Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Sittin' On The Verge Of The 'Way

There were five of us in the car when it broke down the first time: my husband, two of our daughters, our friend Güzin, and me. We were on our way to Dina's, tired from a long hike, and ravenously hungry. But it's okay to be exhausted and ravenously hungry when you're on your way to Dina's, because that is the way she likes her guests: tired and famished. At Dina's, I happened to know, we would dine on grilled Portobello mushrooms stuffed with Stilton cheese, wholemeal breadcrumbs and onions. We would eat melon and our choice of vege-burgers or roast chicken, an assortment of steamed vegetables straight from her garden, and apple and blackberry pie with ice cream for dessert -- unless we wanted lemon syllabub instead.

We were all very much looking forward to Dina's. Güzin had heard a lot about Dina and her culinary skills, especially back on the days we were first teaching together and had too short a lunch break.

The car had stalled earlier, worrying my husband. "It hasn't done that in a long time," he murmured, turning the key in the ignition and frowning. The engine caught and we cruised along for a tense five miles or so when there was suddenly that awful, unmistakable smell of an engine beginning to fry accompanied by a telltale death rattle.

"My God," said my husband, "the engine's overheating -- look at the temperature gauge!"

The thin red needle was pointing to maximum, like an accusing finger. We crested a slope with our fingers crossed and prayers on our lips, then my husband eased the car into neutral and steered it onto the verge.

It was cold and windy. I phoned Dina to let her know we would be late and my husband contacted the RAC to explain the problem and our location. Dina said she'd put lunch on hold for us and the RAC said they'd get to us as soon as they could. "They said no longer than an hour and a half," my husband reported.

We tried not to think about our aching knees and thighs or our rumbling bellies. Or, for that matter, stuffed mushrooms, melon, and roast chicken.

It was a long wait. Tales of former breakdowns were related, including the one we'd had on our way back from Christmas shopping in Northern Cyprus, when we discovered the car we had been sold had a cleverly repaired crack through the base of the engine. Japanese proverbs were quoted, and much to Güzin's amusement, two stanzas of the Turkish anthem were sung. My daughters took many photographs, and I told Güzin about all the headaches we've been having with our house and various machines and appliances: our vacuum cleaner, our refrigerator, my husband's computer, the washing machine, the leaky roof and rotting joists. When we had exhausted all other diversions, I pulled out my harmonica and gave everybody spirited renditions of Oh, Susanna, Betsy from Pike, Clementine, and Ali Baba's Farm. We waited more-or-less patiently for an hour and thirty minutes, but once that time had elapsed, so had our patience.

"This is ridiculous!" my eldest daughter cried. And of course she was right: Güzin didn't come all the way from Turkey to sit on the verge of a Scottish highway watching truck drivers leer down at us. But what could we do? "It could be worse," I told them. Everybody groaned as I reminded them that we had shelter and warm clothes. That the country we lived in was not under attack, that we had running water, good nutrition, and no communicable diseases. Oh yes, it could be worse -- it could always be worse.

Ten minutes later the RAC man came along, managed to replace our car's corroded radiator pipe, and we were on our way with shouts of joy.

Dina's mushrooms were succulent, the chicken was perfectly roasted, and the syllabub was so delicious that Güzin and I managed two each. When I drove us home several hours later, the car purred happily along, gallons of fresh coolant coursing through its radiator.

There were five of us in the car when it broke down the second time too, two days later. We were on the motorway, coming home from a day's touring, when we had a repeat performance of death rattle, overheating engine, and stalled car. My husband managed to get the car off the road and we all had to pile out. Güzin wondered why, and we explained that this was the law in the U.K. The RAC told us it might take up to an hour.

We had to make several phone calls, including one to Dina, who had been planning to drop by our house on her way home from Glasgow. We explained our predicament, called our remaining daughter at home to tell her dinner would be late, then lay down on the grass verge and watched the trucks roll past. I wove a braided grass bracelet, chatted with my husband, and played my harmonica. Time passed. Every vehicle was scrutinized for RAC recovery vehicle likeness. More time passed.

