Not even the cheerless faces and curt responses of most Londoners could make me renounce that rule. I’ve never been afraid to annoy complete strangers, even foreign ones, for my own benefit.
My friend Holly, on the other hand, navigated London like a pro without me a couple times, mapping routes on intricate tube and train maps and finding her way back to my brother’s house twice without asking anyone. So why a simple lock box at our vacation rental in Devizes flummoxed her, I can’t say, but I strongly suspect it had something to do with my corrupting influence.
Our cell phones didn’t work overseas, and the lock box stymied us in a sleepy English town after dusk. There was no one to ask, so I was fresh out of ideas.
Normally when things went wrong, I simply shrugged and quoted my husband’s favorite, “It is what it is!” and Holly responded in her best New Jerseyese, “Fo’get abou’ it.” But we had already had a hard night. The train from London was late, and we had missed the last bus leaving Bath for Devizes. We asked a cabbie how far to that charming canal town famous for a different kind of lock, and he replied, “Oh, about 35 kilometers. Last time I drove there I think the fare was £55.” The train had been £32; the bus cost a mere five! For a minute I contemplated just how bad a 35-kilometer walk could be in decent weather.
Instead, we chose to chuckle with our cabbie about “booking a cottage within walking distance of Bath” as he navigated endless roundabouts through numerous villages. An hour spent, the cab dropped us off at the alley access from our cottage, number 6 “Birdveil” Street, at dusk.
The key was in a lock box by the garden gate. I grabbed a torch hanging on a hook and held it for Holly as she quickly lined up the four-digit code I read off to her. There was a tiny lever to the side that Holly pushed down and released. Then she pulled on the box.
We checked the number, pushed down the lever, pulled….nothing. We reread the skeletal instructions: The key is in the lock box by the back gate. The code is—-. Then we repeated our unsuccessful formula, tugging harder and harder on the impregnable box.
Holly spied another lock box near the back door. We ran to it eagerly.
“I know how to work these!” announced Holly, entering our code. She tried coaxing and then switched to brute force as I looked longingly in the back door like a street urchin from a Dickens novel, tormented by the cottage’s warm interior as I jangled the handle rudely.
Then I exclaimed, “What about that ambulance station across the street? Maybe somebody there can help us!”
The station was deserted, the injured and ill abandoned to the hope that they could hang on until morning.
The time had come to accost the natives. I knocked at number 7. A skinny blond woman cracked the door and looked at us like we were escaped convicts, wild animals or poor circus performers.
I quickly explained our difficulty, and she pointed. “Number 8 knows everything,” she whimpered before slamming the door.
Already 9 p.m., I tried to knock quietly at number 8. The longer we waited, however, the louder I became. Three noisy teenagers came down the quiet street toward us, and I was certain that if Devizes had punks, these three were it. When one cheeky young man waved his hand toward our faces, sensing our discomfort, I said a curt, “Good evening,” with a smile so tight I almost swallowed my teeth.
No. 8 ignored us, and the punks swaggered on; back we went to try new incantations on the demon box.
“Maybe the numbers are out of order,” said Holly. “We need to try different combinations.”
“Yeah,” I rallied. “Maybe the owner’s dyslexic!”
We tried our hand at the obvious switches. Then we took turns desperately yanking on the lock box with both hands and scouting the tiny garden for the softest place to sleep.
Hysteria was creeping in. Forgetting we had no phone, I cried, “Isn’t there somebody we can call? Some emergency number here like a 911?”
Driven mad by failure, Holly shouted back at me, “Not for idiots!”
I doubled over in a fit of laughter that could have awakened no. 8 and made no. 7 pee her pants.
But I quickly sobered up. My rolling baggage thundered as we went down the stone passageway to the street. We gazed down its length. It was like the main drag in an old Western before a shoot-out; the locals were hiding.
Then a door down to the right opened, and out came an unsuspecting lady with a bag of trash. I pounced, and she jumped.
