For John Mills French laybys conjure up a defunct Cortina and a lost purse
WE WERE driving back to Calais after a fortnight camping in central France and had stopped at a hypermarket in Limoges to buy the final batch of bargains. We had just about enough money to cover the cost of petrol for the next 500 miles.

With some difficulty, we packed the goods into a space already full of tents and clothing, not to mention two adults and three children and set off. We'd only gone 20 miles before my wife began frantically raking through her handbag. Her purse, with all the remaining money, was nowhere to be found and my heart sank as I remembered where I'd seen it last - on the roof of the car. That was where she'd put it while packing the shopping.

We had no alternative but to stop and I pulled into a layby. Two French cars were already parked there, the occupants now standing outside, deep in conversation. They paid no heed as this mad English couple, now arguing above the cries of their children, jumped out and searched desperately under the seats. No luck. We were stranded without a penny in a car whose tank would be empty at least 200 miles from the coast.

Our daughter Emma, then 10, offered a ray of hope that instantly changed to outrage, as she admitted to seeing the purse drop off. She tearfully explained that she hadn't mentioned it because she'd thought it was just a paper bag. But she did recall roughly where it had fallen, which was at the junction of the hypermarket access road and the dual carriageway. We decided to go back for the purse. We got into our trusty old Cortina, which refused to start for the first time ever. The heat and excess load had obviously over-stretched the engine. Now we were stuck in the middle of France with no money and no transport.

We tried to push the car down the slight incline in a futile attempt to bump-start it in reverse. Our French neighbours chose this moment to make a hasty exit. I don't blame them, really, some swear words are obvious in any language. I thought about hitching but was reluctant to leave my family sitting in a non-functioning car.

I turned the key in the ignition for one final attempt, which was rewarded with a cough and then a roar. To enthusiastic cheering front and rear, I made a U-turn and set off back towards Limoges. As we drove, so the impossibility of the situation dawned. We were travelling back to scour an unknown terrain for a purse which was already likely to have been ripped to pieces. Even if it had fallen by the wayside, surely someone would have laid claim to it?

Minutes later, we were back in the hypermarket car park, but found no sign of the purse. Slowly I drove out and on to the dual carriageway access road. I'm short-sighted but my wife has keen vision, so to her went the initial delight and squeals of pleasure on spotting it. The purse lay where it had fallen, on a grass verge to the right of the car. What's more, although its contents had spilled out, not even the notes or stamps had moved in the hot, still weather. It goes without saying that, except for one petrol stop, we didn't pause until we reached England.