The man could have come from a John le Carre novel – or maybe Graham Greene. A shock of grey hair, and a face that had a worldly-worn look, matched the open-necked white shirt, the crumpled linen jacket, cream cavalry twill trousers, and soft brown shoes. He and his wife had very little luggage – three small bags, each of which might have contained enough for a weekend.
The look of a character from a novel did not extend to the sort of wisdom one would associate with those who associate with George Smiley and his friends. The couple stood in front of us at the car hire queue and spoke in loud voices. They had made no advance booking and were insistent that the only car they would consider was a Renault Scenic, presumably one similar to the one they drove at home. The negotiations were lengthy and involved the hire company official making three phone calls – each in rapid-fire French spoken with an apologetic tone. One could almost hear the conversation, “Yes, I know it’s a nuisance, but can you find one and bring it to the office? No, a different model won’t do; it must be the one requested”.
The worldly innocence of the couple was manifested at the end of the transaction. The official smiled sweetly and said, “Would you like to pay for the petrol now so that you can return it empty? You wouldn’t have to worry about filling it up!”
“No!”, I almost involuntarily shouted.
“Yes”, they said, “that would be good”.
The official tallied their bill. “That will be €651, please”. The man handed over his credit card.
€651 to hire a car for a period that extended the length of three weekend bags brought by a man who travels in a linen jacket and twill trousers: I would want a Mercedes Benz for that sort of money, not a Renault Scenic.
The company official did not offer to sell us petrol. “Please bring the car back full, or you will be billed for the fuel”. Their charge for fuel was €2.50 a litre; even the most expensive petrol on the motorway is only €1.47. How much fuel does a Renault Scenic hold? 55 or 60 litres? The man had paid at least €55 or €60 for the privilege of not having to worry about filling the car up before he returned it.
It was a piece of daylight robbery – and we just stood and watched.