Tuesday 22nd November

Grinder crowd (4)

Philip Sherborne and I go back a long way. We were part of the same cohort of Univ English (Language & Literature) students who matriculated ten years ago. Those first few weeks at university are pivotal to the lives of so many young people, especially in social terms – that’s when we tend to fall in with the kindred spirits who will turn out to be lifelong friends. But my first impressions of Phil were not that promising. He was tall, lithe, good-looking, with an unruly mop of light brown hair, an aquiline nose that hinted at a patrician background and a surprisingly high-pitched voice which he was unafraid to use in those early seminars and tutorials. He had the sort of confidence that a public school background unfailingly generates.

Phil was everything that I was not. I am what ageing female relatives would describe as “big boned” and others would call “squat”. At eighteen, my face bore the stigmata of acne while Phil was fresh-skinned, almost cherubic. I was a proud product of the state school system, brought up to disparage the privately-educated spawn of the idle rich. I lacked the confidence to say a word in those first-year seminars, sensing that my critical faculties were no match either for Phil or indeed any of the other six undergraduates in our year-group.

We knew from the first day that failure was not an option. Our tutor was a wild-eyed Glaswegian, the ageing enfant terrible of the English faculty, occupying the very rooms that Phil would one day inherit. Advancing years had not dulled Professor Roy Field’s determination to win; that is, to gain more firsts (and, failing that, upper seconds) for Univ than any other college could muster in Mods and Finals. If only four out of eight came away with a first, then he would sulk for months at a time and redouble his efforts to school his young charges in the arcane arts of turning a  beta-alpha answer into an alpha-beta-beta. The difference between two such essays might be only a single percentage mark but the number of leading alphas you mustered would determine whether you reached the Promised Land of first class honours or not.

Our rite of passage was a first week essay for which we were required to read the collected prose works of Carlyle, JS Mill, Newman, Ruskin and Arnold to determine which, if any, of these grizzled pedants was “central” to early Victorian culture. Well, I don’t know if you’ve tried reading The Idea of a University, Sartor Resartus or The Stones of Venice? I would defy anyone to read more than a page of any of these doorstops without descending into the deepest of comas, yet we were apparently required to read several thousand pages in a single week, then recite our carefully-honed aperçus not only in front of a mad Glaswegian, pacing up and down in rapt attention, but also a tutorial partner who, you sensed, had spent most of a gap year living it up in Venice, admiring the aforementioned stonework and ticking off the items on this first-week reading list between tupping the local beauties.

If this was sink or swim, I sank like one of Ruskin’s stones. There was no letter in the Greek alphabet that corresponded with the incoherent slop that I somehow scribbled down at the end of a sleep-deprived first week in the groves of academe. Omega minus, perhaps. All I can remember now is that I mispronounced Jeremy Bentham’s surname and got JS Mill hopelessly mixed up with his father. I started reading it out at 11.02 and, after an eternity of stuttering inanities, completed the job at 11.05. Professor Field had barely had time to complete four laps of the room.

“Is that it, Alexander?”

I had to concede that it was. I slumped a little deeper into my billet, a vast and sagging bean-bag.

“It was brief but …” I could see him desperately trying to locate some sort of redeeming feature. “Promising,” he concluded, weakly. “Philip, perhaps we could have your thoughts on Victorian culture now?”

Phil, to his eternal credit, had refrained from smirking at any point in my ordeal. Looking back, I’m sure he must have been almost as terrified as I was but, if so, he did not show it. Before he had finished reading his first sentence, Roy was challenging his assumptions and assailing him with counter-examples. It took Phil more than fifteen minutes to complete his opening paragraph, such was the intensity of the cross-examination.

I wanted to dislike this Old Etonian so much and yet it was impossible to do so as he stood up bravely to this pre-planned bombardment. If Roy was trying to knock him down a peg or two, Phil had already mastered the tricky compromise between standing up for his opinions and deferring to the Scotsman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the turgid outpourings of these long-forgotten sages.