"I can't believe these RAC people!" my daughter fumed after an hour. I practiced yoga breathing and tried not to think about the dinner I would now have no time to prepare on Güzin's last night in Scotland. And finally, the last of my patience had dribbled out. When a passing driver beeped at us, I utterly lost it. "I hate it when people do that!" I snapped, making a rude gesture far too late for the offending driver to see it. "Don't they realize we know we look like idiots?"

Güzin shrugged. "Perhaps they were wishing us well," she said mildly.

"Oh no they weren't," I said. "When people beep like that here it's to let you know how stupid you look."

The RAC arrived about ten minutes later. As we were being towed home, weary and worried about the possibility of having to buy a new car, my husband's cell phone rang and I answered it. It was Dina. "I saw you guys," I heard her say through crackling static. "I beeped at you, but you didn't see me!"

No, we didn't see her. And thank God: she didn't see my rude gesture.

The next day, we got a call from the mechanic telling us the car was fixed and perfectly road-worthy: the first mechanic had simply failed to tighten the radiator valve properly. We almost fainted from relief: we don't have to buy a new car after all!

Things could always be worse.



Kim Ayres said...

I can cope with the waiting if I know how long it's going to be. If they are going to take 3 hours, then they should say 3 hours. What's so difficult to deal with is when they say 1 hour, and then take 3.

Charles Gramlich said...

Too bad you couldn't charge that first mechanic for all your wasted time.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I take it they don't have Toyotas there in the UK?

Carole said...

Great story. Differences between men and women. All the guys so far have commented on the substance of your story and all I can think of is how lucky you are that Dina didn't see you flip her off. (Or whatever).

And last night we went out to a dear friend's and she made portobello mushrooms stuffed with the exact ingredients you mentioned and made baked chicken for those who didn't like mushrooms. I find that curious. For dessert we had ice-cream and apple struedel.

Vijaya said...

Yes, things can always be worse ... so wonderful to have Dina's wonderful food waiting. I want Dina.

AnneB said...

I hope you let the RAC know about the first mechanic's failure!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Yes, we kept thinking that it might be less than the time they'd quoted and that almost made it worse. Once it actually went over the maximum time, we felt quite desperate. But it wasn't raining! I still can't get over how lucky we were to beat Murphy's law on the rain.

Charles -- He did everything he was supposed to do except for that one little thing, but our car's radiator valve is apparently tricky. Still, it was a good thing he didn't show up on the second occasion or we'd have given him a piece of our minds.

Robert -- I take it you're a Toyota fan? We'd love a Toyota, but lack the necessary wherewithal. We could probably afford a used model, though -- maybe a 1998 one.

Carole -- Well, we are talking about CARS here, and repairmen! :o)

Dina would have been a good sport about getting flipped off, but I'm so glad she didn't see it. When I told her what almost happened, she was amused, but I still think she wouldn't have wanted to be flipped off by people she does a lot for on a regular basis.

How funny that stuffed mushrooms and chicken were on the table at your friend's house too -- great minds think alike.

Vijaya -- My kids are a little tired of my "It could be worse!" refrain, but it still comforts me, so they'll just have to put up with it a little longer. By the time they have their own kids, I bet they'll be saying it themselves.

AnneB -- Believe me, it'll get back to him because they're all linked and know each other in this area. If you screw up within a 25-km radius of this town, you live with the results of it for the next ten years.

Blythe Woolston said...

Some of our happiest family memories are of getting stuck in the snow or having a car conk out in the middle of nowhere. It just makes us all pull together--there is a weird coziness about it. (Although I swear I still have bruises from the time my sister-in-law's great big dog stood on our laps for 200 miles one Thanksgiving--with extra hours waiting for a tow truck.)

Bish Denham said...

Oh waiting for that food...would have been slow torture! But I'm SO glad your car got fixed. Ours is leaking water. A new water pump will fix it, which hubby is currently installing.

