by Michael Bloor
(first published in Literally Stories, 26th May 2023)
I think it’s quite common for people to chat to their dead parents/spouse/buddies from time to time. In Andy’s case, he would chat to his dead dad, usually when the car was stuck in traffic. Andy’s dad had been a no-nonsense kinda guy and his contributions to these conversations tended towards telling Andy not to be so bloody daft; which advice Andy usually found helpful.
On this occasion (a late-night hold-up, northbound on the M80, both lanes blocked), Andy had been telling his dad about a job offer in Cardiff. His current Glasgow job was safe as houses, and the Cardiff contract was only for three years, but he really fancied that Cardiff job.
Instead of his usual admonition to ‘not be so bloody daft’, his dad surprised Andy by suggesting that he come along with him – in spirit – to a late-night Deceased Persons Discussion Group: ‘Tonight, it’s about The Jacobite Rebellion and The Battle of Sheriffmuir, 1715. I thought you’d be interested, living in Dunblane [Dunblane is just a mile or so from the Sheriffmuir – ed.]. There are usually some very interesting dead people there. Last week, we discussed Postmodernism…’
‘Eh dad?? What the hell do you know about postmodernism?’
‘Bloody cheek. I contributed…’
‘This, I gotta hear: what did you say?’
‘If you must know, I told em that in 2002, on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme, the then Archbishop of Canterbury was the guest and one of the eight discs he chose to take to the desert island was ‘The Hedgehog Song’ by the Incredible String Band. I said that the fact that you could mention ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury’, ‘Desert Island Discs’ and ‘The Incredible String Band’ in the same sentence proved that we are living (and dying) in The Postmodern Era.’
‘Well son, d’ya wanna come or not? We’re gonna be stuck here for hours: the fire engine’s only just gone past on the hard shoulder…’
‘Guys, this is my boy, Andy. The cottage in Dunblane he lives in once had eighteenth-century musket balls embedded in the front door. You can see the original door in the local museum…’
Andy was introduced to a lot of voices. People like Marie Curie, Neville Chamberlain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Cohen, the bloke who used to read the news on the BBC, and a number of people who hadn’t been famous at all. His dad said Ingmar Bergman had been there last week, but this time he was a no-show. Rob Roy MacGregor, the eighteenth-century cattle-thief and outlaw, was there as an eye-witness to the battle. But he spoke in Scots Gaelic, which everyone there understood (including Andy’s dad, surprisingly), but not Andy.
Among the crowd of not-so-famous persons, his dad introduced Andy to one he really wanted to talk to. That was his Uncle Raymond, whom he’d never met before, because he’d died before Andy was born. Andy knew the family history. Raymond had been an engineer at the Derby loco works and so he’d joined the REME (Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers) in the Second World War. He was sent to the Western Desert Front to maintain the tanks. It was a helluva job. Never mind the shells, the flies and the heat, to get the spare parts to keep as many tanks operating as possible, the engineers had strip parts from blown-up, disabled tanks on the battlefield: Raymond had to crawl with his toolbox into wrecked tanks that still contained bits and pieces of the previous occupants. He did that day after day.
Raymond had stuck at it. But Andy’s mum had reckoned it must’ve affected him badly. He collapsed in the crowd at a football match, just a year after the war ended. The match was the FA Cup semi-final. In the ambulance, before he passed away, they told him Derby had won. A few weeks later, Andy’s dad had gone to the final – the only time Derby ever won the cup. He’d saved the match programme for the unborn future Andy.
It was football that Andy wanted to talk to Uncle Raymond about: ‘Everybody said that, before the war, you were a talented footballer.’
‘Well Andy, I loved the game, loved playing.’
‘Mum said Derby wanted you to sign as a professional. Is that right?’
‘Uhuh, right enough. But I had an apprenticeship on the railway. The chance of a well-paid job through to retirement. Footballers had a short career and weren’t well-paid back then…’
‘But Uncle Raymond, it could’ve been you playing in the Cup Final at Wembley Stadium!’
Andy thought he might’ve over-stepped the mark, after all they’d only met that night. But Raymond just smiled. Perhaps those who are long dead don’t get angry. ‘Right enough, Andy. I suppose, as well, if I’d been a footballer to trade, then I wouldn’t ‘ve been messin’ about inside red-hot tanks, full of festering body parts. Maybe I took a wrong turning there?’