‘Come on, come on,’ Nancy urged her Mini to continue crawling up the icy road without stopping. The snow had fallen hard in the previous night and, even here, in North London, the roads were shining with ice. This was not going to stop Nancy going to her best friend’s 21st birthday luncheon bash and take the opportunity to show off her recently purchased first car. Not many of her student friends actually had a car in 1979. The car inched its way up the hill screeching in second gear and Nancy sighed with relief as the road began to flatten out.
She became aware of a man running alongside the car on the the pavement. He was frantically waving his arms at her. She just made out that he was also shouting, ‘Stop! Stop!’ before he jumped in front of her car. Nancy had no other choice but to slam her foot on the brake pedal and as she forgot about the clutch, the car stalled with a judder. The man came around to her window looking very apologetic and still waving his arms. Nancy slowly wound down the window.
‘I’m so sorry. I hope I didn’t frighten you but you have a problem.’ He was well-dressed, clean-shaven and his accent suggested Home Counties so Nancy relaxed a little.
‘What do you mean?’ She wound down the window a little more despite the cold.
‘You’ve got what I suspect is petrol coming out from under your car – you’ve left a trail down the hill. Could be serious.’
Nancy gave a little gasp. ‘But what should I do? Is it dangerous, do you think? Um…er…I don’t know what to do.’
‘Don’t worry – it just so happens that I know a bit about cars. I restore old ones as a hobby so I’ll have a look if you like. I’m thinking it’s probably the carburettor,’
‘Oh, would you? That’s so kind. I’d be really grateful.’ Nancy gave him one of her best smiles that she usually reserved for prospective boyfriends. The man gave her a mock salute and went to the front of the car where he expertly flicked the catch under the bonnet then hooked the bonnet open and disappeared behind it. After only a few minutes he returned to the side window. This time Nancy unwound it eagerly.
‘Yes, just as I thought. It’s the fuel intake filter off your carburettor that’s come loose.’ He waved an inconspicuous piece of metal in front of her. ‘It holds up the fuel pipe to prevent leaks but it’s slipped hence the drips.’
‘Oh,’ said Nancy not understanding anything he said. “Perhaps I’d better find a ‘phone-box and call my friends and then Dad to see if he can come out and help.’
‘No need for that,’ the man smiled at her giving her confidence. ‘I can fix this for you temporarily so you can get on your way. I do need something to wedge in the engine to prop up the fuel pipe.’ He stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘I tell you what I have used in an emergency in the past – don’t laugh, it did work. A shoe.’
Nancy blinked at him but knowing nothing about car mechanics she thought this was ingenious so slipped off one of her shoes and handed it over to him. She had bought this pair only last week having coveted them for months. Black suede platforms with a red bow at the front – glorious.
‘Actually, if you could give me the other one as well, just in case the gap is too big, that would be great.’
Nancy prised off the other shoe and passed it through the window to him. The man clutched the shoes to his chest, emitted a deep sigh of satisfaction, turned and ran off down the hill. Nancy sat quite still for a moment – mouth open. What had just happened? She twisted around and looked up and down the road – he was gone. She was parked at the top of the hill, her car bonnet up, fuel leaking or so she thought, snow all around and no shoes. Reality hit her. What a complete numbskull. She didn’t know what was worse – the situation she was in or the fact the she had been taken in with such an idiotic story. A few self-pitying tears trickled down her cheeks then she gripped the steering wheel, let out a liberating scream and made a decision. She stepped out of the car and immediately the ice-cold water on the road soaked through her best pair of tights. She shut the bonnet, locked the car and began the ten minute walk to her friend’s flat.
Olivia opened the door. ‘Oh, at last……’. Nancy pushed her to one side, limped into the hallway and burst into tears. Her tights had torn on both feet and spectacular ladders ran up her legs. Glimpses of blue toes peeped through holes in the black nylon. Nancy sobbed and sobbed.
An hour later saw Nancy wearing many woollen layers donated by Olivia and sipping her third cup of hot chocolate. Olivia’s party guests had dispersed as soon as Olivia called the police and the only remnants of the luncheon party were straw-clad bottles of wine and a birthday cake sitting on a table. Several over-flowing ash-trays perched on different surfaces. The policeman sitting opposite Nancy was trying to be professional but the corners of his mouth kept twitching.
‘So you see, miss, he’s been at it for months. Always targets young, female, lone drivers and running off with their shoes.’ He tried to turn a grin into a sympathetic smile. ‘There was even one young model who had two pairs of shoes on the back seat and he convinced her he needed them to repair her car as well.’ This time the constable had to resort to coughing. ‘We’re on the case and we’ll catch him. But for now, just be glad there’s nothing wrong with your car. You said your Dad was collecting it for you, didn’t you?’ Yes, good, old Dad who laughed heartily down the ‘phone and asked if she was pulling his leg. ‘We’ll keep you informed but, in the meantime, keep your car windows shut and perhaps have a spare pair of shoes in the car.’
Nancy tried to put the incident behind her and stopped telling friends as they found it hilarious. She had put it to the back of her mind when she was contacted by the police eight weeks later asking her to describe her shoes again and the man who took them.
‘You’ll be pleased to hear that we now have him in custody. We went to his house that had two rooms dedicated to ladies’ shoes. All lined up on shelves – colour-coded, it looked like.’ A bubble of mirth crept into the officer’s voice.
‘Oh, does that mean I can have my shoes back?’ Nancy had missed her rather glamorous footwear.
There was a pause. ‘If I was you, miss, I’d let us dispose of them. Clearly he had a good time with those shoes behind closed doors and I don’t think you’d now want them anywhere near you with what’s on and in them.’
Nancy sat back in her chair – she thought she understood what he meant but wasn’t sure.
Gillian Rennie Dunkerley