My particular reaction to flu is weakness bordering paralysis. I know what it is to be old. I was old in my mid-thirties, again at forty. I am now seventy-three, and two or three times a week walk a five-mile return to shop for six or eight kilos. Now, after three days of flu, I am old again, and when I try the key in the ignition the mechanism coughs once, then sighs, and sighs, and sighs, and sighs. Curses, duff battery!
Finally I stagger unsteadily to buy a new battery at Halfords – 90 GBP, plus spanner to fit it. I suppose it weighs fifteen kilos, so I am staggering slowly back.
“Making heavy weather of it – Can I help you?” – from a pleasant young local lad. How refreshing to see the old natural instinct still there. But I am used to struggling. It is being alive, and it is good for you, so I thank him, wish him a Happy Christmas, and stagger on in the cold.
A couple of corners farther on, thirty yards from home, attempting to put down the battery to change hands, I trip over the descending battery and execute a graceless face-dive into the rough tarmac pavement. As face meets surface, I reflect that so-suddenly do all our prospects change. I have little idea.
Various hands pick me up and hold me up. My cheap glasses have mostly saved my face, but the backs of my fingers are a bloody mess. I wrap my handkerchief round the worst of my left paw to staunch the bleeding. Two men support this old cripple to the car in front of the garage where I am sufficiently recovered to thank them and see them on their way after one is kind enough to open the bonnet catch, as I am still weak almost to paralysis.
Fine, I can take off the old connections, but the battery is still held down by a screw – down there, in between, and out of reach. But then a nice young woman returns to insist I go inside for hot sweet tea, for shock, she says. OK, sure. I know I have also broken the tip of my left thumb, but in my experience there are some things better kept to yourself. So she delivers me to my sister, in person, and they tut. Girls do.
There follow two or three days of quiet misery as I heal somewhat. It is noticeable that the TV station my sister watches – perhaps all of them – emits not one word of decent English, everything being in one dialect or another, and in dialect expressions of uniform petty-mindedness, so that my mind, and presumably those of others, echoes them in dialect of uniform petty-mindedness rather than in reasonable language and attitude. 'Our' media. Clever.
My diet is restricted, with the end of a de-tox still in train. From the flu I still have a dry cough that persists and annoys. But the worst of the bruising inside my hands seems to be subsiding, and plasters cover most of the rest of the damage. So, I patiently persuade the battery retaining screw with a wrench until it submits to reason, and swap the batteries. The motor starts instantly, eager to go. So then, finally, fill up with fuel and a last round of shopping – Mainly loose tea and Marmite – How I would love a pork pie and HP sauce, but I can’t. Then a cup of tea, goodbyes, and off for Dover.
Departure: Sunday, Dec 28th, early evening.
I have to go via London to Dover, but then on the ferry, Bob’s your Uncle. My plan is to land in France at dawn, tootle down through France in a day, then slide across Spain in another. Simple.
And it would be simple, but France is not like that. So, after involuntarily exploring the North coast before sheering away, I am somewhere around Alencon, where I park to await daylight to fill up with petrol. 22º F, and all frosty white. I limp stiffly, still weak from flu.
At dawn a young man in his late twenties in a parked van, blond, bony, intelligent, in some kind of shooting uniform, will be pleased to lead me. And he does, around the pretty village to the local garage, then courteously drops in a strong hand to wish me a pleasant bon voyage.
Many villages here are thus pretty, beyond accident or tradition. These are of design. At ten-ish I am at just such another. But I have to be on my way.