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The Toot Toot Man

20 June, 2013

Today I was in Bedminster, Bristol, after taking an early morning flight from Palma.  The Airport Express bus had seats for thirty people but I was the only passenger.  In Bedminster we passed a stone building that used to be a church when I was a boy.  There was, for about a couple of years, and I’m talking about the late 50s now, a large painting of a mountain by the road in front of the church.  We saw it every time we passed in the car on our way home to Berringford.  A path wound upwards around the mountain and on this path was the figure of a mountaineer.  The top of the mountain showed £20,000, which was the amount the church needed for restoration work.  This was a very large sum in those days. The man was placed on the path at the amount of money raised, and every week the man climbed a little higher.  Each time we passed in the car we would look and check his progress.  I don’t know if he ever reached the summit but I hope that he did and that the repairs were carried out.

The building still stands but now it is no longer a church.  It is a shop for specialist workwear. Yes, read that again!  You´re not dreaming and neither am I! Read the sentence again to make sure!  All the effort made by so many to help the man to climb the mountain, and now the church is a shop.  But the point is that all those efforts were valid whatever the ultimate fate of the building. All the many things so many people did to raise that money were worthwhile.

As I passed that building in Bedminster this morning I was in the same place as before but the time that mattered was years ago.  So the place was not the same.  That place was in that time. Today my memory of it means nothing to anyone else. It only matters to me. Today the church is a clothes shop.  Full stop.

The same thing happened when I revisited my old school after 30 years. It was a different place. The same buildings were there.  The same road was there.  Even the same trees were there, the great cedars in their garden on the corner of the Liberty, but nothing was the same. How empty is the present! The shouts of fifty boys, the rush to the dining room while still carrying our books from the last class, and the appetite we took to lunch!  None of that was there when I went back.

And there was no ‘toot toot’ from the old motorcyclist.  Well, it wasn’t really a motorcycle but a moped, one of those hybrid machines that were half bicycle and half motorbike.  They were common at that time.  The old man passed on his moped at the same time each day just before we went into lunch and always sounded his high-pitched horn twice just before the junction where College Road joined the Liberty opposite the cedar trees.  I could show you the exact place now if you were to come with me, but it wouldn’t mean anything to you.  We used to run up the road from class and wait for him and see if he went ‘Toot, toot’ He came day after day, without fail.  Every day he sounded his horn twice. ‘Toot toot’.  And we laughed in the unfeeling way of boys who had all their lives before them.

Now there is no one.  No noise, no shouts, no toot toot man and no moped.  Nothing remains.  The place is empty for me though other boys run by, thinking boyhood will last for ever, just as we did.