Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Priorité à Droite by Robert Sinclair

Hapless Englishman Eric tries to get to Toulouse on his trusty 50cc moped; by Robert Sinclair

Eric picked himself up and dusted himself down.

He took a tentative step forward, half expecting to find that he had broken something, or at least cracked a rib, but much to his relief he seemed to be in one piece. His moped was lying a few feet away, just in front of a large poplar tree, but apart from the handlebar that had twisted round with the impact of the fall, it seemed to be undamaged, which was just as well because Toulouse was still a long way away. The baguette that had been strapped to his handlebar wasn't in such good shape though, after being whacked by the lorry. Next time, Eric thought to himself, he had better put his red socks over the ends so that other road users would see him coming. He also decided to put a sign on the back of his anorak saying 'Wide Load,' in French of course. He couldn't do it just then, because his trusty phrasebook was buried deep inside his rucksack, but he made a mental note to do it when he stopped for the night, wherever that might be. He brushed the remaining bits of grass off his clothes and picked up his moped, wondering if it was really necessary to straighten the handlebar. Eventually he decided that it was, as although he didn't particularly like the sight of French traffic coming towards him, it was probably a good deal safer than permanently looking at the fields and woods he was passing. He didn't have any tools with him, as he hadn't expected to need them, but he remembered what he used to do when he had a similar problem with his old bike, when he was in the Boy Scouts, so he put the front wheel between his legs, gripped it with his knees and yanked on the handlebar as hard as he could.

Eric picked himself up and dusted himself down.

His right leg was sore, but he needed to have another go. He did it more gently the next time, but nothing happened. The handlebar wouldn't budge. Then, very slowly, using all his strength (which wasn't very much) he got it to squeak and groan and move a fraction towards its proper position. He had a brief rest, to catch his breath, and tried again. That time it moved a little bit more, and then a bit more still, until it was moving much more freely. In fact, by the time he finished he could move it in any direction he wanted with just two fingers. He felt very pleased with himself. It was the first mechanical problem he had encountered on his travels to date and he had solved it all by himself, without the help of anybody... not even his mother. He needed to press on, so he checked that his panniers were secure, sat down on the saddle, looked over his left shoulder to make sure nothing was coming, revved the engine and let out the clutch. As he moved forward he turned the handlebar towards the road, but the rest of the moped, with him on it, headed straight for the ditch.

Eric picked himself up and dusted himself down.

All he needed to fix the problem was a spanner, or a pair of pliers, but that was a bit like saying that all Ernest Shackleton needed was a Mk 5 Assault Boat with twin jet-drive outboard motors and a year's supply of chocolate hobnobs. He tried to tighten the nut with his fingers, but that didn't work, so remembering his mother's favourite maxim, that necessity was the mother of invention, he tried some other inventive things - a couple of twigs, a coin, his teeth, a key ring, a bottle opener, stones, chewing gum, shoelaces and a toothbrush, but all to no avail. In the end, resigned to the fact that he couldn't even turn the nut, let alone tighten it, he decided to lash the handlebar to the front fork, using a ball of string, four shoelaces and the two guy ropes from his tent. He set to work and half an hour later had done the best job he could. Admittedly, there was still a lot of play in the steering, but he reckoned that it would do until he reached a friendly local garage, so he put everything back into his rucksack and panniers, put his helmet and goggles on and prepared to set off. He waited until there was no traffic coming in either direction, before slowly opening the throttle. Luckily, the road was particularly wide at that point, as he needed both lanes to master his new steering technique. After a few miles he was almost able to go in a straight line, which wasn't ideal as the road at that point was very twisty. The sheer effort of keeping both wheels on the tarmac soon took its toll on him, as handlebar wrestling wasn't something he had trained for before leaving home, so he was hugely relieved when he saw a small garage in the distance, on the opposite side of the road.

The garage proprietor, René Lafitte, looked up when he heard the screech of brakes and blaring of horns. Instead of the normal, orderly procession of cars that he was used to seeing on that particular stretch of the N112, it looked more like a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard, as two Renaults, a Citroen 2CV and a large DAF truck all took evasive action. He was too far away to see what the problem was, but assumed that it must be a runaway juggernaut, or an ambulance on a mercy dash. But as the vehicles parted, a small red moped appeared, screaming down the hill towards him in the middle of the road, with its rider hanging on for dear life. Monsieur Lafitte had been in the accident recovery and repair business for many years, as had his father before him, so he had a knack for spotting new business even before it happened. He took cover behind a line of 'nearly new, one careful owner' cars and waited for the bang. Instead, as Eric swerved and skidded to a halt on the gravelly forecourt, all he could hear was the sound of a hundred small stones peppering his 'bargain of the week.' If René hadn't known better, he would have thought that the local chasse had spotted a family of wild boar about to test drive his Fiat Multipla.

