Neville John William Day 7 March 1922 - 26 November 1990
Neville Day. The early years and the final hour
If you read the Preface, and as author I appreciate few generally do, me included, but if you did then you would know this longish chapter is not intended to be about me. The preamble though is necessary. As I said. I was there at the time and so germane to the story. I also feel it speaks volumes about the sterling character of the man who brought me up, as if I were his own son. And the man who cared so much for my dear, late Mother. Providing for all his family, in sometimes austere times and with never a word of complaint.
Ethel so named by unanimous agreement in my family out of disrespect for Maiden Great Aunt Ethel. She most vociferously detested children. Declaring the purchase of the car "A total waste of money." Rather than out of any concern for my safety in the likelihood of me colliding with a quite robust Bramley apple tree. Which I subsequently did, on more than one occasion, or driving it through a straw stack, which I did. On more than one occasion.
Without too much thought Dad ordered me to follow him home and most of Ethel, mudguards flapping and me duly arrived back at the farm around twenty minutes or so later.
The following couple of years witnessed me hurtling around a Dad strictly prescribed route across muddy field headlands, orchard borders and through flower beds. Ethel frequently returning a little lighter than she had set off, having lost bumpers, mudguards, exhaust systems etc. along the way.
Ethel's now bloodstained engine and gearbox thus safely lowered into the mud I set to work with a borrowed pair of Mole Grips removing the cylinder head and camshaft covers. Dad provided a further tool, a crow bar, for me to apply lifting each valve spring seat to remove the collets and then valves. A crow bar! A favourite tool of Navvies, builders and burglars. It didn't feature prominently in my 'Boys Own Book' of 'Motor Cars and How They Work'.
Actually it didn't appear at all but who was I to complain? More blood.
Dad would appear every so often to inspect progress, sometimes grinning from beneath his umbrella. He promised me a Pound reward if the car ever ran again. A Pound a serious amount of money for a twelve year old in those days, and when the average farmhand was earning around £2 and 10 shillings a week.
Ethel didn't start. Her starter motor had long since been removed as beyond repair, thus redundant, so much hand cranking, along with recent new vocabulary gained through lunchtime sessions in the farm's barn with itinerant seasonal apple picking crews, was applied. I was disappointed. Dad mysteriously appeared out of nowhere and without a word sat upon one of Ethel's bald front tyres, lent over the engine and after fiddling with the cherished, blood stained Mole grips for a second or two, asked me to crank.
I did as I was bid and with twenty two thousand volts shooting up Dad's left arm as he slowly rotated the distributor, Ethel finally relented and fired. Dad tore away his grasp of the lively distributor, tightened its clamp bolt. Amid a cloud of ensuing sparks, bright orange flames and blue smoke from the three ports where once an exhaust manifold had been attached. Attached that was until hit by an inconsiderate Bramley apple tree branch and cracked irreparably.
No words could adequately describe the excitement experienced by a twelve year old schoolboy, about to leap into an albeit decrepit old motor car, but now like a Formula 1 compared to the sluggish, coked up and slipping clutch wreck she had just emerged from. Bereft of unecessary burdens such as bodywork, upholstery, glass, exhaust system, virtually anything electrical, etc., she turned out to be no slouch either. Quite capable of terrifying any child hating maiden aunt, daft enough to be coerced into accepting a gentle Sunday afternoon 'trip around the orchards in blossom'. Mother did though manage to tease out most of the mud splatter from her hair bun before she and her palid face left for the railway station and thus home.
Extended to the point that one day, having got bored with turning the circuitous route around the farm I decided to visit the seven acre field Dad had recently rented at the other end of the village. Involving taking Ethel out onto tarmac again. Oh what joy! Bald tyres make hardly any noise on smooth tarmac and most people will forever be unaware of that. Thankfully. Not that I could hear the near silence of the wheels above the noise of over rich paraffin firing, without need of benefit of Dad's electrocuting distributor, due to hot compression induced pre-ignition. The spark accompanied bangs exploding from Ethel's three side valve ports sounding for all the world like a badly misfiring Spitfire fighter plane escaping from a raid. Schoolboys are made of such stuff. At least they are until PC Bates appears just around the next bend, arms akimbo, legs apart, sit up and beg, black government issue bicycle leant against his towering frame, in the middle of the road.
Middle of the road perhaps not the wisest choice of place to stand as Ethel's brakes, or rather brake as the other three had long since seized, could only be described as of the Thursday type. That is you apply it on Wednesday and bring the car to a complete halt next day.
