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Moving from Darkness into Light

It is dark at night in rural Ireland. Very, very dark, especially in the rain – and especially in winter.  As we turned the corner into the village suddenly there were lights from houses by the road.  The shop and pub opposite the entrance to our little enclave had bright windows and outside lamps shone on sacks of fuel.  We staggered from the car and waited in the rain as the dogs sniffed and had a pee on the walls.  The front door was flung open and our friends were waiting with open arms – literally – to greet us.  Inside it was bright, warm and surprisingly crowded considering we were in the main room and there were four adults, three small dogs and one little girl.  A fire roared up the chimney in the ingle nook and we were ushered into chairs as we took off the dogs’ leads and blinked in the light.  It was a wonderful welcome.

After greetings, wine, sandwiches, more wine and a guided tour of the cottage from the little girl we fell into the beds that were already made up, too tired to unpack the car.  The next morning we found supplies for breakfast in the cupboards, provided by our lovely friends. We were able to finally stop and take stock.  We opened the last of the cards and presents from Saltburn and decorated the main room with them.  The fire had gone out and it was cold – very, very cold.  There had been virtually no visitors over the last year and the cottage was in hibernation. Storage heaters in the bedrooms took off some of the chill but we were going to need the fire on constantly to keep warm and wake up our home.

Our cottage and home for the next few months was one of eleven set around two little greens.  Built in the 1960s for tourists they were “traditional” in style.  Deep walls, stone floors, basic furnishings, small windows and very small rooms.  Perfect for a holiday but not perhaps ideal in winter for long-term residence. We unpacked the car and waited for a delivery from the nearest supermarket that Jacqui had ordered before we left.  Apart from unpacking our meagre goods and walking the dogs in the park behind the cottages we were pretty much comatose for a few days. 

We did manage a celebratory dinner on the second night.  Saltburn has a marvellous butcher, Gosnay’s, and we had one final steak from his meat counter along with some excellent wine carried in the boot and wrapped in towels.  We had ordered a large block of special sheep’s cheese from Real Meals before we left.  It and the steak travelled without harm and we raised a glass to all our friends left behind and our friends in Ireland who had made the journey possible.  

Musing on life and strange coincidences I remembered when we moved from Somerset 31 years before.  We had visited Street, the home of shoe making in the west, and I found a pair of painted boots with a picture of a cliff on them.  As we drove into Saltburn we saw Huntcliff – a distinctive shape that matched my boots exactly.  It looked like a sign. 

The week before leaving for Ireland I had packed an unfamiliar tea towel, probably from Jacqui’s great aunt, with a picture of a donkey outside a cottage.  Looking out of the window I saw a rainbow over the green and realised these cottages matched that picture.  Another sign perhaps? 

I looked at the news and saw Scotland and Ireland were both closing their borders to all travellers.  Despite the cold, despite the exhaustion I felt a great rush of relief.  With barely 36 hours to spare we had made it.

December is not a good time to move

December is never a good time to move house.  We should know – all of our moves have taken place in December due to differing circumstances.  This December however was the hardest of the lot. 

We drove off in the car loaded with bedding, three dogs and essentials of life for the first few days.  It was just after 2pm and already getting dark as the rain began to fall.  We had a satnav – something I have resisted for years, and after this journey I felt fully justified in my prejudice.  It assured us our journey was 253 miles to the hotel.  The miles ticked off as we ploughed through what developed into a storm but although we had followed it’s snooty voice without question a glance at a real map showed we were nowhere near Stranrae when it reached a mere 10 miles to go.  By the time we got to the hotel it was almost 7.30 at night and we had driven an extra 80 miles. And the satnav was now telling us we were still 10 miles away.

The hotel was dark, just a faint light in the reception area.  At first glance it could have passed as a set for “The Shining”.  We hauled ourselves up the entrance steps and across the lobby, footsteps and dogs’ claws echoing in the gloom.  I think we must have looked awful as the lovely receptionist persuaded the kitchen staff to stay on and make us something to eat.  We staggered to our rooms and collapsed, feeding the dogs first and covering the bed with a blanket to guard against paw marks.  The food was excellent, delivered to our door, and the dogs seemed happy despite such a disruptive and strange week.  We slept – oh how we slept.

