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So we drove away in our new car. Well, I drove and Shelagh returned Jan's car. And as I pulled away from the garage, I couldn't help thinking how easy it had been. I'd read so many horror stories about buying cars in France - the interminable hours spent queuing for the right papers only to be sent somewhere else. Hadn't they heard of the ‘Get out of jail free’ card? Perhaps I should pen a letter to French Property News.

Little did I know of what the future had in store.

But I should have.

The first inkling trickled forth two hours later when we stopped at a small garage for petrol. I had all my, 'fill it up,' and, 'a hundred francs worth, please,' phrases memorised and to hand, and was feeling confident. That is until I tried to unlock the petrol cap. The key I'd been given didn't fit. I tried the other keys - the ignition and boot key. Nothing. The petrol cap wasn't moving.

If ever someone looked as though they'd just pulled into a garage in a stolen car, it was me.

And then my French deserted me. I could almost hear the, 'we're off!' as all the verbs and nouns ran for cover. Shelagh took one look at the situation and wound up her window. She was a hitch-hiker and had never seen me before in her life.

I was alone on the forecourt with a confused petrol pump attendant and a non-functioning key.

"Er ... nous sommes Anglais," I ventured after a while and added a few shrugs and ... left. Swiftly. Another garage added to the list of places I could never return to.

The next problem was could we reach the car dealer before we ran out of petrol? Naturally this was but a smokescreen. The real question we should have been asking was 'would the garage close for a half day five minutes after we'd bought the car?'

The answer was, of course, yes.

We left the deserted showroom and drove home with eyes fixed firmly on the petrol gauge. It was on red but what did that mean? A gallon? Two? And how accurate would the gauge be?

The next day we returned to the garage. The car,however, had other ideas. Perhaps it was colder than I thought or I pushed the choke in too quickly, but whatever the reason the engine kept cutting out.

I dreaded the possibility that we were running out of petrol. The gauge was on red but not by much. Surely there was enough to get us to the garage?

After a while the car started to behave itself. Perhaps it was cold after all. Shelagh wondered if we should mention it to the garage but neither of us had the words and we didn't want to confuse the situation further. We needed a key to the petrol tank. The rest could wait.

At the garage we quickly went into our prepared speech. Petrol cap had turned into quite a mouthful - bouchon de réservoir d'essence, so the dictionary had informed us.

"Je ne peux pas ouvrir le bouchon de réservoir d'essence. Le clé ne pas fonctionner." It was probably my largest speech ever in a foreign language and delivered without a pause for breath. The sales manager looked baffled. Whether by my accent or the fact that the petrol cap wouldn't open, I wasn't sure. I thrust my sheet of paper at him and pointed to my lines, adding a few key-turning finger twists to augment the words.

He still looked baffled.

"How is it possible?" he asked in French to no one in particular, as he stared at our key ring.

I could have told him. I expect one of my ancestors chartered the Marie Celeste.

A collection of different keys were collected from drawers and hooks and we joined the deputation marching out to our car. One by one each key was tried, accompanied by mumbled French words of astonishment as each key failed.