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A Foreign Correspondence
In the summer of 1984, temporarily flush from the sale of the movie rights to my first book, I treated myself, my wife, our two small children, and my seventeen-year-old daughter to six weeks in England.
We stayed in an apartment in a converted World War I installation called Old Coastguards on Chesil Beach, near the village of Abbotsbury, in Dorset.
On our first day there our landlord drove me into Dorchester, eight miles away, and I rented, for the duration of our stay, a spiffy little red VW Polo (or Golf, as it was called in the American edition).
I rented the car at an establishment called, euphoniously, Loders Motors, through an agent named MacIntyre, a tough, cocky, handsome little Scotsman whose brusque manner made it clear that he was used to getting his own way, by and large. Mr. MacIntyre insisted, in no uncertain terms, that I purchase accident insurance on the car, although it was (as Mr. MacIntyre himself readily acknowledged) painfully expensive.
I loved that little car. I had left my all-time favorite ride, a monstrous 1972 Plymouth Fury with a 360 cubic-inch engine and cruise control, huge and brown and ugly, big as an Essex yet sleek as a speedboat, back home in Kentucky, where it belonged. But the little Polo scooted around the skimpy Dorsetshire byways like a proper native of those parts, hewing stoutly to the left side of the road despite its driver's instinctive lurchings to the starboard.
There were several other families, most of them English, who came and went during our stay at Old Coastguards, among them a tall, paunchy young Manchester police officer I'm going to call Kenneth Widmerpool, and his wife and children.
(And yes, I do admit that I purloined that name from a character in the novels of Anthony Powell, whose own Kenneth Widmerpool is quite possibly the most egregious ass in English literature since Bottom himself).
Now as a once-busted, twice-shy, thoroughly unreconstructed old hippie, I generally tend to eschew the society of policemen whenever possible; but this Widmerpool seemed amiable enough, and my kids and the little Widmerpuddles had hit it off rather nicely. So during the week they were there on holiday, the Widmerpools and my wife and I regularly enjoyed a little taste or three together at the cocktail hour, sitting on the terrace watching our mutual kids playing some unfathomable kid combination of kickball and soccer and dodgeball and crocquet on the tiny Old Coastguards greensward below us, with the Channel, vast and gray-green and roily, in the background, Widmerpool and I enjoying each other's company almost as though we were soul-mates, rather than, in real life, bitter adversaries.
So as I was backing the Polo out of the Old Coastguards driveway one evening late that week after a couple of cocktails with my excellent friend Widmerpool, and I sort of, heh heh, dinged the fender of his Vauxhall - the Polo was unscathed - I wasn't really all that disturbed. After all, I figured, I've got insurance, the damage isn't much (a little dent, a scratch or two), the Vauxhall is pretty well shot anyhow, and Widmerpool and I are the best of chums, so what's to worry?
And indeed, Officer Widmerpool didn't disappoint me. When I went back up onto the terrace and confessed my crime, he laughed the whole thing off, and didn't even bother to come down to inspect the damage. Never mind, old boy, sez he, chuckling, tomorrow me and you will take a spin up to Dorchester and show these small-town blokes how a real big-city copper takes charge of the situation. My wife and I had some other errands to attend to in Dorchester anyhow, so Widmerpool and I arranged to meet at Loders Motors the following afternoon, where we'd get an estimate and set this little matter to rights. I called Mr. MacIntyre the next morning to tell him what had happened, and made an appointment to come in that afternoon, with Widmerpool in tow, to see him.
I dropped off my family at the Dorchester Marks & Sparks, to do some shopping. When I arrived at Loders at the appointed hour, Widmerpool's Vauxhall was already in the garage, and Widmerpool himself was engaged in rather heated negotiations, not to say a shouting match, with the shop foreman. Apparently, the foreman had estimated the damage to the Vauxhall at about forty pounds, max, whereas Widmerpool was loudly demanding an estimate of at least five or six hundred.
He was, in fact, in an absolute rage, storming up and down the shop floor waving his arms about and threatening to bring a large detachment of the Manchester constabulary down to Dorchester and put the entire staff of Loders Motors in irons and throw them into the Tower of London for the balance of their miserable lives. Or words to that effect. And the foreman, not to be outdone, was giving it back to Widmerpool for all he was worth, menacingly shaking a large crowbar at him and calling him a bloody fool and a "cheeky, overbearing bastard."
