Sorry About The Car Again!
It’s been a while since I last owned a car. Living in New York City, with its affordable and far-reaching--albeit rather creaky--subway service, I have no reason to drive. As Jesus himself may have said “It is easier for an NYC transit rider to pass through the arches of Manhattan Bridge than for a driver to enter the city (except on the weekend.)” I always considered myself a good driver though and would say that a solid ninety percent of car journeys I’ve conducted resulted in getting from A to B without even the smallest hint of an incident.
I acquired my Learner Driver’s License on my 17th birthday and began taking lessons every Monday after school. My instructor was John Clark, the same man who’d attempted to teach my mother to drive a few years previously. I could tell from his ashen expression when he saw the name Crozer at the beginning of the first lesson that he was worried. But a second later he was all smiles again and assured me that he’d have me on the road in no time.
“They all gets there eventually!” he would say frequently over the next year as I struggled with self-confidence behind the wheel, conveniently forgetting that my mother hadn’t got there ever.
My mum decided to learn to drive when she was in her mid-thirties. My dad bought her a second-hand Mini for her birthday. It wasn’t a good-looking car from what I remember and was painted a colour that would probably be best described as Toxic Mustard. Once she got that car though my family adopted a new and thrilling Sunday afternoon leisure activity: Driving With Mum. With me and my brother in the back of the Mini (and this was in the days prior to back seats being fitted with seatbelts) my dad in the passenger seat and my mum at the helm, clinging to the steering wheel as if it were a life belt, we would set off for one of the the three local beauty spots we regularly visited: Christmas Common, Shotover Woods or the aptly-named Wittenham Clumps (a bare hill with a clump of trees at its peak.) Within seconds of leaving the safety of our front drive the adventure would begin. Mum would indicate right and then turn left onto the cycle path and Paul and I would whoop in delight as my dad grabbed the wheel just in time to steer us onto the road where there were no cyclists in imminent danger of death. Mum would chuckle nervously while Dad took out his handkerchief to mop his brow. Not many minutes later we’d be approaching a junction at thirty miles an hour, showing no sign of slowing down and, with seconds to spare before we plunged onward into a stream of fast-moving traffic, my dad would pull hard on the handbrake and save us once again.
“Why didn’t you stop!?” he’d shout at my mum.
“You didn’t tell me to,” my mum would reply angrily.
My brother and I meanwhile were having the time of our lives. We were too young to be fully aware that we could all be maimed or killed any minute. We were of the age when we thought that we were safe because we were with our parents who would protect us from any real danger.
My dad, by contrast, was a solid, sensible, unflappable driver who, in an entire lifetime of driving, I never once observed going over the speed limit nor carrying out any manoeuvres that weren’t sanctioned by The Highway Code. No matter how straight and quiet the road nor how late I was to catch my flight nor how clear it was that the country track with grass growing down the middle was not the A2143 and was about to end in a field of cows, he stuck to the speed limit and drove carefully and considerately.
I took driving lessons from Mr Clark for a little over a year. It’s not that I didn’t grasp the intricacies of driving a car but that I was a timid driver. During one lesson, as we trundled past the Castle Mound on New Road in Oxford at seventeen miles an hour, I slowed down for a pigeon that was walking on the tarmac ahead of us. Mr Clark began shouting “Gas! Gas!” which was his signal that I should speed up a bit.
“But it says SLOW,” I said, to which he replied “You’re already going slow Mark.”
Eventually I was deemed ready to take the test and, surprisingly, I passed first time though the examiner told me it had been a close call.
I’ve spent much of my adult life believing that I had my dad’s temperament as a driver. I’ve always considered myself to be sensible and considerate and unflappable in the face of adversity. The truth of the matter though, when I look back at my years of driving, is that I’m far more like my mum. Her problem—aside from the fact that she lacks basic hand-eye coordination and has a terrible sense of direction—is that she becomes very anxious under stress. Unflappable she is not. In fact if I were to pick one word to describe my mother it would be flappable. Extremely flappable. And I’ve realized I’m the same. Under stressful driving conditions--like when there are other cars on the road for example, or bicycles, or children, or children on bicycles or there is the small chance that a pheasant might suddenly run out in front of me--I tend to act rashly and do things that in hindsight are not only ill-thought-out but positively dangerous. Case in point, I was driving home in my van after a gig in Glossop, Derbyshire a few years back when I made a wrong turn onto the notoriously treacherous Snake Pass, a road whose Wikipedia page shows a picture of an abandoned car hanging over a wall made of rocks. Instead of continuing until there was a safe place to turn around I became flustered and decided to attempt a three point turn. It was late. There wasn’t much traffic around. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wheeled off the road straight into a shallow ditch and immediately got stuck, the back of the van pointing straight out into the unlit road. It took a good twenty minutes of back-breaking pushing and shoving to get out of the ditch, by which time I was drenched in sweat and convinced I was about to die either from a heart attack or from being flattened by an oncoming articulated lorry. Yet, despite my foolishness that night, and all the other accumulated evidence that cars and I don’t go well together (the incidents in Germany, the UK, Italy, Canada, France… and others I’ve mentally blocked out,) I persisted in the belief that I was a good driver. I was a good driver to whom bad things happened. Things that weren’t my fault.
I maintained this delusion until one overcast afternoon in March 2011 when I got myself into what would turn out to be the most embarrassing incident of my life. And it was totally my fault.
