tagNon-EroticHell on the Highway

Hell on the Highway


Dad's new car was a Triumph. Actually, it wasn't really new and was not much of a triumph either. He was proud as punch, though, bringing our first family car home the evening before our annual week's summer holiday.

Holidays were a trying time back in those days, the early 1960s. For the short six weeks of the school holidays, the weekends became like the migration of lemmings. The English road system was pretty much as had existed since the 1930s, when there were probably more horse-drawn vehicles rutting the newly-metalled surfaces than those of the petrol driven variety.

Dad had always had a motorcycle and, as the eldest and only boy, I would cling like a limpet onto Dad's back wherever we roamed. Meanwhile, Mum and my two young sisters, plus most of the luggage (other than what could be stuffed into two bike panniers) went by bus, underground, coach, train or whatever combination was available, to seaside resorts like Clacton, Southend, Margate or Hastings. The acquisition of the motor car meant we could travel together and venture further, even unto the holy grail of the West Country. Yes, Paignton, in the county of Devon, became our destination of choice for the family's first venture on its own wheels.

I can't recall the actual year, but was 1962 or 1963, fifty years ago, when I was twelve or thirteen. The car was a two-door Triumph Herald, painted in fashionable two-tone sky blue and white. It wasn't brand spanking new, but looked it, the model only launched a year or two earlier. My Uncle Pete was a used car dealer, based in Central London, and he secured the car for us, assuring my Dad that he'd bought one genuinely pukka motor. It certainly gleamed with its fresh wax coat, sitting in the street outside our two-up-two-down. At one time, I remember, there was only one car in our street, of about sixty terraced houses, about three doors up from us, away from Merton High Street; but we were late entrants in the mobilisation game and by then the street had started to fill up with vehicles of various vintages. We felt quite grand though.

We set off for our week's summer holiday just after dawn, with Mum and Dad seated in front, me and my two sisters cramped in the back. No child safety seats, not even seat belts. The girls, so much more organised than I, packed "I-spy" books and pencils. They were highly competitive: one would have had a book covering road signs, the other no doubt featuring farm or wild animals to spot and tick off; leaving me the one on dinosaurs!

No motorways in our south-west direction. The country only had one major highway, the new M1 which ran north from London. Trunk roads were mainly single lanes, with short dual-carriageway stretches around ancient towns. My brother-in-law now lives in Exmouth, and tells me that travelling between home and Kingston takes him just over four hours. Back in the '60s we allowed ourselves ten hours, leaving Wimbledon at 5am, hoping to arrive in Paignton about 3pm, and be unpacked and settled in before the hotel served High Tea.

That last weekend in July, immediately the schools broke up, was a scorcher, with blue skies and the rising sun to our backs. I can see the route on the map now but my overriding memory of the A30 was a series of short "bypasses", some of them nowadays barely recognisable as such. In the 1960s they were loops around congested town centres avoiding local traffic. These new stretches of tarmac were surrounded by fields, or lined with spacious suburban houses. Now swallowed up by further ribbon and infill developments, and themselves need to be avoided by more recent ring roads.

The first bypass of note we reached was Basingstoke, which we soon discovered was almost gridlocked. We moved at funeral walking pace as cars at the front of the queue extricated themselves from the mess like corks from a bottle. We sat stewing in our glass and steel fermenter.

The car started playing up. We were not alone in this. Littering grass verges, cars stopped, surrounded by more steam than the marshalling yards at Clapham Junction. Suspicious wisps began to seep from our bonnet, too, and Dad had the car heater fans running full blast deflecting heat from the engine, turning the saloon car's interior into a dripping sauna. All our windows were open as far as they would go; why do back windows only wind down halfway? We three kids were hot and frazzled, bitchy and resorted to pinching each other, with Dad threatening to stop and "sort" us out. Only incurring the anger of the motorist immediately behind, prevented Dad venting his frustrations through the palm of his hand.

"It's them!" I protested.

"It's 'im!" the girls chorused in rehearsed harmony, "Make 'im stop, Mum!"

They displayed evil grins while our parents faced front, transforming instantly to poker-playing mavericks or cherubic angels whenever Mum looked round. I slumped in my seat immediately behind Dad sullenly, I never won conflicts with my young sisters back then. I was Poland between Germany and Russia, I never stood an earthly.

Idling in traffic made us hungry, we kids were permanently hungry then. Places to stop for breakfast were limited. For a start pubs were out. They didn't open until late morning and were the adult male preserve of boozers; the only snacks being plain crisps, with a twisted blue bag of optional salt. If you wanted food, there were either posh restaurants or cafés. Even cafés came in two kinds, the smart tea-shop with tiny cup handles you couldn't get your fingers in, or transport cafés ("kaffs"), where dark stewed tea came in mugs with handles us kids could fit our fists in.

We could have stopped at a fancy place, we children had cashed in our National Savings stamps. I remember the ones with Prince Charles on were half a crown, Princess Anne stamps just sixpence. I probably had three or four pounds saved from my sixpence a week pocket money, plus any accumulation from Christmas, birthday and penny-for-the-guy.

We could afford a smart restaurant, and we travelled in our Sunday best in those days, stiff collar and school tie, jacket, trousers, shiny shoes. It was Dad's decision, he was the knight of the road. So we stopped at a transport café.

