At the top of my street there is a handsome building known as Pilgrims’ Court. It contains 41 self-contained flats and a communal lounge, kitchen, laundry and hair salon.
This arrangement is known as sheltered accommodation. It permits elderly people to live independent lives but enjoy 24-hour staffing and immediate access to assistance if needed.
Sometimes I see an ambulance at the kerb or one of those high-roofed taxis for wheelchairs. Nothing dramatic, just a pensioner off for a hospital check-up or perhaps away to see relatives on a day out.
Last month was different. On the morning of Saturday, January 26, a police officer rang my bell and asked if I knew anything about a man missing from Pilgrims’ Court, Alexander Stuart Nicol, 73, a retired librarian. He left his flat on January 24 but had not returned by January 25 to host a Burns supper he had organised in honour of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. I knew nothing.
Remarkably, CCTV cameras helped police follow Mr Nicol’s trail for many miles – onto a Metro train, then off and onto a bus heading for Scotland, then off again at a small rural town, where the sightings ended.
The photos published in our local paper showed an old man immaculately dressed in a light-coloured raincoat and a tweed cap. He was a volunteer in the Oxfam bookshop and according to shoppers a polite and knowledgeable man. Police said he often visited libraries and attended a Methodist church in the city. He had no known medical problems.
As I write this, nearly a month since his disappearance, Alexander Nicol has not been found. No family members or friends have reported his unexpected arrival at their homes and the weather has been terrible – snow, sleet, icy winds.
It is not unusual to read about old people, usually suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who become confused and wander off. Sometimes they are located and brought home, often their bodies are found in a park or under a bush miles from their residence.
When it happens to a neighbour, someone you might often have passed in the street, what might feel sad becomes tragic.
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There has been a 40 per cent drop in UK supermarket sales of beef burgers following the discovery of horsemeat in some prepared foods. Frozen foods in most European countries have come under suspicion after spaghetti Bolognese, beef lasagne, beef curry and cottage pie were all found with equine DNA traces.
Medical experts said the affected meals posed no threat to health but consumers are concerned that some horses are given a drug, bute, which can be dangerous to humans.
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Last week this column reported how work on a new headquarters for Durham police had been held up – at a cost of £250,000 (Sh4.6 million) – because a protected species of rare amphibians, great crested newts, had been found on the site.
Protected status means it is an offence to capture or kill the newts, or damage their breeding sites or resting places.
Permission for building to resume has now been granted after a redesign of the site made provision for a special newt habitat nearby with grassland and logs for refuge and hibernation and a newt-proof fence.
A Durham police spokesman described the move forward as “excellent newts”. Oops… “excellent news.”
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Two bizarre stories from the land of the personal firearm:
A Californian man had a row with his girlfriend and used his shotgun to smash her windshield. The gun went off and blew a hole in his gut.
In Newton, North Carolina, Ken Barger awoke to the ringing of his bedside telephone. Reaching for the receiver, he picked up his Smith & Wesson .38 Special instead and blew a hole in his head.
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A 65-year-old woman suffered a heart attack and was rushed to hospital. On the operating table she had a near-death experience. Seeing God, she asked, “Is my time up?”
God said, “No, you have another 30 years, two months and eight days to live.”
Returning to full health, the woman ordered up a wide range of beautifying procedures: a face-lift, liposuction, breast implants and a tummy tuck. She even had someone come in and change her hair colour and brighten her teeth. Since she had so much more time to live, she figured she might as well make the most of it.
Finally released from hospital, she crossed the street on her way home and was killed by an ambulance.
Arriving before God, she demanded, “You said I had another 30 years! Why didn’t you pull me out of the path of that ambulance?”
“I’m terribly sorry,” God replied, “I just didn’t recognise you.”