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Hard lessons on the road

When Alex Marsh was a trainee teacher, he worked for meals on wheels. It was his first taste of real life.

I was 19 with the summer holiday from teacher training college stretched in front of me when my mother persuaded me to apply to be a driver for the WRVS meals on wheels service. Exciting - not, I thought. But I duly spoke to the organiser, who seemed more interested in which families I knew from school than my driving skills.

She asked me to take her for a drive in the Mini van to deliver some clothing to a family on the edge of town, an uneventful journey, and I had the job.

For a few days each week, I had a new Mini van - not quite wheels of my own - and definitely not the high performance car of my dreams.

Over the next four weeks, I delivered meals to a round of pensioners with a sprightly 75-year-old called Broughie. She referred to anyone under 70 as a youngster and had supreme, if misplaced, confidence in my driving.

We collected the meals in thermal urns from an enormous kitchen which also served local schools. It was full of steam and vulgar women who delighted in making fun of a 19-year-old lad delivering meals. They suggested activities they would rather see me involved in - what a sheltered world I had come from.

We would deliver to a Mr Jefferson who had confined himself to his house since his wife's death seven years earlier. We served his meal on to plates he always had ready in his gas oven, exchanging a few words about weather and news. After a few weeks, I asked him why he never went out. "My wife was killed by a car, on the road outside," he explained. "It's just not safe."

In one house I saw real squalor and destitution for the first time. It wasn't only the lack of basic comforts - no radio, no TV, no fridge. It was the resigned acceptance of having no money to clean or replace the curtains, the carpet or the single towel that served for pots and dirty hands. Even after we had left, the smell of decay and neglect clung to my nostrils.

Christmas was fun. All our regulars welcomed our Christmas dinner, served three days early. Broughie won a few kisses as she handed out small hampers, made up with donations.

Between drops, over-confidence increased my speed and the van lost its grip on snow. We turned a full 360 degrees. Broughie's comment was typical:

"It's a bit slippery today. Are you all right, young man?" In late spring, a special assignment came my way; to drive the family support officer with a mother and two daughtes to see their father in prison. Ichatted with the girls on the journey. They looked out of place when I left them at the prison gate; the girls' summer dresses and the mother's pale coat against the dark stonework and the studded gates.

My WRVS companion explained the family's story. Dad worked shifts, Mum had another man. Dad went rabbit shooting regularly. With the two girls out at school, Mum took one risk too many. Dad came home unexpectedly, gun in hand, found them in bed and shot the man dead. He had no record - it was unpremeditated. Mum and daughters were devastated when he was sent to prison.

That evening, my friends berated me for "being in a mood". I couldn't bring myself to share the family's tragedy. They would probably have found it funny.

My voluntary work continued during each college holiday. The fact that I was earning nothing didn't matter - I was among real people, rather than students.

The second Christmas came around and I phoned the office to find out when I would be needed. "Tomorrow, if you can manage it. But you'll have to do it on your own." I asked why. "I'm sorry, didn't you know? Broughie died three weeks ago - she had the flu and it turned to pneumonia. I'm sorry you weren't told. Will you be all right for tomorrow?" The loss of Broughie was penetrating.

Regulars greeted me, but with their next breath would ask after Broughie. I heard myself parroting the phone call.

In my final year at college, I was out on teaching practice. Lessons and children's faces were a blur as I moved from class to class. Shouldn't I know them better and be aware of their abilities and difficulties? During the intensive teaching practice, I reasoned, I didn't have the time to do more. I decided that when I had a real job, I would make the time to know my students.

My thoughts were interrupted when a girl approached me at the end of a lesson. "I think I know you," she said, hitching her heavy school bag on to her shoulder. "I'm not sure," I said, "I've only learned a few names. I'm sorry."

"You took Mum, me and my sister to see my Dad in prison." I was stopped in my tracks. "Oh yes," I said, "in the Mini. It was a bit small wasn't it?" "Yes. Daddy's home now." Delight shone in her face. "He's got a new job, where Mum works but in another section." She said so much, without needing to say it all.

Alex Marsh graduated from Matlock College in 1971. He taught until 10 years ago and is now a technical writer for an education supply company

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