LONDON — The woman at the car-rental agency fingered my driver's license as if it had been dropped in mud.
"I can't rent you a car," she said. "This license expired last week. Is there anyone with you who can drive?"
I looked out the window as Heathrow Airport traffic droned overhead. There sat my wife, Lucile, waiting with our luggage for me and the car.
We were about to drive to friends in Herefordshire, after a few days in London, and I suddenly wished I were back home in Montana--a state that doesn't remind drivers when their licenses are due to expire.
A tortuous route back in the United States had brought us to this particular agency.
Weeks earlier, planning our trip, we had read in a British tourist pamphlet that "most" agencies would not rent cars to persons over age 65.
Exceptions to the Rule
There were exceptions, it said, some renting to drivers up to age 70 or even 75. My wife and I had hit the 70s a couple of years ago.
So I got on the phone to some 800 numbers our travel agent gave me. I talked with the U.S. offices of a couple of agencies that seemed to feel, as the pamphlet had warned, that people over 65 ought to leave the driving to somebody else.
But I found one agency in New York City represented by a man who said cheerfully it had no worries about renting to someone my age, and when did I want what kind of car?
I gave him a date, asked for a medium-sized car with automatic shift and got a code number confirming the reservation.
Apparently, my driver's license expired in my wallet while we were high over the Atlantic Ocean without so much as a warning beep.
So that sunny morning at Heathrow, I put it back in my pocket as if it were a counterfeit bill, and waved my wife into the office.
The clerk inspected Lucile's license, found it in good health, and proceeded to fill out the rental contract with her.
When I'd ask a question, the clerk would reply to Lucile. I watched the baggage. The contract was signed by Lucile, and authorized only her to drive the car.
I did get one question answered. I said my license had barely expired, that a few years ago I had driven all over the United Kingdom with no trouble, that my wife had never driven a mile there, and couldn't I at least spell her off?
Replied the clerk: "If you so much as slip behind the wheel for one minute and have an accident, your liability insurance will be canceled. So will your crash insurance. I wouldn't risk that if I were you."
I loaded the trunk--sorry, the boot--with our bags while a sympathetic young man who knew what happened gave my wife a 10-minute short course on this particular car's gadgets and on left-hand driving in general.
"I wish I had a cigarette," said Lucile, who had quit smoking a year ago. Then she took off into the Heathrow traffic, me beside her, maps in hand, explaining as we went how roundabouts work and who has the right of way in them.
When she said that on two-lane roads oncoming drivers seemed close enough to shake hands with, I said I remembered the sensation.
When she reacted to this feeling by banging into the curb on the left once or twice, I recalled I'd done that too.
When she wasn't sure who had to give way on the roundabouts, I remembered having the same problem.
Two weeks later, to the day, we returned the car, unscratched and undented, which is more than I could say for my psyche.
My wife had gotten us to the Cotswolds, to Herefordshire, to Wales fishing, back through Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, West Sussex, Surrey and to the airport car-rental office.
All the way I sat and enjoyed a sunny, gorgeous English countryside. (Brits said it had rained all summer.) I also called out roundabout exits. Lucile's knuckles grew less white on the steering wheel each day.
After the first couple of days of this, I found the police station in a Herefordshire town, explained the situation to the officer in charge, and asked his opinion of what would happen if I were to spell my wife at the wheel and have an accident.
"Oh," he said cheerfully, "we'd just give you a slap on the wrist for that license, but the insurance company would say they'd never heard of you. I wouldn't risk it unless I was awful rich."
She won't admit it, but I think my wife feels pretty proud of herself. Deservedly. I won't use the word smug.
As for me, she says it's time I stopped berating myself for expecting to rent a car in England with an expired license.
I'm getting it renewed as soon as I get home. If my wife will give me a ride.