A Daihatsu Doctor
The thirty-yard slope, or rampa,to our house in the Alto Minho region of Portugal was laid centuries ago, with enormous lumps of granite worn smooth by human footwear, the cloven hooves of sheep and goats, oxen yoked to carts, and torrents of rainwater, which turned it into a stream during winter storms when the same boulders became indispensable as steppingstones. At one time, the giant cobbles may have provided a passable surface but, by our first ascent, they mostly resembled a random rock fall, some sunken deeply down and others rearing alarmingly up. When it was resurfaced with granite steps in 2006, the municipal engineer in charge told us it had been one of diverse 15th century pilgrim routes to the sacred site of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. We liked the idea of owning a house with such visible signs of antiquity, but quickly realized the impossibility of driving an ordinary car up to the front door. The solution was a Daihatsu Rocky, marketed in Britain as a Fourtrak, heavy as a tank, but comfortable enough for the 2,400 mile return trip from home in southeast London through the Channel Tunnel via southwest France and northern Spain. Making such long journeys at high speeds probably caused the damage.
Another reason for buying a truck was Portugal’s notoriously dangerous driving conditions. Today, the journey to our house from Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport—bizarrely named after a former Prime Minister who lost his life in an air crash—takes an hour along the A3 Motorway, a 21st century highway we depart at Sapardos, before bypassing the 20th and negotiating twisting byways home. In 1995, on my first trip north in a tinny hire car, the shadowy coast road by Viana do Castelo was a speed track of recklessly driven goods vehicles and heedless saloon car drivers veering abruptly left to overtake, or inexplicably stopping dead in front of me during driving rain. On one narrow stretch, swerving onto a grass verge was the only way to avoid a pair of headlights coming directly at me on the wrong side of the carriageway. It happened so quickly, I instinctively rejoined the road and carried on, like a Scalextric car suddenly righting itself after going off the track. The next stretch, inland over narrow mountain roads with visibility reduced to a few feet by a combination of darkness and swirling mist, was hair raising. I was lucky to get there in one piece.
One summer, I was driving my wife down the A3 to the airport when the gearbox jammed in fourth. Luckily, we were close to Barcelos services, able to pull in and think about what to do next. In a hurry to catch a plane, Diane phoned for a taxi, which screeched into the car park where she was already positioned to jump in. In my case, it was a matter of limping thirty miles along country lanes to the garage of Carlos Duarte da Silva Capucho in our village. We’d met already one frosty morning when he came out with jumper cables to get me started. Perhaps anticipating future business, he wouldn’t accept payment but, whatever his motives, his laconic style was impressive. A damaged gearbox was a much bigger proposition than a flat battery, as locating Daihatsu parts in rural north Portugal was never going to be easy. The vehicle was stuck in Carlos's “oficina” or workshop for more than six weeks, the replacement parts eventually arriving in big cardboard boxes from Osaka via Madrid.
Such a wait meant regular long walks to the garage to monitor progress; feigning friendship with an ugly hound straining on a chain outside the entrance and being prepared to engage in bewildering conversations about the functions of gearbox parts with names barely recognizable even in English. Many’s the time my fractured Portuguese has led to malentendidos, or misunderstandings. Buying furniture in a gloomy emporium where the shopkeeper, in black suit, white shirt, and plain tie, looked more like an undertaker, I used for wood the word lenha instead of the correct madeira, inquiring: “Can you please tell me what kind of firewood this bed is made of?” Negotiating with Carlos and his mechanic was another stiff test; interchanges ended abruptly with mutual head shaking and embarrassed handshakes.
