Flashing red lights

It was half past seven on a crisp, clear Saturday morning and I was already on the road, driving east along the valley, en route to picking my youngest son up from uni in Nottingham. He had tickets to see the Swindon v Newport match at three so I’d promised him that I’d get up good and early so we could be back with time to spare. I thought this business of getting up at seven o’clock – not something I normally do – was going to going to be the hardest part of the day. It wasn’t.

By the time I was on the M40 I’d slipped into a kind of alert doze: safe enough if anything unexpected had happened but not really locking me in to where exactly I was. I had tried to switch on the satnav thing on the phone when I’d left but as anyone who knows me well will testify, I’ve never been on first-name terms with my mobile; indeed have only the vaguest idea how most of its features work. I couldn’t get it fired up. No problem, I thought. The plan was to get to the edge of the city, pull in, give Toby a 15-minute warning and then turn on the phone to navigate me to his halls. I’d written down the road numbers of the main part of the journey and could, I told myself, get to Nottingham without any help.

It turned out I couldn’t. Something – I have no idea what – compelled me to turn off the M40 too early and I soon found myself driving through a succession of tiny villages interspersed with rolling countryside. In one I stopped but still couldn’t get the satnav to work. As long as I was driving east I would eventually hit the M1. I was driving towards the sun so I figured this was OK; and hit it I duly did. This all probably added about fifteen miles onto the journey. As it turned out this was very fortunate.

I made it up to junction 24 without further problems and then turned up the A something-or-other, past the largest power station I’ve even seen. As the city grew closer I realised there was nowhere I could safely pull in to make the call and then get to grips with the map app. Another mile went past, then another. A large junction, which I vaguely remembered from my one previous solo trip there, loomed up. I realised I had no idea which way I was meant to go and no means of finding out.

Something else was bothering me, though.

For the last few miles I’d noticed that the engine seemed to be losing power, as if I had my foot half down on the clutch. As I approached the junction, two things happened. The first was a shrill “beep” from somewhere in the car; the second was a light that lit up on the dashboard. I slowed a bit. The car behind me hooted. I had a choice, straight on or right. I chose right.

Like most people, or at least most men, I’m incapable of dealing with more than one problem at once. The beeping had stopped, which I half convinced myself meant the problem had abated, though the light was now flashing. However, I was also lost. Somehow this seemed the thing to concentrate on. I needed to stop and assess the situation. I couldn’t face grappling with car and the satnav, with being both broken down and lost. One enemy at a time. I had to get to Toby’s digs.

Amazingly, that was what happened. I was frazzled beyond words and following a route I’d only taken once before on my own: but, ten minutes later and by some process that verged on the magical, I was there. Without stopping to wonder how or what this might portend, I called Toby up. I was about half an hour early and the young man I spoke to had clearly only just woken up. “The good news is that I’m here,” I told him. “The bad news is that I think the car’s about to pack up.”

There was a pause while he considered this. Like me, he could only deal with one of these things at a time. “I’ll bring my stuff down,” he said at last. “Give me about fifteen minutes.”

“That’s fine. I need to have a look at the manual for the car and find out what this light means.”

There were a lot of warning lights on the car, some of which came on and off without any obvious reason. One, an orange engine light, was on for about six months a couple of years ago. I took it to the garage I then used and asked if they could tell me what it meant. I presumed that they’d plug a computer in, press a couple of buttons and the diagnostics would tell them what was wrong.

Instead, the man had sucked his teeth. “Orange, engine light – that’s serious. Could be anything. We’d have to have it in, run some checks. That’ll be a few hundred pounds, plus fixing whatever’s wrong. If it’s the catalytic convertor – and it sometimes is – you could be looking at a grand on top. Mind you,” he added, “sometimes the light’s come on because the circuit’s faulty and there’s nothing wrong at all. Only one way to find out. Shall I book you in?”

“Are you telling me,” I asked, “that this car has lights that come on, perhaps for no reason at all, and you don’t know what they mean until I’ve paid you several hundred pounds and at the end of it all it might just be a faulty bulb?”

He looked at me sternly. “Engine warning light, that’s serious,” he repeated

“Or it might be nothing,” I said.

“Either way, you’ll find it’s knocked a grand or so off the value of the car. In fact, you’d be lucky to sell it all with that light on.”

“Couldn’t you just disconnect it?” He gave me a look as if I’d just asked him to give me an alibi for a murder.

My question hadn’t been an idle one. About twenty years before, in the very early days of these things, the on-screen warning lights on my then car would turn on and off like something out of Close Encounters. I took it to the mechanic I used and explained the problem. “Soon fix that,” he said, reaching for a pair of pliers. Two minutes later he re-appeared, holding something that looked like a car radio, but with a lot of leads attached. He tossed it onto the back seat.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I took the computer out. Stupid bloody things. If the car works, it works. If it starts going funny, bring it back and I’ll fix it. I’m a mechanic, not a programmer.”

