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Alan and Robin Lose Their Spark

"Let's go out for dinner."

And so it was decided. It's something we often do of a Friday, for I have religious objections to cooking on Friday evenings, and there is a perfectly magnificent Malaysian restaurant not a five minute drive down the road.

Robin drove, and as she drove we chatted idly of cabbages and kings, having long ago exhausted the more mundane possibilities of shoes, ships and sealing wax. I'd been teaching all week and I was deep in lecture mode (something I find hard to turn off - Robin pulls my leg unmercifully). I was half-way through an animated and somewhat Rabelaisian monologue on cabbage seeding strategies when Robin said, "The car's stopped."

I listened carefully. Indeed there was no comforting whirr, buzz, click or even thud from the engine compartment. Silence reigned supreme. Robin coasted us to the side of the road but the car ran out of momentum a little too soon, and the tail was left poking slightly out into the road. Uncaring, the New Zealand traffic continued to roar past at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, missing our tail by mere millimetres, doppler shifting themselves into the darkness. Robin leaned over the steering wheel concentrating hard as she turned the ignition key. Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. The engine remained stubbornly silent.

I was about to suggest putting it in gear and using the starter motor to inch us forward away from the traffic when a car pulled up behind us and a knight in shining armour said, "Would you like a push?"

With his help, we got the car further on to the hard shoulder. I turned on my cell phone to call the AA.

Bugger! The battery was flat.

"Here - borrow mine," said the knight in shining armour.

"Thanks, Mr Knight."

I dialled the AA magic code, keyed in my membership number on request and waited to be connected. A charming lady asked how she could help and I explained the predicament.

"Where are you?" she asked.

"On the motorway, just before the Johnsonville exit."

"Where's that?" she asked.

"About half way up the Ngauranga gorge," I explained.

"Where's the Now Rongo gorge?". The mispronunciation, and the fact she'd never heard of either it or Johnsonville was the final clue. Pennies began to drop; light bulbs went on over my head. The AA call centre was obviously not in Wellington. I began to wonder where it might be. Auckland perhaps?

"Wellington," I said. "Ngauranga gorge. It's one of the steeper hills."

"There aren't any hills on my map."

I began to worry. What sort of map was she using? Wellington is all hills; there aren't any flat bits. Indeed, there aren't even any down bits. All directions in Wellington are up. I've never been able to find any downwards at all. Everybody in New Zealand knows this. Perhaps she wasn't in New Zealand. Perhaps she was in Outer Mongolia where maps are cheap, though inaccurate.

"Tell them I'm on State Highway 1, just before the Johnsonville exit. They'll know what you mean."

"There'll be a patrol car with you shortly."

"Thank you."

I returned the phone to the knight in shining armour. He drove off, his halo gleaming in the moonlight, and Robin and I settled down to wait for the AA man.

I was about to continue my discourse on cabbages when I gradually became aware of a flashing blue light. A police car had pulled up behind us. Presently it disgorged a policeman and we got out of the car to talk to him.

"Need any help?"

"It's OK - we've rung the AA. We're just waiting."

"Oh good," he said. "We got a phone call reporting that you seemed to have broken down but your tail was sticking out into the traffic, which seemed a bit hazardous."

It would appear that one of the maniacs speeding past us was somewhat public spirited. Or perhaps simply resentful of something that required him to slow down and take evasive action. Obviously we must be removed immediately so that he could continue to exercise his god-given right to exceed the speed limit.

"Also," continued the policeman, "the report said..."

Before he could complete the sentence, more flashing lights and a siren split the welkin and an ambulance shrieked in and pulled up in front of us. It disgorged two paramedics.

"...that the driver was slumped over the wheel," finished the policeman. "So we called an ambulance."

"Ah," said Robin thoughtfully. "That was me, concentrating hard on turning the key as I tried to restart the engine."

"Never mind," said the policeman. "No harm done."

He had a brief word with the paramedics, who laughed, got back into their ambulance and drove off again.

"Good luck," said the policeman, and he too drove off into the night, completely ignoring the speeding drivers racing along the motorway. Obviously he'd filled his quota for that day - not hard to do when you are on motorway patrol.

Robin and I settled down again to await the AA man. Rather to my surprise, he turned up a few minutes later. Obviously the lady in Outer Mongolia had successfully got the message through, probably on a caravan of supersonic camels.

We explained the problem.

"Turn the engine over," he said. "Let's have a listen."

Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. Silence.

"Hmmm." He dived into his van and brought out wires with mysterious mechanisms attached. He unscrewed a spark plug from our engine and attached it to one of the mechanisms.

"Do it again."

Whirr-graunch. Whirr-graunch. Lots of absolutely nothing happened to the spark plug.

"Well that's it then," he said gloomily. "No spark. Your ignition system's dead. Nothing I can do about that. I can give you a tow to a garage though."

Robin and I conferred.

"OK - there's a garage just in Johnsonville; on the right as you take the Johnsonville exit."

No sooner said than done. He towed us to the garage which was (predictably) closed. We had no choice but to park outside it and leave the car overnight.

"Nobody's going to steal it," said Robin. "They can't take it for a joy ride."

We left the car and walked to the Malaysian restaurant.

"I'll get up early tomorrow and give them a ring," I said. "The sign outside said they were open from 7.30am."

"Did you write down the phone number?" asked Robin.

"There wasn't a number on the sign. But they're bound to be in the book. I'll look it up when we get home. Autostart."

"I thought they were called Autostop," said Robin firmly.

"No, no," I said. "Autostart. Nobody is going to call a place that fixes cars Autostop. Who'd be silly enough to take their auto to a place that promised to stop it? Autostart. Has to be."

"Quite right," said Robin. "Autostop doesn't make any sense at all. I was wrong."

Later, replete with impeccable Malaysian cuisine from Givas Restaurant, we walked past the garage on our way to catch a taxi home.

'Autostop ' said the sign, in large friendly letters.

"What really pisses me off," said Robin, "is that you sounded so certain, and your reasons were so logical that you actually made me doubt the evidence of my own eyes. I should have had the courage of my convictions and insisted you were wrong!"

"Sorry," I said. "I've been teaching all week. I'm always convincing in the classroom. Always certain, always full of logical explanations. It's part of the act. Students will believe any old rubbish as long as you keep your face straight."

"Humph," said Robin, and she held my hand as we walked to the taxi.

"Mind you," I said, "I convinced myself as well. I honestly thought it was Autostart."

Over the next couple of days, Autostop put the spark back into the car. Robin went to pick it up.

"Here you are," they said. "We've filled the spark tank full. Lots of spark now. By the way - your clutch is slipping. You need a new one urgently..."

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