New South Wales to Old North Wales



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.

And finally…
*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.

Hwyl fawr!

Painting is 'Under the Castle' by Tom Tomos

Comments

Crystal Jigsaw said…
Gosh, at 81 you'd expect him to be at home with his slippers on. What an amazing man.

Crystal xx
Milla said…
Love this Bill story. Utterly bizarre and a good pick me up to think that mad things still happen and we've not all yet been homogenised out of quirkiness. You can have this week off, says grudgingly, but back to the tutorials next week!
sally's chateau said…
Gosh you sound busy with visitors, love Milla's comment 'we've not all yet been homogenised out of quirkiness, sooooooo true !!
Exmoorjane said…
Yeay, go Bill go! Bless him. He reminds me a bit of old Uncle Fred who drove up until his nineties, despite having shell-shock and being an absolute menace as he drove soooooo slowly.
UN PEU LOUFOQUE said…
Gawd I wish I could have as quick a turn round with vistors as you do!!!
Woozle1967 said…
I really loved this, Chris. Jimmy is a medal collector and our life is frequently brightened by tales like this of old soldiers/sailors retracing their past lives.x
LittleBrownDog said…
What a character! What tenacity. To think of what it must have taken him to travel all that way with only the sketchiest of directions (I suppose that wiggly line must have been the M4). And how wonderful that you were there to drive him up to North Wales and make him a packed lunch. Gorgeous story, and a little poignant as you probably won't see him again, but how lovely to have had that time with him. Best of luck with the Fat Boys and the digestive condition (what a combination, eh?)

LBD x
Suffolkmum said…
Good for Uncle Bill! Just think of the wealth of family stories he will have created. You do always sound so busy!
CAMILLA said…
Dear Chris, Your Uncle is an incredibly fit man, would probably do more than even a young snippet of a thing. I do think how very special it must have been for him to take maybe one last look at where he used to be. How lovely for you both to spend some time together, especially as you are not sure sadly if you will ever see him again.

Camilla.x
Livvy U. said…
How brilliant, how moving, I love that story. It's amazing how much, in the end, Family and the Past move us and influence us, no matter how old we are or how far we have come.
Pondside said…
I loved the story of your old uncle revisiting his past and finding it at a holiday campground! Good luck with HotelH - I hope they take you out to dinner!
Lane said…
What a great story. I hope I could be as gung ho with my travel arrangements at 81!

ps Relatives in West wittering? An Auntie Vera? Are we related!
x
Flowerpot said…
Uncle bill sounds amazing - rather like the women inmy family who have tended to long outlive their husbands. And I love the painting.
elizabethm said…
I have uncle bills (uncles bill?) and love them to bits. Onw worked for nearly fifty years in the joiners' shop in a big mill and was telling me that some of them found that you could set the machines to run so slowly it was safe to leave them for an hour or so. They would take their library books into the toilets and shut themselves in. when the foreman found out he brought in a rule that you could only go the lavatory for seven minutes after which he used to come in and kick at your feet under the door. for this he became known and Mr Quicksh*t.
Good for Uncle Bill . . .way to go. Sad though that as he left you realised you would never see him again.

Well done on the award. Glad to see you are still working on the re-write.

Hope all is harmony at hotel H.
I've got an Uncle Bill with a story as well...he went to war and married a girl in Belgium and only came back sporadically after that...I keep thinking I should go to see him but I am a dreadful traveller and my posh cousin wont want to come with me......
well how is it? The shoulder?
Posie Rosie said…
Oh trip down memory lane for me too, I hused to go to Afon Wen camping and had the odd day out at the Butlins at Philwelli (probably spelt that wrong...sorry). Your uncle sounds a real character and very brave too to embark on such a trip at his age, had to smile at his wife being called Edna.
KittyB said…
Brilliant story- amazing old chap.
Thanks for the tips below, I like 'listen to Beeny'. I am furious when edited, (especially when edited badly, in my arrogant opinion) so I will take your advice in hand!
sheepish said…
What abrilliant story and what an amazing man, to do all that at 81 is incredible. Hope you were able to note down some of his memories as he sounds a real chaacter.
liz fenwick said…
So pleased he found you - for you and him :-)

Good luck with the guests......

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