I experienced a spot of car trouble last week. Nothing drastic, thankfully. I just lost the ability to… well, erm… steer the car. I was, though, able to bring it to a halt. Which I guess is the important thing. But what happened after that was pure Somerset.
I’d been up to Gloucester to do some work with one of my clients. I’d managed to get away reasonably early, but it was absolutely tipping it down with rain and visibility was practically nil. And so I’d made my way carefully back down the motorway at a snail’s pace, hoping that everyone else was exercising similar care in the atrocious conditions.
The windscreen wipers were making a funny noise, though, and I recalled Natalie saying the previous day that they seemed to be on their way out. So as the shops were still open as I drove back into town, I decided to swing past the car parts shop to pick up some new ones. It was at this point, though, that things started to go pear-shaped.
As I turned off the main road, I drove (very slowly and carefully, I might add) through a rather large puddle.
The next thing I knew was that, half-way through the turn, the car’s steering ceased to function in any meaningful way.
I managed to grapple with the steering wheel sufficiently to make it around the corner and to negotiate the next bend, but it was clear that this was about as far as I could safely travel.
Thankfully, I was by now right outside the car parts shop and there was a spare on-road parking space on the other side of the road. And calling upon my inner hulk I was just about able to manoeuvre the car into the space. I say ‘just about’ because the car wasn’t, strictly speaking, entirely in the space. But I feel that I achieved a close approximation of parking.
And while I had no idea what on Earth I was going to do with the car, I thought I might as well get the new windscreen wipers. They might now, after all, increase its market value quite considerably.
The chap in the shop was very helpful, even coming out to measure the wipers to make sure he sold me the right ones. While we were chatting, I mentioned my predicament and asked if he might be able to share any useful insights. He said he didn’t know much about the mechanical side of things, but would nevertheless be happy to have a look under the bonnet.
(This strikes me, incidentally, as a very male way to approach things. To admit that you haven’t got a clue, but might as well give it a go anyway. I do hope that doctors, dentists and airline pilots don’t behave like this.)
We opened the bonnet, though, and the chap peered in. He umm-ed. He aah-ed. And then he reached down through the engine compartment to the ground below and picked up the car’s serpentine belt, which drives (among other things) the power steering pump.
“I’m no expert,” he reiterated. “But I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be attached to the engine.”
I was left with no choice but to agree.
Neither he nor I had any idea how to refit the serpentine belt. In fact, at this point I didn’t even know what it was called. I just knew that, instead of doing whatever it was supposed to do, it was now lying forlornly on the passenger seat. So I paid for my wiper blades (which were now seeming like a somewhat foolhardy investment) and got onto the phone to our friendly neighbourhood garage.
This particular garage has been looking after our various cars for over a decade. And we’ve had to call upon their recovery service before. I know I can rely on them. But the Automobile Association they are not.
“Yeah, I can come and get you,” said my friend the mechanic. Whom we shall call Charlie, mostly because that’s his name. “But I’ve just started an MOT, so it’ll be a while. Just leave the key in the parts shop and I’ll come and collect the car later.”
And so I traipsed back into the parts shop, explained what Charlie had suggested, and handed over my car keys to this complete stranger.
Luckily, it was by now 5pm and the two-hour parking restriction on that particular street runs out at 6pm, so I was in the clear from that point of view. Although my not-quite-in-the-space parking might still attract the attention of an over-zealous parking enforcement officer approaching the end of his or her shift. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.)
As I wandered my way home across town, I crossed my fingers that (a) Charlie would remember to come and get the car and (b) that it wouldn’t prove too expensive to fit. It was at this point that I realised I hadn’t discussed with Charlie what I’d actually like him to do with the car, so I just hoped that he’d be able to fix it and that he’d let me know in advance if it was going to cost a fortune.
The following day came and went with no call from Charlie. I didn’t even know if he’d remembered to pick up the car. I had visions of it sitting – badly-parked – at the side of the road, amassing parking tickets.
I made it until about half past four before I cracked and called the garage. I tried to sound casual.
“I just wondered if you’d had a chance to look at it yet,” I said.
The lady on the reception desk wandered off for a few minutes in search of information. I pictured her scouring the garage for an elderly Mercedes that wasn’t there. Destined instead to be buried under a mound of parking tickets and discovered centuries later by urban archaeologists.
“Yeah, it’s here,” she confirmed.
My heart rose. My spirits sang. My wallet looked troubled.
“They’ve not looked at it yet, though. Probably tomorrow.”
My car wasn’t fixed. But at least I now knew where it was.
The following day came. And with it the call. Not only had they looked at the car, but they had fixed it and it was now ready for collection.
I asked tentatively what they had done and how much it had cost. A new serpentine belt, apparently, and a new widget to tension the belt and to stop it falling off the engine. Which sounded positive. And all at a surprisingly reasonable cost that made me sigh a little but didn’t quite give me palpitations.
It was only afterwards, driving in my newly-steerable car, that I reflected on how this was a particularly Somerset way of dealing with my automotive predicament. Leaving my car, my hopes of continued mobility – and my bank balance – in the hands of a parts shop person I didn’t know at all and a mechanic whom I see briefly about twice a year.
And knowing that it would all turn out just fine.