Wednesday, November 29, 2006

2005-07-30 006Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Sorry for the low wattage blogging of late, but a fair few things have been happening. First came attempting to become a photographer, then came becoming a used car salesman, then came being a pantechnicon operator, then came acting as a tour guide, then came exhibiting my true self*, and next comes choosing to be a typical tourist (has anyone tried using Brussels's public transport website? I have a hunch I may simply end up deliberately flouting regulations because I'm struggling to make any sense of it, and I suspect it's not all down to the restrictive choice of Flemish or French. Although I have done the classic things of wondering at which junction Rue Royale becomes the Koningstraat (and yes, I did just type that as 'Konningsstrasse'; so going to get lost) and if the Kruidtuin Botanique is the only stop with Botanique in the name because I need the Botanique. I strongly suspect I may end up asking some bewildered local the way back to Oneway Street. But my favourite monolingual name of any stop so far noticed has to be Groot Bijgaarden, which depressingly probably does not actually mean what I think it ought to.

* I still have the bruises to prove it. Unfortunately from a spiral staircase where the stairs slope towards the outside of the stairwell, with a beam two-thirds of the way up which is just right for ramming with one's shoulder as one ascends, having diverged from the central axis to avoid further stumbling on the minimal ledges, and the collision with which is enough to knock one back into vertiginous section and thus collapse onto one's left forearm. But at least everyone who attempted to go to the loo in that restaurant did near enough the same thing, so now I've joined a club with its own secret sign only truly understood by members: a small but conspicuous bruise two inches up from the watch.

So I traded in many years worth of [ungiven] birthday and Christmas presents and got a Nikon D80 (an inherited tendency to be disorganised does have its advantages) with the help of Jessops' discount codes (Google), whereupon I was unable to use it on the first weekend I had it as I found myself in Bristol.

That weekend also included being volunteered to help someone sell a car as they'd put out adverts shortly before going away for the weekend. For future reference, when intending to show a car to potential customers, do not take it for a test drive along narrow, muddy lanes to get used to driving it and to see if the damn thing works. Bouncing round a rough and flooded unpaved carpark does mean you'll have to explain to possible new owners the vast quantities of mud splattered up the passenger side of the car, which you had not seen until then (but then I have been known to drive a car which for weeks carried the Plimsoll line borne of turning round in the middle of a well used dairy farm).

It also gets quite interesting trying to explain why handing over the keys to a car which isn't mine to people I don't know isn't really an option. I was under strict orders not to do anything more than turn the engine on to prove it works. Cue negotiations over test drives and driving the car myself. A bit more mud splattering later, having blamed the dodgy gear changes on the differences with my car, answering every question truthfully but ambiguously and then leaving them to knock themselves out with the service history. Fortunately, the annoyingly unnecessary speed limits round here, and the limiting roads themselves, meant that I never really had to accelerate very hard nor go very fast, and thus never expose the major weak point of the car, which is that it handles like a tank, and possibly like a plumbed in septic tank at that. All of which I admirably covered by dropping in the occasional "sorry, speeding again", while hoping they don't notice that the car's had a long run up and it's downhill.

So having done that and agreed that yes, England can be cold, said the man in thick woollen jumper to the guy freshly arrived from India and wearing only a t-shirt, I headed back indoors as they left to consider (well, actually he told me he liked the car and wanted to know if I thought it was worth negotiating... anyone spotting a conflict of interest here considering I'm in the seller's camp? I think I said "um, it's always worth a try, but I've no idea if you'll get very far". Spot who never has quite understood haggling).

Skipping forward a bit, it turns out that when he said he liked the car he meant he intended to buy it, but he just forget to let me know he was willing to pay the full asking price for it. And because he didn't mention actually buying the thing, I passed on his interest as just that. Hence chaos a couple of days later while stuck between the very nice but pestering buyer and the unthinkingly self-centred vendor who was so busy being 'ill' that he didn't seem to think that getting money for the car why someone is offering it might be a good idea. Being in the middle while legally nothing to do with it is not fun. Eventually I got through to the guy selling that somebody wanted to buy the cursed thing, and suddenly the illness wanes. Yeah, I wouldn't be any good at sales; I care about not upsetting people. So the car got sold at the asking price, on the grounds that the buyer had always wanted a Skoda, which seems to have a magnetic effect on everyone it is mentioned to; well, either their eyebrows shoot up like slicks of iron filings or the fillings in their teeth wrench their jaws open to slack abandon.