When the hour was up, Phil was no more than halfway through his magnum opus. I’m not sure he ever succeeded in finishing the recital of an essay during his whole time with Roy – Phil was a leading alpha man from first to last.

As we negotiated a safe exit from our bean-bags and stumbled out into Cecily’s Court, the brash Etonian had some kind words for me:

“I’m sorry you got so little time in there.”

“That’s OK.”

“I guess my rubbish essay rambled on too long and there was no time to go back to yours.”

“That really is quite OK.”

We went for lunch in hall together and found a surprising amount in common, notably a passion for football. Phil argued that the Italian Serie A was the strongest in Europe while I insisted that the German Bundesliga was as competitive as any.  Soon we both joined the Martlets, the college literary society. (I note in passing that the Martlet Ensemble are performing Bach cantatas in Univ Hall tonight, but I shan’t be there.)

I saw myself somewhat unimaginatively as Charles Ryder to Phil’s Sebastian Flyte. I was in awe of his intellectual prowess and the ease with which he held down a place in the college 1st XI at both football and cricket, and grateful for the few crumbs of friendship that he threw my way. But there was no Brideshead to wrap me in its tendrils – Phil’s family home was a surprisingly modest farmhouse with no more than ten bedrooms near Horsham. There were no quail’s eggs or poetry-reading debauches. On a Saturday night, we would traipse round town looking for parties we could crash and Wednesday was squash night in the basement of the Goodhart Building. Et in Arcadia ego, indeed.

Once he fell in with Hattie, there was a slow but inevitable change in our relationship. To his credit, he tried to pair me off with his little sister, Beth, boarding at Roedean, but she was having none of that. I found few opportunities to hook up with the opposite sex. Oxford was no longer the monastic enclave it had once been, but there were still far more boys than girls and for a ‘big-boned’ Durham lad like me, the fairer sex was not exactly queuing round the block.

Hattie was still at school when she met Phil. Indeed, she was in the same year as Beth at a private establishment in Wimbledon and performing in the school play when the would-be Lothario first clapped eyes on her. Before long, she was staying over at weekends in college and I found myself parked in the college library when once I had been Phil’s willing lineman. But I could hardly begrudge him his good fortune, as Hattie was a traffic-stoppingly beautiful young lady – long blonde hair, huge almond eyes, you know the sort of thing – all the more gorgeous because she was, at that age, utterly unaware of the effect she was having on the male population. In terms of sheer pulchritude, she was way out of Phil’s league, and he knew it. But Hattie aspired to the sort of academic success that Phil had already achieved, and she looked up to him almost as much as a hero as boyfriend.

By the end of our first year in Oxford, that relationship was still in its infancy. It flowered in the hot summer of 2006, notably during a post-Mods holiday on Italy’s Ligurian coastline. Phil’s father had booked this huge villa in a coastal village called San Terenzo. With numerous spare bedrooms to fill, Phil had been encouraged to invite a few friends along. I was flattered to be invited – my idea of an exotic summer location was still a windswept Seaton Delaval, after all.  Hattie’s parents had forbidden their daughter to go (this was still in the school term) but, thanks to various subterfuges and the promise that she would occupy a single room, Hattie was somehow smuggled onto the plane to Pisa.  Phil’s younger sister, Beth, who had also just finished her GCSEs, was there, plus another old friend of Phil’s from schooldays called Eddie Williamson whom we all ignored.

The Casa Magni was no ordinary holiday let. It was a gleaming white palace with seven arches at the front, looking out over the bluest sea I had ever seen. In front of us lay a beach of the most perfect golden sand, suitably occupied by the most elegant specimens of Italian beauty. I asked Phil what the house had cost but he just shrugged. His Dad’s fees as a barrister were somewhere north of a thousand pounds an hour so this was just loose change.

