…on cars

The red Toyota in Death Valley


The car is a fragile thing.  If it hits another car its bonnet will buckle, its windscreen will shatter, the dashboard will crumble and fall around your legs where you sit in the passenger seat, and you are trapped.  There will be miniscule shards of glass in your hair, scattered like gems across your cheeks, burrowed into your ears and nostrils and shoes and pockets.  Its engine will catch fire with a delicate orange flame that you can watch from your position as a captive audience. 
Sometimes, people are more fragile than cars, but sometime not.

Your first car was a Morris Marina, bought soon after you passed your test at seventeen years old.  Within a few months you scraped its wing driving too close to a wall, but this was the only wound it bore from your inexperienced parenting.  You had all you needed to escape the small village where you grew up, and you understood that injuries where bound to happen somewhere along the way

Your next car was a red Datsun Sunny, old and rust-riddled, reluctant to participate in any journey when it was cold.  Sometimes you would become stranded across roads or at junctions, its engine stalled and unwilling to start again.  You hated this car to an unreasonable level for an inanimate object that was just trying to die in a dignified way.

You think fondly of the racing green Honda Quintet you owned for many years.  It had an electric sunroof, which felt like the height of luxury and sophistication, and when your then boyfriend stoved in the front crashing into another car, it started straight back up again.  You have had a love and respect for Japanese engines ever since. 

You once sat in a TVR at a motor show at Earl’s Court.  It had a walnut steering wheel and dashboard, and you fell deeply and eternally in love.  You are never likely to spend vast sums of money on a car, but if you did, this would be it.

Several years ago you took your teenage children on a road trip from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon.  Early in the trip you broke the rental car, and then you lost it. You had no clue where it was, so you rented another and continued your journey.  This new car was a bright red Toyota which was ridiculously photogenic against the chalky mountains or the heat-hazed desert, so you felt the previous loss (a car so generic you can’t even recall what it was) as a kind of serendipity.  Those days driving on wide empty roads listening to the soundtrack from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Velvet Underground or Dope Lemon were some of the happiest days of your life. 

(Afterword:  The rental company found the car and fixed it, so when you finally returned home there was a large bill waiting on your doormat).

You were nineteen when you were trapped in that flaming car.  Later, you were told that you and the car that came towards you on the wrong side of the road were both traveling at 50mph, so you both stopped dead, a combined impact of 100mph.  Your then boyfriend was driving and he climbed out unhurt.  When he saw the two cars welded together and the flames rising from the engine, he ran for help.  The first car that came along that quiet country road was driven by a man who happened to have a fire extinguisher.  Soon, firemen arrived and cut you out.  Ambulance men ferried you to hospital.  Doctors and nurses patched you up and you stayed in hospital for four days. The man in the car that hit you stayed for longer, but he did recover from his injuries.

You sometimes wonder if this is the closest you’ve ever come to death.  Possibly, but you didn’t feel it at the time.  Even as you were watching the flames, unable to move your legs with no-one around to help, you knew that you weren’t going to die there.  You knew that you were safe.  Something was going to happen and your days would keep on turning.  Something like a man with a fire extinguisher. 

Driving to you is more than getting from one place to another.  It is an effortless drawing away from the familiar, a shifting into the unknown and discovering the unexpected.  It is turning a corner to find a valley with the sun cutting low to make the fields of wheat glow orange; it is topping the brow of a hill to find the ocean glittering with promise; it is a sudden hailstorm that forces you to stop in a layby to listen to the clatter on the windscreen; it is the sleepy churchyard with yew trees carved into extraordinary roundness; it is the road running along a river where you catch glimpses of deer and rabbits and hovering sparrow hawks. 

It is all both fragile and resilient. It is stillness and movement. It is security and adventure.

Your car is sitting below your window now, waiting for the adventures to begin again.

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