th century. Shakespeare was also very fond of it, and a good number of his characters were either unwitting cuckolds, or (rightly or wrongly) suspected their wives to have cuckolded them.
These days it also has the unfortunate fame of being a term in common usage in certain fields of pornography, a fact I only discovered by accident when researching this column. I won’t enlighten you on what eyebrow-raising websites I stumbled upon (albeit only on a Google search results list!), but needless to say, I swiftly changed my search criteria!
It’s always a bit of thrill when I look back to my Dad’s columns and find myself mentioned. On 6th May 1978, the 10-year-old me had found a caterpillar and wanted to know which butterfly it would turn into. It was an inch long, had two sets of short legs, six at the front and eight at the rear, with rows of yellow dots running the length of its pale green body. The head was small and green too.
Dad couldn’t identify it at first glance, but, as is still the case today, his study was stuffed full of reference books which he called upon, and sure enough, within minutes we had identified it as the caterpillar of the Meadow Brown butterfly.
The Meadow Brown is one of the UK’s most common and prolific butterflies with mainly brown wings, in the middle of which are what look like beady black little eyes with tiny white pupils. The females can be distinguished by their obvious splash of orange towards the tips of the upper wings. They emerge from their chrysalis’ around late June and are active over the summer months.
Sadly, some of the 59 treasured UK butterfly species are not faring so well. In fact, butterflies are one of the most threatened groups of wildlife in the country, with two-thirds of their species in decline.
Last year, the small tortoiseshell, once one of our most populous varieties, was placed on Countryfile Magazine’s list of the ten most endangered animal species in Britain, alongside natterjack toads and red squirrels. The reason was its rapid recent decline of 77% over the ten years up to 2013. Year after year of wet springs and summers, which some attribute to global warming, have led to a serious decline in its natural habitat.
Other perhaps less well known species also fared very badly over the past couple of years. In 2017, the Grizzled Skipper and the Grayling suffered their worst year since records began. Grizzled Skipper numbers have halved since the 1970s, and Grayling numbers are down 63% over the last decade.
The Cabbage White was one of those I saw most often growing up, and so was sad to learn that it is in a state of long-term decline. I do remember a bed of nasturtiums in the back garden which used to be teeming with them. They’d lay their bright yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, and then soon dozens of caterpillars would appear and feast on them, much to my mum’s aggravation.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Red Admiral is up 78% compared to 2016, and the Comma is up an impressive 91%, with both increasing in numbers over the long-term.
The remedy for stopping the decline is pretty straightforward, if not always simple to implement. If their natural habitat is available, then the species will thrive. The thing is though, different species prefer different types of habitat, and not all are easy, or even possible, to replicate.
There are things you can do to attract certain butterflies to your garden and help keep numbers healthy. They need flowering plants right from early spring through to late September (the Internet is a rich source of recommendations), and if you choose different plants, you will attract different species. Place your flowers in warm, sunny spots sheltered from the wind, and put the same plants in blocks together. Increase the life of your flowers with regular deadheading and by mulching with organic compost. Avoid insecticides and pesticides, and also, if you’re buying compost, get one that is peat free. Peat, which is a declining natural resource, is an important habitat for a number of special animals and plants, including the Large Heath butterfly.
Sadly, it’s rather difficult for us to use our gardens to help the most threatened species I mentioned earlier, as their habitats are very different. The Grizzled Skipper thrives in woodland glades, wild grasslands, abandoned industrial sites and even rubbish tips. The Grayling enjoys coastal cliffs, dunes, salt marshes and old quarries. But what we can do is support conservation efforts by raising awareness, volunteering and fundraising.
I can’t end this column without commenting on the spectacular names given to some of these fluttering marvels. Who is responsible for Grizzled Skipper? Was it an old voyage-weary ship’s captain? And what about Mountain Ringlet and Glanville Fritillary? And you can only wonder how Cryptic Wood White and Purple Hairstreak got their names (Source: butterfly-conservation.com).
Following my column in January about mascot goats, I was intrigued to find out from Dad’s column from 29th April 1978 that one of North Yorkshire’s most famous sons had his own companion goat.
Captain James Cook took a goat on one of his famous voyages, and she was so important, that we have a record of her 1772 death, the anniversary of which falls this week on 28th April.
Dad says he didn’t know its name, but “such was the fame of this goat that it was admitted to Greenwich Hospital as a pensioner. My information is somewhat scant on this subject, for I do not know the gender of the animal, nor its age.”
