Once again gales were predicted for the Channel; once again the clouds darkened during the drove across Belgium. After the German glow of Christmas lights and gluhwijn, the beating rain and deepening cold of northern France felt more unpleasant than usual – it would be good to get off the road and back into Cambridge to a warm night’s sleep, gathering thoughts ahead of the year-end board meetings.
4:00: pulled into the docks a half hour ahead of departure, only to find the back end of a ferry pulling out against a wall of clouds to the west. Schedules were already disrupted, and the attendants warned that the 5 pm ferry would be at least an hour late. I’m suspecting that NorfolkLine runs any schedule they want, dropping a boat or two along the way, when the weather gives them an opening. Then there’s the grim alternative: an empty concrete cafeteria that never seems to open. I bundled up and hunkered down.
A boat pulled in at 5:30, not the usual cruiser, but an old ship glowing faintly along tiny windows cut along high steel sides. We were waved back to our cars and herded on board. The upper decks were closed; Seating was strictly airline-style – ‘not a good sign. The captain warned of a rough and slow crossing on a crackling intercom as we launched towards sunset.
I kept at my work, pecking at the computer as the ship bounced and heaved across the Channel. Occasional ferries emerged from the rain, spray blown from the bows over the upper decks, then passed on into the night. People slept or glumly focused on an imaginary horizon. We reached Dover by 8pm, but found the tugs busy and the slips full. We circled the outer seawall, nautical equivalent of a holding pattern, and waited. 9 pm: out turn finally came and we dropped out of sequence and jostled into place, tumbled our cars off the boat.
I looped into Dover, freed, looking for a faster route towards the M25. Focused ahead, I missed the road debris, maybe a stray curb, that blocked my path. The car lurched, shuddered, pulled hard to the left. A horrible noise pounded out of the left front wheel well. ‘Not much doubt that I’d blown a tire, but where to land and fix it? I punched the Tom Tom, looking for a restaurant: MacDonald's glowed a quarter mile off to the right. Around the roundabout, thumping up a hill, through the entry, and park – in a MacDonald’s undergoing full refurbishment. We apologize for the inconvenience: Brit-slang for not being very sorry at all.
I popped the trunk to look for a spare, but found only a package shaped like a spare with a tire inflator inside. Not much help for a shredded wheel. Time to think things over, preferably over a sandwich. I stood in the queue of cars passing the drive-up window. A Little Person leered. We cannot serve anyone who isn’t in their car: I explained that my slumped conveyance wasn’t going to make the 20-yard run: could they make an exception? The manager was summoned, who glared and began to apologize for the inconvenience. But then, moved by the spirit of Christmas, said he’d make a limited offering in exchange for cash. Deal.
Back in the car, I started phoning into the Netherlands, first ANWB, who bounced me to the lease company, who skipped me to Mondial, my insurance group. Can you please find the following numbers on your tire: diameter, manufacturer, an odd code number, all black script against a black rim in the darkness. I squatted in the gale and tried to read them by the light of my phone. Eventually, as though exchanging nuclear codes, we agreed on the values and they disappeared to consult. I waited, cleaning up from where the wind had knocked the Coke over in my console, flooding a camera and MP3 player (both old, but still a loss).
Callback: 2 1/2 hours to get a tire out from London. I bundled up and hunkered down. The car swayed in the wind, the rain sheeted over the windshield and spilled down the back. I think I dozed a bit. The MacDonald’s closed as the trickle of customers ended. A bit after midnight, headlights shown through the windows: a yellow-slicked mechanic knocked and waved me to the van. “Almost blew over three times,” he shook his head. “Would have cost at least £250 to pay for the call.” He grinned. “All you need to pay for is the new tire.” Deal. £53 and ten minutes later, I had a new wheel and was back on the road.
The drive north was long but uneventful, the roads empty and fast at 1 am after a storm. Home by 2:30, bed by 3, meetings at 9: I’m starting to feel used to it. Its making the Eurostar and RyanAir look better and better.