I had an unexpected visitor last Friday evening. It was my Uncle Bill fresh from Australia via West Wittering. Armed with a mental map consisting of two dots representing Auntie Vera’s house in Sussex and mine in Wales joined by a wiggly line, he’d found his way after seven hours on the road, asking everyone after the Severn Bridge if they knew where I lived and having been piloted the final stretch of the journey by a good Samaritan from Cardigan.
‘I’m not stopping,’ he insisted weakly, ‘I’ve got to get to Porthmadog tonight.’ As Tom said afterwards, what else was there to be done? Imagine if I’d driven for miles to his home in Australia, exhausted and with only the most tenuous grip on where I was going, only to be told, ‘Yeah, good luck with that, pal. Best you get off now, nice to see you!’
Uncle Bill is eighty-one. His quest, we discovered, once we’d fed him and given him a fortifying tot of rum, was to find the naval training base where he had started a journey that had changed the course of his life. Anticipating a long evening, I’d found myself instead being absorbed by my uncle’s clear, incisive recollections of the danger and camaraderie of war and, afterwards, the anguish of coming back to England to tell his mother, my gran, that he had fallen in love with an Australian girl and was returning to Sydney. My uncle and his Aussie bride, Edna, (I’m not making that up!) have been married fifty-nine years now. Edna has untreatable macular degeneration and is going blind so my uncle returned alone to England for the last time to see his family and revisit the past.
It’s a long drive up to North Wales. We were all tired and Uncle Bill was confused by the changes he found. Nothing seemed familiar so we put our thinking caps on. Bill came up with a name, ‘Afon Wen’ and Tom remembered that Butlin’s had taken over many of the old army and navy bases and turned them into holiday camps. A little way up the coast, just outside Pwllheli we found the place and a sympathetic porter let us have a look round.
Whilst Uncle Bill was pleased to have revisited his past it was undoubtedly an emotional journey for him and he was pensive on the return journey. Once back at my house, at about four in the afternoon, he was insistent that he needed to be back on the road as my Auntie Joan and Uncle Sid (he of the ‘Cutty Sark’ fame) were expecting him. Considering this is only the third time in my life I’ve met Uncle Bill (if indeed it was him!) I felt really sad to see him go, knowing that I would never see him again.
Anyway, we saw him off with provisions for the journey and good directions and I phoned Auntie Joanie to say not to expect him until late, about 10.30pm.
‘Billy?’ said Auntie Joanie, ‘Is he coming here?’
Ah, good old Uncle Bill, he’d done it again. And, true to form, he managed to get lost on the way there and turned up at 1.30 in the morning.
*Phew! I got an award and didn’t even know it. As I said to Milla, I might have the odd Orange prize knocking around somewhere without realising it. Thanks a lot, Milla.
*Having worked frantically on the book the word count’s hardly gone up. Need to add rather than subtract I think!
*Uncle Bill seems to have started an avalanche of Autumn visitors here at Hotel H with friend arriving later today (what am I doing blogging? I should be cleaning?), Mil, Dil and Mil’s inherited digestive condition next week and the Fat Boys) Tom’s equivalent of the Ace Gang bringing up the rear.
Painting is 'Under the Castle' by Tom Tomos