January 16th, 2020: 70th birthday. A fine day of celebration marked by our walk on Bamburgh beach all the way round to Kiln Point on Budle bay.
In biblical terms such a birthday is a significant milestone, alluded to in Houseman’s memorable lines (1)
“Now of my threescore years and ten
Twenty will not come again”
with their attendant spur to action. In his case it was to visit cherry trees in blossom. What might it mean for someone for whom seventy would not come again? Well I can report a resurgence of effort on several fronts each with positive consequences!
Our birthday walk to a favourite place had followed on from my earlier excursion to the Lindisfarne nature reserve.I had met up with six other volunteers to collect litter washed up on Goswick sands. Two hours of effort saw us fill a trailer full of bags of plastic debris. A few days later, back home, plastic re entered my mind while out walking in the wood at the foot of Staerough hill. Scuffing through the beech and sweet chestnut leaf litter an old refrain from sixty years ago instantaneously came to life when I stumbled on something underfoot.
“there’s always something there to remind me”
sang the barefoot Sandy Shaw on the Ready Steady Go TV programme of yesteryear. Why had this lyric tuned into my mind? Well my stumble revealed unwanted litter in the leaf litter; degraded plastic tree guards. I had come across such stuff a number of times on my walks over the years and each time had tried to repress my annoyance. On this occasion the endeavours on Goswick sands pricked my conscience and told me that the time had come for something to be done here on my patch. ‘Better late than never,’ I started to root out the debris. Over the following few weeks I had removed ten big bags of the stuff.
These ‘threescore years and ten, ‘better late than never’ sentiments came to be a bit of a preoccupation following my woodland foraging. Two things came together. I had helped my granddaughter with her Duke of Edinburgh award scheme ecological project in two ways. The first was to put her name to the purchase of a baobab tree for a sub saharan community. Known locally as the ‘nurse’ it provides food, fuel and shelter. We followed this up by planting a silver birch tree in her garden.Two small steps then for her to follow in the giant steps of Greta.
“And the knock on effect. Had something else taken root”? Well our loft window looks out onto Staerough hill, a daily delight. Half way up right in the eyeline is a fenced off area of rough pasture and gorse. It has remained unchanged for 38 years. I had always thought that it had been waiting for the planting of conifers. In fact, now it seemed as if it had been waiting for me to stir into life, and build on my granddaughter’s example. Guerrilla re-wilding
was calling to me. Over several weeks, under the cover of dusk, the hill has been climbed, holes dug and two oaks, a holly, crab apple, rowan and a juniper tree have been planted. Their protection? Recycled tree guards from the wood below.
Finally, just one more ‘better late than never, forty year time lapse moment’ to recount. Last summer previous posts reported on the days spent helping safeguard the shore nesting birds of Lindisfarne, little terns, ringed plovers and oystercatchers. Up here in the north the latter also move inland to nest on the gravel banks of the upland rivers. They are an annual feature of the Bowmont water bird life. In recent years, however, as with the coastal birds their nesting sites have been prone to disturbance by dog walkers. As a result the valley has been increasingly filled with the shrill, plaintive alarm calls as the frightened birds take to the air. Now this was the easiest connection for me to make. How could I help my own local oystercatchers? A letter to the local landowner was sent requesting permission to erect three signs overlooking the three largest gravel banks.
PLEASE KEEP CLEAR
Two days later the request received a ringing endorsement from the landowner; a fellow bird enthusiast.
A fruitful start then to my three score and ten year.
Now for something a bit different. A similar theme is covered in a short story which appears below.
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR?
I had been looking forward to this day. The plan was to drive to a large loch, cycle round it and enjoy the autumn colours. Day break, however, revealed a thick enveloping mist, dripping with moisture. Light and shade looked to be an unlikely pleasure. In fact the prospect of the planned day completely disappeared when a yellow sign ahead informed me that the route to the loch was closed a few miles ahead. An alternative was needed. Luck was with me, because I knew that before the road block there was a large Forestry Commission plantation with its access tracks open to the public; perfect for a different mountain bike adventure. I pulled in to the small turning area at the entrance to the forest and unloaded the bike. As I set it up I spotted black bags of dog excrement which their owners had festooned a fence with. Such was my determination to enjoy the day ahead after the enforced change of plan, I avoided eye contact with this commonplace human blight and the expletives they usually extract from me.