At the front of the villa was a weather-beaten plaque. I jotted down the first two lines:

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
CHE DA LIVORNO SE FRAGIL LEGMO VELEGGIANDO

but none of us had sufficient knowledge of the language to translate it. At the time I knew nothing of Shelley (our Mods course had mainly consisted of Beowulf and twentieth-century literature and very little in between). I was aware he was a distinguished old boy of my college but little more than that. Phil’s Dad, whom we were instructed to call “Tom”, said there had been no indication, when he booked the villa, that it had any literary associations. If Shelley had once been there, there was no other evidence of his occupation. There was not a single book on the palatial premises.  The carpetless floors were made from vast chunks of Carrara marble and there were busts, urns, gilded mirrors and wall hangings aplenty.

The nonni of San Terenzo would take their morning constitutional in the warm Ligurian surf while we tucked into our breakfast cannoli bruschetta on the terrace that overlooked the neat strip of sand between the Casa Magni and the Castello di San Terenzo. Phil and I watched as Hattie and Beth frolicked in the almost waveless sea. Both girls were just short of their sixteenth birthdays but looked much younger than that – Beth in a rather frumpish one-piece that she had had since she was twelve and Hattie in a striking yellow bikini that showed off her athletic brown limbs.

The two girls seemed to be playing some sort of diving game, seeing who could stay under for longest. Beth surfaced after a few seconds but there was no sign of Hattie. The seconds ticked by and Phil leapt to his feet as if he would jump off the balcony and plunge into the water. It was clear that Beth could no longer see her companion and was becoming a little agitated herself. Then, as if in slow motion, a hand and then an arm emerged from the water and waved at the watching world before the rest of a giggling Hattie broke through the surface. She celebrated her victory and shook some of the brine out of her long, blonde locks. But Phil looked drained by the experience, as if he had seen a ghost.

Beth seemed strangely reluctant to mix with her brother and his friends, preferring the company of her parents. While they went for a long drive up into the Apuan Alps, the remaining foursome got up to as much mischief as possible. Even though we had no driving licences, we were somehow able to hire scooters. Mine was a rather sporty Asprilia, the seat barely large enough to accommodate the taciturn Eddie on the back. Phil had chosen a Piaggio Typhoon 50, with Hattie clinging on for dear life behind him. That day we pootled out through the grim container port of La Spezia to the north-western corner of the Golfo dei Poeti.

We parked our scooters at Porto Venere and I jokingly suggested we should swim across to the island of Palmaria, a few hundred yards away. Phil confessed that he could swim no more than ten or twenty feet so instead we strolled up to the Gothic Church of St Peter, perched on a cliff-top, with magnificent views across the bay – we could just about make out the seven white arches of the Casa Magni. On the northern side of the headland was the Grotta dell’Arpeia, AKA the Grotta Byron because Lord Byron had (allegedly) once swum to Shelley’s house from here.

As we gazed out of the church window, a pair of bronzed bambinos leapt from a convenient spot above the grotto, executing Daleyesque dives into the lagoon. It was a fabulous sight – two soaring putti against the backdrop of rocks and disdainful egrets.   Eddie opened his mouth for the first and only time that week to suggest that he would like to emulate the dive and perhaps the rest of us would care to join him. Perhaps we’d all had a few too many glasses of Asti Spumante but this somehow seemed like a good idea. But it took us forty minutes to find our way back through Porto Venere and out to the point from which the boys had jumped. The cliff-edge was roped off and various signs made it clear that jumping and diving were strictly proibito but, if the locals could do it, why not us?

There was no sign of the Italian boys now and as we gazed over the lip of the rock, perhaps sixty feet above the lagoon, the water looked an unimaginable distance away. We stripped hesitantly down to our beach-shorts. I don’t normally suffer from vertigo but my knees seemed to have turned to jelly. Eddie’s face had turned a greenish white as he contemplated the challenge. Phil was urging him on, promising that the rest of us would be close behind. But Eddie was frozen to the spot.

“Looks like Eddie’s bottled it and I’ll have to go first,” Phil said at last.

“But you can’t even swim!” I pointed out.

“Maybe not, but I can dive!”

