John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Dead car, fuming drivers, toxic air, lynch mob, AA van, police, tow truck – and it was all my fault'
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The Independent Online

A recent study of Near Death Experiences at Coventry University (the study was at the university, that is, not the near-deaths) reveals two basic types of Hell. “Some [witnesses] describe a kind of void – an absence of experience, a feeling that there really is nothing at all after life,” said Tony Lawrence, a lecturer in psychology. “But there are also NDEs that are obviously very negative. They often involve a feeling of being dragged down into a pit, rather than a tunnel, and sometimes have demons involved. What little research has been done makes fairly clear that these ‘hellish’ experiences are very rare...”

Oh yeah? Not that rare. I had one only last week. It didn’t involve a medical emergency, but it featured many elements described by Mr Lawrence. It happened when my car broke down in theRotherhithe tunnel.

It’s a brand-new Alfa Romeo, fresh from Milan, red and gleaming, and I’m not going to speculate why it suddenly died onme. One minute I was listening toCharlotte Green reading the news on Radio 4; next, I had a moribund car on my hands. I pumped the accelerator. I poked the ignition button. Nothing. It was as dead as Celebrity Big Brother. I stared at the windscreen, wondering: could there be a worse place in England to break down? The Rotherhithe tunnel is old, Victorian and terribly thin.

It harks back to the days when all cars were as slender as prams. Two modern cars can pass each other with half an inch of clearance, no more. I was triumphantly blocking several thousand cars heading home in rush hour. I felt as if I’d stopped to tie my shoelaces, and got stuck in that posture, during the Pamplona bull-run.

The driver behind helped me heave the stricken Alfa on to the pavement, leaving only 75 per cent of its bulk still poking into the roadway. Cars began to honkderisively. I offered my critics the first of a hundred raised-hands gestures of apology. I switched on the hazard lights and thought: what would Jeremy Clarkson do? (I expect he’d have a miniscooter in the boot, which he could ride, withmacho insouciance, to the nearest mechanic.) I rang the AA on my mobile but there was no signal. I lifted a yellow emergency phone (they supposedly connect you to “Motorway services”) and listened to the sound of blankness for two minutes. I lifted another, 100 yards away, and another....

So began a nightmare walk of shame along miles of subterranean Rotherhithe, past myriad cars becalmed in Indian- summer heat. Their irritated drivers, wondering what had gone wrong, perhaps guessed it might have something to do with the guy in the worsted suit striding guiltily along, drenched in sweat and choking. Most drivers shut their windowsin the tunnel to avoid the carbon monoxide fumes; now, the fumes were all I had to breathe.

I made it to the tunnel entrance, rang the AA and begged them to hurry. “There should be a breakdown service with you in up to 50 minutes,” said the voice. “That’s no good,” I quavered. “Can’t you tell this is an emergency? I am holding up the traffic, right back to Canary Wharf. The mood of the crowd is turning ugly. I am too young to die.” She asked if I’d rung the police: “It’s a police matter, you see, breaking down in the tunnel¿” Oh great. Along with the dead car, the fuming motorists, the CO toxins and the prevailing air of lynch mob, there’d soon be an AA van, the police and a breakdown truck crowding into the tunnel. And it was all my fault. I tried to think, but my mind became a kind of void, as noted by Coventry University.

On the way back to the car, perspiring like Meat Loaf in a sauna, I had visions of my brand-new car as a smouldering wreck, its winking hazard lights hanging off, the windscreen smashed, the word “Pillock” painted on the roof¿ Then I saw lights winking and there it was – miraculously unscathed, as most of south-east London seethed and serpentined around it. Overhead, a police Tannoy helpfully directed “the owner of the stationary car” to ring a mobile number – an eventuality that remained, as itwere, a signal impossibility.

Feeling like someone dragged into a pit to be assaulted by demons, I climbed inside to wait. There passed a half-hour Iwould sooner forget, as drivers inched by, most of them gazing back to see what class of idiot breaks down in a tunnel. Instead of my terribly-sorry hands, I now employed a sad, head-shaking gesture to indicate that the driver had abandoned me, and I too was a victim. It seemed to work, but I was still mercilessly gang-beeped. Amazingly, secondary rows broke out when one driver, stopping to let another get by, left insufficient room and they flashed lights and abused each other without noticing me. Some motorists were sympathetic. They offered jump-leads. They offered bad-luck-mate-we’ve-all-beenthere smiles. A pair of Asian ladies slowed down to ask: “Are you all right? Can I ring someone for you?” and I ponderedon the kindness of strangers, the decency of the human race, and whether the Good Samaritan would have been a sympathetic motorist.

The AA man turned up, followed by the police breakdown van. Its burly driver parked in front of my car and prepared to tow it away. “You got a towin’ eye?” he asked. I knew there was one in the boot, opened it with my electronic key and rummaged ignorantly inside. The manfound the tool tucked into the spare wheel, and I shut the boot with a bang. “Stick the key in the ignition, mate,” said the man, “and we’ll get out of here.” And that, gentle reader, was when I discovered I’d locked the electronic key in the boot – which (of course) could be opened only by the key that was now inside....

Hell? Oh stop it. It’ll be a breeze after theRotherhithe tunnel.