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Clare Mackintosh: One careful driver

PUBLISHED: 10:30 25 May 2018

‘Madonna is back on the stereo, but this time around I’m taking no chances’

It’s fair to say that driving isn’t my strong point. Looking back, the signs were there early on, when I failed my test after hitting a lorry as I turned out of the test centre. “Would you like to carry on with the test?” the examiner said. “Is there any point?” I asked. There wasn’t.

I did eventually pass; a year later, when the time of my test coincided with a rush hour so congested I was taken out on the open roads, where there were no roundabouts, no traffic lights, no lanes. I loved driving, back then. I remember that first solo trip, in my mother’s Metro, laughing out loud with the windows down and Madonna’s Vogue on the cassette player.

My parents were generous with their cars, and with the petrol to fill them (no doubt relieved to no longer be ferrying my sisters and me to parties and pubs) and I didn’t buy a car of my own until I went to university. I can’t say I loved that Vauxhall Nova, but I loved what it allowed me to do. Just before I graduated, I wrote it off in crawling traffic on the M25, in a disappointingly undramatic bump which didn’t leave a mark on the Range Rover in front of me, but sent my 15-year-old Nova to the scrapyard. I needed a new car, and I knew exactly what I wanted.

I’d had a boyfriend who drove a light blue MG Midget: the boyfriend hadn’t lasted, but the Midget had lingered in my heart. I found one in the small ads, drove it away feeling happier than I’d ever felt behind a wheel. Primrose yellow, chrome-bumpered, and almost a decade older than I was, she was everything I wanted in a car. I put the roof down whenever it wasn’t raining (and sometimes when it was), and loved the waves from other MG drivers; the tacit permission it gave for conversations with strangers. I broke down a lot, but I didn’t care. I did care, when I pulled out at a roundabout too late to avoid the car I had thought was turning off. The bump cracked their headlight; it wrote off my beloved Midget. Undeterred, I bought the car back as scrap, and had it rebuilt. We were back on the road.

Later, when a joint mortgage brought an end to selfish spending, my parents bought a half share in the Midget, slowing the rust by keeping it in the garage, and gradually paying for more and more, until I could hardly pretend it was mine. We (they) had her resprayed British Racing Green, and had tan leather seats fitted. My dad and I took her to Le Mans, limping back on the ferry with a broken handbrake and an exhaust belching black fumes in our wake. She still lives in my parent’s garage, and I harbour secret hopes of seeing my own children behind her wheel.

In the meantime, I needed something more reliable. I bought a Smart car and managed not to write it off, but only because I swapped cars one day with my husband-to-be, and wrote off his instead, overshooting a T-junction and landing in a ditch in a cloud of airbag smoke. “It’s just metal,” my fiancé shrugged, relieved I was unhurt, and stoical about the loss of his car.

Rather than getting better at driving, I seemed to be getting worse. Attending a burglary-in-progress in a marked police car, I released my seatbelt as the village grew near, to facilitate a swift exit. I remember the shock of a humpback bridge I didn’t know was there, and the feeling of space between tarmac and tyres, and then… nothing. I was lucky. So very lucky. The crash shook me up, but it also woke me up. I was finally driving carefully.

As our family expanded, so did my cars. A Renault Scenic was replaced by a hideous orange Ford Galaxy, the only vehicle big enough to squeeze in three car seats, a triple buggy and a dog. My laugh-out-loud, Madonna-playing, open-road days belonged to someone else, and I secretly dreaded any journey longer than 20 minutes. The whingeing, the are-we-there-yets, the raisins and breadsticks and all-too-frequent vomiting… For 10 years, driving was a chore, a punishment, a necessary evil. And then last Christmas my husband presented me with the key to a cappuccino Fiat 500, parked around the corner. No car seats, no muddy boots, no wellies or buggies or armfuls of shopping. No roof rack for bikes. Just me, in a dinky car with bags of personality, and cheery waves from other Fiat 500 fans. Madonna on the stereo, the window down, and the biggest smile on my face. I’ve finally fallen in love with cars again – and this time, I’m driving carefully.

Clare’s third novel Let Me Lie, published by Sphere, is out on March 8.

For more information or more from Clare Mackintosh, visit her website or follow her on Twitter! @claremackint0sh

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