Car Trouble, Part 1
March 27, 2013 | by Pamela Petro
I had a car in Wales.
I know what you’ll say. Really? A car? That’s amazing!
Don’t be snide. You’ve had cars too, I realize that. But when I lived in Wales as a graduate student, in the early 1980s, a creature came into my life for which the term “car” is unsatisfactory. Calling Gimli a car would be like calling your mother a mammal. Which is true, but in most cases insufficient.
On the outside, Gimli was the color of a week-old mushroom. His interior was bright red. He was a 1967 Morris Mini, and his relation to the Mini Coopers of today—those flashy, sturdy, burly bugs that tool confidently across our highways—is semantic at best. The ancestral Minis of the 1960s and seventies looked like starved versions of today’s cars. They were smaller, skinnier, frailer in every way; if they’d had lungs they would’ve been consumptive. I’m not tall, but I could look down on Gimli’s roof. Driving him on the motorway, my line of vision corresponded to the top of a tractor-trailer’s tires.
Even within the breed, Gimli was the runt of an automotive litter. He was rickety with rust. Every now and then he’d sputter, and I’d have to get out, crawl underneath, and bang his petrol pump with my shoe. The driver’s door didn’t close properly, which meant that in rain he took on water. And it rains a lot in Wales. Going uphill, backseat passengers’ feet got wet; going down, the tide shifted to the front. And yet Gimli and I undertook trips that other Mini owners never dared dream of, let alone embark upon (this may have been a function of my foolhardiness and naïveté, but it reflected well on Gimli). He served many; he flew like a wayward wind along the ringletted roads of West Wales.
I was enrolled at the smallest university in Britain, in the grey, rain-soaked town of Lampeter, the epicenter of endless sheep pastures fenced, to the west, by the Irish Sea. I was utterly marooned there, and spent my first days weeping quietly in the rain. Within three months’ time I had a car. During that interval, though, I’d begun to develop a case of what the Welsh call hiraeth. Jan Morris says hiraeth “… means a longing for something indefinable, perhaps unattainable; a longing for beginnings maybe, or for conclusions.” In my case, what had begun as a feeling of being stranded in Lampeter had evolved into a deep curiosity as to what I was stranded in. I had a longing for beginnings; I wanted to explore the vast green hills whose peaks offered a horizon of even vaster, greener hills. I sensed love waiting for me in the Welsh landscape. But in order to find it, to fall into it, I needed a car.
I had £300 to spend, which at the time amounted to about $450. I was already learning that Wales was Britain’s junkyard. Every mechanical thing that had lived a useful life in England eventually found its way across the border to be repaired, touched-up, taped, and jury-rigged into dubious resurrection. I figured my money would go pretty far.
My first step was to call Maureen, a fellow postgrad also from America, who’d mentioned she had a car for sale. She and her boyfriend had a flat about two hours away, which meant that twice a week she drove clear across Wales to attend classes. One day she arrived in an old French Citroen with tailfins. “Where’d you get the cool car?” I asked.
“We bought it so I could come to class,” she said.
The following week she had a different car. It hadn’t occurred to me they’d bought the Citroen for last week’s class. I found their car-swapping dashing, and hoped she could help. So I called and told her I was looking for a car and had £300 to spend.
“What a coincidence!” she remarked. “John’s selling his little Mini and he’s asking £300.”
“Fantastic,” I said. “I’ll take it.”
“Don’t you want to see it first?”
“No,” I said, smiling into the receiver. “I trust you.”
“You know you should’ve asked,” said my friend Phil (short for Philippa), a fiery, good-hearted young woman from Southeast England. “But then only an American wouldn’t know how to drive a stick.”
The still-unseen car I’d bought over the phone was a manual shift. It never occurred to me to ask—but then most British cars were sticks, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised. I only knew how to drive automatics. But I was in Wales, where geography and poverty made people resourceful: you found a way around, just as you found a way around the hills. My way was to ask Phil to drive with Maureen and me to pick up the car one night after class, and then drive it—and me—back home to Lampeter. After that, in her spare time, she could teach me how to work the shift. With my left hand.
It took about two and a half hours to cross the Cambrian Mountains to Maureen’s flat, and was already after nine P.M. when we arrived: too dark to take a good look at the Mini.
Phil kicked the tires—Retreads? she demanded. No, brand new, we were assured—and she pointed out rust spots that glowed like bruises in the moonlight. Phil was built like a cross between a rugby player and a Barbie doll: short, stocky, muscular, with a sweet face and a crop of bright blonde hair. I’d want to be on her side in a fight. Maureen’s boyfriend told us it ran like a dream.
“How long have you had it?” Phil asked.
Before he could reply—I was certain the answer would come in somewhere under two weeks, and already felt protective of the little car—I handed over my check. SUK 976F was mine.
The wailing began just before we reached Devil’s Bridge. By that time I’d already fallen in love. There is nothing luxurious about a 1967 Mini. Just as cars were beginning to sprout all manner of gadgets—clocks, state-of-the-art tape decks, computerized air and temperature controls—the Mini clung to simplicity. Smack in the center of the dashboard was a single large circle: the speedometer. Below it was a rudimentary heat lever that read “Cool” at one end and “Warm” at the other, and a choke. And that’s all that was there. I’d heard the word choke mentioned by elderly people, but I didn’t know what it was. I ignored it.
I instantly grasped that the Mini was a Platonic car. It represented something older, truer, more essential than the instrument-laden cockpits cars had become. Were a child to draw a picture to illustrate the concept of car, it would look exactly like my Mini, inside and out. The little car was heroic, in the archaic sense of the word.
