More than just a car

Who’d have thought I would become attached to a car?

People do, I know. But I’ve never been someone who cared much for cars. I love them only in terms of design and colour, but as a means of transport, I prefer trains or bikes every time. But cars rule the society we live in and most of us have at least one during our adult lives and, as soon as Dave and I started a family 14 years ago, we adhered to the status quo, we got a car.

It was a white Volkswagen Golf that we bought from Dave’s brother. Of course, when we bought it to get to and from all the hospital appointments, nobody warned us that a three-door car might be tricky for lifting a carseat full of baby in and out. We soon found out for ourselves, and we just got on with it. (I learned that people had neglected to teach us quite a lot of important life lessons, when I had our first baby, but that might be a different blog).

Within months of having a baby, Dave’s company started to go belly up in the dotcom crash and we decided to leave our heady Hackney highlife for the sound of the suburbs in leafy Cambridge, which is where the Golf finally gave up the ghost.

We didn’t bother getting a replacement car for a while. Cambridge was flat and as cycle-friendly a place as we’d ever experienced outside the Netherlands, so we just cycled everywhere. We cycled with a new baby all over town trying to find our next home.

It was knackering. But memorable.

Then when we’d been exposed to the harsh winter winds that blow directly over to East Anglia from Siberia, we caved in and bought our second car. We didn’t have a clue what anyone was talking about apart from mileage, so we did the sensible thing and got a Vauxhall estate from a dealership. It carried Reid and then our second baby, Madeleine all over the place. Its rear door provided shelter from the rain when our tent could not, and camping suppers were cooked in its boot.

It broke down repeatedly, though, and when I got pregnant for a third time, we knew the time had come to buy a people carrier. Two of my brothers had them for their families of four; they were the modern equivalent of the Ford Transit van that we had all grown up with as our family car. (Not many people had a 12-seater Ford Transit for a family car, but not many people grew up setting the tea table for nine on a regular basis either.)

It was my brother, Peter, who came to the rescue as we began the tedious task of researching our next transport. He was about to buy a new car with the help of his father-in-law, Stan. Rather than trade in his old one, a Citroen Synergie, for the £4k they suggested, he sold it to us instead.

It was never much of a snag that he lived in Somerset and we lived in Cambridgeshire. We just picked a halfway point to meet and do the exchange. Funny. We found a date and stuck a pin in the map and a couple of months later we all headed to Waddesdon, Lord Rothschild’s former home.

By the time we made the journey, I had miscarried our third child at 11 weeks. My mind was jumbled with thoughts of whether the vast emptiness of this 7-seater was actually over-optimistic, whether we deserved another baby (people who have suffered the grief of miscarriage will appreciate this); whether this car was really going to be necessary after all.

We drove back in convoy: me in the old Vauxhall, Dave in our new van. In my heightened state of hormone-addled anxiety (What if I lost Dave? I didn’t know the way home. Had we done the right thing?) I jumped a red light to keep up with Dave and was issued with a fine. Was it another warning I chose to ignore and so was being punished? I read too much into everything. (Just so we’re clear, I’m agnostic, so when I get into this idea of *deserving* another baby or of being warned, it’s not any notion of a God I’m talking about; it’s just a desperate desire to understand the inexplicable, undiagnosable fact of miscarriage)

Not long afterwards, my Dad died. September 23rd 2005.

My world felt like it was imploding. I felt like I was imploding. When I try to remember family life from that time, there is nothing there. Only snapshots in my memory of the people who gave me solace. My friend Jill appearing outside my kitchen window and her soft expression made me crumple up. The letter from my most amazing Dutch friend, Will, so wise and calm telling me that time would heal, that the first year would be the worst, the first birthday I celebrated without Dad, the first Christmas without Dad. It really helped me to have Will there beside me guiding me through the stages of grief. I don’t think I ever told him how much that meant to me. Last year he died too.

I remember being told: “Don’t try to fill the gap this death has left. There is a huge hole in your life, but don’t try to cover it up; acknowledge that emptiness and live with the presence of that.” The people we love leave our lives and we take their memories and words with us. New people come into our lives and plant the seeds of new love and the pain of grief diminishes. Life moves on.

The new car ran like a dream. The children loved it. And by the time it first took us on one of our camping adventures the following summer I was seven months pregnant and measured 44 inches around. Life was fun.

And a lot of the fun was had with that new car. It was part of the family. A companion with not one sun roof, but two! The kids would stand on the middle seats and stick their heads through the top, as if they were on safari. The two front seats revolved 180 degrees so when unexpected rain scuppered a picnic plan, sitting in the car became just as much fun, because we could all sit facing one another. We got very strange looks from others when did this with a chip supper. Other people might opt to eat in when it is chucking it down with rain, but not us. We drove to the seafront, turn the seats round and unwrapped all the papers on our laps, steaming up the windows and stinking the car out.

Yes. That car was well loved and well used.

It was the vehicle of choice when we shared trips to Ikea with friends (other flat pack furniture shops are available). All five back seats were lifted out and our family became a removal truck. It suffered undignified trips to the dump; trips to and from the allotment. Bikes were strapped to its back and it was packed to the rafters for family camping trips all over Europe.

But our carefree approach to car-ownership eventually took its toll. Its interior was being held together with gaffer tape. The glove compartment didn’t close properly, so its light was permanently on. It always leaked so every time it rained, one of the seat belts was always drenched. The interior locking had gone, one of the doors didn’t work and last time we drove it, the handbrake suddenly gave up the ghost.

Yes it was getting beyond Bagpuss baggy-at-the-seams stage really; it had to go. And I’m sure I will grow to like the replacement eventually. It’s just taken me by surprise how many memories have come flooding back because of that car.