I, meanwhile, stood by, figuratively (and perhaps literally as well) wringing my hands, feeling horribly guilty about having, with my tipsy incompetence behind the wheel, set in motion this whole colossal ruckus, yet at the same time rather enjoying the fact that here we had a genuine, certified cop - a cop, mind you! - who was ostentatiously revealing himself to be not just an officious capital-P Pig (in the approved 1960s sense) but an everyday greedy, grasping one as well. For it was slowly dawning on me that Widmerpool had from the very first regarded my little mishap as a golden opportunity to enrich himself by browbeating, blustering, and otherwise throwing his considerable quasi-official Widmerpudlian bulk about on the assumption that he could bully a few small-town panel beaters into bilking my insurer out of a few hundred quid. These ruminations allayed my guilt to a level I could live with.
By now the general commotion had caught the attention of the shop manager and any number of mechanics, lube and oil guys, mufflerologists, and other untidy personnel who had joined the foreman in angrily rejecting Widmerpool's strident efforts to assert his authority.
All work had been suspended in the garage; those employees who weren't themselves actively participating in the debate had laid down (or, in a few cases, picked up) the various tools of their trade to devote their full attention to the proceedings; had they elected to attack en masse, my Widmerpool would have been rendered one more greasy spot on the floor of Loders Motors. As the fracas approached a crescendo, Widmerpool vociferously called for justice - and the manager called for Mr. MacIntyre.
Actually, he'd been there for a while, standing just outside his office door with his arms crossed over his sturdy little tweed-jacketed chest, biding his time. But when the manager called his name, every eye in the establishment, including Widmerpool's and my own, turned toward him, and a dense, gravid silence descended upon the scene. No doubt about it, at Loders Motors Mr. MacIntyre was, as we're all so very fond of saying nowadays, Da Man.
MacIntyre didn't say a word. Glaring gimlet-eyed at Widmerpool, he very deliberately crooked a come-along gesture with his forefinger, then wheeled about and stalked into his office without looking back. Widmerpool obediently followed him, and I, not quite knowing what other course to take, did likewise, closing the door after me. MacIntyre was already seated behind his desk, elbows on the desktop, his hands clasped before him in the familiar church-and-steeple fashion. I took one of the two chairs facing the desk. Widmerpool, his face flushed with stifled outrage, remained standing. MacIntyre eyed him through the little steeple of his forefingers as though it were a gunsight.
"Now see here." Widmerpool began, quickly gathering steam as he rose to his previous level of volume and vehemence, "I'm an officer in the Manchester police force, I know my bloody rights! I was sitting on the terrace minding my own affairs when your client" - that would be me - "your client smashed his bloody Polo into my Vauxhall and damaged it to such an extent that... that . . . "
"Look, old cock." MacIntyre interrupted, in a voice as cold as a Scottish mackerel, "you know what I would do if I were you? If I had the great misfortune of being you, I'd shut my fucking gob."
Widmerpool's jaw dropped. "But this man here, this client of yours, he smashed his..."
Suddenly, I was experiencing a resurgence of richly deserved guilt. "Yes, that's right," I admitted sheepishly, "I did hit his..."
MacIntyre shot me a glance that plainly said 'You shut your fucking gob as well.' Which I did, instanter.
Widmerpool tried another tack. "Now this won't do! I'm an officer in the Manchester police, and..." But MacIntyre wasn't having any.
"Don't you try to pull rank on me, mate," he said, "for I don't really give a shit. You're not in Manchester here. If you're in the market for a dust-up, that fellow out there with the crowbar will give you one, I promise you. What you'd better do, my lad, is take that bloody fucking Vauxhall back to Manchester, and put this matter in the hands of your insurer. They'll get in touch with us, and we'll work something out. In the meantime, what you want to do is shut your gob and get your great arse out of my garage."