But back to after the guided tour of the Skoda Challenger 2, where I milled a bit while waiting for my brother to appear and then drove in convoy to Bristol (in my car and the car I was selling as his MG B isn't designed for moving much beyond beautiful people). Which worked fine, except for losing my brother on the way out of the petrol station within sight of the house, getting irritated by the car behind me with the uneven headlights which was bouncing on every slight hump and thus wanging the full glare into my mirror every few seconds, and of course I couldn't accelerate away from it as I was trying to let my brother catch up. Eventually it turned off and I carried on. It later transpired that the car with the uneven headlights was the Skoda with my brother at the helm, flashing me to try and make me stop; he thought he couldn't get the lights beyond the sidelights when actually one of the bulbs has blown and they're very weak anyway. Can you tell my car tends to mist up quite easily and clearing the rearscreen either involves opening the windows at 60 mph, or using the scraper on the inner surface of the open boot?

So on I slowly drove, working my way to towards our agreed meeting point, the first services on the M4. Only I turn off at the first services I get to, which are listed as such one maps but not others. I ring my brother, but there's no reply so he'll still be driving. In for the loo and then back out to wait, wondering how deep some of the ponds are (it, like all the other services we visit during the weekend is very, very flooded, but then the test drives earlier in the day did have the joy of white water on some of the hills. One services had the exit sign faintly crossed out, which I think we both were uncertain about until we rounded a corner and had to ford Windermere as we came towards joining the M4).

He rings; he's here. Or rather he's at the next services up. Oh. So we arrange to meet at the services before the Bristol turning and carry on. Along the way there's great driving by a blacked-out car with the number plate I9 LAM, which was doing 55 in the middle lane regardless of the other traffic, a position and speed it maintained as the roadworks started and the limit dropped from 70 to 40. I have to admit to occasionally falling into London driving (mirror, signal, manoeuvre, thank the other party for so generously letting you into that tiny space; a style of driving where the signal indicates more than intent) and to getting annoyed by people realising they're being overtaken by a car older than their nose/breasts/penis and so pulling across three lanes of traffic to overtake me in the middle lane, and then dropping back in ahead of me and then slowly back down to their original speed. Just because the bodywork looks like it used to have a piercings fetish and now has a nasty fungal infection does not mean the car designed as a repmobile cannot still go like a repmobile. I have gears and I'm not afraid to use them (even though I think the clutch is on the way out). I still like being able to leave far more expensive cars behind on the exit of roundabouts. Admittedly I have to accelerate hard as I had to dump all the speed to make it round the roundabout, Vauxhall steering being what it is (like me, a firm believer in the ability to go off on tangents).

Anyway, we meet up eventually, discuss the curious feature of the separation between the first two services being around 10 miles and me arriving at the last services about ten minutes after him, and the joy of mutually noticing everyone pile into the roadworks at 50ish despite the 40 limit, hit the Average Speed Check sign and then studiously drive at 35 till the end of the roadworks.

Then onwards to Bristol, which appears to be taking the snow approach to road design, so hewing thoroughfares wherever they happen to form, skimming over parks and building sites and eroding anything left standing (and all this while trying to keep up with my brother yet not do a [name conveniently left out. Several cars full of scouts, being driven by leaders and helpers, two of which were driven by a pair who were cousins, even though neither knew it. The cars were leaving a petrol station in convoy, B behind A, when there was a gap in the traffic and B rushed to slot into the gap behind A; A had waited for a bigger gap]).

Into the realm of hill starts and superb clutch control, and suddenly stopping on double-yellows outside the BGF's flat. It would appear that the reason my brother was driving so sedately is not that he was considerately waiting for me, but that something's gone wrong and he can't get the car into first or second, and thus has been starting in third, which given the tank like nature of the car when working normally...

He sends me off to park, with what turn out to be woefully inadequate instructions as there are no parking spaces down the road on the right (just a DHL van and removals lorry double parked, taxis bombing through and a Merc deciding it has right of way when no one could see it coming; on this on a road where if you were foolish enough to attempt a three point turn the car would roll over at the midpoint). Eventually I find somewhere to park, on yet another hill, but I can't point the wheels into the kerb as that would mean the endless stream of taxis swinging right to turn left would catch them on the back of the farside wheel. One thing about Bristol is that you do have know how big your car is, and if you didn't already know, the other drivers would let you. And then feigning activity till ten, so the parking gets cheaper (it's until midnight), whereupon I discovered I needn't have bothered as it's going to take me that long to discover how to work the machine. I've never had to type part of my number plate in before (and that's mean, not letting people pass on tickets with time remaining).

