Bumping into Belgians on holiday

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IT WAS hot and we had the windows down, going about 30mph on a narrow, twisting road in Cornwall; Madonna was singing 'Rain, feel it on my fingertips.' Cindy said: 'This is an absolutely crap song.'

I said: 'No, no - this is one of her best.'

'Oh, just turn it down]'

Steve, in the back, said: 'Well, at least it's not about her masturbating - that's one thing, anyway.' We slid round another corner, flasks and bottles and brightly-coloured beach items rattling around in the back of the Golf. We were less than a minute from the beach, and, even though we didn't know it yet, less than half a minute away from the Belgians.

I said: 'The best thing is, she almost sounds like Karen Carpenter in parts.'

'Oh, shut up]'

We were staying on a remote part of the north Cornish coast, very picturesque, spending our money in the Costcutter supermarket in St Ives, which had so many kinds of cola they had to stack it in the aisles as well as on the shelves. Most of the other shops were emporia of T-shirts, filthy postcards, fatty foods. Was this the Britain we were so keen to preserve from the onslaught of Europe? What on earth would people who weren't slobs make of the place? Every few minutes, we drove past a Mercedes or a Peugeot or a Volvo with a Continental number plate; what did these people want? Had they come to buy cards depicting men with preposterously large penises? Had they come to shake off the oppressive highbrow atmosphere of their own countries? Hardly.

We could see the rocks and the trees and the dark, almost electric blue of the sea, and we could even see the car park we were about to park in, when the Belgians hit us. Or did we hit the Belgians? Cindy swung the car round a bend, and there was a car coming the other way, with a foreign numberplate. But did any of us notice the numberplate at this point? Or only afterwards? Then - crack] - something really odd seemed to happen; my perception of time altered slightly, going backwards to the moment before impact. I heard the loud, rending bang, and felt the car fishtail off to the side of the road, and thought: they're going to hit us if we're not careful . . . that little foreign car's going to hit us . . . maybe he's driving on the wrong side of the road because that's what he's used to . . . what will happen if he does hit us . . . will anybody be hurt?

The Golf slid to a halt on the gravel run-off area by the side of the road. Nobody was hurt. Cindy said: 'Shit] Shit]' Then nobody said anything for 15 seconds; it would have seemed like speaking out of turn. Crash etiquette: you defer to the driver, who will have more to say than you.

'Shit] That's all I need] That. Is all I need.'

You never expect it, a car crash. Every day, you squeeze between double-parked cars, you overtake with inches to spare, you reverse right past the point in your mind when you'll pulverise the car behind you, and nothing ever happens. So when it does, you don't quite believe it. I sat there, mentally still pre-accident, hysterical but quiet, thinking: we can still avoid it, if we squeeze round a bit more. Look] That needn't happen]

'Shit] My no-claims bonus] How much is this going to cost me? Shit]' Madonna was singing 'Here co-omes the-e su-un]'

Steve said: 'Let's sort it out] Come on]'

Cindy didn't move; she still had some cursing to do. The other car was a tiny Citroen. Cindy said: 'It's just . . . it's just that I can't be bothered with this. I can't be bothered. I don't . . . I don't need this]'

The owner of the Citroen, a tall man in white jeans and a polo shirt, was walking towards us. We got out of the car. Cindy looked at the damage and said: 'Oh no] Oh God]' From her tone, I expected part of the car to be shredded, at least, but I had to look twice to see any damage at all. But, yes, there was something - the panel in front of the wheel was buckled, about what you'd imagine if someone had hit it with a baseball bat.

The man arrived; the fact that he had made up the ground between the two cars seemed like a sort of victory for him; he wasn't hiding. He said, in a French-ish accent: 'I'm afraid you crossed the line.'

Steve said: 'Well, I'm not sure about that.' Cindy walked a few paces away, turned, and stalked back, cursing. Cars passed, passengers' heads craning round to get a good look. The man led Steve back to his car; his wife was leaning against it, looking forlorn. He opened the door and took a stack of documents out of the glove compartment, and put them on the roof of the car. He was Belgian, organised, full of bureaucracy.

I introduced myself to his wife. She said: 'We have been looking at churches and some other things. What is it? A tin mine.'

'Do you like it here?'

'Yes. But today is the only nice day]'

Steve said: 'Technically, actually, if you work it out, you must have crashed into us.'

'But no - you were over the line.'

'No, but - I can draw you a diagram if you like.'

'What diagram?'

Steve drew a picture of one rectangle intersecting another rectangle. He said: 'You see, your front hit our side.'

'Ah, yes, but it doesn't . . . mean anything. Not really.'

'We-ell. Maybe not. We'll see, anyway.'

The Belgian continued with his form, tearing off a duplicate, behaving as if he were behind a Perspex counter. He said to Cindy: 'So. This is for you. You 'ave to sign . . . 'ere.'

Cindy walked over. She signed, and walked away again. The Belgian woman said: 'You are all very civilised. This is the most civilised place to have a car crash. You should have seen us in Italy.'

Steve said: 'Well, thanks.'

Cindy muttered: 'Well, I still think it

was your fault.' But the Belgians didn't hear her. Then we got into the car and drove 50 yards to the beach.