And with that he walked calmly to the edge and, before any of us could restrain him, hurled himself off. It was all over in an instant. Indeed, it was a surprisingly competent dive although the splash as he entered the lagoon would not have impressed a set of Olympic judges. We gazed down open-mouthed as he quickly re-surfaced, apparently none the worse for wear.

“Come on in! The water’s lovely!” Phil shouted in time-honoured fashion. The three of us looked at each other a little shamefacedly, each trying to compose a suitable excuse. No one inched closer to the precipice. Phil doggy-paddled his way to the shore, exhorting us to follow him in. But we never did. We waited shamefacedly while Phil found his way back to the top. Hattie hugged him, more out of relief than anything. But in that moment something changed in their relationship, I think. Her schoolgirl crush turned into something more with that one act of ridiculous bravado. That night (as Phil told me later) she crept along the terrace to his room and their relationship moved on to a new level. I could see the difference the following day – it was excruciating to see the two of them all over each other. Beth was merciless in her derision for her older brother but the two lovebirds were immune to all embarrassment.

On the last night of our sojourn, Italy played France in the World Cup Final at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Every bar was a seething mass of Azzurri fans and the roar when Marco Materazzi headed in a 19th minute equaliser from Andrea Pirlo’s corner was heard across the bay.  The match is famous for Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt but it had little bearing on the outcome, a 5-3 victory for Italy in the penalty shoot-out. The bars slowly emptied and the revellers headed for the beach in front of the Casa Magni where an impromptu rave had started. The entire local population, young and old, came down onto the sand and started gyrating to the bass-heavy thud of the music. Unable to sleep, we gazed down on the frenzied throng from the safety of our terrace. All inhibitions seemed to have been shed as the populace celebrated this unexpected national triumph. Some had stripped naked; others seemed to be enjoying carnal relations on the moonlit sand –  this was their version of VE Day in Trafalgar Square with just a hint of Dante’s Inferno thrown into the mix.

While the others flew back to Gatwick, I returned home via Newcastle Airport and saw little of my co-travellers until the first week of October when I returned to Univ. By then, Hattie seemed to have wangled herself a place at d’Overbroeck’s, a convenient local sixth form college. She and Phil were now very much an item. But I knew that Phil had no expectation of settling down into a steady relationship at nineteen. Indeed, he had some pretty fixed views on marriage and relationships is general, i.e. that one person could never “own” another and it was everyone’s duty to encourage the people close to them to develop in their own way.

“So you’d be happy to share your girlfriend with someone else, if that was what she wanted?” I remember asking him one day in Hall.

“Yes, why not?” he replied, shocking me slightly. Girlfriend-sharing was hardly de rigueur in my corner of rural Tyne & Tees which lagged around 50 years behind the rest of England in terms of sexual mores. Naturally, I played it cool.

“Perhaps I’ll see whether she’d like to accompany me to the flicks next Saturday evening then …”

“Actually, that’s a really good idea. I’ve been asked over to High Table at Merton and the invitation didn’t really extend to Hattie as well. You’d be doing me a favour.”

And so Hattie and I found ourselves at the UPP for a showing of Blow-Up, a slightly-racier-than-expected movie about the swinging sixties. As Hattie’s pale and tiny hand lay on the arm-rest between us, I tried to summon up the courage for an exploratory squeeze. But it was far from clear whether she had left such bait on purpose and, in the end, the “date” elapsed without any significant physical contact – we will overlook the moment when I almost tripped her up as she struggled towards the Ladies through the dark and somewhat grubby stalls.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize …” I started, as we finally tumbled out into Jeune St.

“You didn’t realize what?” Her wide eyes had never looked more innocent in the damp glare of a street-light.

“Oh, I don’t know. That photo-shoot with Veruschka was a bit … well, you know …”

“She was amazing, wasn’t she?”

I had to agree that she was. Having researched Antonioni and his oeuvre as part of my meticulous preparation for our tryst, I was ready to wow my charming companion with critical gems on the way back to Kitchen Staircase 1 (all tasteless posters having been carefully sidelined in preparation for her visit) but I was oddly tongue-tied.

