I’m not sure quite how it happened but I found myself on a 600-mile road trip to the far recesses of Scotland with a toothless 85-year-old in my passenger seat.
We hadn’t seen my Great Uncle Keith for 25 years so it was a bit of shock when the phone rang at my parents’ house and a feeble voice rattled down the line, saying, ‘Hello, It’s Keithhhh.’
Great Uncle Keith, my father’s uncle, had slipped off the radar some time in the early 90s. He met a ‘lady friend’ called Valerie, who had seemingly wanted him all to himself and as a result, he had severed ties with the family.
A quarter of a century on, and with grasping Valerie having passed away, Great Uncle Keith had decided to re-connect with my father, his long-forgotten nephew – from all of 25 miles away in Manchester.
My father is an only child but his father George (now dead) had two other brothers – the aforementioned Keith, and Jack, who married Jill (!) and moved away to Scotland to lead a hardy life of hiking and extreme outdoor pursuits.
We hadn’t seen Jack and Jill for years either but would occasionally receive a postcard from them, usually from far-flung places like the Himalayas, accompanied by messages such as, ‘Did a steady 30-mile hike yesterday; tomorrow tackling Everest…’ or, ‘On the Inca Trail. 40 degrees. Terrain easy.’
Given that Keith hadn’t seen his brother Jack for many years either, I rather generously offered to drive him up there for a Scotland for a family reunion. My parents, never ones to miss out on an adventure, were to accompany us on the trip also, in order the provide some light relief or drive me to despair, depending on how you looked at it.
The first shock was the kind of surprise that you can only get when you haven’t seen someone for 25 years. Far from being the sprightly piano-playing uncle that my father fondly remembered, Keith was now a dithery old man, with only a few silver wisps of hair and, more worryingly, a distinct lack of teeth. He was to stay at my parents for the night before we embarked on the Great Road Trip to Garelochhead.
Somehow, at 2am in the morning, he managed to bring a whole glass shelf crashing down in the bathroom, causing my father to nearly have a heart attack and my mother to get terribly flustered indeed and make statements such as, ‘What on earth was he doing, CLATTERING around in the dead of night?!”
Morning came and the great road trip had begun. I was behind the wheel, with toothless Great Uncle Keith safely ensconced in the passenger seat. My mother was giving a running commentary of the scenery, while my father sat studying one of his Ordnance Survey maps. Four hours later, with a short lunch break (in which gummy Keith attempted to eat a sandwich like a gurning Les Dawson), we arrived at Jack and Jill’s little house on the edge of Loch Lomond.
I vaguely recall Jill from my childhood. She was rail thin, terribly fit and as sharp as glass. A retired headmistress through and through, she didn’t suffer fools gladly.
Jack was much more affable, very quiet and extremely fit also. Now 89, he was – unbelievably – still running up the fells and back before breakfast.
As the car pulled up, Jill waved a spindly arm. And the first thing she said as she greeted her long-lost brother-in-law was, ‘My goodness Keith, where on earth are your TEETH?’
It was a question that all of us were itching to know the answer to. We never did really get to the bottom of it.
She cast a shrewd eye over all of us and turned her attention to my father, who was visibly attempting to hold his stomach in.
‘And Michael,’ she went on. ‘Haven’t you put on weight?!’
Somewhat ironically, given her obsession with how porky we’d all become, she emerged from the kitchen with a mountain of cheese scones and insisted that we all tuck in immediately.
Jack, who had been out doing a spot of windsurfing on the loch and also appeared to have grown a handle bar moustache, arrived shortly after, and they both proceeded to regale us with tales of Pensioners Do Extreme Pursuits.
Two hours later and having been force-fed several more cheese scones, the parents and I began to make noises about leaving for Glasgow – thankful that we’d had the foresight to book into our own hotel – and telling Great Uncle Keith that we would return to collect him in 48 hours. He looked petrified.
Driving back two days later, Keith was already waiting on the path with his battered suitcase. He had never looked so pleased to see us. As we bundled him into the car, Jill peered in and said, ‘Now Keith, remember what I said. Straight to the dentist as soon as you get back. And then you must consult a dietician immediately.’
Privately, I thought the chances of Keith, who only ever ventured as far as the corner shop, consulting a dietician were extremely slim (excuse the pun) but I didn’t dare voice this under Jill’s steely gaze.
‘No Teeth’ Keith just smiled compliantly, showing his gums.
On the journey back, Keith told us that Jack and Jill had marched him several miles up a hill – not to fetch a pail of water – but to explore the former residence of Glasgow-born designer Charles Macintosh (famed for those silly chairs with an elongated back). Reaching the summit, they found that the house had yet to open for the day.
‘Never mind,’ they said. ‘We’ll just walk several miles into town for lunch and come back in a couple of hours.’
On the verge of collapse, puffing Keith had to plead not to be taken back up the hill, at which point Jill expressed her horror at how unfit he had become.
Overall, he’d enjoyed his mini-break, Keith concluded. But he was glad to be getting home.
‘Perhaps you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for these trips away,’ my father quipped.