Once underway and pedalling hard up a long incline my mind was soon in a better place and pleasurable sensations emerged. The towering pines were still, wet and soundless, their pointed pinnacles barely visible in the grey. And yet their were signs of life during my steady upward climb. A sudden movement and flash of rust colour to my right revealed a red squirrel crossing the track before me. Its unhurried, dainty, bouncing gait quickly taking it up a rowan. The track ahead went on and up and for an hour I pedalled slowly; all the time nothing stirred. Passing an old quarry another flash of colour, this time accompanied by a staccato sound saw a green woodpecker take to flight. Its leisurely undulating flight across the open space let its lime green plumage shine through the mist. The day was indeed well and truly looking up.
An hour and a half later saw me deep into the forest and so high I was able to look down on the valley behind me. Everything was veiled in a grey-green monotone. Yet, when an approaching corner was turned, out of the murk new bright colours peeked through: it was a camper van, parked at the side of the track with a man and an off road motorbike standing outside. Such was the incline and pebbly terrain I was too preoccupied with pedalling to fully consider the incongruity of the sight. I pulled up alongside him and we exchanged greetings. I asked if the road ahead was a dead end or could I carry on up until it went back downhill to my start. “Yes, carry on,” was all he said. I hadn’t gone far, though, when he shouted out “ hang on , second thoughts , I’m sure there is no way down from the top.” So I turned round and rejoined him, glad to stop as my uphill exertions had left me feeling hot. The encounter called for more chat so I made the gentle understated observation that “ it was some tricky drive that got you up here”. He concurred then hesitatingly went on, “I needed to get off the beaten track.”
“Well I can see it would suit you and the bike up here. Great fun.” He didn’t acknowledge my line of chat but instead volunteered the fact that “well I had to get away from ……..; hoodies were smashing up my house.” I looked at him at a loss as to what to say and clutched at what to me, in these troubled times, was a possible explanation for the harassment. “Was that because of you being mixed race?” I noted a nod of acknowledgement
and that was the last thing I remembered. Well, apart from the sudden numbness in my left arm and blurred vision.
A week later saw me being discharged from hospital complete with a new ‘stent’ in an artery. My enforced sojourn there had allowed me to piece together the chain of events which had brought all this about. At first, things were hazy. The consultant filled in the medical stuff. Dehydration had set in during the long uphill cycling, my body had overheated and together this had caused my blood pressure to crash and induce a fainting. “Where does heart surgery fit in with that?”, I hear you ask. Well a thorough examination revealed an underlying condition, something more serious, a blocked artery. “We might not have investigated you that thoroughly,” volunteered the consultant, “but for information given to us by the friend who brought you in. He had told us that as you were chatting you were clutching at your left arm. That to us was a sign of a possible heart attack. Luckily for you up there in the middle of nowhere it wasn’t. Still it was a warning sign of something we’ve now put right. You owe him.”
I was having a job to make sense of what I was being told. Friend? I was cycling on my own. “Well that’s as maybe but a chap took you to the local hospital and they got an ambulance to whisk you over to us.”
Slowly, the strange encounter in the forest came back to me: the man in the camper van. Before I could say anything the consultant himself was looking a bit bemused. As he was leaving me, he added, “I would have told him that it was good work all round on his part, the rapid delivery to hospital, keeping you warm, raising your legs in his vehicle and telling us about your arm. It all alerted us as to how to treat you. But we never saw him again. Funny that.” With that he was gone and I was on my way to discharge; relieved yet confused.
My life had been saved by a chance encounter with a stranger in the strangest of places. An act of kindness had followed for which I was destined never to be able to thank him for. It would be a while before I could attempt such strenuous mountain biking again so even if the chap was still up there, deep in the forest, there was no way of me getting to him. Or so I thought.