Oh, how we slept!

The next morning we left the echoing, empty hotel that had been so kind and welcome and headed for the port.  The satnav, obviously inhabited by a malicious spirit of some kind, sent us round in circles for ten minutes until we turned it off and navigated ourselves, arriving just in time to load.  The worst part was leaving the dogs in the car.  We had chosen Stranrae to Belfast as it was only two hours.  Two of the dogs are good, experienced travellers but the youngest had never done anything like this before.  We settled them in their crates, left little treats hidden in their blankets and stumbled upstairs just hoping they would settle and sleep. 

Sunrise over Stranrae

On board the staff were lovely, there were coffee, tea and pastries available and excellent seating areas.  We chose a place away from the televisions which was just as well as the BBC was announcing new travel restrictions and an imminent lockdown in Northern Ireland.  If necessary we would claim ignorance – it was too late now and we had nowhere to go back to.  As we pulled away from the dock and set out across the Irish Sea I felt an overwhelming rush of emotion and began to cry.  It was a mixture of relief, exhaustion, fear (mainly for the dogs) and grief for all we were leaving behind.   Looking back now I can still feel that pain, lessened by time but still enough to hurt.  I’m only surprised I didn’t cry earlier but I think we were both hanging on so tightly we didn’t dare relax.

The dogs were, of course, fine when we got back to the car.  The little Trojans had just curled up and slept with no fuss and less worry than I had experienced.  As we drove out of the port we passed a large group of police and customs officials who were setting up cones and signs, the new checkpoint.  We drove on, trying to look suitably respectable which was not easy under the circumstances, not stopping until we reached the service area on the motorway.  Here we grabbed sandwiches and water and walked the dogs before heading for the border and our final destination.

The journey was quite uneventful after that, enlivened only by another storm and the bastard satnav lopping another 80 miles off the journey.  Oh, and a Gardai checkpoint on the motorway outside Dublin.  Although it was rush hour every car was stopped causing a long tailback.  When we got to the front of the queue a very young and very wet officer looking into the car, raising his eyebrows at the contents.  By this time we probably looked more like car residents than respectable travellers.

   “Can I ask you the purpose of yer journey today?” he asked, raising his voice over the barking.

I was very tired and in no mood to be stopped so close to achieving the impossible.

            “We are moving,” I said.  “We have rented a cottage near Nenagh and we are going there.”

There was a pause as he digested this before stepping back and waving us on.

            “You have a safe journey then” he said.

That was when I knew it just might all work out.

Full speed ahead to nowhere

With new restrictions and rules changing almost weekly it seemed we were moving at full speed but going nowhere. Suddenly time seemed to speed up as the deadline to move came ever closer yet we were still floating in a sea of uncertainty. Moving home was one of the exceptions to the lockdown but only in England. We were hoping to go abroad, a journey through four countries, each with their own rules. And still no-one seemed to know exactly what could be done. Or answer their phone.

The only course of action was to get on with what we could control and hope the rest worked out. After some difficulty we finally managed a (socially distanced and masked) meeting with the estate agent. They liked the house – a lot – but noted it was extremely untidy. Yes, trying to pack up a lifetime whilst not being able to throw out or recycle will do that to a home. We settled on a stratagy for photographs. Do the front of the house one afternoon and move the boxes to the rear. Then do the back one morning and reverse the process. This required several days of “wasted” effort but the results were quite stunning. In fact I was almost tempted to buy the place myself, it looked so good.

Knowing we were hopefully about to get some (socially distanced and masked) visitors, we focussed on tidying and clearing as much as we could, much to the disgust of the dogs who wanted this to all stop and get back to normal. Alas, there was no going back and we were heading for a totally unknown “normal” in an unknown place. As we waited for viewings we began to look for a place to rent in Ireland. This was far more difficult than we had imagined. Ireland was undergoing something of a housing crisis and rental properties were rare and highly prized. This pushed up the price and it was impossible to get anyone to take us seriously. We were English, still in England and with only English bank accounts and no references. We also had three dogs, albeit small dogs, and most landlords didn’t want any pets.

