When the brakes failed at seventy miles an hour in rush hour on the M25 I didn’t panic, I calmly said the word 'no' as if in response to an incorrectly answered question. I used the gears to slow the car down and worked my way over to the inside lane, and then to the hard shoulder. I almost made it to a standstill but I ran out of road where the hard shoulder gave way to an exit. I had no choice but to take the exit, and ended up driving into the delightless Surrey town of Caterham.
I'm sure someone's going to put me right here - tell me how convenient Caterham is - just twenty minutes from all the top West End shows, the galleries, the museums - you're a mere thirty-seven minutes from the O2 Arena and there's a flower basket hanging off every lamp post - we've even got a Waitrose. But there’s a drabness and desperation to the place it’s as though most of the population are fully aware that they wouldn’t live anywhere near this place if it weren’t for its proximity to gainful employment in Central London.
I pulled up alongside a row of terraced houses on the main road heading in to Caterham. I’d actually done a tour of the town - I found that by pumping the brakes I could bring them back to some semblence of functionality - apart from one heart-stopping moment when my foot hit the floor and the traffic ahead started getting alarmingly close because I’d forgotten to pump, the car seemed to be back to normal. I didn’t mean to do a tour of the town but I figured I needed to find somewhere safe to park for a couple of hours, somewhere accessible to an AA man in a tow truck.
I saw the sign for Waitrose and naively assumed that a supermarket of that size and noteriety would have a car park (ok, I’ll admit it, I’ve been Americanised). It didn’t, so I followed signs for town centre parking and found myself driving into a multi-storey. A multi-storey car park isn’t much fun when you’re not sure of your braking power. I didn’t want to park in there because it turned out to be attached to a Morrison’s supermarket and it closed when the supermarket closed. I didn’t know how long I was likely to be there, I was facing an uncertain future.
I ended up facing the other way on the road I’d come in on, in a line of small parked cars outside a line of small terraced houses. Next to me, just the width of a Fiat Punto door away, traffic hurtled by. I studied the houses. I wondered who lived in them. I was acutely aware that even though I wasn’t in a resident parking space I was probably taking someone’s assumed space, and when they came home from work they’d have to park up the hill in a side street and unpleasantness might ensue. Parking wars. But parking wars assume a sense of community, or community spirit, and I don’t think there is any in this place. People move in, the renters, the buyers, they exist for a while, then they move out and exist somewhere else. If they were ever noticed they’re soon forgotten.
A very pregnant woman in a business suit walked past my car. She was talking on a phone. She put the key in the door of a house further up and let herself in. The neatly trimmed hedge gave this house an owner-occupied air. The one next door, the one I was parked outside looked rented - the flowerpot by the door containing a long dead plant, the discarded engine treatment oil container - they give some sort of clue. There’s a pride, or even a sense of duty that goes along with home ownership. The curtains of this one, the rented one, are drawn even though it’s only five thirty in the afternoon. Perhaps the occupant is a shift worker, maybe they’ve gone away on holiday, or left in the morning before it got light. Or the place is empty, waiting to be re-rented, to play host to some fresh misery.
These places would have been built for workmen and their families in the nineteenth century. Front room or parlour for best, dining room, small kitchen. Upstairs two bedrooms and a box room off the back. Outhouse in the back yard. Front garden for flowers, back garden for vegetables. Humble places, all a workman needed. There have been a few upgrades but has anything really changed?
We generate a lot more rubbish these days. The front gardens once so charming are filled with colour-coded wheelie bins - a brown one for garden waste, blue for recycling, black for rubbish. There was even a small green one for food waste. When I was a kid we had a round galvanised dustbin which was emptied once a week even if it wasn’t full. Newspapers were used to light the fire, bottles were refundable, food scraps were thrown into the stove that heated the house and provided hot water. There was never much cardboard becuse we never bought anything. I’m not saying it was better - our lives were austere, the house was cold, I was forever hungry and I felt guilty for eating. But there was less trash, rubbish, garbage or detritus.
I wondered what the woman up the street, the pregnant woman, was doing. I imagined she’d put her feet up - have to take it easy at that stage in a pregnancy. Perhaps they’d knocked the front room and the dining room through into one airy living space and extended the kitchen. There’s a lot you can do with a long galley kitchen ending in French doors opening onto a small patio, and a small patio would be all that remains of the back garden since the extension. She’s sitting on a white bar stool at the breakfast counter drinking herbal tea, dealing with a few emails. She’s divorced. She’s going it alone. She’s happily married to another solicitor - they’re both solicitors, and when the baby arrives there’ll be changes. By the time the time the child goes to school they’ll have relocated to Lewes.
