I was eight when my father died. He was killed in a car accident in the late morning on an icy December day somewhere on the road between Elgin and Rothes. He was driving a black Lea-Francis, a marque long-gone but fancy and quite upmarket in its day, the acquisition of which, three months earlier, had distinctly thrilled him and his two sons and which had two bright yellow hand-covered cushions on its back seat.
I don't know the detail of the accident. Only that there was black ice on the road and the collision was with a large lorry. He was conscious for a while in Dr Gray's Hospital in Elgin and spoke briefly to my mother before he died. Doubtless today, with airbags and seat belts and appropriate surgical intervention, he might have lived. But at 2.30 in the afternoon, my mother came home – all her children waiting for news in the hallway – and said, 'He's gone.' At first I wondered where he might have gone to. But as tears and prayers began to fill the house, I suppose I realised what was meant by the unaccustomed phrase.
Although I have driven that same road many times since that day, I still don't know precisely where the accident took place. I have always asked those who knew or might have known not to tell me. There are plenty of shrines to those we loved without adding a further memorial on some anonymous stretch of a remote rural road.
Many decades later, I was invited to make the acquaintance of a fellow Scot and it was arranged that we meet at the Caledonian Club in London. We didn't know each other though we seemed, in the way of Scots businessmen abroad, to affect an instant fellowship based on mutual friends, networks, circumstances or interests.
We had hardly begun talking when he told me that I was mistaken and that we had, in fact, known each other once. As fellow pupils, he said, at Wester Elchies, a prep school long demolished but once situated on a high south-facing hillside over the River Spey. I didn't remember his name from the school but perhaps we were separated by the widest gulf there is at boarding school – a year or so in age. He, however, remembered my father's death.
He remembered, he said, my father coming to visit his unhappy son during a winter term for afternoon tea – the only parental visit permitted to an eight-year-old who had been sent to survive in the British system of private education. Wester Elchies was a 'happy' school. Wonderful headteachers – who remained friends until their deaths long years after – and a staff of caring and considerate men and women. Rules enforced with gentle firmness, classes taught with pastoral kindness and intelligence. Such unhappiness as any child felt was no fault of the school or the schooling but my separation from the loving and dutiful parents.
He remembered my father's visit (I did not). He remembered that my father, knowing the interest of boys between the ages of eight and 11, had parked his car at the front of the school building and propped the bonnet open when he went inside so that appropriate inspection of the engine might be made by anyone interested. He remembered that the car was a Lea-Francis. And he remembered its registration number. ASO 147.
My expression of doubt as to his memory of this detail after five decades was swept aside with confidence and certainty. Of course he remembered the number plate. His childhood hobby had been cars. (Hobbies were a sure and excellent way in which to bury anxiety, thoughts of separation and doubt.) It was a rare and beautiful model. And, most importantly, its owner – whom he had met – died in that same vehicle barely three weeks later. Its registration number was ASO 147.
Because I can remember nothing of my father, I watched my own (three) children growing up in constant hope that, should I be taken away from them in some random traffic accident, they would remember something of me. And as each of them grew past eight, nine, 10, 11 years of age, I was conscious of a fierce internal celebration: that I would not be forgotten by them. I rejoiced that some fragments of my life, personality, appearance, love, would remain with them.
I have perhaps three fleeting images of my father but little more. It was and is not enough. What I do remember was the aftermath. The now-recognised phase of shock, denial, bargaining, anger and reconciliation. The hopeless inability of an eight-year-old to offer comfort. The dreams of anxiety and death. The heart-fluttering moments of seeing him in the street and knowing that it was illusion. And the two small yellow cushions, returned to us as the only redeemable fragments of the accident. I remember the funeral as if it were a technicolour film played in an endless loop throughout my life. The chill church, the chillier cemetery. Holding the ropes that lowered the coffin into the earth. The priest and the prayers.
And most of all I remember the visit made the day after the funeral. Someone came to the house. He was taken with unusual ceremony into my father's study. My mother made him tea, went in and closed the door. He stayed for what seemed a long time, shook hands with great formality when he left. I remember that he wore a suit, a shirt and a tie and seemed to be awkward and unaccustomed to the manner of his dress. As soon as he had left, we were told who the visitor had been. He was the lorry driver whose vehicle had crashed into the car in which my father was killed. He had come to offer his condolences and to express regret at his part in the accident.
He was not held to be, nor was he, at fault. Perhaps he came, as modern usage would have it, to reach out. Perhaps he came for his own reasons. Perhaps because the ethic of those days was different. Perhaps because he simply wanted a widow to know of his sorrow.
But after he left and my mother turned to face her family and the rest of her life, I thought then, and sometimes think now, he was the bravest man I ever saw.