The Hairpins by Beth Haslam
This trip was to view a domaine (country estate) for sale in France. We were told by Thierry, our Estate Agent for the day, that it was close, and accessible via a tranquil country route. ‘Country route’, it certainly was. ‘Tranquil’, it was not.
With my husband Jack at the wheel, we followed Thierry for about five kilometres on a road unsullied by white lines. It became increasingly narrow and very quickly reduced to just over a car’s width. With an of absence crash barriers we had an excellent view of the sheer drops on one side, and fragile cliff faces on the other. Casual chitchat was quickly replaced by focused concentration.
We rounded another corner and were confronted with a roadworks warning triangle. The need for a warning was obvious because the road in front of us had partly subsided into the valley, but there was no sign of any activity. Jack looked at his watch. “Bugger! It’s the two-hour lunch break.” My husband has never got to grips with how an entire nation can grind to a halt between midday and 2:00pm.
We stopped and walked over to Thierry who was peering over the edge of the cliff talking to six workmen in hard hats. They were perched on a tiny horizontal shelf, part of which was actually underneath the remaining slice of road. We gathered that they thought we could proceed with caution, provided we had normal size cars. Rather uncertain as to what this meant, Jack mumbled something about our car insurance not covering manslaughter, and strode despairingly back to the car.
“Several issues here,” he said. “One. It’s road works not route barrée (road closed) which means that the road should be passable. Two. The workmen aren’t running away from the scene. Three. That bloke in the far distance in the blue hat isn’t waving at us to say hello. He’s trying to tell us to get a bloody move on because he’s late for his lunch. Four. We can’t turn around, it’s too narrow. And finally five. We could have fun reversing back for two kilometres, but we’re bound to meet someone and end up back here anyway. On the other hand Thierry has a wider and heavier car than ours. He’s going first and we’ll be stationary with reverse gear engaged until I can see that he’s well beyond the weak area.”
I gulped and watched anxiously as Thierry approached the danger zone in his 4x4 vehicle. These were extremely worrying moments. As he drove over the damaged section, shards of stone skittered everywhere. It was plain to see that his wheels actually overlapped one edge of the tarmac. My nerves were in tatters.
“Just as well those men have hard hats on – otherwise things could have been pretty nasty,” mused Jack, totally focused on Thierry’s progress.
Thierry finally made it to the other side intact, and waved for us to follow. I clamped my eyes tightly shut, and crossed everything available. Happily I needn’t have worried. Jack did it. We were delivered gently over the hard hats to join him.
Flushed by the sweet scent of survival we continued our journey battling with ever more hairpin bends as they climbed inexorably towards our destination. I tried not to, but couldn’t resist looking. Sheer drops of nothingness gave way to steep slopes of rocky scree inhabited only by scraggy pines that hung on with tenacious roots. Whilst this was better than literally nothing, there was still no indication of any warning chevrons, protective barriers or hazard signs on this ‘tranquil’ road. Since there was no chance of passing any oncoming vehicle, or being able to turn around, perhaps the need for road signs was unnecessary. The only priority here was blindingly obvious: self-preservation.
My tense speculations were interrupted by the ringing sound from my mobile phone. “ItsWill here,” roared the familiar voice. Will was Thierry’s boss and probably best described as an eccentric aristocrat. “And how are my intrepids this fine morning?”
“Oh okay thanks, Will. It’s a tricky road, but we’re making steady progress now.”
“Good, good. That’s what I like to hear. And what’s the weather like?” I looked up through the car’s sunroof and couldn’t quite believe my eyes.
“Well, er, the weather’s fine Will, but I’ve just noticed that there’s a car in the trees above our heads.”
“No, I don’t think so my dear, it’ll be on the hairpin bend up ahead. They can give one the most horrid optical illusion. I understand they are a little steep on the approach to the domaine.”
“Actually Will, no!” I insisted. “There is definitely a car in the tree. We’re very close to it now. It must have toppled off the road on the corner and it’s now stuck in the branches of a tree. In fact I’m looking directly at its roof, it’s almost upside down.”
“Most unusual,” came the sotto voce reply. “But then again I do have to remind you how appallingly bad the French drivers are – quite disastrous I’m afraid. Anyway, not to worry, at least it’s off the road and not in your way. Otherwise it would be rather complicated trying to get past it. Hah! Rest assured, my dear, the road is entirely safe in that district and Thierry tells me you will arrive in the next five minutes.” With a final bawl of “bon courage!” (good luck) he abruptly rang off.
Our destination finally came into view, and not a moment too soon. We gingerly rounded a shaley turn and made our way up an impossibly steep drive to the front of the house. The door was wide open and there stood our hosts, faces alight with warm smiles. As I looked at their friendly expressions, all I could think of was that soon we would have to drive back down that terrifying road – and we might not be so lucky on the return trip.