Well of course, that was a challenge to me to fill in some of the blanks about this famous creature, and those of you paying attention might have spotted that I’ve already revealed one fact – the goat was a she.
There was a very practical reason why Cook would take a female goat – she was a constant source of fresh milk. In his time, illnesses were rife among sailors who spent months away at sea with poor hygiene and little access to fresh food or water. Life-threatening illnesses such as dysentery, typhus and scurvy thrived due to malnutrition and dirty, cramped living quarters. Dr Samuel Johnson described the life of a sailor as like ‘being in jail with the chance of being drowned.’
Often, crews would return from long voyages with barely a third of their number alive. Author Jonathan Lamb has written about scurvy several times, and says: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170, in 1520 Magellan lost 208 out of 230, and in 1742, George Anson lost more than 1,300 of his compliment of almost 2,000 – all mainly to scurvy.” (It makes me wonder just how many bodies still lie at the bottom of our oceans?)
Captain Cook’s first global expedition in 1768 was in the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour, aiming to reach Tahiti for the Transit of Venus (where the earth, sun and Venus all aligned), which would help them measure longitude at sea, an opportunity that only came around about once every 125 years. He took with him an elite team of scientists, including an astronomer, two naturalists and eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks.
It was Banks to whom the goat belonged, and it had already circumnavigated the globe with him, so had well-honed sea legs. In Robert Chamber’s 1864 Book of Days, a compendium of interesting facts, he mentions this famous goat and calls it simply ‘The Well-Travelled Goat’, so it’s not surprising my dad couldn’t find out its name.
Cook was determined to change the bad habits of his sea-faring predecessors by implementing a strict regime of discipline and hygiene, and carried the best nutrition possible. It was already known that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, but they had no way of preserving the fruit on board. Instead, Cook ensured his men were very well fed, taking along vast quantities of sauerkraut, and whenever they landed in port, they stocked up on as much fresh fruit and green vegetables as possible.
Previously, sailors were used to using excrement-filled slop buckets in their filthy living quarters to relieve themselves, but Cook set aside a specific area on the ship for a toilet. Severe punishments were meted out to those caught going to the loo anywhere else and there was a regimented cleaning rota to ensure the ship was kept as clean and bug-free as possible.
It has been reported that Cook lost none of his men to scurvy on any of his three epic sea voyages, and although that fact has been disputed, it is clear that the health and wellbeing of his men were top priorities. Undoubtedly he had a far better survival rate than most and set the standard for successors to follow.
As for the goat, she was rewarded for her loyal service by being allowed to graze out her days among the green pastures of Kent. Her high status was reflected in an engraved silver collar which the grateful Sir Joseph Banks bestowed upon her. Dr Samuel Johnson himself wrote the latin inscription which, once translated, read:
“In fame scare second to the nurse of Jove,
This goat, who twice the world has traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.”
April 21st marks the first anniversary of my dad Peter Walker’s death from prostate cancer. By a sad coincidence, it is also the same day as Bill Maynard’s funeral (he played Dad’s loveable Heartbeat character, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, on screen), so my thoughts will be with his family as I reflect on my own loss.
It’s been a strange and difficult year, so I hope you will indulge me as I ponder on what has happened, and pay tribute to the services that we didn’t truly appreciate before we had to call upon them (It’s going to be a tough column to write, so I’ve opened an industrial-sized box of Maltesers to help me through!).
Dad left a gaping hole in our family’s lives that I’m sure all of you who have lost someone close will understand. My sense of loss has not yet lessened, and sometimes it knocks the wind out of my sails. Silly things get me, like making mashed potato, as my dad made the best mash on the planet (and I’ll fight anyone who says different). And one evening I was making pizza when I remembered the time Dad tried to describe one. “You know, them round flat things that Italians eat!” he’d said. We fell about laughing, as it was such a Yorkshire way to put it. It’s one of my daftest and fondest memories, and made me smile over my pizza dough, yet seconds later I was in floods of tears as his absence hit me like a blow to the stomach.
The progression of Dad’s illness had been very slow over ten years until it suddenly sped up in April 2017. He went from being physically very able to needing round-the-clock care within a couple of weeks. It was then that we discovered the Ryedale Community Response Team, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say they were like angels sent from above. Hearing their cheery ‘hello’ as they stepped through the door provided instant relief with every single visit. The team act as emergency help to people who suddenly realise they are no longer able to cope alone. They are a short-term bridge of support until more appropriate care is found.
