It was 11.30 am on a summer’s day in Canada when I discovered that the only way to open the boot of a Chrysler Sebring hard-topped convertible is by pressing a button on its black key fob. I discovered this a moment after closing the boot with the black key fob inside. I could picture the fob sitting neatly on top of my suitcase. Nevertheless, I patted my pockets in the hope it had somehow spawned a twin. I ran my fingers around the boot in search of a hidden handle. I retraced my steps across the car park, scanning the ground for the thing I knew was somewhere else. And then I put my hands to my head in a state of welling panic and fought the urge to have a good cry.
People tend to assume a travel writer spends his life sprawled in beachside hammocks killing time between cocktails and seafood suppers. But behind the juicy bits in the magazine spreads are a thousand cuttings on the floor of the writer’s memory: cramped flights, upset stomachs, toadying emails to editors, tedious meetings with hotel managers, missed buses, drop toilets, lost passports, colourless museums, aching feet, endless scrawls in countless notebooks. Keys locked in hire cars parked in the middle of unfamiliar places. Pressing deadlines.
Eleven forty and the clock was ticking. I’d been commissioned to write a feature about a tree-top canopy walk deep in the Highlands of Ontario, and so early that morning I had collected a hire car and set out from Toronto. It was a four-hour drive, the city’s glass and concrete spinning free, replaced by a thickening wilderness of pine trees that I knew hid big black bears and packs of wolves on the prowl. My guide and his group would be leaving the visitor centre of the Haliburton Forest Reserve at 1 pm sharp – the sharpness had been stressed to me – but, with time in hand, I stopped at a solitary store to buy some wine for the evening. That’s when it happened. I popped the boot of the locked car, laid down the fob while I wedged the bottles between my bags – and slammed the boot shut. I was eight miles short of my destination.
Standing by the car, I tried to ignore the butterflies buffeting the inside of my stomach and assess the options before me. Option One: complete the remaining eight miles on foot. This was an unappealing prospect, certainly, but it wouldn’t be impossible to cover the ground in time if I jogged parts of the way. However, by the time I returned night would have fallen, the store would have closed and I’d have no-one for company but big black bears and packs of wolves on the prowl. I crossed Option One off the list. Option Two: re-schedule the canopy walk. Out of the question, unfortunately, because I had no contact number for the guide and I was anyway flying home the following day. Option Three: find a light-fingered boot cracker who could retrieve the key – and quickly.
A cashier from the store phoned Henry, who arrived at midday in a black pick-up truck with a hook hanging from a little crane at the back. He was a reassuring figure, with a brimming box of tools, oil-smeared dungarees and an expression I interpreted as one of heroic altruism. ‘It’s great to see you! I’ve locked my key in the trunk,’ I explained, adopting the local lingo. Henry didn’t answer. Instead he walked around the car, peering through each of the windows, before returning to my side.
‘ How do you plan to pay?’ he said, avoiding any opening niceties. On reflection, I decided there was something weaselly about Henry’s expression. ‘ You don’t take cards, I suppose?’ ‘ Nope.’
I’m afraid I’ve only twenty dollars
in cash. Will that cover it?’ Henry just shrugged, and then got to work.
His first act was to test each of the door handles, working on the theory that this wouldn’t have occurred to an imbecile from England with only twenty dollars in his wallet. To Henry’s surprise, the doors remained unmoved. Next he pulled from his bag a flat piece of metal that he attempted to slide into the door mechanism from the bottom of the driver’s window. But the gap was too narrow. Finally he turned to a long piece of thick wire, forcing one end between the top of the window and its seal, and feeding it down towards the unlock button on the inside of the door panel.
Henry crouched with forehead pressed to the glass and tongue sticking through white whiskers as he attempted to prod the button with the skinny finger of metal. It was a painstaking, teeth-grinding process. Several times the wire landed on its target only to slide away, a string of muttered swear words trailing in its wake. But after twenty minutes of near misses there was a satisfying clunk. With a smug glance in my direction, Henry lifted the door handle, and triggered a cacophony that sent him leaping like a hairy salmon.