A few weeks passed and recovery from my operation now required gentle exercise. Cycling in and around my local haunts was to be encouraged, as long as I always carried the angina spray, aspirins, water bottle and a mobile phone. A puncture repair kit alone would no longer suffice! The local loch with its bird life to spot became a frequent destination. Further afield the old railway track offered bigger challenges. The prospect of refreshment at its end in our local town spurred me on. After one such cafe pit stop, I decided to take a short cut back to the track. This route took me through a small housing scheme much of which was devoted to what is now termed ‘social housing’. With my head down and pedalling hard I was not particularly aware of my surroundings such was my intent on getting through it to the start of my off road route back home. That is until I was forced to stop. Shards of glass suddenly appeared on the road ahead, shiny and glittering in the afternoon light. I lifted my eyes and saw that it was the result of a shattered windscreen of a parked vehicle. Dismounting, I pushed the bike up onto the pavement well away from the debris. Glass and tyres: not a good mix! Suddenly, as I drew up alongside it, the vehicle seemed familiar. It was the camper van I had come across in the forest. “What was it doing here?” I wondered. I looked up and around, my thoughts already turning to reacquainting myself with my saviour and thanking him. The thought didn’t last long. My eyes caught sight of the house in front of the van. It was a grim scene. “Pedo” was scrawled all over the front door. Quick as a flash I had averted my eyes, picked up my bike, walked over the glass and when the road was clear cycled away. I didn’t know why but I couldn’t get away fast enough.
Cycling home, I pieced together a possible explanation of both the scene I had come across and my previous eventful few weeks. One thing was as clear as day. The chap who had saved my life was living in that house and had been subject to harassment. As for coming across him those weeks earlier, well he was obviously up there hoping to be out of sight and out of mind. For sure he hadn’t been there to partake of off road motorbiking. He had said as much. Still my other line of reasoning, racism, looked like it too was well off the mark. “Pedo” daubing, a public shaming inferred that the chap was a perpetrator of sexual abuse of children. That was the reason he had been up there in the forest. He had been fleeing harassment elsewhere. Now, although rehoused, his past had caught up with him again.
My thinking seemed plausible. What was distinctly less clear was my eagerness to flee the scene . By the time I had got home, however, my thoughts had evolved: my haste in leaving the scene seemed somewhat indecent. It had not crossed my mind that I had been given an opportunity to thank the person for saving me from who knows what out there in the middle of nowhere. Alone in my flat thoughts went into overdrive.
“Saved by a paedophile, me a parent who had spent his life with my own children, grandchildren and all those youngsters who had featured in my professional life. Could anything be more abhorrent to me than child abuse? Or indeed to be in the proximity of such a person?” And yet this person, in an act of fellow feeling, had not only helped me but had risked discovery by leaving his refuge and entering the town. I owed him. That was the brute fact which hit me. Where would it all end though if I reached out and thanked him? Besides there would be no knowing what I might find if I did make contact. Would I find a lonely , frightened, vulnerable man or a distinctly unsavoury bloke with a criminal past and deep rooted deviance. Either way what would he want from me should I turn up and knock on his door? Moreover what would watchful vigilantes make of any visitors to his door. Where might that observation end up and to what cost to me?” Such were my runaway thoughts all through that evening. I could just forget the whole thing and leave it at that. Why get involved? No one would know about any of this. That was my conclusion by the time, later on,I finally gave in to sleep. My resolve didn’t last.
It didn’t last because during that night of restless sleep a strange dream occurred. Someone was telling me a story. It was the headmaster from my primary school, the kind man we all called ‘Sir’. It went like this.
“ A man was on his way from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell in with robbers who stripped him, beat him and went off and left him for dead.” You know the rest. “Several people came and went”, said Sir, ignoring the stricken man until “a Samaritan came upon him and was moved to pity.” After bathing and bandaging the man the Samaritan took him to an inn and paid for his care there.” After telling this story, Sir told us, its narrator , Jesus, posed the question to his listeners “who was the neighbour?” The answer came back, “the man who showed him kindness.”
“Jesus nodded in agreement” said Sir, before adding this injunction to the crowd “go and do as he did.”
I rose early, my disquiet of the previous evening now a full blown turmoil.
