French supermarket cashiers won’t be hurried. Nor will their customers, many of whom seem caught out by a bill at the end, then laboriously write out a cheque. This might be a contrarian French anti-capitalist attitude (‘no, Monsieur: time is not money’), which is wholly admirable, of course, except when I’m in a tearing hurry and waiting to pay. While the pensioner in front of me fruitlessly riffled through her handbag for her chequebook for the third time, I stared out of the window and was instantly rewarded by the sight of a Fiat reversing into the rear of a parked Citroën. Wallop!
The drivers leapt out to view the damage, which was negligible, apparently. The driver of the Fiat was a small middle-class woman: the owner of the parked Citroën a big hairy farmer type wearing a sweat-stained vest. They then struck up a friendly conversation that was, I think, unrelated to the collision. The farmer expressed himself gracefully and expressively with huge hands. The woman stood close to him and looked pleasantly up into his earnest face. A happy ending.
The chequebook was located in a secret pocket; the cheque inscribed and presented to the cashier. I paid for my bottle of gin and two lemons in hard cash, carried them out to my car, started up and reversed — bang — into the side of the Citroën as it headed for the car-park exit. Farmer Flingshit got out, I got out, and together we inspected the damage to his door. I was frightfully apologetic. Fortunately, his door had numerous other dents and it was unclear which was mine. He opened and closed the door twice to see if it was still aligned. Satisfied, he said, ‘Ça va,’ and dismissed the incident with an underarm pétanque bowl in the general direction of an inscrutable future. I got back into the car and drove away loving him and his country.
The next day I flew back to England. My friend Charlie rang up. Charlie is a petrolhead and owns numerous cars, some of them bargains sniffed out on eBay. Did I want to borrow a car to use while I was back in the UK? I could have the Renault Clio again, he said. He bought it ten years ago for a couple of hundred quid and has never spent any money on it. One of the mirrors is broken and the phone number of a local welder is written on the dashboard in Tippex, just in case, but it’s a car. I hadn’t planned to presume on his kindness this time round, I said. But it took six buses to get to the zoo and back the other day, and eight more to the oncologist and back. So yes, please.
I went to his house to collect it. Earlier, he had been strimming in his garden and a small stone had flicked through the Renault’s rear window, smashing it. He had secured it with polythene and sticking tape, but hadn’t had time to clear up the broken glass littering the back seat. The fuel tank was empty but he found two inches of diesel in a can and shoved that in. A front tyre was deflated. I turned the key in the ignition and the oil warning light flickered. The diesel got me to the nearest garage, however, and I bought oil and put air in the tyre. Then I drove to town and parked while I went to the cashpoint. When I returned, I found a party of tourists gathered around the car laughing at it. ‘My other car is a Ford Orion,’ I told them as I climbed in. On the way home the head gasket went, the Clio was enveloped in white smoke, the engine lost all power, and that was that.
‘Oh well,’ said Charlie, when I rang him to tell him his car was broken beyond economic repair. ‘It doesn’t owe me anything. Leave it to me and I’ll sort you out another.’
Amazed at his kindness and phlegmatic attitude, I was abjectly grateful. ‘Meet me at the pub this evening,’ he said. ‘You can drive it away from there.’
At the pub he presented me with a car key to a navy blue Fiesta automatic, parked outside. ‘For God’s sake, don’t wreck that one as well,’ he said. ‘I’ve borrowed it from a friend and it’s in perfect condition.’ Four hours later I came out of the pub, located the car, started it up, and drove it straight into a wall. Bumper and number plate bent, radiator wrecked. Two days later, Charlie rang me up to ask how the Fiesta was performing. ‘Brace yourself. I’ve broken that one as well,’ I said. Charlie was a lot less phlegmatic about the Fiesta — a lot less — than he was about the Clio.