We had barely left home when the engine started cutting out. I played with the choke and managed to revive it a few times but it seemed to be getting worse. We had been gradually acclimatising to the car's quirks, we recognised that if the engine revs dropped appreciably any time in the first five minutes of a journey, the engine would cut out. But then it had been a simple matter of pulling the choke out and restarting the engine. It worked every time. Until now.
And we were in the middle of nowhere.
Well, not exactly the middle of nowhere, as that's where our house was. More accurately, we were halfway from the middle of nowhere - a far worse place.
"I knew we should have told the garage yesterday."
You can always count on your passenger for helpful advice at times of stress.
"I thought we agreed not to mention it to them."
"And what would we have said? It took us half an hour and a dictionary to come up with the petrol cap key doesn't work."
I thought my logic was unassailable but the conversation deteriorated from that point into a series of, "who bought the stupid car?", "I never wanted to come to France," and "I told you not to buy a red one." No wall of logic could withstand that kind of assault.
I tried the engine again. Nothing. I pushed the choke in, I pulled the choke out. Nothing.
I looked at the scenery. Hoping to find an unexpected garage hiding behind the wall of greenery that spread from horizon to horizon.
"Lovely view," I said before I could stop myself.
"Try the engine again," came the terse reply.
We were stuck in the depths of rural France and ... I could see large buzzards circling above our car.
After another round of helpful suggestions from my passenger, I countered with a "You try!"
"All right, I will."
We exchanged seats. I cast a nervous eye skyward as I walked around to the passenger side. I was sure there were only three buzzards the last time I'd counted.
Shelagh tried the same variations of turns, clicks, pulls and pushes. Was that a hint of life? The engine turned. We were saved. A frustrated squawk came from above. It would have to be mouse for dinner again.
We made it as far as the next junction before the car stalled once more. But we were making progress. We were nearly three quarters from the middle of nowhere.
Fifteen minutes later and several stop-starts, we limped into Tournas. It was only a small village but it was like Rome to us. Civilisation! It had a shop. It had people. It had a phone box.
We parked. The car was good at that.
And it was then that a possible answer to our car's performance presented itself. An answer that had been waiting for all the panic to die down - as answers invariably do.
Perhaps we'd flooded the engine? Which would explain why it suddenly stopped working with the choke out. And why it suddenly started again after a pause.
It didn't explain everything. It didn't explain the engine's predilection to cutting out whenever the revs dropped. But it did explain our inability to restart it.
Perhaps there was something wrong with the idle speed that caused the car to stall? Perhaps it was time to take it back to the garage.
We decided to postpone our trip to the supermarket and return home for the dictionary. But first we'd stock up with food at the village shop. Just in case the car broke down again and we needed to feed the buzzards.
From that point the car behaved itself perfectly. I am convinced it heard us mention the word 'garage'. The word 'vet' has a similar effect on dogs. One mention and all symptoms of illness miraculously disappear. What me? Sick? Never!
Stocked up with a new page of hastily scribbled phrases pertaining to idle speeds, chokes and errant engines, we returned to the garage.
I had my phrase, "I bought a Citroen Ax here on Tuesday," handy in case they wondered who I was. But it wasn't necessary. They remembered. And, "pas de problème," they'd have a mechanic check our engine for us.
Which was when we noticed that our car bonnet didn't have an arm to hold it open. The mechanic was totally confused. He looked all over. I felt like turning out my pockets to prove I hadn't taken it. In the end he grabbed a piece of wood to hold the hood up.
But that was the only problem. I was told to sit inside and depress the accelerator every now and then, so the mechanic could hear the engine turning over. He made some adjustments, listened some more, adjusted some more and then with a, "Bon," that was it. Car fixed. We could say goodbye to the garage.
That is until a week later when we returned for the car documents. They are desolated. "Je suis désolée," the manager repeated. A computer error - what else - had prevented them from getting a particular form from the Haute Pyrenees Préfecture. Apparently they needed a Certificat de Situation to prove the car had no outstanding hire purchase agreements. I'd never heard of that one. Luckily we still had seven days on our ‘Get out of jail free’ card.
We agreed to return in a few days time. And again a few days after that. More computer errors, more reassurances. On the last day of our ‘Get out of jail free’ card, we pulled up at the garage in a desperate frame of mind. No broken computers or papers in the post were going to deflect us.
"Pas de problème," said the manager and handed us another ‘Get out of jail free’ card. He'd copied the details across from the old one, except that he advanced the date of purchase by two weeks.
Ah. This did not look exactly legal. I’d had my doubts about the old ‘Get out of jail free’ card, but at least the information it carried had been accurate.
"Don't worry," we were assured. Another few days and he'd have all the car's papers. It was easy, he added. They do it all the time.
Two days later, I'm flagged down at a police road-block. No tax disc, no documents and a forged ‘Get out of jail free’ card.