PC Bates duly missed I ran the still firing Ethel up the bank. Ethel, when running on paraffin generally need a stout barn door upon which she could be impaled, top gear engaged and clutch slowly released in order to stall her and shut her down. Alternatively pulling the wire from the SU electric fuel pump would also do the trick but that could take half a minute or so for her to finally stop and from the look upon PC Butter's face he appeared to be a little impatient. No convenient barn door handy at the time pulling the wire thus the only remaining option. We waited. Patiently.
“Allo, allo, allo.” (yes he DID!) “Wot ‘ave we ‘ere then me lad?” said PC Bates.
PC Bates stared at me menacingly whilst slowly and purposefully he undid his top left button pocket flap and withdrew his notebook and pencil, with a flourish. In hindsight somewhat theatrically I thought but at the time I had more on my mind. Such as ‘would I ever be let out?’.
“Licence?” asked PC Bates, obviously rhetorically.
“I don’t have one.” I spluttered in response.
PC Bates opened his notebook, turned to a fresh page and a note was entered.
PC Bates: “Insurance?”
“I don’t have any.” I again spluttered.
PC Bates: “MOT?”
PC Bates didn’t wait for my response.
PC Bates: “Road Fund Licence?”
Again PC Bates saw no point in waiting for my response.
To spare your valuable time and by this time you will anyway now have got the drift so I will draw up a simple list for you.
PC Bates continues. Supplying his own observations as answers as he worked his way through it.
“Headlights - none."
"Trafficators - none."
"Rear lights - none."
"Brake lights - none."
"Side lights - none."
"Horn - none."
"Windscreen wipers - none. Note: No windscreen."
"Silencer - none. Actually, no exhaust system whatsoever.”
PC Bates then muttered something about the Motor Car Construction and Use Act 19 (whatever), paragraph (whatever). He didn't look well.
PC Bates turned to a fresh page in his note book and groaned.
“Tyres - bald."
"Registration plates - none. "Mudguards - none.”
He started to write again but pushed his pencil so violently into his notepad he broke the lead. I sniggered. This was probably not a good thing to do under the circumstances.
PC Bates took out his penknife, a much nicer one than mine, opened it and started sharpening the end of his pencil. A remarkable feat of itself I thought as he did so without ever lifting his steely gaze from my now petrified face. I’ve often wondered how he managed to do that.
“Mudguards - none.” he repeated as he recommenced his scrawling.
“Actually, bodywork - none.”
Followed again by another reference to some esoteric Motor Car Construction and Use Act.
“Speedometer - none. Actually dashboard - none."
"Handbrake - none."
"Seats - none. Apple boxes are they?!"
"Is that paraffin I smell? Thought so. Customs and Excise Act 19 (whatever) contravention."
"Date you passed your driving test?”
He went on and on and on. Rhetorical questions followed by scribbles in his notebook and turning of yet more fresh pages. By this time I knew for certain I was going to gaol for a very, very long time indeed.
Finally PC Bates closed his notebook, pockets his notebook and re-buttons his uniform breast pocket. Then all six foot five of him bends over very slowly and deliberately to meet me eyeball to eyeball.
“Get back in your car and turn around immediately. Drive slowly back whence you came. Do not deviate from your most direct route. Do not stop. Do not come back for at least another five years and until you have obtained a driving licence and you have also acquired a safe motor car.”
I did as I was told. I told no one. Not a soul. Until now. Not even my parents. Especially not my parents. Actually, as a sort of insurance policy, I even volunteered to wash-up and dry the dishes after dinner each evening. For a whole week. Until the novelty wore off. That and the strange, whispered conversations around the table involving phrases such as "I wonder what he's done wrong. This time."
Thirty years later I was sat beside a bed in King's Lynn's austere and insensitive NHS hospital geriatric ward. I was holding my dying dear Stepfather’s hand. Mother and Suzanne, my half sister were the other side of his bed. We all had tears streaming down our faces. Dad had been laughing so much during the night recounting his stories that at times brought tears to his eyes. Cruel Motor Neurone disease had by this time paralyzed practically every muscle in his body but thankfully for Dad, especially for Dad, not yet destroyed his ability to speak. Albeit very strangely. He knew he was dying and not going to leave the absolutely dire hospital basement 'dying ward' alive, and no amount of trying to reassure him otherwise was going to convince him.
Responding to Dad's request to pull his oxygen mask away from his face just one more time: “Do you remember the time Bates caught you on the road outside the farm?” Dad giggled then coughed. “Bates told me that night in 'England's Hope' (local public house*). We never laughed so much again for years.” Dad had known all along.
Dad passed away due to heart failure ten minutes later, still smiling. Dying from Pneumonia brought on through the most cruel Motor Neurone Disease.
* Since renamed 'The Marshland Arms'
There is a post script.
Chris Latham-Smith 2022.
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