“I thought you said you knew how to drive,” said Auntie Edith tartly, clutching the leather handbag containing all her money tightly to her chest. “A right pickle you’ve landed us in now!” Devoted as he was to his wife of 35 years, Lenny detested that superior air of hers. “Gawd, give me strength,” he muttered as he turned to face the RAC man, the two traffic cops and the offended Friesian cow.
So goes the tale of Left-hand Lenny.
* * * * *
Lenny was a diminutive, jumpy man whose few strands of black hair clung precariously to an otherwise bald pate. He had a booming voice which was taller than he was. When he spoke, people would look over his head, wondering where the noise was coming from. When Lenny was complaining about something, which was often, his eyes would dart away and then glaze over as he recalled the good old days when things were, according to him, a darn sight better.
Having been born at the beginning of the 20th century, Lenny grew up with the motor car, although until recently he had never driven one. Yet he was no stranger to the roads of east London back in the days when they were still in Essex.
In his younger days, Lenny made up for his missing inches with a Royal Enfield Bullet proudly gripped between his legs. Crouching purposefully over the handlebars of the motorbike, he bobbed and weaved along Ilford High Rd., the earmuffs of his airman’s helmet pulled down and strapped under his chin.
Not much of a drinking man, Lenny would on occasions, with a few pints of beer and belligerence in his belly, become aggressive. At such times he considered himself the equal of any man, especially those who were bigger or better spoken than he was, which was most of them. Until one day a neighbour, Bertie Foulkes, put him in his place. Bertie was a beefy foundryman who worked at Fords and he was not a mild-mannered man.
“Fook me” said Bertie, “I’ll flatten the little bleeder” and did precisely that.
At which Auntie Edith, after glancing through her front-room window and seeing felled Lenny flat on his back, stopped treadling her Singer sewing machine, calmly folded up her material, donned her shawl, went to the kitchen, rummaged in the cupboard under the sink, found her old rolling pin and went outside to sort out Bertie. Approaching him with a fierce look on her face, she set about him with gusto while Bertie, great lemon that he was, stood and took it all, being too much of a gentleman to strike a lady.
“In future, pick on someone your own size,” she said with an air of finality, hands on hips after a job well done.
* * * * *
But that was many moons ago and now they were both the wrong side of 60. One Tuesday, after Lenny had fallen off the Royal Enfield after getting into an argument with a Co-op milk float which, he claimed, had “shot out from bleedin’ nowhere right in front of him”, Auntie Edith put her foot down and decided it was time they got a car.
True to her word, she counted the banknotes out one by one from her big leather handbag into the leathery hand of the car salesman in payment for a powder-blue, second-hand Austin A30 because, she said, she liked the smile on its face. All they needed now was for Lenny to pass his driving test.
“What do I need to take a test for?” complained Lenny, “I’ve been riding a motor-bike for 30 years and never taken no test. Never had no accident neither.” Edith snorted and reminded him about the Co-op milk float. Trust her.
It took Lenny four goes to get through his test and the only reason he eventually got his pink slip was that the examiner wanted to knock off early that day and had cut short the test without Lenny having once had to turn right.
Lenny’s problem, you see, was that in the A30 he only knew how to turn left.
* * * * *
Lenny never could get the hang of cars. Going round corners he would lean over like he did on his bike. He kept the window wound down in all weathers because he was unable to drive unless he could feel the wind in his face. Lenny had a big problem with the handbrake, too. He kept forgetting to pull it on after he’d parked, so on more than one occasion he had to scamper after the A30 as it rolled away down the street. After that he found an old railway sleeper and sawed chunks off it to wedge under the A30’s back wheels to stop it escaping.
When not in use, Lenny kept the sleeper chunks in the A30’s not very capacious boot. One day, while he was holding the boot lid open to retrieve a car blanket to wrap round Auntie Edith’s legs, one of the chunks fell out, right on his bad toe. Lenny yelped in agony and let go of the boot lid. Which promptly fell and caught him a nasty wallop on the top of the head. The red welt he bore for the next few weeks sat at right angles to his solitary strands of black hair, such that seen from above Lenny looked for all the world like a hot-cross bun.
The main reason for getting the car was so that Edith could visit her sister from time to time. Where her sister lived in Pilgrims Hatch was only 10 miles away from Edith and Lenny’s place in Hainault if you turned right at the bottom of their road but more like 30 going Lenny’s route, involving as it did only making left turns. His way, you had to go round three sides of a square to do the trip.