Mishap had befallen me and the man in the van had chosen to be a “good neighbour” at some risk to himself. Now, fate having lead me to him,I had been given an opportunity to offer thanks. But I hadn’t. Indeed my brief observations of his vandalised van and graffiti marked home suggested that a bit more than thanks might be in order; a “good neighbour” might be required. Something had to be done but what? Later that morning a decision had been made and I was on my bike heading for the town. “at the very least I could check out the situation more closely and maybe take it from there. By the time I had arrived at the estate I had already lapsed into into self doubt and wishful thinking. “Maybe he’s been moved on for his own protection and I can just go home.” No such luck. An even worse sight greeted me as I turned the corner onto his street. Outside the house there was a group of men and women visibly agitated. A solitary policeman was barring their way to the front door. I cycled forward and stopped a few yards from the crowd.
“How would you like it if a pedo was living next to you and your kids” a woman shouted at the policeman. “We want him out of our neighbourhood.” The policeman stared back trying to look impassive yet clearly unnerved by the hostile atmosphere. He shuffled his feet nervously then said lamely, “I’m just doing my job” before stiffening his professional resolve and adding “ I must warn you that intimidation of the occupant will lead to a public disorder offence and possible arrest.” A barrage of obscenities greeted this attempt at authority followed by a fusillade of eggs directed at him and the house. The policeman clutched at his phone and requested assistance. Amidst the pandemonium I looked up at the house’s upstairs windows where I saw the resident peering down at the crowd. Fear was in his eyes. Then in a split second our eyes met. For an instant his fear disappeared and he nodded towards me and raised his hand. “Was it a gesture to me? It looked like it.” I bowed my head, turned away. For the second time in as many days I mounted my bike and fled the scene.
Home offered me no respite. There was no one there to talk to, no one to help me understand and come to terms with what had happened over the past month and what was happening to me now. No, I was destined for another sleepless night, one peopled with echoes of a long gone past. How strange was it for an irreligious man to be visited in his dreams for a second time by a primary school teacher and his R.I. lessons? For that is what happened. A muddle of characters and story telling moments criss crossed my mind with Peter, Jesus, a cock crowing , and thrice timed denial of one by the other. Coupled with the earlier visitation by the Good Samaritan there was no way out for me. My conscience was being well and truly pricked.
I had been helped by a “good neighbour” someone whose presence I had denied twice. Still rationalisations continued to come thick and fast. “Why should I reach out to a man who apparently was odious? And if I did what could I offer. Moreover, if I did, what would the consequences be for me? After all as an elderly widower I could be easy prey for stigmatising and stereotyping myself should I seen as an acquaintance of a ‘pedo’. And where would that end? Hostile crowds and egg bombing of my house?”
And yet, and yet this man had saved my life. Surely, that demanded a gesture of thanks. Surely, that wasn’t too big an ask?”
And so it was that alerted by dreams and stung by my conscience I mounted my bike for the third consecutive day and headed for town.
It was with great relief that when I turned the corner and approached my saviours house I saw that there was no crowd outside. I quickened my pace so I could avoid being noticed, leant my bike beside the front door and knocked on it. There was no answer so I knocked louder and longer. Still no reply until a slight movement of a closed curtain to my left revealed a pair of eyes peeking through a gap and looking straight at me. A shuffling of feet could be heard and then the door opened. “Hi”, I said, “remember me?”
“Of course”, came the reply, “ the cyclist who came unstuck miles from nowhere.” Then he hurried on not waiting for a reply “didn’t I see you yesterday outside at the back of the crowd.?”
“Yes”, I replied trying to sound calm and collected, “ I‘ve just started cycling again and was out for a gentle ride and happened to be out this way. I recognised your van.” Words began to fail me before I spluttered “I could see that you were having a bit of bother.” There was silence. It was prolonged and accompanied by a quizzical look. I felt compelled to fill it and finally acknowledge my reasons for being there, albeit in a way which hid my trepidation. “Naturally, having found you, I wanted to see you and thank you for what you did for me. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here.” He looked back at me somewhat expressionlessly before saying “well that’s ok. I would like to think someone would have done the same for me.” Another silence. Were his words a veiled request for help at his own pressing time of need? I didn’t know what to say. He could sense my uncertainty and eased the moment by asking “do you want to come in for a cup of tea?”
“Sure,” I said, relieved to have found an inner resolve to quell my doubts, and stepped forward into the open doorway.
