This is for Jill in the Aberdeen Sheriff Court. It is also for the staunch, stalwart man or woman who was driving a Royal Mail truck on the M6 between Brough and Carlisle at 5.45am yesterday.
Both these people, whose faces I shall never see, whose stories I shall never know, have made my life quite a lot better in the last 48 hours.
It started with the van.
I woke in the pitch dark to take Darwin the Dog on the second leg to his new home. I like to drive long before the crack of dawn, with no traffic and the World Service for company. The motorways get so full up and I’m not used to lots of lorries and I fear the endless jams and snarls. But what I often forget is that in the dead of winter it can be a bit hairy. I’d come down in the teeth of Storm Desmond. At one point, as the main road to Stirling was shut and the diversion through Bridge of Allen a car park, I went round by the Fintry hills, skirting landslides and aquaplaning as the road turned to river. At one point, I sincerely wondered whether I was going to make it. I envisionsed myself marooned on this blasted heath, and felt glad that I had bought two thermoses of soup and some nice cold chicken.
After that, I thougth going home would be a piece of cake.
Ha, ha, ha, ha, said the weather gods. They sent me some snow. (The poor people of Cumbria; thank goodness they are made of granite.) By the time I got up at 5am, to find the night receptionist beadily eyeing Christmas party revellers who were asking for another bottle of red wine, the snow was three inches deep on the car and frozen solid. It was minus 5. Darwin, being only a puppy and brought up in Gloucestershire, had never seen snow or minus 5, but was wonderfully sanguine. I gritted my teeth and defrosted the car, which took about fifteen minutes. I read a puppy book whilst I was waiting for the engine to warm up and the snow to melt off the windscreen.
‘Off we go,’ I said, cheerily, to the dog.
Ha, ha, ha, said the weather gods, throwing down some thick fog.
It will clear, I told myself, driving slowly out onto the lonely road. Ho, ho, ho, said the weather gods, who had clearly been at the red wine themselves. By the time I got to Shap, I was going at forty-five miles an hour, nose against the windscreen, literally navigating from one cat’s eye to the next. The lights did not seem to be working very well. I could not see a thing. I was again in doubt that I was going to make it. The puppy slept, blissfully. I started to think about contingency plans.
The road at Shap is very, very empty. There are no lights, no towns, no nothing. The hills of Cumbria fall away to either side of the motorway and there is nothing there but some incurious sheep. In fog, it’s like being cut from all moorings. I’m not sure I can actually do this, I thought.
And then, like a Deus ex Machina, a great red beast rolled up alongside, full of light and purpose. As it roared steadily past, I caught a glimpse of a crown and an ERII. The Queen, I thought madly. The Queen has come to rescue me. It was not in fact the Queen, but her representative on earth, the dear, dear old Royal Mail. It was a lovely, vast truck, sturdy as a pack horse, lit up like a Christmas tree. ‘Wait for me,’ I said, out loud.
I followed my saviour through the impenetrable greyness, its merry red lights glimmering ahead of me like a glorious pathfinder. Nothing bad can happen now, I thought. Now, I’m going to make it.
It got off at Carlisle and I waved it goodbye and said thank you. I picked up an Eddie Stobart lorry after that, the second most reliable outfit on the road, which got me through the next very dark patch in Lanarkshire, but the light was improving by then and my confidence was restored. It was the Royal Mail who had saved my life.
When I stopped for coffee I wrote the registration number down. PE63 MLF. I had a mad idea that I would send out my heartfelt thanks all over the social media and it would go viral and the life-saving driver might read it and know that she or he had saved the distrait female in the strange hat and the snow-covered Audi. Perhaps the Royal Mail would give them a prize for employee of the month. Their family and friends would josh them but be secretly rather proud. Or something. I wanted very much for that good Samaritan to know how much my heart lifted when I knew I was not alone on that terrifying road.
Back at home, the usual log-jam of admin put paid to such romantic notions. I had to get back to my desk and get on. The worst job was to pay a speeding ticket. I felt very, very stupid about this. I should not have been going at 80 miles an hour on the A90 and now I had to pay for it. I have not been in trouble with the police for years, and I felt as if I had been hauled up in front of the headmistress for mucking about in class. Get it over, I said to myself.
The vital piece of paper, the one with all the numbers and information on it, had gone. I spent an hour ransacking every single likely place, and the unlikely ones. I looked in washbags and under the seat of the car and in all my pockets in case I had scrumpled it up without thinking. Nothing. Darwin, bored, went to sleep. Now, not only would I have to pay the damn fine, I would have to ring someone up and tell them I had lost the piece of paper and feel like a double fool.
I got through to a lady called Jill at the Aberdeen Sheriff’s Court. I was all braced for unhelpfulness, derision, scolding or stone-walling. I imagined the most Jobsworth-ish of Jobsworths. I felt slightly sick.
Jill, it turned out, was the nicest woman in the entire officialdom of Scotland. She had a musical voice with a slight laugh in it, and nothing was too much trouble. The thing did not come up straight away, so she had to search through the system several times, which she did with high good humour. She then told me that I would not have to send her my driving licence, as the lost piece of paper had instructed, but could do it all on the telephone. The whole thing would take no more than five minutes. I had been dreading a visit to the post office in the snow or even a long drive to Aberdeen, but no, Jill would fix me up right and tight.
I thanked her over and over. I told her that I had felt stupid in about five different ways because of the idiot speeding and the foolish losing of the paper. She laughed, very kindly. ‘You are not the only person I will speak to today who will be in the same situation,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ I said, rather overcome. ‘That is kind and reassuring.’
Outside, the snow is white and thick and serene. Both dogs are fast asleep beside me. I think: perhaps every day I should find someone who has made my life a little bit better and write about that, like a kind of human gratitude list. There is always someone, on the radio, or in my family, or among my friends, or on the internet. Sometimes, it is the lady in the chemist; sometimes it is a complete stranger whose name I do not even know.
The fragility of grief persists. The tearing sorrow still comes in great waves, although the waves are getting further apart. But the thin skin, which I remember from my father, is still like paper. I discover that while this means I am easily wounded (a careless remark, a wrong tone) I am also very easily moved and touched and cheered by small acts of kindness. I believe tremendously in small acts of kindness, at all times. At the moment, they mean more to me than I can express.
The road home: