If you break down in a dangerous situation, you imagine that sooner or later somebody will notify the nearest police, and something will happen. Help will arrive. We cannot contact anybody, and after an hour of roasting and continuing to expand in the heat, it looks very much as if we are well and truly in the mire.
Burrowing around in my handbag I find my little white plastic 9 euro mobile phone, which, miraculously, has a full battery. I only carry it for emergencies. To my surprise, when I phone our worldwide breakdown the call actually connects. It is the first time I have ever found it to be useful.
I explain to the lady at the other end that we are broken down, and give her our details, contract number, vehicle registration, date of birth, address, and location. She keeps asking for our GPS co-ordinates, which we don’t have because the battery is flat and our GPS isn’t working. I explain numerous times that we are on the N11 one kilometre from the French border, but she cannot locate us. She keeps asking for more details, and I cannot tell her anything other than that we are on the N11, outside of La Jonquera, and just before the French border.
We are both getting frustrated, and I’m in danger of losing my temper, because I am very, very big, now, from the heat, scarlet in the face and soaked in perspiration. We seem to have reached an impasse, when a scooter pulls up just ahead of us, and a man walks towards us asking if we need help. He takes the phone from me and has a go at explaining our location, and eventually the lady pinpoints us. She will call out a breakdown vehicle, but it may take some time.
While we are waiting, our new friend introduces himself. His name is Pascal, he lives in Perpignan and had come down to La Jonquera to buy cigarettes, which cost half the price there than they do in France. He is very concerned that we do not have the compulsory red triangle, and when I explain that we can’t get it out of the boot, he offers to drive down to La Jonquera and notify the police. Twenty minutes later he’s back. He’s told the Spanish police that we are broken down on a bend, and they have said OK. He’s not optimistic that they will do anything. He has also spoken to the French police at La Jonquera, and asked to borrow their red triangle. They don’t have one in their car.
It is impossibly hot, and he is wearing leathers. I thank him for stopping, and urge him to carry on now that we know the breakdown vehicle is coming, but he insists on waiting until it does, an hour later. With a handshake and a ‘bon courage,’ he drives off.
Our breakdown insurance mentions that it will get us home from anywhere in Europe, so when the recovery vehicle arrives we can sit back and relax, once the car is loaded and the caravan attached. The driver is taciturn and somewhat disinterested, but efficient. He announces that he is taking us to Argeles sur Mer, to a garage. That isn’t what we want, I reply. We want to be taken home. That won’t be possible; he will only take our vehicles to the nearest garage for repair. Our insurance, he tells us, only promises to get us home, not the vehicles.
That’s a shock, but at least, for the time being, we are on the move. I can hear the driver telling the garage that our alternator is dead and that we want them to replace it. I stop him. We do not want the garage to replace the alternator because we cannot afford it. What we want them to do is to recharge both our batteries, and we will get the car home. The garage reply that without an alternator the car won’t move. I reply that it will have to. It’s brought us 120 miles, and with a recharged battery it should continue to move us closer to home.
When we reach the garage there is an extremely belligerent little man waiting for us. (I’m beginning to think there’s a Little Man Syndrome, which makes very short men unpleasant.) He’s both aggressive and insolent and I’d like to whack him round the ears with the dead alternator. Instead I ask politely if he will be kind enough to recharge our batteries, for which we will happily pay him. He replies that it will take all night, and we’ll just have to wait. We ask him for a quotation for repairing the car – for insurance purposes – and he says he will do that in the morning. He’s really quite intimidating, standing unreasonably close to me and trying to stare me down.
Luckily the garage is in a clean, peaceful area, and the caravan has been put on a spacious car park just outside the garage. There’s a large car transporter parked there, too, and a friendly English driver comes over to chat and hand us a couple of bottles of beer.
Before long we are friends, and decide to walk into town for a pizza. I jam my feet into the trainers with difficulty. Because we were expecting to be back home by now, I’d only packed a toothbrush. No change of clothes. I am aware of looking frightful and being rather unfragrant.
We find a small restaurant and sit at a table on the pavement. Inside, they’re watching a football match – England vs. Iceland. Our new friend, Phil, is great company. He transports prestige cars all over Europe, from Lapland to Portugal. He shows us photos of some of the vehicles he has delivered – Bentleys, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis. Last year he delivered Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren P1 to Monaco. Although Phil didn’t meet the driver he left a note in the glove compartment saying that his young son was a fan and had hoped to get the driver’s autograph. He left his address, and within a couple of days Hamilton had telephoned to talk to the little boy and sent him his autograph together with a beautiful scale model of the car. (Or it may have been a Mercedes model, I’m not sure.) Anyway, a lovely gesture.
While we are eating, a handsome, fit man comes over and introduces himself and asks if he may join us. He speaks fluent English with a slight American accent, having lived there for three years. He also speaks five other foreign languages fluently, plus his native French, and says he’s studying another two. He is a money market trader, and we talk for a couple of hours about Brexit, sport, life in general. He buys us all a round of drinks, and shares Terry’s pizza; he’s charismatic, amusing, interesting and friendly. What are the chances of meeting not just one, but two such nice people to spend the evening with and forget our problems for a while?
Although we have the caravan to sleep in, there is no access to water or electricity and no means of washing, so I use the restaurant’s loo and splash some water from the hand basin on my face and arms. As we leave the restaurant, somebody calls out “Second Brexit for England – knocked out by Iceland.” But it is said with a friendly smile and a wave, there’s no malice.
My feet are still alarmingly swollen and I hobble back to the caravan, which is like a furnace and smells of sweaty clothes and feet. In the morning Phil will make us a cup of tea, and at 9.00 am we will phone our insurance broker, who speaks perfect English and is always a tower of strength. My French is pretty good, a level below fluent, and I can manage most things, but it would be a help to be able to speak to somebody who can communicate in English while we try to sort out the mess. That’s the comforting thought in my mind before I fall asleep. Help will arrive tomorrow.