Three small bottles of water (two of them half empty and very well-travelled, far beyond any sensible drink-by date), one pair of nail scissors, the previous Saturday’s Times Review (with me in case I had a moment spare in my day to complete the crossword), one large hankie, one window cleaning cloth. And a jacket (thrown in as an afterthought).
There I was, last year, a woman alone. On the hottest day of the summer. In the car, en route from Cumbria to Manchester for a series of appointments and stuck in the middle lane in what turned into a six-hour traffic jam on the southbound M6.
Further down the road, somebody was clearly having a far worse day than I, so for that small mercy I was grateful. But I needed to pee.
You know how it works – the more you try to ignore it, the more insistent the messenger. And, clearly, I wasn’t alone. If one more bloke pulled onto the hard shoulder – all three lanes still trickling towards their ultimate halt – to not-at-all-discreetly unzip his flies, back turned towards us (which, as we know, always renders a publicly-peeing man invisible), closing his eyes and raising his chin to the sky in sweet relief, returning moments later with a self-satisfied smirk on his face, well, I might just have burst. And I suspect I wasn’t the only passing female thinking thus.
A braver woman than I might’ve done the same. Pulled into the side, faced the crash barrier, bared her bum to the world (because, well, we sort of have to, don’t we?) and just let it roll. ‘Just practising my Malasana, officer. Honest.’
But I’m not that brave.
There was nothing on the radio other than the statement of the obvious. (Yes, we know we’re in standing traffic. Thank you). No clue as to how long we might be stuck. Nothing on social media either, save the suggestion (some time later) that police officers were going up and down the hard shoulder enquiring after the welfare of stuck motorists. I doubt they had a portaloo in tow but they never reached me.
Two hours on, with no more space to trickle forward, it was engines off all round. Time to act.
Whatever had possessed me to pop a pair of nail scissors into my handbag that morning, I have no idea, but my Auntie Bessie would have been proud, ‘Be Prepared’ being her mantra for life.
The contents of one half bottle poured into the other, I managed to hack the top off the empty bottle with my scissors. Now I didn’t just have three bottles. I had one for drinking, one for peeing and one for hand washing. Now for the tricky bit.
Hankie and window cloth at the ready for any, um… mopping up… and, sacrificing my crossword to protect the seat, I draped my jacket over my lap for modesty and, as nonchalant an expression on my face as I could muster, well… you know.
It was quite some time before we moved again. Still no chance of heading south so it was back up north. First stop services, next stop home.
So, when history appeared to be repeating itself a couple of Saturdays ago, heading south again for an important meeting, I was prepared.
Since last summer, alongside the wellies and waterproofs no self-respecting ‘Cumbrian’ would travel without, I have carried in my car my own bespoke ‘traffic jam survival kit’: Shewee, plastic pot with lid, towel, tissues, two bottles of water and a handful of snack bars, a penknife, hand sanitiser gel and a first aid kit (thrown in for good measure).
Once again, the overhead signs were there, albeit a little confusingly. Over the length of two entire junctions, three if you count the one at which I joined the M6, overhead gantries flashed up ‘20’ and the occasional ‘Oncoming vehicle’. Why, if they had the wherewithal and time to do that, could they not also flash up that the motorway was closed after Tebay? But I guess they had other things to think about. And no sooner had traffic passed junction 38, with all opportunities for me to divert now passed, we stopped. Dead.
No BBC traffic news, not till much later, by which time I was already moving again. And no explanation online.
But this time, it was different. Three lanes of traffic, engines off, with an empty carriageway on the opposite side and, all around me, doors were flinging open, drivers and passengers spilling onto the carriageway, sharing fag breaks, pacing up and down the central crash barrier and the hard shoulder across the other side, talking loudly into their phones. ‘You’ll never guess where I am…’
One couple abandoned their car, straddled the central barrier, then climbed the steep banking opposite, striding through long grass and scrub. He stood guard as she carried on up, searching for a tree to squat behind. Not obvious at all.
Mission visibly accomplished, others followed suit. Same tree, different pee.
Two young women paused in the northbound middle lane, phones raised for the essential selfie. Then another. And another. A grandmotherly figure circled my car with a pushchair, sleeping child oblivious to its plight.
A gaggle of excitable teenagers walked by to my right, heading back north, ears closed to the worried adult chasing after them warning that things might move again at any time. ‘Don’t go too far! Don’t go back to Tebay!’ Grown-ups, eh? Up and down they went, testing Fate and adult patience, until eventually forced to run back, screaming and giggling to their vehicles, engines firing up around them.
Me, I set about my Sudoku, called my colleagues, said I might not make it, chatted about the business we were due to discuss and settled in for the duration, my traffic jam survival kit winking up at me from the passenger footwell.
I couldn’t help but think all the activity buzzing around me might be ill-advised given that, every so often, a blue lit police vehicle – a convoy of three at one stage – flashed up that empty carriageway at speed, reappearing down the southbound hard shoulder moments later, a concern I expressed on Twitter, to nothing more than tumbleweed. Such is life for a non-influencer.
Two hours later we were on our way, my traffic jam survival kit still intact. Only later did we learn that the ‘oncoming vehicle’ incident may also have involved firearms. We’re twitchy about that sort of thing in Cumbria, since Derrick Bird undertook his shooting spree from the comfort of his car, nine years ago, taking out twelve people and injuring eleven others before turning the gun on himself. Not to be taken lightly.
But maybe we’re all getting too accustomed to these lengthy motorway jams, and at our peril? When traffic ground to a halt on the M5 for hours, in February last year, an impromptu football game struck up on the empty carriageway. Someone produced a guitar to entertain fellow travellers, others shared their food and drink.
I checked it out with a police pal and, yes, wandering around on the carriageway is, strictly speaking, illegal – not to say dangerous – even in standing traffic. But I doubt that would have persuaded the explorers back into their cars the other week, driven by fags and bladders and adolescence.
As for peeing in your own car, discretion’s the word. And, anyway, who could tell?