A couple of months ago, I flew back to England to visit my 103-year-old mother. On day three, I took a trip to town to buy some groceries. En route I ran over a pothole. There are a lot of potholes in England.

A few minutes later I arrived at Sainsbury’s car park and the car began to pull to the left. A teeth-tingling grinding noise emanated from the left front wheel. The tire was as flat as a pancake. What to do?

A more reliable form of transportation at Holman’s family home in Sussex | Courtesy

I looked in the trunk and saw a piddly little spare with barely two inches of rubber. I called the 800 number for Europadopa, the car rental company (name changed to protect the innocent) to ask for roadside assistance. After negotiating their automated system by pressing multiple numbers with multiple choices, I got a human being.

            “Yes, sir, what can I do for you?” I’m good at accents, but he had a suspiciously unrecognizable one.

            “Could you send someone out to fix my flat tire?”

            “Hang on, sir, I will check and see if there’s a Quiktire in Horsham … hang on.”

I hung on. Well, what else was I going to do.

            “There is a Quiktire in Horsham, but … they can’t see you till Wednesday.”

            “But, this is Monday!”

            “I know, sir. I will try our Quiktire service in Crawley.” Crawley is 10 miles away.

            “Sorry, sir. They’re fully booked today… I will try Quiktire in Three Bridges.” Three Bridges (I’ve only ever seen one bridge in Three Bridges) is 15 miles away.

            “Good news, sir. Quiktire in Three Bridges can see you in three hours.”

            “So I have to sit here for three hours and wait?”

            “Oh, no sir, they don’t come out.”

            “Well, what the f___ am I supposed to do?” Steam was beginning to flow from my ears.

            “I advise you to change the tire and drive there.”

            “Great!” I hadn’t changed a tire since the last century.

I removed the jack from the trunk and started levering. The wheel nuts came off with no problem, but the wheel was stuck. I kicked it with enough force my 70-year-old body could muster. Still wouldn’t shift.

I called my brother, Tom, who offered to call a man who his company uses for vehicle breakdowns. A few minutes passed. “Nobody knows where he is.”

I hailed a strong looking passer-by who gave the tire a few swift kicks, but the thing refused to move. As he hobbled away, he pointed me in the direction of Fred’s Tyre service.

            “Can’t help you, mate.” Fred pointed at the multitude of cars lined up for tire replacement. The potholed roads of Britain were doing wonders for the tire business. “I can fit you in on … ”

            “Don’t tell me, Wednesday.”

            “No mate, Thursday.”

I walked away muttering expletives. “Try Quicktire,” he shouted. “It’s about a hundred yards up the road.”

            It was more like a hundred miles up the road.

            “If you can get your car here, we can fix the tire tomorrow.”

            “But, I can’t get the wheel off. Can you send someone out to help?”

            “No. We don’t do that.”

            “Well, what do you do?”

He ignored my statement. “Call the rental company and ask for roadside assistance.”

            “I’ve already done that. I called their 800 number.”

            “That’s no good, son.” Son, it had been a long time since I’d been called son. “You need to call the office where you hired the car from.”

I did. They said they’d get an RAC (Royal Automobile Club) man out to help. “He will call you when he’s on his way.”

            “How long will that be?”

            “Oh, usually about 40 minutes, sir. Just remain with your car.”

Anything with a Royal in front of it usually means quality and service in the UK, so I relaxed … just a bit.

Sitting in the car firmly rooted to the asphalt, I noticed the Sainsbury’s gas station a few yards away. Maybe I can get enough air in the tire to get me over to Quicktire. I eased the Hyundai forward forgetting there was a jack attached to its undercarriage — the car lurched forward then dropped to the ground with a decided list to port.

In the corner of the forecourt, I attached the air hose to the valve, but it would not connect. I asked for assistance — the gas station employee could not get it to work either. He tried the rear tire and that didn’t work.

Do Korean cars have smaller tire valves? While pondering that weighty question, I sat in the Hyundai awaiting a call from the RAC man. I sat for another hour, another two hours. Nothing. Perhaps my AAA membership in California gives me a reciprocal arrangement with the AA in the U.K.? AA meaning Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous, although at this point a strong gin and tonic wouldn’t have gone astray.

With my iPhone visibly losing juice, I googled AAA and found there was indeed a reciprocal arrangement “for up to 90 days,” it said. I called the number and a voice with a French accent came on the line (apparently, I had reached a call center in Perpignan). She transferred me to the AA office in the U.K., which informed me there was no such agreement, something to do with Brexit, they said.

Simultaneously with me hanging up came a knock on the window: “You’ll have to move, you’re blocking the forecourt access to the air hose,” the Sainsbury’s store manager barked.    

            “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve got a flat tire. I’m waiting assistance.” I looked at my watch. I’d been waiting assistance for four hours now! “Maybe you could get me towed to Quicktire?”

She shrugged and walked away.

My phone had about 10 percent charge left. If the phone dies I might as well end it all.  I dashed into  the pay station, bought a charger cable, plugged in the phone, and googled some local towing companies — Billy’s Towing Service popped up.

            “I can be with you in 20 mins,” said Billy. “I can either tow you to Quicktire or change the tire. Either way it will cost you £130.”

At this point, I didn’t care what it cost. I would have sold my body for scientific research had I been asked.

A beefy man with a shaved head and tattoos appeared in the rearview mirror carrying a large hammer. Billy’s Towing insignia displayed prominently on his orange jacket put me at ease.

            “Just needs a few quick hits from behind. Wheel’s rusted on.”

At that precise moment the RAC man also appeared on the scene with jack and hammer in hand.

Hope you’re all keeping up. I’m not sure I am!

            “You were supposed to call me,” I said with some sarcasm.

            “I did, but you have an American number and our RAC phones are blocked from making overseas calls.”

Shoot me now.

Both men pounded the back of the wheel with rubber hammers. The wheel remained locked.

“Give me some room,” said tattooed man. RAC man stepped aside. Tattooed man wound his body like a hammer thrower readying for a gold medal attempt at the Olympics. With one almighty whack the wheel tumbled off and clanged around on the ground. The men gave themselves a high five then replaced the flat with a spare about the size of an undersized lifesaver candy.

I ran my credit card through the tattooed man’s iPad then drove away from Sainsbury’s vowing never to go back. The young man at Quicktire booked me in for the next day.  I suggested they change the name of the company.

When I got back to my mother’s house (six hours after the incident occurred), I had a message from Europadopa on my iPhone. Could I do a quick rating on a scale one to ten regarding their response to my flat tire? I gave them ten out of ten … not.

A month later I got an email from Europadopa saying that they’d received a parking ticket from Sainsburys for £100 and if I didn’t pay up within 30 days I would be sent to the Tower of London. In the confusion I’d forgotten to put money in the parking machine.


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