It was a wooden building, originally erected temporarily to cater for armoured tanks and troop transporters heading to Salisbury Plains for the war effort, held together by twenty coats of flaking paint. Inside everything was brown from the smoke of countless untipped Woodbines, consumed non-stop by drivers convinced the habit was healthy, keeping debilitating ailments at bay. For Mum and us kids, this visit was to another world, galaxies away from the Lyons Tea House, High Street "Betty's", or the fab Wimpy which had recently opened where the trolley buses stopped at the bottom of Wimbledon Hill.

The parking area was full of trucks and the outside toilets were smelly, as if something had crawled in there, died and gradually fossilising.

"This is a good sign," Dad jollied us, referring to the parking rather than the ablution block, "All these truck drivers know the best places to eat."

We were tired and hungry, fed up after being cooped up in our tin can for over three hours to travel just 30 miles. If Dad had bought us all pushbikes instead of the car, we'd have been halfway there by now.

The counter was filled with trays of greasy eggs, bangers, bacon, chips, beans and fried bread but what held our rapt attention was the lady serving. Nothing really extraordinary about her: fat, red-faced, wearing a grubby apron with tiny printed flowers on it, a scarf tied round her dyed-blonde hair, laterally knotted in front.

No, what fascinated us kids, ages evenly distributed between twelve and eight, was the cigarette hanging from her ruby lips, with an inch of fag ash quivering on the end, poised to drop onto our runny eggs. She served up our plates, chatted to Dad, wiped her greasy hands down her pinny, totted up the price, saying "That'll be eight'n'fo'rpence, ducks!" and returned the change from a ten-bob note, all without that ash dropping. She even sucked on it once, glowing embers lengthening that ash by a further quarter-inch, and still it clung on like a sailor's new girl facing an ebbing tide.


The Honiton bypass was a legend in its own lifetime. Steaming cars haphazardly decorated the verges of that hellish highway like beached whales, their drivers furiously flapping cooling blankets or kicking frustratingly at tyres or their kids. Society was more tolerant of public displays of measured violence then. Impromptu picnics erupted on the tawny grass like spring flowers, cheerful spouses determined to enjoy the sunshine despite their husband's tribulations. Driving seemed to be a male preserve then, neither my mother or mother-in-law ever ventured behind the wheel.

Straw-chewing locals emerged from their chocolate-box cottages to observe our caribou-like migrations across the tarmac'd tundra. I guess the yokels hadn't got the telly down their way yet.

Dad was ever the independent type. He wouldn't ask strangers for help, including water. The car was steaming like a locomotive on an impossible incline, but it was Mum, the non-driver, who had to fetch water from the next petrol station, while the car crawled along, narrowing the return walk. Nobody sold spring water bottles in those days. We drank Tizer by preference to Thames tap water mixed with Robertson's Barley Water or other cordials, and I suppose we'd have had a couple of empty bottles that Mum trolled off on foot with. She ended up doing that several times, with us kids in tow to carry more bottles. I think it took us four hours to crawl the couple of miles past Honiton. Overall, Wimbledon to Paignton took us 13 hours, an average of about 12 miles an hour.

We didn't see much of Dad during that week's holiday. He had to hunt down new hoses and cut them to size for the cooling system. When we did get to use the car for excursions, the Devon lanes were so deeply sunken that we couldn't see anything but dusty hedgerows. Several times on these motoring perambulations we got stuck behind tractors or combine harvesters. Why, more than a century and a half since we were last an agrarian economy, do school holidays still coincide with harvest time, when rural roads are choked with agricultural vehicles?

All too soon, as is the wont of summer holidays, came the trip back home.

The sun had beaten down relentlessly for six days. On the seventh day, the sun decided on a day of rest. The weather changed completely. The Friday was merely overcast but Saturday became a monsoon. It was only then we discovered that the Herald wasn't watertight, not by a long way. Rain lashed down, coming through the windscreen seals, spraying up through the closed doors, flowing like waterfalls through quarter lights and side windows. We were soaked all the way home.

We were stuck once more at most of the same bypasses and it took us a good ten hours of miserable motoring to get home, where we found the luggage boot was full of water.

Dad took the car back to Uncle Pete on Sunday and it was no more. We quietly heard from our cousins that the Herald was an insurance write-off which had been cut in two and welded back together, and the damaged panels replaced from a second car which had sustained back end damage. Uncle Pete's partner had handled the car and unaware or uncaring that the vehicle was earmarked for a relative.

We were back using Dad's motorbike. A year later, Dad bought a brand new car, from a main dealer, a big and solid Morris Oxford, which he drove for sixteen years, maintaining it in showroom condition all that time.

And Uncle Pete? Well, next time we saw him he had a black eye, split lip and a plaster across the bridge of his nose. My sisters and I looked at each other but mutually agreed, for just once in our lives, that discretion was the better path.

The end

Report Story

bySpencerfiction© 5 comments/ 6021 views/ 2 favorites

Share the love

Similar stories

Tags For This Story

Report a Bug

1 Pages:1

Please Rate This Submission:

Please Rate This Submission:

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Please wait
by Anonymous

If the above comment contains any ads, links, or breaks Literotica rules, please report it.

There are no recent comments (5 older comments) - Click here to add a comment to this story or Show more comments or Read All User Comments (5)

Add a

Post a public comment on this submission (click here to send private anonymous feedback to the author instead).

Post comment as (click to select):

Refresh ImageYou may also listen to a recording of the characters.

Preview comment

Forgot your password?

Please wait

Change picture

Your current user avatar, all sizes:

Default size User Picture  Medium size User Picture  Small size User Picture  Tiny size User Picture

You have a new user avatar waiting for moderation.

Select new user avatar: