I love my tin snail. 29 horsepower, full length roll back sunroof, four gears, fun suspension. She may date back to 1971 but the front inboard mounted brakes are the same technology used in formula one cars. I have to say, I feel more like a rally driver as I throw her round the corners.
Speaking of corners, there’s a guy with his thumb up at the bend, heading out of Talby.
I’d love the company, I wonder if he’ll accept a lift from a 2CV? Some consider these old Citroens unsafe but, with their built-in crumple zones, almost vertical steering shaft, and practically no blind spots, they measure up pretty well to more modern vehicles. Only one way to find out if he shares my enthusiasm.
I apply those formula one brakes and pull in to the verge just past the hitch hiker. He runs up alongside my flipped-open passenger window in his hi top Converse All Stars. He can’t be much younger than me but he’s somehow getting away with skinny jeans. I’ve never liked them on guys, but each to their own. I'm sure people don't expect a 2CV driver to be wearing a well-pressed trouser suit and stilettos either.
‘Hi! Thanks for stopping. Where are you headed?’ His ponytail, about the same length as mine, catches the wind as he ducks to talk to me.
‘Pandel Lakes. On your way?’
‘Perfect! I’m going to Anacant.’
‘Ah, You’re on My way! Get in. Sling your rucksack in the back.’
‘Cool, thanks. I’m Danny. Danny Grant.’
‘Hi Danny.’ I smile. ‘I’m a Danny too, Danny Roke. Danielle, but only my mother calls me that. Nice to meet you.’
He deposits his bag in the back and slams the door before climbing into the front. I wait while he sorts his seatbelt and then we’re off.
‘So what takes you to Anacant?’
‘Adventure I suppose. I’ve got friends there planning a party at a cabin, but the public transport is terrible up that way and I had to sell my car last month.’ His face falls a little.
‘What kind of car was it?’
‘A grey 1971 VW beetle.’
‘A man after my own heart! Can’t beat the classics.’ I tap my steering wheel.
‘Got just over six grand for it. Much needed cash but I’ll miss that car.’ Danny rubs his chin. ‘Tell me about your Citroen. I’ve always wanted to try one of these gear sticks. Maybe you can talk me through it?'
‘She’s 1971 as well. I’ve had a few problems with rust but she’s in good nick at the moment, aren’t you Red?’ I pat the dash board a couple of times.
‘Red? That’s original.’ Danny has a charming and infectious laugh.
‘Yeah, but it’s not just because of her colour. Red was my favourite Fraggle when I was a kid. Do you have any favourite TV characters from back in the day?’
‘I was more into cartoons than puppets. I quite liked He Man and that tiger he rode…’
‘Battlecat!’ we both say in unison and giggle.
‘Yeah, I quite fancied taming wild animals and going on adventures with them. There was something attractive about a magic sword too, and leading a secret double life.’
‘You'd have had to run around in a silver breastplate and red furry knickers though.’
‘I think you have paid altogether too much attention to cartoon underwear!’ Danny sniggers.
‘Does it still count as underwear if it’s all you’ve got on?’
There are rabbits on the grass at the side of the road. They seem unperturbed by the country traffic and continue to graze as we pass them. We’re soon entering the woods. Huge pines and firs on either side block out much of the sun and substantially cool the air.
‘So what takes you to the lakes?’ Danny asks.
‘Family history. I’m going to find my great aunt before she kicks the bucket.’
‘Find her? Was she lost?’
‘Sort of. A rift in the family before I was born meant that I never met her. Dad told me about her on his death bed and made me promise to make amends. She never had kids and she’s been isolated from us. Then her husband died, so she's basically on her own. It’s a shame to leave things that way.’
‘Does she know you’re coming?’
‘Yes, but she may assume I’m a boy. We exchanged a few letters and I just signed them “Danny”. It didn’t occur to me until this morning that she may be surprised when I show up. In her car!’
‘Apparently so. She loaned it to my grandad who loaned it to my uncle without her permission. That was the start of the feud. Things got out of hand. Just to spite her my uncle left it to my mother in his will, my mother kept it and that was the final straw. By the time I was born Aunt Lucy was never spoken of. I’m sure my grandad had his reasons but really it doesn’t sound like it was her fault.’
‘And I thought my family were weird.’
‘Yeah. My mum gave the car to me without ever telling me where it came from. She was furious when my dad spilled the beans. But he died two days later so what could she do?’
‘Does your mum know you’re going?’
‘No. You’re the first person I've told. I figured I’d get to know Aunt Lucy a bit, then try to reintroduce them before anyone else dies.’ I let out a long, slow breath. ‘I figure returning the car is step one in mending the family.’
‘And she lives up at Pandel Lakes? If she can afford one of those mansions she might not want a 1971 Citroen. No offense meant.’
Danny pulls down the passenger sun visor, even though we are still in the tree shadow. He uses the mirror to check on his bag.
‘None taken. I assumed the same thing, but it’s the thought that counts. Maybe the car has sentimental value.’
‘Maybe, perhaps she’ll reward you.’
‘All I want is to get her and my mum back together and not have Aunt Lucy die alone. She can leave her fortunes to the RSPCA for all I care. It sounds like she might too, she’s got nine cats!’
‘Nine cats! I hope you’re not allergic?’
‘Fortunately not. I’m just glad it’s not dogs. I can’t stand dogs. Terrifying.’
‘Did she say much else in her letters? Do you know what to expect when you meet her?’
‘Well, her late husband invested in a few inventions and companies that did remarkably well after the war. Not least of all Velcro. He was a shrewd businessman and Lucy listened to him when he warned her that her family would only take advantage of their good fortune. I’m hoping I can prove him wrong.’
