We rejoin our story of mid-life torpor as our intrepid family travels south towards the Pyrenees, in a car which mingles the sweet smell of toddler sick with the strangely scented and even more strangely named ‘Jus de Femme’, a product from Joe Bloggs’s very own perfume department.
If none of that made sense, you might want to read part one.
And, after very little incident (Mrs E did drive into the back of another car quite early on in the journey, but by leaping out and shouting very loudly “I’m really sorry but my toddler has been really sick”, caused the driver to jump back into his car and drive off with a really frightened look on his face), we arrived in an absolutely brilliant village at the foot of a Pyrenean mountain, and all was right with the world. Boys all assigned bedrooms, provisions unloaded, and all was well.
The next day, being a Sunday, necessitated a long run. I was going reasonably well on the running front at that time, and lining up for an autumn marathon, so I cheerily waved goodbye to the family. After setting off, I was swiftly recalled to the start line by Mrs E, who quite reasonably asked if I knew where I was going, I confessed that I had absolutely no idea.
“Tell you what”, I said/busked, “I’ll run in the direction of that mountain, look to run around it and head back. And if I can’t see a way back within an hour, I’ll retrace my steps”.
She gave me the sort of look that I knew then, and know now, to mean ‘yeah, right you tw@t’, and waved me on my way.
And I really did think that would work out. After an hour, I was pretty in my sure I could see a way back to the village. After a couple of hours, I realised that a) I was wrong, and I actually had no idea how to get back b) it was getting quite hot and I hadn’t taken a drink with me and c) I hadn’t actually seen anyone since I left the house. Oh, and d), that if I had any chance of retracing my steps then I was going to be at least another two hours.
Then, like a mirage, on the road about half a mile ahead, I could see some men working, laying tarmac. Quickly, I remembered pretty much everything I could get back into my head from Longman’s Audio Visual French. Jettisoning the bits about Jean-Paul launcing le ballon, and Marie-France trapping le ballon, I reckoned I could ask for directions back to the house. Slowing to a gentle jog, and trying to look like I did this sort of thing for relaxation most Sunday mornings, I tried out my best French vocabulary and my best French accent on the leader of the road crew. After a certain amount of head shaking, I came to the sad realisation that I was speaking to some of northern Spain’s less enthusiastic road gangs.
Oops, must have crossed the border, I thought, realising that e), I had no passport, no id, and no address.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I managed to get back to the house after a epic four hour run. I’m not sure what sort of wounded soldier welcome I’d been expecting, but the general gist of the reception committee encompassed the full set of points a) through e) above, and then added a couple for good measure. As far as I remember, they were : f) that I might want to start taking the odd parental responsibility myself rather than bugger off into the foothills of Spain whenever I fancied it and g) that it wouldn’t have been quite so bad if the angelic tousle haired fruits of my loins that I’d waved goodbye to half a day earlier hadn’t turned into three living embodiments of Damien from the Omen. Apparently the final straw had been when #2, keen to retrieve a Lego model from the top of a set of bookshelves, had used the shelves as a ladder, and consequently destroyed the entire unit.
After what is known in financial circles as a ‘cooling off period’, shelves were mended, showers were had, lunch was eaten, and a tense quiet settled over our perfect family, broken only by Mrs E, who made it clear that the only way that our marriage was likely to survive the next two weeks, or possibly the next two hours, was by ‘getting out of this bloody house’.
So we went for a drive, to the nearest town, which was St Gaudens. We took our usual positions, Mrs E at the wheel, me navigating. This is almost always the best way for us to travel, as it matters slightly less when I go to sleep, which I tend to do immediately in any moving vehicle. But I was sure to be on top of my game this time, and laid out maps and guide books and kept an eye out for rogue Spanish road gangs. I had a Rough Guide to Southern France, and looked up St Gaudens. It pretty much recommended driving straight through without stopping. In fact the only items of any interest were the St Gaudens abbatoir (one of the biggest in southwest France, apparently), and the Restaurant de l’Abbatoir, situated handily on the opposite side of the road. As raving middle class vegetarians, neither of these attractions were that exciting to us, but we were at least out for a drive, the kids were on good form, and we might have even managed the odd chuckle about the day behind us as we got stuck into those Early Learning Centre cassettes again.
Even when it started to rain we were in good moods. When it really started to bucket down and the sky literally went black, we found the funny side. As we went past the abbatoir on the right and the restaurant on the left, we smiled, and only slightly wobbled when we had to explain what the abbatoir was to #2.
Unfortunately, the mood swung in the wrong direction, when first the road surface started getting a bit bumpy, and then we realised there was nothing wrong with the surface but that we had a puncture. As we explained to our wide eyed travellers in the back, the wheels on the bus had stopped going round and round. And round and round and round.
I mentioned it was raining. It’s worth mentioning again, because it was the sort of rain that really did demand attention. Out I jumped, got immediately soaked to the skin, got out the spare wheel, got the jack in place, put the slightly poxy wheel brace on, and…nothing. I’m not the strongest man in the world but I reckon I can normally get a wheel nut off a wheel, for goodness sake, but not these ones. These ones, incidentally, had last been put on by the tyre company the month before with one of those incredibly impressive compressed air bolt tighteners.
So, we stood, by the side of the road, in the pouring rain, trying to flag down drivers who might have better wheel braces or more defined stamping heel techniques than me or Mrs E. And, to the credit of the Sunday evening drivers of St Gaudens, three of them stopped. They pulled out their wheel braces, which largely matched ours for poxiness, and they pulled and stamped in pretty much the same way that I’d been doing for the last half hour, but to no avail. And, with a series of Gallic shrugs, they hopped back into their warm dry cars and drove back to their warm dry homes.
Meanwhile, in the back seat of the car, things were moving from bemused to fractious. A quick inventory from Mrs E (who, remember, had just wanted to get out of this bloody house) revealed that we had one unopened packet of Cheese Wotsits and one clean nappy (good luck with that on Ready, Steady, Cook). We had no money, and no id. There was an emergency number for the agency we’d rented the house from, but that was back at the house as well.
Night was falling. The restaurant was closed. It was still absolutely hammering it down. And it was one of those moments when you realise that you’re in charge. There’s no one else who can step in and save you, and there are three helpless kids crying in the back of the car, who are completely reliant on you.
And then something really quite remarkable happened.
(To be continued)