Yesterday I found out from an internet news report that someone I knew had died in a car crash. He was a lovely lad from my village, aged 20, whose car came off the road late at night and hit a tree. It was some time before anyone found him.
He was a young man I had enormous respect for. He came from a tough background but gave the lie to the pervasive idea that tough backgrounds breed unpleasant young people. He was polite, thoughtful, open, and thoroughly decent. Somehow you always felt better for having chatted to him.
I didn’t know him well – I didn’t even know his surname until I read it in the news report of the accident, but in a heartstopping moment I had a terrible awareness it was him I was reading about.
I’ll remember him in a series of snapshots. First, in him greeting me in the street not long after I’d moved to the village. I’d got to know one other local lad, but street greetings are not the stock-in-trade of young men. I felt pleased and accepted, and instantly warmed to him.
The next snapshot is of hearing that he’d left school and wanted to join the army. He started having his hair cut in a military style and he sometimes wore camouflage jackets. I feared he would end up in Afghanistan, dead, injured or just exposed to the kind of experiences you wouldn’t want for anyone you care about. I don’t know what happened, but it seems he never joined.
Instead, he got a job picking up litter from beside main roads. It wouldn’t have been well-paid but it was great that he’d found employment.
The next snapshot comes from the severe winter last year, when a huge amount of snow had fallen. I was out digging snow from my drive when he stopped for the longest chat we ever had. He was agonising over a relationship and trying to get his head around some issues. We chatted in the freezing temperatures for quite a time. Again, I don’t know the outcome: a life in snapshots doesn’t have the next episode neatly in place.
My final memory is of a hot day last summer. Out walking in a country lane, he ran up behind us, shirtless, bearing a huge rucksack, two miles into a 10-mile run. Instead of pounding past, as many a runner would have done, he slowed down, jogged alongside us for a few minutes, and told us his route – across the woods and fields to a neighbouring village. I remember telling him I was sure that was more than 10 miles. He didn’t care too much about the distance – he knew the route and was clearly at the peak of fitness.
Finally he went on his way, running ahead of us into the sunshine, full of life and joy and vigour.
I’ve seen him many times since, but not to chat to, simply walking up and down the road, going about his business. He was part of village life; one of those people who had become a fixed and friendly point.
And then, the crash. We’d heard that a local man had died before we knew it was him. I didn’t even know he had a car – my life in snapshots was clearly not up to date, so initially it didn’t dawn on me that it might be him. Less than a week before he died, a lovely young woman changed her Facebook status to say she was in a relationship with him. Another snapshot.
So his life ended at only 20, just into a new relationship, and with so much ahead of him. He’s left a gap in so many lives, and in the life of the village as a whole.
A couple of months before he died he wrote on Facebook: “Don’t you wish you could turn back the hands of time sometimes.” How I wish I could turn back the hands of time for his journey on Saturday night.
Jay, you were loved and respected by so many, even by those like me who didn’t know you well. I hope you knew that.
* * *
The final snapshot. It is 13th February 2013, a bitterly cold winter’s day. A tractor is pulling a trailer up the village high street. A woven coffin bedecked with red and white flowers is resting on the back. A father is kneeling beside it, one hand on the coffin. Behind, dozens of people are walking in respectful, grief-stricken silence. The procession passes the newspaper shop, where the poster outside is appealing for witnesses to the crash which killed him. The tractor halts in the centre of the high street, outside the shop where he once worked. Traffic is halted, the coffin is transferred by young friends into a waiting hearse.
Then it’s time to leave the village for the final time. He is driven up the motorway, a long convoy of cars snaking back along the inside lane. At the church, there is standing room only, and his friends recall his life in more snapshots that make us laugh and make us cry. Music and poetry offer more snapshots of joy and pain. The vicar wisely refrains from offering shallow answers, but he reminds us that there are faith, hope and love, and that the greatest of these is love.
It has been a very public farewell, a fitting tribute to a fine young man, a bridge-builder and local hero.