Before I could enter a man came round the corner and started hollering “Oi you, what are you doing, you do know this is the home of a sex offender, a pedo.” He was striding towards me at speed. I stiffened with anxiety and looked at both men dumbstruck. What was I to say? The moment I had grimly predicted had come to pass. What was I to do, show fellow feeling and loyalty towards the man who had saved me or disown him on the say so of a stranger, and in the process avoid any future aggravation?
My words of response were so immediate I surprised myself. What surprised me more was their steadfast tone.
“What I am doing here, as you put it, is my business and nothing to do with you. Now can you leave us alone.” For a second or two there was silence. Then a tirade spewed out. “This man is not welcome round here. We don’t want him anywhere near our families. Perhaps you are a pedo too. If so watch out.” Menace was all around now as two women appeared and weighed in with more abuse.
“Look here”, I retorted as boldly as I could muster, “if what you say is true this man will be under supervision. His every move will be being monitored.” I continued with my conciliatory tone. “You need to have faith in that.”
“Don’t give me that bollocks. They’re not going to be around here 24/7 keeping an eye on this git.” Tension and exasperation were in full throttle now. I could barely speak. When I did I said “well you have to trust the authorities to do their jobs, after all if what you say is true then this man will be receiving help for his condition.” Wise words? If only. “Condition”, he snarled sarcastically, “there’s no helping people like him. There is no cure.” The tension between all of us was palpable. What followed happened very quickly. Vigilante Man surged forward. His target lurched back into his house. All that could be done was for me to step between them. My worst fears had come true and that realisation was all I remember of that moment.
“You’ve got a visitor or two to be precise” said the nurse, “you are a popular man. Are you feeling well enough to see them. They seem very keen to see you.”
“Who could it be? Whoever it is can I be bothered. It will just mean more attempts at an explanation, more people feeling sorry for me. I just want to get home and to be left alone. Do I really have to go over that fateful day, the ugly encounter , the stress, the pounding of my heart and blackout?” Such were my thoughts. Before I could reply to the nurse two men appeared at the door into my room. I was flabbergasted. It was the vigilante and his victim.
“What’s going on” I asked anxiously as Vigilante Man stepped forward.
“It’s alright” he said in a surprisingly soft voice, “ no cause for alarm. We are both here to see if you are on the mend.” It was the emphasis he put on the word ‘we’ which calmed me. “Yes, if it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t be here.” Vigilante Man looked distinctly sheepish as he spoke. His companion took up the conversation and added “yes we both want to apologise for what happened. If you hadn’t felt compelled to stick up for me then the situation wouldn’t have occurred. I certainly never wanted anyone to end up in hospital on my behalf.” His voice dropped to whisper as he added “ God knows I’ve got enough on my conscience to trouble me for the rest of my life.” There was a long silence then Vigilante Man said “things got out of hand, I was out of order. I was wrong. You were only trying to help someone.”
Listening to the two men speaking openly and calmly had a peculiarly chastening effect on me also. I glanced at the Man with the Van. Our eyes met. My head must have dropped sheepishly, because the next thing I heard was Vigilante Man asking “am I missing something here?”
“Well the fact is” I said in reply, “ I was there on that day for a reason. It wasn’t out of the goodness of my heart, a pure fellow feeling for a vulnerable person. I was there to thank this man for saving my life.” There was silence in the room. The Man with the Van said nothing. Vigilante Man looked at him open mouthed but asked no questions. Then he said “ well who would have thought it. People are not always as they seem.”
We all looked at each other. No one spoke. We had been brought together by fate: a man running from a past of which he was ashamed, another burdened by a closed mind and me, self absorbed and fearful of doing the right thing.
Circumstance had propelled each of us into venturing beyond our own self centredness; a difficult and uncomfortable place to find oneself in.
My plight up there in the forest had forced someone to overcome fear and unwillingly expose themselves to public scrutiny. Our fateful encounter had then in turn forced me to quell a fearful timidity and discard prejudice.
As for our belligerent tormentor, his immersion in an ill informed crusade had jeopardised the life of an innocent third party, me!
A quiet descended on the hospital room. Our lives had been changed in ways which all three of us could only dimly appreciate.
My mind went back to the parable and the question that had haunted me; “who is my neighbour?” It appeared that not only me but my companions had been confronted by the same question. We had been tested by it and, better late than never, had each come to a neighbourly embrace of an ‘other’ in need.