Applying the brake

Finally, after months if not years of faffing around, we to an electric car today, a second-hand Nissan Leaf. This purchased, on the recommendation of a friend of ours, from Cleevely Electric Vehicles in Cheltenham, where the whole horrible, for me, business of buying a new car was dealt with pleasantly, swiftly and efficiently. Our hand was forced by our remaining car packing up in spectacular fashion in Nottingham a couple of weeks ago. As most of our journeys are less than a 30-mile round trip and start and finish from home and as we have solar panels and as the price of petrol is going through the roof, it seemed like a no-brainer. There are, however, a few things to get used to.

The first is that there’s a stubby little thing where the gear lever normally is. To put it in drive (forward) you pull it back, to put it in reverse you push it forward. There must have been a good reason for this counter-intuitive alignment. I dare say I’ll get accustomed to it, hopefully before I demolish the garden fence or crash into the dustbins.

There is a key, sort of, but you don’t insert and turn, old-school-style: it only has to be in the car, or perhaps merely near the car. I’m a natural pessimist so can already see several lost-key situations developing. Don’t ask what form they might take as my imagination hasn’t yet processed all the possible permutations. I’ll let you know when they start happening. We have one spare key but I think we probably need half a dozen. At least.

My faith in the car which packed up earlier this month had already sunk to the point that I’d make sure I had warm or waterproof clothes in it in expectation that I’d need to spend time hanging around waiting for the AA when it broke down, or perhaps need to walk home. I feel no such worries with this one. However, I think it would be wise to pack food, drink and reading material. I had to stop en route back from Cheltenham to charge it at Membury Services and the cost of the coffee, the pastry and the newspaper I bought to pass the time was more than the electricity. Indeed, it possibly increased the total transaction to what it would have been just for some petrol. Perhaps I just need to exercise more self-control. There are few things more expensive than coffee in motorway service stations, unless it’s the pastries. Even the newspapers cost more, or seem to.

The final life-adjustment I’m going to have to make is remembering that the handbrake is operated by the left foot. Pulling out of a parking bay in Hungerford High Street this afternoon I forgot to disengage this and drove most of the way up to the pool before I realised. Yes, OK, there was a repeating bleep; yes, all right, there was a flashing light; yes, I know, partly because of my inattention to these things I ended up in the mess I did in Nottingham earlier this month. I think there must be something wrong with my mind: as previously mentioned, I generally believe that the worst is going to happen yet when confronted with a warning that it is actually happening to me right now, I’m supremely capable of ignoring it. Perhaps I’m sunk deeper into a trough of pessimism than I dare admit so that, when things go wrong, rather than dealing with them I just say, with an Eeyore-like fatalism, “told you so.” Anyway, I finally reacted, worked out what had happened and dealt with it. The car seems none the worse.

This is more than can be said for another car which, about 35 years ago, I drove with the handbrake on not a few hundred yards but the whole way across Belgium: not the biggest country in Europe, but even so.

I was hitching – as one did in those days – from Amsterdam to Paris and got picked up near the Dutch/Belgian border by a guy in a battered estate car with German plates. He spoke German (which I don’t), very heavily accented French and no English, or none that I could understand. His face was creased with tiredness and his hair was standing on end – he was not unlike me in that respect – but he also had a wild expression in his eyes that seemed to be due to more than just exhaustion.

“Can you drive?” he asked.

I said I could.

“Good,” he said, got out and gave me the keys. “I’ve been driving for 12 hours solid.” He shot a couple of glances over his shoulder as if expecting pursuit.

As I got in, I noticed that back seat was piled high with boxes filled with what seemed like electronic equipment, leads and wires and bits of circuit boards poking out. The car looked as if it had been packed in a hurry. “Where have you come from?” I asked.

“East Berlin.” This was the mid 80s. The Cold War was still a thing. I began to wonder whether the lift was such a good idea. Then I reasoned that, if he were smuggling iron-curtain secrets, he would hardly hand over the car to a ratty stranger on the side of an autoroute. More like he was just some half-crashed space cadet, all ripped up and strung out on speed and Amsterdam grass, his brain rippling with state-secret paranoia. Maybe the stuff in the back was just some busted hi-fi kit but he wanted me to believe, and perhaps believed himself, that he was deep into a desperate mission and being pursued by the CIA, the KGB, Illuminati storm-troopers and god-knows who else. If even one of these applied to his state of mind, it was probably safer that I should drive. I put the key in the ignition.

“I’m going to Arras,” he muttered. “Wake me up when we get there.” He then wrapped a coat around himself and fell into a deep sleep.

The journey across Belgium took maybe two hours. There were quite a few lights on the dashboard that perhaps shouldn’t have been there: but this wasn’t my car so what did I know what was normal? It also seemed quite sluggish at times, as if something were holding it back. There was also a slightly pungent small for the first dozen our so miles which was replaced by occasional scraping noises whenever I turned the wheel. I wasn’t unduly concerned by all this and drove on through the slanting rain that has attended almost every visit I’ve ever made to the Low Countries. My host snored by my side. In this fashion we traversed Belgium, crossed the French border and reached the outskirts of Arras.

At that point he woke up, rubbed his eyes and gave me a wild glance. This briefly made me fear that he had no recollection of picking me up and getting me to drive but instead thought that I had kidnapped him and his dubious cargo. Finally he seemed to remember who I was and nodded slowly to himself. Then he sniffed the musty air, furrowed his brows and looked at the dashboard. He started shouting in German, then in his guttural French. He reached down his left hand and released the handbrake, which made no difference to our speed. He muttered to himself some more.

It was clear how I had screwed up. I apologised, but not too much. I’d got him across the border, after all – already I was slipping into a Le Carré-style view of the situation – so a bit of collateral damage was perhaps a fair price to pay. He was still grumbling and muttering as we reached the town centre. I pulled in, grabbed my bag and got out. He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. I raised mine in a way that I hope expressed the idea that “shit happens but life goes on.”

“Bye, thanks,” I said. He grunted again. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.

I sometimes wonder whether this sleepy-eyed, tangle-headed German was for real. As I sheepishly disengaged the foot/handbrake in Hungerford this afternoon I thought of him again and speculated idly if the boxes in his musty car had been East German prototypes for EV batteries which he had stolen and which was rushing to his contacts in, of all places, Arras. Perhaps, indeed, I was driving something that was in a direct line of technological descent from the jumbled contraband on his back seat. No, of course not, I told himself: he was just a crazy man. Or was he…?

I’ll never know. Nor, it seems, will I ever know or learn that I need to pay attention to red dashboard lights. Resolving to do better in future, I completed my journey to the pool, parked; and forgot to apply the foot/handbrake at all. As I got out, the car rolled back a few inches. I hurriedly pressed my left foot down on the pedal. I’ve only been driving for 40 years so I suppose I’ll get the hang of all these details eventually…

Brian Quinn

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