But very soon, Dad’s needs became such that even four visits a day were not enough, and managing him and his medication the rest of the time was too much for us. Thankfully, a space became available at St Leonard’s Hospice in York and he was taken there on the morning of 21st April. He died later that night.
For us, these past months have been doubly difficult as we were bracing ourselves for our first Christmas without Dad when my sister, Tricia Walker, fell ill at the beginning of December. What she had been dismissing as a stomach bug turned out to be a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. We could barely believe it was happening all over again.
Although Tricia lived in Bournemouth, she wanted to come home to Yorkshire, and was transferred to the specialist cancer unit in the Bexley Wing at St James’ Hospital in Leeds.
Everyone in Bexley looked after Tricia extremely well. It is one of the top cancer centres in the country, so we are blessed here in Yorkshire to have it on our doorstep. We knew she was in the best hands, but sometimes, there just isn’t an answer. It was on 4th January, only four weeks into her illness, that Tricia decided to go into a hospice. She was admitted to St Leonard’s three days later and died in the early hours of 8th January, aged just 53.
Although both my dad and sister were in St Leonard’s for less than a day, I cannot overstate the value of the place. For those last few precious hours, we could forget about everything else, let the hospice staff take over the essential stuff, and just focus on being with them in their final moments. We had a dedicated nurse of whom we could ask just about anything. She displayed empathy, gentle sensitivity and an uncanny instinct for producing a cup of tea exactly when you needed it.
I’m sure those of you who have had experience of other hospices in the area, like St Catherine’s (Scarborough), Martin House (Boston Spa), St Michael’s (Harrogate) and St Teresa’s (Darlington), will understand what I mean when I say that once your loved one crosses over their threshold, it’s like a huge pair of comforting arms is wrapped around you. The hospital and in-home carers were brilliant, but they only had the time and resources to look after the patient. The hospices can accommodate the whole posse of people surrounding the sick person, who, through the stress and worry about what is inevitable, can be somewhat high maintenance themselves.
One of the most significant benefits of losing a loved one in a hospice is that once they are gone, the care for those who’ve been bereaved doesn’t end. They guide you through the next, difficult practical steps and are also at pains to ensure you are supported, should you need it, for many months afterwards.
St Leonard’s offered me bereavement support after Dad died, but I declined, and then offered it again after losing Tricia, and this time I accepted. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but it is possibly one of the best things I’ve done. Being able to offload all the stuff in my head is like releasing the pressure in an overfilled tyre (And as a result, the local stocks of Maltesers have thankfully remained buoyant).
This level of care, which is so desperately important to those who need it, is all free of charge, so hospices have to rely on constant fundraising. St Leonard’s has to raise at least £5million every year to continue to offer these essential services.
The initial 12 months of grief are the most difficult, with a year of first hurdles to overcome. Things like birthdays, (theirs and your own), anniversaries, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas become occasions to be endured, and it is a relief when the first one has passed as you hope that the next year it will be that little bit easier.
This year, we are marking Dad’s first anniversary quietly at home with the family.
Dad had a talent for coming up with splendid names in his books, and he insisted that the best ones were inspired by real people from his life growing up and working as a bobby on the North York Moors.
One of Heartbeat’s best-known characters was the loveable rogue that was Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, portrayed so brilliantly by the inimitable Bill Maynard, who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. According to Dad, that was a genuine name he had come across as a young bobby many years before it ended up on the pages of the first ‘Heartbeat’ novel, Constable on the Hill, published in 1979.
In Dad’s column from 15th April 1978, we encounter the august-sounding Septimus. Septimus was a schoolfriend, and was so called because he was his family’s seventh son. He was unique because his father was also a seventh son, and so he was in the traditionally auspicious position of being the seventh son of a seventh son.
These fortunate beings were supposed to have been blessed with supernatural powers, but Dad observed that his friend, whom everyone called Sep, displayed no discernible mystical talents. It was possible though, at the tender age of eleven, they were yet to burst forth.
In mediaeval times, it was believed that for the gift to work, the son must be seventh in a line of only boys. If a daughter appeared before the seventh son was born, then the chain, and all the powers associated with it, was broken.