Will the AA ever arrive?
There’s an app, an AA app, but it doesn’t work on my phone because I’m old so my phone is four years old which means it’s obsolete even though it’s a perfectly good phone and I see no reason to replace it. The AA was keeping me abreast of developments with regard to my breakdown case via regular texts which let me know every twenty minutes or so that due to the high volume of breakdowns in my area - hey, I’m your man on the ground here, I can very well understand how there could be a high volume of breakdowns around here - my recovery is going to be delayed by another ten or fifteen minutes (sad face emoticon).
The ten or fifteen minute delays were adding up, I had time to kill which is why I’d been making a detailed study of the houses and speculating on the occupants. I walked down the road to Waitrose in search of food and drink. As I was paying two young women popped their heads around the corner of the perspex screen meant to protect the cashier from the general public:
‘Do you sell party balloons?’
The woman was inches from my face.
‘Back the fuck off’ said the nice if slightly odd older gentleman.
I should become a psychopath. Perhaps I already am one.
I went in Nero’s. I think I went in there because it was open and everything else seemed to be closing. I ordered a cup of tea which came in a large mug and tasted vaguely of paprika. A long, skinny, suntanned man in a polo shirt was explaining the (apparently much misunderstood) Russian position in Ukraine to a short, rotund older man who was hanging on his every word and bemoaning the passing of Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t want to get involved, I didn’t feel anger or indignation, just mild irritation. I wished they’d shut the fuck up.
On my way back up the hill, I looked through the windows of a a ground floor flat in a brand new block. Great Opportunity! Hurry! Hurry! Last Few Remaining! The kitchen / living room / dining area looked out onto an eye-level flower bed strewn with weeds and litter, and beyond it the road, filled with angry, hurtling traffic. They’ll struggle to sell this one, but then again there’s always someone who’s desperate.
The AA van pulled up and a cheerful young man jumped out.
I couldn't help it: ‘You’ve got to get me out of this dump’ I said.
He laughed and told me he came from round here. I started to apologise but he said there was no need, he completely understood. I told him what had happened and he gave the car a thorough inspection. He couldn’t find anything wrong with it - he even asked me if I was sure I hadn’t mistakenly put my foot on the clutch instead of the brake. I tried not to be insulted - perhaps it was payback for calling his hometown a dump.
I got him to drive the car. We took it for a spin around deserted residential streets. He performed several violent emergency stops, wrangling and wrestling the steering wheel in an attempt to trick the brakes into another malfunction, but to no avail, the car behaved perfectly. In the end he told me he didn’t think it was going to happen again and advised me to either wait three hours for a tow truck or, if I was comfortable with it, to drive slowly home testing the brakes at regular intervals.
‘So what you’re saying is there’s a choice - I can either die of boredom here in Caterham or I can go out in a blaze of glory somewhere on the M25 - which will of course be your fault almost entirely.’
For a moment he looked quite shocked.
’That’s a bit harsh’ he said and we both laughed.
I drove home. The brakes were absolutely fine. I took it to the local garage, they couldn’t find anything wrong either.
I had a strange and spooky idea about this: I'd been down in Shoreham-by-Sea adressing the problem of a storage space which has been full of my late mother’s effects since before the pandemic and has been costing me a fortune. She had a lot of Ercol and G-Plan furniture of which she was very proud. When I was emptying the house I couldn’t quite bring myself to donate it all, so it went into a large and costly storage unit while we look around for buyers. The sale of the furniture would easily offset the cost of the storage unit, of course it would… And then the pandemic came along. The other day I drove down to Shoreham, called a man and van number, and in a mere forty minutes the furniture was being lovingly dusted down ready for sale at the local Emmaus and I was heading back to Norfolk.
I sort of wondered if the brake failure was my mother expressing her displeasure at the disposal of her furniture. She was never mechanically minded so it’d be like her to go too far and nearly kill me on the M25. It’s a fanciful idea, I know. She’s probably off in some ever-blossoming orchard out in the celestial heavens, dancing eternity away with my dad, and never a cross word. She doesn’t need the furniture, she’d be pleased to see it helping people who need a fresh start.