An unplanned and unpleasant stopover in Birmingham

13 03 2011

Visiting Birmingham never was a plan.  Not even a plan that got nixxed for time constraints.  I didn’t want to go there, never thought of going there and damn sure never plan to again.

Avis called us back at the Chipping Norton Shell station to say they were sending a wrecker up from Reading, it would be probably an hour or so.  They would also take care of getting us a replacement vehicle.  Glenn and I pondered and fretted over what would be the result of this mishap with the fuel.  Would they charge us damages?  Would they maximize those charges or would they just charge the cost of draining the tank?  Would they just laugh it off and say shit happens?

It was hard to guess and the not knowing made me feel nauseous again.  The girls complained of hunger and I didn’t blame them.  But there was nothing here but overpriced “crisps” and pop.  Please try to be patient.  They nodded and did their best to comply.

Harry Potter asked us to move our car out of the fuel stall, but unfortunately this car was fairly smart and the parking brake was engaged automatically when the car is turned off and in order to release it, the car engine must be turned on.  And the latter was something we did not need to occur.

Glenn politely explained the situation to every customer and I stalked over to chain smoke in the shadows, frustrated and embarrassed.  A police officer came over and offered his words of comfort – only last week his colleague had made the same mistake.  I offered a weak smile and said well, at least I don’t feel like you’re sitting back and muttering stupid Americans.  He laughed and went back to his car.  I couldn’t laugh.

All I could do was inhale, exhale, relight, and cry.

Finally the wrecker arrived and Guy, the tow driver, arrived alone.  Where was the replacement car?  He spoke with Glenn and thanks to his accent, Glenn thought we had to unload all of our belongings onto the street and wait for a car.  I felt sick again and began the arduous task.  Guy came over and suggested we just leave our things in the car.  I looked at him and asked as nicely as I could if he was out of his mind!  Leave my belongings?  Hello?

He explained that he had told my husband he would be driving us and the car to the airport to meet with Avis.

Ohhh.  So I puffed down one last cigarette and let Glenn have the pleasure of sitting on the front bench seat with Guy, while the girls and I sat in the darkness in the back.

Where were we going, I asked.  I had presumed London, Oxford, Reading – anywhere south.  But oh no, we were going to Birmingham.  I wished I had a map, but I knew at very least that Birmingham was about halfway between Liverpool and London, closer to Liverpool than London.  That was more than I needed to know.  We needed to be southwest of London.  By 9 pm for late check-in.  It was already 10 pm.

Guy took to the roadways at about 110 mph, but thankfully only Glenn could see the speedometer.  Glenn made several references to speed limits and speeding and being pulled over, but I didn’t catch his drift at the time.  Neither did Guy.  Guy took the roundabouts like a pro, driving that wrecker lorry like it was on rails.  He and I chatted about our trip thus far and he was exceptionally friendly.  I almost stopped worrying about the fact we may not have a place to spend the night, much less ever eat.

It took about 35 minutes to get from Chipping Norton to Birmingham International Airport (and if you consider it’s 65 miles away, you can get an idea of the speeds we traveled) and Guy pulled up to the Avis lot to wait.  The offices were dark and all I kept thinking was how we would have to spend the night in this hell.  He called his tow agency, which contacted Avis, and another thirty minutes later Avis called the tow agency back, which called Guy back, to tell him to drop the car and us off and we would need to walk to the airport to deal with Avis directly.

Guy helped us get all of our luggage from the car and into the back seat of his tow truck (Alannah and Kayla got buried quickly) so he could drive us to the loading zone.  Yet after all that effort we learned that the guards would not allow his tow truck into that area and thus he had to drop us off about a mile from the entrance we needed.  We paid two pounds per trolley to get two carts to load our luggage on and began the long journey, just as it started to rain.

When we finally made it inside and to the right desk, our day went from shitty to worse than shitty.  No other words can describe it.  Sue, an older woman who was completely unsympathetic, listened to our situation.  I examined her while she and Glenn spoke, acting under direct orders from Glenn who had told me to not say a word lest I make the situation worse.  (Unintentionally, of course.)

Sue’s jacket, crimson red with lavender liner was frayed and thin.  She’d done this a long time, and I could imagine that she’d heard more than one late night tale from confused tourists with children in tow, pleading for her compassion.  She wasn’t going to be offering us any, we weren’t unique.  She pushed her bi-focals up and examined our luggage with a sneer.  There were not going to be any cars that could hold all of that luggage.  (Unfortunately for her, we had already had quite a long bit of time to examine the vehicle options in the Avis lot at Birmingham; fortunately for her, I’d been forbidden to speak and Glenn broke it to her nicely.)

Sue killed about fifteen minutes, hemming and hawwing over our luggage amount and passenger count and how much her vehicles could hold.  She invited over a representative from the Budget rental desk to give their expert judgement on whether or not a station wagon or estate car could hold all of that luggage.  They didn’t think it would.  Glenn explained we quite easily fit all of our luggage, with room to spare, in the Peugot.

