Mother’s new car appeared to work well. It had none of the eccentricities of the old family Rover, no random turning on and off of the headlights, no strange smell that would appear after thirty minutes of driving and then be gone by the hour but during it’s appearance you had to wonder how many cats had been incontinent in it. Mum had lost her sense of smell many years before so it never troubled her but others could only wince and try and ease the window down a fraction.
Indeed so far as I could judge the car was a success all round. That is until my Aunt, mum’s sister in law, called.
‘You need to sue them.’
‘Hello Annie. Who?’ None of my family are great at announcing who they are and to be fair each has a distinctive voice, albeit with a common theme amongst the women of treating all the males as halfwits.
‘The garage of course. Your mother should never have bought French.’
It turned out mum had broken down and Annie had rescued her. The car was now back at the garage being repaired. It was nearly 18 months old. Mum agreed (especially the bit about the French) with Annie – unusual enough in itself and perhaps a sign I should have noted with more alarm than I did.
So the next day I called the garage, having ensured my most pompous ‘do you know who I am’ voice was all unpacked and ready if needed. Mr Gates was the owner of the local garage where Mum and Dad had taken their various cars for many years. He knew my parents and my father respected him for his knowledge even if he did sometimes feel he could hear the meter whirling whenever Mr Gates lifted the bonnet on one of dad’s cars as he undertook a preliminary inspection of whatever was ailing it:
‘Oh dear, Mr Le Pard (fizz-click £30) I’d say your carburetor (whirr-ping £42.50) is undergoing a post traumatic (plink-fuzzle £72.50) aerated seizure of the reverse thrusting (phtang-phtang-strempolop £93.75 (plus labour)) drongle-faggot.’
‘Mr Gates? Geoff Le Pard. My mother…’
‘Ah yes, your mother. Has she decided on an automatic yet?’
I rather bristled at this. I mean this was a classic diversionary tactic and I, an experienced city lawyer was not about to be fobbed off. ‘Now see here, Mr Gates,…’
‘It’s her deaf aides, you know.’
‘What?’ The man was clearly feeble-minded.
‘I told her before, if she used her deaf aides then she might manage a manual but if she persists in her love of silence then she needs an automatic.’
Ok, he was good. Even Rupert Murdoch didn’t flummox me as much as this chap. I was off track, indeed so far off piste was I that I was hurtling down a completely different mountain. ‘Can we back up a fraction? My mother’s car has broken down?’
‘And it is still under warranty?’
‘And the problem is a part of the car?’
‘The clutch is useless, that’s true.’
‘So you’ll repair the clutch?’
‘Of course.’ By now I had definitely detected a certain amused tone. I waited. ‘Of course,’ yes, there was definitely a timbre to his diction which evoked gold-dusted chocolate truffles being savoured, ‘it won’t be covered by the warranty. It is caused by your mother’s driving style. She rides the clutch like a hyper athletic porn queen (I’ll give him his imagery though I hoped he saved it for me and hadn’t shared it with mum). If she put in her deaf aides and could hear the poor thing being shredded she might have avoided this. And of course if she had a sense of smell, well, she would have noticed the inevitable stench of massacred metal and plastic.’
I wanted to defend my mother, the family driver, the woman who’d driven cars for Eisenhower but it all had a ring of truth.
‘I’ve no doubt you’ll want to discuss this with your mother Mr Le Pard.’ At least this time there was something else in his voice, some shared sympathy. An moment of mutual understanding, like WW1 subalterns staring across nomandsland, sent to do battle but realising they had more in common with each other than those on their own side. ‘I’m sorry Mr Le Pard.’
I retreated, somewhat deflated. I called mum. ‘He suggests an automatic.’
‘Humpf. He’s trying to rip me off. Your father always said he sounded like a taxi meter.’
‘He says you don’t use your deaf aides while you drive.’
‘Why would I use them for driving?’
‘Darling, I like to drive in silence. I find I concentrate better than having the radio on.’
‘He says the clutch is completely worn out.’
‘Well I know that. It’s because it’s French. Did you tell him it’s because it’s French?’
‘No mum. He said he’d sort it out.’
‘Good. He indicated to me he expected me to pay for it. Trying to take advantage. Still, well done you. Irritating it needed a man for him to see sense but better that than me paying the charlatan. I hope he apologised.’
‘Yes he did say he was sorry.’
I paid. Ok so I had 18 months in which to persuade mum either (a) to get an automatic or (b) stop driving or we would be funding yet another clutch.
Her driving was getting worse, not helped by her eyesight. She had, unknown to me for another few months, cataracts in both eyes which she informed me ‘needed to ripen’ before they could be operated on. How much could she see? How dangerous was she? I never probed, just tried to point out the need to be safe.
A new clutch was fitted and the Archaeologist and I were bombarded with suggestions from her daughters in law that we consider telling her it was time to stop driving. We prevaricated. We repeated the ‘let’s try an automatic’ plea. It fell on deaf ears (ha!)
Mum went back to her local trips and the car continued to function, or so I believed. After all mum would tell me if something was wrong, wouldn’t she? As she had with the initial clutch problem.
Would she heck. What I’d forgotten was the only reason I heard about the first clutch issue was because my Aunt rescued her. I knew because of my Aunt’s failure to comply with the rules of the Grey Sisterhood:
Rule 1: don’t tell the children.
Rule 2 : there is no rule 2
Did you notice the important word in that last paragraph? ‘Initial’ clutch issue.
Yes, eighteen months after the first clutch breakdown mum’s car (or kaka as she now thought of it, as in a ‘heap of kaka’) broke down again. This time she was rescued by a lovely young couple, one evening. Mum gave them my phone number at the time, as they felt they should call someone. They were so nice she gave in. In fact they never called me but mum couldn’t be sure, so a day or so later she rang.
