The other day, everything that could possibly go wrong decided to do just that. Even the equilibrium of a confirmed glass permanently brimming over person takes a hit occasionally.
Harold MacMillan may or may not have said when asked what a Prime Minister feared most, ‘events, dear boy, events,’ but there’s no doubting the folly of making a firm and definite decision when the unknown is lurking behind every corner. I’ve been battered by events over the past few days and as far as I’m concerned ‘events’ can cart off back where they came from.
We were in a supermarket and had filled a trolley with essential items, but there were only two checkouts and about twenty people in front of us, all of them seemingly stocking up in readiness for for the apocalypse. We looked at the queues and decided our ‘essential’ shopping wasn't bessential after all so we abandoned the trolley and went outside. Yes, even left our 50 centimes ‘deposit’ behind in the trolley handle.
Got back to the car, pulled out of the parking space and ten seconds later a Renault Clio emerged from a parallel universe and ran into us. If only we'd stayed in the queue at the checkout. Marigold was very calm.
No, she wasn't.
I got out to look at the damage and it looked pretty bad. Over 50 years of motoring and this was my first ever accident so maybe I was overdue. English registered car colliding with a Spanish car, in Spain; I wasn't looking forward to the next few minutes.
The driver of the other car looked very confused and it appeared he hadn't seen us either. He signalled to me to wait for a minute while he made a phone call then we both wrote our names and insurance company details on an accident form and signed it.
We didn't understand each other very well. He didn't speak a word of English. Yes, I know, the audacity of the man. He even pretended not to understand my not exactly fluently spoken Spanish! Then I remembered I had an App on my phone that translated English to Spanish. I wrote out what I wanted to say to the other party and the sentence appeared, magically, on the line below in Spanish.
Result. Er, not exactly. The other driver, Juan, read what I had written, in English, and waved his arms in the air. I pointed out the Spanish version below, but this produced a similar air of bafflement so I gave up and went back to my tried and trusted method of speaking very, very slowly, one word at a time in my very limited Spanish.
We were getting on quite well in the circumstances when his friend, obviously the person he had telephoned, turned up.
The new arrival was shaven headed, covered in tattoos and very aggressive. He snatched the accident form, which we had already completed and signed, and started writing on it. As the accident had happened twenty minutes before he arrived I took a dim view of this and said so. I thought he was going to spontaneously combust. The other driver shrugged his shoulders and walked off leaving me to cope with his nutter of a friend.
Marigold came up and said, ‘time to go.’ So we did. I shook hands with the nutter and he nodded, still ranting away and furiously kicking the tyres of his own car, for some unexplained reason.
As we left, Marigold passed me a wine gum she'd found in the glove box while she'd been waiting. It looked old, tasted old too, but as Marigold knows only too well I will happily eat anything. One bite later I had not only broken a crowned tooth but swallowed it as well. A perfect day.
Even so, worse things happen.
Earlier today, in a cafe, I spoke to a very well dressed man with a rich Scouse accent. He turned out to be a coroner in Liverpool on a well earned week’s break from work. He approached us to ask if we had seen ‘a badger’ on the beach just after sunrise as nobody else believed his version of events. We hadn't noticed any badgers, although both of us had noted a bearded collie digging holes in the sand. I decided not to mention this as the poor chap was so certain what he’d seen was a badger.
At one of our former homes whole colonies of badgers turned up in our garden every night so we do know a badger when we see one. The man next door used to feed them - they were particularly fond of coco-pops which I imagine were in short supply in the wild.
Unable to find any support for the badger sighting the vacationing coroner came over to talk to me. He told me he was ‘cream crackered’ after a hectic few weeks at work. As well as the ‘usual gun, knife and drug related deaths’ - his words – he had overseen seven suicides in the past week and also six homeless people had died, all requiring post-mortem examination. The cold weather hits the homeless community hard.
In a past life, I came across many homeless men and women, many of them sleeping rough through personal choice. In particular, I was in regular contact with the homeless community who lived on Eel Pie Island, Twickenham.
One of the most remarkable men I ever met was among their number. Group Captain William Gordon Francis, VC, had been a war hero, but alcohol had dragged him down. A classics scholar in better days, he possessed a formidable mind, seemingly undiminished by the toll whisky had taken on his body. William kept his eyes open, drifted unseen and unconsidered through the seedier areas of London, and helped me enormously with my job.
