I spent my formative years living in the Home Counties of England. However, the rest of our family was scattered to the four winds, so a visit was always a major trek. My maternal grandparents, for instance, lived in a wee small village just to the east of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Air travel back in the mid to late seventies was a bit of a luxury, so the only real alternative was a combination of car and ferry.
So every year, we’d pile into the car and mum would drive us the four hundred miles to Stranraer (the bit on the extreme bottom left of Scotland) where we’d pick up the boat for Ireland. Dad wouldn’t go, because of his army connections, so it would just be the four of us - me, my brother and my sister, taking our lives in our hands on the primitive British road system.
Have you ever tried to drive 400 miles in one day? OK, in the US, that’s a trip to the corner shop for smokes and a crate of beer, but in England, and particularly England before they opened up the motorways, it was The Trek From Hell. We left at four in the morning, and by six we were still only five miles from home.
In our 1973 Renault 12, it took us the best part of five hours just to reach Birmingham, and by the time we’d reached the Scottish border, the car was screaming for mercy and the battery was giving up the ghost. Being stuck in a car for ten hours with three bored kids, mum had had enough too. I distinctly heard the words “shallow grave” at one point; and now I have kids of my own, I get her meaning.
Any road up, we finally arrive at the ferry port in Stranraer and the car just gives up on the spot. It’s had enough and has stopped stone dead, and doesn’t even have enough juice in the battery to get us on the ferry. Luckily, there’s a guy from the AA breakdown service nearby and he’s happy to help out as long as it doesn’t disturb his world record chain-smoking attempt.
“It’s the alternator, madam” he says, sprinkling his magic cigarette ash over the engine, which immediately bursts into life, “It’s got a loose connection.”
“We thought so” says mum, “My husband and I have had it off three times on the kitchen table”
The fella looks up, sees three beaming kids sitting in the back seat and collapses with howling laughter. He’s utterly helpless for at least five minutes, and all mum can do it look on disapprovingly.
“WELL! I don’t see what’s so funny about that...”
Boom, and indeed, tish!