We should have known better. We were planning a trip through the south of France in the summer of 1991, and we happened to mention to Jean Duprès, a friend of ours, that we would be renting a car. A southern Frenchman, Monsieur Duprès insisted that we allow him to lend us his automobile for our travels. He was in a convalescent center in the town of Hyères, on the Mediterranean coast, and would be unable to drive.
"Non, non, ça va," we protested. We'll be fine with a rental.
"J'insiste!" he replied.
His arguments were compelling. Why should we pay for something that he was offering us for nothing? He had no immediate need for the car; it was sitting idle on his property, a sprawling vineyard near the town of Salernes, in southeastern France. He would see that the car was delivered to him in Hyères by the caretaker of his property, Ahmad, and we would pick it up there. All we had to do was to get ourselves to Hyères.
Furthermore, he would arrange for us to be met at the train station by a friend of his. What could be simpler?
Against our better judgment—for who would want the responsibility of a friend's car for travel in a foreign country, when a rental car could be procured at a reasonable price?—we acquiesced. My husband, our fifteen-year-old son, and I flew to Paris in July and, after spending several days in the capital, took a mid-morning train to Toulon from the Gare de Lyon. The trip lasted just over four hours. Madame X met our train and chatted amicably with us as she drove us to the home in Hyères, where Monsieur Duprès was recuperating from a fall.
We were moved to see our dear old friend in a wheelchair, but he was his jovial self, and we relaxed for a long time on the sun-dappled terrace of the "Centre de Gérontologie," sipping mint tea and reminiscing.
In France, which has double daylight savings time, the summer days are long and lazy. Nevertheless, at some point, we realized that we should be getting on our way, as we had hotel reservations in Orange, a mid-sized city some 198 kilometers (approximately 123 miles) to the north of Hyères. Estimating travel time to be just over two hours, we lingered only long enough to collect the car's papers from Monsieur Duprès and to go over our agreement once again: we were to return the car to Salernes in three weeks, at the conclusion of our travels, by which time Monsieur Duprès would have been discharged from the convalescent home. Pushing Monsieur Duprès in his wheelchair, we moved slowly towards the automobile, an Italian Lancia parked just a few yards away. As we approached her, we took the full measure of her condition. Her gunmetal grey paint was dull and pockmarked with rust; the cable attaching the driver's side mirror to the car was reinforced with duct tape; the front fender tilted at an odd angle as if it had been damaged in an accident and repaired by a budget body shop. Seeing our scarcely veiled dismay, Monsieur Duprès assured us that the car had recently passed inspection. He handed us the keys. Was it my imagination, or did he have tears in his eyes as we took possession of his beloved old automobile?
Our first surprise, when we attempted to get into the car, was that we couldn't. Well, that is to say, we couldn't all enter the car in the normal manner, because the front door on the passenger side would not open. Monsieur Duprès laughed sheepishly and explained that the door had not been functional for quite some time and that the front seat passenger—in this case, me—would have to enter the car through the driver's side. We were none too thrilled about this, but we reasoned that the non-opening door did not really affect the car's safety. We loaded our bags into the trunk, and our son Andrew got into a back seat littered with straw. (I didn't ask.) I entered the car on the driver's side, squeezed behind the steering wheel, and slid into the passenger seat.
After acquainting himself with the dashboard, my husband Lance turned the key in the ignition, and the motor roared to life. "Bon voyage!" shouted Monsieur Duprès. And off we went, waving affectionately to our kind old friend.
There was no GPS to guide us in the 1990s. Nevertheless, we found our way to the autoroute quite easily with the aid of a trusted Michelin road map. We had decided that we would stop for dinner at about the mid-point of our journey, near Aix-en-Provence, and we came upon a roadside rest stop just as our stomachs were beginning to rumble. The sun was slowly sinking in the western sky, so we decided we'd better locate the headlight switch before entering the restaurant. Lance pulled on a likely knob. It came off in his hand. He replaced it, pushed it in, tried gently pulling it. Nothing happened.
"Look, let's just get some take-out and be on our way. The sun hasn't set yet," said I.
"But…but…" objected Lance.
I won the argument. We ordered sandwiches to go and then climbed back into our car.
Now then, where were the headlights? One by one, Lance tried every other knob on the dashboard. The steering column had a few levers. These activated the turn signal, windshield wipers, and washers. Finally, he discovered a small knob in an inconspicuous place: the four-way flashers! At least they could provide some illumination should darkness fall before we reached our destination. Better than nothing!