Quite why Lenny was afraid to turn right he wouldn’t say, but each time he tried he would break out in a cold sweat and chicken out. Auntie Edith had scoured the columns of the Ilford Echo to see if the reason was contained therein but no accident involving people turning across the oncoming traffic had been reported. The only suspicious story that caught her eye in the newspaper concerned strange UFO sightings over Hainault that she knew in her bones had something to do with her son, but therein lies another tale.
The trip home from her sister’s place was a lot easier because it only involved travelling along the fourth side of the square. The system worked well for a while, they just had to set out earlier than if Lenny had been able to turn right. Until one day there were roadworks at Gallows Corner.
* * * * *
In times gone by, highwaymen were executed here but these days Gallows Corner was better known as a five-exit roundabout famous for its traffic congestion and its workmen’s café on the A12 going east. That day the A12 exit was completely blocked and workmen were digging holes on the roundabout itself. Usually Lenny liked roundabouts because you only ever had to turn left to get off them but today he was confused because a diversion was in place.
Where to turn off? It was bad enough having his head full of complicated calculations involving squares and rectangles but now he had circles to contend with as well. To give himself time to think Lenny stayed on the roundabout. On the third lap the workmen began to notice and the next time he came round they downed tools and clapped. Lenny boomed “never mind that, if you’re so bleedin’ clever, how do I get to Brentwood without turning right?”
“We’ll have to think about that one, mate,” came the reply, “go round a few more times and we’ll let you know.”
An impatient 174 bus, one of three one behind the other on the roundabout, gave the A30 a gentle nudge. Lenny was incensed. He was about to get out of the car for a fight when Auntie Edith rooted him to his seat with a withering “I thought you said you knew how to drive.”
“Of course I can woman!”
“Well why don’t you move then?”
Sure enough, the road ahead was clear so he scooted once more round the roundabout and came up tight behind the third bus. He gave it a revengeful nudge to teach it a lesson but succeeded only in putting a nasty dent in the A30’s fender. The bus never even batted an eyelid.
“Oi, Grandad!” said a workman, hitching up his trousers, “just follow the traffic straight ahead then turn left at the lights, then right and you’ll be back on the A12. Else you could keep straight on dahn the Sarfend Arterial about ten mile till you ‘it a randabou’ for Brentwood.”
“He’s right,” thought Lenny, “only I won’t turn left straight away because that means I’ll have to turn right again afterwards. I’ll just keep going.” Which is what he did.
* * * * *
Whoever built the Southend Arterial Road in the 1920s was fond of roundabouts, or gyratories as they were once called. Distances in the car seemed shorter to Lenny than on a motorbike so he missed the roundabout to Brentwood and carried straight on instead.
“Where do you reckon you’re going like that?” asked Auntie Edith, “we’re going to get there the day after tomorrow at this rate!”
Somewhere between Laindon and Rayleigh Lenny started to get worried. He was off his patch and he felt uneasy in countrified places where there were sheep and things. It was only mid-afternoon but the sky had turned an impenetrable Essex grey and was getting greyer. Better pull over for a pee and a think, decided Lenny.
Pulling the A30 into the entrance to a lay-by another irritating thing happened.
“I’m cold, why do we have to have the windows down all the time?”
“We need fresh air in here” lied Lenny.
“You don’t know how to drive properly, that’s the problem.”
Old people drive each other nuts repeating the same old gripes over and over again.
“I’ll get you a blanket”.
* * * * *
A silent Thames estuary mist stole treacherously across the mud-flats, chilling bones as far away as Chelmsford, if not beyond.
“For goodness sake, put something on or you’ll catch your death of cold,” chided Edith. She rummaged in the back of the A30 and handed Lenny his bomber jacket. Which was now too small for him. Because it had shrunk. Because he used it to put on the ground when he slid under the A30 with a spanner to swear at the sump plug that wouldn’t come undone. Lenny tried to put the jacket on but got stuck with one arm in and the other one out.
History repeated itself when Lenny lifted the boot lid to retrieve the car blanket. A few moments into the future and Lenny would be having another sore head and another bruised toe.
“Always the bloody same,” complained Lenny, as he let fly with a well-aimed hobnail boot at the chunk of railway sleeper that had fallen out of the boot. Only the hobnail boot wasn’t a hobnail boot. Instead, it was a carpet slipper because Lenny always changed footwear inside the car, the better to feel when the clutch bit. “Cor, bleeding buggery!” boomed Lenny, hopping and still trying to find the other arm of the bomber jacket. That was shortly before the boot lid landed.
* * * * *
As Lenny jigged and hopped in pain, a 10-ton Scammell army truck with two rows of squaddies sitting back to back along its middle emerged from the grey mist and chuntered by, its canvas back flaps rolled up so that the soldiers could admire the charming Essex countryside. Oh how they laughed!
“Knees up Grandad!”
