The day began the same mundane way as any other. I got into my car as usual, dropped my daughter at school, and set off for work. The Children’s Centre was where it usually was, on the other side of the road. All I had to do was wait for a gap in the traffic and swing my car into the entrance before an oncoming car hit me. Simple. I completed such feats of coordination and judgement every day, several times a day, and had not yet died or caused the death of anyone else.
I got myself into position in the middle of the road, my indicator clicking. Cars swished past, opposite me and also behind me. My car shuddered with their momentum, and my heart began to pound. The car no longer felt like a cosy, solid refuge – it was little more than a flimsy metal box on wheels. My foot pressed down on the brake; images of losing my grip on the pedal and rolling backwards into the rush of cars flashed through my mind. I pressed down harder. I knew that I had to take my foot off the brake, and put it on the accelerator in order to be ready to move the car should a break in the traffic occur, but putting my foot on that pedal and propelling this flimsy metal box forward into the other lane felt like absolute madness. I sat frozen for a while, flinching as the procession of cars flashed by, each one looking harmless in the distance, but becoming louder and more menacing until it passed with a sound and a shock like an angry wasp buzzing in my ear, and a swoosh of air which rocked the car. NeeeeeeeeeeOWM, swoosh. NeeeeeeeeeeOWM, swoosh. NeeeeeeeeeeOWM, swoosh.
The traffic was relentless. I sat, hypnotised like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, for maybe 2 minutes, maybe an hour. I had switched into my crisis mode: frozen, watchful, buried deep inside myself. The safest thing seemed to be to just sit still and keep my foot firmly attached to the brake pedal.
I realised that I wasn’t going to work that day. The day had taken on a life of it’s own; had overwhelmed me, beaten me. My mind flickered around, trying to find a resting place, a thought that it could safely think, and on failing to do, settled back into blackness. All plans were suspended. I stared into the middle distance.
Eventually the traffic died down behind me, and I shook myself, decided to make a break for safety. It was as if I was back on my driving lessons, trying to work out how to move the car forward. The pedals felt unfamiliar, the usual happy symbiosis between limbs and car was gone. I trusted neither the car nor my feet. Would I roll back? Would I get the ‘biting point’ wrong on the clutch and splutter to a halt in the middle of the traffic lane? Would my brain stall again?
I knew I had to just do it, quickly, before I could think too much about it. Looking in the mirror, I could see that the traffic flow coming up behind me had stopped. I changed the direction of my indicator, looked behind me again, turned the steering wheel and powered down on the accelerator. The car jumped forward with an overstated roar of the engine and I zoomed off down the road.
I drove until I reached a familiar car park. The part of me that had been frozen, unfroze. I cradled my face with my arms on the steering wheel, floods of tears washing my face, as my phone rang and rang, and people arrived for the meeting that I was supposed to be chairing…
Useless. I was still useless, after all these years. Later, I was going to have to explain why I left all those people sitting in the meeting room waiting for me to show. How I had been defeated by a right turn, a busy road, the pedals in the car. It was going to sound pathetic and was going to come out as an unconvincing ‘I just couldn’t do it’, which was an inadequate explanation for this sudden terror; my total loss of faith in myself, and in my own judgement.
But for now, I allowed myself to wallow in tears, in this suspended sliver of time. I was in a space outside of normal life; this still and silent place where I had crash-landed.