There are times when it’s obviously a bad idea to get behind the wheels of a car. After drinking or taking drugs, obviously, or when you’re jet-lagged or you’ve got to take a call. Or, ideally, if you’ve got squabbling children with you (especially as today’s kids have never seen the episode of Brookside where backseat bickering led to the children flying through the car windscreen in a crash). Or if you’ve got small children who want you to retrieve things they’ve dropped from the floor of the backseat whilst you’re doing 60mph on the bypass. Although at least children today are restrained in the back, so they don’t go flying from the back of the car because they’ve decided to open the back door whilst going round a corner like my sister did when she was little. (Luckily my mum hadn’t yet left our estate so was only doing about 15mph, so my sister just managed to stay in the car -just). Or, if you’re 5 and 7 and you’ve been left in the car whilst your mum pops into the post office. (Although, again, parenting styles were very different back in the 80s – nowadays you get condemned by Netmums posters if you admit that you let your children out of sight EVER, let alone with access to a steering wheel and handbrake!)
But I finally think I shouldn’t be behind the wheel when I’m with a particular friend of mine and we’re on our way to a Strictly event. We’re still not sure how we managed to escape imminent death on the way to a dance weekend in Manchester. The A17 to Sleaford is a road of evil anyway. Mile after mile of single-carriageway where you’re trapped behind lorry, tractor or caravan at every point. People become reckless in a bid to get caught behind the next slow-moving vehicle. And so it was we came around a corner to be confronted with an on-coming car on our side of the road and nowhere to go. My friend closed her eyes and adopted the brace position. Behind the wheel, I closed my eyes and ducked. We both breathed in. And the car must have breathed in too as the next thing we knew we weren’t dead or mangled in wreckage and the on-coming car was just a blip in my rear-view mirror.
Nottingham in particular wants us dead though. It’s not a city I’ve ever loved driving in. The first time we found ourselves driving around what was clearly the Red Light District. No way were we stopping for directions! So I armed us with a sat-nav for our next visit. It didn’t help. The sat-nav advised that we take a right-hand turn followed by a left, so I duly did. Suddenly there was no traffic, but we appeared to be following a set of tracks. My friend turned pale. We were clearly on the tramline!
‘It’s ok, there’s a car parked up there,’ I tried to reassure her. So I carried on driving. We came up to the car. A big sign on the car declared it to be belonging to the tram company. We clearly shouldn’t be where we were, but there was no visible way out.
Then, suddenly from my friend: ‘TRAAAAAAAAM!!!!’ Two headlights heading towards us! ‘AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHHHH!!!’ My friend closed her eyes and adopted the brace position. I think I must have closed my eyes too as I didn’t register the look on the tram driver’s face.
Fortunately trams ride on the same side of the road as cars, so it sailed past us. Yet I was shaking by now, worried that we might find ourselves with a second tram coming up behind us.
Luckily another minute or so later we came to a crossroads that gave us access to a proper road once more. Unfortunately it was teeming with people crossing the road, completely unaware of the car on the tram tracks with the two panic-stricken women inside. ‘GET OUT THE WAY! GET OUT THE WAY!!!’ still rings in my ears when I think back to it.
This year we thought we’d outsmart Nottingham and managed to wangle a lift with my friend’s aunt into the city centre. But still Nottingham wanted its revenge. We got lost in Grantham on the way down, which seemed to be built on a time vortex, costing us half an hour that we could ill afford. And Nottingham punished us with a long wait in freezing rain after the show as the aunt got caught in a traffic snarl-up. Still, frozen fingers and hair frizz was a fair trade-off for not being involved in any more city centre misadventures. How smug we were.
It didn’t mean we were safe though. We still had a good 2-hour journey ahead of us and we were in high spirits from the proximity of so much dancing and so many sequins. The conversation flowed and we laughed a lot. Until we missed a direction from the sat-nav and missed our turn.
‘It’s ok, there’s another turn coming up, although it looks like a bit of a B-road,’ I said. To call it a minor road would be to give it an upgrade. It didn’t take long to realise we were on a dirt track, but with ditches to both sides of the single track, much like our tram encounter, there was little we could do but carry on.
The track got narrower and bumpier. Rain pelted onto my windscreen, my wipers leaving a smear of muddy water across my line of vision. We drove through puddles that splashed up one side of the car then the other. Even with my headlights on full beam it was hard to see where the track was leading. Then suddenly a pool of water completely across our path. But I spotted it too late – a tidal wave of water completely covered the front of the car from roof to tyre. My friend closed her eyes and adopted the brace position. I slammed on my brakes and let the water trickle back down, praying the engine wouldn’t flood.
Still no sign of the road we needed to be on. Or of anything that could be called a road at all. We drove on. A clutch of houses, completely isolated by darkness. ‘Swamp people,’ my friend squeaked. ‘We’re going to break down and end up in someone’s freezer.’
Still the track wound on, more puddles, more darkness, more rain, visions of the swamp people firing up their chainsaws and tracking us down with their heightened sense of smell (and the fact there was nowhere else for us to go). Please don’t break down. Please don’t break down.
Never before have I been so glad to turn onto the A17! Give me a lorry over an imaginary disturbed swamp person any day. Relief as I dropped my friend at her door.
‘It wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have some sort of adventure,’ she said. No. But how about next time we see if we can go by coach? After all, the swamp people have our scent now and will be waiting for us.