Last Saturday I didn’t drive my mom to Brean. It’s near Weston-super-Mare and we didn’t go but we’ve been before. It’s where my family often went on holiday and we’ve talked about going back for a look. We had a good go, too. She brought a deckchair, I bought Arthur C Clarke’s novel Rendezvous with Rama.
Not just the novel but the specific edition, the specific paperback, the actual book I’d bought from Allen Stores, Brean, when I was a kid. Every time I’ve picked that book up off my shelves in the years since, I’ve remembered stepping out of that shop near the beach, holding this novel that would become so familiar. The now familiar sense of wonder that this science fiction novel gave me then; the now familiar sense of wonder as a writer at how Clarke was limited in his schoolboy prose.
Allen Stores has a similar split in my head. I can see it from an my adult self’s outsider perspective but I can feel it as a child. I have an image of a very small, very precise L-shaped section of the way out of the store, the slight touch of sand on the paving stones, the little sticks with plastic windmills, the warmth in every sense.
Grief. Just saying this to you, just reaching back into that time, I remember this. There was a spot near the beach where the top edges of a hollow in the sand were circled by bushes or something. This circle had grown over into a canopy so that the hollow was like a cave. A perfect den for a boy. Perfect enough that I ran back to it one summer.
Ran back to it, ran into it and found other boys there.
A group of them, younger than me, startled into statues by my booming into my private, secret, hidden den. I went into that den the boy I’d been the previous summer but it was like pressing through a membrane, I popped into the inside, I saw the boys, I saw they were younger than me, and saw that this meant I was older. I aged in that moment.
I didn’t stop, didn’t pause, didn’t slow down. Straight in one side of the bushes like last year’s boy, through the membrane and out the other side like this year’s older one. I grew up in that space, in that moment, and I don’t know what happened next. Maybe that was the summer I went on to the shop and read books.
Allen Stores is not there any more and neither are we. Because in all the years of growing up since then, I don’t seem to have grasped the idea of traffic. We drove from Birmingham toward Brean and after about five hours, we drove back again. The only possible Dear Diary entries are that we stopped at two service stations for a break and then lunch.
The thing is, I had a really good time driving nowhere. And I have done before.
I’ve been flashing back to childhood; let me flashback to sometime more recent. And to somewhere closer. Nottingham.
I’m hazy again about details so I can’t remember for certain whether Angela and I were yet going out or not. It was definitely very early on if we were. And I was very definitely trying to impress her, though that continues to this day. Again, not a clue what we were doing but I think we were going to some show in Nottingham, maybe a meal. Something that I somehow thought she would like and that through extension she’d like me.
Maybe I’d remember what it was if we’d ever got there.
It wasn’t traffic this time, it was navigation. I was driving and then I was driving and driving and driving. We spent the entire evening driving from Birmingham to Nottingham or really to around and around and around Nottingham. I have no idea why it was such a confusing route to me, except that I guess that’s a lie.
For we might be driving, Angela and I, my mom and I, but what’s really happening is that we’re talking. I’m listening. There’s a line in a Jason Bourne film, of all things, where a character mentions that listening to someone talk while you’re driving is relaxing. It’s more than that for me. It’s a cocoon. Clearly it doesn’t matter to me whether we get where we’re going or I’d have got out a map of Nottingham, I’d have insisted we set out earlier to beat the Brean traffic.
I’m tempted to say that it’s like having a spotlight on your passenger, except that feels too harsh, too glaring, too interrogating. Maybe it’s that your passenger has a stage. We don’t get long conversations any more. I have a lot of coffee meetings and deeply enjoy facing someone as we talk but there is something different about in a car. Side by side, both facing forward. Both accepting the fact that this is going to be a long journey so we might as well relax into it.
When I’m on my own I need BBC Radio 4 or I need Apple Music, only occasionally do I need silence. When someone’s with me, someone special, I need them.
I’ve no idea how my passenger feels. My mom says she had a good time. And Angela didn’t complain plus, reader, I married her. So hopefully it’s a shared thing and not just something important to me.
But there is a lesson to be learned here, clearly.
Never get a lift from a writer.