I had the car for two more years without any problems at all.

I declined the garage’s offer of investigating the orange-light problem. A month later the light vanished, stayed off for six months and them came back on and off intermittently thereafter. By then I’d ceased to pay any attention to it.

So, there I was in a side-street in Nottingham, as ignorant as hell about car warning lights, peering at page 121 of the manual. There were quite a few of them. Some had bold black boxes around them. One of these was around the symbol I’d seen.

“Oil warning,” the text read. “If you are driving, stop the car as soon as possible and seek technical support.”

This didn’t seem good. The image was definitely the same one as on the dashboard, something that looked like a watering can but which was, I now saw, designed to represent lubricant. It even had a wavy line underneath it. I turned the ignition on to see if it was still there. It was. I turned it off again.

It was also red. White lights, or so my hierarchy ran, are informative, green lights advisory and orange lights warnings of things you should do something about at some point. Red ones are serious. Worse still was the flashing. Even the orange engine light had never flashed. I knew from the petrol warning that when it flashed you really had to take notice. It was also underlined. That couldn’t be good either. A red image, flashing, underlined and with a description in the manual with a bold black box round it and with the explicit warning “stop the car” added up to something screaming out for attention.

Toby came down and we got his stuff loaded up.

“Are we going to make the game?” he asked. I turned on the engine. The red light didn’t re-appear.

“Should be fine,” I said.

We pulled out onto the road. Still no light. “We’ve got five hours before kick-off,” I added

The light came on again, flashing. “We ought to stop at a garage, though. I need to get some oil.”

We drove on in an increasingly tense state. It was becoming impossible to pretend the car’s engine was making a normal noise. A couple of miles later, we pulled in to a filling station. I’d already checked the dipstick while waiting for Toby but on each occasion the thing seemed to be completely coated in a thin film of oil. This seemed to suggest either that it had no lubricant or far too much. I had no idea which was worse. I bought a litre of oil and poured it into the sump. Then we got in and I turned on the ignition. My hopes weren’t high, so you won’t be surprised when I tell you that the red light was still there and still flashing.

I started to pull out of the garage but the noise, and the light, were still with us.  The next stop would probably be the M1. Having a breakdown there would be a nightmare in spades. So I reversed back into the parking space. “Time to call the AA,” I said. We did so. We had, by an irony, 90 minutes to wait, exactly the length of a football match.

I filled in some of the time by chatting to a lorry driver who was unloading a delivery. He was from Poland. “I’ve been here twelve years,” he told me. “I’m never going back there again. You people in England think your government’s all screwed up. You should see ours. That’s why I left. I went back just after the Russians invaded Crimea and told my friends that they should get out, they’d be next. Putin’s coming, I said. They laughed. Last few weeks, I’ve had lots of them asking if I can help them get out, get them jobs, whatever. They’re scared now. Too late, I said. I warned you. I’ve got a family to look after now. Two boys. My parents won’t talk to me because I won’t teach them Polish. What’s the point? I’m making sure they learn Spanish, German, even Russian. Something useful. You’ve got good a country. Don’t take it for granted. I’m glad I’m here. Nice talking to you.”

All this was quite a bracing whistle-stop tour of recent central-European history, patriotism and tough love. It made me feel quite a lot better about my first-world problems and probably saved me from falling into self pity.

The AA man turned up earlier than expected. He did what I’d wanted the garage to do for the orange engine light and plugged a computer into a socket under the bonnet.

“Not good,” he said, then rattled off some stuff I didn’t follow. “Does the engine still work?” I said it did, and described the noise. “You might be lucky,” he said. “Once they seize up from what this looks like, then it’s…” He made a complicated gesture with both hands, the general meaning of which was clear even to me.

“Can you fix it?”


“What happens next?”

“We’ll have to tow you home. Do you have relay?”

“I hope so.” He checked. I did. “So, you get hooked up to the back of the yellow dream machine. Where do you live?”

“West Berkshire.”

“Where’s that?”

I suddenly realised how far from home we were. While he was tapping the postcode of the garage we now use into his device I walked round to talk to Toby. “I don’t think you’ll make the game,” I said.

“No, I didn’t think I would.”

If you were to ask me to hook up a car to be towed by an AA van’s Ford Transit, a complex job that takes about twenty minutes, I reckon I could now do it blindfolded. I watched this happen three times to get the car on and – and this doesn’t take much less time – three times to get it off. This happened three times because there are rules about how far a driver can go with a car on tow. How much these are due to national law and how much to the AA’s internal regulations I couldn’t say. We therefore went from Nottingham to Northampton, then Northampton to Chieveley before the final small leg down to ND Services at Membury. The Northampton to Chieveley bloke was quite new to the job and in genuine fear of the trouble he’d get into if he drove too many miles, or went outside his area, or didn’t get an extra leg authorised, or failed to get approval from the office or his TL, whatever that was.

