A holiday free of calamity? In my dreams

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

If you teach in FE there is one sure sign that the summer is finally over. It comes in the form of an email from your principal, and it's more or less the same every year.

"Welcome back," it says. "I hope you all had a good holiday and are now feeling relaxed and ready for the challenge of the new term." To this I have just one thing to add: clearly principals have different holidays to mine.

This year it began even before it began. By which I mean that the usual sequence of calamitous summer happenings chose to start even before the holiday did. Two weeks into July my car died on me in the middle of Epping Forest. It was at this point I discovered it has a component - as apparently does every car manufactured since 1993 - called the engine control unit. "It's blown," said the man at the garage, "and we'll have to send it off to Southampton to be reprogrammed."

"How long will that take?" I enquired. "Could be a week, could be three," came the answer. That really was bad news, as I was rather hoping that in a few days' time I would be driving the car down through France to a village near Perpignan.

So the choice was simple: either hire another car or risk losing the holiday. What the heck: the repair bill was already heading towards four figures, so what difference would another pound;900 or so make? Anyway, we had to go as the trip was not so much holiday as sales mission. After eight years of being fully mortgaged-up members of the second-homes brigade, we were putting our house in the sun back on the market.

This was where problem number two kicked in. You can choose your home but you can't choose your neighbours. Most of the locals who live alongside us in the Rue des Figuiers are wonderful people. Most, but not quite all.

The neighbour in question lives immediately next door, and he's no bother in the conventional sense of the word. He's quiet, almost to the point of being reclusive. The problem is with his car. Once he used it to drive to places. Now it's a battered and crumbling fixture, a sort of tool-shed on wheels, and it's parked permanently outside our front door. As the door opens directly onto the street it's a bit like having a 1982 Peugeot parked next to your settee.

Occasionally we catch a glimpse of him in the street, dragging his ferocious dog along on a string. He looks like a cartoon-strip pirate, with long straggly hair held back by a grubby red bandana.

We let a day or two go by. Surely he'll realise we've arrived for the summer and move it. He doesn't. Timidly we knock on his door. But he's not in. He's never in. At least, he never opens his door to us.

In the end we push a note through his letterbox. This results in him moving the car about four feet away from the door. It's still in front of our house, but at least prospective buyers can now gain access.

"Is that your car?" they blithely enquire as they give the decor a critical once-over.

Problem number three comes via a phone call from home. "Hi there, Steve," says Graham, the Australian who's staying in the house while we're away. "You didn't tell me you had an indoor swimming pool in the basement, did you?"

"That's because we don't Graham. It's a terraced house in Walthamstow, not a mansion in Mayfair."

"Just kidding, Steve," Graham says. "But I thought you ought to know there are men replacing the mains in your street and that your cellar's filling up with water."

So, sorry, principal, but don't talk to me about being relaxed after my holiday. And maybe after a bottle of diazepam and a week in bed I'll be ready for the "challenge" of the new term.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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