You Can’t Park Here

I drove to London yesterday.

‘Big deal,’ I hear you say. Let me take this a bit further and then you can judge.

As I was turning onto the M4 I asked myself why I hadn’t taken the train. I did a quick bit of maths. Including the mileage costs of going to and parking at Hungerford this would probably have been slightly cheaper. Harder to quantify were the delays (I normally just manage to miss a train coming back) and, on the outward journey, the nerve-shredding business of buying the correct ticket from the machine at the station with the sun shining on the screen and several people tut-tutting behind you just as you hear the level-crossing barriers coming down. Then there’s my certainty, which I’m never able to dispel, that during any train journey I’m going to die of hunger, thirst or boredom unless I buy things to stave this off. This can easily add a tenner if I’m not careful.

Anyway – there I was, in the car.

I knew that there are streets near where we used to live in Hammersmith where I can park. It’s not cheap but you can stay all day and it’s near a tube station with four lines. I’ve parked there countless times before. I had my coins in a plastic bag, the sun was shining and I’d left in good time for a meeting at 11am. What could possibly go wrong?

I found a parking space at 10.05 and, after a long a search, a payment machine. My first reverse was that this didn’t take coins. I don’t have a smartphone but I could pay by card. No problem. In the card went, four hours tapped in, £9 quoted – not bad for central-ish London – PIN entered. Whir-whir. Card declined.

Same procedure repeated with another credit card. Card invalid. I checked. It expired a few months ago. Fair enough. I tried the first card again, this time going contactless. Whir-whir. Card declined.

Being lumbered with a car in London with total tangible reserves of about £10 in coins, a possibly useless debit card and with an important meeting approaching is a bad combination. There were no multi-storeys around there. Even so, I would have to find somewhere where I could pay afterwards as there was no way £10 would cover both parking for four hours and a tube journey. For a mad moment I though about driving to the meeting and risking a ticket. I had to go to the Waterloo Bridge end of The Strand, about as hard a place to find a parking space as one could imagine. Parking tickets there probably started at about £200 and the car would probably be clamped, towed and perhaps crushed into the bargain. Nor could I probably get there in – I checked my watch – forty-five minutes.

I’d arranged to meet Graham, the person I was going to the meeting with, beforehand at 10.30. That wasn’t going to happen but there was no point calling him now. I walked back to the car.

Then I realised I couldn’t find the car. The streets round there are maddeningly alike. The sun was beating down, mums and kids going to the park. A jogger nearly knocked me into a privet hedge. It was now 10.20.

Where was the bloody car?

I finally found it by walking down the middle of the next street flicking my key fob until I saw some orange lights flashing. With no clear idea of what I was doing or why this would help, I drove it into another street and re-parked. Perhaps a different machine would produce a better result. After another search, which I thought had taken me in the opposite direction from previously, I found a machine. It was the same one I’d used before. Alice in her looking-glass world was suddenly very real to me.

I was jolted back to 2018 by seeing, at the far end of the street, the unmistakable figure of an approaching traffic warden. They wallow slightly because they carry a huge array of hardware, driven by more processing power than was used to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon: also because they doubtless wear protective body armour and carry weapons. Their uniform is an unsettling mixture of high-vis stripes and urban camouflage. As for trying to explain my problem, I would be wasting more valuable time. Traffic wardens are not recruited for their empathy or customer-service skills. In London at least they are inscrutable, incontestable and implacable. One might as well try to negotiate with a shark or discuss Anglo-Norman feudalism with an antique pine wardrobe.

I had no idea what I was going to do. On the general scale of global human misery my problem didn’t rate very high. Problems are relative, however, and this was actually happening, to me, now. At this point I was for some reason standing a couple of feet into the road and staring blankly at the houses opposite me. Without warning, my home city had been transformed into a threatening place filled with menacing strangers.

A few seconds later a car came round the corner, missing me by a foot.

You’ll get an accurate insight into my state of mind when I tell you that, for a couple of moments, it seemed that being run over and carted off to hospital offered the only certain and immediate way out of my situation. Not only would it provide a plausible reason for missing the meeting but also might result, if the right kind of letter could be written, in my getting away with the inevitable parking fine. It was when I’d snapped out of this hopeless reverie that I realised I was, in a small way, losing my mind. I had to do something now. I could, however, think of nothing to do. These two things worked against each other and effectively paralysed my brain.

