Picking up the pieces

Matthew Gwyther joins the recovery service truckers, waiting for an acc ident to happen
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The Independent Culture
IT'S DUSK on a Friday evening and Stuart Tombling of the Green Meadow garage is out in his 59/12 Iveco lift truck. He is attending to a Rover 213 owned by a mechanical engineering student who was out to buy a lottery ticket with the aim of buying himselfa better car. A little bit of oil on the high-tension leads and the problem is fixed in a couple of minutes.

In the run-up to Christmas, Tombling and fellow mechanics will attend to more incidents like this than at any other time of year. Like domestic rows and drink driving, breakdowns and accidents peak in the festive season.

Recovery services like Green Meadow, based near Swindon, receive most of their work from the car clubs; the AA and the RAC enlist them when their own vans are too pressed to attend. But the smallest and fastest-growing club, National Breakdown, has askedGreen Meadow's owner, Paul Titcombe, to sort out every breakdown in his allotted patch.

The money is not overly impressive - £18-£30 to attend an incident, more if recovery of the vehicle is necessary. But breakdown mechanics can't argue that it's a thankless task: unlike police officers and traffic wardens, they're always given an ecstaticwelcome by motorists.

National Breakdown wants recovery at the scene within 35 minutes; if it takes longer than an hour, the member is entitled to £10 compensation. On the Friday I spend with Green Meadow, there are 22 fitters on-call from four separate bases around Wiltshireand Berkshire.

Among them is Stuart Tombling, the mechanic assigned to take me out on the road on a typical winter's night. The first two hours are uneventful, but at 5.30pm the police alert us to a "lone female" who has broken down on the M4 with a child - this is thestuff that stirring RAC television commercials are made of. Such calls receive priority. "If someone breaks down on the motorway, we drop everything," says Stuart en route. "Normally the driver will have seen the warning signals on the dashboard but just keeps going instead of stopping."

Three emergency phones to the west of Junction 16 we find, as reported, Miranda Bennett, an ex L'Oreal technician, tears now dried, with her two-year-old son Joshua. Parked in front of her on the hard shoulder is a patrol car from the Wiltshire police. The motorway is dense with high-speed traffic. "Oh gosh, I didn't know what to do," says Mrs Bennett. "The radio stopped, the lights went off and the car slowed down. I just panicked, especially with the little one. You hear these awful stories, don't you?"

Mrs Bennett's car is towed away; working on a car on a motorway hard shoulder in the rush-hour is too risky. One of the wires leading to the alternator in her Astra diesel estate had shorted after rubbing against a bracket. She had been driving from Oxford to her home in Weston-super-Mare when it happened.

"I was expected home at 6 o'clock," she says. "My husband has a broken leg, and we're supposed to be moving in two weeks' time. He did it playing rugby, didn't he? Naughty daddy."

Stuart fixes the problem and charges up her battery. She is not a member of a club and so has to pay - £45 plus VAT. "If her washing machine broke down she'd pay more than that, and I bet that was far less trouble," says Stuart.

At 8pm, he picks up a large McDonald's takeaway on the way back to base. In the yard at the back are the RTA (road traffic accident) cars, kept there until they have been inspected by insurance companies. They are an unnerving sight. A Mini has received a rear-end impact so great that the back wheels are under the driver's seat. It looks as if a crusher has half finished with it. "The guy came in two hours afterwards because he wanted to collect his tapes," says Stuart. "He was a bit bruised."

The garage owner, Paul Titcombe, escorts me to a mud-covered wreck in the yard and shines his torch on it. "This Metro came off the motorway," he says. "Shot through a fence, 85ft into a field, topping and tailing. The woman didn't even have a bruise on her. All she said was `Lucky it didn't roll over'."

Stuart Tombling continues the ghoulish tour. "That one came off by Junction 15," he says, pointing to a brand new, severely smashed VW camper-van. "Sadly the woman passenger was killed." Mechanics don't like seeing the human after-effects of RTAs. Human carnage is not their line of work. They always try to arr- ive at the scene after the ambulances have left.

At 9.30pm another Green Meadower, Shane Drinkwater, is sent out to fetch a stricken Cavalier. He has an HGV licence and works solely as a driver, so ends up doing a lot of the long-distance recovery work. He particularly dislikes contraflow recovery jobs, when the garage is hired by the local council during roadworks to get broken-down cars off the motorway fast. "It's frightening," he says. "There are only two lanes and both are occupied. There's no hard shoulder. People come round the bends and swervequickly. You just have to watch your back the whole time, get one strap on a wheel and get off quick."

The ailing Cavalier is eventually winched on board. It has a large hole blown in the side of its radiator but at 10pm its irritable owner, Martin Byrnes, is sitting in the recovery truck on his way back home to Stroud. Desperate not to miss "pub night" after a week of gruelling factory nightshifts, he is working out possible pub arrival times. ETA around 10.25pm, he thinks. "Should be all right for a couple before closing," I say. "It's gotta be six," he replies.

At 10.30pm, things go quiet. This leaves a control room full of fitters, sitting around and waiting, literally, for an accident to happen. It is anecdote time. Billy, a big man with the polished delivery of a stand-up comic, begins the lengthy tale of the time he was sent out to a Mercedes hearse with a body-bagged, frozen corpse in the boot. (The punchline involves the use of a hair dryer to fit the deceased into a coffin.) There is plenty of laughter, but the garage owner, Paul Titcombe, is getting jittery. What has happened to all the action?

At 10.45pm the phone is silent. "It's the quietest Friday night we've ever had," Paul mutters, thinking about the thousands of pounds'-worth of truck sitting idly on the forecourt. "Sleet, snow, rain, hail," he intones like a mantra, longing for action. "A plague of frogs?" I ask. "If it makes `em skid," he replies.

The conversation turns to "The Trumpton", as the fire brigade are known - particularly their excessive zeal for their favourite toy, the hydraulic bolt cutters. Stuart recalls them coming out to a minor shunt: "The woman's car had a bit of bonnet, headlight and bumper [ie damage]. That was all. But she said she had a bad back, so off came the roof and they lifted her out." Someone then recounts the story of some teeth found embedded in a dashboard. Paul remains unamused, then suddenly perks up.

"What about the closure of the M4, between Junction 11 and 12 next month?" he says. "What a shame!" The building of a new service station will give Paul just what he wants for Christmas - a queue of overheating traffic diverted right past his garage in Newbury. He'll be by the phone and fax, waiting. . .