Yeah, okay, the island was England and the stranding part involved two flat tyres (see what I did there?) and thereby, as the Bard says, hangs a tale. So buckle up–it’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.
I’m not a world traveler by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m also no novice when it comes to long flights over large bodies of water. So, when we arrived at London’s Heathrow airport after an overnight flight from Salt Lake City by way of Cincinnati the exhaustion weighing on my limbs, the grit in my eyes and the sensation I was walking through a dream had a familiar feel to it. After an interminable wait we made it through immigration and customs and I stood at the car rental counter.
“I see you have prepaid for a compact.”
“Yes, I have,” I said, proud of having made the arrangements in advance.
“And you have the car for three weeks?”
Still floating in dream land, I wanted to get this over and on the road. “Yep,” I said.
“How far are you driving?”
With a bright, cheery smile, the agent seemed genuinely interested in my trip. How nice and friendly, I thought. “Oh, I don’t know. We’re driving to Dover then to Colchester and Stonehenge and Cornwall and Wales then across the Irish Sea to Belfast and up to the Giant’s causeway, then back across to the Lake District and up to Scotland and back here.” Fatigue had me a little punch drunk–chatty (I’m normally rather taciturn with people at the rental car counters) and off my guard. It’s the only excuse I can offer for what happened next.
“Well, driving that much I think you’d be much better off in our most fuel efficient car–a Mercedes.” In my weakened state, I didn’t respond which the agent rightly took as a sign of interest. “It’s only two hundred dollars more. You’ll likely save that much in fuel costs.”
Right here I want to reiterate my mental incapacity from lack of sleep. It’s the only reason I can imagine allowing the agent to issue such a patently absurd statement without a challenge. Well, that and “hey, we’re on vacation and we will be spending a lot of time in the car. And our daughter Catherine’s with us and she’ll be so much more comfortable in that nice roomy back seat. “
“You what?” The lovely Marianne was not pleased with my spur of the moment decision. She also had been sleepless and so was abnormally testy. Well, it was done and off we went on our way to Dover.
I have often wondered how someone from the sixteenth century might feel were she magically transported from life in a hovel where all water is carried home by hand, fire of various sorts is the only form of light and entertainment is listening to gossip about the wretches next door to the world of computers, streaming, iphones and flatscreens. The closest approximation I’ve found is the leap I made from a low end Toyota Camry (what I drive at home) to the Mercedes I rented in England.
The car mystified me. Sure, I could put it in gear, hit the gas and the brake, but there must have been five hundred functions in that thing that were indistinguishable to me from magic. I tried to use the cruise control; it seemed to operate of its own accord. I tried the sound system and nothing then blasting music then nothing. I eventually figured out the wipers; I was determined not to have to figure out the lights.
Daughter Catherine, it turned out, was less than thrilled with my choice, roomy backseat and all. In the rear view mirror I could see her latched onto the door as if removing her hand was a death sentence. (Her knuckles were actually white and here I’d just thought that was an expression–and over the top at that.) Muscles bunched in her jaw and at the look of horror on her face I glanced around to see who was about to attack us. “Are you sure you’re okay driving this car, Dad?”
You shouldn’t view that question, by the way, as her doubting my competence behind the wheel; she’s always been supremely confident in my abilities. “Absolutely,” I said as I drifted just a little too far to the left. In fact, I was discovering that, while driving on the side of the road heaven has decreed as the One True Side I had a good sense of where the right side of the car was, here in the land of the heathen where Divine Law is ignored I was having a wee bit o’ trouble knowing where the left side of the car was. That was not too much of an issue on the motorway, but when we moved from the motorway to smaller rural roads with curbs along the edge, I found myself drifting into said curbs.
I was not surprised then when we finally arrived at our first destination, upon examining the tyres on the left side, I saw scuff marks on the sidewalls. I clearly needed to be more careful.
The next two days passed without incident (if you don’t count the mounting number of scuff marks on the passenger side tyres’ sidewalls). On the third day we planned on visiting grave yards of various churches where ancestors of mine might be found (well, their tombstones anyway). We visited a church near a little village called Pitstone (population 2,900; location middle of nowhere England between Ivinghoe and Marsworth).
