The idea of driving on the continent can be off-putting to some people. Driving on the wrong side of the road, seeing road-signs in a foreign language, having to remember driving regulations…it can be very disconcerting. There was only one thing I found difficult, and it was, and is, very specific. If I returned to the UK from Calais to Dover, Eastern Docks, and if I had to head north along Jubilee Way, I was fine until I reached the roundabout at the top of the hill. Then I had to stop, and wait for a car to go round, and then follow it. For some reason I could not remember which way to go round that one, specific roundabout.
Sometimes, of course, it is not me out of step, but the rest of the world…
“Look, it’s a dead easy job. All you have to do is take the tractor unit and go and pick up the trailer. It’s in Valencia, at the garage where Alan is getting the Volvo fixed.”
I was dubious. Mr Boss’s ‘easy jobs’ had a tendency to become ludicrously complex, because he either ‘forgot’ certain details, ‘forgot’ to make arrangements that he promised, or downright lied. However, the idea of a tractor-only run to Valencia, then straight back with half a trailer load of cardboard car door trims did seem like the ideal trip for a spring weekend. I agreed. You’d think by then I would have known, wouldn’t you?
I was, once again, in the little Volvo F6, the day-cabbed unit that was not intended to be a long distance continental truck. A day-cabbed truck is one in which the cab is designed only to be used during the day. There is no facility for resting or sleeping, whereas a sleepercabbed truck has, as the name suggests, a sleeping compartment behind the driving seat. I put up with the wisecracks from the other drivers.
“What are you doing? Road testing for Matchbox?” “What does it want to be when it grows up?”, because I knew something they didn’t. I knew that I was totally out of my mind to be doing the job with that truck, but loved the job too much to care.
The problems started when I was half way across Spain. At about 2pm, with no warning, there was a massive snowstorm. With no trailer there was no weight on the back axle, and being such an old truck there were no driver aids such as anti-lock brakes or wheel spin reduction. For a couple of hours the driving was quite interesting…
Valencia was under several inches of snow when I finally found Alan. I wandered into the café that abutted the workshop that held his broken Volvo, and greeted him. “Broke the back axle. That trailer is heavy!”
I was confused. “ Heavy? It is supposed to be partly filled with door cards.”
“Yeah. But the rest is full of car doors. And engines.”
Mr Boss had done it to me again!
Strangely, when I rang him, he wasn’t available. His wife told me to contact the company we were contracting for, which I quickly did. When I rang them they made it clear that Mr Boss was fully aware of what the load consisted of and that the trailer had to be back at Poole within three days. Oh…goody!
Alan and I exchanged views on Mr Boss, then he helped me to couple the trailer and I left. Very slowly…
At this time the BP Truckstop in Bordeaux was still under construction and so the favourite stopping place for truck drivers was at St-Genise de Saintonge. We called it ‘Saintes.’ It is on the National 137, and for trucks heading for Cherbourg it was just one day’s drive away.
I pulled in the truck park at 6pm and the snow was falling heavily. I was absolutely shattered. To get there had been a struggle, as my poor little truck was pulling something in the region of ten tonnes more than its design weight. I stopped the engine and as the snow settled around me, I covered the windscreen with copies of the Sun newspaper, set the alarm for 2:45am, tried to get comfortable over the seats, avoiding the handbrake and fell asleep.
My alarm clock at the time was an ‘amusing’ device, in the shape of a cockerel and it crowed. My how I laughed when I saw it. How I giggled when I bought it. How I hated it that morning…
Getting out of bed was always a struggle. One’s body had to form an S shape to try and avoid the gearstick and the handbrake lever. There was little danger of taking the brake off, but it was three inches long, and no matter where you lay it wanted to become intimate with your buttocks.
No time for coffee. I changed the tachograph disc, checked that my driving break, at least, was legal, fired up the engine and started off. Around me the car park, the trucks and the road were swathed in a blanket of white. To my recently asleep mind it was if the whole place had been draped in a duvet. It was hard to make out where the car park ended and the road began. It was, I discovered fairly quickly, equally hard to see where the road side ended and the grass verge, ditch or pavement began. This was going to be an interesting trip back!
As I crested a small hill I saw headlights approaching me. Two or three cars in line. The front car started flashing its lights at me, rapidly. He was on my side of the road! Or was I on his? In my still semi-asleep state I considered the possibilities. Either I, a lone English truck driver, had awoken and sleepily driven onto the wrong lane of the carriageway, or several locals had decided to play a joke. At the last minute I swerved onto ‘my’ side of the road and the convoy of cars went past, horns blaring, fists being waved out of the windows. Each car had a GB registration and a GB sticker. And approaching me was another set of headlights, flashing madly. For now I really was on the wrong side of the road.
Having sorted out in my mind exactly where I was supposed to be, I pressed on again, as the snow continued falling. All was well, until I approached La Rochelle and in front of me was a long queue of cars. I eased in behind the last and realised that they had been there for some considerable time, as the snow was thick on them. I got out of the truck and spoke to the gentleman in the rearmost car. He explained that the slipway that he, and I, needed to get from La Rochelle to Cherbourg was closed, due to snow. Workmen were clearing it, but they had been there for over an hour and expected to be there for at least two more. I thanked the gentleman and returned to my truck, turned off the engine, and settled down to wait…
How remarkably peaceful it was! All external noise seemed to be damped by the snow. One or two of the cars ran their engines to keep warm, but the most prominent noise was the susurration of the snowflakes, drifting, falling, hypnotic in the light of the yellow streetlamps.
My hands caressed the satin-smooth skin of her shoulders, my fingertips stroking her throat as they slid down the gentle curve of her bosom to her full, magnificent breasts. As I cupped the left breast it went Dee!....intrigued, I caressed the right. Dah!...I had quite a rhythm going when I suddenly realised it was a police siren, and woke up...
Startled, I looked for the source of the noise. On the other carriageway a Peugeot, resplendent in its blue livery, red, amber and blue lights on the top piercing the snow-laden gloom, the word ‘Gendarme’ in white on its flanks. What was upsetting them?
I looked in my mirrors to see who they were waving at. Behind me a long line of cars, trucks and busses was becoming visible as the daylight started to break through the stygian darkness. I could see nothing behind me to warrant such excited behaviour, so I looked to see if it was any of the cars in…front?
There were no cars in front!
It would seem that I had fallen asleep, lulled by the peace and quiet and in doing so had become an unintentional traffic jam.
Oh, and I managed to catch the boat, by about five minutes…