The mystery of cars

Just a little car spotted whilst walking the via francigena through Tuscany the other week...
Just a little car spotted whilst walking the Via Francigena through Tuscany the other week…

I’ve learnt more about cars since I scrapped my car than I did in the eight years I drove it. My mechanical skills consisted of replacing the headlight bulbs (the mechanic who spotted that I was driving around with one upside down has to be credited for his non-patronising tone when he told me he’d just popped it in the other way up) and switching from my dead tyre to my spare tyre – yeah my car was old enough for a big spare tyre. Okay, I admit, the whole thing with the tyre I had step-by-step instructions from a kindly chap who also tightened everything up at the end.

I replaced the window wipers once, I think. I guess that’s something.

Everyone has some sort of limit defining their relationship with their car. I’ve known people who didn’t do motorways or who thought it was a huge undertaking for me to drive the five hours home to my parents. And yes, I guess the M1 can be a bit of an undertaking on a Friday afternoon. I know I’d rather pick any other day of the week.

But then there’s that chap I was coaching Business English with in Poland. He had a meeting in London, so he drove. And there was a man I met in a hostel in Brussels, he was driving home to Italy, from visiting his family in Finland. Normally he flies, but he fancied a little variety this time and he was about to scrap the car anyway.

My car was always a mystery to me

It would be serviced and occasionally someone would tell me that the timing belt or some other oddly named component needed changing and I’d nod and tap my pin into the card reader when the time came. I developed a loyalty to the garage I found with a matriarchal power structure and the politely non-patronising mechanic. The receptionist made me feel that she would look after me and my car and so I trusted her.

And I drove my little car across the alps, praying that the brakes wouldn’t overheat as I dropped through hairpin turn after hairpin turn. I drove it through the solid sheets of rain in Denmark, where the window wipers flicked back and forth, helplessly.

I drove it around the policeman, stood in the middle of what might once had been a road but was now more a space between buildings lined with debris and odd moments of lonely tarmac, between Naples and its port. Do not drive in Naples everyone said. A large group of teenagers pointed and laughed when I had to do a three-point turn. The policeman was holding a baby.

And yet my car scared me

I’m finding that my beliefs regarding my incompetence with cars is not actually founded on anything useful. Rather than I haven’t done this yet, been taught this yet, googled it or read a book on it, I was more of the mind frame that it was just too complex.

And, yes, it is complex. But so is life. Incompetence is a great defence, allowing you to sidle out of responsibility. However, I don’t want to be defined by my incompetence. I want to be defined by what I do, what I learn and how I engage with life.

This isn’t just with respect to cars

I’m discovering I’ve got all sorts of funny beliefs that I have never truly questioned. But with cars it’s obvious. I have spent years telling myself that I don’t know about cars because cars are not my thing.

But then someone comes along, and they don’t want you to do much, but could you press the brake pedal a few times whilst they bleed the brakes. And pressing the brake pedal isn’t so tricky, so you do it. Or they need to swap out their exhaust, and before you know it you’re lying on the damp ground beneath a car with black fingers and the knowledge of which piece of car connects to which.

Slowly your vocabulary grows, and the car just becomes an assembly of bits of oddly-shaped, particularly-named metal. The basic mechanics seem obvious and the fear that you once had about something randomly going bang dissipates.

Now at least I know I would check before putting in a headlight bulb.

“She doesn’t binge.”

By Posted on Location: 1min read

I step into the living room where the Blacksmith and the Midget are watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m red faced, you can probably hear my breathing from the sofa, and I’m wearing running shorts and a top I was kindly given after running 10km a few years ago.

“How far did you get?” the Blacksmith asks.

“5.8.”

There’s a moment of thought, and then he beams and starts excitedly saying how I’m getting to a good bit. I’m thinking 5.8km isn’t that impressive, especially since he knows how long I’ve been out since he passed me in the car as I was running up the hill. I look at the Midget.

My sister, always the chemist, corrects my absent units by clarifying that the Blacksmith is talking about seasons and episodes and I’m talking about kilometres.

“Oh, Buffy? I’m still on the second season.”

The Blacksmith looks surprised, confused and disappointed.

Despondently, the Midget explains: “She doesn’t binge.”

It comes across in a tone that suggests that there’s something alien about me, something terribly dysfunctional about me. The Blacksmith looks at me and back at the Midget as if wondering if the two of us are related.

“No, I don’t,” I say, contemplating that there was that one time when the Midget and I watched four episodes of Star Trek back to back…

What the weather ‘should be’ according to The Mother

weather
The weather in Poland last week was everything from bright, burning sunshine, to torrential rain, to thick opaque fog.

