Tuesday 16 July 2013

Archer : Thank-you

Dear Archer,

You ended, after all, with a bang.  'Bang' being a euphemism for 'accident', or vice-versa.  It felt more like the former to me, because a speeding taxi ploughed straight into your left side, right below where I sat.  In mid-air I prepared for my bones to shatter, my blood to spurt, my skin to rip.  And then we landed, caught our breath, and I saw that your whole frame had barely shifted, and we were both uninjured.  My door wouldn't open, so I climbed out the window, and walked towards the completely ruined taxi, its front crumpled right up to the windshield.  I waded through the smoke to ensure the taxi was empty, and then helped the gathering men unhook the batteries and shut down the totalled car.  I looked back to you, Archer, chauffeured by Al to the side of the road; from a distance you looked almost fully intact.  You were still running.  That's when I realised you had saved my life.

We bought you a few months ago, just north of London, for a few hundred pounds less than the asking price, and a few thousand pounds less than our maximum budget would allow.  Though you weren't in perfect condition, it only took a matter of days to learn that you were a steal.  I don't just mean that because of your engine, design, make, and size.  You were also one damn good looking automobile.

Almost immediately after we took possession and brought you up to north Wales, the comments started to come in.  They were nothing compared to the flattering things we'd later hear in Africa (where it was less about the compliment, more about the covet; at least a dozen people offered to buy you on the spot), but they were very kind nonetheless: your great size, long enough to lie in; your model series, the famous Hilux; and of course, your gigantic engine.  Everyone winked when they talked about your engine.

We also heard a few stories about the world-renowned Hilux.  The only line of trucks used in the Arctic: Hilux.  Militaries around the world, when they learn the inadequacies of Land Rover: they use the Hilux (this was confirmed at that Guinean military camp we drove through, remember?).  Once, someone left their Hilux on a beach, let the tide come in to submerge it totally, and when the tide went back out, they got back in and drove away.  And, some car show in the UK was once testing trucks, and dropped one of each of the best ones from the top of a six-storey building.  All the trucks were destroyed beyond repair, save one.  The driver walked up to the fallen truck, opened the door, got in, turned the key, and drove out of the hollow building.  That truck was a Hilux.

Our hearts beamed and our faces blushed when we talked about you across Europe and Africa.  I waited for the question, "what sort of truck is this?"  I think you got us out of a bribe or cadeau a couple times at least, not because the official was so impressed, no.  Because he couldn't shut me up about you.

I'd like to think you had a good time before we came along, but I know that's not absolutely true.  You were built in Japan, in 1995 (you are a 1996 version), but not loved enough to remain there.  Maybe you were one of too many in your homeland?  Or maybe someone saw in you a bigger profit?  In any case, you were shipped to the UK, with your Japanese-language instruction manual and sun-visor safety warnings intact; and you were sold, and driven, and sold, and driven, and sold, and driven.  A few years ago you were stolen, driven all the way down to the Balkans, recovered, returned, and sold once more.  Your chassis number was scratched off at some point in this taste of grand theft auto, which has caused us a couple headaches.  Eventually, you ended up in the hands of a friendly man in Hatfield, who had a blast with you around the British Isles, pushing your mileage past 200,000, but for one reason or another he couldn't afford the luxury anymore, and had to list you on AutoTrader.co.uk.  That's where we found you, like a child floating in a basket.  A big child, yes.  It must have been a reinforced steel basket with ballast systems and a good keel.  Anyways, you made it down the stream, up to Wales, and now down here, to the Ivory Coast.

Now, I don't want anyone to think we made it this whole way without our share of problems.  We all know that you're a hot item, a real scenery-buster with lots of torque and crimson red charm.  But tough guys like you, the real ones, they shoot from the hip and come clean.  Your odometer has not worked from the day we bought you to now, which has meant me writing the mileages and fuel intake down on loose-leaf paper, calculating distance and efficiency.  Your propeller shaft was already worn out when we got you, and had to be replaced in Spain.  Your handbrake was never that good, even after a repair in Menai Bridge.  And since the African voyage?  Engine oil leak, steering fluid leak, broken antenna, faulty brake discs, busted front frame, overused shocks, cracked front windshield and sunroof window, damaged universal joint, damaged front-right wheel frame, damaged frame pads, poorly installed batteries, poor electric cable connections, dead right turn light (I admit this one was totally me, when we jammed that tree into your frame on the road that wasn't a road, remember?) and just recently, a dead starting battery.  All this before the accident.  And all this natural, the punches and kicks and even the cheap-shots you took in the 10,000-round fight to get us where we needed to go.

