“How do you plan to pay?” Henry asked, walking around the car and rubbing his beard with oil-smeared fingers. There was something weasely about his expression.
“You don’t take cards, I suppose?”
“I’ve only $20 in cash. Will that cover it?” Henry just shrugged, and then got to work.
It was 11.40am and the clock was ticking. A guided trek into the depths of Haliburton Forest was intended as the highlight of my Canada trip, a last hurrah before I flew home the next day. The group would depart from the visitor centre at 1pm sharp — the sharp had been stressed — but on the way there I’d stopped at a grocery store and locked my keys in the boot of my hire car. I was ten miles away from the meeting point.
Henry, the local mechanic, forced a thick piece of wire through the window seal, feeding it towards the unlock button on the inside of the door. It was a painstaking, hair-tearing process. But after 20 minutes of muttered expletives, Henry opened the door with a smug flourish. And then jumped out of his skin.
The blare of a car alarm commands urgency. A flustered Henry prodded frantically at the ‘open boot’ button on the steering column. Nothing happened. He clambered into the back, hunting for a lever to drop the seats and gain access to the boot. But this was a convertible and the rear seats didn’t lower.
“You should phone the rental company,” Henry said above the din, emerging red-cheeked from the car. I punched the digits into my mobile, but the line wouldn’t connect.
“It’s because I’m using a foreign mobile,” I explained.
Henry’s non-foreign mobile sat on the bonnet of his truck. He looked at it, and then back at me. “There’s a phone booth 200 metres up the road,” he nodded.
“But I’ve no change, Henry.”
He reached into the front of his dungarees. “Here’s a quarter,” he said, and started to roll a cigarette.
Those were a lonely 200 metres. It was 12.30pm; I’d surely missed my trek. A bank of gloomy clouds smothered the sun, and the branches of the pine trees drooped like sagging shoulders.
“Hey, wait up!”
I turned to see a shopper running to catch me up. “I got your key out!” he panted. He’d worked Henry’s wire through a crack between the back seats and used it to hook the fob. I could have kissed his round, pink face.
Henry was leaning against my car with the key. “That’ll be $40 for my time,” he said.
“But I’ve only got $20!”
He shrugged his trademark shrug and drew on his cigarette. I cast a desperate eye on the ground, seeking inspiration or a $20 bill, and then dashed into the store.
“Do you do cash back?”
“Cash back, sir?” said the owner blankly, rolling the words in his mouth like a cow chewing cud.
“Yes! Can you charge an amount on a card and give that in cash?”
He pondered for an eternity. I imagined his tail swishing behind the counter. “Yes, sir, we can do that.”
“Wonderful!” I handed him my debit card. He stared at it for a while. “But not on debit cards,” he said.
It was the only card I had. “OK, OK. What if I buy something and overpay — could you give me the difference in cash?”
Again Mr Moo considered things. “Yes, sir, we can do that.”
“But not on debit cards.”
If I’d had a towel, I’d have thrown it in. The group would be heading out in 15 minutes, eyes peeled for wolves and bears, and I was stuck in the company of a cow-like man who… “I’ve paid Henry,” said a voice nearby. It was my pink-faced saviour from earlier, with what I’m sure was a halo on his head.
“I can’t let you do that!” I stuttered.
“Too late. It’s done! If you follow my car, I’ll get you to the visitor centre in time, too.”
He was as good as his word. In fact, I arrived with a minute to spare. And for all the thrilling sights on my forest trek, it’s the faces from the preceding hour I remember best; those of Mr Moo, the kind stranger and the weasel Henry — whose quarter I never did return.
Read more of the Travellers’ Tales cover story in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)