Fits and Starts: Getting to Grips with Short Drives

It has been a beautifully fantastic summer in the UK, and the autumn is proving to be just as magnificent. Huge blue skies, bright sunshine and cheerful birdsong have all set the scene for idyllic outdoor happiness.

Sky-500x375It’s been the sort of weather that most drivers must relish. During an afternoon walk, the twins and I counted five or six convertible cars cruising around our neighbourhood. Middle-aged men in driving gloves. Young tribes of mates pumping out music and laughter. Dogs enjoying the wind in their fur, ears and tongues flapping in the breeze.

Of course, we were observing this all from the safety of the footpath. My recent efforts to overcome my fear of driving have come to a standstill for a number of reasons (in some cases, excuses) and so the twins and I had found ourselves demoted to the rank of pedestrians once again.

However, despite a few set-backs, there has been some real progress.

Each of my chosen destinations had one thing in common: utterly hassle-free parking. Despite being the furthest away, the flower farm was the most appealing option because the car park was a large open field with no bays to contend with, just the odd cow-pat.

After an anticlimactic failure to start my pathetic car last month, a breakdown engineer was called to bring it back to life. He was adorned in heavily stained bright yellow overalls, reflecting his jolly yet edgy demeanour, and adopted a slight penchant for sexism.

‘You aware you got moss growing?’ he told me after a pointless examination of the car’s bodywork, given the problem was a flat battery. At first I thought he was referring to the very dead tree under which the car had been parked for so long, but I soon noticed the spread of green spores framing the car’s windows. I felt a pang of sympathy for the neglected vehicle, followed by a sting of embarrassment.

I offered to make the mechanic a cup of tea, my ‘go-to’ solution in moments of unease, and left him to his work and whistling.

£200 later, the car was now fully functioning with a brand new battery, correct pressure in the tyres and oil in the… place where the oil goes. As the mechanic drove off, I made a mental note to swat-up on basic car maintenance during all that lovely free time that I was hoping to magic out of nowhere. My free time ‘to-do’ list looks a bit like this:

  1. sleep
  2. learn basic car maintenance
  3. clean moss off car
  4. drive the bloody thing

Whilst items 1 to 3 have yet to be addressed in any real sense, item 4 has finally been put into action.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘Let’s do it.’


There is a really interesting post about driving phobia written by Anxiety Care UK that I wish I had discovered before setting off on my first drive. As well as some fascinating insight into how a driving phobia is sometimes part of a wider ‘anxiety cluster’, there is a useful list of suggested ‘self-exposure’ steps to take when tackling it, ranging from the first stage: ‘sit in the car with the engine running‘ through to the final step: ‘take a long trip on roads that you are unfamiliar with.

My own approach has been a lot more haphazard. I have had to grab the opportunities to drive as and when they arose from the pandemonium of looking after my tiny little twosome. It has involved:

  • the odd drive around the block alone, pootling along at 20mph, smiling and waving at other drivers with a shaky hand
  • a two-minute drive to the local pub with my dad and the twins (no no, there is a soft-play area and they serve tea)
  • occasionally driving to the kids’ new preschool
  • taking my mum for a slightly more chaotic 15 minute drive to a nearby flower farm for a family day out (which involved a broken down bus and a slight panic attack in someone’s driveway)

Each of my chosen destinations had one thing in common: utterly hassle-free parking. Despite being the furthest away, the flower farm was the most appealing option because the car park was an open field with no bays to contend with, just the odd cow-pat.


As well as my apparent aversion to any type of parking (I need to work on that), another unfortunate fact soon came to light. The car is horrible to drive. It is loud and revvy. The gear-stick is stiff and scrunchy. I can’t find a comfortable driving position however much I adjust the seat. The few skills that I had felt reasonably comfortable with (clutch control, turn in the road, hill starts) now all feel tricky and troublesome. None of this is conducive to keeping my stress levels in check behind the wheel.

I long for the quieter, smoother ride of my driving instructor’s car in which I launched myself up and down the motorway back in the spring – a brief (if a little turbulent) romance that gave me a taste of life in a pretty new car.

My current feelings about my own car are like those you might experience in a new relationship when you suddenly suspect that you may be totally wrong for each other. Faced with the decision about whether to call it quits or to persevere (just in case some of the annoying little things become more bearable over time), you tolerate each outing together in a state of low-level confusion and slight resentment.