There’s a little sun outside, enough to make the Crookes Radiometer twirl gently, but not enough to make it whizz.

“This is not right. It should be rain this afternoon. Light drizzle.” And with that final statement on the weather the Mother strides off down the corridor to go and consult her tablet, her computer or her phone on the matter.

It should not be that the weather forecast is wrong. But it is wrong and this bothers the Mother. I don’t mind, I contemplate a walk.

Yesterday it rained all day. When we sat down for lunch the Mother stated that she knew it would be rain all today and a miserable (weather wise) bank holiday Monday. Naively, for I should know better than to argue with the Mother about the weather, I asked how she’d known.

And of course this isn’t random guessing, this is the Mother. I have no doubt that the Mother is more knowledgeable about the weather than me. The weather is linked directly to the complex ordeal of the laundry, and the two of them, the weather and the laundry, are like ancient Greek gods in their eternal battle, with the Mother making impossible things happen in the midst of their chaos. Of course the Mother has understanding I don’t.

But when she replies, her answer makes no sense.

“I knew it would be a miserable day, because last week it was forecast to be glorious sunshine all weekend, right through to today.”

Now I wouldn’t be one to judge, but personally, I think there’s too much reliance on weather apps and not enough stepping outside, looking up at the sky, feeling the humidity on your face, and if you think it might perhaps rain, perhaps pocketing an umbrella.

You know, the old fashioned way.

Speed isn’t everything (a Little Mermaid story)

Running with the Little Mermaid
Illustration by the Little Mermaid.

Normally, when I go out for a run, I get a few looks of encouragement and support. Today, although it was my normal route, I suffered looks of pity instead.

It wasn’t that I had injured myself, or that I was running badly. The heavy breathing and pink cheeks are typical for me after running up the hill. If anything, I was moving faster than normal.

And it wasn’t like yesterday, where a class of French school children all wanted to pass along the narrow path and through the little gate into the church cemetery at the same moment as me. Their French accents as they apologised and got out of the way were all very sweet, but not at all pitying.

No, the pitying came because of the comparison

Today wasn’t a case of running along by myself looking brave against the backdrop of the Bronte’s moors. No, a light-footed young lady had darted past, most elegantly, moments before. Dressed in sleek black lycra – rather than an old second-hand hoodie – and running up the steep cobbles like they were a flat, freshly lain road, she was impressive.

The girl in question is my Little Mermaid

My cousin is half my age and it appears, twice as fast. She’s not yet as tall as me, but we share a shoe size and some genetic wonders that mean we both run with our feet pointing inward. She’s got better shoes and more experience racing than I have.

From her, I learn stretches that are particularly suited to my body and our shared inheritance. The Short Aunty joins in, proving that her legs bend in strange ways too.

However, the Little Mermaid is still categorised as a child

Even if she’s considerably taller than her mother, Short Aunty. For her age category, cross country racing is limited to 3 km. Although she also does 5km park runs – and her times are a good few minutes quicker than my own. Even so, her park run is somewhat flatter than my great hills and so she lacks practice on longer 5.7km runs with a 167m elevation gain.

Whereas I specialise in slowly running uphill

It started when I lived in a mountain village in northern Spain. Whilst my friends there would complain about how far away the beach was and how much effort it would take to go down the hill and run along the beautiful flat stretch beside the beach, I ran up.

And once I was back in Yorkshire, living in the bottom of a valley where the only way to go was up, I found myself running up more.

I’ve got experience of up.

And yet, without a doubt, the Little Mermaid beat me up the hill

She was impressively quick. She jogged on the spot as she waited for me to catch up. I gulped down air and shouted left and up, or right and up, as the next direction. We passed through the gate where the French school children had caused the delay the day before, and she darted ahead.

She skittered around a group of tourists going out for a walk on the moors, maps and rucksacks to hand. They apologized for getting in the way.

“No, it’s good, you hold her up,” I said laboriously.

“You should have shouted earlier!”

“Couldn’t.”

The Little Mermaid paused at the top of that bit of hill. I pointed to the highest point on the moor, and she set off again. The rough terrain had no effect.

Little Mermaid 1 : Aged Cousin 0

We carried on running. I pointed out the route and she sprinted off. I didn’t bother trying to keep up. Undoubtedly, I was running quick. When you’ve got someone to compared yourself to, and they’re making you look slow and out of shape, it’s an incentive to move your arse.

But then something funny happened

We reached the 3km mark. At this point in a run, I’ve warmed up. We’re on the moor which is gorgeous, the big open landscape is my landscape. This is home and it feels good. The Little Mermaid’s quick pace means I’m flying along, and since we’ve passed the top, we’re now running a gradual down. I know these paths, they’re all familiar to me. I feel surprisingly fresh.