I was returning home to Kirtlington after completing some errands in Oxford and had stopped off to pick up a coffee for the journey. I was in a great mood and whistling a tune that was half Zippity Doo Dah and half the theme music from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I hopped into the car--a Peugeot 306 at that time--and started up the engine without even once stalling. As I pulled out of the car park, without taking out even one pedestrian, I took a sip of coffee then carefully placed the cup between my legs. Cup holders? Who needs those things! I was a great driver after all! Ten minutes later I arrived in Bletchingdon, the very definition of a sleepy English village. (Extraneous fact: If you approach the village from one end it’s called Bletchingdon but approach from the other and it’s Bletchington for no apparent reason.) The main road through the village is wide enough for two cars to pass each other comfortably but when I spied the Number 25 bus coming towards me I decided to do the honorable thing and pull into a side street to let it pass. The bus rumbled towards me and the driver flashed her lights in thanks. I gave a little wave in return and marvelled at how friendly everyone is when you live in the country. I was ready to begin my journey again, coffee cup still in my left hand, before realizing I would need both hands to turn the wheel sharply enough to manoeuvre the car back onto the main road. It seemed like returning the coffee to its previous location between my legs was perhaps not such a good idea under the circumstances. I wouldn’t want hot coffee to spill on my legs as I was pulling out after all. So naturally I did what any sane person would do. I put the cup down on the floor behind the passenger seat. Placing both hands on the steering wheel I pressed on the accelerator and turned the wheel with gusto. The nose of the car swung out into the main road and I knew right away the coffee cup was no longer upright. Instinctively I turned round to locate the cup and as I did so a number of things happened. The steering wheel spun wildly in my right hand and the car edged forward. I continued to fumble for the cup because Damn It To Hell if I was going to let that coffee cup win. At the same time as all this was happening behind the passenger seat, up front my right foot was off doing its own thing, unaware of the commotion in the back of the car. With all my attention directed to the important task of retrieving the coffee cup, my brain didn’t notice that my right foot was now craftily pushing down on the accelerator, edging us slowly, but not that slowly, towards a line of parked cars on the other side of the road. By us I mean me, my foot, the car and the coffee cup. I didn’t realize that something terribly bad was about to happen until it happened and then stopped happening. What followed can only be described as the first time I've ever truly had an out of body experience. My head swivelled in slow motion until I was looking forwards again and I was greatly surprised to see that a black Peugeot 306--with me at the wheel no less--was attempting to drive through the passenger door of a pristine Austin Rover. But physics was stopping me from driving through the Rover and instead it was simply driving down the side of it. Very, very slowly. And as I pushed on very, very slowly the sound of metal scraping against metal grew louder and louder until my right foot decided to stop what it was doing, presumably because it couldn’t make the car go any further.
All this happened in the space of about five seconds. By which time the damage was done.
I sat there for a little while after my foot had stopped misbehaving and very rapidly fell back into my body when I realized I had done a very bad thing. I banged my forehead on the steering wheel and began to make a low moaning noise like a dying animal. After a little while longer I looked up and discovered that my actions had drawn a small crowd who were all looking on in shock. I could practically hear their collective breath being drawn in and the chorus of astonished tuts that followed.
I got out to take stock of the situation. My car, I was appalled to note, had barely a scratch on it. But the once pristine Rover was scored from tail to nose with a long and deep scar.
I looked around sheepishly and addressed the person nearest to me, an elderly man with hair whiter than my own.
“Uh, do you know who's car this is?”
“David at Number 32,” the man replied. “He won’t be happy.”
Won’t he? I wanted to say. Are you absolutely sure about that? But I had to remind myself that for once I wasn’t the victim but the perpetrator of the crime.
I found Number 32 and rang the bell. The door opened and I was greeted by a grey-haired, middle-aged man dressed in a dark suit.
“Hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“Are you David?”
“Yes?” he said, looking a little confused.
I knew that there was no way of making light of what I’d done. No way of saying “You’ll laugh when I tell you this but…”
I felt awful.
“I’m afraid I’ve had a bit of an accident and scratched up your car,” I said, wringing my hands, unable to make eye contact with David.
He let out an exasperated groan.
“How did that happen?!”
“I… I don’t know.” I couldn’t find the courage to tell him that it had happened because of a cup of a coffee. It would only make him angrier, I reasoned.
“I… I just lost concentration for a minute,” I stammered pathetically, realizing immediately how ridiculous that sounded. “I’m really, really sorry.” The words coming out of my mouth sounded strange and insincere.
“Well, you’d better come in,” he said. He stood back to let me pass then closed the door behind me. He pushed past and I followed, looking down at the floor, my face set in what I hoped was a contrite grimace.
“This chap’s just crashed into the car!” he announced as I slunk into the living room behind him. I looked up to find three more solemn-faced, middle-aged people--a man and two women--standing awkwardly in silence. One of the women, David’s wife I guessed, looked at me with a mixture of sadness and frustration and with the tiniest hint of a smile--though not a happy one-- said “We're just about to go to a funeral.”
I was lost for words.
“Oh no. I… I’m sorry,” I said again, withering inwardly, wishing I could be somewhere else, anywhere else, doing literally anything else—having root canal surgery for example.
This situation could not possibly be any more humiliating, I told myself. Wrong.
The woman turned away from me for a moment and came back with a pen and paper.
Handing it to me she added “It’s not even our car.”
I wrote down my insurance information, grovelled once more and left.
Later that same day I sent David a card saying Sorry About The Car Again! I thought about adding a smiley face but decided against it. I began to fantasize that David would come to see the funny side of the situation. Maybe we’d become friends and he would tell people the crazy way we’d met and, hey, thank god that happened eh or we’d never have got to know each other! But then I remembered this was real life not an episode of Friends. There was no funny side for David and his companions.
Last year I voluntarily gave up my driver's license. I thought it was probably for the best.