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These wheels are not my wings

On Tuesday, I drove 230 miles solely and simply to take desperance out to dinner, stayed over night in a cheap hotel, and then drove back yesterday. I spent 9 hours on the road for about 4 hours with Chaz. As he said, it was a completely mad thing to do, but... Well, this is why.

I didn't really worry about being able to drive until I was in my early 30s. I lived in various bedsits and student flats in Cambridge, I walked or bicycled everywhere. For long distances, I used coaches and trains, or we went on the marquis' motorbike. We were car-less when we moved into this house.
That was the year I came back from working in Dublin. I was 29 and I'd never lived anywhere for longer than 7 years. (Coventry, from birth to age 7.) I had no fixed base, no place that was definitively mine. Everywhere I lived was transient, more properly someone else's space than mine.
The new house was no different. It belonged to the marquis, and I was worried about the consequences of moving in. Had he now 'got' me, was I becoming a dependent? Would it be safe? We seemed to be working as a pair, but it was still a big step. It was, in retrospect, probably our biggest step to date. It was the best decision I've ever made.
The problem was that I didn't get to stay. We'd already had the Dublin thing -- he joined me for a year, but for the rest I was there alone while he returned to work in Cambridge. I learned to drive before going to Ireland, on the grounds that it might be useful, but in fact I seldom needed the skill and I didn't have a car (though I had the sue of one belonging to my former research supervisor). What I did have was a profession, an ambition, a proto-career.
We had been here about 18 months when I got a job in Bangor, North Wales. And we realised at once that public transport -- which had just about done up till then -- would not work for that. It took almost a day and it cost far more than I could reasonably afford on a regular basis. My parents bought me my first car, my little red Renault 5. And every week I drove backwards and forwards across the country, 250 miles each way, there and back. Every time I left Cambridge, it felt like an amputation. Every minute in Bangor was an exile. I crossed the days to the end of my contract off on my calendar, counted down my sentence. We'd done this before, with Dublin and we'd survived, but the scar tissue ached with the constant re-opening.
Bangor was followed by Leicester and Leicester by Cardiff. Back and forth, back and forth, exile and loneliness and -- for the first time in my life -- homesickness. I literally ached with the latter. I missed the marquis and the Caspian cat. I missed myself, my real self that had a home and a place, that was not simply a function and a service. the only thing that stood between me and total dissolution, total loss, was the car, my car -- red Renault, blue Citroen AX, blue Citroen Saxo. I was doing 40,00 miles a year, the equivalent of a working day in driving hours a week. It felt like a lifeline, and when colleagues questioned it or complained I wasn't there at weekends, it felt like they were trying to kill me. They spent a lot of time trying to break me away from the marquis -- one head of dept, on hearing I had a partner elsewhere, said, 'Well, that will have to stop.' They saw my life, my real life as a barrier to getting the most use out of me.
I delivered my course and got good feedback. I produced books and papers. My admin was done on time and properly. It was never enough. And, as we know, in the end I broke.
I'd have broken further without the cars. They felt like my best friends, always holding out to me the promise that I could if I needed get away. It cost me a fortune in petrol but I budgeted for it, because I needed that one small piece of freedom.
Then about 12 years ago, the marquis' employer gave him a fuel card. He couldn't drive a car, and they wouldn't pay for motorbikes, but they insisted on the card -- it was a necessity of rank and he'd be taxed on it even if he never used it. So he took it, and applied it to my cars. It used to bring me secret pleasure, to know that my petrol was being paid for by a multi-national -- that, in a small way, Big Business was underwriting university history education. After I broke, after I left my academic career behind, I wondered if the car should go. But it was still useful -- for visiting my parents in Herefordshire, and the marquis's in Wimbledon, for getting to cons and for transporting lawn mowers and so on. And my then car, the Saxo, had a very high mileage for its age and little value. So we kept it until it was costing more to run than its value.
By then, something else had become clear. I was home, I was finally allowed to live somewhere I belonged. But that need to run, to get away, had not left me. Sometimes I needed to be able to go, to try and out run myself. The car was still my freedom. I no longer had much income. The fuel card propped up my need for the potential to escape. I always knew that if I really needed, if I really had to run without warning, I could. I never did, and, over time, that need to flee is fading, loosening, unwinding. But I felt better for knowing that I could.
And then the marquis' employer decided to reorganise its various schemes and bonuses and to withdraw the fuel card. It ran out at midnight last night.
In all the 12 or so years, I had never run away. I was always there, at my post, at the hours required at work, however much I wanted to be home. I never walked out the door and drove into disappearance. If I want to run in future, I have to budget for it.
And so, on Tuesday, I got into the car and drove to Newcastle. Because Chaz was fretting and it was a nice day and I could find a cheap room. Not because I needed to run, to free myself, to escape. But because I never had. Because I could. Because I needed to do it just once, in memory of what I had once so much wanted to do.
The marquis was amused. As he said, you don't often get a phone call from your OH saying, 'Hello, I'm in Gateshead. I'll be back tomorrow.'
And it was a lovely evening, with sushi and sake and good conversation.



