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.