There’s a whole new world to discover thanks to having to do without for a while. The car has been dropping hints for a few months now. Little warnings. We can’t say that she didn’t try. Lovely loyal car. She may start or just make a clicking sound when the key turns in the ignition. Then if we jiggle and wiggle the keys about a bit she jumps into life. On Christmas Eve I pop to Tesco’s for a last minute thing. The neighbours. We’ve forgotten to buy chocolates for them. So I zoom up, get them, jump back into the car, turn the key, nothing. I jiggle and wiggle and curse myself for taking this last trip. I’ll be stuck in Tesco’s for Christmas now. I’m talking to myself, obviously. It’s dark out and it’s cold and the car is going click and the dash is lighting up but that’s it. Then a very large round bellied man appears. He’s walking towards the car with his trolley looking very concerned. I roll the window down.
‘Is the battery flat?’ he asks.
‘Ah no, it’s just the ignition barrel or the starter motor’ I say bamboozling myself with my lingo.
‘It’ll start any second now. You see all I have to do is wiggle the keys a bit’. He’s looking even more worried and incredulous now. Poor deluded woman he seems to be saying.
‘I think you’ll need a push to get out of here’ he says.
‘But you’re not in a great position there’ he says looking at the shop window and how it’s a bit close for comfort. Typical. I can’t even get myself into the right position for a push. I jiggle and I wiggle. I think of the consequences of it not starting. Tonight of all nights. With the collecting, stashing, ferrying and dispersing yet to be done. I think of the kind, large, round bellied man standing beside me, patiently, waiting to lend a hand. I whip the keys out, shove them back in again and presto. We’re off. I wave at him. He winks back. Santa Claus, without his suit and beard.
We learn not a jot from it. We cheekily head off in the storms, Westwards, for New Years’s Eve. Wiggling, jiggling. On beaches in the freezing cold. Launching Christmas drones into the sky. Building a bridge, all five, team working it into existence. Clinking glasses, all seven of us, at midnight in the hotel bar.
What happens in the end could’ve happened at any stage and mucked things up royally for us. But she waits until it’s not going to have maximum impact. She doesn’t leave us stranded on a remote beach, frozen to the bone. Nor in an underground carpark with the kids waiting at the school gate. It’s Friday night. We’re all home safely. The briquettes are bought and the fire is lit. I’m heading out to meet an old friend. I’m being given a lift. She chooses this moment to say no. No I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been telling you and telling you. And I know you’re so busy and it’s hard to be without me but it’s time. I need some attention. I’m no spring chicken and things are beginning to ceaze. Somebody has to fix me. Please. I hear you, I say, heading off on foot, getting the phone out to text my ever punctual pal about a slight tardiness. Until a dimly lit taxi zooms me down quicker than I can say shagging starter motor.
It’s a birthday weekend and that’s just fine because I have everything done before the car goes kaput. Down to the flowers. I always buy bunches of flowers for my birthday boys, in the colours that I think they are. Yellow roses and fresh daffodils pepper the sitting room for marque 3. Today he gets his first shot at symmetry. The big 11. He wakes up though with a headache. Ah god. The excitement I think, until he says he feels a bit sick too and carts himself bathroom-wards for the inevitable. It’s with a bit of a sinking feeling that we go about cancelling things. It’s all done by lunch time. We’ve asked that no-one calls in, in case he’s infectious. We cancel the little party for the next day. Then he wakes from a doze and starts to chat and doesn’t stop. He is chirpy as hell from that moment on. No sign of a bug. Maybe it was the excitement after all.
The weekly shop turns into a walk, one bag a piece. They rise to it, all hands on deck, bantering and noticing the little things along the way. Early turf fire smells perfume the Sunday evening air. The town is alive and well and we shop thriftily so as not to over burden the young arms. We shop, as it happens, far better than usual. Selecting only what we will need. We bus home, buzzing all the way.
Their nanny offers to come over for the school run on Monday morning. She arrives at six o’clock and narrowly misses setting off the house alarm. I can hear her handbrake being wrenched up in my slumber and get to the door before she can. Such is the novelty of going in nanny’s car to school that I only have to whisper to wake them. They jump out of bed and get ready in jig time. We arrive at the school before the doors open. A rare treat for us all.
I’m walking and busing and paying attention to things that when cosseted in the car I’d miss. Strangers open up and chat when they bump into you walking, slightly weighed down with groceries. They sidle over at crossing lights to share snippets. A grandmother pushing a buggy. Slim, permed puffy 80s long hair, drawn on eyebrows, bright red lips, smiling at me. She mentions how cold it is and then laughs.
‘She wanted choc-ices in the shops just now. That’s all she wanted. Nothing else. In this weather’ she says pointing to the toddler in the buggy and laughing. We cross the road and she veers off diagonally to the house where the ice-creams will be devoured. A mini heart-warming interaction that I’d have otherwise driven past.
Then there’s a mini heart-breaking scene. I’m early for the school pick-up. I’m sauntering along as a deep green Jaguar XType slides past me. I think of how my eldest son would love the sight of it. By the time I reach the school this car is in the middle of the road and the elderly owner – a man in his seventies – is shouting at another man. The other man is out of his old small silver car. He has a walking stick and he is much older than the shouting man. Older. Smaller. Frailer. Heading for ninety. He has, it seems, clipped the side of the Jag. It’ll need painting the Jag man shouts. Spray paint? the ninety year old man enquires, quietly, shaking in the cold and with the shock of it all. No, not spray paint the Jag man says, tutting, shaking his head. I need your name and details. The road is getting choked up with parents in cars. The old old man makes towards his car. I live just down here, opposite the school, come to the house to get my details, the older old man says. I will, I will, I’ll get in with you, the old man says, nodding ferociously. As if he thinks the old old man is about to do a runner. He jumps into the silver car, all fury and indignation. Leave him alone, I want to shout out. The older old man is so shaken and shocked that he doesn’t seem to know how to drive off. With full force fury sitting beside him, he makes his car screech out in pain.
Being wide awake to all around me, good and bad, sends me into a sort of peaceful euphoria. Accidentally paying attention to the present moment and all that’s going on has lulling appeal. More than that, my own interactions with others are sharper, more focused. I’m no longer forcing myself out of the car, half asleep, and trudging around to the school with my eye firmly on just getting them all back home. By the time I reach the school I’ve had a myriad of mini encounters, engagements with an array of other fully awake non slumbering types. It feels as if I’ve just worked out the benefits of exercise (an unlikely scenario) and I want to convert. I’m walking around in wide-eyed wonder, as if I’ve just been let out of an institution. The 46A bus driver is coincidentally the same each
day. He gets to know us, smiles at us as we run to catch the bus, waits patiently, undercharges. He gets it. This wide awake kids on an adventure thing. He winks at us to let us know. When we get home we feel we have achieved something. The mood in the house reflects it back to us.
So we resolve to ditch the car every so often in the future. It’s not a green thing. It’s about the necessity to be fully awake once in a while. There’s a lot to be said for sudden exposure to the elements, walking on numb toes and holding bags with crumpled blue white fingers. There’s so much more of ourselves and others to be experienced when we’re not cosseted in old metal.