“We’re Americans!” I yelled. “We rented the cottage next door, but we can’t open the lock box, and our cell phones don’t work over here! Please, can you help us?”
“Come in,” she said. “I can’t keep the door open because of the cats.”
A small woman with short gray hair in disarray over her glasses, she introduced herself as Jane and offered me her phone, and I called the cottage owner. No answer. Then Jane brought over a lap top as old as me, warning that you had to keep it steady at a certain angle for the Internet to work. I fumbled with it as Holly tried the owner again.
As I began typing an email I could only pray would be seen by the cottage owner that night, I was shocked to hear Holly, New Jersey accent thick, say into the phone, “Hi, this is Hillary Eye-bar-uh. I rented the brewery cottage from you….”
Now I had called the owner, “Vernie,” two days earlier for access instructions, and I was absolutely certain that Holly and I sounded nothing alike, especially since she had just mispronounced my last name. But when Holly hung up and informed me that Vernie would text no. 8 to let us in, I quickly forgot our duplicity.
After thanking Jane, we went back out to try no. 8 again. We knocked and waited several minutes, but just like the Beatles song, there was no reply.
“We have to go back to Jane’s,” I lamented.
Lady Jane, as we would dub her, took us in.
“Nothing?” she asked. We shook our heads in dejection. “Can I get you some coffee?” she offered kindly. We nodded eagerly. Who cared about sleep if it was to be had in the metal garden chairs of your vacation rental? Better to remain alert to fend off punks and wererabbits!
Jane brought us coffee, and we decided to call Vernie again to our shame. This time I dialed.
“Hello, Vernie, this is Hillary E-barrrr- ah,” I said, rolling the r’s of my Hispanic last name. “No. 8 isn’t answering. We’ve tried the lock box several times, and it won’t open! What are we doing wrong?”
We repeated the code to each other, and then she said, “You just hold down that little lever and pull on the box.”
“At the same time?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Vernie. “Enter the code, press down the lever and pull on the front.”
“At the same time?”
“You push down the lever and pull on the lock box at the same time?”
“Yes!” Vernie cried with exasperation, “Look, Hillary, we’ve had that lock box all year, and we’ve never had a problem…”
“Does one of you want to go try it?” Jane asked when I hung up.
I was designated and rose to do my duty. I closed the door to number 4, walked sideways down the narrow alley that now felt decidedly sinister, and opened the garden gate, trying not to picture myself as the strange victim in some tiny village of an Agatha Christie mystery. I lined up the numbers of the code, held down the lever and pulled mightily.
I reentered number 4 holding up a large, old-fashioned key. Holly guffawed, relief and caffeine making her giddy.
I picked up my coffee, ready to decompress after an hour-and-a-half-long ordeal, and laughingly said to Jane, “You had to hold down the lever and pull! We just didn’t think of it!”
“Well,” said our gracious hostess. “I won’t keep you.”
Able to read simple social cues, we rose and thanked Lady Jane profusely.
Later, as I surveyed the darling living area of our cozy cottage with heightened appreciation and Holly scanned the guest book for mention of “lock box issues,” I abruptly began to laugh again.
“What?” inquired Holly.
“Vernie must think I have a split personality!” I cried.
Ah, well. Vernie will probably never hear from the New Jersey or Arizona “Hillary” ever again. Even if we did wish to rent that precious place a second time, I would be afraid to look it up now:
Because of the need for basic lock box skills, this accommodation not suitable for idiot Americans.
— Hillary Ibarra
Hillary Ibarra has had several humor pieces published on Aiming Low and humorwriters.org. She is a mother of four who dreams of playing the banjo, living in Jane Austen’s childhood home and writing for more than spam artists and 50 loyal readers. She is the mysterious blogger at No Pens, Pencils, Knives or Scissors. In her spare time she likes to threaten to sell her children to the zoo, and their little dog, too.