That pretty much finished Widmerpool off. His over-large, flaccid face now as pale as a boiled turnip, he sputtered something about how Loders Motors would be hearing soon from his attorney, and beat a hasty retreat from the scene of battle. I rose as if to follow him, but MacIntyre motioned me to stay put.
"When does that brute go back to Manchester?" he asked when Widmerpool was thoroughly off the premises.
"As a matter of fact," I told him, "I believe the Widmerpools are leaving tomorrow."
"Excellent," he said. "And there was no damage to the Polo?" I assured him that there wasn't a scratch on it. "Now what you must do, Mr. McClanahan," he continued, "is just stay out of that bugger's way till he's gone. By the time he gets his report filed and the paperwork goes through, you'll be back in America, safe and sound. But I can tell you this" - he leaned back in his chair and locked his hands behind his head after the manner of a man supremely satisfied with himself - "I can tell you that our good friend Constable Widmerpool will not be collecting one goddamn halfpenny for this unfortunate little speculation of his. Not from us, and not from his insurer either."
I so much admired the way he said "hayp'ny" - my favorite Briticism - that for a moment I was speechless.
"But I did hit his car," I said finally, "so don't you think I should..."
"I think you should keep your mouth shut. Don't tell him anything, don't volunteer anything, and for the love of god don't sign anything. Just stay out of his fucking way. I don't doubt there'll be a few letters flying back and forth over the Atlantic, but if you're back home in America, they needn't concern you."
Puzzled, I wondered aloud how MacIntyre could be so confident that Widmerpool's own insurer wouldn't pay up, but he just smiled enigmatically and said I should leave that to him, which, of course, I was glad enough to do.
I said goodbye and went to pick up my family at Marks & Sparks.
After I described for my wife the delightful little contretemps I had just enjoyed, we decided that the prudent course was to contrive to absent ourselves from Old Coastguards for the remainder of the day. There was an Alec Guiness festival playing at one of the cinemas in town, so we spent the rest of the afternoon doing a little local shopping and sight-seeing, had dinner at our favorite Dorchester pub, and then took the kids to see The Man in the White Suit. By the time we got home, the Widmerpools were long abed, and when we arose the next morning, they were gone.
* * * *
Four months later, back home in Kentucky, I received the following letter, under the logo of Network Insurance Services Limited, addressed to one "E Lanham":
Intriguing as I found Mr. Matthews' apparent regret that vehicle QJ 8903 had sustained no damage, I was even more mystified by his assertion that "the accident had not been reported to them by yourself." But as I had no interest whatsoever in having Network Limited "act further" on my behalf, I round-filed the whole business without a second thought, and figured that would surely be the last I'd hear of it.
Then, three months later, E Lanham received a second communique from Mr. Matthews:
Now at last I was beginning to get a faint glimmer of understanding of what was going on here: For all Widmerpool's smug confidence that his official status, such as it was, made him the master of petty bureaucratic procedures, his rage had blinded him to the immediate necessity of filing an official accident report at Loders Motors - and Mr. MacIntyre certainly hadn't been inclined to remind him of the oversight. And since there had been no damage to Loders hire vehicle QJ 8903, the entire episode had disappeared from the public record - which meant that there was, officially at any rate, no second party involved in the accident, which in turn meant that Widmerpool alone was responsible for the damage, and that therefore his insurance company was balking at paying for it, or perhaps threatening to raise his rates to an insupportable level. Either way, it would prove the worse for Widmerpool, which was fine and dandy with me.
But with the terrible Mr. MacIntyre many months and three thousand miles behind me, I allowed myself also to take exception to the veiled threat in that line about "we would appreciate an explanation"
'Shut your fucking gob, Mr A D Matthews, Claims Supervisor,' thought I: 'I'm a citizen of Kentucky, US of A, and you can't lay a finger on me.'
And so, from that vantage point, having determined that it was high time I had a little fun out of Widmerpool & Company, I wrote the following response:
I also had rather a good time filling out the accident report form ("Whilst reversing in the Old Coastguards driveway"), which I submitted with my letter. In fact, I so much enjoyed the part of the form that asked me for a "sketch plan" of the accident that I couldn't resist making a copy of it before I mailed it off to England.
It perhaps goes without saying that this concluded my correspondence with Mr. Matthews.
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