Local heroes

Andrew Clarke was one of the bravest souls you could ever wish to meet, but more than that he was one of life’s nice guys. Always good company and invariably game for a laugh, he loved music and cars in roughly equal – and highly generous – measure.

His first car of note was a brown Vauxhall Viva estate. It was a game old car and surprisingly sprightly in spite of its age and lack of power, as amply evidenced by Clarkey being busted by the police for hooning along Ayr esplanade at 85 miles per hour – a mere 70 above the legal limit! For a time it looked like he faced a lengthy driving ban, but then the unthinkable happened: he got away with it. Completely and totally. Perhaps the staff at the Procurator Fiscal’s office (responsible for prosecuting less serious crimes in Scotland) couldn’t bring themselves to believe that such an elderly and dilapidated vehicle could attain that sort of speed.

The Viva’s main claim to fame arose, however, from its part in the identity parade saga. The story goes that Clarkey somehow contrived to collide with a lamppost adjacent to the esplanade. As he and Mike, an old school friend who’d been riding shotgun, pushed the Viva away from the accident site, a police car pulled up in front of them. Much to Clarkey’s relief, the police officers either hadn’t noticed the damaged lamppost or weren’t interested in it. Instead, their focus was on recruiting volunteers to take part in an ID parade back at the station and Mike happened to fit the, ahem, bill. Tempted by the lure of an easy fiver, he agreed to participate. 

When he arrived at the station, Mike was given a balaclava to wear, told to stand in a line with several other young men and follow the directions issued by the presiding officer. Each member of the line-up was duly instructed to take a step forward in turn, thrust their right arm out and shout: “Give me the money.” The first four members of the parade went about this half-heartedly, their demands for cash being delivered like Jack Dee on tranquilisers. Mike, however, just had to be different. When his turn came, he lunged forward and bellowed “Give me the MONEY!” The eye witness, for whom the parade had been convened, immediately sought refuge behind the presiding officer, screaming: “That’s him! That’s the one who robbed me!” One change of underwear and several hours later, Mike’s assertion that he was guilty only of aggravated stupidity was grudgingly accepted by Strathclyde’s finest. 

Having seen Clarkey through his college years the Viva was sold on, to be replaced by a somewhat eclectic series of cars, including a Suzuki Vitara, VW Golf GTI, Renault 5 GT Turbo and Montego Estate, the last mentioned being the subject of much derision from Mike and me. As he grew older, Clarkey’s boisterous (though never malicious) nature began to settle and his driving ceased to be a threat to the lampposts on the esplanade. He still had his moments, though, such as the time when he managed to spin his 5 Turbo on a busy roundabout. And then there was the time he contrived to become an early victim of road rage…

The circumstances are a little blurred now, but it seems that Clarkey was badly carved up by another motorist on a two-lane section of road near to Ayr town centre. He pulled up alongside the offending car at the next roundabout and informed its driver that he was rather less than impressed with his driving. Or words to that effect. The recipient of his invective, no doubt deeply hurt by having his parentage called into question, responded by informing Clarkey of his intention to inflict bodily harm upon him. Deeming these threats to be credible, Clarkey dropped the clutch and made a bolt for it. His irate antagonist took off after him and a chase ensued. The pursuit lasted several minutes before a highly motivated Clarkey managed to shake off his pursuer. Thinking himself to be safe, he parked up on a side street and counted his blessings. The count had barely reached double figures when muscular arms reached inside the cabin and dragged him out of the car via the open window, whereupon, as he later put it, he was given a right old bleaching. Mike and I were sympathetic but any notion of reprisals was forgotten the instant Clarkey let slip that his assailant was a member of the local motorcycle gang…

Time passed and Clarkey, who suffered from cystic fibrosis, had a lung transplant. It gave him a new lease of life. He remained the likeable lad I’d known since primary school (and one of the very few people I never had a cross word with), but the effects of the transplant – and perhaps also the possibility that he might be granted a normal lifespan – meant that he took life a little slower than before. He still loved cars, though, and delighted in telling me about his latest acquisition whenever I bumped into him, though his attempt to explain the Viscodrive system on his beloved Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo ended up confusing both of us.

I wish it was in my gift to offer a happy ending to this tale, but as the old saying goes: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Clarkey had fought against cystic fibrosis his whole life but his battle ended when he contracted pneumonia in 2006. Brave to the end, he applied for a special wedding licence from his hospital bed (his wedding had been arranged for a few weeks later) and tied the knot in the knowledge that he would never carry his bride over the threshold.

His funeral was a small, family-only affair, but both Mike and I attended his memorial service a few weeks later. The service, conducted by a college friend who had become a Methodist minister, was filled with the music of Madness and The Verve, and pictures of Clarkey and his cars were everywhere. It was a fitting way to say goodbye to a good lad and true petrolhead.

Clarkey may not have found the cure for cancer nor won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he is as inspiring a person as anyone I can think of. In all the years I knew him, he never once complained about his illness in spite of it hanging over his head like a Damoclean Sword. He lived life to the full and made the most of the cards dealt to him. We would all do well to follow his lead.

Addendum, November 2019:

Clarkey wasn’t the only hero I’ve had the honour of knowing. My good friend Alan ‘Smithy’ Smith also falls easily into that category.

Smithy was the sort of lad that any parent would be proud of. He was intelligent, polite, thoughtful, honest and, in no small measure, brave.

He breezed his way through school, brushing aside even the toughest of exams, making friends with ease and gaining plenty of female admirers. Even the teachers liked him. Heck, everybody liked him – it was impossible not to.

Having secured a place at university while still only 16 (he’d been elevated a year at primary school on account of his intelligence), the future looked bright for Smithy. But at the tail end of 1982, with his 17th birthday on the horizon, he took ill. A stay in hospital followed, during which the underlying cause of his illness was discovered: he had acute lymphatic leukaemia.

He underwent a viciously intensive course of treatment that winter, but by the summer of 1983 he was on the mend. I recall walking miles with him one sunny afternoon that July, chatting about days to come.

He started university in the autumn of ’83 but became ill after about 8 weeks of the first term. The leukaemia had returned. Smithy, however, remained positive – a quietly religious lad, he no doubt drew strength from his faith in God. Once more he fought hard against the ravages of disease and treatment, waiting for the autologous bone marrow transplant that offered his best hope of recovery.

I’m not religious, but perhaps I drew hope and belief from Smithy’s faith. I fully expected him to recover right up to the day I received the devastating news from his parents that he had passed away. He was just 18 years of age.

That was thirty-five years ago, but his memory has not faded. I think of him whenever I pass our old school or the park where we used to play football or the golf course that was a second home to many of us each summer.

I think of his sense of humour, his strength of character and his enduring courage, and I think of the days given to me but not to him, and I wonder what he would have done with them.

He was a hero in the truest sense of the word, but more than that he was – and always will be – my friend.

Home page image (c) Anne