If you’ve never had to yank the handbrake from the passenger’s seat whilst steering away from a Jaguar on a roundabout and sounding the horn, you’ve never lived. We did, luckily. Mum was having driving lessons in the 90s and I’d offered to take her out for a quiet practice drive in my non-dual-control car. She decided that turning left into a side street was far too obvious and told me that she wanted to practice on the roundabout ahead instead. To be fair, she’d been driving quite well up to that point, so I thought what the heck, let’s go for it as long as we do it slowly.
“Mum, let’s approach the roundabout gently and start indicating left now.”
“I want to go right – let’s go into Worthing.”
“No, Mum, let’s just do the simple stu…”
“This is a lovely little car, Sonia darling, what colour would you call this? Purple, lilac, mauve?”
“Mum – start braking – Mum! Put your foot on the brake and squeeze – like NOW!”
Nope. She wasn’t going to do that, she was heading straight for the centre of the roundabout at about 35 miles per hour.
“Mum – BRAKE! BRAKE!” No effect. So the only thing to do was to try and pump the handbrake to slow the car down and bring it to a stop. Hand brakes are, quite frankly, crap aren’t they? At 35mph they’re about as useful as a radio play without words. I thought we were going to come to a halt on the grassy bank of the central reservation until the Jaguar decided to come hurtling round the bend, oblivious to the potential catastrophe ahead. The honking just made him look (and smile) while Mum waved at him. I think he waved back until he caught site of me pumping the handbrake, yelling and leaning over to grab the steering wheel.
“Brake – for Christ’s sake Mum. PUT YOUR FOOT ON THE BRAKE!”
Screech, jolt, slight skid to the side and two cricked necks.
I was imagining the horns, the yelling, and the angry, red faces until I remembered that this was West Sussex, not North London. Out she popped to have a chinwag with the Jaguar driver and back she came to the car, chirping “This nice man is going to give me a lift home – you’re alright to get back on your own aren’t you? This car feels a bit un-safe”
Suffice to say she didn’t ever pass her driving test and I’m pleased about that as Mum’s attention span was never very long. She told me that she’d decided to get lessons as she was always worried about me driving all the time and maybe she’d be able to drive me home sometimes. She did go out and buy a clapped out second hand car soon after the lessons stopped, hoping that I’d replace the purple Corsa with her ancient Rover estate. I gave up trying to explain that my lovely new car was perfectly safe IF IT WAS DRIVEN PROPERLY, whereas her knackered old Rover was sold to her by a charlatan who ran off with £300 cash, no paperwork and a false address. Bless her; they always saw her coming – unlike the Jaguar driver.
Mum once told me that roads were the way out. I asked her if she ever felt that they were also the way in, but she stuck to her first answer. “I always feel that excitement when I see a road ahead of me – it’s about having somewhere else to go and leaving stuff behind”. She was always making her way somewhere else, be it in a conversation, along the M1 on her bicycle, escaping reality, practicing her terrifying driving skills on roundabouts or simply walking down the middle of Oxford Street so she could have a proper view of both sides of the road at the same time. I’d love her to have been with us when we drove away from Arundel last night, seeing all the beautiful Victorian shop fronts, twinkling Christmas trees suspended half way up all the houses and swarms of people celebrating the last day of term before the holidays. She was there though, albeit in an altered reality, because we’d picked up her ashes in the afternoon before fixing up a little brass plaque in her name on the new bench we bought for her care home. So although in one way it felt like a tearful end of an era while travelling back from Arundel to London, it felt like it always did – Mum as a passenger, inspiring conversation and making us all laugh. It’ll be a funny old Christmas without her and I’ve got no idea how I’m going to feel, but as my lovely friends and family say, one day at a time. For now, it’s time to park up, switch off the engine, surround ourselves with precious people and family while raising a glass to beloved mums everywhere.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, bona breaks – whatever you call it.