Not long after I moved here, I noticed a motorway sign at the entrance to a stretch of roadworks (ie, a construction zone). "Free Recovery, Await Rescue" it said, and I immediately envisioned a damsel in distress, awaiting a handsome knight in shining armor at the side of the road. I didn't know then that "recovery" was the British term for "tow" but the sign has always been a delightful reminder to me that I live in the land of knights and damsels and other medieval bygones. (Let's just leave our feminist sensibilities at the door for a moment, and go with this, shall we?)
Until yesterday, the only time I've needed rescuing on an English roadside was after a hard winter when the back roads were a series of enormous potholes. My tyre (why Americans refuse to use this quaint spelling shall remain a mystery) had a "puncture", as the British call a "flat" in their typical understated way. I left a message on my handsome knight's mobile, and my knight—err, husband—soon arrived on his equally handsome steed—err, red motorbike, and replaced the torn tyre with the spare. (No, I can't change a tire. Or a tyre. We're going with this, remember?)
Yesterday I was racing down the A3 in the fast lane when I felt my car wobble as if I'd hit a rough patch. But the rough patch was my tyre coming apart. I managed to control the car, hop over three lanes and then my luck kicked in. Normally an A road has only a limited shoulder, but there was a blue P—my second favorite sign in England, for Parking. A layby, exactly where I needed it! (A layby is a pulloff on a main road, where sometimes sandwiches and flowers are sold, and is long enough to park a few vehicles. It's where you pull off when you heed a "Tiredness Kills. Take a Break." sign.)
I pulled in, stopped the car and turned on the hazard lights. With shaking hands I reached in my purse, pulled out my mobile and punched in my knight's phone number. The phone flashed a low battery warning (my least favorite sign) and cut itself off.
Uh oh. What the hell kind of damsel doesn't charge her Virgin mobile before leaving her castle? I asked myself as I took stock of my increasingly bleak situation.
I was on my way to Haslemere in Surrey for a dog training seminar, and if I didn't show up no one would pay much attention. My husband assumed I'd be there all day, and didn't expect me home until evening. Even if I could have called RAC, our roadside assistance service, we'd let the service lapse in May, as we contemplated moving this summer.
I opened the boot of my estate car (translation: I opened the cargo door of my station wagon) and searched for the spare. Maybe I could haul it out and look helpless. I didn't see the spare (where do they hide those things, anyway?) but I did see a warning triangle, mandatory in every EU vehicle. Mine was folded up into a space-saving shape. I attempted to unfold it, but it was fashioned like one of those three-dimensional puzzles you sometimes see at Amish farmhouses. Opening one was beyond the skill level of the average damsel, much less a technically disinclined one. I decided I didn't want to look too competent—no one would stop, and by this time I had my hopes pinned on a knight of the realm, or at least someone who knew how to change a tyre.
Stuffing the triangle and my panic back into the boot, I closed the door and gazed at the oncoming traffic. If I saw a police vehicle, I'd start waving my arms. Sure enough, soon a van came up with police markings. I waved furiously, then watched as he sped past the layby. Maybe he'll call in for backup, or circle around, I thought, but just before I turned around to face the traffic again, I noticed a recovery vehicle—a flat-bed tow truck—pull into the end of the layby. As he backed up to my car, I felt giddy with relief, enchanted by the sight of the rescue I'd awaited a mere 10 minutes for. (Isn't England great? Shortest damsel rescue time in the EU.)
A middle-aged man got out of the truck and my first impulse was to hug him. I smiled wide and offered him cash instead, thinking he could fix my flat and I'd be on my way. He gave me an indulgent smile, as if he knew he was talking to an idiot. "You won't have the proper tools," he said, and I believed him. I'd seen what was left of my tyre—a few bits of rubber clinging to the rim. Even I knew that the rim could be damaged from a high speed blowout.
Within five minutes, my knight in a shining tow truck had pulled my car onto his truck, and I hopped into the passenger seat. I decided the music he was listening to at top volume wasn't so bad. He asked where I was going and I shouted over the music, "Haslemere—it's a few miles off the A3." He was heading to Southampton, and was happy to take me to a tyre repair shop in Haslemere, provided we could find one.
A half hour later, after we'd stopped two pedestrians to inquire about a tyre shop, we pulled into Chessington Tyres. A youngster roughly the same age as a page in King Arthur's court helped my middle-aged knight remove my car, and I realized my fairy tale would end happily after all.
I even made it to the seminar on time, although I was a sweaty and blistered damsel by the time I'd walked there from the tyre store. My knight had disappeared—I'd hoped to catch his name so I could recommend him for an OBE in Her Majesty's court.
I'm sure he had other damsels, as well as the odd German tourist, to rescue on that hot day.
There's a moral to my tale: Damsels, keep your mobiles charged, and keep your RAC dues paid. Always have enough cash on hand to pay your knight. (Turns out £60 is the going rate for recovery these days.) And handsome knights married to witless damsels should listen when his wife comments on the condition of the tyres, and possibly even give her a lesson in how to change a spare.