Within 10 minutes of setting off in our lurid green car we were on the M1 – the Budapest version– heading west. Our journey was, a little surprisingly, mainly west, with just a nudge north. Tony had baggsied first drive – his eyesight was unable to cope with the night (something he hadn’t mentioned before).
Tony is a fast driver by any measure. Some would say mad. He only uses the outside lane. I pointed out to him that most people slow down when they come up behind a slower car. He speeds up, intimidating it until it moves over. He thought this snow-plough driving (as I called it) was normal. We have all had Tony drive up behind us, flashing his lights. The Hungarians were more courteous than we would be in this situation. I tried to relax in the back seat, slightly stressed, uncomfortable and still a little worse for the rounds of red wine and the morning’s frantic uncertainty. I closed my eyes and nodded.
We travelled fast – averaging a good 100mph – and within a few hours were in Austria. A new country for me. We stopped at about 5pm just south of Vienna. Here we bought MacDonalds (second definition of “ubiquitous”). I pecked at my chicken wrap and toyed with the cold tasteless “fries”.
Paul went to buy a map. My geography degree and the Google Map directions were not proving totally sufficient. He came back to announce that we were heading in exactly the wrong direction. He has asked a couple of locals in the shop. They had asked him where we were heading. Paul said “England”. They told him “Germany is that way” – in the opposite direction to which we had been driving at breakneck speed. A quick glance at the sun confirmed this. My geography degree not totally wasted. Fortunately we had only had a few miles to double-back.
Paul (newly appointed former navigator) was relegated to the back seat and I sat next to Tony, who drove us most of the way through Austria. Sitting up front was rather more scary, and I braked far more on my imaginary brakes than he did on the real ones.
When we had taken the decision to drive home through Europe, I had conjured up this romantic ideas of snaking along winding Austrian Alpine roads, stopping in lay-bys to take dramatic scenic pictures. The reality was straight, drab three-laned tarmac, with occasional glimpse of the Danube and the odd Austrian looking houses. And we were well north of the Alps.
We drove as far as Linz, missed a turn and went a little bit out of our way before we found a service station for our second stop. It was about 8pm, and Tony had done his quota or miles in the daylight. We bought petrol, coffee and food and paid 50 cents for posh toilets. Liquids in and liquids out. Tony bought a couple of beers, which was almost the last we heard of him until Calais. He spent the rest of the journey lying down on the back seat mainly sleeping and sometimes snoring. Paul took over the wheel and I relaxed at his more controlled and restrained driving style.
Paul took us into Germany – conifers on each side of the road signalling Bavaria – and a three hour stretch past Regenburg, Wurzburg and Nuremburg to Frankfurt. So three burgers and a frankfurter, nein?
On the way through Germany, a police car zipped in from the right and pulled in front of us, driving down the middle of the two lanes, gradually slowing us down, until we were opposite a major accident on the left hand carriageway. Just before we stopped, a car overtook us madly and squeezed in front of the car ahead of us, right behind the police car. This seemed like an act of brash insanity, guaranteed to incur the punishment of the local polizei. As we all halted, the car pulled over to the lay-by on our right.
The scene across the road was mayhem. A caravan was loose, two cars were upside down, and there were endless fire engines, fireman, police cars and policemen. Many of them were walking across our carriageway and evidently looking for something or someone in the ditch and bank on our side of the road. Had a person been thrown across our carriageway? This seemed unlikely. Maybe a driver who had caused the accident had tried to escape? Maybe they were just scouring for evidence. Suddenly the man in the impatient car walked in front of us with a camera, wearing a yellow jacket (him, not the camera). So he was some sort of official.
Behind him, out of the same car, two women – maybe a mother and daughter emerged and started to join the searchers up the bank. One man had what looked like a heat seeking device. Surely they would not allow these two women to help in the search for a body? Finally we had our answer. A big bloke walked past us, carrying a small shaggy dog tucked under his arm. He must have escaped from one of the crashed cars (or maybe he caused the crash?). We assumed he belonged to one of the two women. I guess we will never know. I have always thought there was a market for a web site for looking up what happened to that accident. We all see them on our daily journeys, and we never know. The other week I called 999 when a trailer swayed behind a car I had just passed and swung it off the side of the M40.
