Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Sunday, 29 November 2015
It was weather like today's when I set out for my last visit to Flo Worthington, but I never made it.
I cannot remember how I first met Flo, but I think I might have been passing her little council house in Woking as she came out to try and find someone to take the lid off a jam pot or something for her.
Florence Worthington was about four foot ten inches high and around 80 years old, and I was six foot three and 17 years old. I must have conducted our short friendship in the Summer between ending my revolting period at Guildford School of Art and beginning the sculpture course at Farnham.
Once the top was off inside her kitchen, I was introduced to her only friend and companion, a blue budgerigar. She made me tea and offered me cake, and told me her life story as I drank and ate it. I think I heard the life story about four or five times, which were the amount of visits I paid to her over that Summer. I am absolutely sure that she often confused washing-powder with flour when making her cakes. Nothing else could explain the foul, soapy flavour. "Go on, have another!" she would say, holding an old tin out toward me.
Every day, she said, she would pay a visit to a nearby convent, and was very proud that all the nuns referred to her by her name - "Flo this, and Flo that." It sounded to me as though the nuns treated her like a naughty girl, and she loved it. These nuns were her family. She insisted that I call her Flo and not Miss Worthington, despite the age gap and despite the mores of the time. She had never been married and had no living relatives.
She also insisted that I call on her every Sunday from then on at the same time, and I found it very hard to refuse. This was not a Harold and Maude type of relationship, she was just very lonely - but also very cheerful. I began to wonder how I would break it to her that I would be going back to college soon, and would not be able to keep up the weekly visits.
We had just finished Sunday lunch, and my mother reminded me that I was due to visit Flo in about a half hour, so I put on my jacket and got on my 1938 Triumph motorcycle.
About two miles from our house, I entered a wide left-hand turn, not realising that all the tarmac had been worn away by cars on that stretch of bend - this was common in those days, when road building techniques were not so thorough as they are now.
The rain had turned the bare tar into a three-foot wide slick which was fifteen feet long on its curve, and I found myself in a front wheel slide which I could do nothing about except make a split-second decision about which piece of street furniture I was going to collide with on the raised island in the middle of the road.
The choice was between two bollards either side of a steel lamp post, so I chose the nearest bollard.
First I had to mount the concrete kerb of the island, then immediately hit the metal and glass bollard, uprooting it at the same time that I flew over the handlebars of the bike from the force of hitting the kerb.
I was aware of a large party of Sunday School children on the other side of the road, and they all froze in horror as I flew through the air towards them. I remember hoping that the bike would come to a stop before it hit them, and thankfully it did.
I landed flat on my chest on the hard road which knocked the wind right out of me, and I would have liked to have stayed there long enough to get my senses back and decide whether or not I had broken any bones, but the teacher - in an obvious state of shock - ran over and insisted that I stand up whilst roughly trying to drag me to my feet. I was too weak to resist.
A man came running out of a nearby house to inform me that he had called the police - not an ambulance - to take my name and address for destroying public property. Any young man on a motorcycle was always a delinquent by definition in those days.
The police arrived and told me that I would have to pay for the street furniture to be replaced by the council, and I responded by saying I would put in a counter-claim for damage caused to my bike due to a badly maintained road. In the end, neither was needed because a Jaguar car lost it on the same bend the very next day, taking out the steel lamp post which I had gone to such care to avoid.
I limped for a couple of weeks afterwards, but nothing was broken and there was only minor damage to the bike.
I could not call Flo to explain why I had not arrived that Sunday because she did not have a phone, but when I next called round a couple of weeks later, I found out that she had died.
That was almost fifty years ago, but I still think of Flo occasionally on a wet Sunday afternoon. Unfinished business, I suppose.