We started out, driving as fast as we dared in order to beat the setting sun. Traffic was blessedly light, and for a while, the sun seemed to hover above the horizon. We willed it to stop its descent. However, when other drivers began to flash their lights at us in an attempt to let us know we needed to put our headlights on, and when we ourselves could not see more than a couple of yards—sorry, meters—in front of the car, we knew it was time to use the four-way flashers. We turned them on and pulled into the right lane, reducing our speed. For the next 45 minutes, we scarcely spoke to one another, so focused were we on the road. Lance's knuckles were white on the steering wheel; I felt my mouth go dry. All of the muscles in our body were tense. Each time a car passed us on the left, we had an adrenalin rush, caught in the grip of doubt: could they see us clearly? We heaved a sigh of relief when we found ourselves once again alone on the highway.
Even our son Andrew had fallen silent.
Before this, we'd always enjoyed driving in Europe, where kilometers went by so much more quickly than miles. Now, however, given our slow speed, the kilometer markings seemed maddeningly far apart. The four-way flashers seemed to flicker at times. What if they went out altogether? We banished that thought from our minds. The darker it got, the more slowly we drove.
Not so slowly, however, that we didn't manage to miss the exit ramp for Orange. How did we do that?! By this time, Lance's foot was doing a jig on the accelerator, and I was feeling almost nauseated with fear. Andrew suddenly came alive in the back seat. Typical teenager that he was, he exulted at the stupidity of his parents. He laughed—yes, laughed—when he discovered we had missed the exit.
Somehow, we succeeded in exiting the freeway and in finding our way back into Orange. The hotel, a chambre d'hôte (similar to a B & B), was centrally located, and we heaved a huge sigh of relief when we felt the gravel of the hotel drive beneath our tires. We had arrived! We didn't worry unduly about the headlights: we'd have plenty of time the following day to take the car to a Lancia dealer and get instructions as to how to operate them.
We checked in and fell exhausted into bed.
The following day, after a leisurely breakfast of fresh baguettes, flaky croissants, and strong coffee, we asked the hotel proprietress for directions to the nearest Lancia dealership. Lance was once again at the wheel when we set off, but it wasn't more than ten minutes before the steering wheel itself ceased to function properly. That is to say, it ceased to act the way steering wheels should. It was as if it had become disconnected from the wheels, spinning through his hands in either direction. We gasped! Thank God the brakes still worked!
I cannot tell you how we managed to get to the Lancia repair shop. The steering wheel somehow "engaged" every now and then, allowing us to make turns. Divine intervention most certainly played a role, of that we were sure. Anyway, there we were, attempting to explain to the mechanic what had happened. He'd look at it, no problem. Come back in a couple of hours.
We had envisioned spending our time in Orange visiting the Triumphal Arch and the Museum of Art and History, enjoying a wine tasting at the Château de Beaucastel, strolling through the Orange Cathedral. We had not expected to spend two hours killing time at a downscale shopping center while our Lancia was being examined and diagnosed. When, finally, we returned to the service station, the mechanic emerged from the garage, shaking his head as he wiped his hands on a greasy rag. Behind and above him, we spied the Lancia, elevated on a hydraulic lift, looking most undignified.
"Désolé," he said. Your car is unsafe. I cannot let you drive it away.
What? We were incredulous. How much would it cost to repair?
"Trop," he replied. Too much. "To be honest, the car is not worth salvaging. It should be sold for scrap metal."
We thought our French was relatively fluent. However, truth be told, it was confined to more everyday subjects that did not include axles and gears, driving shafts and steering columns. We thus listened in utter confusion as the mechanic attempted to explain to us just what was ailing our old car. "La plume de ma tante / est sur le bureau de mon oncle," did not begin to bridge the gulf of incomprehension that divided us. We shrugged, left the keys and the car with him, and called a taxi.
Back at our hotel, we went about making phone calls to car rental agencies. Because this was a last-minute rental, we could not take advantage of the discounts that would have been available to us had we rented a car two months in advance through Europcar, as we had originally intended to do. At long last, we found a suitable car and Lance went to fetch it.
We loaded the trunk and prepared to leave.
But there was one more thing we had to do before setting off. We had to phone Monsieur Duprès and explain the whole, sad story to him.
"You call," said Lance.
"No, you call," said I. "I'm not the one who practically shares a name with the car."
"But I'm not the one who made friends with Monsieur Duprès in the first place," retorted Lance.
