TO COME back from spending a holiday - a self-catering holiday at that - with two friends not wanting to smash their faces in must be considered some kind of a triumph. It didn't begin promisingly. Hitting a bird on the motorway - it shot out in a graceful arc from a bank of trees and glanced off the bonnet like a pebble: thwunk! - had to be seen as an unfavourable portent. The strange whining noise which developed somewhere about the vehicle as we hurtled southwards was even less auspicious. We leaned to the left. We leaned forward. We leaned to the right. No-one could decide where the noise was coming from. Like some primitive form of cruise control, it abated at 50mph. "Just get us to the ferry on time," we prayed, not even daring to think about the consequences of breaking down in France.

Ten kilometres up the road after disembarkation, just as we'd shaken free of the last GB-stickered car, the noise, to which we'd all grown happily accustomed - wot larks! - suddenly got very much worse. Within seconds it became a knocking, a clanking, then a definitive bang, sending us shrieking on to the hard shoulder with an impressively shredded tyre. Staring into a roadside telephone, I felt this was not the moment to worry about the pronounciation of that tricky French word, pneu. Er, er, we are en panne, the car ne marche pas... it's the ... (deep, desperate breath) puh-neugh! What's wrong with the pneu, came back the bland, official voice. Yesss! I got it right! A faint air of holiday hilarity was maintained all through the ensuing wait of several hours at a local garage, if anything intensifying when nice M Armand pointed out that he did not accept Visa and smilingly relieved us of most of our holiday cash.

Strict financial equity was the key to good relations. Thank god for the prix fixe: no arguments about "but I didn't have a dessert". No, the main problem was the unconscious adoption of holiday roles. Used to travelling alone, we felt like parents of adolescents, faintly alarmed by the presence of these suddenly unknowable, unfeasibly large and fretful people on the back seat. Because we'd been to this particular village many times before, because it had been our idea, we felt honour bound to chivvy, organise and worry. "What would you like to do today?" we'd chirp, anxiously peering for the least sign of discontent. "Kids settled?" we'd mutter to each other, having dropped them off at the pool, the beach, the cafe. Thankfully, at the merest sight of the sea they would rush off with strange, inarticulate cries, and not be seen for hours. At the end of 10 days, tempers had been maintained, and it was with enthusiasm that we decided, rather than divvy up the leftover beer and wine, to have a "we survived the holiday and we still like each other" party some weeks hence - when we can bear to look at one another again.

Holidays exist in a strange Narnia-space; you tumble into them, into a land of (if you're lucky) eternal summer, where customs and costumes are altogether different - then you tumble back out again, with no time having elapsed. The reduction from being King in Cair Paravel to becoming a wartime schoolboy can't have been more of a jolt than turning from beach bum and bon viveur back into pokey flat-dweller. Somehow you expect someone to have done your washing and paid your bills in the interim. It's awful the way your life just sits and waits malevolently for your return, like a moggie you once unwisely gave a saucer of cream to.

We did manage to drop some shackles of normality while away: I gave up washing after day three, preferring to develop a light herb and salt crust, like a rack of lamb. B began to sport Loud Trousers. We got driver / navigator complementary tans: my left arm and his right. I hasten to add that the customary washing, brushing and depilation recommenced on our return. Oh well, it's not too bad to be back. Several days in a caravan does prompt the melancholy reflection that living in close quarters means a great deal of time spent listening to other people urinate. This is followed quickly by the even more melancholy observation that they have to listen to you.

Comments