“Please will you keep her name?”
“Neena? Yes, of course. I promise.” — 29th May 2014
At the start of 2014, I was on the hunt for a vehicle, one that would be perfect as a wet plate collodion darkroom.
The Lifeboat Station Project was formulating in my mind, you see — as it turned out, the first of its kind for the RNLI and one of the largest projects ever undertaken in the history of photography.
At first, I looked on eBay for horse boxes. They weren’t quite right as they generally needed too much work to make them fit for purpose. Then a friend suggested Land Rover ambulances. A good idea but too expensive both to acquire and to run.
Hang on, I thought, what if I simply type “ambulance” into the search box?
And there it was — right at the top of the list — a vehicle that looked perfect in every way: a decommissioned NHS ambulance. Essentially, a ready-made mobile lab that would fit in just about any location. After all, everywhere needs an ambulance to reach them, right?
However, at the time, I just didn’t have the courage to put in a bid – so I had to watch as the ambulance was sold to someone else. I was surprised by the sadness and frustration I felt. This was such a big change in my life and I was kicking myself that I hadn’t seized the opportunity.
But then that immortal line from eBay floated into my inbox:
“An item you were watching has been relisted.”
That, as they say, was that. A second chance. Before I knew it, I was catching the train to Cheltenham on 29th May 2014 with my younger son to collect an ambulance. How exciting!
However, the owners of the ambulance, the Sinclair family, were clearly upset at letting her go. They’d had fun and dreamed of converting her into a proper mobile home. Now those dreams were evaporating.
The two girls were particularly upset and asked me if I’d keep the name they’d affectionately given her.
“Neena? Yes, of course. I promise.”
A couple of Mondays ago, I gave a talk to members of the Bath Sailing Club — not an oxymoron, by the way. They sail real life-sized boats. In the sea. Not in a bath. The town is called Bath.
During the Q&A session, Neena came up in discussion. How I’d acquired her, where she’d come from and the previous owners — the Sinclair family who loved her so much.
“Well”, a chap called Chris* piped up in the audience:
“If you’re heading home to Newcastle tomorrow, you’ll be driving right by Cheltenham. Why don’t you drop by and see them?”
That hadn’t occurred to me and, in those moments, my cogs started to turn.
I thought about giving them a ring to make an arrangement but then decided against it. This should be unannounced, either a lovely surprise or a quiet passing through.
On nearing Cheltenham, I’d already decided that I’d post a pack of Neena postcards through the door with a note if nobody was home.
If they were in, I’d like to give the Sinclairs one of the brand new Neena prints as a memento of their beloved vehicle.
TEA, TEARS, SQUEALS AND HUGS
Memories of the excitement, anticipation and nerves from that Spring day in 2014 all came flooding back as I pulled up outside in the quiet, leafy street.
Neena does like to make an entrance. Switching off her engine restored the peace.
I pushed open the gate to their home. Niki – the mum of the family – could see me through the window. Her face was a picture. She immediately recognised me. But where from? It was coming back. Then, a broad smile grew across her face.
The penny dropped! Niki called out to Emily, one of her daughters, who just happened to be ill at home from school.
They couldn’t believe it, that I’d taken a detour and stopped by to show them Neena. Emily suddenly seemed to get better very quickly.
High squeals and jubilation soon followed at seeing Neena again. They checked her over, making sure she’d been looked after properly.
Of course, she was in safe hands and fresh from a three week stint in Tyneside Coachworks, so looked absolutely immaculate. Impeccable.
“Look at this, Emily! Remember this?”
“Hey, Mum, here’s a map of everywhere Neena’s been! How cool is that?”
It was wonderful to see.
Tears and hugs flowed. It was perhaps all too much yet clearly a very special moment.
We sat down for a cuppa to digest everything that happened since we collected Neena not so long ago. They’d been checking into the website every now and then but hadn’t quite clocked the success of recent times and the growing stature of the vehicle for which they had so many of their own dreams.
In the meantime, I had to head north before the day disappeared— a couple of hundred miles or so to Southport for a meeting before heading home to Newcastle.
Neena growled into life and left Cheltenham in her wake once again, along with warmed hearts and yet more stories to tell.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ILLUSTRATION
With 30% complete, The Lifeboat Station Project’s success has really been kicking in. Even after working at 72 lifeboat stations in all corners of the UK, I still can’t imagine a more perfect vehicle for the job.
In fact, Neena has been garnering her own fan club. So much so, that I decided to pander to that affection and asked Ryan Quickfall if he’d consider making a cutaway drawing of her.
Ryan leapt at the chance and made an incredible job of it. If you’d like your very own Neena print, you’ve still got to time to claim yours at the introductory price of just £9.99:
* As it happens, brother to one of my friends who assists on The LSP — Jonny Jetstream Kemp.