This started out as non-fiction, and ended up a mixture of truth and lies.
One bright Summer’s day, with ice-creams in hand, we were walking around the perimeter of Brooklands Park, in Lancing. It had become a lunchtime habit for us: Me his understudy in my early twenties, and Charles Wheeler the sexagenarian production director. We followed the tracks of the miniature railway that travels around the perimeter of the central lake – still in our formal work suits, polished shoes, ties, and all.
We must have looked a strange pair, but it was a good way to escape the pressures of our work environment. We had once even enjoyed our ice-creams while floating in a small hired row boat on the lake: I remember that was on a spectacularly hot day when we had left our suit jackets in his car, rolled up our shirt sleeves, loosened our ties and decided that it must be cooler when surrounded by water: It was.
It is really strange, thinking back, how our relationship had over time evolved to one where I thought of him almost as a replacement grandfather to one I’d lost, than as a boss.
He was telling me about his brother, who had just tragically died. The day before he had been told the results of his brother’s postmortem. The pathologist had discovered a birth defect to one of the carotid arteries in his neck. His brother had lived fifty-two years with a time bomb just waiting for him to make an eventful turn of the neck. Well, finally, innocently, he made that move. “He would just have felt faint, passed out, and died,” the pathologist explained. Painless for his brother maybe, but remarkably disturbing for Charles.
His brother being younger, made the pathologist’s discovery even more worrying news: Charles wondered – not unnaturally – that it might be genetic (a word not in common usage then). He asked me – placing his free left hand on my shoulder ‘What if I’ve inherited this carotid thing?’ I should think we had walked a good ten to twenty paces, three ice-cream licks between, before I had formulated an answer to his question. My caution was well founded: I knew this man; I knew how he ticked; I knew that his question had come from his very core, because Charles was a man who did not express his emotions. He must have been extremely worried, and the hand on shoulder thing just emphasised it in my mind.
‘You know, I think the chances of that must really be pretty rare, Don’t you? I reckon the sensible thing to do would be to get a medical examination, Charles… It would put your mind at ease wouldn’t it?’
There were some more speechless paces before something happened that no one in their right mind could ever have imagined: I was looking at him as he turned his head to me and said, ‘That’s a….’ He never got to finish the words as he closed his eyes and slowly descended to the ground like a slow motion demolished chimney – crumpling up until the more solid bits supported his frame and stopped his demolition: Whereupon his trunk fell sideways, and he hit the ground with a very slight thud.
My ice-cream followed to the floor with a sh-l-a-p, and I was there too, nanoseconds later, leaning over him in dreadful shock not really knowing what to do, uncaring of expensive suit trousers grinding into the gravel and vanilla ice cream, but pretty quickly realising he wasn’t breathing and feeling this cold shiver overtake my entire body. Goosebumps from head to toe.
By this time – mere seconds – several people had arrived on the scene wanting to help. One of them – an attractive brunette who seemed to know what she was doing – bent down and put her fingers on his neck. She looked me in the eye and slowly mouthed, “N o P u l s e !”
I heard one person say, ‘Someone should call for an ambulance’.
This was years ago you must understand: I don’t think we had heard about ‘CPR’ – not that it would have been much use I feel.
The brunette, rising from her crouched position, still looking me in the eye, said, ‘I’ll go’ and started to run to the Park’s kiosk to get help.
Sometimes I think we can be forgiven for despairing at human nature. But things happen, and when they do they are often completely beyond our control. There was absolutely no intention on my part to disrespect this lovely man. I mean, in the circumstances, I should have been in such shock at what had just happened to Charles that I would have been incapable of thinking of anything else, but it was like my eyes had been suddenly opened and I couldn’t close them. In any case, knowing Charles, I feel he would have had a wry smile on his face as he noticed I was taking a little too long in watching this departing girl’s, attention-grabbing, fabulous legs.
In retrospect, it was one of those serendipitous moments that can occur at any moment of time. Fortune – or whatever you want to call it – is completely random in its choosing of the moment to afflict. It can strike anybody, anywhere, regardless of race or creed, at any time whether appropriate or not.
Charles was pronounced dead by the ambulance crew. It wasn’t news to me, and, of course, I even had an inkling as to what they would discover had caused his demise, but I was keeping that to myself. A few moments later the police arrived and I had to relate to them that lunchtime’s events.
The officer in charge was going through Charles’s wallet, but I remember having to confirm where he worked, where he lived, our relationship and so on, but I don’t recall much more. Oh, and I pointed out where his car was parked near the kiosk. By then the shock had set in and I had tears trickling down my cheeks. I was embarrassed by the tears and refused a lift from the police telling them I’d walk back to our factory, “The walk will give me time to pull myself together.”
The thing is, this event was one of several involving death – of people and animals – where serendipitous Fortune chose to intervene at an ‘inappropriate’ moment in my life. But that’s another story. This one is about how I lost a great friend and mentor but at the same time met the girl of my dreams.