So to the flat, and the prepared meal, although it turns out that by 'ready' the BGF meant she had the ingredients. And then somehow slumping in front of the television became my brother watching the Ashes, purely to annoy the BGF (she cares about football, worryingly so, whereas no one in our family does, hence my brother pretending to have the same level of enthusiasm for the cricket), coincidentally annoying me because I can't go to bed until everyone else does as they're sitting on it.

Bed turned out to be a bit interesting. Half the bed was the seat of the settee, half the backboard. The seat frame had been broken along the front edge and Sellotaped back together, so if any weight was on it the thing buckled. So I couldn't lie on that half without the bed trying to swallow me. If I lay in the middle it folded in around me as it converted back to a settee. And if I lay on the other side, that was the uphill side so I'd spend the night rolling down the bed to be folded one way or the other. And I couldn't move the bed to adjust the slope as it became very apparent that the jaunty midroom angles of furniture weren't feng-shui'd but simply where they'd come to rest with most points of contact with the floor. So I spent the night early Hollywood style, with one leg slung over the edge, foot on the floor, to prevent any misbehaviour. Of course this just meant that like any anchor, I pivoted about it as I descended into the fold head first.

A fun night, enlivened by waking to full sun the following morning, which gave me plenty of time to lay contemplating the room and noting that despite having seven walls, none of them were parallel or perpendicular to any other, which must have taken some doing.

Morning brought the peculiarities of a fried breakfast (what, no Weetabix?) and of excessively considerate flatmates. And then lugging began, down through the converted house, where the stairwell sprang from the same mind as the previous night's impromptu bedroom. I could detail the many failings of plastic boxes as units ideal for carrying, but I wouldn't want to give the renditioners ideas.

So, with much clutch smoke (my car) and with an interesting open boot, open bonnet combo (boot for loading, bonnet for traffic wardens and trying to sort out the clutch), the cars were loaded, the AA rung, and we headed off, leaving my brother in charge of the flat and a broken carful of stuff.

And do you know how useful soft Scots accents are in a heavily laden and somewhat elderly car making its way along the M4? Especially when the listener has that dyslexic trait of being hopeless at distinguishing speech from any background noise? Fortunately it did mean I didn't have to struggle to think of smalltalk topics, as most of the journey was spent saying things five times, in a constant cloud of whats. And even better, I think I only seriously scared her with my driving about four times (and once I scared myself); I do like people too well brought up to mention it.

So various discussions of seasonal timing and the novel concept of flooding (Scotland does not apparently, or perhaps they just have permanent lochal floods) lead us through increasingly passé autumn and a variety of innovative floods (and I must say, it's great to see all those hefty great 4x4s joining the same queue for the middle of the road as us lesser mortals when confronted with a souped-up puddle).

We arrive at the storage place, shortly followed by my brother (the AA man, who would come before two, came within twenty minutes of being rung, and promptly pulled the clutch pedal back up; I didn't think of it as I assumed my brother would already have tried it, but then the driving instructor had changed cars before I learnt, so perhaps my brother didn't encounter the apparently traditional Fiesta fault which so enlivened about a third of all gear changes; I think I even had to do it in my test).

Unload, discuss various plans, two of three eat scavenged food (guess which two) fully aware of what happens when we run out of energy. The email my brother sent arranging my help contained following:
I expect you are cheaper than hiring a van..., and you're significantly stronger, longer, and probably more robust than [BGF].

Though equally likely to get ratty when your blood sugar drops.

So we stood debating who goes where with what and whom (my brother was trying to avoid a full blown BGF at parents' house thing without letting the BGF know this) when it started to tip, which solved that problem as we scrambled to respective cars, the BGF in mine with all the stuff that we were taking up to my brother's flat. And so to Brixton, another unloading, cursing my... not sister-in-law's, so, er, sister-in-love's bloody wrist-slitting, finger-mangling, nail-splitting plastic boxes.

Then waiting for my brother to appear, whereupon he expressed surprise that we'd unloaded the car without him (hmm), I fell asleep in front of Sunday afternoon television while my brother cooked, I perked up while they fell asleep in front of Ghostbusters (I've yet to see the whole thing) and they decided I was far too tired to drive home, at which juncture I left.

Then home, and some other stuff in a different post. But the writing of this is all so late that most of it was written after the stuff put in storage was retrieved from storage, which included the interesting discovery that three people and a carload into one car does not go, which led to me missing the promised roast lunch and instead having walk home along the towpath (it being the shortest, though most likely to be flooded or at least slow goingly muddy, route back), while pretending that my nose isn't adding to the flooding.

And on that joyous note I'll end it.


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