Roadside Assistance

In 2014 I attended a one-week course at Schumacher College in Devon with the poet, David Whyte and the activist Satish Kumar. Satish was born in India and, in 1962 when he was 26, he left Delhi on a peace walk to Washington DC, covering 13,000 miles over a two and a half year period. He and his companion carried no money, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers. As they crossed the border from India into Pakistan, a woman handed Satish a parcel of food, warning him that, as a Hindu, he risked going hungry in an Islamic country. Satish, though appreciative of the woman’s generosity, described what she had given him as ‘little packets of distrust’. If I travel as a Hindu, he told her, I will meet a Muslim. If I travel as an Indian, I will meet an Iranian, but … if I travel as a human being, I will meet a human being.

In the summer of 1981, my husband, Dan walked from Barre, Massachusetts to Auriesville, New York, as part of his Jesuit formation. Like Satish he carried no money. He travelled as a mendicant, relying entirely on what people gave him. Forced to relinquish control and rely on the unknown, Dan, like Satish, travelled as a human being, trusting in the generosity of other human beings.

The idea of leaving my house without any money or indeed snacks for the road is beyond my imagination. My motto in life is be self-reliant and don’t go bothering people. The glove compartment of my car is always well stocked with nuts and sweets. I carry a flask of hot tea, a blanket and a book in case of traffic delays or severe weather. I am, of course, a member of the Automobile Association. All this preparation enables me to travel light in terms of obligation.

Earlier this month, as I was exiting a parking lot onto a busy road, I misjudged the turn and drove with full force over a low brick wall. The car jolted but didn’t stall. I kept going. At the next traffic light, a silver sedan pulled up alongside me and the driver pointed to my rear tyre.

It’s completely flat he shouted. You’re driving on the metal rim.

I thanked him and pulled into a side street. Moments later, there he was, the man in the silver sedan.

Do you know how to change a tyre? he asked.

No, I answered, but don’t worry I’ll call my husband. Or the AA. Or I’ll drive to Halfords. In my head I raced on to increasingly extreme alternatives: ‘Or I’ll leave the car and buy a new one. Thanks though. Goodbye’.

Would you like me to change the tyre for you?

At this point, my stomach contracted into a solid rubber ball and I heard a voice in my head shout. ‘No. Go away. I don’t want to be the victim of a scam. Neither do I want your kindness intruding on my chaos. I don’t want to be beholden or grateful to a complete stranger, so please go away. Right now’.

Instead I said Gosh, that’s really kind of you. Thank you so much. But … you’ve probably got somewhere you need to be. I’ll be fine. Really…  

The man parked his car and got out. He looked as though he spent a lot of time at the gym. He stood very close to me when he spoke and I could feel his breath on my face. In the passenger seat of the car was a young boy, about fourteen years old. As the two of them began to empty the boot of my Volkswagen, I slipped my bag off the front seat and hung it over my shoulder. Just in case.

You might want to learn how to change a tyre, the man said – in a kind voice though, not in a condescending one. Your husband could probably teach you. My son here knows. I taught him how.

The rubber ball inside me began to soften until I could no longer feel it. This is really kind of you, I said, as I watched him jack up the car, his hands and his t-shirt smudged with tarmac and rubber. No worries, he replied, it’s what anyone would do, right?

No it isn’t I said …. a little too vehemently, perhaps. It’s not what anyone would do. Most people drive by. 

You’re the second person I’ve stopped for this week, he continued. On Tuesday I came across a Dutchman whose electric car had run out of battery power. Anyway, he added, it’s good karma, right?

I had only £15 in my wallet and, rather awkwardly, I offered it to the man. He stepped back, visibly shocked. I was embarrassed. My gesture was clumsy, perhaps even insulting. Beneath my awkwardness, however, I felt close to tears. I thanked him and I told the young man that he was lucky to have such a kind father. They followed me all the way to Halfords, but when I turned back to wave goodbye, they were gone. I don’t even know their names.