The blaring rhythm of a car alarm commands urgency. A flustered Henry hurried into the driver’s seat and jabbed at the ‘open trunk’ button on the steering column. Nothing happened. He pushed it again and again, but the electrics evidently only worked with the key in the ignition. He clambered awkwardly into
The clock and Chrysler and Henry and the world were against me. It was 12.30; there was no way the car rental company could send help in time for me to make the canopy walk. Why had I stopped for booze? What would I file to the editor? I’d have no tale to tell of a hike through the treetops, nothing to show for the cost of my flight.
the back, hunting for a lever to drop the seats and gain access to the boot. But this was a convertible and the roof-raising gear sat behind the rear seats, so they didn’t lower. The alarm continued its loud complaint, supported by angry orange blinks from the hazard lights; a sprinkle of shoppers gathered to watch.
‘ You’ll have to phone the rental company,’ Henry said above the din as he emerged defeated and red-cheeked from the car. He was right, I knew; we’d exhausted all other options. I punched the digits into my mobile, but the line wouldn’t connect.
‘ I think it’s because I’m using a foreign mobile,’ I explained to Henry. His nonforeign mobile sat on the bonnet of his truck while he rolled a cigarette. He looked at it, and then at me. ‘ There’s a phone booth about 200 metres
up the road there,’ he nodded. I felt the prickle of frustrated tears somewhere behind my eyeballs. ‘ But I’ve no change, Henry.’ He carefully licked the length of his cigarette paper, before reaching into the front of his dungarees. ‘ Here’s a quarter,’ he said, and turned away to find a lighter.
Those were a lonely 200 metres, trudged listlessly in the knowledge the game was up. The clock and Chrysler and Henry and the world were against me. It was 12.30; there was no way the car rental company could send help in time for me to make the canopy walk. The sun had disappeared behind a bank of gloomy cloud and the branches of the pine trees drooped like sagging shoulders. Why had I stopped for booze? What would I file to the editor? I’d have no tale to tell of a hike through the treetops, nothing to show for the cost of my flight. Of course, in the greater scheme of things this was no disaster; I hadn’t been kidnapped by pirates or bitten by a rabid racoon. But life isn’t always lived with an eye on its greater scheme, and at that helpless moment in that strange place there seemed no worse a predicament.
‘ Good afternoon, how are you doing today?’ chirruped an irritatingly upbeat voice on the other end of the line.
‘I’ve locked my key in the boot.’ ‘The boot?’ ‘The trunk.’ ‘Oh, poor you! Have you tried pushing the “open trunk” button?’ Patience; he’s only trying to help. ‘Yes.’
‘And pulling the seats down?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Hmmm, in which case I’m all outta
ideas!’ he declared with a cheery laugh before putting me on hold while he contacted the Chrysler manufacturers. I stared into space with the phone to my ear, listening to Shania Twain sing about various things that men do that don’t impress her much.
A sharp knock on the booth made me jump. ‘Hey, I’ve got your key out!’ said an excited man outside. I recognised him as one of the shoppers; he’d managed to shine a flashlight into the trunk through a small space between the back seats, he panted as we hurried back to the store, and hooked the fob with Henry’s wire. There were still twenty minutes to get to the visitor centre and the game was back on; I could have kissed his round, pink face.
I arrived with a whole minute to spare. The magazine article was published a couple of months later, a piece describing the tranquillity to be found in the Highlands of Ontario. There was no mention of the less-than-tranquil preceding two hours; they were to remain cuttings on the floor of a travel writer’s memory. But for all the splendour of Canada’s towering trees and heavy-headed moose, it’s the faces of those untold hours I’ll remember best: those of the kind stranger and the weasel Henry – whose quarter I never did return.