The relevant part of our conversation went something along these lines. Mum first.
‘I’m really disappointed with French car. Another clutch’s gone. It really is rubbish.’
‘I suppose it has been about 18 months since the last one, mum. The first one went after 18 months. And you are a little heavy on the pedals…’
Pause. ‘I had this one changed three months ago.’
Longer pause from me. ‘Three months ago? You never said.’
‘I know you’re busy, darling. Mr Gates fixed it quickly. He’s very efficient.’
‘Yes well. Still three months is ridiculous; they should last longer. I’ll call the garage..’
‘No darling, I’m just sounding off. I can…’
‘No mum. You don’t have a lawyer in the family and not allow me to exercise my snotty know-all self. Dad would have said ‘you don’t keep a dog and bark yourself’ wouldn’t he?’
She didn’t fight. I should have seen that as a sign.
So I call the garage, girding my loins. My call with garage was next.
‘Hello, Mr Gates. I’m ringing about my mother’s Peugeot. Barbara Le Pard.’
‘Ah yes. We spoke before, didn’t we? Couldn’t get her to buy an automatic, could you?She’s a lovely lady, your mum. Stubborn but…’
‘Stubborn? She doesn’t want an automatic, Mr Gates. She just wants a clutch that lasts longer than 3 months.’
‘That’s why she needs to move to an automatic. She’s too heavy on the clutch for a manual.’
‘Yes, but 3 months? That is ridiculous. They have to built to last longer than 3 months.’
‘In normal conditions, yes.’
‘Mr Gates, my mother isn’t driving up Everest or something.’
‘Can I explain about ckutches, Mr Le Pard?’ Odd how formal we had become. ‘If you ride the clutch hard it wears out; once you have a car where the clutch has gone once the next one, under similar conditions will go more quickly.’
‘Yes, but this one went after 3 months.’
There’s a noise like he’s rifling through papers. ‘Two months and 23 days.’
‘Really? That’s worse. How do you go from 18 months to 2 months something?’
‘Your mother barely takes her foot off it. When a clutch goes and is replaced then it weakens the surrounds. The next clutch will last a shorter time under the same conditions and so on.’
‘But this will be three clutches inside three years and the last one is only two months old…’
Oh dear. The inflection in his voice could be surprise or delight at what was coming. ‘Yes, three clutches.’ I’m beginning to wonder if he is a half wit.
‘Your mother told you she has only had three clutches?’
Long pause. ‘More?’
‘Let me check.’ By now I can definitely hear the smile in his voice. ‘She’s had six clutches altogether in addition to the original…’
‘… not forgetting the three gearboxes.’
He allows me time for this to sink in. Or maybe to compose myself. I think he’s doing well not to laugh. ‘Shall I send you a brochure for our automatic range? Or she could put her deaf aides in and hear for herself what she’s doing.’
I told the Archaeologist. We debated telling our wives. We dissembled. In the end we decided on a better tactic. We lied. I told mum there was a problem with the Peugeot which meant we had to sell it and he put a deposit down on an automatic. By then she made up her own mind. The car was getting too difficult anyway and the accumulation of illnesses that would eventually do for her was weighing her down. She never did drive again. But that’s another post and I need to go back a ways to her moving into her new house.
Finally, Dad’s poem. Given this post has had a rather unsubtle and unfair dig at French engineering I’d like to set that to rights. My parents loved France and all things French and they formed a significant and loyal part of the twinning with Yerville in Normandy where they would go each year and, in return would welcome Jackie and Martine into their house when Yervil came a’calling. Inevitably dad was called upon to write a poem to celebrate the 10th year of that twinning.
The Hordle/Yerville Twinning
From an excellent beginning
The Hordle/Yerville Twinning
Has prospered, and now reached the age of ten.
It’s agreed by everyone
That it’s been a lot of fun,
(With just a few small hiccups now and then!)
We’ve taken them to London,
To the Tower and Hampton Court,
And they’ve showed us the Palace of Versailles,
And fond memories remain
Of our trip along the Seine,
With the dome of Sacre Coeur against the sky.
We have been to Monet’s garden,
Seen irises in bloom,
And they have gazed on Salisbury’s soaring spire.
They have visited St Paul’s
Walked Southampton’s city walls,
And on Sundays we have heard the Yerville choir.
They have seen our lovely Forest,
We’ve admired old Honfleur,
And enjoyed the parties in the Salle de Fete,
And on Remembrance Day, each year,
We have shared our silent tears
In memory of those we won’t forget.
We’ve had musical exchanges,
Football matches and Scout camps,
We like croissants, they like fish and chips,
There’s been picnics by the sea,
A traditional cream tea,
And all, we’ve shared some most exciting trips.
We have seen a lot together
In every kind of weather,
‘Cos ‘fun’, in French and English, means the same.
And however dull the day
It’s been laughter all the way,
And getting damp is just part of the game.
For example, who’ll forget
Feucamps in the wet?
And after lunch it rapidly got wetter
But it was warm and dry
In a cafe quite close by,
And with coffee (and a ‘Calva’) we felt better!
Yerville have an English ‘phone box
And a sturdy Forest oak,
In Rue de Hordle both now proudly stand.
While their handsome seat in Hordle
Invites passers-by to dawdle
And study the inscribed milestone, near at hand.
Every country has its culture,
Time honoured truths (and lies!),
Likes and dislikes, superstitions, ancient blames,
But friends together always find
They leave prejudices behind,
For, underneath, we’re very much the same.
And so ten years have passed,
It’s time to raise a glass,
(Or if you’re Yervillaise, then lift a ‘verre’!)
We’ve had a lot of fun,
Next millennium – here we come!
Welcome, Bienvenu – both here and there!!