I was travelling to Thurso with a friend (we’re in the same bubble), to pick up a prescription. It was a nice enough day. No wind, no rain. Clear and cold. The drive to town seemed normal enough, though I sensed something felt different about the car. I wondered if there was a problem with the steering, but quickly dismissed my concerns. My friend was driving and I didn’t want to bother him.
We managed to pick up the prescription and drove back through Castletown, stopping at a shop on the way.
However, as we headed back towards Freswick I could hear a very faint ‘wobble’ noise, but figured it was just the cold or the rough road. Gradually the vibrating wobble sound became louder. Initially my friend thought it might be a door that hadn’t been shut properly (although privately I thought this interpretation might be a fatal miscalculation), so I turned round to check the rear doors, but there was no problem. There was, of course, a worse problem. The realisation hit us both at the same time - the back tire had blown, the smell of burnt rubber quickly filling the air.
We pulled over into a narrow lay-by in front of someone’s house and got out of the car. My friend sighed and quietly pulled out the safety tyre from the back of the car along with a rather pathetic looking jack. ‘This is never very efficient,’ he said dryly. Fifteen minutes later, when we were both frozen to the bone, he had successfully established that point. He had not successfully changed the tyre, of course, but had managed to wedge the jack awkwardly under the car and was unable to retrieve it. He murmured to himself ‘I knew I should have called in at Halford’s last time I was in Inverness to get a better jack for an occasion like this. However, annoyingly, I couldn’t be bothered at the time.’
Bowing to the inevitable, we called the local garage, which - as luck would have it - was less than half a mile away and (amazingly in these times) was open. They were incredibly helpful and sent their mechanic to us within 10 minutes.
He pulled over, cheerily greeted us with a muffled hello behind his face mask, and went straight to the car, crouching down beside the wheel.
At first we didn’t recognise him in his orange overalls and because of the mask that was covering half his face. My friend chatted to him for a while without realising that he knew him. Such is the weird world of masks and disguises in our Covid-19 existence. The mechanic was in fact quite shocked not to be recognised because he had often come down to Freswick and helped his brother with mowing the fields. All three of us laughed about this occupational hazard of the lockdown, a world where friends and even relatives can sometimes pass each other unawares in the street. However, I found it very heartwarming that in the tight-knit community of Caithness, even the local garage mechanic turned out to have another connection with us!
While he pulled some tools out of his car, a pedestrian was approaching on the other side of the road. As he came closer, we saw that it was someone else we knew. He stopped and chatted from across the road, soon to go on his way again to keep warm, but not before saying a few words to the young mechanic who (you get the picture) he clearly knew very well…
It was a very cold day. I was moving around and flapping my arms to ward off the chill, whilst waving oncoming cars past as the little ‘pop-up community’ conversed.
My phone 'tinged'…. a message. Another friend, had recognised us moments before, noticing the soft tyre while driving behind us on a stretch of road near Dunnet. He had tried to get hold of me, and eventually turned off the main road to go a different way, hoping that all would be well. This kind of experience could, of course, lead to paranoia in some people (yes, I really am being followed) but I must say it was all very reassuring. Added to this, the mechanic put on the safety tyre, retrieved the hopeless jack, and led us to the garage where he found exactly the right replacement tyre.
I was shivering by this time and eager to get home to a warm fire, but I was powerfully reminded, too, of the warmth of a community where people will look out for each other and will help anyone who is in trouble.
It brought to mind other experiences I’ve had in times past when local friends stepped up in various ways to lend a helping hand: like offering a tractor shovel full of manure for our newly established garden plot, leaving freshly picked mushrooms at my door, or a box of eggs, ringing to see if everything was ok because a light had been left on at the empty castle overnight….
I finally unpacked the groceries from my bag and switched on the kettle.
The closeness of a strong community becomes evident in a moment of crisis. People look out for each other here. That is the gift of living in Caithness.