‘And it starts with returning the car?’
We both fall silent as we come out of the cool shade and back into the blazing sun. The tall dark trees are replaced by open fields of corn and rapeseed, green and yellow as far as I can see. My nose starts to stream from the pollen.
‘Could you pass me the tissues from the glove shelf?’
Danny reaches out and finds a pack of Handy Andies. He removes two and hands them to me.
‘That’s something I have in common with her.' I wipe my nose. 'She gets terrible hay fever too. I was going to bring her flowers, but I’ll opt for chocolate instead. I’ll stop in Anacant when I drop you off and see if I can find some. Apparently she likes ginger.’
‘There’s a really nice chocolate shop in the arcade. I can show you if you like?’
‘That would be great.’ I shift down into third as we come to a winding hill.
‘So, about that gear box? Does it take a lot of getting used to?’
‘Not really, it’s pretty easy when you have a bit of practise.’ I talk him through the gear positions and show him as I change up and down them. It's good to find someone interested in the car, usually people take the Mick a bit. After all, the design brief was literally to build an "umbrella on wheels".
‘So, who is it you’re visiting in Anacant? Old school friends?’
‘Uni mates. We get together once a year at Joe’s cabin and get plastered. There’s more beer than gear in my pack.’ Danny laughs. ‘But an annual blow out is fine. And this year it’s everyone’s 40ths.’
‘Ah, wives and kids invited?’
‘Nope. Just the lads, no girls allowed. And we’re big enough kids without having a group of actual toddlers running around.’
‘Makes sense. I guess no one based near Talby? No one to pick you up?’
‘Nah, everyone spread far and wide after graduation. I promised them I'd get there. I'm really grateful you stopped.’
‘No problem. Maybe I can pick you up on the way back too? I'll hire a car in Anacant if Aunt Lucy keeps the flying dustbin.’
‘That’s very kind. When are you heading back through?’
‘Probably Sunday night but I’ll see how it goes. I’m booked into a hotel at the lake for the whole weekend, but fully prepared to leave early if I'm not well received.’
‘Which hotel? Have you gone budget with the Owl or luxury with the Cross Keys?’
‘Oh, you know it?’
‘Yeah, we stayed at the Owl a few times before Joe bought the cabin. Did some fishing, hiking. It’s nice up there, but there’s more night life in the town.’
‘I’ve actually taken the middle ground and gone for the Green Room B&B. It’s closer to Lucy’s place and she’s agreed to meet me in the café next door. I’m hoping she’ll recognise me. All I really said was that I have a long brown ponytail, and frankly that would describe you just as well!’
We see the first sign for Anacant. I’m almost sad to be close to dropping Danny off. It’s been so nice to chat and I have no idea how frosty a reception I might get at the lakes.
The heavy stink of manure hits us from an adjacent field.
‘Phew! Closing the windows won’t help I’m afraid. Red is naturally well ventilated.’
Danny grins at me. ‘No problem. I'm used to farm aromas.’
I indicate left off the next roundabout in all its floral glory, and we’re there. Anacant. "Three times winner of Britain in Bloom" crows the sign. The copious amounts of hanging baskets and colourful borders clashing along the sleepy roadsides don’t scream party time for a bunch of uni mates. But it’s true, there are pubs, more night life than at the lakes.
‘So, where’s this chocolate shop and where should I drop you off?’
‘You can drop me at the arcade, I’m happy to walk to rest of the way. Take the next left onto the high street and pull up outside the bank if you can.’
I manage to park two spaces down from Barclays. Sure enough there’s a little shopping arcade.
‘I’ll come with you, might pick something up from the off licence next door.’
We get out of the car and walk under the archway into the tiny shopping centre. The shops are closed down. Probably victims of the covid pandemic.
‘Is it still going to be open?’
‘I don’t know, let’s find out, it’s right at the end.’
The passageway turns a corner between more closed shops. Such a shame that so many independent businesses have been lost. There’s a vape place, a deli, a sandwich shop, a jeweller, a key cutter, a couple of gifty looking places, all shut down. There’s no one around and we're out of sight of the high street. It’s eerily quiet.
The passageway opens up into a little courtyard and there at the far side is the off licence "Paul's Wines" and the chocolate shop “Sweet Dreams”, very quaint. Both closed.
Danny dropped a few blood-stained Handy Andy tissues into a litter bin before he emerged back onto Anacant High Street. Alone. He knew how backwards this little town was, he knew there was no CCTV in the Victorian arcade, or even on the High Street. It would be a while before anyone found anything amiss.
He took the keys to the 2CV out of his pocket and hoped that the car wasn’t conspicuous enough for the locals to notice. Half of them drove old beetles and original minis anyway so it wasn’t all that out of place. He sat in the driver's seat with the clutch depressed for just long enough to try out the gear positions. It was true, they were quick to get used to.
He drove up to Pandel Lakes, via a petrol station where he bought some cheap chocolate covered ginger. He checked in to the Green Room B&B as “Danny Roke”.
After removing the luggage from the car boot and dropping it off with his own rucksack, he took a quick shower. Then he sat himself down, the only customer in the Lionhead Café next door. It was three lattes and a piece of chocolate cake before an elderly woman with a cardigan covered in cat hair let herself in.
‘Danny?’ she said, peering at him over her glasses.
‘Yes! Aunt Lucy?’ Danny stood up and offered her his hand.
‘You’re just how I imagined you!’ Lucy’s eyes lit up and she hugged him.