The first car I bought with my own money was a Mark One Ford Focus.
Having decided that a Focus was going to be the car for me, I spent months scouring local dealerships, newspaper classifieds and Autotrader for the right car. Eventually a dealer called me with a candidate. And there it was: a sky blue three door in 2.0 Zetec trim. Despite spending five years gracing the surface of this planet whilst being blasted with wind, rain, road salt and solar radiation, the Focus looked as if it had rolled out of the Saarlouis factory just last week. An inspection and test drive confirmed my impressions: it was a peach.
Haggling was futile. The dealer could see in my eyes that I was going to buy the car. As a sop he offered £150 trade in for my eleven year old Fiesta, which felt like a victory considering it was mostly made of rust. A couple of months previously I had also driven it into the back of a Rover 200 whilst amber gambling, leaving the headlights pointing in two different directions like Marty Feldman’s eyes. Monies exchanged, the Focus was mine.
Considering the time and effort expended looking for exactly the right car, you might have expected me to do a little dance of joy, or to walk with my fists held aloft to the Rocky theme tune. In reality the afterglow of my new purchase faded quickly.
Often when a person spends a disproportionate amount of time engaging in a particular activity, it is as a displacement for something else; so it was with my perpetual search for Focus. Hitherto, my chief activity in the Fiesta had been shuttling back and forth to see my girlfriend, who lived some 50 miles away up north. Despite the distance, we had been in a relationship for the best part of my 20s. But something had gone awry. Life changes had recently brought us closer geographically, but in other regards we were slowly growing apart. Something was missing. The impetus had gone.
My car purchase concluded, my attention returned to resolving the situation with my girlfriend one way or the other. And so a week after consigning the old Fiesta packhorse to the knacker’s yard, I set off from my home in Leicester to Nottingham where she lived. It was the first time I had made the journey in the Focus; it transpired that it would be the last time I would make that same journey by any make or model.
Neither of us had ever been particularly adept at showing our emotions. The back and forth of our break up conversation was strangely muted, like watching two robotic arms playing chess. Nor was the dam of emotion breached once back on my own behind the wheel of the Focus. Instead a tight knot of doubt festered in my stomach. Had we done the right thing? In the rawness of the moment, I could not be sure.
Still, I could not sit there going nowhere fast. Somehow the same old schlep straight down the A453 to the M1 did not appeal. On a whim, at the next roundabout I turned left and headed into the countryside. The journey that followed was nothing short of revelatory.
The East Midlands has the reputation of an abandoned hinterland, but on a fine spring day such as that one the area is very picturesque. The roads between Nottingham, Loughborough and Leicester unfurl like a fishing net thrown lightly on the ground, tracing their way around fields and over gently undulating terrain with quaint villages at the knot of each cord. A lot has been written about the drivability of the Mark 1 Focus, and on that sunny afternoon I found it all to be true. Driving with only the vaguest direction in mind, the car proved itself an entertaining and amiable companion, pleasurably dispatching mile after mile of country lanes and B-roads.
With each corner and crest the tight, sickly rollercoaster of doubt in my stomach began to ease. The further I went, the more my clouded thoughts cleared. The car was an isolation chamber, an ever-moving private space in which the act of driving disconnected the ticker tape of immediate concerns, allowing deeper thoughts to coalesce. The windscreen was a frame directing my attention forwards, with all that lay behind attended to with a cursory glance to the mirrors.
Driving those wonderful springtime country roads in that capable car, a Zen-like state of calm descended. Yeah, things in my life had messed up quite royally. But somehow I knew that Everything Will Be OK.
I was put in mind of that drive the other week by a break up of a different kind.
There have been very few times in my life when I have awoken to find that everything has changed. The morning of Friday 24 June was one of those occasions. However you felt about it, and opinions do vary of course, the news that the UK had voted for Brexit hit me like a divorce. It seemed like a terrible monster had been let out of a cage: within hours the stock market had plummeted and the Pound had dropped to a near all time low. Instead of facing the rolling crisis our Prime Minister resigned, a neglectful captain leaving the bridge of a ship stricken and holed by his own idiotic actions. I was angry and a little afraid.
Still, this macrocosmic turmoil did little to change the minutiae of my Friday morning routine, except to cast it in a pall of unseasonal gloom. My son had to be dropped off at preschool and I had to go to work, at least while I still had a job. Duly prepared, off we went in my Fiesta. (Another Ford. Not everything changes.)
Leaving the young one in the (some might say more) capable hands of others, I returned to the preschool car park to find the car bathed in rare summer sunshine. Turning over the engine, I was gripped by an impulse to take a road less travelled. So, rather than the usual direct(ish) route to the office, I embarked on a circuitous route only tangentially related to the direction I should have been travelling.
It was just what I needed. The Fiesta might lack the Focus’ hydraulic steering and independent rear suspension, but it remains a fun car to hustle. Arriving at the office some 45 minutes late, my gloomy disposition had lifted. I was calmer, my mind clear. My anger had leavened to disappointment and the beginnings of an understanding as to why people had voted the way they had. The moving isolation chamber had performed its magic once again.
Occasionally I think about that ex girlfriend, but not too often. You cannot spend the whole journey watching the rear view mirror. Looking backwards is not the nature of driving, nor can it be the nature of life.
Sometimes you may doubt the direction you have taken. There can be obstacles and diversions, or you might misread the signals and end up ploughing into the back of a dithering Rover 200. But you must always keep moving forward in the hope you will get where you need to go. You have to.
Even if ultimately there can only ever be one destination, those are your hands on the wheel. You choose the route and the speed that you travel. So you might as well turn off that A-road, squeeze the accelerator and really enjoy the drive.