“Ah, there’s Phil!” Hattie cried, pointing to a shadowy figure further down the Cowley Rd. “I gave him a call from the loos – fortunately, he was through with his dinner and kindly said he would save you the trouble of walking me back to college.”

“How very considerate of him!” I murmured, but Hattie had already taken off at a canter. The pair embraced and turned towards Magdalen Plains – should I hurry on after them and feign a jovial indifference? Fight or flight? In the end, I trudged slowly back to college in their wake, taking care to keep a clear hundred yards between us.

It had been an oddly unsatisfactory evening but I took heart from Hattie’s willingness to accompany me at all. It did not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that Phil would tire of his protégée in due course and I vowed to be the first on the scene with a sympathetic ear. If Hattie could be netted on the rebound, I would not be too proud to take my chance.

Looking back now, I wonder which of us was the greener? The truth is, we were both little more than children playing at a certain kind of sophistication.

Thoughts of that sweaty evening in the UPP preoccupy me as I drive my battered old Fiat Uno down the M40 to the Great Wen. Phil knows nothing of my mission, i.e. to find out at first hand what big sister Liz knows of Hattie’s disappearance. It seems the least I can do.

But Liz Westgrove is one scary woman. Phil makes the sign of the cross whenever her name is mentioned and refers to her only as the Black Widow, even though she has never been married. She is an indeterminate number of years older than Hattie and her favoured colour scheme is black on black. Her long, lank locks are dyed black (with just a hint of purple). Most girls emerge from their Gothic phase at about eighteen but she seems to be stuck in a bygone age, playing ‘This Corrosion’ by the Sisters of Mercy on a perpetual loop and, one imagines, designing her own coffin. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

‘Uncle Alex!’ Little Charley races to the door to greet me and I reach down to give him a hug. Considering he hasn’t seen his mother for the best part of two weeks, he seems remarkably chipper, but perhaps he is too young to understand. His younger sister, Xanthe, wanders over, a little more uncertainly, her thumb in her mouth.

‘Have you brought any presents, Uncle Alex?’ she asks, consenting to a half-hearted hug in the process.

‘Xannie! Charley! Let the poor man in the door, you two!” Their formidable aunt stands, arms folded, as if guarding the threshold.

“As a matter of fact, I do have a little something,” I say.

I give them each a bar of chocolate.

“Thank you, Uncle Alex,” they coo in unison.

“Have you seen our mummy?” Xanthe whispers, as she tears the wrapper off.

“No, Xanthe, I haven’t. I’m sorry!”

“Oh. She’s been gone for such a long time. We want her to come back, don’t we, Charley?”

Her older brother nods his assent between mouthfuls.

“Chocolate is full of toxins,” Liz helpfully points out. “You’d better come in, since you’re here, I suppose, Alexander.”

Alexander? Why does she insist on addressing me thus?

“You did say it would be OK to visit, Betty,” I point out.

“Betty!?”

If I can call you Betty, you can call me Al!

But my little ice-breaker falls on deaf ears. I doubt if Liz has even heard of Paul Simon. At least I haven’t been turned away at the door.

The tiny flat is hopelessly ill-equipped for three residents, I see. There is a kitchen-diner on one side and a solitary bedroom on the other. There’s hardly space on the floor for the two rudimentary camp-beds. The walls and curtains are still uncompromisingly black but at least there are no obvious signs of pagan rituals. I am ushered speedily towards a tatty sofa. There is just space for the two children to slot in on either side of me. I have no idea whether it is appropriate to put my arms round each of them – Liz’s forbidding manner suggests otherwise.

“Children, why don’t you go and play in the back yard?” she says

“Why?” asks Charley. “It’s too cold.”

“Well, put your coats on then!”

“Auntie Liz is very mean to us sometimes,” Xanthe explains sotto voce. “Can we come and stay at your house till our mummy comes back?”

The idea of two hyperactive children in my Osney broom-cupboard fills me with alarm but I manage to keep it together.

