What a weekend… (by )

The plan for the weekend was simple.

Wake up at 5am on Saturday morning, leave the house by 6am, be in North Yorkshire by 10:30am to attend the wedding of a former colleague. Sleep overnight there in the van (we had originally planned to camp, but the flood and everything last week had left us with no time to organize this after our first attempt to book a campsite fell through), then on Sunday drive down to Essex to see Jean, then drive home.

It started to go wrong, however, at about 10am on Saturday. And it didn't stop.

It had already taken a turn for the bizarre: en route, we'd passed the site of a road accident. The other direction of the dual carriageway we were on was blocked. Traffic was queuing for miles behind an overturned van surrounded by emergency vehicles and people in high visibility jackets. The ambulance crews were leaning against the ambulance with arms folded, so I presumed nobody was seriously hurt.

But then something caught my eye. The overturned van was surrounded with odd shaped lumps, pink with bits of red hanging in tatters. Hi-vis folks seemed to be clustering around them, moving them.

Severed pig's heads. On one end, a gaping fleshy wound instead of a neck. On the other end, mouths hanging open with tongues lolling out.

Sadly, we didn't have time to get a picture.

But anyway. We were making good time, until we were just a few miles away, when our road slowed to a crawl. For MILES.

Time ticked on, until the time of the wedding arrived. And it ticked on still.

When we finally escaped the traffic, already an hour late for the wedding and with a few miles left to go, we had already decided that the odds of there being anyone left at the registry office was low, since in only fifteen minutes the reception should have been starting. So, we headed straight for the site of the reception; a ruined castle. We arrived in the appropriate village with a few minutes to spare, then spent a good ten minutes circling the castle - easily visible up upon a hill, but all the roads seemed to skirt around it. Eventually we parked the van and walked up a footpath that seemed to go promisingly near, but it turned out to also just circumnavigate the castle, which itself was surrounded in signs reading "NO PUBLIC ACCESS".

But we could get close enough to tell that all was quiet within.

We'd not been able to get through to anybody who should be there on the phone, so despairingly we decided our last hope was to go and get some lunch into us, then try and meet up with everybody at 4:30pm, when there was supposed to be a meal. So we set off and found the location of the meal with delightful ease: the Ham and Cheese, Scagglethorpe. Thus emboldened, we headed into the nearby town of Malton and started researching lunch options, when we get a reply from one of the wedding party.

Apparently, it turns out, the reception at the ruined castle had been canceled, but the announcement thereof had been lost in transit... So they're instead having it at a place just next door to the registry office; a place, incidentally, which we'd driven past anyway in our explorations. Ah well.

So without further ado, we make our way there, and have a pleasant twenty-four hours or so with our friends, which we will cover in a separate, non-depressing, blog posting.

So we set off down to London in high spirits, eager to see our daughter for the first time in two weeks; the longest we've ever been apart.

Another 250 or so miles' driving later, we arrive. Jean is delighted to see us, and trying to use her limited vocabulary to communicate ("Mummy daddy gone! Jean gone!" - is she trying to tell us about the separation, or asking us to take her with us when we go? Either way, the most complex grouping of words she's ever issued). So I sit and tell her that the house is still "icky-yuck" due to the "oh-dear water" (a phrase we coined during the flood to tell her that the water everywhere was, indeed, a bit of a problem). But that we'd take her home again as soon as it was OK. And that Minnie (the cat, with whom Jean seems to have a complex relationship of some kind; they seem simultaneously fascinated by, yet scared of, each other) kept going to Jean's room and looking about expectantly. And that we missed her and loved her and were sorry we had to be apart from her.

Then, finally, came the sad time when we had to say goodbye. We both hugged her and told her we'd be back but we had to go again now and work on getting the house ready for her again. Then Sarah's uncle distracted her while we slipped out of the house, trying not to cry.

Now, one of the things we were going to have to sort out this week was getting the van MOTed and re-taxed, but while we were with Sarah's family, they suggested that we swap the van for our automatic car (which they were borrowing), so they could sort out the MOT (Sarah's uncle is an engineer, so can do that sort of thing). I was a bit skeptical, since I'm fond of the van and I'm suspicious of the car (which has various engine problems), but it did seem like a good idea, so we agreed to it.

We set off and, since I'd already driven five hundred miles in the past two days, decided to take it slowly with frequent breaks at service stations, since I was pretty achy. We stopped at South Mimms on the M25, since it was a long drive from there to the next one, Reading Services on the M4, and I wanted to wash my hands and get a drink.

So we set off again, anti-clockwise around the M25. We joined the M40 towards Oxford, to take the A404 down to the M4 and cut the corner off a bit. The M40/A404 junction is a roundabout, elevated above the M40, so the slip road takes the form of a steep slope, with traffic lights at the top. They were red, and so with the car being an automatic, I applied the footbrake to come to a gentle stop - at which point the dashboard lit up with battery and oil pressure warning lights, and the car gracefully stalled.

