Today was a day I gave myself a few months ago. I booked something I really, really wanted to do. It was something for myself and I kept it secret, because I was frightened that other people would think it was silly. And it was something that I knew would take me nearer to a place I want to be. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell anyone. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to go through with it; I was scared that something would happen to stop me going; I was just plain scared, because it was a scary thing.
I sort of hoped something would happen at the last minute to stop me; it often does. But the children all went to school on time. There was no illness, nor any games kit or homework behind, and the car started first time. I gave myself an hour and a quarter for a twenty minute journey – you know, just in case – and pulled into the multi-storey with three quarters of an hour to spare. I felt calm and ready to face the demons that I knew were waiting. One of the reasons I needed to do this thing was to stop the bloody demons from ambushing me; knowing they were there, and knowing that I was making an active choice to engage with them, was a strangely empowering thing.
And so I drove around the ground floor of the multi-storey, and the first floor, and the second. Every space was full, but I still had a great deal of time. By the fifth floor, I could feel anxiety nibbling at the edges of my equilibrium. It was fine, though; there are always, always spaces on the very top floor, the one that’s open to the elements and only accessible by the stairs. Except that this time, there were none. Not one. Time was running out, and I began to make bargains with God. If you’re there, make someone leave. If you’re there, give me a space, and I’ll stop doubting. Sure enough, I saw a gap, and was moving into it when I saw that there was a Smart car tucked right at the back.
I went around the entire car park a second time. As I was approaching the exit, a car moved out of a space on the ground floor. But the vacated space was a disabled one.
I left the car park and saw that the office building beside it had a large car park with only a dozen or so cars in it. I only needed half an hour. I decided to take a risk on the kindness of strangers, parked and ran to the reception. Wrong door. At the right door, the receptionist absolutely refused to authorize the presence of my car. Not for half an hour, no, not even for ten minutes, no, not even for one. Not when I offered to leave my handbag as security (and to prove I wasn’t going shopping, which was the reason I couldn’t be permitted to leave the car).
And so I got back in the car, with five minutes to go, trying to make sense of how a day that had started so constructively could be going quite so wrong, and drove away. I tried to tell myself that I’d done everything within my power, and that I just had to breathe and try not to mind. And part of me, of course, was relieved, and another part of me despised the relieved part, and then I saw the council offices.
Now, my experience of council offices has not been such that they’d be the first place I’d turn in an emergency. But I resolved to throw myself upon their mercy.
I would be late, but if I didn’t try, the part of me that was doing the despising would carry on sneering for days.
I didn’t even get as far as the reception. Sitting on a wall were two men in high-vis jackets. I blurted out my predicament, telling them more in twenty seconds than I’ve told my family in six months. Yes, Alan and Laurence were happy for my car to keep them company for half an hour. Not a problem. Off you go, love.
Their kindness, of course, finished me off. I arrived late, shaking and in tears. I couldn’t do a thing, and when the demons decided to descend, they did so with a vengeance. Mission failed.
There was a small café on the other side of the road, and I bought two coffees and two pieces of millionaire’s shortbread and walked back to the offices. And to finish this story, you need to know that the appointment was to take a piano exam. I started lessons about three years ago and one day I will write about why this is a Big and Difficult Thing. But for now, the story ends with Alan asking how it went, and with me telling him how I’d forgotten to read music and ended up snotting all over the examiner, and with him telling me how he’d never learned to read music but how much he loved playing bass guitar in a tribute band.
‘It puts you in touch with something else, doesn’t it?’ he said. ‘Something that makes you glad to be alive.’
And I left him holding the coffees and the shortbread and drove home.