The last hit was a full-on body blow, out of nowhere, with no chance to duck or block but only cringe, and even after two days of looking at your wounds I'm still surprised you can read this letter.

Yesterday morning was to be our last in Grand Bassam.  We had our last breakfast by the beach, and the night before had finally packed all of our stuff into boxes and bags: one set to be carried with us overland to Gabon, from where we plan to get a plane over the bureaucratically-impassable Congo to our destination, Tanzania; one set to be shipped on ahead of us (Al's scuba kit, my files, a pair of jeans, etc.); and one set, the biggest, to go back with you to the UK.  We had only one hour's drive, first to the parcel shipping office, then to drop you off at the Port of Abidjan, Quay 17.  We were to have our carnet de passages stamped one last time at the dystopian-sounding 'Bureau 9' before handing your keys over to the pier controller.  He was then supposed to drive you onto the ship bound for Tilbury, rolling on and rolling off.  Back in the UK you'd be sold by family, for as close to the price we got you for, and we'd most likely never see each other again.  And I wouldn't have fully appreciated you.

As we pulled out onto the pot-holed road from the hotel and restaurant strip, which has been our home for the past three weeks, I inserted The Doors into your stereo, for good measure and better nostalgia (they broke you through some of the toughest roads).  Jim Morrison was singing 'Love Her Madly' when the metal crashed and the tires screeched.

After we turned out onto the highway for Abidjan and I looked left at the taxi a second before it hit.  I think you know how I felt in that brief moment.  But in retrospect, I find it interesting that the cab driver didn't put on the brakes, and didn't veer off into the ditch.  By doing one of these, let alone both, he could've avoided hitting you altogether.  But he didn't, and I wonder if he was just playing on his phone; or, maybe he saw you, saw the chance, and didn't stop it.  Maybe he'll get a big insurance payout?  Maybe he sacrificed his car, which is a write-off, and risked his own health for a nice stack of settlement cash, which our insurance will surely cover?

I couldn't say, but either way it shows what the driver thought of his car.  I want you to know, as we now come so close to parting, that I would never do that to you.  I would never hurt you for money.

Give you to someone else for money, well, that's different.  And that's what we're doing.  You see, this whole episode may have worked out for the best.  We didn't pay for the shipping to the UK, and 30 minutes after the accident when Al was at the police station and I was guarding your open passenger window which wouldn't close, a mechanic arrived and offered to buy you.  He asked how much, and I said more than we got you for plus the money we paid for the new shocks.  He gave a tentative yes.  So now we've cleared you through customs (I have to admit, Archer, that we listed you as scrap-metal... it's just for the paperwork, I promise) and are now negotiating with the mechanic, who is taking his time, presumably, to find the funds.  We'll have to ship a load of boxes to the UK, but overall, we should come out ahead, much better than anticipated - all because you took the hit.

Now, I think the mechanic has friendly eyes.  He's kind and considerate, and really likes the look of you; he's perhaps more desperate to buy than we are to sell, thinking of you (as everyone does) as a winner.  He'll be good to you.  He will need to do a few things: heal your wound, of course, but also move the drive-side from right to left, which I can imagine is a big operation - and which justifies the ruthless scrap-metal description.  When he's finished, he might sell you, or he might keep you.  Perhaps that's up to you and your behaviour.  But while I can't promise that your new owner will take as good care of you as we have, I can say they'll fall head over heels.  Not literally, of course.

Whatever happens, I hope they don't remove the flower-necklace we draped over your rear-view mirror.  It suits you, Archer.  We'll miss you.

Good luck,


You, the morning of the accident,
before you were supposed to be shipped away.
Your damage.
The other guy. 
How I'd like to remember you.