“Hops is in Kent mate, did you miss the signpost to Tilbury ferry then?”
Lenny was not well pleased.
“Bleedin’ bits of kids, bollocks to the lot of yer!”
“Language!” commented Edith tartly.
“Still wet behind the ears the lot of ‘em. Oi, come back ‘ere and say that, I’ll blow the bloody bum fluff off your faces!”
Lenny was oblivious to the comical nature of his predicament. Hopping in pain on one leg, struggling to get into his bomber jacket while rubbing a sore head and frantically giving V-signs to soldiers was probably not the way he would have intended to be seen by the RAC man who was pulling into the lay-by.
* * * * *
“And you can bugger off, too.”
“Are you a member, sir?”
“What, of the RAC? No I bleedin’ aint, you must be off your conk. I’m in the AA. Them RAC blokes are never around when you need ‘em!”
“I see sir. Good day sir,” replied the RAC man and promptly rode further along the lay-by, where he dismounted and stood erect, flicking specks of invisible dust off his smart blue uniform.
Lenny aimed another kick at the chunk of railway sleeper but checked himself just in time to avoid another stubbed toe. However, this had the effect of dislodging the slipper from his foot and sending it in a long arc, right over the hedge alongside the road. “Bugger” said Lenny.
“What is it now?” said Auntie Edith sourly.
“Lost me slipper!”
“Well go and get it then.”
“Easier said than done. I can’t see nothing much and it’s taters out here. Must have a pee first,” said Lenny, unpacking Percy and pointing him at the back wheel.
“Don’t you do that here,” said Auntie Edith emphatically, “go where I can’t see you.”
This pained Lenny because he was in mid-pee and had to pinch Percy to make him stop while he moved further from Auntie Edith and closer to the RAC man.
“I can still see you.”
That was when Lenny saw the old wooden gate. “Might as well pee on the other side,” he muttered, beginning to climb awkwardly. When he got to the top he cocked one leg over then turned so he was facing the road and proceeded to back down into the field, one hand gripping the top of the gate and the other still strangling Percy. He would have done better to look where he was putting his slipperless foot because when he touched ground it wasn’t grass but something warm, slippery and steaming.
As Lenny lost his footing something big, black and white eructed. It was the back end of a cow, the shitty bit. “Bloody hell,” boomed Lenny, which startled the cow. Then the front end of cow looked round indignantly, which startled Lenny. The cow was upset and who could blame it? How would you feel if you had just defecated and someone crept up behind you and trod in it?
“Sod this for a game of soldiers, I’m off,” boomed Lenny, forgetting to put Percy away.
* * * * *
Back in the A30, Auntie Edith was taking stock of the situation. Here came her Lenny, one arm in a bomber jacket and the other fending off an angry cow, hopping towards her on one good carpet-slippered foot, flies undone with droopy hanging out, the other foot dripping something runny and repulsive.
Behind Lenny were approaching two traffic cops who had just pulled into Lenny’s lay-by, followed by the RAC man who, while saluting the policeman, stifled a guffaw, his eyes having just taken in Lenny’s predicament. The irate cow poked its head over the fence and snorted.
“Good evening sir,” said one of the policemen to Lenny, “we’ve been watching you.”
“Oh my giddy aunt, just what I bleedin’ needed!” lamented Lenny, now back by the A30.
“I thought you said you knew how to drive,” said Auntie Edith tartly, clutching the leather handbag containing all her money tightly to her chest. “A right pickle you’ve landed us in now!”
Devoted as he was to his wife of 35 years, Lenny detested that superior air of hers. “Gawd, give me strength,” he muttered as he turned to face the RAC man, the two traffic cops and the offended Friesian cow.
* * * * *
“Get in the car,” ordered Auntie Edith, “I’ll handle this.”
Auntie Edith assumed her most haughty air and descended regally from the A30. She billowed round the front of the car and placed herself solidly between the uniformed men and her Lenny, now back in his seat biting his nails. She gave the Friesian cow a withering look that caused it to swish its tail nervously and look away.
“Good afternoon, Madam. Please get back in the car.”
“We shall be leaving shortly young man and I shall get back in the car at that time, not before. In the meantime, kindly inform me where an elderly person may relieve herself with a modicum of privacy around here.”
“Madam, we observed your husband exposing himself on the public highway.”
“Yes, so it appears. It is of no surprise to me that this country is going to the dogs when its policemen have nothing better to do with their time than spy on an old gentleman with a weak bladder answering a call of nature. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
One of the policemen put a firm hand under Auntie Edith’s arm with the firm intention of returning her firmly to her side of the car. He was expecting her to say “take your hands off me” or something of the kind but instead she oozed delighted syrupy gratitude.
