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Car Park In The Sky

When an old model gets replaced by a newer, sassier one. And everyone is happy.

Anyone who has read “PLENTY MANGO – postcards from the Caribbean” will know that I have to share my husband John’s affections with a 30 year old (no, not a lissom blond) – a 30 year old ROW (Rest of the World Specification) Range Rover.

Once a vibrant Ascot Green, she is now a matt 1960s bathroom avocado, the seat covers a faded denim and a tangled heap of metal in front of the passenger seat the only evidence that there had once been air conditioning.

But still she evokes gasps of admiration at her dotage and has obviously wheedled her way so successfully into John’s heart that no repair bill is deemed too high to keep her on the road.

That is until our last visit to Montserrat.

As usual, ‘Old Jack’ had delivered her to the tiny airport in the North to await our arrival.

There she stood, silent and majestic.  We – sorry – John, heaves the bags (always unnecessarily over-filled – can I really not live without my home-made marmalade?) into the back, finds the key in its usual place under the driver’s mat and turns on the ignition.  Nothing, not even a splutter or warning light.

Such is the genuine spirit of comradery on this idyllic little island that it wasn’t long before a group of volunteers surround our inert beast, peering into her bowels under the hood, offering a myriad of diagnoses. Eventually one of the group produces some jump leads.

There is an ear-splitting bang, clouds of black smoke, followed by a series of firework-like explosions.  We all watch and wait.  To say that she sprang into action, wouldn’t be strictly accurate.  But she eventually began making sounds that vaguely resembled a functioning engine.

We cheered, clapped and high-fived our helpers, offering the usual Tings (a fizzy grapefruit drink unique to the Caribbean) to slake parched throats.

“Think we’ll let her cool down a little,” says John, as we wave our saviours goodbye.

Wrong move.  Five minutes later we are back to square one with a stubbornly inert vehicle.

As we’d been on the last flight over from Antigua, all the taxi drivers had gone and even the little gift shop had closed.  Hot and tired with an inoperative local phone, things didn’t auger well for this trip.

That was until Svenne Andersson, owner of Emerald Isle Helicopters, suddenly appeared.

“She’s old,” he said, fondly running his hand over our green giant’s hood.

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“Where do you want to go?”

Despite our protestations, he loaded our luggage into his car and off we set for Isles Bay Plantation and home.

Everyone’s reason for coming to Montserrat is different and Svenne is no exception.  All his life, he told us, he’d been passionate about helicopters and now, having made his fortune (by what means he didn’t divulge), he was ‘living the dream’.

The prognosis for the Range Rover wasn’t as sunny as our Good Samaritan’s state of mind, for we were told later that both the alternator and radiator needed replacing (parts which would have to be flown out at great expense) and the floor panel was about to disintegrate. No floor panel, no functioning vehicle.  Time for what I suspected was going to be a difficult conversation with John.  To my surprise, he was remarkably sanguine.

“Think she’s had it, Sarah.”

To my great surprise, I’m the one sniffing.

“I’m sure she’ll be happier in the car park in the sky.”

John gives me a baleful look.

Watched over by a glowing sunset a few evenings later, we agreed that the solution lay in shipping my five year old Mini Countryman out from London.  She is a good size, four wheel drive and pretty robust.

So began a whole new chapter of experiences.

You learn fast in this game.  You can cram your vehicle with as much as you like as the shippers charge by size, not weight, so we headed for our car-boot sale -stuffed garage and began making our ‘that’ll come in handy’ list.  In went an old power washer, chain saw, leaf blower, 25 metre extension lead, and a large box of books we thought Montserrat’s local library might welcome.  The island’s National Trust needed more copies of ‘Plenty Mango’ and, of course, weight being no object, we could save further damage to John’s luggage carrying arms by including pots and pots of my Seville Orange and Lemon marmalade.

I am my late father’s daughter in as much as I’ve inherited his organisational mantra of always having a ‘spare’ of everything.  So, in view of the paucity of tyre choice on Montserrat, I therefore decided that it would be sensible to also include two new tyres and a third ignition key.

I eventually get through to one Paul in BMW’s ‘Spares Department’, who tells me that he can source what I need.  “How much?” I ask bravely.  “£419.26,” he replies, with no hint of apology.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that a car spares department is a macho, female free, domain.  Everyone is dressed in black, with many a rolled up sleeve revealing bulging muscles accentuated by complicated tattoos.  There’s a smell of rubber, oil and an aftershave I don’t recognise.  Two men field the front counter; both are on the phone.  I wait patiently until one of them finishes his call.

“I’m here to see Paul.”

“That’s him, over there.”

I can’t begin to analyse why what happened next, but it did, and I suddenly found myself turning into a ‘lad’.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” I say to the man who’d just come off the phone.  “You’re far better looking.”