I started it again, with a bit of pressure on the accelerator to get it going. It revved, but as soon as I released the pedal, it just stopped again.

The lights went green, so I tried to start it then drive straight off, but it now wouldn't turn over. So we had to leap out and push it onto the roundabout and around the corner, a bit out of the way. We lifted the bonnet, checked the fluid levels, let it cool for a while, and rang Sarah's parents to ask if there was any precedent in the various failures it had had before. They suggested adjusting the carburettor, but the nut wouldn't turn under finger pressure. The toolkit we had bought was no longer in the car for some reason, and we had not thought to check before heading off, or we would have shifted over the tools from the van.

So we rang the RAC, but ended up in a queue since they were busy... which was a problem, since after the long weekend (especially trying to get in touch with people when we were trying to find out where they all were on Saturday), my phone was the only one with any energy left, and it was dropping fast. So we gave up on the RAC and switched the phone off, to conserve the last few minutes of talk time in case we needed to call the emergency services or something. The car was on a downhill slope from the elevated roundabout, so we hopped in, waited for a gap in the traffic, then started the engine and dropped it straight into drive. It managed to take the sudden strain without stalling, and we headed for a lay by we could properly park in. We stopped and sure enough it promptly stalled again, so Sarah had to push it single-handedly while I steered to get it far enough along the layby to not be rear-ended if anybody else came along. Once duly parked, and now at about a quarter past midnight, we set off trudging down the verge of the A404 to look for an emergency telephone or pay phone.

There was none in our layby.

Nor in the next. There was just a sign prohibiting the dropping of litter.

We came across a roundabout, and found a sign saying that Maidenhead was four miles away. So we abandoned the A404 and set off down the smaller road to Maidenhead. There would definitely be a pay phone there.

At about 1:30am, still in the countryside, we found a pub called The Lemon Tree. And lo, just outside it was an old-fashioned red telephone box. We pulled the stiff door open and piled in... to find it wasn't working. No dialtone. The little LCD panel that tells you how much credit you have stayed dark. There was a nice poster inside it extolling the virtues of BT payphones over mobiles with the slogan "No flat batteries!". The irony was not lost on us.

So, disheartened, we continued our walk.

Maidenhead appeared, and we followed signs for the town centre until, finally, we found a pay phone at about 2:05am. We rang the RAC and explained all, and they said they'd send somebody to pick us up then take us back to the car to take a look at it. The problem was, it was a busy night, and they'd probably be about two hours.

So we sat by this phonebox, and nibbled the provisions we'd taken with us, and shivered, and wished we'd brought some blankets. We'd not really set out to walk three or four miles, but each time we stopped to consider, we'd decided we'd rather walk on and find a phone box that might just be around the next corner than head back.

Then at 3:50am, we saw lights in the distance. A recovery truck! It roared up the road towards us, turned invitingly into our side road - then reversed back onto the main road and set back off in the direction it had come from.


Then a few minutes later, the pay phone rang. It was the driver of our recovery truck, who was apparently unable to find us. "We're in the phone box! You just turned around right next to us then drove off!"

So he came back, and picked us up. "So where's the car?" It turned out they'd not told him that we and the car were about four miles apart, so he'd been looking for a car and not spotted us. We duly set off and, after a bit of searching in the dark, found the car.

He started it up and, thankfully, it proceeded to stall again after running for a little while; it would have been a bit upsetting if the thing had worked perfectly after cooling down and sitting for four hours. After a bit of investigation of the electrical system he decided that it was probably fuel related. The level of fuel in the filter was OK when the engine wasn't running, but when it started, the level of fuel in there dropped. It was as if the fuel couldn't flow in quite fast enough to meet the demand for it.

But that wasn't a roadside repair, so he winched the car onto his truck, and we set off. He could only take us as far as Swindon, so they arranged with another recovery company to take us the rest of the way.

We got to Swindon at about 6am, dozed for a while in a waiting room, then were picked up by a new truck at 7am, and finally arrived home (after some exciting maneuvering to get a giant recovery truck down our driveway) at about 8am, where we collapsed, exhausted, into bed.

And slept until 5pm. At a time when I'm already behind on everything, and desperately short on money, yet another day's work ruined.

Life is not particularly pleasant at the moment. And now we're in our little valley with no working vehicle.

1 Comment

  • By Josh On, Wed 8th Aug 2007 @ 4:36 am


    I haven't seen you in nearly a decade - but I just wanted to say - I read this entry - it sounded like a real bummer. I wish I could come and commiserate with you. Anyhow congrats on getting married and on having a cool kid.

    Love Josh

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