Three years and 50,000 miles later, the overtaxed engine suffered a complete pressure failure warranting total reconditioning. Months of treatment meant another visit to the airport to hire a vehicle until new parts arrived from abroad. Seeing an assortment of engine parts lying disjointedly on the garage floor made me wonder whether reassembly was beyond even the power of Carlos Capucho. What would happen if he couldn’t fix it? Was it worth shipping back to Britain or just leave it to rot? But there was no need to worry. For much of his working life, he’d been a Formula One mechanic at the Autódromo do Estoril, home of the Portuguese Grand Prix between 1984-1996, knowing all there was to know about car engines, even alien Daihatsus. One afternoon, a familiar horn tone at the bottom of our lumpy lane announced we were on the road again.
Having spent most of his life in Lisbon, Carlos was scathing about the villagers in his birthplace. In turn, they scorned his services, seeking cheaper alternatives from repairers with fewer credentials in neighboring villages, but there was a nucleus of discerning regulars to keep him in business. I was careful to avoid taking the jeep in for servicing on Mondays if his football team, Benfica, had gone down that weekend. Always quick with a joke, his serious conversations were generally underpinned by wry humor, but he was also an ardent “Eagles” fan and, if his team had lost, it was difficult to get a civil word out of him. It’s something football fans everywhere have in common, but it’s worse for the Portuguese who are an emotional lot. In the absence of something really dramatic—a tragic air crash or terrorist attack—coverage of games takes pride of place as first feature on evening television, relegating what might appear to the neutral observer to be more important political matters to the tail end of news bulletins. At an international level, Portuguese victories produce outbursts of media orchestrated xenophobia, whilst defeat bring tears as the whole country goes into mourning.
His one mechanic was nearing retirement; he and the boss were often seen climbing out of an inspection pit covered from head to toe in oil and grease. It was the kind of workshop depicted in French and Italian neo- realist films from the 1940s, walls decorated with smeared Valvoline posters advertising motor rallies where the finishing line had been crossed many years earlier. When he was not down there or underneath a bonnet, Carlos sat behind his cluttered desk in a cubby-hole with oily fingerprints on every surface. A cigarette always on the go, he peered at me quizzically over spectacles perched on the end of his nose as he totted up the bill. Calculation complete, he stretched his arms out wide in mock apology when presenting me with the final figure: “Muito caro” (meaning very expensive), he explained in his tarry voice, raising his eyes skyward as though fixing the price was in the hands of a supernatural force beyond his control. When he passed it over for me to scrutinize, it became my turn to dolefully shake my head in a parody of amazed disbelief, knowing all too well it would soon be time to cough up. Despite top prices, Carlos kept us on the road for a decade, always willing do minor repairs without charging a penny.
With the vehicle now in good repair, it was some time before I noticed the guard dog gone and the heavy double doors locked and bolted. On the upper-story of the same building used to be a small supermarket recently moved to another part of the village. Early in 2015, I asked the shopkeeper, who knew him well, how Carlos was getting on, and he told me he’d died from lung cancer the previous year; chain smoking in a perpetual haze of oil and petrol fumes was not conducive to long life.
At the ripe old age of twenty, with 135,000 miles on the clock, the jeep, now based in Wales, is not in the best of health either. Although the engine is as smooth as it was when Carlos rebuilt it, the gearbox suddenly began knocking in third. My first thought was it was time for the junkyard, but discarding it felt like being disrespectful to the man who’d put so much skill and effort into keeping it going. So a reconditioned box has been fitted, a new starter motor is in place, rusty sills repaired, and bodywork touched up. It’s not what you would call “good as new” but, as we are now reliant on train and plane to the Alto Minho, Rocky’s only going as far as the supermarket.
About the Author
The author published poetry when he was young. Early in a career in psychiatric social work, he placed an article in an extinct English journal Community Medicine, which re-established his interest in writing, becoming a regular contributor to health, housing, and social services magazines. More recently, he has published in The Oldie, and Best of Britain magazines and is currently working on two full-length manuscripts: In Place of Cotton, a childhood in Oldham, and The English House, about living in north Portugal. After living in London with his family for most of his life, they have recently moved to Swansea, South Wales, around the corner from Dylan Thomas’s birthplace.