Sue decided to put the replacement issue on the back burner, having faced a possible defeat, and instead began trying to comprehend just how in the world we could have possibly put unleaded petrol into a diesel vehicle.  Glenn explained, for perhaps the fiftieth time of the night, and tried to stress the importance of not starting the vehicle.  The fourth time he stressed this to Sue, she got snippy.  Snatching up a sticky note pad, she wrote in large block letters “DO NOT START ENGINE” and looked up at Glenn with pursed lips.  Will that do?

She started looking over the papers that Guy had given us to give her and noted he had not filled things out right.  “Leave it to the Ebs!” she huffed, which I’ve no idea what that was to mean.  I started studying her frayed blazer again and wondered if I had an employee who had worked for me long enough to fray a blazer, wouldn’t I pay them enough that they could afford another?  Hell, I’d just give them a new one rather than have them working in a frayed uniform.

Sue broke the silence of my critical gaze by explaining to Glenn she would be charging us 575 pounds in damages, plus the tow costs, plus 63 pounds for the tank refill (the amount I had agreed to during the initial rental), and a hazardous chemicals disposal fee of 150 pounds.  That did not include any of our rental costs.  It was almost $1300 US Dollars.  That was more than 3 times the cost of the actual rental.  And it was a Saturday night.  I couldn’t get more funds.  I had only gotten $1000 for emergency funds.  That surpassed all of my cash for meals and fuel and such.  I was going to be sick again.

Glenn agreed and signed the papers and Sue decided to relent a bit, miraculously remembering an estate car that might hold all of that luggage.

We finally found the car, another mile long trek in the rain and we were on the road again.  It was midnight.

Unlike the US, there are no restaurants open at midnight on the highways.  Here, if you drive on any major interstate you’ll find an all nighter somewhere at a truck stop or such.  But no.  Even the gas stations on the service roads were darkened.

We somehow found a Burger King just north of London around 1:30 am.  It wasn’t great, it wasn’t even good.  But blood pudding with head cheese would have looked scrumptious at this point, so once more my starving brood and eye shoveled in the most available food and choked it down for the sake of nourishment.

We located our hotel a little after 2 am, somehow and Glenn parked out front in the no parking zone while I buzzed for an eternity to be let in the glass doors.  The clerk looked like the Karate Kid, at about age 10, and it was hard to take someone so little and young serious.  He had the weak attempt at a mustache budding on his upper lip and it was very distracting.

I explained we’d had car trouble, without explaining what kind, and asked if we could still check in.  Yes, he nodded and handed me a key.  I asked where we could park and he said something about two blocks that-a-way and waved his hand to some direction that I wasn’t awake enough to comprehend.

I nodded and bobbed my head and went out to the car.  I told Glenn to help unload the suitcases and that I’d get the girls to the room, he could ask the clerk where to park.  And that’s what he did.  But this time Macchio said to drive down to the roundabout and park about two minutes away – completely different from what he’d told me.  Glenn set out and I maneuvered the girls through the crowd of drunken teenagers to the elevators.  One leered at Kayla and drooled “you’re gorgeous”, making her recoil to the back of the “lift”.

Finally in the room with all of our suitcases, I left the girls to settle things out while I went back down to smoke and wait for Glenn.  He was already back.  Now talking with the drunken teens who were giving him different directions.  Take the alley now and follow it down and park.

I followed him outside and watched his tail lights til they disappeared.  Two cigarettes later I’d not seen him nor his car lights and I was certain my day was getting worse.  Would I be able to hear the gun shots of the muggers from where I was?  What if they used a knife?  I certainly wouldn’t hear that.  He had all of our cash, our US money and British.  I had no idea where he’d wound up and I couldn’t even say for any certainty what type of car we had gotten this rental time.

I vomited this time and lit my third cigarette, hoping to rid myself of the foul taste on my tongue.  I paced with uncertainty, craning to spy him anywhere, mindful of the crowd of teenage ruffians who had moved out to watch me while sucking back their fags and booze.

Oh God, please.  Haven’t I suffered enough?  Please, if you’ve any mercy at all, don’t kill my husband.  I offered every prayer I could recall, including the Lord’s Prayer – anything that could bring Glenn back alive and safe.

It was a full thirty minutes from the time he had left before he emerged from around a corner about two blocks away.  I knew it was him, but he had a limp and I was certain he’d been stabbed and left for dead and now my hero was somehow making it back alive.  I fought against my desire to run across the parking lot to him, like some sappy romance movie where the lovers run in seemingly slow motion until they wind up in each others arms.  No, that wouldn’t be happening.  I instead stood firm, examining him as he walked under the sparse streetlights, hoping with bated breath that he would be able to make it those two blocks and I could then administer first aide or any other measures to save him.

Thankfully, it wasn’t necessary.  He was safe and sound, had found a parking garage a million miles away for one pound until 8 am.  Good thing we needed to be en route to Wiltshire by 7 am, said I.  I then looked at my watch.

It was 3 am.

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4 responses

21 03 2011
amy

This is truly a self-fulfilling prophecy.

21 03 2011
protogere

That it could be, excepting that I was the one with the doom and gloom feeling and it was my hubby who fulfilled the inevitable doom and gloom through his own actions while I was in the store.

21 03 2011
amy

I mean your whole trip – crappy attitude begets crappy experience.

22 03 2011
protogere

Your perception be what it may, but the attitude was the successor in this instance and the other few instances where the experience was less than hoped for.

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