One of their legendary skills was the ability to heal the sick, and back in the day people would travel miles just to be touched by the blessed one. Families would encourage these children to train to be doctors, but those who couldn’t afford to pay for such an education ended up as peasants and labourers, who were nevertheless subject to a constant stream of visits from the great unwell.
It was widely believed that they had a particular talent for curing the illness known as the King’s Evil, or scrofula, a type of lymphatic tuberculosis that resulted in enlarged glands in the neck. Dad recounts a story, reported to have happened as late as the start of the twentieth century, of a Somerset man who had the reputation for curing people with scrofula. On Sundays, he would touch the affected parts of patients, who had to have fasted, and repeated the words of a prayer that only he was allowed to know.
The belief was not confined to England, but was also very strong in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, and in Ireland where the lucky one was also thought to have the gift of second sight. In France, they called this person a ‘Marcou’, and their body was said to be marked somewhere with a fleur-de-lis. Those with scrofula would touch this marking in the belief that it would rid them of the disease.
Going back to names, I was up at my mum’s the other day and, as I often do, I went into my dad’s study to mooch about a bit. I was intrigued by a couple of mugs on his shelves that had been there for a number of years but which before I’d never really paid much attention to. The two mugs were covered in lists of first names. One mug had ‘Heartbeat VI’ on the front, and when I picked up the other, I found a curled up piece of paper in it which read ‘A gift from the Heartbeat actors’. So I deduced that these must have been ‘end of series’ presents from the actors to the crew. The slightly sad thing about the second mug is that on the inside was inscribed ‘Heartbeat R.I.P.’ next to the picture of a broken heart.
I was, and still am, mystified as to why ITV axed Heartbeat in 2009 when it was still achieving some of the best viewing figures on that channel. Today an active and significant band of fans continues to express their affection for the show through things like Facebook and Twitter. So who knows what the future holds?
It is Dad’s first anniversary soon, and going into his study still stirs up such mixed emotions, as it is the place where I feel his absence most keenly, and yet, his presence is all around me, in his books, in his files, in his collection of trinkets and Heartbeat mementos. Does the time ever come when you stop missing your Dad?
When I sit down to write these columns, I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about until I read the column that Dad wrote in the corresponding week 40 years ago. Often, at the very point I think inspiration has left for its holidays, I see or hear something that ends up being the pivotal subject of the column.
Today, I experienced such a moment after reading Dad’s piece from 8th April 1978 in which he talked about the April weather, albino people (following on from his mention of albino blackbirds a couple of weeks before), the annual influx of migrating birds, clouds and the custom of ‘pricking the sheriffs’.
I was undecided as to what to plump for, until I opened my iPad and there on the open BBC iPlayer app was a programme called ‘The sheriffs are coming’. It was a sign.
The word sheriff immediately conjures up two images for me, a Wild West cowboy with a star-shaped badge, and the actor Alan Rickman, whose portrayal of the embodiment of evil that was the Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1995 film ‘Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves’ was so memorable.
Today there are two distinct categories of sheriff in our country. Those featured in the BBC programme are officially High Court Enforcement Officers and are tasked with collecting money or goods in respect of a debt. They are authorised by the Lord Chancellor, but privately employed, unlike bailiffs, who are salaried civil servants. Debts below £600 can only be recovered by bailiffs, and debts over £5,000 can only be recovered by sheriffs.
The second category is now mainly a ceremonial role to represent the Crown at county level and are known as high sheriffs. City sheriffs have largely disappeared, apart from in London where there are two.
The original sheriff is possibly the oldest official role in the country, and the name derives from ‘shire reeve’, meaning the governor of a shire or county. ‘Reeve’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘reeafan’ which was a levy or seizure. We don’t know for sure when the first shire reeve appeared, but we do know that Alfred the Great (871-901) appointed men to this role. They were the king’s representatives at a local level and executed writs on his behalf. They collected rents and taxes and were responsible for keeping the peace, which also led to them assuming responsibility for prisoners. This made them very powerful and some, like the supposedly merciless Sheriff of Nottingham, abused this power.
To counter the problem, a new official, the ‘coroner’, was installed to oversee all the sheriffs (although clearly they have a very different role today!).
It is the duty of the incumbent high sheriffs to nominate successors. Formal nominations take place at the High Court in London on November 12th and is presided over by the Lord Chief Justice. This is followed by the ‘pricking of the sheriffs’ by the Sovereign in March (I bet you’ve been thinking that was a typo!).