It looked as if we were heading down a slope with nowhere to land when our wonderful friends in Ireland stepped in. Somehow they managed to persuade a holiday cottage owner to let us have an empty cottage for a long term. It was actually the one place we knew, where we had stayed on our visit four years ago. We breathed a huge sigh, sent off the deposit and blessed our friends for a miracle. We turned our attention back to the house and I knew I was falling badly behind. In desperation I began to heave stuff into big boxes, seal them and label them “TBS” – “To Be Sorted”. Even so, I made a total hash of the whole thing. The whole experience was made worse by the fact my other half was already at work on the kitchen and the china. A wonderful friend had cleared the rooms with us for photographs and was busy on the bedding. I felt like an abject failure and the memory of those days still haunts me.

Absolutely the worst packer in the world

Despite the barely concealed chaos most viewers were impressed with the house and after only three weeks we had a number of offers. We accepted one and then waited for the surveyors, the Energy Performance Certificate and then the second survey for the purchaser’s bank. Everyone was fully booked, delays were inevitable and once more time was slipping by. Then came two hammer blows.

We were supposed to be driving to Stranrae to stay overnight before catching the early ferry but there was a change in the rules. We got a phone call from the hotel telling our booking was cancelled as “non-essential”. And then, with no warning, the sale fell through. We were almost out of time, we were heading nowhere and if we tried to go we’d be sleeping in a lay-by with three dogs overnight.

That was not a good day.

Travelling more hopefully

As the warm weather arrived we began to travel more hopefully.  Despite our best efforts we could not finance a house before selling ours so the plan was to sell, put our stuff in storage, move into a rental property and then look for somewhere permanent.  Seemed a fairly logical way to go about it, especially as travelling to view anywhere was still banned so we were relying on the web to explore the housing market.

Now, I don’t know if you are aware but I am slightly dyslexic but very dyspraxic.  (That’s a form of spatial dyslexia.  I can’t follow instructions in a sequence longer than two steps and have never mastered left and right.  Hell, on a bad day I can’t do up and down and have been known to shut my head in a door trying to get through.)  So looking at the obviously idealized descriptions and photographs of properties in Ireland, I was under the misapprehension that Irish houses/cottages/bungalows were similar to properties in England.  They are not, but I didn’t really understand what that meant until much later.

The immediate difference that even I could spot was the amount of garden or land surrounding anything over 50 years old.  Most of these were “cottages” or “bungalows” and modelled on the same pattern. They were low, single storey buildings with thick stone walls and three, maybe four windows at the front.  A lot of them had “sheds” that more closely resembled stone outbuildings and these, we thought, would be very useful as storage for our stuff until we could get unpacked.  Generally situated out of town, they boasted anything from 0.5 acres to over 8 in some cases.  I had not the foggiest idea how big an acre might be but even I realized 8 of them might be too much for us to manage.

Alas, this inability to visualise actual dimensions sent us off on totally the wrong path.  These cottages listed two or three bedrooms, a kitchen, living room and bathroom. The roofs of some were boarded and made extra space similar to the studio I had in Saltburn.  What I didn’t realise was just how small these rooms would be.  A bedroom 2.4 metres by 3.6 metres sounded fine but actually it’s barely large enough to fit a bed and a small cupboard. 

So we pored over the listings, looked at the prices and descriptions and then worked through the photographs and videos.  Now a number of the older properties had a distinctive style of decoration.  Very dark, brown and green (furniture, curtains, wallpaper and paint) and often with several beds in one room.  It was like peering into a time machine.  We scratched those off the list. Several of the videos were very illuminating.  I was particularly curious about one house where the camera flashed past a door on the first floor, giving a glimpse of several road cones blocking the entrance.  Not for us, we decided along with some we labelled “fixer-uppers”.  We were happy to wait and have work done on somewhere if it was basically sound and what we were looking for but some were a bit more than we were willing to tackle.

A bit more of a fixer-upper than we were looking for.

Still, there were enough hopeful prospects for us to think we would be able to find a suitable house without too much trouble, especially as we were cash buyers.  The pandemic had shaken up the property market with uncertainty over jobs making the banks reluctant to lend money.  At the same time there was a growing desire for personal space, inside and out, as the restrictions imposed by lockdown began to chafe.

