Elvis died to teach me to ask people to repeat things

How I missed the news that Elvis was dead

I heard that Elvis had died while I was hitching home from an extended stay on the Hebridean island of Islay. My friend John and I had decided to kill time that summer before we went off to university by visiting the island. I had seen a TV documentary about the place and loved it. I persuaded John to come with me.

We camped for about three weeks by the side of a loch near Bridgend. But that’s another story; this is about the trip home.

South of Glasgow we were picked up by a newspaper delivery van. It was early morning, I think. John almost immediately slumped against the door of the warm cab and gave all the usual signs of having fallen asleep. I was left awake between him and the driver.

The driver was a Geordie, with such a strong accent that I struggled to understand much of what he said. It didn’t help that the van’s engine complained in the far treble end of the audible range as we whined down the early, nearly deserted, roads. I soon developed that rhythm of smiling and nodding — augmented by the occasional grunt — as the driver spoke, hoping that I was matching the right response to the information he was trying to share. I was tired and I was envious of John’s ability to fall asleep so quickly.

As we hit the start of the old A74’s dual carriageway, I caught the word ‘Elvis’. I looked across at our driver. He repeated the words. I made them out. He was asking if I liked Elvis. I shrugged. I wasn’t a big fan. There wasn’t much to like of the most recent incarnation; the big suits, the big collars, the big sideburns, and the big weight. Punk was my thing. John and I would spend a weekend later that year getting seriously mashed listening to Never Mind The Bollocks on repeat at a small cottage outside Nottingham. Hey, these were glamorous times.

The driver was obviously an Elvis fan. His face betrayed as much when I shrugged. It also meant that his next statement was almost spat out. Which meant, of course, that I didn’t catch it. And I wasn’t going to ask him to repeat what he said. Again. So I nodded and gave what I thought was a harmless enough non-committal response to what I guessed was his declaration that he was a fan. I didn’t, praise the lord, say ‘good’. He was silent after that.

Not long afterwards, the van turned off the main road south to make deliveries in Carlisle and environs. The sulking Elvis fan left us at a service station.

It was then that John told me that Elvis was dead.

“How do you know?”

“That’s what our driver was telling you,” he said.

John had pretended to sleep to avoid conversation. I was angry at the deception but amazed at his ability to understand the driver. Then I wondered how the driver had taken my perceived indifference at the death of the legend. He’d probably been wanting to share the news all night and found himself telling it to a cold-hearted bastard.

By the time we reached home later that day, the news was widespread. It’s something, though, when you get told about a momentous event and you don’t realise it at the time. I think it’s been some sort of metaphor for my life in the intervening years.

Now I try to get over my ego and ask people to repeat things when I don’t hear. I don’t want to miss anything important.