If bad things really do come in trios, then one month early last year was just such an example for us. First of all, my father-in-law died. His wife and five children were bereft. He had been ravaged in a one-sided duel with Alzheimer’s, less a fight than torture. His death, although awful, was, in truth, a release for him and those who loved him and remembered him for what he had been. It fell to me to break the news to my wife, a stoical type who broke my heart with her silent, shivering tears. Off to my work as a barrister I went, but a humane judge let me leave court in early afternoon.
Back at home with Atticus (12), we talked about death in the kitchen. Suddenly, he let out a yelp and legged it through the French windows and onto the lawn. I followed. He had a retriever by the collar. It’s bound to alienate many, but I’ve never liked them; too much fur and dribble for me. We walked down the drive to the cattle grid to be met by a reasonably apologetic woman of about 60, I’ll call her Mrs D-B for short. ‘I hope he hasn’t been a nuisance,’ she volunteered. It depends what you mean by ‘nuisance’. Legally, he’d been a considerable nuisance-he’d killed one of Martha’s (10) brown hens. Emotionally, it was the second death that day. ‘Are you sure it’s dead?’ was the next question. At the risk of sounding sarcastic, I told Mrs D-B that it was in four pieces on the lawn. At this moment, my wife returned home. She knew Mrs D-B vaguely and unwittingly twisted the knife by pointing out that, as her father had died hours earlier, she wasn’t too worried about a chicken. Mrs D-B was apparently keen to make amends, looking lachrymose herself by this point. We said Martha could surely buy another hen for no more than £10, and Mrs D-B said she would drop it in very soon.
So to the hat-trick. The following Friday, out cycling on a dead-straight road in broad daylight in the New Forest, I was hit from behind by a car driven by a 92 year old with ‘peripheral vision issues’ at about 35mph. My bike was written off. My helmet was in four pieces. I was dazed, bloodied and bruised, but unbroken.
The first thing I learned was not to bother with 999. Unless I wanted an ambulance, then the police weren’t coming. I was given another number: this had an answering machine. The driver and I exchanged details and the van driver who witnessed matters drove me home. The next morning, I answered the door to a stranger in his sixties. It turned out he was Ted, the driver’s son, and he lived in our village. He had spoken to his father and come to check I was all right. When I showed him the remains of my bike, he was visibly shaken. He told me it would all be taken care of, a bit like Mrs D-B and the chicken. I explained that my bike had cost an immoral amount of money and was carbon fibre. He told me to get the shop to send him an invoice.
At this point, things became rather surreal. I discovered that Ted’s father had driven, perhaps more carefully, with the 8th Army in North Africa during the Second World War. I felt guilty that I was, in effect, taking a rural pensioner off the road, something bound to isolate him. Ted was having none of it: ‘We needed an excuse to get his licence taken away.’ We both felt guilty. Four days later, I received a cheque for £2,000 to cover a new bike and helmet. Ted repeated his apologies and passed on more from his father. If everyone behaved as Ted did our insurance premiums would plummet. The ambulance chasing lawyers hell-bent on inflating every claim would be out of business and we would all get on better. The problem is that most people aren’t like Ted: 10 months on, and Mrs D-B still hasn’t coughed up for Martha’s little brown hen.
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