…is the M25, then the M40. I have been driving from the South-East and London to my home town for nearly 17 years and on Tuesday this week I set a record for my longest ever journey-time. If I had been travelling on my own, then this would have been cause for mild irritation, but I wasn’t. My travelling companions were my three year old daughter and one year old son…
I am no stranger to a driving mishap. I have put the wrong fuel in the wrong car on more than one occasion, for example. Having to face the invariably kind and understanding AA man is always mortifying and without fail on these occasions I have felt embarrassed to have let the sisterhood down. Even more damaging to my aspiration to be a Capable Woman is that once, on my way home from university in Canterbury, I drifted into a daydream that resulted in me missing my exit from the M25 onto the M1. I carried on driving until a brown sign kindly welcomed me (back to) Kent. My brain fell to pieces so I did what any self-respecting 20 year old aspiring Capable Woman would do and phoned my dad. He was drunk on a train from a “work lunch” in Manchester and for a moment was unable to make sense of my tearful ramblings that I had been abducted by aliens. No, even he was able to reason, you must have driven all the way round… yes, really.
Despite these various trials and tribulations, however, never have I endured a journey quite like Tuesday’s.
Between the hours of 12.50pm and 1.07pm, I was winning. I was celebrating that somehow I had been on time to collect The Eldest from nursery, and almost all traffic lights between East Dulwich and Wandsworth had turned green as we pulled up to them. My good fortune continued and after around 40 minutes of driving, both the BSCB and The Eldest were asleep and I was enjoying not having to answer questions about the speedometer, the unidentifiable “orange light”, or (dangerously) look at every digger/ crane/ lorry/ motorbike/ basically any vehicle that isn’t a car, that we passed. My first error was to pat myself on the back for having my shit together as there is no one that fate loves to trip up more than a smug motherpunter.
All through West London and onto the M4 I bathed in satisfaction only to have my bubble resoundingly burst by the warning signs that there were queues between junctions 12 and 15 of the M25 – basically, the bit I needed to drive on.
My heart dropped through my weakened pelvic floor as I contemplated what this might mean for my carefully considered, heavily reliant on good fortune, plan to get to my parents’ house by tea time. For a while, it was ok because the children were still asleep, but my racing heart and twitching eye were symptomatic of the catastrophe I was envisaging if we were still at a standstill when the small people woke up. The traffic did start moving before the smalls woke up but it was too late. The precious window that sleeping children offer traveling families to bash out some miles had slammed shut. We had to stop, after 2 hours and 30 minutes on the road, just 40 miles away from our house.
Here I introduced tactic one of making sure that everyone stays alive during a long car journey: Service Station Bribery. Once we’d all had a wee/ nappy change we headed to the shop to buy a toy to keep The Eldest occupied while I gave the BSCB some milk, and hopefully (optimistically) in the car afterwards. In the shop I pointed The Eldest in the direction of the sticker books and other crap that would be sensible choices. She was only really interested in the giant bags of Haribo. Not sensible. While I was trying to convince her that a Disney Princess sticker book was the better choice (that’s how desperate I was – I hate Disney Princesses, especially that sap Cinderella) the BSCB absconded down the aisle. It was only the clatter of several tubs of jelly beans rolling across the floor that drew my attention to his antics. Short-stuff had targeted the only display within his reach and had dismantled it, while being watched carefully by a shop assistant. I mistakenly assumed that she would at least pity my lack of control but instead you’d have thought the BSCB had just shit in her handbag from the look on her face. Clearly, restacking some tubs of jelly beans is far more onerous a task that I realised. Of course I apologised, which received no acknowledgement, so having rescued the tubs of jelly beans from the BSCB’s sweaty grasp, I gratefully accepted The Eldest’s choice of toy – a Frozen magnetic drawing pad – and clammily scuttled to the till to pay. Sod’s law dictates that any shop assistant who hates you and your child will be the one to serve you at the till and thus it was proven. I managed to keep control of the small people for a brief moment but at exactly the moment that I was trying to insert my card to pay, the BSCB made a dive for the tubes of Soft Mints and I ended up waving my card ineffectually in the air above the machine. “You need to insert it” the shop assistant monotoned with an impressive amount of sarcasm for someone in the service sector as I wrestled the BSCB back into my arms. I fought the urge to stab her in the eye with the Soft Mints.
Bribery completed, we left the shop and headed for the cafe area so the BSCB could have his milk. I tactically selected a table in a corner therefore defended on two fronts by a window on one side and a wall on the other. I deemed this necessary so that I did not have to confine the BSCB to a high chair as that never works – I reckon given 3 minutes, a high-chair harness, and a dunk in a plunge pool, the BSCB could give David Blane a run for his money in the escaping stakes. This is a theory I have not tested. Anyway, the bribery worked like a dream and The Eldest sat and scribbled and swiped, scribbled and swiped.
I was busy patting myself on the back (when will I learn?) when two gentlemen, clearly in the middle of a work-day, sat down at the table next to us. Why? Why do people do this? When there is a whole aircraft hangar of tables and chairs available to sit at, why do people choose the table next to the lone female travelling with two small children?
Now, just to magnify my stress levels, the BSCB loves a man. Any man. They’re just his favourites, so when he saw these two unsuspecting souls sitting down and expecting to actually drink their coffee I knew we might have a problem. He, meanwhile, was as happy as a baby let loose with the Crayola “washable” colouring pens. His first move was to make eyes at them, gifting them his most charming (goofy – those things are like tombstones) smile. This didn’t work so he stepped his efforts up and recruited a chair to help him make his approach. I took the opportunity of having two free hands to take a picture that captured the BSCB’s pure delight at the racket he was making as he scraped the chair across the floor.
Looking through the eye of the iPhone, however, I perfectly misjudged the speed at which he was moving. A split second after I snapped my pic the BSCB succeeded in his efforts to get the attention of the men. He jostled the elbow of the man sitting on the right hand side of the picture whose coffee went everywhere. I was caught in the act of pointing my phone at the scene of a crime. The shame. I didn’t take a picture of this.
At this point I would have quite liked to have scarpered but the BSCB still hadn’t drunk his milk so we had to stomach the shame and stay put. My offer to replace the coffee was rejected and the two men, slightly soggier than when they had arrived, soon left us to our fortified corner position. Distraction departed, the BSCB commenced his more typical pattern of behaviour known as “find exit and implement escape”. With the unfailing logic of a one-year-old he focused on the gap between the wall and the window as his route to freedom. Gibbering and bouncing like a demented monkey, he shrieked and shouted in frustration at his failure to squeeze through the tiny gap.
Worst than the absolute scene he was creating, however, was the fact that so intent was he on “the gap”, that he refused to drink his milk. The shame, sweating and two soggy men was all for nought. Now I had to contend with the possibility that if we left without the BSCB drinking his milk, we would get half-an-hour down the road only to have to stop again – the threat of “This is your last chance” doesn’t really work with a one-year-old. Desperate, I retreated to the car where I was hoping that once he was away from “the gap” he would drink his milk. He did, but in protest refused to hold his own bottle.
I climbed into the car slightly clammy but also a small amount impressed that I still had not lost my shit at any point…I also still hadn’t learned my lesson about self-congratulation…
To be continued…