‘Nobody thinks a vagrant is even part of the human race,’ he said to me once. That fascinating and still, in his own way, cultured man was living proof of the folly of that impression. William died in a fire when the abandoned house in which he was spending the night was firebombed. People acting for a notorious property developer were blamed, based on those three vital ingredients: motive, means and opportunity, but the perpetrators were never found and nobody was ever held responsible for William’s death. Just another vagrant, perhaps…
Yes, worse things happen than a dented lump of metal and a broken tooth.
Back at the accident scene we were more or less over the events of the past hour. ‘The bad part starts now,’ I said as we drove away. ‘Will have to ring the insurance company and get them to agree to getting repairs done in Spain.’
‘Oh,’ Marigold said, ‘that's your job.’
Marigold has many fine qualities, but telephoning call centres stretches her reserves of patience beyond breaking point, so even though her hearing is ten times better than mine, wasting an hour of my life repeating the same thing to five different people has become my job. I was dreading it and in the event it was as bad, or even worse, than expected. Good job I have evolved a system.
Call Centres. Surely the greatest single triumph of our modern civilisation. I relish each and every opportunity to contact them. Yes, some find waiting twenty minutes to be put in touch with a polite young man in New Delhi and then being abruptly disconnected and made to repeat the process all over again a tad annoying.
I still get Christmas cards from friends I made in India while attempting to persuade BT to connect an already existing phone line. No, not really, but I found myself losing the will to live on many occasions during the four hours or so it took to get another date to have that phone line connected. I switched to Live Chat when I tired of holding a phone receiver to my ear until the said ear resembled a beef burger.
Live Chat is wonderful. Try it if you can. You type in your details and your query and eventually someone will type back and offer to help. My favourite correspondent was a delightful chap called Deepak. Nothing was ever too much trouble for him. ‘Do forgive my tardiness, kind sir,’ he said, several times and during his absences advised me that ‘Deepak is typing a reply’ or, my particular favourite, ‘ Deepak is thinking.’
BT, take my advice: seek out Deepak, he's somewhere in Mumbai, and promote him.
No chance of live chat today. It would have to be a phone call and that meant entering the Call Centre maze. Over time I’ve developed an infallible system of dealing with Call Centres. Here’s the call I made to my insurance company's head office in Bournemouth, as an example.
Fifteen rings, then a metallic voice offers me a choice of five options, none of them relevant to my reason for calling. I love choices. I press three, although any of them will be as good as any other. I wait another thirty seconds before a (different) android asks me to pick another option, only two this time. Hmm, not as good as last time. I take the safe route, pick number three again, even though the choice offered consists of only two options. I know this is wilful disobedience, but I’m determined not to be bullied into submission by a machine.
Another brief pause. 42 seconds, but who’s counting?
Suddenly, making me jump, music kicks in. Oh, good! If I really concentrated, perhaps I would manage to identify the melody in the time I spend waiting for a human voice to come on the line. I screw my eyes up and listen furiously. No idea.
Who chooses this stuff ? Presumably there were copyright issues involved, meaning someone had shelled out money for the right to take a perfectly good tune and turn it into unrecognisable mush. The piece came to an end, still unidentified, and an up-tempo number kicked in, all jangling chords and manic bursts of noise. I decided I’d listen harder. Why not? Nothing better to do. The first hint of a melody flicked at the edge of my brain and then clicked into place. The Girl from Ipanema, as I’d never heard it before.
I try singing along. No chance. ‘Tall and tanned and young and lovely’; wasn’t that the line? It didn’t fit. Not in this version anyway. I dropped the phone in my lap and pulled faces at it for a good thirty seconds. This system has worked in the past. Not today as when I picked it up again, the Girl from Ipanema was still walking.
Time for the crucial phase, this one never fails: I remove the phone from my ear, hold the mouthpiece about two feet away, then clench my eyes tight shut and scream in the manner of one being burnt at the stake When I return the phone to my ear there’s a dull empty silence on the line.
‘Hello?’ a voice says at last, managing to convey doubt and no small degree of alarm within the confines of that single word.
‘Hello,’ I answer, striving for a neutral tone with bright and breezy elements mixed in. ‘Sorry. I think we had a crossed line just then. Can I talk to you about making an accident claim?’
Even Deepak can't perform miracles, but getting to speak to an actual living person within twenty minutes is pretty good going.