With Christmas over and 2013 already well underway, I feel compelled to relay to you a short story from late last year. Let me take you back, only a few weeks (although it seems like months), to a time just after the party poppers had been popped – in a health and safety compliant manner – and cracker ‘novelties’ had been reluctantly disposed of. This is just before the journey starts, the first born son heading back to the homeland in the frozen (and slightly waterlogged) north for the annual census, bags packed and gifts mostly wrapped. A decision had been made, long before the journey started as to how to travel: train, car, Megabus, donkey? This year, being laden with presents and sufficient variety and volume of clothing to prepare for all weathers, the decision was taken to drive, it being felt that a donkey just can’t cut it these days, being confined to A roads and bridleways.
A simple enough plan was formulated which involved booking a rental car (never go for the smallest, especially if heading out on a long journey). Call me cautious with my cash, call me a Yorkshireman, call me foolish, but rather than hiring a car from the rental place around the corner, we decided to travel out to the suburbs where not only was the cost 50 per cent of the London price, but we would be out of the city and close to the motorway home. Sensible, no?
And so it came to pass, on what seemed to be the busiest Saturday of the year at Euston station, we headed out to the far suburbs of London, luggage in tow, to collect the pre-booked, pre-paid hire car. As the rain started to fall, we neared our destination, the car rental office. It quickly became obvious, in spite of the token tinsel and almost empty tin of Roses, that this was the place that Christmas forgot. Misery and gloom steamed every window as the assembled line of already weary travellers were inundated and confounded with a string of unwelcome questions, delivered with an unapologetic monotony by the officials behind the counter. Having heard the same speech delivered, now in quite cramped conditions, there developed a bond between those exposed to it. Eyes rolled, sympathetic expressions advanced as each person neared the front of the queue. And then we were there…
Do you have a booking? Yes. Can I see it? Yes (hands paper). Licence? ID? We have a Ford Focus for you. Would you like to upgrade? No thanks. We have a number of other cars available. How about a Mercedes, for only £28 per day extra? No, thanks. We also have a Mondeo. No. Will you be travelling far? Would you like to take advantage of our fuel offer? Would you like to reduce your excess? Would you like to have other drivers registered? No. There seems to be a problem with your address. Oh. Our computer credit checking system doesn’t recognise you as living there. Oh? We have lived there for two years and hired cars from you before without a problem. Not from this office, sir.
And this was the moment that the Christmas spirit suddenly departed. Do you have anything else with your address on? It must be a utility bill or bank statement. Errrm, not sure. Well, you see if you do and I’ll serve another customer. With that, we were cast aside, left scrambling through phones and wallets to see what we had, yet knowing we had nothing. Then we found it. An online bank statement, proudly offered to the official in the hope it would assist in our passage to the homeland. But, no. She won’t accept PDF. What? It made no difference to her if we banked online, she would only accept something that had come through the letter box. But, how would she know if we printed it out and folded it in three, I proffered in the hope she would now take pity on us. Again, no. “You’ve told me now.” And with those words, we were resigned to defeat and a lonely Christmas at home. With other customers rallying around us to offer support and assistance, offering to drive us around to collect the documents demanded, time ticked on and the computer still said no. Not even an appeal to the spirit of Christmas could help us now.
And so, we travelled back to London, damp and annoyed. I pored over the printed emails and rental agreement, squinting my eyes to read the small print on my smartphone. I satisfied myself that we were completely in the right, but by now it made little difference. We were resigned to boarding the cattle train to Yorkshire. Fortunately, there was a happy ending as it seemed not that many people wanted to go to Yorkshire for Christmas and even fewer wanted to return to London. We may have been later than planned and less mobile, but we were home for the wassailing and merriment. And it is only now, in the New Year, that I have revisited this tormented time. What’s more, writing this column is cheaper and occasionally more satisfying than therapy.
[Addition: In case you’re wondering, we received a full refund, if not an apology and won’t be using Europcar in Watford again.]
This article first appeared in the Solicitors Journal on 11 January 2013 and is reproduced with kind permission