Tuesday, July 8, 2014


By the time the third tyre blew we were somewhere near Preston and we spun twice across two lanes of traffic. Three of us were in Andy's Fiat Panda, a two door hatchback. Andy was driving, J was in the front and I was packed in the back among several duvets, an electric lamp and a box of lever arch files; the luggage of students heading back to college.

The first tyre had blown about an hour into the journey, just outside Reading.  We were on a smaller road then and we shuddered a little before realising we had a puncture.  We limped off the road into a local garage, grateful for the help we'd get. We emptied the suitcases from the trunk and with the help of the mechanic, got out the spare. We levered up the vehicle and swapped the tyres, packing the punctured one back into the well where the new one had been.

'You don't want to drive too far on that' said the garage attendant in his overalls.

The vehicle was clearly loaded up for a big journey.

'That wheel's got almost no thread.'

He showed us how we should be able to put a coin in the tyre's rubber indentations. We were teenagers. Irresponsible. Immortal. My friend didn't want to fork out a hundred quid for a new tyre.  She didn't say as much, but she didn't spend any money there that day and we drove out of the garage on the spare.  Should I have spoken up? Bought the tyre myself? We journeyed on.

The second blow out wasn't long after that. Was it the spare that went? Possibly. This time we needed towing.  This time we paid up.  I found out then that the vehicle was thirteen years old and had never had its tyres replaced. 

When Andy and I were eleven one of the girls at school lost both her parents in a car accident.  Ann Acre was in the year above us.  She had a freckled face and the thick dark hair of a movie starlet.  In my childish imagination her parents were romantic travelers; he in a trench coat, she with a headscarf.  One day she was just another girl, the next she had no parents.  Our first year dormitory was near the surgery that year.  Sister Lux was on duty to take care of us as we settled into boarding school.  I saw Ann Acre waiting to see the nurse.  I took in her presence, sitting silently on a plastic chair without tears, without parents.  On the lacrosse pitch, in the lunch line, in the corridors between lessons, it was unbelievable she could be so alone.

Andy had just asked me if I could see a problem with the right rear wheel so I was trying to get a glimpse of it when we started spinning.  I imagine I looked like a child evacuee being dispatched by train. Fear and disbelief on my face. The world slowed. It was silent.  I saw my hands on the window. I always liked my hands.  I held this thought even as I tried to dismiss it.  My last thought? On my left hand is a scar in the shape of an L. I got it when I snipped grapes from a vine with a pair of scissors and drew blood. As a child it helped me tell left from right.  I saw the grey blur of the road, dotted white lines joining up as we spiraled once, then twice.

'I knew what to do', Andy said later, 'I knew to pump the brakes'. She was retelling the story. The responsible driver.

I had no idea about pumping the brakes. We teetered for a moment after the second spin, another car swerved away from us, there was screeching, car horns, swearing, roaring in my head and we came to rest on the verge. The engine fizzed and ticked. It had stopped on the brown grass just ahead of a deep trench. A hundred yards further up the road was a concrete wall, the base of a bridge. The distance between our vehicle and that impact was a matter of seconds.

We pulled ourselves out, stunned. A tow service appeared and it was dark by the time we pulled into a garage on the outskirts of Preston. Someone kind gave us coffee.   It warmed us.  We had three hours further to drive. We were lucky, irresponsible, stupid and alive. 

Years later when I worked on the radio, I'd be asked to do a thirty second voicer or be given a programme piece that had to be packed into one minute thirty. I'd spend all morning getting the right voices, the right facts, the right sound effects for one minute that would be broadcast to the nation.  The adrenaline was high, the editor was hard to please, seconds mattered. Seconds always matter. 

Time expands and collapses with children; the long arc of the day in which things happen so fast.  For eight years I have stayed home, a choice I made to give the seconds more meaning than the next headline.  I indulged myself, staying home.  Now, on the other side of forty I am clawing back the seconds.  The boys hurl their hugs at me. I try to write it down, in the moments before breakfast, before a fight breaks out about who sits where around the kitchen table or who gets the Mickey Mouse spoon. Precious seconds with all their joys and terrors.

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