We flipped a one-franc coin (the Euro didn't exist in 1991). "Heads you win, tails you lose," said Lance.
It came up tails.
I dialed Monsieur Duprès's number. He answered on the first ring.
I summoned my best French to explain what had happened.
The car had broken down, it was unsafe to drive, and—je suis vraiment désolée—we would not be able to return it to him in Salernes.
"Quoi?!" Monsieur Duprès was devastated, for us, of course, but also for his poor old car.
His voice trembling with emotion, he explained that this was not just any old car. He had given it to his late wife for one of her last birthdays, and together they had named it "Bijou" (Jewel). The car may have been a worthless piece of junk, but it had great sentimental value for Monsieur Duprès, a bijou in every sense of the word. The thought that he would never again see it was unbearable to him. Distressed by the depth of his anguish, I felt my heart clench with pity. I expressed my condolences, then gave him the name and phone number of the Lancia dealership.
Convinced that Monsieur Duprès would realize the car's damage was irreparable, saddened by this turn of events but feeling no responsibility and thus no guilt, we continued with our road trip through France, turned in our rental car unscathed, and flew home. We wasted no time in writing to our kind old friend to thank him for his generous gesture and to reiterate our regret that things had not turned out as we had expected them to. Imagine our surprise a few weeks later when we learned that Monsieur Duprès had indeed paid to have "Bijou" repaired (no doubt for a princely sum but he was too discreet to reveal it) and that Ahmad had taken the train to Orange to fetch it. The old car was now back "home," and except for the front passenger door, which still would not open, it was in perfect condition. "Même les phares marchent!" (even the headlights work!) exulted Monsieur Duprès, obviously thrilled that his moribund old friend had been resurrected.
Monsieur Duprès himself, on the other hand, was in declining health, and we never saw him again. Some four years later, Ahmad wrote to us to tell us of the old gentleman's passing. We were deeply touched to have been informed, and the following year, when we returned to France, we made a special trip to Salernes to say hello to Ahmad. As our car bounced along the rutted road that led to Monsieur Duprès's charming old farmhouse, we were surprised to see Bijou, parked just a few meters from the house, looking every bit as run down as she had looked when we first laid eyes on her.
Ahmad welcomed us warmly and treated us to a sumptuous Moroccan meal in "L'Etoile du sud," the restaurant he had set up in a tent on the property. Afterward, we chatted over coffee as thick as mud, and we mentioned Bijou, expressing our astonishment that the car was still there.
Ahmad smiled sadly. "Ah, but I cannot get rid of it." He seemed disinclined to explain, but our curiosity got the best of us, and we begged to know why.
In a voice that was choked with emotion, Ahmad confessed that he had done something "terrible." He beckoned us to follow him to the car, and he opened one of the rear doors.
There, on the floor mat behind the driver's seat, was a gritty substance, grey in color, sandy in texture. "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" we asked. What is it?
"Hélas, ce sont les cendres de Monsieur Duprès," he explained. He had been transporting his master's ashes for burial in the far reaches of the vineyard when the urn tipped over and the ashes spilled out. What could he do? He could hardly sell the car in that condition.
And it would be sacrilegious to attempt to vacuum the ashes out. He shuddered.
We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Ahmad, who was like a son to Monsieur Duprès, was truly upset. We sympathized. But then we reflected on our history with old Bijou, and we saw the humor in her current situation. That decrepit old jalopy had given new meaning to the adage "No good deed goes unpunished." Whereas the punishment usually befalls the do-gooder, in our case, both the good Samaritan—Monsieur Duprès—and we, the beneficiaries of his kindness, were punished. And now here she was, home on the vineyard, cared for like a precious relic. Once a memorial to Madame Duprès, Bijou had been repurposed as the mausoleum of Monsieur Duprès. To think we had once believed her to be beyond help! Had she been endowed with the gift of language, dear Bijou might have said, with Mark Twain, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
As we took our leave of Ahmad, we cast a backward glance at Bijou and committed her, not to the junk heap of wrecked cars but to our memory, where she will live on, rust to rust, ashes to ashes.
About the Author
Mary Donaldson-Evans is a retired academic, living out one of the most common of all post-academic dreams, that of becoming a creative writer, publishing not just for a handful of specialists, but for a wider readership. Her creative work has been published by Lowestoft Chronicle, BoomerLitMag, Halfway Down the Stairs, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Literary Hatchet, and others..