The road chronicles
Whatever you may think of long car journeys, they are always memorable. Disability may have ended my days behind the wheel but in my mind I am still a driver. In the passenger seat I think all the things a driver would do. I can’t look out of the window and watch the hedgerows fly past. I can’t read. I certainly cannot sleep. I’ve only ever slept twice in a car. The first time was after being picked up at Gatwick and driven back to Wallasey. I purposefully curled up on the back seat and woke up by Ellesmere Port. I think the long flight from Australia may have been a key factor there. The second time left me crawling with guilt. I’d skived off school to go and watch the second replay of Everton and Liverpool in the FA Cup. It was a night match and I was in London.
The irony of a teacher skiving off still tickles me. My old mate Doug drove us. That was fine. I chatted to him and our other London exile Mike all the way through a busy brutal journey. But coming back, poor old Doug drove whilst I just crashed in the passenger seat. This time I woke up on the North Circular Road. Some of my pupils claimed they saw me in the crowd on Match of the Day. At least three other members of staff had slipped away to watch their own team in a replay that evening. I felt less guilty.
I now come to another epic from Spain to England. This was business and not pleasure. My friend Steve owned a Chrysler dealership. Chrysler were trying to get a foot hold in the British market. The Cherokee and Wrangler jeeps had moderate success in the early years. Then they were bringing out an MPV in the spring of 1997. The Voyager was already available in Europe so Steve thought he’d steal a march on his rivals and get one from Spain between the Christmas and new year of 1996.
Such ideas may be conceived in the cold light of day but the spirit of the adventure flows as free as the ale when discussed in the warm snug of The Huntsman. We were going to fly to Bilbao, stay overnight in a friend’s in-laws in San Sebastian and cruise majestically back in the shining armour of the new knight on the block.
I must say, the taxi ride from Bilbao to San Sebastian was a masterpiece of Spanish bravado. “Did that man want to crash?” It was an hour and fifteen minutes of grip. I gripped the upholstery and my mind was gripped on the damp road ahead as it flew past with inflections of splash. I suppose aquaplaning saves on the tyres.
The following day we set of all safely strapped into our leather armchairs and shot through the Spanish gloom. By the way, San Sebastian has brilliant tapas. We both knew that French roads were expensive but brilliant. We were following my 1994 route so it seemed plain sailing. And it was up to a point. Going up through southern France the turbulence of the mild Spanish wind had give way to the sharp static frost we associate with the northern hemisphere.
We were mildly content. We were thinking of a late ferry and back home to bed in the wee small hours; job done, brand new Voyager on the forecourt by the following Monday. It was bound to attract interest. Good common business sense.
Then it happened. By mid afternoon the country was enshrouded in a familiar blanket of virgin snow. The outside temperature read minus seven. Like some shallow fop I began to fear for the vineyards. But up ahead the sign said FERME! The motorway was closed. Just south of Poitiers we had to transfer to the N road. That’s like our A road. We looked ahead as the road swept before us into the twinkling late afternoon lights of this famous old town. But the lights did not belong to the town. The lights were brake lights.
In my blogs, I never like to use basic expletives but there is no other way I can express our sentiment: “Oh shit.” For an hour nothing moved. In desperation, Steve sitting crestfallen in the driver’s seat phoned back to England to get any news about the traffic in France. But this was 1996. Internet? No, there was Ceefax. Ceefax was great for the latest football scores but for traffic news in mid provincial France? “Tu plaisantes.” What self respecting Englishman would be driving through France whilst the rest of the nation was taking a much needed deep breath between the excesses of Christmas and New Year?
One late evening after too much whisky, we fantasised and romanticised about our heroic expedition through the immaculate Gallic highways. There was a wizened old little man gripping the back of our necks. It’s part of the “slightly drunk” package. Well that little man was standing directly before us laughing until the bell on his jester’s hat began to send an unbearable piercing needle of mocking laughter into our ears. There are untoward noises and there are untoward noises. At the purgatory end may be the sound of an air chisel, the drone of a hoover, nails down a blackboard, Barry Manilow, a happy Liverpool fan or violin practice. (Don’t knock it, they have to start somewhere.) But this little man went beyond that. He was visually gross and constantly beat our ears with the silent sound of static engines.
This stirred us into action. I looked at the map. I can do maps. Just ahead of this moribund snake of doomed steel and plastic was a D road. Steve risked a slip into the abyss of a roadside ditch to gain access. We were off. I was glued to the map. Take me home, country roads.
Oh no, this is another “oh shit” moment. It’s far worse than the plight I am currently relating. I have just inserted that dreadful song into my head. It will grace me with its tortuous presence for the next two days at least. If I crack on It may leave my ears alone for a bit.
Now you know the frustration of a never ending traffic jam and the sudden cathartic release of an open road results in a giddy sense of freedom and a rather heavy right foot. But this is less appropriate on an untreated country lane when it’s minus seven. That lovely old cheesy tune, the Skaters’ Waltz came into my head but the first violins were drunk and a semitone flat. There we were. skating about in unfamiliar land in a brand new Voyager. Fortunately Steve’s driving is impressive. He could handle a slide or two. But I was not going to say “did you feel it go” every time the rear end shifted a bit. Now the aim was to get north of Poitiers an back onto the motorway.
The route was involved but there were no wrong turnings. But the route was long. It must have taken over six hours. At one stage in mid evening we were parked outside a bar in the middle of nowhere. I said it: “I wonder if they do accommodation?” It was a fleeting thought but we’d made steady progress. We had to press on. We did find the motorway just before midnight. Was it time to sleep? No!
It was now a difficult journey through the tedium of the French auto routes in deteriorating conditions. We spoke of our hopes for the new year and of our hilarious past. We reminisced about university and did impersonations of our tutors and fellow students.
Talking of untoward noises; there was a student called Derek. He was a big hearted bloke but if he was in the room and you were listening to rock or pop, he would sing along, quite unabashed by his comedic Barrow-in-Furness accent. It was always :
“Derek’s coming. let’s play Shostakovitch”
“But I don’t like Shostakovitch.”
“Do you want him to sing?”
After a long continental drive, any form of replenishment on the Channel ferry is both deserved and welcome. People make bucket lists which may include para-gliding, bungee jumping or a trip to the great wall of China. But I recommend a P and O breakfast after a mega trip. Blighty is just minutes away whilst you chew away at the cardboard bacon, rubber eggs, sawdust sausages and lukewarm beans. There is nothing better.
Dover brought daylight to a frozen England. It was my turn to drive this elegant left-sided masterpiece of nineties American tack. The last leg of our journey was quiet and smooth; apart from those traffic calming things just before Tonbridge. I was slack and hit the kerb. We had to change a tyre. The frustration was apparent. It was snorting from our exhausted nostrils.
“Where’s the spare tyre?”
“Check the manual.”
“It’s in bloody Spanish.” Snort. I found it and we changed it. My only worry was the pub landlord. It was eight thirty in the morning and we were changing a tyre in his car park. Would he emerge red faced and cross in an ill fitting dressing gown not designed to accommodate his corpulent frame? Would he have this semi-mocking tone as he explained the basics of tyre maintenance or how he had personally campaigned for those traffic calming measures? Or would he just be helpful and offer us a cup of tea?
He didn’t show. Within an hour my head was on the pillow. Home is a sweet place. The previous summer, Steve and I were also sat on a cross channel ferry after a long but smooth journey from the Cote D’azure. “That was mega,” he commented. “We’re never doing that again.” But we did. Experience is the best form of education. Thank-you for reading.