And so, I find myself less and less inclined to take this dumpy little car out for a drive. My husband drives it more than me now, despite agreeing with me about the controls but clearly giving less of a toss about that sort of thing.

Perhaps it’s time to clean off the moss and give the car a good wash and polish. A bit of grooming and pampering may help me learn to like the scrappy old thing and strengthen our bond.

I suspect driving through a car-wash would feel like a ride in the house of horrors, so I’m off to buy a new bucket and some extra j-cloths.

Lone Driver: Life After Refresher Lessons

‘You either take a (BEEP) or get off the toilet,’ my sister told me on the phone. We had been discussing my recent refresher lessons, my neglected car and whether I could bite the bullet and drive it just once around the block.

I knew it was time. I had just returned from the supermarket with another puncture in one of the buggy’s tyres and, with two growing twins and a load of shopping, it had taken a gargantuan effort to push it home. The wind was against me as I walked along the main road, leaning into the side of the buggy so that it didn’t veer off the pavement. I could almost hear the pity coming from every vehicle that drove past us, as if they were gossiping about me in a secret automobile language.

When we finally got home, I was ready to collapse. My little Polo was waiting for us under the tree, with a fresh blob of bird poo on its roof and a collection of dead leaves around each of its wheels.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘Not now. Buggy’s blown a tyre.’


I had taken five refresher lessons in the end. The cocksure part of my character had imagined (or, perhaps, hoped) that I would only need three, but my instructor and I decided to go heavy on the motorway driving to try and conquer my slip-road discombobulations. During my last lesson, I must have joined the motorway a dozen times, coming off at each exit so that I could turn round and practise joining it again. I wouldn’t have managed this alone or with a friend or relative. My instructor, Stephanie, was great at giving me emotional space and, more importantly, clear directions.

The story goes that it takes 21 days to break a habit. I only had a one-hour lesson to convince my brain that motorway driving was nothing to be afraid of. Whilst I had no idea whether I was heading north or south, joining the motorway did begin to feel a little less terrifying. But let’s not get carried away; a low-level residual panic could still throw my gear-logic out the window every time I fretfully fumbled my way into the flow of motorway traffic.

Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities, and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick.

I didn’t expect to feel ready to pack a bag and embark on a road trip up to Scotland but, after the final exhausting lesson, it did occur to me that the time we had spent driving back and forth between two motorway junctions could have been spent driving to my sister’s house or even half way to the coast.

Surely I could take my own car out for a drive around the block?

twins 2-400x267twins 3-400x267

A few days later, on a bright Sunday afternoon, I picked up my cars keys and casually told my husband that I was going for a drive. He was busy in the garden watching the twins as they frantically threw themselves (and each other) down the slide. He must not have heard me properly over the squeals of joy and screaming tantrums, because he just said ‘OK’ before rushing to moderate a very heated disagreement about the correct direction of slide-traffic.

As I left the house, feeling jittery and tense, I could hear the garden dispute escalating into hysterics. I opened the car door and sat at the wheel, regaining my composure by humming a song from ‘Moana’ (the kid’s current favourite movie).

Once I had closed the door and fastened my seat belt, it was just me and the stillness of the car. I took a deep breath and, grinning at my sheer gritty determination to get going, I turned the key in the ignition.

It was therefore a huge disappointment, but perhaps also a slight relief, when the engine failed to start. Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick. But I’m no fool – I knew it was the battery. It was as flat as the buggy’s tyre and my now deflated mood.

And so I returned to the house, immediately gravitating towards the kettle and adopting my wistful pose at the kitchen window. It was only then that I noticed the tree, under which the car had remained parked for so long, had completely and utterly died. Perhaps the car’s neglect had spread to its roots and it had tragically failed to bud into life, just like the devastating darkness that spread across the ocean and infected the coconut groves on Moana’s island village after the heart of Te Fiti was stolen by Maui (I might have seen it too many times).

And so, as the kettle gently simmered, I began to channel my inner Moana and thought it could be an appropriate moment to break out into a stirring song about triumph in adversity, overcoming self-doubt and set-backs. After all, what she wanted most in life was to be a voyager (yes, I’ve definitely seen it too many times).

But instead I made a cup of tea and looked up the number of the breakdown service.