Monday, 25 August 2014

The Policeman's Belt

We are just back from our holiday in Hampshire. We stayed in a cabin on the edge of the New Forest at a place called Shorefield near Milford-on-Sea. Door to door the journey should take only a little over two and a half hours, it took us nearly six. It would have taken longer if not for a policeman's belt. The A3 is one of the arterial routes out of London: a six lane, high-speed series of fly-overs and underpasses funnelling traffic out to the M25 orbital motorway or onwards to Portsmouth with its ferry links to the continent. The road is packed with commuters, juggernauts, families on their way to Chessington World of Adventure, locals and a myriad of commercial vehicles all rushing to get where they are going at breakneck speed down unfeasibly narrow lanes and ominously dented crash barriers. It is, without doubt, one of the scariest roads in the South-East. At Tolworth the road dives into an underpass beneath a large roundabout and the hard-shoulder is replaced by concrete walls mere inches from the left-hand lane and the air is replaced by exhaust fumes and the thunderous echo of speeding internal combustion engines reverberating off those all-to-close walls. It was here, as we were being swept through the underpass at 60 MPH, that from beneath our car came the shrieking, clattering, deafening sound of metal on road surface and from behind a tail of sparks lighting up the carriageway. Polly reduced speed down to a crawl but it still sounded like a brick in a tumble-dryer and there was still a small firework display trailing behind. As vehicles screeched and swerved around us she pulled onto the small triangle of hatched white lines that marked the lanes merging from the roundabout above with the main duel carriageway exiting the tunnel heading south. Traffic was now screaming passed us on both our left and our right hand sides causing the car to vibrate and sway as it was buffeted by turbulence from high-sided vans and lorries. Polly phoned the police and explained our predicament. No, we couldn't vacate the car and find a safe place to wait for assistance. The nearest safe place was a minimum of two lanes of high-speed traffic away and over a crash barrier. It would be tricky to get there with two children, an OAP and an electric wheelchair. The police dispatch operator said they'd send someone straight away. Sure enough, a few minutes of buttock-clenching fear later, a police van pulled up with reassuringly bright flashing blue lights to close off the lane behind us. A quick glance under our vehicle told the police officer that our exhaust pipe had snapped, possibly caused by some of the debris that littered the underpass, and that was the reason we were parked where we were and not because we were extreme picnickers or something. "It's scary here," he told Polly nervously, flinching as a juggernaut whipped by. "Very scary. I think I'll call traffic. They're equipped for this kind of thing. Maybe they'll be able to tie your exhaust pipe up. I'll wait in my van until they get here." Soon, two traffic police cars arrived and the officers assessed the situation. They assured Polly she had done exactly the right thing and then set about trying to temporarily fix things. Eventually an officer leaned in the window. "We've tied the exhaust pipe up," he said. "It should hold until we can get you somewhere safe. We didn't have any wire so I've used my belt. My colleague's belt is plastic so it would melt but mine is leather. Good job I had a hearty breakfast or me trousers would be down around me knees. Now we'll stop the traffic so you can get up to speed. Follow us and we'll lead you to a safe place to wait for the AA. Then can I have my belt back, please?" We were escorted off the A3 by the police. You could see passing drivers wondering what awful crime we had committed. The traffic police led us to a garage forecourt and the policeman retrieved his slightly singed leather belt. We waved them off and settled down to await the AA who arrived after about half an hour. The AA man explained that the exhaust had broken at a particularly tricky place and because our van is adapted to carry a wheelchair the exhaust is nonstandard, it having been customised to allow for a lower floor. In short, he couldn't fix it. Instead he tied it up, this time with wire, not a belt, and led us to the local Kwik-Fit in Surbiton. Because the exhaust is nonstandard Kwik-Fit couldn't just plonk a new one under the car. We have to order a completely new customised unit from a specialist manufacturer. Shouldn't take more than a week or so. The man said he would try to make a temporary mend using a cuff he'd order from the main supplier. It would take an hour or so to arrive so we settled down in their waiting room and played with the fancy drinks machine while we waited. Eventually the part arrived and the Kwik-Fit man got to work bodging a fix. It took a little while but, at last, the man announced that he and his colleague had engineered a solution that held the two bits of exhaust pipe together and that it should last through our holiday and until a new complete unit could be made and fitted. We braced ourselves for the bill for this impromptu piece of automotive construction. "No charge," said the man cheerfully. "Have it on us. Enjoy your holiday." It might not be true that you can't get quicker than a Kwik-Fit fitter but you certainly can't find nicer. Thank you Kwik-Fit, Surbiton. And if you see a police traffic officer with a burnt leather belt then please give him a wave. Thank you for reading.