A few years ago, a bunch of us stayed in a house in France for a couple of weeks. The holiday itself was idyllic… but we decided to drive back in a single day, all the way from the Pyrenees. And there was only one driver for each of the three cars.
It was a very, very long way.
We got up early to make sure we left before 8am. We had to make it to the Calais ferry that the drivers had booked – I think it was due to depart at 9pm. Squeezing our luggage into the three cars, we crammed in and set off. We were all very sleepy, and I was in the passenger seat next to the driver, Harry. Harry later told me that my dozing is very contagious.
After that, I was banned from the front seat for a while.
The three cars drove in convoy, with Harry’s car at the back. We hurtled along, sometimes stopping at service stations to stretch our legs and get some coffee for the drivers. A hundred kilometres at a time, keeping nicely ahead of schedule, we drew closer to Paris.
The crisis came when we finally got to Paris. We reached La Périphérique, the ring-road round the city, and encountered traffic for the first time. The two cars in front of us pulled into the outside lane, with an exit approaching up ahead. None of us in Harry’s car was map-reading, and our phones were mostly dead. We thought the other two cars were planning to take this exit.
They weren’t. They were just trying to keep the convoy together. As we approached the exit, the other two cars nipped back into the middle lane – but we were hemmed in by a lorry and we couldn’t change lanes.
Separated from the convoy, with no paper maps and two functioning phones – both on about 10% battery – we plunged into the unknown.
I’ve known Harry for thirteen years, I went to school and university with him, and we’ve travelled to half a dozen different countries together. That one terrifying second is the only time I’ve ever seen him seriously lose his cool.
After Harry had vented, we had to come up with a Plan B. The traffic was getting heavier, and Harry had no idea where this road was taking us. We used some of our precious battery to phone one of the other cars.
“What the hell were you doing, you idiots? Why did you randomly turn off the road? How are you going to get to Calais now?”
It wasn’t a very helpful phone call.
The traffic got even heavier. We tried to navigate by road signs, and ended up driving the wrong way round La Périphérique. For hours and hours, we looked for a service station where we could pull over and regroup – but there was nothing.
I got off easiest, because by this point I had been allowed to sit in the front again. It was supposed to be only for a couple of hours, but I was stuck in that front seat for five hours in the end. Harry had to concentrate on driving, having already driven about a thousand kilometres that day, and Georgie, Alice and Harriet were crammed into the back with some of the luggage. And Alice needed a bathroom break.
As the traffic got heavier, we found ourselves stuck behind a broken-down van that was being carried by a truck. A few cables were hanging loose, and we started joking darkly about how Harry’s tiny car would be crushed if the van rolled off the back of the truck.
It was just a joke. None of us took it seriously… until the traffic got so bad that the truck came to a halt in front of us. The truck driver immediately took this opportunity to leap out with a panicked expression on his face, and he started lashing down the loose cables like a sailor caught in a storm. It was clear from his body language that he was urgently worried that the van had been about to come loose. The five of us realised that maybe we really had almost been crushed. It was a sobering moment.
That traffic jam, and that crawl around the outskirts of Paris, wore all of us down. We were bonded by the horribleness of the journey, and the camaraderie was what kept us going.
Many hours later, we were finally free of the traffic but we had fallen badly behind time. Hurtling along wide empty roads towards Calais, bathed in the evening sunshine, we began to breathe more easily: we had escaped! No more traffic! We were going to be on time for the ferry after all!
Then a pheasant made a run for it in front of the car. Harry hesitated, but he did the sensible thing and kept on going. There was a thud, and a deathly hush descended on the car. I turned around just in time to see the pheasant’s body cartwheeling into the steep verge.
The legacy of the pheasant was that it smashed one of Harry’s lights. When we got to Calais, we discovered the damage – and we found a single feather wedged in among the shards of glass.
But we’d done it – we had made it to Calais! Now Harry could rest for a couple of hours before the final drive from Dover. Stiff and exhausted, we staggered towards the prearranged meeting place to find the rest of the group.
Before we went looking for them, we agreed that we were angry with the others for causing us to take a wrong turning and then blaming us. It felt like a long time since it happened, but we collectively decided that we were still indignant and aggrieved.
The first people we saw were the two loveliest, most inoffensive members of our whole group. They strolled over cheerfully to say hello. I guess they underestimated how much we had hated our journey since losing the convoy.
“Have you only just got here?” one of them said, smiling.
“Yes,” we said.
“Oh!” they said. “We’ve had time to have a rest and get a drink!”
All five of us exploded simultaneously, united in our righteous fury.
“OH YOU HAVE, HAVE YOU?!? THAT MUST BE NICE! UNFUCKINGBELIEVABLE! A REST AND A DRINK, EH? EH?!”
The five of us stormed past them. It was incredibly satisfying for about three seconds. Then, as soon as we were round the corner, we looked at each other.
“We took it too far, didn’t we?”
“Way too far.”
With hindsight, it wasn’t our finest hour. We felt really bad about it. But our relief that the journey was over outweighed anything else. The five of us were bonded by our ordeal: it remains, to this day, the worst car journey I have ever been on.