I've been reading 'A Moveable Feast', Hemingway's memoir of his days as an aspiring twentysomething writer living in penury on the banks of the Seine. Among the many fascinating vignettes is an account of a nightmare weekend spent travelling to Bordeaux and back with F Scott Fitzgerald, who, it turns out, has such a weakness for alcohol that the merest whiff of the garcon's apron is enough to effect a transformation from erudite literary starlet to boorish misanthropic hypochondriac. After a sleepness Saturday night spent holed up in a backstreet hotel trying to convince the sodden Great Gatsby creator that he is not about to succumb to yellow fever but has merely been rendereed incapable of movement by too much whisky, Hemingway reflects that he should have realised he was in for a bad trip as soon as he found himself setting out alone on the southbound express train out of the capital, Fitzgerald having failed to make a morning rendezvous at the Gare de Lyon. 'Until then', he reflects witheringly. 'I had never known a grown man fail to catch a train'.
Fortunately, the call-handlers at the AA seem to take a more generous view than Ernest Hemingway of their fellow human beings' capacity for blithering incompetence when attempting to convey themselves short distances across the urban landscape- at least to judge from Friday night, when, on the ten-mile journey home from work along familiar intersuburban thoroughfares, I somehow managed to run out of fuel. As the Fiat Punto phut-phut-phutted to a halt at the intersection of Wilbraham Road and the Princess Parkway (just thirty yards from one of the several petrol stations peppering the route home) I cartwheeled through the gamut of emotions that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been caught short in this singular fashion: denial; embarrassment; then, as a scrambling lunge into the glove compartment revealed any amount of cheap sunglasses with an arm missing, gunged-up packets of fruit polos, and half-forgotten C90 audio cassettes featuring Wedding Present 'B' sides, but no AA membership card whatsoever, blind, desperate panic.
A minute later I remembered I had put it in my coat pocket that very morning, having, in a rare but misplaced bout of uber-preparedness, become convinced that the three-week-old slow puncture on the driver's side back tyre could be about due to turn itself into a fast puncture. Two more minutes later a bright yellow van pulled up at the intersection, and a cheerful, competent looking individual in oily overalls clambered out onto the path.
'Hell, that was quick. I only just called yous up'
'I didn't get the call, mate. I was just on my way home when I saw your hazard lights flashing. What's up?'
And so, I had to own up, for the second time in as many minutes, to having driven past half a dozen petrol stations in twenty minutes, even though the little orange light on the dashboard had been showing ever since I set off (although in my defence, as I decided not to add at this point, the little bastard does have an annoying tendency to start flickering almost as soon as you have filled up, meaning that you fall into the habit of ignoring it altogether, like the villagers in the story did with the Boy who cried wolf). Showing the same commendable professionalism that had been exhibited by his colleague on the telephone moments earlier, the oily gentleman eschewed the opportunity to break out into raucous laughter at my self-inflicted predicament- instead busying himself with hooks and tow-ropes. Twenty minutes later- via a stop-off at the petrol station just short of the Queen of Hearts crossroads- I was home.
The worst thing is that this episode doesn't even make number one in our all-time family list of embarrassing call-outs to the AA. That honour is disputed between
1- the time we tried to go on holiday to Devon but wasted the batteries by leaving all the doors open when packing, with the result that we couldn't even get out of our street
2- the time when we went to visit our friends Simon and Sarah and their new baby in hospital and on the way back managed to lock the keys in the car in the hospital carpark. We were too embarrassed to admit our mistake to the successsion of other friends who happened past while we were waiting to be rescued, so launched into a lengthy facade of making small talk and pretending to look for the keys in our jackets while hoping that they would get bored and go away. Eventually the van turned up and we had to sheepishly admit why we had seemed so reluctant to set off home.
3- the time (not long before number two which is why we were so embarrassed at the hospital) when we were all going to the Lake District to celebrate Sarah's birthday and, owing to a dodgy clutch and a series of administrative cock-ups between ourselves and the AA, we ended up getting towed most of the way there on Friday night then all the way home again on Sunday morning.
4- the time when Simon and Sarah (who had moved away from Manchester by then, possibly because they couldn't cope any more with their friends being so useless) were visiting for the weekend and we arrived two hours late for a big lunchtime get-together because the cobbles in our street had shaken the exhaust pipe plain off the bottom of the chassis.
I could probably go on, but I think I will leave it to Simon and Sarah themselves (who are occasional visitors to the comment box) to decide which one of those should be number one. In the meantime if there are any AA advertising executives who would be interested in featuring us as a poster family in an upcoming campaign highlighting their status as the fourth emergency service to the sort of people who should probably be banned by law from the public highways on general principles, then I can tell them right now that no reasonable offer will be refused. We do have a very cute three year old who would doubtless look just the part on the posters- if that is, he can be persuaded to share the limelight with his feckless parents.