Sometimes you don’t see the significance of a chance meeting. You think it’s just another turn in the road, a way through the latest problem, not something that will change the course of your life. I was in a hard place, a difficult tutorial with a lecturer in the biochemistry department, had ended with me confessing I hated the course, and was sure I was unlikely to pass the exams at the end of the second year. Despite his reassurances, I knew I did not want to carry on into the third year. At best I would only scrape through my finals, and then what sort of future did I have. I didn’t want to teach and the suggestion I could become a forensic scientist left me cold. I was struggling as it was, bursting into tears when the strain of the work in the laboratory got too much for me. But going home and facing my parents, who were so proud of me was unbearable. The thought of my father’s face, trying to hide his distress, his pale blue eyes struggling with tears as he tried to tell me, that he simply wanted me to be happy. And my mother would be cross, the sacrifices they had both made so I could go to university would have been pointless.
I left my tutor’s room feeling sick as I wrestled with the problem of my future; the smell of formaldehyde wafting from the laboratories didn’t help either. I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, along the corridor, through the double doors with the Krebs cycle etched in the glass above. I heard as if somewhere far away, the sounds of chattering voices and the clack of my heels on the black and white tiles floor of the entrance hall.
I walked along the path towards the Students’ Union, my mind whirled as I went through the alternative roads I might take. I crossed Western Bank, hardly noticing the traffic until a car hooted at me. Once on the far pavement I turned to cross the lawns towards the door to the Union. I was so distracted that I jumped when a voice said to me, ‘You look like you’re rather upset. Can I help?’
In front of me was the stocky figure of the Dean of the Law Faculty, Professor Wood. I knew him because, I had stood for and been elected to the Students’ Representative Council and the law Professor was the Staff Treasurer.
He smiled, encouraging me to tell him what was troubling me. I swallowed hard and then like a pipe bursting, the whole story came out; how unhappy I was, how I hated the long days in the labs; how awful the prospecting of failing and how upset my parents would be. ‘Come and see my on Monday afternoon and I’ll see what I can do. I think I can find you a place in the Law Faculty.’
Last night August 4th 2014, like many others I watched the broadcast from Westminster Abbey. We had switched off all our lights at 10pm and had a single candle glowing in the dark, as we commemorated the date and time a century ago when Britain plunged into World War I. My Grandfather was not killed during the war, but he died early from the injuries he received. He was gassed and never fully recovered from that, so that my Grandmother, a weaver, as many women were in Lancashire, continued to work after the war ended in 1918.
He died before my mother was married in 1939. Her brother Jack the child in the photograph was the one who walked her down the aisle to giver her away; my Grandmother would have walked alone. Although he knew he had one grandchild, Keith the eldest son of my Uncle Jack, he never knew about Roger, Keith’s brother nor myself or my younger brother Stewart. My Grandmother was a widow for over thirty years, dying when I was 26. Not for her the comfort of a shared life, shared memories and experiences into old age.
We, his grandchildren, never knew him and I don’t remember either my Grandmother or my Mother reminiscing about him. I don’t know which regiment he served with or what he did during the war. I know he loved horses and from time to time my mother said he would groom and harness the team of horses that drew the hearse in the small town of Haslingden Lancashire; black horses whose coats gleamed and who wore black ostrich plumes on their heads. He must have been interested in Art because I have a set of three books published by Odhams Press of Long Acre London in 1934 called The Worlds Greatest Paintings. My mother said they were an offer by one of the daily newspapers.
Of course, compared with too many, my family were lucky he did come back alive when so many didn’t. But the only way I can remember him is by this photograph; for me he will always be a handsome soldier with a pretty wife and young son.
Yesterday I stopped at the front door and looked out at the two beds of roses that line the footpath. The roses are low-growing varieties,
Fairy and Ballerina, although there are no flowers only rosehips at this time of year. For a moment I thought the bushes were moving, then I realised the branches were full of tiny birds that looked like the ‘Snitch’ from a Harry Potter novel. They were Long Tailed Tits, small balls of feathers, mainly white with a black streak across their heads and pale rose coloured breasts. I watched them for some minutes as they flew between the bushes, stopping to cling like acrobats as they pecked at the stems. It was difficult to count them they moved so fast, but I think there must have been about twenty. I have seen them in our garden before, eating seeds from the birdfeeder and flying in and out of our large oak tree, but never so many at once, although I believe they live in social groups. Whatever, they were a delight to see on a chilly winter morning.