Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

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The Independent Online

A line of stationary traffic stretches into the distance. We are here for the duration and while Matthew has been silent so far, it is a very audible silence and soon he will either start banging his head rhythmically on the steering wheel or morph into Perry Mason.

As a passenger, one can easily tire of the first option and Louis worries about bruising to his father's forehead, so we can only hope for the second. We are in luck. After a short silence Matthew says, "Let's just go over the facts." (The words "I would remind you that you are still under oath" are clearly implicit in his tone.) "When I asked you which exit we should take, what did you say?"

"I said I had no idea," I reply.

"You said you had no idea," repeats Matthew.

"Yes, I said I had no idea."

"And yet the moment I came off the M40 at the junction that is generally known as the Oxford turn-off, you mentioned with casual disdain that I shouldn't have done that because in your own, recent experience, during a visit to your friend Coleen in Headington, after taking the very same exit, you became stuck in terrible roadworks. Let me put it to you... blah, blah, blah."

Today we are going to lunch with friends in Woodstock. We were due there half an hour ago, except Matthew, for reasons that are beyond me, left the M40 at the Oxford turn-off, driving straight into a five-mile tailback. But he isn't necessarily at fault and blame must at all times be correctly apportioned.

"My job," he says, apparently reading my thoughts, "is not to point the finger but to establish the facts." And then a Toyota nips in front of us with a Baby on Board sign in its rear window.

"Oh no, look!" says Louis, "that car in front has got a Baby on Board sign!" Both Louis and Matthew have a thing about Baby on Board signs. In truth, most people have a thing about them but most people have got over it long ago and accepted that there are people on this earth who wish to advertise to other motorists that they have been clever enough to have a baby.

Matthew and Louis, however, cannot get over it and are especially provoked by variations on the theme. Louis' absolute worst is "Princess on Board", while Matthew becomes almost homicidal upon spotting a "Cool Dude on Board". The two of them spend many happy motoring hours devising fitting punishments for people who display such signs and their favourite episode of The Simpsons is the one in which Homer brings a Baby on Board sign home as a present for Marge, and she thanks him with the words: "Oh good, now people will stop intentionally ramming us." "Do you think there should be a special corner of hell reserved for the occupants of that Toyota?" I ask, keen to join in, if only to divert attention away from the blame- apportioning process.

"Sadly, I do not think so," says Matthew. "Not only is it a Prius, but those people are born-again Christians, as is obvious from the Jesus fish icon just above the 'God is my co-pilot' bumper sticker. I am afraid that their good works would balance their smugness. When the day of reckoning comes they will almost certainly go into limbo."

"What is limbo?" asks Louis, which prompts a five-minute lecture from Matthew on the halfway house of the afterlife. Then Louis asks what a Jesus fish icon is for and another 10 minutes is taken up with an explanation of how, in ancient Greek, the first letters of the word for Jesus Christ Son of God spell out the Greek word for fish.

It is now 20 minutes since the appearance of the Toyota and we have moved 400 yards, but the conversation is now flowing even if the traffic isn't. I do my best to extend the theological discussion, but it can't be long before I am asked to return to the witness stand.

"Cast your mind back," says Matthew in a seamless segue, "to the moment when earlier today I asked which M40 turn-off we should take for Woodstock. Did you not for a minute consider telling me about these roadworks that you admit to having been stuck in not a fortnight ago when you visited Coleen in Headington?"

"No," I say, "because it did not occur to me that you would ever take this route unless you were visiting Coleen in Headington. It is madness to take this route to Woodstock."

"And yet," says Matthew, "it is the way that you always go yourself."

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because whenever I go to Woodstock I always visit Coleen in Headington. If it wasn't for Coleen I would stay on the M40."

"So," says Matthew, "putting Coleen to one side for a moment, you appear to be making two statements: a) this is such a ridiculous route that it never crossed your mind that I might take it, hence your failure to mention these bloody roadworks; and b) this is the route you always take yourself."

"Yes," I state once again, "but only because of Coleen.

We are close to the end of the roadworks now and the traffic is rearranging itself into lanes before the Headington roundabout. "Can we pull alongside the Toyota and shake our fists?" asks Louis.

"Yes, of course we can," says Matthew, "I'll count us in and we'll all do it together." I say I would quite like to be dropped off at Coleen's and I will make my own way from there. But no one is listening.

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