The Trouble with Cynthia

IT BEGAN AT A COCKTAIL PARTY IN KENSINGTON.  I was standing in a corner, minding my own business and thinking I was about ready to leave, when my hostess fought her way towards me, dragging a rather pretty girl by the hand.  ‘This is Cynthia’, she said.  ‘She wants a lift with you to Biarritz.’  Two days later, the pretty girl , who was 27 and came from Ohio, and I were driving away from the airfield at Le Touquet with high hopes and enough luggage in the back to keep a top model in working trim for six months.

The first awareness I had of our fundamental incompatibility came to me somewhere between Abbeville and Rouen, when it suddenly dawned on me that Cynthia had not stopped talking all day.  She took not only a keen but a comparative interest in everything she saw, and everything she saw fell a good deal short of its counterpart way back home. The treatment of dumb friends, hygiene, and the shortcomings of Continental food were the main themes of her complaints. ‘Oh, just look at that!’ she exclaimed each time we saw a cart horse with a blue-denimed peasant on its back. ‘Don’t they treat their animals simply terribly’ ?  The question, like all of Cynthia’s questions, was rhetorical: when she said: ‘Aren’t you just disgusted with that’? (the sight of caged rabbits and chickens in a food market) she meant that she was and that I ought to be.

We had trouble in Dreux when I suggested that tomatoes from a stall would be perfectly all right if we gave them a rinse at a village pump (‘terribly crude’).  We had trouble in Chartres looking for a baker who sold white bread sliced and wrapped. We left a trail of shattered restaurateurs behind us. Having entered one two-star Michelin establishment, we departed as soon as Cynthia discovered that the trout swimming in the glass tank were not there for decorative purposes or as pets. In Poitiers, we walked out of another place  because the sight of my escargots made her start to feel sick. I realised then that my idea of an agreeable five-day dawdle would have to be abandoned and that the object of the exercise must now be to reach Biarritz with the least possible delay.

What followed was certainly my fault, but it came after an all-night drive when the only hotel available had been unable to offer private bathrooms and my judgement was correspondingly impaired. It was about noon.  We had left the N.10 for a secondary road and had been going along slowly, looking for a suitable place for a picnic lunch.  Cynthia had just turned down my seventeenth suggestion when I saw an open gate leading into a meadow and without so much as by her leave eased the car over the verge and drove gently down to the edge of the clover and young grass.

Once Cynthia’s squeals had subsided, the picnic went quite well: she was too busy cutting the crust off the bread and the Camembert to be able to talk and I even managed a brief sleep. Then came disaster. In my eagerness to get off the highway I had not appreciated that the slope into the meadow was really quite steep.  Now, as I tried to mount it, my wheels spun on the crushed grass and we slithered back into the field. Again we tried. Again we failed.  Even when Cynthia sat in the driving seat and I pushed from behind we did no better. At last, upon a litter of dead sticks, a motoring rug, and gravel transported from the roadside in one of Cynthia’s straw hats, the car surged up the incline and shot over the verge. As it did so there came a vicious clang of metal striking  stone. Caught upon a concealed boulder, the octagonal bung in the bottom of the petrol tank was ripped from its seating and several precious gallons of  Super gurgled swiftly away.

Consider our predicament.  We had left the N 10 specifically in order to enjoy being in la France profonde. According to the map we were 11 miles from anywhere.  I put on the overalls that I always carried on motoring journeys and wormed my way beneath the rear of the car.

‘What are you doing? ‘ Cynthia asked querulously when I had been lying there in silence for five minutes or so.

‘Thinking’, I said.

After a while I decided that the best and least expensive thing to do would be to remove the petrol tank, beg a lift to whatever might be the nearest town, get the tank repaired and take a taxi back. With luck, in two or three hours we could be mobile again.

Then I remembered that when getting my boiler suit from the boot I had seen the  five-foot length of rubber tube that I kept for siphoning purposes. What would happen if I disconnected the main petrol supply line from the tank, connected it to the rubber tube and put the other end of the tube in the spare petrol can? Archimedes in his bath could not have  known a greater  excitement and I lost no time in effecting the contrivance.

Cynthia had not approved of my efforts from the start; a walk to a telephone (a telephone, in rural France!), a breakdown crew for the car and a taxi for us to the nearest three-star hotel being her recommendation for dealing with the crisis. While I had been working she had been sitting on one of her suitcases at what she judged to be a safe distance. Now,  she reacted with horror. It was crazy. It was suicidal. With all that gas all over the road and the heat of the sun and everything there was just certain to be an explosion and we should be incinerated.

As patiently as possible I tried to convince her that  there was no practicable alternative. I knew my France infinitely  better than she did and there could not be either a telephone or garage within miles. Pushing the car clear of the petrol-soaked patch of macadam,  I turned the starter switch. The engine responded immediately. Leaving it running, I removed my overalls, nonchalantly wiped my hands on some paper napkins and called to Cynthia that we were ready to go. Nothing, she said, would induce her to ride in what amounted to a self-service hearse. I argued.  She refused again. I pleaded. With the engine continuing to run sweetly, I said once more that the map clearly showed us to be a long way from anywhere and that we had already lost precious time. She could please herself, but I was about to be on my way. Daylight wouldn’t last for ever and it wasn’t really advisable for a girl to hitchhike alone, especially in the dark.

It must have required a considerable amount of courage for her to make the decision, but after a few moments Cynthia left me to look after her suitcase and without a word got into the passenger seat. A few hundred yards farther on we rounded a sharp bend and she gave a scream of utmost triumph or of utmost rage that I can hear to this day. A little way back from the road was a line of spanking new petrol pumps.  A state-of-the-art recovery vehicle was nearby.  Freshly painted on the side of a barn-like construction in brand new corrugated iron, letters a foot or more high proclaimed  ‘TOUTES RÉPARATIONS POUR VOITURES’.

I cannot put a date to this story, but an educated guess suggests that 1961 would be close to the mark. For one thing, 1961 was the year in which The Sunday Telegraph was launched with myself as travel edior and columnist. Earlier, I could not have afforded to make the trip described out of my own resources. A short while later, the Bristol Superfreighter service operated by Silver City Airways, which in 20 minutes carried cars from Lyd airport in Kent to Le Touquet on the French Channel coast, came to an end . 

Next, the term ‘cocktail party’, now redolent of mothballs, was evidently in general use. Then there is the poignant  mention of  ‘a carthorse with a blue-denimed peasant on its back’. Such sights, at that time commonplace, were soon to become very rare in France. Finally, there is also the use of shillings and pence  to convey the cost of petrol. The decimal currency in Britain was introduced 40 years ago.


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