Only after Eric had taken off his helmet and goggles did Monsieur Lafitte reappear, somewhat gingerly, from behind his 'now needs a total respray' vehicle. He assumed that the crazy Englishman wanted to fill up with petrol, but Eric waved him away when he came towards him with his sans plomb nozzle, shaking his head vigorously in what was, thankfully, an internationally recognised signal. He removed his rucksack and managed to find his phrasebook, buried underneath his dirty laundry. Unfortunately he couldn't find a section on moped maintenance, so instead resorted to mime. After an interesting game of charades, which Eric thought he won hands down, Monsieur Lafitte finally understood what the problem was and went to his workshop to get his toolbox, giving Eric the opportunity to have a closer look at his roadmap. He couldn't believe how far he still had to go. He was in the middle of measuring the remaining distance, using his little finger as an approximation for fifty kilometres, when Monsieur Lafitte reappeared, keen to get him off his forecourt and back on the road as quickly as possible. Eric was also anxious to be on his way, as Toulouse was still more than six fingers away. Monsieur Lafitte soon had the problem fixed, so Eric untied the string, shoe laces and guy ropes from around the handlebar and threw the tangled mess into the nearest rubbish bin. The Frenchman said 'au revoir' and 'bon chance,' kissed him on both cheeks and pointed down the road in the general direction of Toulouse. Eric sped off without so much as a wave, intent on putting as many miles as possible between himself and that over-sexed Frenchman - and making a mental note to look up 'bon chance' in his phrasebook when he stopped for lunch. His mother had warned him about not accepting sweets or lifts from strangers, but had never said anything about being kissed by one. He didn't know much about that sort of thing, but had watched a few 15-rated films and read enough Dear Melissa letters in his mother's magazines to know that he had just been French kissed for the first time. He couldn't help wondering what all the fuss was about.

Ten hours later, and still two fingers away from Toulouse, he couldn't go on any longer. He had been riding for the best part of twelve hours and it was getting dark. His headlight wasn't very bright and he didn't want to take a wrong turn, so he looked for somewhere to stop - somewhere that would give him a bit of privacy. Then, just like Lawrence of Arabia finding an oasis in the middle of the desert, he saw the perfect spot - short, lush grass with small bushes and trees nearby. He couldn't believe his luck. He leaned his bike against one of the trees, untied his tent from behind the saddle and set about putting it up as quickly as possible. He pegged it out on the ground, put the poles in place and lifted it up to its full height. Only then did he realise that his guy ropes were lying in a rubbish bin on a garage forecourt more than two hundred kilometres away. His emergency supply of string was there too, so he had no choice but to remove the poles and use the tent like a giant sleeping bag. He was too tired to care, but before settling down for the night there were a couple of other things he had to do.

Without a torch it was virtually impossible for him to see what he was reading, and even when he was able to make out some of the words, finding the equivalent English phrase on the opposite page was an even greater challenge. Given his earlier experience, he was not entirely surprised to find that 'bon chance,' according to what he could make out, meant, 'I'd like to go out with you.' He decided not to tell his mother about that particular incident, as she would only worry. He didn't have a large enough piece of paper for his 'Wide Load' sign, but he did have a black marker pen in his emergency survival kit, and a white T-shirt that was ideal for the purpose. He looked up the 'roads and driving' section in his phrasebook and found exactly what he was looking for - 'priorité à droite' - which he copied carefully, letter for letter. So as not to forget it in the morning, he tied the T-shirt to one of the trees nearby and settled down for the night.

He had always been a sound sleeper, so it was no surprise that he was fast asleep almost as soon as his head hit his makeshift pillow. He slept like a log, oblivious to the noise of traffic thundering past him in the early hours of the morning, or the squeal of brakes and sounding of horns. In fact, he didn't wake up until he felt a hard kick on his left buttock, but forgetting where he was he just turned over and tried to go back to sleep. When he felt another kick, followed by a sharp prod in the ribs, he slowly opened his eyes to see who or what was assaulting him. Something very large and canvassy had him pinned to the ground, and the more he struggled the more tangled he became. He couldn't find the zip to open the door. In fact, he couldn't even find the door. He could hear people shouting and the distinct sound of traffic. Then, somebody undid the zip for him and he found himself looking into the eyes of a fierce looking gendarme. Although he didn't understand a word of what was being said, he got the impression that he was being told to stand up, so he did.

Motorists approaching that particular roundabout on the outskirts of Castres could see the two parked police motorbikes from some distance away, so they were driving very carefully by the time they reached the spot where a strange looking man, wearing only a pair of grubby white underpants, was being interviewed by the taller of the two gendarmes. They had no idea what he was doing in the middle of the roundabout. It didn't look like there had been an accident, but there was a strange, crumpled object on the ground and a mud-splattered moped leaning up against one of the small trees. Next to the moped was the second gendarme, grappling with a 'priorité à droite' sign. It wasn't clear whether he was removing it or putting it up, so traffic was starting to pile up, with drivers not knowing who was supposed to give way to whom. To make matters worse, some drivers were so curious that they were going round the roundabout for a second or even a third time, to have another look. Eric was looking as surprised as everybody else. The gendarme who was questioning him refused to let him get his phrasebook out of his rucksack, just in case he had a weapon of some description concealed in it, so the conversation was pretty one sided. The two gendarmes had a brief discussion and then radioed for assistance. Twenty minutes later, a police van arrived to take Eric and all his possessions into Castres for further questioning... with its blue lights flashing and sirens blaring.

4 comments:

  1. this is absolutely brilliant! the old british sense of humour, understated, buffoon at large.
    great!

    michael mccarthy

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  2. Robert, another great story with your usual twists of humor. I enjoyed it very much.

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  3. Oh dear! Poor Eric. I really felt sorry for him! Lovely story, Robert. I loved the humorous encounters and descriptions. I wonder if he ever got to Toulouse?

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  4. Nothing like an understated sense of humour. Great job Robert! It's not hard picturing Mr. Bean scratching his head as he talks to the Gendarmes, or trying to fix the handlebars.

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