The other day in my Kythnos kitchen my breadboard split violently asunder, and I was not at all pleased. To be sure, I barely used it for slicing bread, but as a vegetable chopping board, and in the paltry 11 months of its life, and with 4 mega dinner parties heaving with hungry Kythnos teachers, the number of leeks , onions, peppers, aubergines, courgettes etc chopped upon it have been legion. A friend who was staying bought it for me last May, and in fairness it was the only one in the Hora hardware shop, but it looked both considerably smaller than any UK variety, and also palpably fragile, or do I mean simply worryingly time bound? It had a bloody great knot in the middle of the wood, and that did not augur well. Now that it was in two ugly shards of width 4 inches and 2 inches, the smaller one would be hopeless for anything but a doll’s house kitchen, and the wider one for cutting a single small onion, but not for sticking my indispensable cheese grater upon it. The point is I had just acquired a brilliantly sharp kitchen knife made in Turkey, much lauded by the same Hora hardware assistant, who otherwise has no time at all for Turks. But as if to say he knew all about fair’s fair and objectivity, he told me that Turkey was somewhere where they know how to make a knife that doesn’t pretend to be a bloody old toy one. At any rate, if from then on, bebbing the odd invigorating slug of bargain ksiroerythros dry red, I hacked too carelessly with that Turkish knife on my now delimited 4-inch board, I might end up bloodily and drippingly finger-free, as well as chopping board-reft.
I went without hope to the biggest supermarket in the port, knowing that if I hadn’t wanted a breadboard they would have had 10 different types, all going for a song, and now that I did they would have nothing, and the dry husband would shrug his shoulders as if to say who needs a bloody chopping board anyway, the point being that he personally had last prepared something in the blah blah always yakking women’s kitchen, when Kythnos was under the yoke of the Ottomans, if not earlier. But luckily they had a nifty Chinese job made out of plastic, and only costing 4 euros, and what’s more, it had a charming photo of a beaming Chinese lady of about 35, beaming precisely because she had a nice breadboard/ pastryboard/ chopping board just like this one, one that would obviously last for 200 years. Come to think of it my mothers’ much used pastry-board was also made out of wood, and was very old indeed, and never showed any signs of wear. But then it had no bloody great knot smack in the middle of its heart of oak, whereas my prematurely kaput one was made of who knows what, long dead Hong Kong hawthorn?
I have known bigger shocks than that though, when things have torn themselves asunder. Just before Annie and I celebrated my 50th birthday in Dublin in October 2000, my white Renault which had been new and stunning in 1988, finally gave up the ghost. As it hiccupped and danced out of the Cumbrian garage with the mechanic Des shaking his wise head, and also washing his wise hands of it, it was making the strangest noise you have ever heard. To me it sounded like a very large factory sink emptying and whistling and glugging as it did, but a dour Geordie man of my acquaintance was walking in my direction and he had a radically different opinion. My window was open and he shouted in with glum yet cheerful concern:
“Yah cah soonds like a hoofah, hinny.”
A Hoover? He was bloody right. More of a Hoover than a whistling industrial sink, right enough. In any event, fast forward till Annie and I were back from that riotous and restorative week in Dublin, the Hoover masquerading as a Renault lying inert in our farmhouse courtyard, and I was in desperate need of a car. The same headshaking Des did not shake his unprincipled head at what he managed to palm off on me, which was a 1987 Rover at the maximum book price of £800. It went fine for about a week, and then started having serious cooling system problems. Apropos of nothing, and certainly not because it was suffering at me going like the clappers with my steady and relaxed 35mph, motorway and dual carriageway included, the temperature gauge would shoot up, and there is nothing to instil raw panic in you like an overheated engine. I would halt the bastard somewhere convenient, and wait till it cooled, and then set off again, and by a fluke it might behave itself for the next 50 miles. Alternatively like a Strindbergian femme fatale, or a whinnying skittish mare, it might decide to please its bloody self, and boil up within 50 reluctant yards. Des who used to shake his hairy, beardy head about 50 times a day, for various earnest diagnostic reasons, shook it twice, and eventually concluded my car needed a new cooling system. He booked it in the next morning, installed it for a few hundred quid, and a week later it was still boiling up, and to be honest by now, so was I.