“Oh, how kind of you young man, your mother must be very proud to have such a polite son. It’s so rare these days to find young people who are willing to help an elderly couple in their time of need.”
The policeman hesitated and looked enquiringly at his partner, who shrugged his shoulders and looked the other way.
“Where are you taking me? I should prefer not to be near that beastly cow, if it’s all the same to you. Somewhere out of sight with no stinging nettles would be perfect.”
You can say this much for Lenny, he knew when to keep his oar out when his wife was wheedling. He quickly put his shoes on (never mind the smell) and packed Percy away safely out of sight. When he emerged from the car he was as impeccable as ever he was likely to be, despite the farmyard smell.
“No need to bother yerself son,” he boomed as ingratiatingly as he could manage, “I’ll take over now. Thanks for all the trouble, ‘spect you must be very busy what with all them maniacs on the roads these days.”
Fortunately for Lenny the other policeman’s walkie-talkie chose that moment to crackle into life. Clearly a more pressing matter was clamouring for their attention in that drab and darkling part of Essex.
“Blimey, thanks love,” said Lenny after the cops had kicked their bikes into life and sped out of the lay-by with blue lights ablaze.
* * * * *
“None of this would’ve happened if only you’d turn right.”
Piqued, Lenny decided to give it a go. He crouched low over the steering wheel, clenched his tongue resolutely between his false teeth and revved up the A30 until the engine was screaming like a quarter-ton demented gnat.
As soon as he saw a gap in the traffic, Lenny slammed the A30 into bottom gear and shot like a bolt across the Southend-bound carriageway, bumped over the grassy central reservation as if on square wheels, and careered out onto the London-bound lane, right in front of a Co-op milk float.
Auntie Edith had turned white. Lenny was shaken but determined not to hang around. He risked a glance in the mirror and saw the Co-op roundsman shaking his fist at him and mouthing profanities with an F in them. Thankfully a Co-op milk float is no match for an A30 when it comes to a turn of speed so Lenny won the race. But turn right he was determined never to do, not never no more.
When they got to the Brentwood roundabout Lenny went twice round it before thinking it must be the wrong one. On the third lap he saw the milk float approaching and made a dash for it along the first available exit.
* * * * *
So it was that the little A30, fortunately still with a ¾ full tank, took them from roundabout to roundabout, before delivering them bewildered onto the Tilbury Ferry. Feverishly doing geometry sums in his head during the crossing, Lenny worked out that in order to double back to the ferry without turning right he needed to turn left three times somewhere, cross over the road he was on and then do three more left turns, which would bring them arse about face and pointing in the right direction again.
The first left turn that was deep enough into Kent to Lenny’s liking took them straight over Wrotham Hill, or would have done had the A30 not conked out half way up.
It took over half an hour for Lenny to get the A30 started again, by which time it was dark. At night Lenny was as afraid of turning left as he was right so he just kept going straight on. As they entered a town the mist was turning to fog when something swooped and narrowly missed the windscreen.
“Jesus,” boomed Lenny, “what the devil was that?”
“Looked like a seagull to me” said Auntie Edith coldly. “You’re the one that knows how to drive, where are we?”
* * * * *
Lenny didn’t know. Hadn’t the faintest idea in fact. But now he was in lit streets so he started frantically turning left at every opportunity but ‘no entry’ signs and cul-de-sacs confounded his sense of direction. After going under a high-arched railway viaduct they started seeing a lot more seagulls.
“There’s a phone box over there, I’m going to phone,” Auntie Edith announced, “park somewhere.”
Lenny was only too glad to oblige. “That’s it love, you go and phone while I go for a pee and a pint in that pub over there.”
* * * * *
Auntie Edith pressed button A and the coins clattered noisily into the tin collection box.
“Hello?” she said, assuming her posh telephone voice, “is that you?”
“Mum! Are you alright?”
“Course I’m alright, it’s your father.”
“What’s happened? We’ve been worried stiff!”
“Well, you know he only turns left and now we’re lost in the fog!”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t rightly know, son, it says ‘Tontine Street’ on the wall over there.”
“Tontine Street? Never heard of it!”
“Well if he turns left once more we’re going to end up in the docks. I can see a boat called the ‘Maid of Kent’, if that tells you anything.”
“Bloody hell, you must be in Folkestone, how did you get there of all places? I thought you were going to Brentwood!”
“So we was until you father got lost after Gallows Corner and one way and another we landed up here. Can you come and get us before we end up in flipping France?”
* * * * *
Meanwhile, with three pints of Flowers inside him over in the Royal George, Lenny was measuring up to a couple of French matelots and giving them a piece of his mind.