We told him we’d been hoping to make the Swindon v Newport game – it was by that time about six o’clock. “Don’t think that’s going to happen, is it?” Not having a time machine, we were forced to agree.

He had three conversations during this journey with three different people about how far he could take us. I don’t know what comms system AA uses but it was like a CB radio in the ’80s. I could understand about one word in five, the rest being static. The distance from Northampton Services to ND Services in Membury variously seemed to have been 67 miles, 69 miles and 74 miles depending which device was used. It finally seemed that he could only take us far as Chieveley – you can almost see ND Services from there – where, the last person he spoked to assured him, there would be another vehicle waiting for the last leg. There wasn’t. The AA man called base again and they told him to wait with us. Neither of us could work out why. Perhaps they were worried we were going to run amok. I bought us both a coffee – Toby had retreated into the café – and we chatted for twenty minutes in the car park. Then he called them back.

“Why are you still there?” I heard someone bark at him.

“You told me to wait.”

I couldn’t hear what was said next. He hung up. “I don’t know why they asked me to wait, either. They told me to go home. Thanks for the coffee.”

“No problem. Where’s home?”

“A couple of miles from Northampton Services where I picked you up.”

The third driver turned up about ten minutes later. To my pleasure – it made me feel I was nearly home again – he know Neil from ND Services. We chatted for a bit about them while he started on the familiar process with the gear on the back of his van. The sun was going down and, unlike him, I wasn’t dressed for the cold. “The novelty of watching this has worn off,” I said. “I’ll go and tell my son you’re here. We’ll see in about fifteen minutes.”

“You do know the drill,” he said.

I told Toby what was happening and then wandered back to the entrance. I noticed that the concourse had suddenly become thick with policemen. I went up to one of them. “I haven’t seen as many police in one place since the last time I went to a football match,” I said. “Is there anything going on I should know about?”

“We’ve just been to a football match, as it happens. Professionally.”

“Which one?”

“Swindon v Newport.”

“We were meant to be going to that. We missed it.”

“Really? Why?”

“Bit of a long story.”

So finally we got to ND Services, unloaded Tony’s stuff from the probably beyond-economical-repair car, loaded it it into the car which Penny had borrowed from a friend and got back home just over thirteen hours after I’d left home. Toby told the story to his three brothers in the kitchen, two of whom were up for London for the weekend and the other just back from uni himself. This was the first time all my sons had been together this year. None the less, I poured myself a large glass of wine and sat down in the living room, processing what has happened. Three thoughts struck me.

The first was how great all three of the AA men had been. Each was friendly, chilled and efficient: exactly the combination the situation needed. I was less impressed by what seemed to be a rather draconian system under which they had to work. This may be due to national laws about maximum mileages but I suspect that there was a good dollop of internal-process tyranny as well. However, I can’t fault the AA either, really. It got us and our busted car home, which was more than we could have done on our own.

The second was that during the whole debacle I’d only lost my temper once (and Toby not at all), and that very briefly, when I was told by one of the food outlets at Northampton Services that I could only have a Coke, a drink I actively dislike, as part of my meal deal. Other food outlets were available, as I reminded them, and I stalked off to one of those.

The third – and by now I was down towards the bottom of what was the first of several glasses of red that evening – was slightly more mystical. Firstly, why had I taken that wrong turning off the M40? This his had added a useful amount of time to the journey, so ensuring that the car had gone bango when I was still in a city rather than ten miles on the way back down the M1. Secondly, how had I managed to navigate to Toby’s digs without any assistance? Was there someone watching over me to slow me down when I needed it and then guide me to a safe destination where I could take stock? If so, what had I done to deserve this? During the day, I was inwardly cursing that this problem hadn’t happened on some unimportant local run. That was the wrong way of looking at it. For some reason, whether mechanical or whatever, it had to have happened at about the half-way point of a long journey. If I accepted that, then it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Ten miles earlier or later would have left me or us on a motorway. Que sera sera.

These reflections over, I went back into the kitchen where Penny and my four sons were cooking and drinking and talking and laughing. Suddenly, that was all that mattered. Here I was: back home in body, if not yet in mind. It’ll take a few days for me to re-gather all my molecules from the various service stations at which we were forced to make our brief camps, from the bumpy AA van travelling at 55mph and, in particular, from that strange detour I made in the morning through a procession of Northamptonshire hamlets and villages whose names I’ll never remember and which may in any case not appear on any map. Perhaps, in taking the wrong turning, I was being guided by my guardian angel so as to bring my sickening car to its crisis at the safest place. Or perhaps I was just lucky. In many ways, it comes to the same thing.

Brian Quinn

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The header image was taken from the Mechanic Base website.




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