THE car died two kilometres out of Stroud. Luckily the road was on a gentle slope and Louisa was able to coast to a grass verge on the other side of the road and come to a gentle halt.
“What’s wrong with the car,” asked her friend, unnecessarily, Louisa thought, as how the hell did she know?
“Why are we stopping Mummy?” chimed in her two daughters from their booster seats in the back.
The sunny afternoon was waning and there was a chill in the air. They were due in Gloucester by six to check in, have dinner then watch Louisa’s husband play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a marquee at the Shakespeare Festival. Louisa’s friend had suggested leaving earlier, but Louisa never liked arriving on time, let alone early.
“I’ll call the NRMA,” she said, looking anxiously at her phone for reception. Her friend turned to the girls. “Mommy will get us back on the road in no time,” she said in her soft Canadian brogue.
“Mommy” was already on edge and had been all week. It had seemed like a straight-forward idea, a road trip to Gloucester for the festival, staying overnight, but nothing was straight-forward with Louisa’s friend, a proudly naturalised Australian who was still resolutely Canadian in her attention to detail or what Louisa called, behind her back, obsessive compulsive disorder.
The phone calls had begun the week before. Louisa, a working mother of two with a husband away, found them aggravating. Or at best, poorly timed. But there was never a good time to call a house with small children in it, really.
“I’m wondering,” said her friend, “if we will need to take sleeping bags to Gloucester.”
“No, why on earth would we? We are staying at a B&B? I’m sure they’ll provide bedding,” said Louisa distractedly as she watched her girls squabbling over whose turn it was to put the bubbles in the bath.
“Oh, well I’ll just bring some extra blankets then, just in case. It gets cold in Gloucester at this time of year,” said her friend.
“Well I am sure that’s not necessary, but got to go, kids’ bath time,” said Louisa and hung up.
The following night there was another call. “I’m just wondering,” said her friend, “if we might need to take torches.”
Louisa stifled her irritation. She was cooking fish fingers for the girls – their staple when her husband was away. “Why on earth would we need torches, they do have electricity. It’s a festival, it will be all lit up.”
Louisa sighed. She hated being pinned down to decision-making. It was one night away, for God’s sake. She burned the fish fingers and swore. “Mummy said a rude word,” came the sing-songy voice of her eldest. Her youngest wasted no time picking up on this refrain and soon they were singing it tunelessly at the top of their lungs.
The following night, her friend called again.
“Do you think we will need to pack a picnic for the journey?”
This time Louisa laughed: “Oh, for goodness sake, it’s a two-hour drive, we hardly need provisions!”
Her friend made a non-committal noise and asked another question. “Will we need to take cash?”
Louisa was nonplussed. “Cash, what do you mean, cash?” she asked her friend, wondering if maybe they didn’t have ATMs in Canada. Louisa never liked thinking ahead about these sorts of tiresome details. Her motto was: “It is better to travel hopefully than arrive” or something along those lines, which perhaps explained why she and her husband had once driven from Ross on Wye to Bournemouth via Weston Super Mare.
“No we will not need cash,” she snapped. “I am sure they have ATMs in Gloucester and anyway, the tickets are free!” Her friend was silent for a moment and said, meekly, “What time are we setting off tomorrow?”
“I don’t know yet,” Louisa said crossly. “I’ll text you in the morning.”
In the end, packing three overnight bags and wrangling her daughters and their stuffed toys and books into the car almost defeated her and she picked up her friend much later than anticipated.
Her friend put a large backpack into the boot and clambered into the passenger seat.
“I’m looking forward to this mini-break,” she said, and off they went.
Now they were marooned on this country road, standing by the car waiting for the NRMA and night was falling. It was cold. It was pitch dark. The girls were shivering.
Louisa’s friend retrieved her backpack. Louisa gave it a disparaging glance: “What on earth have you got in there, everything but the kitchen sink?” Louisa’s friend smiled and withdrew two small blankets, wrapping them around the girls’ shoulders.
“I’m hungry Mummy,” said her youngest. “I’m really, really thirsty,” said her eldest. “I’m thirsty too,” said her youngest “and a little bit scared.”
Louisa’s friend extracted from her bag arug on which she placed a roast chicken wrapped in foil and still warm, bread, tomatoes and cheese. The girls’ complaints turned to cheers as they sat on the rug, swathed in their blankets. Orange juice came next, followed by two torches, which eased the terror of the blackness.
Finally, Louisa’s friend produced a thermos. “Coffee?” Louisa asked hopefully.
“Better,” said her friend in her Canadian drawl. “Vodka”.
Before too long the cheery sight of the NRMA van crested the hill.
Louisa’s husband’s Bottom was a great success. The next morning they had breakfast in a local cafe. “We only take cash,” warned the waitress. “That’s fine,” said Louisa, grinning sheepishly. “I have this amazing friend and she will sort out the bill.”
Louisa’s friend nodded slowly and allowed herself a small, discreet side smile.