It was only a nano second, but the shock was there for all to see.  This is a woman, not even a young woman, and she’s flirting, said their expressions.

But I was on an involuntary ‘one of the boys’ roll.

“Did you watch the Baku Azerbaijan race yesterday?  God, Hamilton was lucky.”

More expressions of incredulity.

“You like Formula 1?” Paul eventually asks.

“Like?  I’m Hamilton’s number one fan.”

I’d cracked the code and was well on my way to becoming an accepted member of Spare Parts Inc.

As the conversation digs deeper into the minutiae of tyre types and Vettel’s tendency to bottle it at crucial moments, so the tiny room begins to fill with others. We’re a band of brothers.

When I return the following week to pick up the spare key, I’m greeted like a long lost friend.

“You know what we call you?” says Paul.  “Miss Formula 1”.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so appreciated and it put me in buoyant mood for the first staging post of my car’s journey to Montserrat via North Woolwich in South London where she will be checked, labelled, strapped into a container, and loaded onto a ship set to cross the Atlantic.

Ram’s shipping, not a place to try and find at night, sits under former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s £44 million cable car and, like many yards and warehouses, has a curiously chaotic efficiency.  One glance at the labelled boxes, packages and especially the blue 55 gallon plastic barrels, and I am immediately on the high seas on my way to the Caribbean.  I see pallets for Barbados, Dominica, and Jamaica. Bubble-wrapped furniture for Antigua and boxes of tiles for St. Lucia. The barrels particularly tell a poignant story as they are part of a cultural ethic of not forgetting people you have left behind, filled as they usually are with household items and tinned or dried foods.  Sometimes the Government of Montserrat reduces the import duty on barrels to almost zero for returning nationals at Christmas time.

Once my car is inspected for bumps and bruises (must stop this irritating personalisation habit), John and I are directed up some steep inappropriately powder blue carpeted stairs into a furnace of an airless office which is overseen by Rose who we recognise from her e-mails which she signs off with an appropriate emoji.  She is built like a large pillow, her strapless multi-coloured dress shrouding curvaceous bulges.  A large chunk of half eaten carrot cake sits by her PC, next to a floral birthday tribute.  Every surface is piled high with papers – manifests for romantic sounding ships like Golden Clipper. My car’s carrier is the Marfret Guyane, Voyage No. ORTOHS1MA.  Rose tuts as the photocopier goes on strike.  We are obviously like-minded technically as she pulls out the main plug, waits a few seconds, and smiles at me as the machine obediently clanks back into action. She tuts again as a young assistant drops a sheaf of papers.

And she also has me to deal with behaving, as I am, like a mother about to leave her toddler at nursery for the first time. She takes my forms and begins to type furiously on her key board, at the same time stamping documents, stuffing envelopes and answering an endlessly ringing phone.  And it’s getting hotter by the minute.

“They couldn’t manage without you,” I say.

“I’ve been trying to retire for 12 years,” she replies.  “Would you believe I’m 71?”

“Of course not.”

We clasp damp hands before John and I make our way back down the powder blue stairs.

My car has gone.

I take a deep breath.

“Shall I drive?” I ask, as he heads towards another old love, this time a 2002 silver Porsche.  Given the near fatal car crash in which I was the driver and which began our odyssey to Montserrat, this was a significant moment in overcoming a deep-rooted phobia.

“If you like,” he says, sounding much more nonchalant than I know he feels.

We make it home without incident and both feel a little wan as John’s car now keeps lonely vigil in the garage.

I can’t remember the number of times I pestered John for news of her progress but, when I had just about committed her to the depths of the ocean, the e-mail announcing her safe arrival on island came.  It looked as if she would be waiting for us this time.  We hurried down to the port and peered through the chain linked fence, but could see nothing.

We should have known, we’re in the arcane world of shipping agents.  No-one told me the precise examining procedure that has to be carried out before she could be released, but it certainly involved a lot of paper work, not forgetting the purchasing and fitting of Montserrat number plates, in her case M3930.  But then the call came, she would be delivered Friday afternoon.  And she was, unscratched, black paintwork sparkling in the sunshine.

Someone had tuned the radio to ZJB, the local station, which was broadcasting its usual mix of soca and bangra music, interspersed with commercials for hot, spicy hot, chicken and Government health announcements.  Glycaemia seems to be health topic this week.

We park her beside the Range Rover (repaired yet again) which towers over her, sending signals of silent defiance.

Why do I get the feeling, this isn’t the end of the story?

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As a bonus, on the day this was published online we got a pleasant surprise:

Not a mark on her and the Morrisons wine carrier & £1 coins for the trollies still there!

She is creating vehicular waves on island!

Buy Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean in paperback, eBook or audio formats from any of the links below.

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