Throughout all this I was dimly aware that there was something potentially hopeful about where I was and what I was looking at. I blinked. The street was familiar. I had been here many times before. There was something about one of the front doors…that door, the pink one. My word – it was Madeleine and John’s house.

When I lived in London there might have been fifty people whose homes I could find with little trouble. Not having lived there for the best part of 20 years, this number has shrunk dramatically. Some have moved away, or died, or ceased to be friends. Madeleine and John were in none of these categories. I don’t see them nearly as often as I’d like. I really wanted to see them now. This seemed luckier than I had any right to expect.

The pessimistic demon on my left shoulder (always my dominant inner voice) agreed. “Forget it,’ it hissed, ‘they won’t be in.’

‘Yes they will,’ said the more timid right-shoulder optimist, ‘give it a go. What have you got to lose?’

What indeed? I crossed the road and rang the bell. Nothing happened for a moment.

‘Told you,’ the left-shoulder demon cackled.

Then it opened and they were both standing there. John was covered in white paint because, as he explained, they were re-decorating the house. Madeleine was in her dressing gown because, although it was 10.25, she’s an artist. They could both have been stark naked on stilts with their hair on fire for all I cared.

I started babbling about coins, meters, meetings and traffic wardens. John got the drift. He reached into his back pocket and produced a resident’s guest parking ticket. ‘Put that on the dashboard,’ he said. ‘What’s your registration number? I’ll fill it in and pay online. How long do you need?’

It was wonderful to have someone else take charge of the situation. I felt like a small child, tearful, confused and frightened at a party, who is suddenly rescued by a kind grown-up and given a huge slice of cake and a glass of orange squash.

Of course, I couldn’t remember the registration number so I went back to the car. The rear number plate was filthy. I had nothing else to clean it with apart from my hand. Nor had I nothing apart from my hand to write the number down on.

I went back to the house and held up my right hand. Most was covered with grease and the rest with the registration number. He noted it down. I babbled some more thanks and dashed off. On the way down the street I realised I’d rubbed some of the grease onto my jumper and, I suspected, much of the rest onto my face. I caught a glimpse of myself in a window and saw that my hair was standing on end. I was sweating. I was late. All these details would have to take care of themselves.

No problem with the card, of course. Worked on the tube, worked to get some cash from a hole in the wall, worked later on to buy a bottle of bubbly from the wonderful Tipsy Toad in Hammersmith Grove for Madeleine and John. Didn’t work for Hammersmith Council’s parking machines, though. Be warned.

I arrived just in time for the meeting: and it went fine, thanks for asking.

I then went back to my saviours’ house to deliver the bubbly and the money for the parking and to explain the tale in more detail. I stroked their enormous cat – which seemed to be at least part bear – and exchanged some muso talk with John about the respective merits of Logic 9 v Logic X. We chatted about our various offsprings. Throughout all this, however, I was aware I was holding them back from more pressing concerns with the paintbrushes. Most surfaces of their house are usually filled with her artworks or eclectic collection of items ranging from  Art Deco fans to Bovril tins from the 1950s. Due to the re-decoration, though, these were all packed away and the shelves and walls were blank: so to get some flavour of her own creations, have a look at her website by clicking here.

With further abject thanks, I took my leave, bowing and scraping like a Tudor courtier.

Of course, I can hear you say, what you should have had, Brian, was a smartphone: or you should have taken the train. Well, yes. Both these are true. But then I wouldn’t have been able to tell you this story, would I?

Brian Quinn

• For further articles, please click here
• For rants and musings set to music, please click here

The photo at the top of the post I found online and is credited to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. If anyone from LBHF wants to contact Penny Post about copyright infringement I’d be happy to discuss this as long as we can also have a conversation about why your parking meters reject valid payment cards. Deal?

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2 Responses

  1. Brian,
    A sad and harrowing story, the details of which make my heart bleed for you! May I make a suggestion, which I am happy for you to reproduce in the next PP?
    When my wife and I have cause to go to London together, we drive to Slough and park in the station car park. The advantages are that this is easy to access from the M4 and is pretty large. Parking for the day costs

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