“Where exactly in Blyth are you?”
“I’m in the service station.”
“You’re actually in Blyth Services?”
“Yes, in the northbound car park.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
That was the extent of the short sharp phone call with the mechanic coming to my aid on Friday afternoon, just as the Bank Holiday traffic was mounting on the A1 and just as I was trying to get home to Newcastle after an intense week in North Norfolk installing the latest giant poster.
I’d stopped for a rest and some sustenance. Hopping back into the driver’s seat, I turned the key. The engine strained to turn over, then a white plume of steam or smoke (I couldn’t tell which) spewed from her bonnet accompanied by a hot burning smell.
Oh dear. Neena had broken down for the first time.
The mechanic’s dialect was a mix of the three nearest counties — Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. He also sounded gruff to me.
He was on his way sharpish and I was bracing myself for a long tow home to Newcastle.
Moments after the phone call — and only 10 minutes after pressing the Rescue Me button in the Green Flag app — the red and yellow rescue truck pulled up in the empty space beside me.
The anonymous high-vis figure stayed put at first. He had a sandwich to finish and, in those moments, I could tell I was a bit of an inconvenience.
He donned his work gloves and jumped down from the cab, the hefty red door slamming behind him.
“It won’t be me taking you home because, in precisely an hour and a half, I’m on holiday. Off to the countryside in my camper-van.” were his first words as he marched towards Neena.
“Brilliant! Where are you going?” I asked.
My response seemed to take him by surprise. He sceptically glanced at me over the top of his dark glasses, opened Neena’s bonnet and muttered, “Rutland.”
“What kind of camper have you got?” I persisted.
Gradually, the icy façade began to melt as his gaze hovered over Neena’s battle-worn engine, one hand holding up the bonnet, the other poking about accusingly while flaking off some crumbling debris.
I could hear his voice softening as he told me all about his camper-van, which was clearly his pride and joy. We had quickly found some common ground in our beloved vehicles and it seemed he was adjusting to the notion that maybe I wasn’t too bad after all.
“Start her up” he gestured.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, go on.”
He surveyed the rumbling engine with his torch, looking for clues as to exactly what had happened. He couldn’t find any burned wires and everything looked fine in the context.
Like the engine itself, he warmed up and started to show me the areas where he felt my garage could do better at being ahead of the game with such a treasured vehicle.
I lapped up the advice and started to make mental lists of all the things he was telling me.
“I’ve got an idea!” he said.
He was getting into it now — something that generally starts to happen when mechanics realise just how awesome Neena is and just how much she means to me.
“How much does she weigh?” he quickly asked.
“3.8 tonnes.” I replied.
He seemed to like that I knew the answer.
“I’ll see if I can lift her on my forks, then I can have a good look underneath.”
He swiftly and expertly manoeuvred the forks under Neena’s front wheels and tipped her up.
He seemed a little excited and said, “Well, that worked!”
He still couldn’t find anything untoward (apart from an oil leak which needs to attending to), so he lowered her back down.
He lifted one of the shutters on his excellent utilitarian wagon (I would’ve loved playing with a toy version as a youngster) and reached for a screw driver.
I couldn’t have predicted what happened next: he placed the handle on his ear and started touching bits of the engine with the metal tip.
“The doctor and his stethoscope!” I said.
“My grandad taught me this but wood-handled screwdrivers are better. That rattling noise is your water pump and you need to get all these belts seen to.”
But he was still scratching his head as to what had caused my initial problem.
“Perhaps it was steam rather than smoke?” I hesitantly offered. After all, what did I know compared to such a seasoned expert?
At that point, he unscrewed the lid to the coolant reservoir, plonked his torch through the aperture then stared at me above those glasses.
He seemed exasperated, and quite right too. He asked if I’d checked the oil and water before setting off. It was a fair cop, I hadn’t. I felt like a naughty child as he reeled off the checklist that he must have regurgitated a million times to stranded motorists.
“Luckily for you, I carry water. And oil!”
Back to the wagon he went and kindly topped everything up for me.
While he was doing that, I asked, “Was your grandad a mechanic?”
“No. He was a barber. Taught me everything I know about engines, though.”
“What about your dad?”
“You don’t want to know about ‘im. ‘horrible man. He’s in hell now. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve been through. I’m one of life’s survivors, that’s for sure. Anyway, what do you do then?”
So, I told him about the project and did my best to keep it brief. His face lit up at the thought of my huge odyssey in Neena and it began to dawn on him that she is a teeny bit famous.
I handed him a couple of leaflets and his eyes pored over them in the same way that he’d examined Neena’s engine moments earlier.
“I’m glad I broke down.” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m glad I broke down and met you. You’ve been really kind and you’ve given me a little bit of insight into your life. And you’ve pointed out all the things that need fixing on Neena!”
“It’s been good to meet you too.”
“You’ve told me you’re a survivor, so I’ve got a present for you…for your holiday.”
“It’s a present for your camper-van keys.”
I handed him a With Courage keyring. He stood motionless as he read Sir William Hillary’s words:
With Courage, Nothing is Impossible
Quite a few seconds seemed to pass before he finally emerged from that peaceful moment:
“That’s so true, that. So true. Thank you very much.”
“No, thank you. You’ve been very kind. And because you’ve been a good boy, here’s a sticker.”
I handed him a Neena sticker and his eyes lit up once again.
“Great! I’m going to stick that on my camper-van!”
And with that, we were all done and dusted — he could get away on holiday and I could get myself back home.
As we said goodbye, I’m sure there was a fleeting moment when we looked at each other and, in our own ways, we were both grateful for the happenstance.
Even though we were landlocked at Blyth Services, our chance meeting had all kinds of resonances with the lifesavers I’ve met and photographed on the coast over the years.
Somehow, it was yet more simple evidence that even the most chalk and cheese folk can get along if we would all listen and pay attention to one another a little bit more.
As a friend said recently:
“You know what he needs? A good listening to.“
I never did catch the mechanic’s name but it was certainly an A1 rescue in so many ways. I hope he’s enjoying his well-earned holiday.
A post about the reason why I was on the road — our second visit to Stiffkey to install a giant poster of Lucy Lavers…stay tuned!
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