So we drove on – this being our only real hold up of the entire journey. We paused at a petrol station just past Frankfurt and I finally took up my turn at the wheel, ready to do the night shift. Paul and I nipped to the shop and toilets, leaving Tony lying on the back seat. So I was pretty surprised to find him buzzing me on my mobile as I was spending my second 50 cents. The car alarm was going off loudly and had woken him up. Well, he should have stayed still! Paul went back to the car to buzz it off. We bought some German sandwiches, chocolate and Pringles (“ubiquitous” no 3). Another call. The alarm was going off again. We returned to the car to a waving Tony, now wide awake. As I set off he made some jibe about my driving and I suggested he really should try to go back to sleep.
I drove a long dark stretch. The road was three lanes but meandering and hilly with (I translate) “dangerous cambers” . Enjoyable driving, with little traffic. At times it was like a race track and I could nudge 200km/h. Paul navigated. Tony was asleep again in his back seat bed, as instructed. I wish my children had been so easy. I sped us around Koln (Cologne) and wondered about this penchant to shorten the real English name. Cologne becomes Koln, Vienna becomes Wien, Nuremburg becomes Nurnberg. Why can’t they just spell things properly?
Suddenly the road became straight, and flood lit, with pretty trees on either side. It was like a different country. It was. We had reached Belgium. For a small country, it is deceptively big. This road seemed to go on forever. I was grateful for the lighting. Paul was having a nod and I was grazing on chocolate and water. He kicked into life for the occasional tricky navigational challenges. Soon we were being signed for Brussel (yet again – shortened without the final “ls”) and then Gent (no “h”) and finally Calais. Evidently the French do not have a national shortage of sign letters.
Running low on petrol, we stopped to fill up our second tank. Once again Tony was sleeping. This was not the clean and clinical petrol station typical of the Germans and Austrians. It smelled of a mix of fuel and excrement. I guess we were closing in on France. Paul worked out the complexities of the pre-payment debit card machine, and then took over the driving for the final European lap. We were like the marathon runner, finally entering the stadium.
Paul was familiar with the route into the eurotunnel from his days of commuting to Specsavers in Holland every week (why Hungary why Hungary?). So eventually we saw the lights of our escape tunnel. No sign of border guards or watchtowers. We negotiated the various checkpoints, flashed our priority booking ticket and jumped into the fast check-in queue – delighted by the queues in the economy class lanes. We drove sidewards into the train, squeezed up and waited to be transported effortlessly into England and home. Paul was convinced we should be going forwards, but we went backwards. I tried to convince him that this must be right, before I slipped into semi-sleep. It was 4.20am and we were being carried home –under the seas on wheels, rather than above the clouds on wings. It was like a dream. Real life is full of surprises.
Emerging from sleep and into our green and pleasant land we could see nothing green or pleasant. It was dark and misty. Surely the volcanic ash had not smothered our country totally? Tony was – yes – asleep in the back seat. As we drove, the blue dawn faded in shyly to our right. It was weird being in the driver position on the M23 but not driving. I fought sleep again, not wanting to drift off whilst Paul was driving; wanting to keep him awake by talking to him. He said he was fine and I could resist no more, nodding as we circled round the M25 and then along the M40 into Heathrow.
Terminal 5 was like ghost town. A guard stopped us at the car park, like some scene out of the Day of the Triffids. We explained that we had come to collect Paul’s car. So we dropped him off, bid him a a safe final leg and set off for the midlands. Tony drove – after relieving himself on the side of the road in some act of ritual territory marking . Refreshed by countless hours of sleep, he was back at his most aggressive. Fortunately the number of cars to intimidate at 6am on a Saturday morning is limited. And I was beyond caring.
The final leg – M40, A46, M69 and M1 took no time. We talked lucidly; the reality of getting home exciting us. So at 6.45am I was outside my own front door, emptying my case on the path to locate my key. Foiled finally by the bolt on the inside. Nobody answered when I rang the bell. So I made my final call to Debbie. Not to say I was marooned in Budapest, stuck in a hotel, or embarking on a 16 hour drive. But to say I was outside – please let me in.
Reader, she did.
A couple of years later I visited Iceland to take my revenge on the volcano. Read the story here