Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 6 June 2009

The voice of reason

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My old BMW failed its MOT on a bald tyre and no spare. On this particular model the tyres are metric safety ones costing £200 each new, and that’s if you can find any. However, I eventually found a set of five on eBay, in used condition, with plenty of tread left, and won them for £31.

They were in Lymington, near Bournemouth. I rang the seller to establish contact and arrange to pick them up. The phone was answered by a calm, measured voice reciting the six-digit telephone number in the old-fashioned manner. Judging by the noises off, he was speaking from a mechanic’s workshop. I said I’d be along to pick up the tyres tomorrow afternoon. He said it was best if I rang him for directions when I was approaching Lymington. Underlying his words was a degree of calmness and courtesy one doesn’t normally expect from a busy workshop mechanic answering a landline in mid-afternoon.

Next morning I set off early. I took it easy. On the way I visited Thomas Hardy’s cottage at Higher Bockhampton. Muck spreading was in progress and Higher Bockhampton and even the interior of Hardy’s cottage reeked of well-marinaded cow manure. After that I walked the three miles of footpaths and roads Hardy took to school in Dorchester and back — part of the way was along a Roman road — then I resumed my journey across Wessex. It was a lovely day and I felt unusually happy.

To reach Lymington I had to drive across Bournemouth. I entered the outskirts of Bournemouth at rush hour. The roads were gridlocked. I rang the mechanic to ask for directions and to warn him I might be a bit late. He answered his phone in the same patient, calm manner and gave me clear and well-rehearsed directions. He’d be there until about five thirty, he said.

At 5.15 I rang again. I was in the waiting room of the accident and emergency department of the Royal Bournemouth hospital, I said. My car had overheated. I’d pulled over, opened the bonnet and foolishly unscrewed the radiator cap. The resulting 15-foot geyser of boiling water had removed the skin from my forearm. Second-degree burns, apparently. I wasn’t going to make it by 5.30, I told him, but I hoped to be there first thing in the morning if there was nothing seriously wrong with the car, and I could drive with my left arm in a sling. He registered neither surprise nor sympathy, but he thanked me politely for letting him know.

I was discharged from A&E late in the evening and checked in to a hotel. Next morning I found the car, refilled the radiator with water and continued my journey across Bournemouth. I was able to drive with one arm in a sling because the car is an automatic.

At midday I rang him to tell him I was waiting for an AA patrol to arrive. It wasn’t looking good, I said. I’d driven about half a mile and the car had overheated again. If the cause was a blown gasket, I said, I was going to walk away from the car and catch a train home. Did he want an old BMW for spares or scrap by any chance? This taciturn, unemotional man advised patience. I should see what the AA man said, he said. It might not be that serious.

It wasn’t. The AA man diagnosed an air-lock between the coolant system and the reservoir. He bled it out, I signed the chit, problem solved. I rang the workshop to tell him my good news. He answered the phone with his customary calm and measured recital of his six-digit phone number. BMWs are prone to air-locks, he said. Where was I now? I was still in Bournemouth, I said. I had another nine miles to go, he said. He repeated the directions, which involved a Waitrose, three roundabouts, a stone bridge and a nursery.

Three quarters of an hour later I rang him again, this time from the back seat of a police patrol car. My number plate had been noted at a checkpoint, fed into the computer and my lack of a valid MOT certificate had come to light. I’d been stopped and handed a fixed-penalty notice for £60. I’d rung, I said, because the policemen were standing outside the car debating whether I should be allowed to continue with a bald tyre. So I might not get there today either.

Well, he said, today he’d be at the workshop till five. And if I couldn’t make it across Bournemouth by then, I should also know that he was going on holiday at the end of July for ten days. Ecstatic laughter in the background told me that this constituted a perhaps rare flash of levity from a man not noted for letting his feelings run away with him.