We pass the same group of walkers, who in a jolly show of friendliness leap out at the Little Mermaid who’s still far ahead of me, pretending to slow her down. I tell them that they failed.

“It’ll do you good” one of the chaps calls as I run past.

He’s right of course. It is doing me good.

The Little Mermaid however has passed the point where she’d normally stop

She’s thinking about a glass of water, a sit down, a quiet stretch, a shower and something nice to eat as a reward for her hard work. However, she’s still got 2.7km to run.

She slows, and we run side by side for a while, then she’s running behind me.

“Can we pause at the next bench?”

I agree. My sister, the Midget, is always too proud to ask for a pause – she just bad mouths me when we run instead. Speaking out when you’re reaching your limits is a sign of strength.

I take off my hoodie and re-do my pony tail. My hair bobble snaps.

Which is annoying

But what’s also annoying is that I’m suddenly in the rhythm of things and we’re now heading downwards very slowly. We almost amble through the village. At the top of our road, the Little Mermaid decides that I should go on ahead. We can meet at the bottom.

Little Mermaid 1 : Aged Cousin 1

The tortoise wins.

Swallows and Amazons

Swallows

Today I went to church. This isn’t a usual event for me. It’s not even a usual event for me on Christmas Eve, although I do admit I attended church the last time I celebrated Christmas Eve: an orthodox church on 5th January in Egypt.

But today’s church trip wasn’t for religious reasons, or for learning about a different culture. It was to watch Swallows and Amazons.

You see, we live in a rather adorable village where the local church doubles up as a cinema twice a month. From my pew (not as uncomfortable as I’d imagined), I drank my mug of proper coffee and instead of endless adverts watched a short film of a slightly edited Christmas song led by one of my favourite Yorkshire men. Afterwards my midget sister leant forward, looked down the pew and asked if I’d found it funny.

Then they served ice-cream.

Then we watched the film.

No messing. No excessive advertising. Just two boats, six children and a holiday of play.

And although I woke up this morning in the sort of mood that would make Father Christmas think twice before giving me any presents, I laughed. It’s a beautiful film and a gorgeous story. If you’re a British kid like me, then I do hope you’ve read Swallows and Amazons. If you haven’t, you should. It was probably one of the stories that started me drawing maps. Combined with the Famous Five, it was the source material for numerous games I played with the Midget.

But more than that, I also have a great respect for the film’s setting, the Lake District. The film was a reminder, on a bittersweet day, that amid that landscape, the important thing is let the wind take your sails, call out and play.

On mowing the lawn

24/08/2016

Feeling brave, I took the lawn mower for a spin around the garden. Typically, it’s not me who cuts the family lawns, however it was sunny, the grass had got a little shaggy and everyone else was busy or physically unable.

The current lawnmower is petrol powered. My previous experience with such machines has not instilled me with confidence. I often can’t get the thing to start. Historically, I’ve been embarrased by lawn mowers which start first time, every time, for the Midget and never for me. With this newer lawn mower I’m having a little more luck.

I managed a loop of orchard before things started going a little strange. The machine’s growl seemed to deepen and a trail of cut grass remained on the grass behind me. It should have been scooped up. I stopped and checked if it was full. It wasn’t. I went to start it again. But of course, this time it didn’t start. The cord slipped and pinged back to the machine. From here it takes an especially hard tug to get it back to the right place. The first time this happened to me I panicked thinking I’d destroyed it. Mid tug, a cheerful chap chirped up from behind the garden wall:

“You having difficulty starting it love?”

He caught me off guard. I laughed to cover my embarrassment and told him something incoherent about it requiring some strength. I tried to start it again. Success.

But the problem of the grass being left on the lawn and the dodgy sound hadn’t been solved. I walked along a little more. Then concluded that I needed a second opinion. I stopped again and glanced up. The man and his rambling companions were still peering down over the garden wall. Knowing they’d seen me walk only a few metres with the lawn mower, I was further embarrassed.

I started to cross the garden when the chap called out again, his cheerfulness matched the bright sunshine, but was at odds with my own feelings of failure and inadequacy. He asked a simple question about the local area. If I’d stopped and thought I’d have been able to advise him correctly, but, as it was, my mind was overwhelmed with emotion. Flustered, I told him the wrong answer (the answer he was looking for). He and his delighted companions continued their trek.

Of course, the Mother was stood watching the whole performance from the patio. Still feeling hot in the cheeks, I explained my failure to understand the lawn mower and the two of us headed inside to ask the Father for help.

He, of course, fixed the machine in a matter of seconds.