My friend: Bill Wilmot 1918 – 2018
I’ve just come home from the funeral of a friend. Not exactly my favourite thing, but then, most people find funerals difficult. I tend to avoid them if I can, but I couldn’t avoid this one. Bill has been a friend since 1982, when I moved to Surrey with my parents, so I felt I had to go, to pay my respects. He deserved to be honoured, because Bill was special. Let me tell you a little about him.
Now, I wasn’t a relative, so I can only tell you the stories about Bill that I remember. But what anyone who knew Bill will tell you, he loved to tell stories. He had this lovely west country accent, and when he spoke (and he could talk for a very long time, so it was no good being in a hurry) you listened. His best stories were about being a medic in the war. He told me that before he went away, he tried to find someone to care for his dog, but no one would. So one day, he spent his week’s money on meat, gave the dog a feast, and then shot it through the head. Because he said, he loved that dog, and refused to have it suffer when he wasn’t there to care for it. There was a strength to Bill, and a determination to do things right.
Bill specialised in ‘landings’, and he seemed to have done a lot of them. So when the troops landed on a coast, Bill would be in the next wave of landings, helping anyone who was wounded. He told me that once, he jumped off the boat, and almost immediately, something exploded next to him, and he was completely covered in mud. He thought he’d die, but one of his friends had noticed, and dug him out. Later, when he rejoined his unit, they were surprised to see him. “Oh,” they said, “we thought you were dead, we saw you being blown up”.
As a medic, Bill treated anyone who was injured, irrespective of country. When he was in Burma, he helped both British and Japanese soldiers. He told a story about bending down in the make-shift hospital to help one soldier, and a Japanese patient next to him, slipped Bill’s knife from his kit, and stuck it into his leg. Bill said (and you have to read this in a west country accent):
“I won’t tell you what I said, because it wasn’t suitable for a lady to hear, but I was not very happy.”
When Bill returned from the war, he went straight to where his fiancee lived. But while he was away, she’d died of an illness. Bill never married.
Although a hero, Bill was no saint. He told me that when he later worked in a reform home for boys, teaching them gardening skills, one of the teachers annoyed him. So one evening, when everyone was eating dinner, he went out and slashed all the tyres on his car. Later, Bill worked at Godstone Farm, and was keen that children living in London should have some knowledge of the countryside.
Bill was always interested in boys who were in trouble. I met him long after he’d retired (Bill was always old, even back in 1982). He would talk to the boys in the village, get to know them, and give them advice and help. He told me that once, he was driving a couple of boys into Redhill, and one of them turned to him.
“Bill,” he said, “I could get out a knife right now, and stab you, unless you drive us where we want to go.”
Bill continued driving, and answered: “Yes you could. But before you do, remember that I’m pretty old, and I shall die soon anyway, and I know exactly where I’m going because God has promised me a place in Heaven. But things are a bit more unsure for you. So bear in mind, that if you do get out that knife, I shall drive straight into a wall, and then you’ll be in trouble.”
The boy put away the knife.
I’m not sure that Bill was afraid of anything, even though as he got older, he was very frail. He told me that some men tried to sell him a scam recently, so he told the police. The police went to his flat, and hid in the bathroom, while Bill spoke to the men who’d come back to sell him some dodgy deal. They had to wait until the men actually asked for money, and Bill had actually written the cheque, and then they emerged from the bathroom and arrested them. I asked Bill if he’d been scared, but he said no, it was exciting. He was no fool.
Bill was always willing to help with young people. Whenever Husband was away, and I had breakfast club, Bill would come to help me, just to be the second leader, and to talk to the boys.
When Bill was 98, he asked us if he could pay for the meal at Lunch Club, and if it could be his birthday meal. We said we would do it anyway, but he insisted that he had savings, and he wanted to pay. So we agreed. He chose a roast lamb lunch, with a pudding, and I made a cake and we decorated the hall. Bill arrived with an inflatable hat, which had birthday candles on it and an “I’ve lost count” slogan. We sang happy birthday to him, and he stood, and made a little speech. It was a real honour to be able to help him mark his birthday.
Then after the meal, Bill came into the kitchen to pay. The cook for that week, asked me what she should do. We’d had 40 people that week, and roast lamb for 40 people is expensive, and probably cost much more than Bill realised. I told her to ask him how much money he’d brought, and then to tell him the meal had cost slightly less than that.
I heard her ask him how much money he had, and then tell him an amount which was £20 less.
“Right,” said Bill, “well here’s your money for the food. And here’s a £20 tip for the workers!”
I will miss Bill. The last conversation I had with him, was at Lunch Club. I held open a door for him, and as he walked through, he positioned his walking frame, so I was trapped behind the door.
“Aha! I’ve got you trapped now!” he said. If I’d blown, he’d have fallen over. But that was Bill, he had a wicked twinkle until the end.
I cannot pretend that his body wasn’t ready to die. After 99 years, everything is worn out, and the last year has been very tough for him. He didn’t want to die, he was determined to live until September, when he’d have been a hundred. But he didn’t manage it. He had asked my dad if he would go back to Godstone to do the funeral. But my dad died 10 years ago, so that wasn’t going to happen!
The funeral was very dignified, and Bill had written a letter, which was read out. He told us all about his faith in God, and talked about “agnostics who hide in their foxholes of darkness”. If anyone had the right to give advice about life, it was Bill. He honoured God, and although his life was often not easy, I know he never regretted that decision. I feel privileged to have known him. Though, I was surprised at the funeral to learn that actually, he wasn’t called Bill, his name was Oswald, and all his family called him Uncle Ossie!
Thank you for reading.