Then suddenly it was over.  Lockdown was lifted and the country went into Tiers.  We were labelled Tier 2 – not as good as we hoped but much better than the restrictions of previous weeks.  Shops opened, people began to answer the phone occasionally and with the fine weather came a huge rush of visitors to our little town.  At the weekend we did not dare move the car from outside our house as it would be impossible to park even after a short run out for the dogs.  Saltburn had always been busy during the school holidays but it had never been as packed as it was then.  Our resolve hardened as we contemplated the likely impact of international travel restrictions stretching into the foreseeable future. We drew up a list of what we really, really wanted in our next home. 

Fewer stairs – yes, a garden – absolutely and off-road parking.  It’s a pity I didn’t check a few things, like actual room sizes compared to what we had – and was still full of stuff).  Oh, and what the Irish BER rating meant in real terms. But more of that later.  We were moving forward, trying to get the house ready for viewings as soon as we could.  We were optimistic about the chances of getting away before autumn as we began talks with solicitors, estate agents and friends.  And then the second wave hit and everything stopped – again.

And so it begins – rather slowly

So, there we were, both more than slightly incapacitated.  I don’t know what we had caught or where we had caught it,  but I never want to get it again.  It began a bit like the ‘flu with a high temperature, shaking – you know what it’s like.  Then there was the cough, and that was the real problem.  A harsh, dry cough that went on…and on…and on.  I finally went to see a doctor after two weeks and came back with various syrups, then some antibiotics the second time, then some codeine cough syrup on week five.  That, by the way, was so utterly foul I was sure it would cure my cough, just to avoid a second dose.  It didn’t. 

On the fourth visit to the poor young intern admitted there was a great deal of it around, something I had surmised from the hacking and choking in the waiting room, and it was some sort of virus that no-one could identify. 

“Don’t come back unless you start to cough up blood,” he said, adding with a disarming honesty I have rarely encountered, “We can’t do anything”.

This was way back in November 2019 and, like a lot of people, I wonder if it was an early form of Covid but there was no hint of what was around the corner, people were still merrily buying Corona beer and most of the population were mixing to share their coughs and viruses without any facemasks.  Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

When the dust settled from the 2019 election in December it was obvious nothing would stop the loss of our citizenship in just three short weeks and our freedom of movement in a year so despite being desperately tired we hauled ourselves to our feet and started on the house again.  With Christmas coming there were not many places to send our unwanted chattels so we put one room aside, emptied it and promptly began to fill it with boxes and bags for charity shops once they re-opened in the New Year.  Alas, the best opportunity was gone as by the time they did re-open for donations the edge of the pandemic was creeping over the horizon and before much of our stuff was distributed the country was under a lockdown. 

There is so much involved with moving house, let alone relocating to another country, whether on a permanent or a temporary basis.  The sheer mechanics of selling a property at the same time as packing it up and sorting out what is to go, what is wanted and where it will be in the interim are complex enough without being confined to said house without access to professional advice, helpers and tall people who can get stuff down from shelves.  And strong friends who can lift boxes and move furniture.  

A lot of books – but precious little else…

Everything moved at a snail’s pace and the likelihood of actually being able to move became vanishingly remote as the weeks wore on.  We put off telling anyone of our plans as they seemed to be hopelessly unrealistic and plodded through the days doing what we could. Occasionally we stopped to stare at a dusty space, wondering for a moment why we were dismantling our home.  The first task was to tackle our (roughly) three thousand books, putting over a thousand aside to give away and wrapping the others in lined fruit boxes from a local store.  It takes a long, long time to pack that number of books and I was certainly guilty of squandering the space lockdown offered to get ready.  In the end the books were packed, many of the pictures were safe in specially purchased boxes but precious little else. 

When the lockdown eased a bit we had a bit more energy and a sense of grim determination began to drive us forwards.  We managed to get appointments for the dogs to get their passports, though we were then entering a world ruled by two deeply frustrating attitudes.