Chocolatesa said...

My parents never owned a new car. The youngest car my dad ever owned ( my mom doesn't drive)is the 2002 chevy venture that he bought last year and has at the moment. I grew up with sputtering klunkers, and remember several times where I was alone with my dad and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere and he had to fix the car, or I had to help him push the car to the nearest gas station if we were in town.

Anonymous said...

Such a sharp contrast between divine cooking and car problems.

Where I am, I'm not stranded for long. My car usually breaks down along a highway. Then a tow truck driver scavenging for a new client will pull over within minutes. I don't even have to make a call. But that process you described sounds painstaking.

Mary Witzl said...

Blythe -- Eek -- 200 miles with a massive dog standing on you? I'd be traumatized for months!

You're right about breakdowns: they are sweetly memorable after the fact. When our car broke down in Cyprus, all five of us had to pile into the clunker that the mechanic drove and my youngest daughter sat on my lap. The clunker was almost in worse shape than our own car, with smoke billowing right into the backseat where we were, and we wondered if it would get us over the mountains to our house. To this day we remember it fondly.

Bish -- Your husband can fix cars? Please allow me to express my sincere envy. We wish we had such practical skills too, but we do pretty well to distinguish the battery from the fan belt.

Chocolatesa -- We never bought new cars either. I can still remember getting into a friend's car once and wondering what the incredible smell was: her car was brand new. Our cars always smelled used from the get go, they were always dented up (inside, fortunately, not outside) and they seldom were the sort of car that excited the envy of others.

Medeia -- I'm betting that being a young, pretty woman doesn't hurt you a bit when your car breaks down! I'd probably be out there forever. They'd take one look at me, my car, and my clothes and think 'Ooh, there's a middle-aged tight-wad'. And they'd be entirely right.

Angela Ackerman said...

Bwawahahahaa. Good thing she didn't see your one-fingered wave!

And I don't know what a lemon syllabub is but I want one! Love lemon in any form. :)

Eryl said...

Roast chicken and lemon syllabub, I'd quite happily sit in the rain for some hours if I knew someone was going to make that for me!

Thank goodness Dina didn't see your gesture.

Robin said...

I love the image of you reassuring everyone that it could be worse - that your country wasn't at war! Too funny.

Once Adam cheated at a really long red light where you have to make a left turn in our old neighborhood. He snuck into the left lane, cruised by, and cut me off to make the left turn in front of me. I flipped him the bird and beeped. We made full eye contact. He looked so shocked. I couldn't stop laughing.

Anne Spollen said...

We just lived the first part of your story (slightly diff details) only with a less happy ending.

I can tell you this: new cars are ridiculously expensive, but we had no choice. Breaking down with kids at night is psychically costly.

And yea, your kids will learn "it could be worse" once they have have their own.

And your post made me hungry!

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- It's cream and sugar and white wine and lemon. And it sounds weird, but it was fantastic.

I'm glad she didn't see the gesture too, though I know she would have understood. (How the misunderstanding occurred, that is -- she knows perfectly well what the salute means.)

Eryl -- The wait wasn't really so bad, it was not knowing whether we'd be able to get there or not. But you're right: good food is worth the wait, especially when someone else is doing the cooking.

Some day we will go to Dina's together -- I just know it!

Robin -- That is a great story! Did Adam not realize that he was cutting you off?

I really don't flip people the bird very often. But bad or disrespectful drivers try anybody's patience.

AnneS -- It's bound to happen again, the way things here are going. We have rotten floor joists, slipped roof capstones, half a dozen sulky electrical appliances, and the car doesn't really drive the way it used to. Breakdowns are never fun, but breakdowns with toddlers or adolescents are on a whole different plane of awfulness, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm not upset about any of the car breakdowns. Actually, I'm glad they happened. Otherwise, Peter would have had trouble going to work the following week (Something I don't wanna imagine!) ---- Güzin