‘Bloody gearbox is playing up; not supposed to happen with a Porsche.’
Peter Haliburton, first syllable pronounced ‘hail’ as in ‘hail storm’, his wife Caroline, her
friend Marie and I stood looking at the delinquent vehicle in a lay-by about seventy
kilometres from Poitiers. An hour earlier he had rung Porsche customer services who
recommended a garage with an approved Porsche mechanic, but the problem had not been as
serious then and he decided against diverting from our scenic route through France.
He was not an easy man to argue with, or to talk to in any way at times like this. A partner
– expecting soon to be a senior partner – with a firm of City accountants, the prestigious car
was a public statement of his growing status. He doubtless considered it a reward for talent
and hard work; office gossip debunked it as the outcome of determined string-pulling.
Marie and I had followed the de luxe vehicle from London in my modest Vauxhall. Now he
stood glaring at it, his face flushed. Opposite him Caroline forced a thin smile, resigned to the
inconvenience. He looked challengingly at each of us in turn, as though one of us might have
caused the problem. To break the awkward silence I asked, ‘Has it been playing up for long?’
‘Hmph! If there had been an inkling that something was wrong before we set out I’d have
had it seen to,’ he said, as though I had accused him of being negligent. Caroline opened her
mouth as though about to speak, then closed it without uttering a sound. His gaze fell on me
again. More calmly he said, ‘Everything was perfectly normal until we hit French soil, or
French tarmac I should say.’
After glancing briefly at Marie, who looked terrified, he turned to his wife. ‘Bloody thing.
Caroline, you try it for a while before I go berserk.’
Five kilometres further on the car pulled up again. Peter got out and walked round to the
driver’s door, while Caroline slid over to the passenger seat, carefully holding her finely
pleated skirt in place. Evidently he was not satisfied with her ability at the wheel. She must
have felt awful. Neither Marie nor I found the courage to go over to her to say a few
Although outspoken and abrasive, Peter was not usually this offensive. At work he enjoyed
controversy, and recklessly disrupted long established practices and relationships. The firm, a
staid accountancy practice called Lindler & Haliburton, still bore his grandfather’s name and
the family connection allowed him to defy the gentlemanly atmosphere of respectful conduct
and play the enfant terrible.
The three-year-old Vauxhall reflected my less elevated position. The accountants were the
professionals, the firm’s raison d’être. Several promotions during my six years’ employment and
the high demand for computer experts in the City did not change the fact that I was counted
among the ‘support staff’. The most recently recruited trainee accountant was regarded as
intrinsically better than me. He might not earn as much to start with, but in a few years time
could expect to rise in rank and salary above all us lesser beings.
Marie was a rather frumpy woman of about thirty in an old-fashioned looking dress of
flowery cotton whom I had met for the first time that morning. She was not very talkative, but
smiled a lot and we exchanged pleasantries now and again. The journey had been fine until
Peter’s car developed the transmission problem.
He pulled up for a third time in front of a dilapidated garage converted from what once