Swiss Timing by Graham Higson
Looking back, I suppose I was one of the first "setties", by which I mean the group of anorak-dressed obsessives who seek out locations where screen dramas have been shot.
In 1977, my favourite film was On Her Majesty's Secret Service – James Bond's sixth outing, with a great story, ground-breaking aerial footage (pun intended) and spectacular locations shot in the Swiss Alps. It so happened that my girlfriend suggested we take a Mini Clubman estate car and tour Germany's Black Forest, staying in hostels and, if we became stuck, we could sleep in the back, with our legs bent, of course. I was in my late teens and this seemed one hell of an adventure, and worth selling my MG roadster and buying a Mini. Yeah!
I reckoned that Switzerland was only over the border and I was determined to see where they'd filmed the villain's mountain-top lair on Shilthorn. I was being a bit naughty, rushing the German part so that I could suggest, like some afterthought, that we would have enough time to just slip into Switzerland and check out some of the Bond locations.
"It's only about a hundred miles," I said, not mentioning that was as the crow flies, and I brushed away any nagging concerns about the unfamiliar territory and my unfailing ability to take wrong turns.
All we had was a road map and my dad's compass. The signs had unfamiliar-sounding place names, I was only just getting used to driving on the right-hand side of the road, and somehow the area we – or maybe that should be I – was so eager to find seemed determined to remain hidden.
We were running short of time, due to catch the ferry at Calais in less than two days, and it was now coming dark. Snow-capped mountains dotted with traditional chocolate box wooden buildings lined either side, and my instincts told me that we were getting further away from Mürren, where I'd read they filmed the stock car chase (it was actually shot at Lauterbrunnen), and the last road sign I saw mentioned Grindelwald ... just before the snow began to fall.
Within ten minutes the windscreen wipers were struggling to shift three inches of snow, we were on a narrow road with a drop on the right hand side, and the sound of the snow scraping against the bodywork wasn't exactly comforting.
"That noise is frightening me," said Margaret.
"It's when it stops you need to worry," I said, aware of the seemingly-bottomless drop just to our right.
Then it became impossible to tell where exactly the road was, and at any point I could have simply driven off and into the abyss. Was that fog? No, it was steam spewing from beneath the bonnet. The temperature gauge confirmed we were in real trouble.
We stopped, sitting in the darkness, the sound of our breathing like we were enclosed in a box, and the rumbling of the overheated engine reminding me of those old black and white WW2 submarine films.
"So what now? What if the engine's wrecked?" I detected the suggestion that this was all my fault.
"Then we apply for Swiss citizenship." That didn't go down well.
Remember, there were no sat navs, no mobile phones, yet we were from a generation that firmly believed we were at the forefront of technology. Nor did we have thermal blankets, and it was getting bloody cold. We had two options: stay and freeze, or take our chances and find a barn – hey, just like Bond and his girlfriend had done. So we set off, with the water carrier, for help.
* * *
The man and woman didn't speak any English, nor did we speak German – which seemed to be their language. Okay, so I knew odd phrasebook nuggets such as "I am very sorry" and "Is this the way to the wild boar hunt?" I even tried some schoolboy French, "Je suis en panne." Anyhow, they understood that we were in desperate need of shelter and sustenance, and the woman, in her late-fifties, made fussing noises, showing us the bathroom and arranging bedding on the sofa and floor. The hot drink was strange: a delicious chocolate-based flavour that I've not tasted since. And all I could do was repeat danke over and over again in my eagerness to thank them. I have never since been so frustrated; whatever I said just didn't feel to cut it, yet they were so pleased and willing to help us.
It was early when we awoke. There was no one about, so we filled the water carrier and went to find the car, try and get it going, then we'd go back to say goodbye.
The car was over a mile away, and it was open, including the bonnet, yet none of our stuff was disturbed. At that time, any British Leyland car as old as this one could be easily unlocked with a screwdriver. And on the driver's seat was a plastic pipe, around three inches long, with a couple of shiny hose clips. It was new, just lying there. How strange. We checked the Haynes manual and identified it as a bypass hose through which water passed from the cylinder head to the water pump. It was at the rear of the engine and a right pain to get at, but after an hour or so I'd replaced it, though my hands were in a mess.
We hurried back to find whoever had diagnosed the problem ... but whichever direction we took, in all that snow, we just couldn't find the house, and we desperately needed to be on our way home. Ever since, I have regretted not being able to thank those people, imagining how they might have felt about our seeming lack of appreciation.
This is a story about good Samaritans and the frustration of not being able to show our gratitude; it's not a supernatural story about a ghost village. But who knows? Just maybe...