Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'We will avoid rows with all French motorists, and not shout, "The real mistake was liberating you!" at them'
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The Independent Online

In ten hours we are scheduled to leave for a four-day break in Normandy and I am not ashamed to admit that for the last two hours I have been walking around the house looking like a travel rep, with a clipboard, ticking both things and people off. Louis has been ticked off for eating the Fairtrade cereal bars I had bought for the long car journey and Matthew has been ticked off for teasing me relentlessly about my clipboard and my new, clipped manner of speaking.

Other things that have been ticked off are the dogs - but only in as much as the clipboard entry, "Take dogs to Maureen's" now has a tick by it. Louis' geckos and my new tortoise, Miles, have gone to stay with my brother in Dorset, and the passports are in a clear plastic folder with the train tickets and a goodly supply of euros. And the packing, all but toothbrushes etc, has been done.

All that remains to be ticked on my list is a sub-list, a separate check-list if you like, that deals solely with the behaviour of Matthew on the journey. I did miraculously get him to sign on the dotted line under the part which reads "I hereby agree to adhere to the rules as stated above." If he breaks the agreement in any way he has to give me a large amount of money that will be disposed of in the Robert Clergerie shop in Deauville.

The rules all relate to things that Matthew must agree not to do. I have found it necessary to draw up such a list after an unspeakable return from Italy last year that culminated with an apparently serious threat to protest against the non-appearance of a suitcase by committing suicide.

Matthew's plan, as told to three British Airways officials (all with clipboards), was to drink a litre of a cocktail of his own making. It would be mixed from duty-free vodka, Ambre Solaire, Nurofen Plus and insect repellent. After downing the lethal mixture, he said, he would lie on the luggage carousel and wait to die.

If Matthew is not the man with whom to mix socially in a luggage hall, far less is he the man with whom to drive to France. The potential combustion points are far to numerous, so I have restricted the list to five checkpoints as follows:

1) We will leave at 7am sharp, with no borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder returns to the house.

2) We will take the normal route and not have yet another stab at the "short cut" to the M25 via Chessington World of Adventures.

3) In no way will we be facetious with customs or security at the Channel Tunnel.

4) We will queue patiently at Folkestone.

5) Once on French soil we will avoid rows with all French motorists, but especially truckers, even if they do carve us up, and not shout, "The real mistake was liberating you!" at them.

By 8.37am we are lost somewhere between Chessington World of Adventures and Gatwick, having returned to the house three times, once to check that the front door was double-locked, once to check that in checking that the front door was double-locked Matthew didn't unlock one of the locks and once to retrieve the keys that had been left in the lock while he was checking that one of the locks had not been unlocked.

The sat-nav, which I was told we would not be needing but which I smuggled into the car anyway, has now been fixed to the windscreen and Matthew is having his first argument with it. This at least takes some of the pressure off me. I retreat to the back seat, pushing Louis into the front, and, after inscribing two large X's on my clipboard next to points 1) and 2), pretend to be asleep until Folkestone, or until I hear the first early warning signals that Matthew is preparing a facetious remark.

As we drive through check-in he starts murmuring to himself, trying something out for size, rolling a little quip, around his mouth and then, with a goading glance at me, he drives through without a word, just a pleasant smile. I tick number 3) and dare to hope that this bodes well for the rest of the journey.

In getting out of the car to complain that the queues either side of us were being waved on to the train first, Matthew bangs his head on the car door. Normally when he does this during a long journey it is intentional and done in double time to the following mantra, "What is the point, what is the bloody point." This time, though, it was an accidental, painful knock, and I am feeling too sorry for him to add another X to my list

My clipboard only reappears as we are exiting the train and Matthew shakes his fist out of the window at a Lexus 4x4 with a French number plate for no apparent reason other than not liking the cut of the fellow's gib. I am about to enter an X next to number 5) on my list when I notice that Matthew is now waving and smiling at a young woman in a Renault Clio who has given way to him on a mini roundabout. "That's more like it," I say.

"Oh yes," says Matthew, "We must always acknowledge a courtesy on the road, it is from that that we derive our sovereign right to shake a fist." I immediately mark a very large X that takes up the whole of my clipboard page and suggest he might like to stop at a cashpoint fairly soon, or a cheque would do.