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 1st, 2010 10:31 am (UTC)
They spent a lot of time trying to break me away from the marquis -- one head of dept, on hearing I had a partner elsewhere, said, 'Well, that will have to stop.'

Oh for god's sake! BLOODY ACADEMICS! And I bet they wouldn't have said that to a man in a similar situation.
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
Jul. 1st, 2010 10:34 am (UTC)
What swisstone said. And also, I'm glad you had such a nice day :-)
Jul. 1st, 2010 10:44 am (UTC)
Various thoughts as I skirt around that central theme of requiring room to run.

40,000 miles a year is one heck of a lot. I did 50,000 one year, and I never want to do that again.

I had a Welsh poet and writer as a lodger in Cambridge for a while. He would drive off to Bangor on a Friday night. On Sunday night, he'd be back, having broken up with his girlfriend. The following week, he'd be off again.

Sometimes when I was feeling odd, I'd get in my car in the small hours and just drive. Once it was circumnavigating East Anglia, with sunrise somewhere near Cromer. Another time, I finally turned for home at Sheffield. But I never stayed out.

Cars, yes, cars represent a certain type of freedom. Not in that daily commute, no, because that's something you have to do, and anything you have to do stops becoming freedom very fast. But in the option to do that crazy cross-country trip at the drop of the hat onto the back seat.
Jul. 1st, 2010 10:46 am (UTC)
Well done. And thank you.
Jul. 1st, 2010 10:54 am (UTC)
Cars are a very important aspect of western American life, for that sense of freedom (and because there are vast areas of emptiness here). I'm glad you got your run. Good for you.
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:22 am (UTC)
I love this post! Here's to the open road...
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:26 am (UTC)
I knew we were kindred spirits. While I don't drive I have spent most of my life moving away from one thing to another. I've changed countries 5 times and loved in more apartments and houses than I can remember. It wasn't until I got to Saaremaa that I began to suspect I was finally home. Six years ago I bought my flat and now I know where I belong. BUT I still get itchy feet. Two or three times a year I HAVE TO GO SOMEWHETRE!!!!

What a wonderful friend you are to focus your urge to flee on cheering up Chaz. I wish I lived near you so we could sometimes go exploring together. I'd pay for the petrol.
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
One of these days I shall make it to Finland: I should love to go exploring with you!
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
What swisstone said.

And I totally get running away. Very glad you had a chance to do this lovely thing.
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
I loved reading this. I can relate to you on many aspects of what you wrote. My car is still my freedom, for various reasons. I'm glad you got to have a bit of fun! :D
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
Living in London, I feel much the same way about having a Travelcard. I feel all wrong without one. I occasionally go off on 3am nightbus jaunts to watch the sunrise from Westminster Bridge or eat bagels at the 24hr Jewish bagel bakery on Brick Lane.

I'm glad you did it, and this was lovely to read.

Edited at 2010-07-01 03:22 pm (UTC)
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
Glad you had such a good time.
Jul. 1st, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a lovely trip.

It is the sudden possibility of flitting that's so good, isn't it? I always feel tempted to get off at some other train station or bus stop. As someone totally unsuited to driving a car, I've never really thought of taking off in one in quite the same way.
Jul. 1st, 2010 05:06 pm (UTC)
Grrrr! Academia!

I'm glad you got out and I'm glad you drove to see Chaz. I wimped out of my academic career before it ever got started and do my best to wimp out of driving too. I'd never thought of it until I read your post, but the two are connected. If I wasn't so frit of travel, I'd probably have stuck out the academic thing a bit longer. LIke you with the marquis' fuel card, I shall mourn the loss of my Unreal University travelcard if/when I leave the London French job. It runs until September--must squeeze in a last London fling or two or three.
Jul. 1st, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC)
Probably the best excuse for a road trip ever! And why not. Sometimes we all need to have an adventure, and being able to do it when you didn't absolutely have to makes it all the better!

I sincerely hope you never need to run away!
Jul. 1st, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC)
Fascinating and in places absolutely heartbreaking.

I used to escape the loneliness and isolation of Nashville for a few hours by driving south or east or anywhere, just to be myself in my car, singing to the radio, not having to watch what I said or smile so I didn't scare people by being too serious and oh! It was freedom, it was.

These days, I find driving a dead bore, but I have nothing to run from.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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