Saturday, 13 December 2008

Still Free

It's just after eight in the morning and I've pulled into Hilton Park services on the northbound M6 to fill up the screenwash on the Vauxhall Astra I'm delivering to Chester. At the side of the petrol station forecourt is a small machine with an airline and a water hose sticking out of it. A few years ago all these machines were free to use, but recently one or two places have decided that they can't just go giving away air to anyone who wants it and have begun to charge for this.

Today, I've pulled the water hose out, put the end of it in the top of the screen wash container, pressed the trigger several times and wondered why nothing was happening before realising that I've now found a machine that charges for water as well. The price depends on how long you use it for, but the minimum is fifty pence.

A few months ago I picked up an Audi A4 whose near side rear tyre looked slightly low. I pulled into the first garage I came to to top it up and found that this would cost me twenty pence. I had the money on me, and if I was prepared to be laughed at I could probably even have claimed it back from the office. But in an act of principled petulance I decided to wait until I found somewhere where I could do it for free, only to have the tyre blow out on me a few miles up the road.

With this experience in mind, and knowing that on the wet motorway the car windscreen will be caked in salty grime within a couple of minutes I feel that I have no choice but to part with the money. But as I'm reaching into my pocket a car pulls up a few metres away. The driver winds his window down and shouts something that sounds like a question with the word 'water' in it.

'Yeah, but you've got to pay for it here,' I reply, taking a guess at what he has said. But he gets out of his car and walks over to me, and I can now see the Moto logo of the service station on his sweatshirt. He repeats himself, in a strong Black Country accent -

'Yam after water?'


'Ere, save y' poyin' forrit,' he says indicating behind a strategically placed green board only a couple of yards from the machine, where there is a tap in the wall and a container underneath.

'Ere's y'tap and ere's y'can,' he continues, pointing them out.

'Cheers mate,' I say, and he turns and goes back to his car.

While I'm filling up, a white van pulls up next to me and the driver gets out, evidently after water himself. He watches me for a couple of seconds and then nods towards the machine -

'Is it broke?'

'No, you've got to pay fifty pee for it here.'


I finish filling up and then hand him the can. I don't doubt that if someone else came along before he left he would do the same thing himself. This is the tragedy for those managers of petrol stations who have made the effort to convince themselves that it is justifiable to charge people for fresh air and water. There are too many people around who disagree and who would rather talk to a stranger than see them part with an unnecessary fifty pence.

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