The list of nominees is put on to a vellum (calf skin) scroll which is 15 feet long by a foot wide and, as in centuries before, the Queen chooses her high sheriffs using a silver bodkin, which is a large sewing needle, to prick a hole in the scroll over the selected nominee’s name.
There are a couple of explanations for this rather odd method of choosing. I do like my dad’s, where he explains that it dates back to the time of Elizabeth I. She was sewing in her garden when the time arose to choose her sheriffs. The scroll was brought to her, but she had no pen, so consequently used a bodkin from her sewing basket.
The second (possibly more plausible) reason I found on the high sheriffs’ official website (highsheriffs.com). Apparently not all the nominated sheriffs welcomed the role due to the high expenses they incurred, and the challenges of calculating and collecting taxes. So to stop them trying to remove their names, a hole was made in the vellum which could not be removed, nor sewn up without being noticed.
This year’s ceremony took place at Buckingham Palace on 14th March where Simon Wrightson was succeeded as High Sheriff of North Yorkshire by Chris Legard, of Scampston Hall near Malton, who will officially assume his duties this month.
Like many a Yorkshireman of a certain generation, Dad was a home bird, loved where he came from, and where he lived close to the North York Moors. He never sought to holiday in foreign parts, and for most of my childhood remained content to spend a week in the Lake District with the family once a year.
So you can imagine the enormous excitement when we learned that he was to go to a conference as a guest of the Mystery Writers Of America for eight days in the heaving metropolis that was New York. I was nearly 11 at the time and simply could not imagine what it was going to be like. When I looked in the atlas, it seemed so, so far away!
In his column from 1st April 1978, he had just returned from that trip. You can tell he was unused to big cities, and found it odd that Greenwich Village, the historic heart of New York, was called such a thing. I could almost hear the astonishment in his voice when I read: “The village was not like a village at all. It was like a large town…and there was no feature which could be linked with a typical English village.”
The food bewildered him too, especially the so-called ‘English muffin’ he’d ordered for breakfast, no doubt expecting a toasted bun with egg on top, but ending up instead with a cake with raisins sprinkled on it. I’ve no idea how he coped.
He was highly impressed by his visit to the World Trade Centre. Knowing that what he describes would be obliterated in such a horrifying way 23 years later makes it a very moving read. “The splendour of this building defies description, and although it is fashioned from concrete and glass, it enjoys a beauty which is remarkable by any standards…We ascended one of the twin towers of this building, using high-speed elevators, and found ourselves on top of 110 storeys…I could have remained there for a long, long, time, looking down upon some of the most famous and beautiful parts of the world. Central Park was a tiny green patch; the Statue of Liberty was like a Dinky toy, the cars were like insects creeping in procession along the street. And there was nothing living up there besides human beings.”
I talked about this trip when I visited my mum recently and she remembered it well, recounting a rather embarrassing story. Dad had taken some gifts, including a British police helmet and truncheon, which were items of some curiosity and amusement for his American counterparts who were more used to officers in peaked caps armed with guns. The helpful hotel receptionist offered to keep them in the safe until time to present them, and with stories of a vice-laden and crime-filled city at the forefront of his mind, Dad agreed. But when he went to retrieve them a few days later, you guessed it, they had vanished from the safe, never to be seen again. Unfortunately, it was one mystery the gathered writers were unable to solve!
I really missed my dad while he was on that trip, as he’d never been away from us for that long, and I spent ages creating a ‘Welcome Home’ banner to greet him on his return. Mum and I met him off the plane at Heathrow, having taken the train down the day before. We stayed with my aunt and uncle in that otherworldly place known as Cheam in Surrey where Dad had left our car, an old Mark II Jaguar, when he’d driven down the week before. With little awareness of life outside of our small North Yorkshire village, Cheam was as alien to me as New York was to Dad. And it’s funny that often it’s the small things you remember most. I can’t remember the moment I finally saw Dad at the airport, nor my 5’1” mum driving home all the way up the A1 in that great big old tank of a Jag, nor the look on Dad’s face when he got home and saw my banner. But I do remember the surge of joy I felt when my uncle had brought me a cup of tea upstairs in the morning. In my world, only grown-ups were allowed tea in bed, so I felt very mature as I sipped my cuppa, and decided that Cheam must be a very sophisticated place indeed.