We – that’s myself, Mrs C and our one-year-old Mary – travelled to Wycombe on Friday afternoon to visit a relative.
None of us was in a good mood. Mary was furious because the batteries had run out on her favourite toy (a pig that, when pressed, lights up, snorts, and says five times in a row ‘I’m a fat little piggy and I talk all the day’ - I feel almost certain it will get accidentally thrown in the grey bin before the month is out).
Mrs C was unhappy because she was being forced to visit my Aunty Elsie, who owns seven cats and rarely cleans, thus the house has a certain odour and it is impossible to sit on the settee without, upon standing up again, having roughly half a tonne of fur attached to your trousers.
I don’t mind this – I find a layer of cat hair adds to the look of your jeans – and I also love visiting my aunt because she has a glorious habit of repeating the same stories.
The last 12 times I have visited, for instance, she has told me at length about the time the cat she owned in the 1950s – Bobby – was sitting on the back doorstep lazing in the sun when a leaf drifted down off a tree and landed on his head, causing him to leap up and run off. ‘And do you know,’ she’d say, leaning forward in her chair as if about to impart a grave secret, glint in her eye (eye singular – she lost the other in an archery accident while on holiday in Llandudno), ‘from that day onwards he never ever lay in that spot again.’
“Really?” I’d reply, attempting to sound astonished despite the fact I’d heard the story – if you can call it that - a dozen times before, “that’s incredible isn’t it.”
Aunty Elsie has owned about 35 cats over the years and all are buried in her back garden in plastic carrier bags. I know this because my dad was the unfortunate person tasked with burying them. Alas he never made a record of where he’d put them, so many he’d be digging a hole to bury the latest fatality when he’d accidentally unearth a moggy he’d laid to rest several years earlier. If the police ever dug up my Aunty Elsie’s back garden, she’d immediately be arrested on suspicion of being one of Britain’s most prolific feline serial killers.
So Mary and Mrs C were in a hump, and I was annoyed too, simply because we were on the M6 on a Friday afternoon – which, as regular motorists will know, is not the ideal time to be heading south along a stretch of road less motorway, more giant car showroom.
We broke the journey by stopping at a service station where I ordered two coffees, along with a couple of cheese sandwiches that looked as though they were suffering from a terminal disease.
The woman at the till – miserable as sin but I’ll forgive her for I would be too if I was scanning cheese sandwiches at Watford Gap services – pressed some buttons and said without any shame whatsoever, ‘that’ll be £16.95 please’.
I staggered slightly to my left as if I’d been thumped in the stomach by a burly assailant and said ‘you’ve got to be joking’ – which was an ill-judged remark as her miserable features had clearly never told a joke in their life.
She stared at me as if surveying a weed in her garden and said nothing, so to break the impasse I was left with no other option than to meekly hand over my credit card.
The sandwich is difficult to describe. It was one very thin piece of what might have been cheese but could just as easily have been cardboard, shoved between two slices of bread that I can only assume had passed their best before date at some point in the previous calendar year.
I managed two bites before I could sense my insides holding up a placard reading ‘Have Mercy, No More’.
Service stations are very odd places. In a world where we’ve managed to make vast improvement on almost everything to do with customer service, they are the last bastions – determined to remain as sub-standard as ever to the end.
At every service station there is usually the following: a WH Smith’s, some slot machines, a burger bar, and another food outlet with a highly-misleading name like ‘Express Service’ or ‘Fresh Foods’ where behind glass counters stand bowls of cottage pie and lasagne that look like they have been cooking in the oven since the early 1980s.
The one area where service stations excel are the toilets. They are always in excellent nick and have those hi-tech Dyson hand-dryers, into which you stick your hand and then, 2.5 seconds later, take your hands out to discover they are completely dry, though on the downside you’ve lost the skin off both palms.
Stuck in heavy traffic, suffering indigestion from the one bite I took of my cheese sandwich, rubbing Savlon into my blistered palms, Mrs C not speaking, Mary screaming, we completed our journey to Wycombe.
‘Oh it’s lovely to see you,’ said Elsie when we arrived. ‘Come and have a cup of tea and I’ll tell you about the time a leaf fell on Bobby…’