            Around this time there was an advert for insurance where a customer was harangued over the type of door locks on his house “I don’t know – nobody knows”, he said sobs in despair.  We felt the truth of this and finally took to looking at one another, shrugging and saying, “It’s a door locks thing”. “We don’t know – nobody knows”, especially relating to anything to do with regulations, new rules and possible disruption when the Transition Period ended.  Would we need pet passports – and would UK versions be valid?  No-one knew, even the vets.  What about transferring money overseas (without using some money-laundering scheme, obviously).  Nothing in place yet, said the banks.  It might be alright but then again… nobody knows.  Queries about the exchange rate were met with shrugs and the occasional bitter laugh. We decided to plan on the absolute worst scenario we could think of and just travel hopefully.

And then there was “Computer says No.”  With so many people working remotely many “help lines” were jammed, unobtainable or replaced by web pages that did not have any access to a real person.  Using pre-pandemic and pre-Brexit algorithms, decisions, especially financial decisions, were made by machines covering a limited range of options.  From insurance to a possible bridging loan, computers took one look at us and went “no”.

And absolutely NO-ONE answered their phone anymore!

It was already May, we had no firm escape plan, the house wasn’t close to going on the market and we began to feel time was running out.

A bit of an Adventure

Hello, welcome back and many apologies for my long absence.  As some of you may know I have been on a bit of an adventure – a bit more of an adventure than I anticipated when I began – and many things have changed over the last months.  I want to share this journey with you in all its delight, frustration and near despair and so over the next few months will be adding to my story until we are up to date.

To begin – for many reasons we have considered moving for a while.  More than 30 years ago we rocked up to a very run-down terraced house near the cliffs at Saltburn by Sea.  For those of you who have read the fourth Alex Hastings book, “Smoke and Adders”, this was a move forced on us by events not identical but very similar to those experienced by Alex.  After spending five years in Somerset, not far from the Levels, it took a while to adjust to what was a move diagonally right across the country but Saltburn is a beautiful place, the people were just as friendly as they had been in Somerset and we settled in, doing up the house and slowly making it the home we had always wanted.  Finally however time began to catch up with us.

Victorian terraces are tall and narrow and their staircases are long and steep.  My exciting (and, according to my mother, reckless) youth began to tell as the injuries from several motorcycle accidents made climbing said stairs increasingly difficult, not to mention the shoulder damage caused by bouncing off the road at high speed on occasions.  High ceilings and high shelves were eventually both out of reach.  We also longed for some outside space, especially for the dogs.  We had a small yard they could use but they needed at least one good walk a day and this often meant driving a short distance into the surrounding countryside and keeping them on their leads whenever they were outside.  A garden, we thought, would be heavenly.  It was also out of our price range unless we moved to somewhere smaller, more cramped and outside of Saltburn. 

So – fewer stairs and more garden, and somewhere quiet, within our rather limited budget.  We have a number of friends living in different countries in Europe, an attractive proposition for us as we eyed the uncertainties of Brexit looming ever closer, but most of the possible destinations had potential drawbacks.  In particular we wanted to be in easy reach of the UK in case of a family emergency.  Both of us have Irish ancestors, albeit one generation too far back to allow us to claim an Irish passport.  We have some good friends in Ireland – better friends than we could have imagined, and for someone selling a house in England property was not cheap but at least within reach.

We looked around our large house, took a deep breath and decided to start clearing it out.  Thirty years is a long, long time to live in one place and it is only too easy to acquire a great deal of stuff – our own stuff and some treasured possessions from departed relatives.  Nevertheless, we set to, weeding the books and sorting the china, delighting the local charity shops for a few weeks.

And then we got sick. 

Very sick. 

For weeks.

And everything had to stop.

Small changes in strange times

These are strange times, there’s no avoiding that idea, and like everyone else I am having to make changes to my life, my work and my expectations. Life is, of course, somewhat constrained at present though I am probably luckier than most in that I work from home and generally work alone so it’s not that different. The work itself though – now that is rather in a state of flux.

Just before this terrible sickness swept across the globe my publishers, Impress Books of Exeter, were taken over by a mixed imprint, Untold Publishing. Untold already had Aelurus Publishing, an e-book imprint focussing on fantasy and sci-fi. They also operate a series of services for self-publishing (though not the books themselves). Impress, with their diverse output, printed books and high production values, make up the third leg of this new company.

This sort of change can be rather nerve wracking for an author. Will the new publisher want to keep them on? What about contracts and terms – will they change? Will there be a gap where my books are reissued and if so how long? In the event the changes have proved to be small ones and generally for the better. There’s a shortage of print books, partly down to the closure of so many distributors, printers and physical book shops but one of the first things Untold did was to reformat and reissue the e-books for us. Not only are these now available for Amazon Kindle, they are now formatted for ibooks, kobo and Google books as well. And the print editions will return when we emerge from these strange times, blinking in the bright sunlight and shivering in the fresh air.

So, will there be any more “Alex Hastings” books? I think there might.
Watch this space – and the new Untold Publishing website for news. https://untoldpublishing.com/

Living in the Past II – and my Superpower

There is a lot of nostalgia for the past floating around at the moment. Things were so much simpler, there was a stronger sense of community, we knew our place in the world… Well, I lived in this “past” and I struggle to recognise it from the discussions around me. This is the past I remember and it bears little resemblance to the comfortable, secure world described by some.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s on the fringes of Greater London. My overwhelming impression of this time was being cold. There was the “Big Freeze” of 1963 of course but every winter – and many springs and autumns – were extremely chilly too. Hardly anyone had central heating or double glazing. We woke in the morning and drew pictures on the ice inside the windows. Beds at night were often damp as well as cold and adding more heavy wool blankets didn’t help for hours. I was lucky for we had a new-build home whilst a lot of my friends lived in “pre-fabs” – prefabricated houses thrown up to alleviate the desperate housing shortage. Designed for ten years wear, some are still in use today. And they really are cold.

Most of us wore home-made clothes (even school uniform sometimes) and our mothers sewed and knitted an astonishing range of garments from anything they could get their hands on. I had a duffle coat made from old army blankets and all my hats, gloves and scarves were made by my mother. But the worst clothes ever were socks. Hand knitted wool socks. How we hated them! They itched and scratched and never stayed up so we had to use rubber bands that dug in and stopped the circulation to our feet. They just sucked up the moisture so they were always damp. But this was nothing until combined with the curse of my generation – chilblains.

For those of you unfamiliar with this ailment, chilblains are painful little lumps that erupt over toes, fingers, ears and noses when the small blood vessels get too cold and then warm up again. They are also horribly itchy and if scratched feel as if they are burning. Combine chilblains with damp wool socks and you have total misery for months on end.

Sometimes I get cranky when people eulogise the past. It had its moments but nothing was perfect. A lot of it wasn’t very nice. We were insular, tired and poor and no-one who experienced it would want to go back. So to prove my point I choose my superpower. I would like to inflict chilblains for a week. They sum up the era somehow. Try it for a few days and see how nostalgic you might be then.

Living in the Past

Whoever said “Don’t live in the past but look to the future” was only half right – and they probably were not a writer. For us the past is our own personal goldmine, the source of characters, events, adventures and the occasional quirky phrase we slip in to get a smile from the reader. The past is our foundation, whether we choose to recount it or do the opposite in an effort to banish it forever. Every writer’s journey begins in the past for it has made us what we are today.

Some writers use the past by recounting events from their life, an autobiographical approach that, if well done and featuring something original or touching, can be very effective. Many fiction writers (myself included) use it as source material for stories. In my case many of the stories from the “Alex Hastings” series use a little of the “real” past, though often mixed in with several other events. An equal number are made up but use all that experience from years ago to make them as realistic as possible – after all, as Bernard Cornwall of the “Sharpe” series of historical novels points out – there is always a helpful reader out there ready to set you straight if you get your facts wrong.

Sometimes however there is an episode in life that seems to come from fiction rather than real life. Take the last few years, for example. I have to confess, I have been afraid of dogs for much of my life. I still have the scars on my arm to show why this is and my family never had dogs, or allowed them in the house. Then I met my partner and my first dog entered my life. Jump forward to last year and I found myself at Crufts with my partner and several friends, showing a dog we had bred and raised as a puppy. He wasn’t supposed to stay with us but at the time no-one who could take him wanted him. He was not considered anything like good enough to be a “show dog” but he has the sweetest personality and extraordinary charm. He is also “hyper-vigilant” which is a posh way of saying he barks at everything. And I mean everything – people, cars, rain on the window, the post box, the postman and, of course, other dogs. Especially other dogs.

We took him a training class to socialize him and after a false start at one where we were asked to leave he gradually settled a little but even so, a show with 6,000 other dogs does not seem the best environment for a restful day. Yet despite this he did show, he did us proud and he sat on his bench and greeted visitors, had his picture taken with children and even refrained from peeing in the hotel. It was an extraordinary journey. Not one I’m eager to repeat but one I look back on with wonder and delight.

So when I decided to take a break from the “Alex Hastings” books I looked to the past and there was Charlie, the dog who got to Crufts, looking back at me. Writing that story means I have to relive some very hard moments but I have enjoyed it all and one day, in the not too distant future, I hope to share that journey with you.

The Hazards of Travelling – Adventures on the Autoroute

I’ve just returned from a short trip away and very enjoyable it was too. A hop across the Channel (or under it in this case), a few nights in a favourite little town and “le shopping”. But somehow it is not possible to escape everyday life especially if, like me, you are a bit of a dork.  Let me explain – I’ve always been clumsy,  especially when tired and I find myself doing things that seem quite logical to me but apparently are rather odd.  Sometimes incomprehensible to others who live outside my dyspraxic brain.

Now, I have spent a long time learning French, partly as I travel there a lot but also to prove to myself my French teacher was wrong when she wrote on my school report I would never be able to speak the language, let alone write it.  I have the Open University to thank for my eventual success by the way.  Their beginners courses are terrific and I am ridiculously proud of my Certificate in French, especially as I failed my “O” level seven times.  I can get around just fine, read the local paper (the equivalent of The Sun but hey – it’s a start) and chat to people I meet without causing them to roll on the floor hooting with laughter.  But all language is a code and every code is subtly different.

So, on the second evening we took the fast way back to the hotel, down the Autoroute.  Arriving at the barrier I inserted the card, only to have it spat back at me.  I tried again, with the same result.  We pulled off into a convenient layby and I went over to look at the machine and there was a large illuminated picture of a button with an arrow pointing towards it.  “Assistance”, it promised.  I tapped it but nothing happened.  I pressed harder, then held by thumb on it – still nothing.  After a break of several minutes when I hopped around avoiding other motorists who kept hooting and muttering some rather hurtful things I tried again, only to realize the picture was just that – a picture of a real button that was located right over the other side of the machine.

I pressed it and after several tries an irritated female voice squawked at me.  By now I was sweating and it was a struggle to understand the terse French issuing from the speaker.  My mastery of the language began to desert me as I tried to explain my predicament.  Following instructions I put the card in again, still with no success.  Suddenly a small opaque window lit up on the machine.  More squarks, increasingly impatient, told me to put the ticket into the window – and here the difference in languages becomes painfully obvious.  “Into” or “up to”.  There was a slot at the top and I dutifully posted my ticket through.

There was a hideous grinding sound and then one of those pauses.  “Where is the ticket?” the voice demanded.  Babbling and almost incoherent, I tried to explain I had posted it into the window…  Of course, there was a camera on the other side and she would need to see the ticket, verify my journey and then let me through.  Only I’d skipped that stage and consigned my evidence of payment to the shredder too soon.  With my last few words of  French I pleaded with her.  “Madame, please – it is 2 euros 60.  From Boulogne – 2,60.  I’m so sorry – please – I have the money ready…”  There was another pause and then the barrier lifted.  I swear it gave a sigh of exasperation but that may just have been Madame.  “Merci!  Merci Madame!”

We drove off into the sunset but as we left the booths I noticed the CCTV camera tracked us past the barrier and realized this had all been caught on film.  Well, I have a nasty feeling I am going to feature on the “Most incompetent drivers” reel at the next Toll Booth operators Christmas party.  I guess it is rather funny looking back but I’m not keen to repeat the experience any time soon.  I have a shiny new Atlas of France and intend to navigate away from the dreaded toll booths in future.  Hey, I’m dyspraxic so I have no sense of direction and no visual memory.  What could possibly go wrong?