From Pitstone we were to drive to just outside Stonehenge where we had a bed and breakfast reserved for the evening. So far, so good. The roads in and around Pistone were narrow, but I was getting the hang of the whole driving on the devil’s side of the road thing. I made my way in to Pitstone just fine.
Take a good look at that picture and read the caption. Do you see any traps for the unwary driver from the civilized world? Because it was coming out of Pitstone where the trouble occurred.
Do you see that little post with the red strip on it? What’s it standing on? That’s right! It’s on a piece of curb that juts out into the road! Who does that? People who want to lure unsuspecting yanks in Mercedes autos to their doom, that’s who. Yep, there I was driving along trying not to wander into oncoming traffic and BAM!
Not one tyre, that would have been very sad, but I have been known to change a tyre in my life. No, it was TWO TYRES. So, it’s a little before noon and we’re stranded because, not anticipating the stupidity of certain drivers, the good folks at Mercedes Benz neglected to put TWO spare tyres in their cars. Not panicking yet, because it’s only about a two hour drive to Amesbury, to our B n B there. But I need some help.
Did I mention that Pitstone was tiny and in the middle of nowhere?
Still not worried because I had planned for this. Before we left the states I had purchased a cell phone that could be used in England. I’ll just call the emergency number from the friendly rental car folks. So, out comes the phone and…I cannot for the life of me get it to work. I get a tone, but when I try to dial, nothing connects. That little exercise takes an hour or so.
Still not worried. This is the modern age and England is a first world country, so a solution must be at hand. I had parked the car right in front of a house, so I went to the door and knocked. A very nice man answered the door. When I explained my difficulty, he kindly let me use his telephone. I couldn’t raise anyone on the other line.
Now worry’s peeking its head up and waving to me because we are stuck in, have I told you this? a Little. Tiny. Town. in a foreign country (I know, England, but still–not home) without a means of communication, two flat tyres and a deadline. It was now going on 2:00 pm.
So, picture this–three forlorn Americans trudging along a road, bewildered and searching for answers or at least a phone box where they can try their luck again with the rental car company and failing to find one. See them there on a street corner huddled together heads bowed as they pray for a miracle.
When no miracle appeared, we made our way back toward the car. Averse though I was to exposing my folly and ignorance to the world, I said I thought we should stop at the convenience store along the way and beg them to let us use their phone so we could try to call again.
I was deeply grateful that they didn’t let us see them snicker when I made my request. Out came the phone and with fingers crossed, I tried the number again. Eureka! success. The people at the rental place were nice, but I had to trudge back to the car to retrieve information they requested. At the car, my daughter told me that she had met the nice woman who operated a studio next to the house our car was in front of.
She told Catherine that we were welcome to wait in her studio and use her telephone. This was fortunate as I had to make several more trips to the car for information the rental company needed. The upshot of these conversations was that presently they would send someone along to help us out. Hallelujah! It was now about three pm and although worry had advanced much closer it refused to leave as the time ticked by and no one showed up.
4:30. That’s about when the man with the tow truck showed up. He told us very politely that he couldn’t fix the tyres. He’d have to tow the car to the nearest rental car facility (Luton Airport about half an hour away) where we could secure a replacement car. By 5:15 we were in the rental facility where I discovered how expensive Mercedes tyres are (for the record $300 a piece, yes $600 for the pair). I also discovered that the only car they had available was a Peugeot compact with a stick shift. (I had rented an automatic because I didn’t want to have to shift with my left hand on top of driving on the devil’s side and dealing with tiny, obstacle strewn roads). ‘And for the privilege of driving that car I would pay the same rate as for the Mercedes.
But rock and hard place and all that I agreed to the deal. By this time it was getting on to about 6:30 and we had a two hour drive ahead of us. We prepared to leave when Catherine expressed in rather forceful terms her distress at the situation. She was, uh, concerned (she put it a bit more bluntly) for our safety since we hadn’t eaten all day, were driving at night in an unfamiliar car with a stick shift on the wrong side. She wanted to find the nearest hotel and hole up for the night. I assured her with as much confidence as I could muster, that I was okay driving and wouldn’t put her or her mother in danger. I could see that the confident father routine was wearing a bit thin, but she agreed to go along.
Needless to say, we arrived safely at our B n B at about 8:30 pm.
And we wandered down the road for a fine meal at the
Whew, quite a story, huh? Well unbeknownst to us, we were just getting started! Stay tuned for Part 2.