I was six years old. The walk to school from the house which remains my parents' home is half a mile at most, but in those days it seemed far longer. First came the short walk along the front of the terrace where we lived. Then around the corner to the busy main road, which had to be negotiated with the assistance of a pedestrian crossing. My parents always warned me then, just as I warn them now, that some drivers are too sleepy, or too distracted, or too stupid, to take heed of the red light. All too often one lane of traffic would obey, only for a vehicle to hurtle past on the outside. It was, and is, a dangerous road.
That day, as we rounded the corner, the road was uniquely, eerily quiet. The memory tends to exaggerate, but I don't recall a single car, van, lorry or motorcycle passing us as we walked to the crossing. It was one of the few occasions we were able to cross the road without the aid of the little green man. We continued away from the road and made our way up to the school via the village square.
The next day we discovered that one of my classmates, a girl who had recently moved to the area with her mother, had been hit and killed by a lorry, not two hundred yards up the road. She and her mother had been walking along the pavement, at the bottom of a hill. The lorry's brakes had failed. The girl, her mother and the lorry left the road, smashing through a wall, down a short but steep drop into a shallow stream below. It must have happened moments before my mother and I emerged into silence a little further along the road.
Amazingly, the girl's mother survived. After a long rehabilitation, she left the area, without the daughter who had arrived with her some months before. The wall by the side of the road was soon rebuilt, and for a few years the patch of clean bricks set against their dirty, eroded neighbours made for a silent memorial to a little girl who died suddenly, violently, in a strange place. More than a quarter of a century later those bricks can barely be discerned as any newer than the rest. There is no plaque, no bench, no tree.
I've been to many funerals. I've visited people in hospitals and nursing homes when they and I have both known we would never see one another again; when it's been obvious that they would not last another night; when they have taken on that grey hollowness that indicates that no matter how much they might want to carry on living, their body has given up. Yet I don't think I have ever felt closer to death than I did that morning in 1983.