But that was the mere aperitif, the hors d’oeuvres and mezzes and antipasti, to the entree that was succulently to come. One day in 2001 I was driving towards the same garage for petrol, when the car literally collapsed. I had no idea what had happened, but it was exactly as if someone had dropped a massive but invisible boulder on the car, so that the unfortunate Rover’s back had been broken. Clearly the vehicular vertebrae had gone, and it no longer cohered as a car. Des, who was after all the unprincipled bastard who had sold me this now sadly quadraplegic Rover, wandered leisurely across, shook his head three and a half times, and advised me the drive shaft had gone. Doubtless age, he added with such patience and philosophy, no doubt wear and tear. I conjured with that a while, thinking I at 50 have had a fair bit of wear and tear, but I don’t expect my spinal cord to shatter just as I walk towards the Coop to buy a Mars Bar, do I? To cap all, he told me he was up to his eyes with repairs, and couldn’t possibly see to me now. I was bloody speechless and frankly incendiary. I got out, pushed past him, picked up the phone next to his counter, and rang the only other garage in town. Luckily they were a specialist recovery outfit, used to removing crashed cars after an accident. They were there within ten minutes, and had it carted away and a new drive shaft sorted within a couple of days. They also had courtesy cars, which is more than bloody old head-wagging Des ever had. However I am not going to continue the panegyric of these recovery saviours, as about a year later the Rover drive shaft went a second time, which can only mean that the one they put in was a second hand one, riddled with the metallurgical equivalent of advanced woodworm.
But Annie and I were arguable wide-eyed eejits in the last month of 1982, when we decided to buy an aged car just because it looked so petite and so enchantingly sweet. It was a Baby Fiat from 1968, year of the Paris riots and the Beatles song Revolution, and also the cruel invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets. A year full of drama, both revolutionary and reactionary, and true to say that our Baby Fiat was both of those things also. We were living in Oxford, and we bought it from a man I’d known as a student a decade earlier. He was a jazz guitarist of considerable repute, and had performed late at night on BBC Radio 3, so self-evidently this guy after my own heart, as he surely was, could only be offering us a car that would delight, inform and educate. We bought it for £400, the day before we set off north for a West Cumbrian Christmas, and by a still inexplicable miracle, it got us there no problem. Once reached Cumbria though, it decided it had done its contractual job, and it staggered and broke down umpteen times between the various foci of our families and our friends. At length a mechanically savvy acquaintance, told us that it all down to the fan belt and the shims. The shims, peculiar to Baby Fiats, were funny little metal flanges that you removed when there were compression problems. So any problem, you took out a shim, and then the thing sorted itself after a benign entropic fashion, is how I recall the memorably inscrutable S Level Physics puzzler some 33 years on. The problem was our particular Baby Fiat currently had no bloody shims at all, meaning they had all been removed to sort the numerous previous 14 years of problems, but in doing so they had left behind only a ghostly shim memory, and even two wishful thinkers like Annie and me, knew that you could not run a car on the incorporeal memory of a gizmo, but you needed the corporeal gizmo itself to do the job. To accelerate and edit the touching story, on the 250 mile return journey, we had to be towed off the motorway no less than five times by the AA. Miraculously we made it through Oxford itself to our Iffley Road bedsit, and precisely ten yards away where we parked it, it gave up its 1968 Italian soul, and never moved again a single inch. The bespectacled guy who lived next door, knew all about cars, and he took a smart little gauge and determined that assuredly the gorgeous Baby Fiat car had absolutely nil compression, or in his words ‘zilch’.
It was the first time I had ever heard the strange word zilch in January 1983, and from then on I would never be able to forget it.