“I’d really like that, Xan,” I say, “but … I’m sure your mummy will be back very soon.”

In the end the children are cajoled into their coats and sent out to the concreted area at the back of the flat. There are no toys for them to play with but at least they have their chocolate bars.

“So, no word from Hattie, then?” I ask, as cheerily as possible.

“Not a dickie bird,” Liz looks me firmly in the eye and I have little doubt she is telling the truth. “I’m really not coping here, you know.”

The dust in the flat is tickling my throat and I have not been offered so much as a cup of tea.

“The children need their mother, of course they do,” I offer blandly.

“They need their mother and father! If I’d wanted children, I would have had some of my own. Where’s that bastard, Philip, when he’s needed?”

“Have you asked him?”

“I shouldn’t need to. He knows Hattie’s gone, doesn’t he? You men, you’re all a waste of space.”

She has a point. We are, indeed, a waste of space.

“Where do you think she’s got to?”

“Do you really want to know?”

I try to look encouraging.

“When she dropped off the children that last time, she knew it wasn’t going to be just for the day. It was as if she would never see them again. She nearly squeezed the life out of Charley. She did her best to stop me noticing the tears in her eyes. I just thought she was having a bad day, but now I think …”

“What?”

“It was like she was never coming back.”

“Do you think she might be …”

My question hangs heavy in the late afternoon air. Liz fiddles nervously with the heavy folds of her long, black skirt.

“The police have been round,” she says at last. “I suppose we should be glad they’re taking it seriously. I think they’ve made a few enquiries with Hattie’s neighbours and had a bit of a scout round her flat.”

“And there was nothing?”

“They wanted to know if she’d been a victim of domestic violence. How the hell would I know? I’m surprised they haven’t knocked on Phil’s door yet.”

“How had she been? You know, in herself?”

“She was well. Not as scrawny as she had been. She’d finally managed to put on a bit of weight. Some days she was quite like her old self, I thought.”

“She’s just naturally slim, surely?”

“You think so? When did you last see her?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” I lie. “Easter, I think. I was down in London anyway and Phil asked me to look in, check they were all OK, you know how it is …”

“Do I?” Liz mutters darkly. But before we can interrogate each other any further, Charley pokes his head round the door.

“I’ve found a toad, Auntie Liz!”

“And what would you like me to do about it, Charley?”

“Can we keep it in our bedroom?”

Liz gives the boy a withering look but the children have both decided it’s time to come in from the cold. Liz looks at me expectantly.

“I guess it’s time I should be pushing on,” I say. It is clear I am not going to learn much more about Hattie’s whereabouts.

“Are you going to bring us some more chocolate tomorrow?” asks Xanthe.

“I’m sorry, I have to go back to Oxford, Xannie. I’ll see you and your mummy very soon, I’m sure. And I won’t forget the chocolate.”

Once out of the flat, I walk round the corner into Marshall Street. Over a graffiti-stained walkway, I spot another scruffy rectangular plaque. in English this time:

WILLIAM BLAKE WAS BORN ON 28 NOVEMBER 1757
IN A HOUSE WHICH STO D ON THIS SITE

A life condensed to a single event, minus a solitary letter ‘O’. Happy birthday, William! I decide to drink a toast to the great man and walk into the Shaston Arms in Ganton Street, close by. Rejecting the Tanglefoot, the Badger and the Hopping Hare, I opt for a pint of the appropriately-named Lethe Ale. The thought of jumping back into the Fiat and hacking back out of Central London on the A40 is unappealing and one pint turns into two. There may have been a third … I wouldn’t want to incriminate myself at this point. By this time I have convinced myself that Hattie is definitely dead, lying undiscovered in some dank stairwell. And in 38 days I will be dead too. The barmaid asks if I am all right and I say yes, why ever not? I note that I am the only customer. Solitary drinking is not a familiar experience for me – indeed, I very rarely drink at all and alcohol goes to my head all too quickly.

