Ian McMillan: The dressing gown rescue

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This time of year, when people are getting ready to go away for their holidays, always reminds me of a strange and resonant thing that happened in our house one August in the 1960s as we were preparing to go to a guest house in Weston-super-Mare for a week of sun and sand (or, as it turned out, a week of fog and rain).

My mam and dad were great ones for preparations, so on the Friday evening before we set off the suitcases would have been packed for hours, the AA route map would be waiting on the table to take us where we wanted to go, and the sandwiches for the journey would have been made and would be waiting in a cold place in the pantry (we didn’t have a fridge). I would have bought the Beano Summer Special but I wouldn’t have opened it just yet.

I remember that I’d been allowed to stay up late to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s film Lifeboat on ITV; it’s a classic that more or less all takes place in a lifeboat after a ship’s been sunk, and Hitchcock manages to eke unbearable tension from a group of disparate people thrown together on the bobbing vessel. Normally I had to go to bed early on the night before the holidays because, bizarrely, my mother reckoned I needed a good night’s sleep to be able to sit in a slow-moving car all day. Parents, eh? I was wearing my dressing gown and having my traditional pre-holiday supper of a glass of milk and a bag of plain crisps. It may be my imagination but I seem to recall that my parents were in their dressing-gowns too, one blue, one paisley.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door and my mother said, as though she was in a Peter Kay sketch, “Who’s that knocking at the door at this time?” My dad opened the door a crack. I went and stood behind him, thinking, for some reason, that something bad was about to happen. The music of Lifeboat was pervading the house, which may have added to the tension. A man was standing there with his dog. They both looked a bit bedraggled, like they wouldn’t be going on holiday to a guest house in Weston Super Mare any time soon. He spoke, and in my memory what he says changes more or less every time I think about it. I used to think he said, “I’m walking to Sheffield and my dog’s thirsty; can I have some water for him?” But sometimes I think he says he’s walking to Rotherham or Doncaster and the other night I dreamed about the incident and he said he was walking to Middlesbrough. My mam and dad had two instincts at this point: they wanted to help, but they were a bit worried about the man’s appearance. It must have seemed odd to him that we were all in dressing gowns, so maybe he was as wary of us as we were of him. In the end, the instinct to help overrode their nervousness and my dad fetched a bowl of water which the dog lapped noisily and my mam gave the bloke a slice of ginger cake which he ate in one gulp.

And that’s it. One of those strange memories that seem to mean something at the time, but probably didn’t. Whenever I read about Lifeboat though, I see the man, and his dog, and the ginger cake. We were their lifeboat that night, I reckon.