Phil and I expected to get home to Lampeter around 1 A.M.. Welshpool; Newtown; Llanidloes: all passed without incident, and I settled into the sleepy complacency of a nighttime passenger in the hands of a good driver. Steering in Wales is a muscular exercise. The roads wriggle like live worms, following each fold and curvature of the land. There are no streetlights in the countryside, so that utter darkness adds trickery—you can’t see the curves coming. You have to intuit that one bend will be followed by its equal and opposite partner, and pray that your lane won’t be booby-trapped by stray sheep. Despite these hazards, Phil had a firm hand and exuded confidence. I half-dozed with my head against the window.
“I think I’ll take the Devil’s Bridge shortcut,” she announced, as we drew close to Aberystwyth. “It’s a B road but it’ll save time by cutting off the right angle at the coast.”
“Great,” I murmured. In Britain, superhighways are designated by the letter M, for motorway; secondary highways are A roads; and the smallest thoroughfares worthy of numbering are B roads, like the B4343, onto which Phil had just turned. B roads often swell to the width of a common driveway.
Devil’s Bridge is a tiny town, the principal feature of which is a deep gorge razor-cut into the bottom of a jungly valley, its sides overgrown with all things dripping and green, thanks to the mists that overhang the place. In Welsh the name is Pontarfynach, which means, simply, “bridge over the River Mynach.” I’d heard of Devil’s Bridge but had never been there. Already, I thought, the Mini was extending my horizons.
The “bridge” in question actually refers to three bridges on top of one another: the current iron bridge, built in the early twentieth century; a stone bridge built in the eighteenth century; and the original wooden bridge, constructed between 1075 and 1200 (I hate to think why it took so long). The story goes that building the initial bridge was too difficult and dangerous for mere mortals; it would take a super-human being to accomplish it. So the devil stepped in and offered to do the job in exchange for the first soul to cross. He built the locals a spanking bridge, but they tricked him by sending a dog across first. I’d have thought that a devil capable of so great a feat of engineering might have been less gullible, but never mind.
As Phil and I plunged down out of the high country of Mid Wales into the river valley, mist settled like a fallen ceiling. It turned the darkness milky, softening its hard edges, but making it more difficult for Phil to see. I sensed her concentration ratchet up a notch or two.
“Whoa! Did you see that?” she asked suddenly.
“The lights brightened for a second.”
“Maybe you hit the high beams by accident.”
“My hand was nowhere near the high beams.”
I mused on this but could think of no other reply, and so politely stared hard ahead. Just then the road in front of us lit up like a stage—bright, blinding white glare, bouncing off the mist—then quickly dimmed down again.
“Okay, I saw it that time.”
We looked at each other. “It must be a short in the electrical system,” Phil said, matter of factly.
I was opening my mouth to propose something to do with the devil when a God almighty shriek interrupted me.
“Holy cow,” I cried, forgetting Phil considered the expression mildly blasphemous.
The shriek fell away, but the headlights began to pulse again, flashing BRIGHT-dim-BRIGHT-dim all by themselves.
Phil was concentrating fiercely; the disco effect of the headlights was making it all but impossible to see. A moment later, just as we passed a sign that read “Devil’s Bridge/Pontarfynach,” the shrieking began again. This time it rose to a screaming banshee cry, rising and falling as if something large and very nearby were keening for the dead. I put my hands to my ears and Phil gritted her teeth. The sound was torturous.
“You don’t think we hit an animal, do you, and are dragging it along?” Phil shouted, panic entering her voice.
“It would have to have been a dinosaur, to make this noise,” I yelled back. “Besides, we’d have felt the impact. Do you think it’s the car?”
Phil slowed and the noise lessened; when she eased the Mini to a halt it stopped completely.
We’d come to a standstill in the middle of the road. It was so narrow that there was nowhere to pull over. “We can’t stop here!” I insisted. “Someone’ll hit us for sure.” It seemed like the right thing to say, though at Devil’s Bridge at midnight, in West Wales, I doubt there was anyone else awake, not to mention behind the wheel, for miles in any direction.
Phil winced, and edged forward. The car started screaming again.
“I think there’s a hotel up at the top of the gorge,” she said. “I’ll make for the car park.”
Before we could climb out of the valley we had to finish our descent into it. The car screeched louder and louder, a high, wavering, piercing wail of agony that I would never until that moment have believed could have come from a machine. It sounded like a living creature face to face with its own extinction
“We’re killing it!” I cried, writhing in my seat.
By now the dashboard lights had begun to pulse as well. I looked over at Phil, whose face was illuminated by a bright, throbbing green light. She looked as if she were in a science fiction movie that wouldn’t end well. I couldn’t hear her over the car’s piercing howl.
“What? What did you say?”
“I SAID THIS CAR IS POSSESSED!”
The pitch of the shriek kept rising until it reached an eardrum-shattering high note as we approached the Devil’s Bridge itself. Just as we rolled out over the gorge there was a sudden spasm of the brightest light yet and a shocking yelp—one final convulsion of sound—and then it was over. The speedometer needle fell to zero with an audible clunk, although we were still going about 35 mph. The dashboard lights went out entirely; the headlights returned to normal. There was utter silence in and outside the car.
Phil drove out of the gorge and we stopped in the empty hotel car, both of us shaking.
“Well,” began Phil, choosing her words slowly, “my guess is that the speedometer cable wrapped itself around some wiring, then snapped.”
That seemed very ho-hum. I’d secretly liked the idea that my Mini was possessed.
“So it’s a coincidence, of course, that the speedometer cable set up a banshee wail just as we entered Devil’s Bridge …”
Phil gave me a look that said, Don’t go there—at least not until tomorrow morning, when we’re safely back in Lampet.
After a cursory look at the engine and under the car—we found nothing—we set off again, reaching my cottage about forty-five minutes later. The speedometer needle never worked again.
Read part 2 here.
Pamela Petro is the author of Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World in Welsh.