By the time I have drained the last drop of Lethe to the dregs, toppled off my stool and quit the pub, it’s turned quite clarty. The rain is splattering off the pavements and awnings, as if to say that it has settled in for the night. I have no protection from the elements and by the time I make it back to my car, I am sopping wet. The parking ticket under the windscreen wiper does nothing to lighten my mood. Ninety quid? London rates, I guess.

The ignition fires my rusty Uno into action at the fourth time of asking and I battle my way back onto the A40 which looks more like a car park than a major arterial road. I inch along for a mile or two, trying to pick up some traffic news on the radio. It seems that a whole section of the M40 has had to be closed after a lorry has overturned and there is a tailback to the heart of the city. I follow a Diversion sign and find myself heading south through White City. I try to hack my way in a more north-westerly direction but only succeed in getting myself completely lost.

By now the rain is torrential and the wiper-blades are flapping like a demented heron. Water is coming in through the top of the driver’s window where I’ve been too lazy to get the mechanism fixed. I have absolutely no idea whether I am heading in the right direction and, being a man, I have absolutely no intention of stopping at a petrol station and buying a UK map-book or anything sensible like that. The rain has turned to sleet and I sense that I am gradually leaving Metroland behind me and heading out into the backwaters of Berkshire or Buckinghamshire.

To try to keep myself awake, I turn the stereo up to eleven. The lyrics of ‘Radar Love’ seem apt enough: ‘I’ve been driving all night, my hands wet on the wheel …’. I feel a deep longing to be back in Oxford. Somehow I’m not far from Wendover on the Aylesbury road (I think) and not for the first time, panic sets in – surely I should be further west? Maybe I can rejoin the M40 near Thame? So I take a left down a road that proves to be rather more minor than I’d anticipated. There is a greyish sheet of slush on the untravelled road. I console myself with the unoriginal thought that nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.

I decide to give my father a call. Yes, I know, I should stop the car but there’s no one about. So I fish the mobile out of my pocket and summon him from his reveries in front of the National Lottery, or whatever.

“So where are you then, Alex?”

“Not too sure, Dad. Somewhere west of Wendover, I think.”

“You don’t want to be there.”

“Yes, thanks, Dad. I don’t want to be here either. I’m hoping this road will take me back on to the M40. You don’t have a map-book handy, do you?”

“Doubt it. Hang on, I’ll have a search …”

But at this precise moment I am dazzled by the multiple lights of a huge vehicle coming towards me. Some idiot of a lorry driver has, like me, lost his way. In the smear of white light, the cockpit of this juggernaut seems weirdly empty and I fear I am about to be mown down.

I swerve sharply to the left and drive over some kind of unseen obstacle, possibly a brick. I do not hear the tyre burst but the Fiat skews suddenly across the slush.

“Oh, shit,” is all I have time to say. At least the lorry has passed safely by. There is a level crossing ahead but we don’t reach it, tumbling instead into some kind of drainage ditch. Before I know it, the car is upside down and water is gushing in through the open window and numerous other apertures. My first thought is that this is all wrong; it’s all far too early, I can’t possibly die yet. But the car is all but submerged and there seems to be no way to force the door open.

Drenched in icy water, I clamber over to the passenger side where there seems to be more room between the door and the bank of the ditch. I am just able to force the door open and squeeze my way out as more water rushes in. I am briefly underwater but I can see what looks like a tree above me, some of its lower branches dangling into the floodwater. I grab one of the branches and haul myself out. I lie on the bank, no doubt in shock, and listen as a train thunders by a few feet away. I feel suddenly very grateful that I crashed into the ditch and not actually on the level crossing. All is quiet again. My head is spinning and I feel a brief sense of euphoria.

The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. Amazingly, my phone still works and I am able to summon a rescue vehicle. My father finds a map and manages to locate a level crossing on a minor road between Wendover and Thame. He drives out to pick me up, like a naughty four-year-old caught scrumping. I’m ferried home and some very modest wounds are patched up. Then I retire shamefacedly to my room.

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