In some ways, it was just — to borrow a cliché — like riding a bike. Turns out that if you haven’t sat behind the wheel of a car in two decades, your body sort of remembers what to do. Muscle memory kicked in, and I soon found myself grabbing for handbrakes that no longer existed, and pumping brakes that had gotten a lot more sensitive since I last used them (something to do with computers, I was informed). Car keys also seem to have been left in the last century. I didn’t know that, but then, why would I?
The driving instructor takes a look at my provisional licence. “Blimey, what have you been at?” he says, glancing at my date of birth. “You’re only a couple of years younger than me.”
It was my first driving lesson in a quarter-century, although I learned to drive at the age of 14: a friend had a battered-up old banger that we used to drive around the fields of Meath while her younger siblings screeched and rattled around in the back. A year later, my father took me to Ballyfermot, where I spent Sunday afternoons doing three-point turns in deserted industrial estates. It being the 1990s, it was possible to pootle about on a second provisional licence and still legally drive, as an unaccompanied driver. Which is exactly what I did. From family trips to Donegal to college commutes down the dual carriageway, I did them all.
Three failed driving tests later (first time, I cried before the inspector even examined the car; the second time, I drove right instead of left), and I began to convince myself that I didn’t even need a car that much after all. I’d lived in London and Melbourne, where the supremely good public transport eliminates any impetus to pass a driving test. By my mid-thirties, I’d surmised that I was a Car-Free Person. There came a point where I believed that simply taking a taxi whenever I needed one was in fact cheaper than buying, owning and running a car. But while all of this might be true of a solo dweller in the middle of the city, the same can’t be said for a parent in the suburbs. I quickly realised that without a car, I am sunk.
With a baby in tow, scooting on or off trains, buses, taxis and trams isn’t as easy as it once was. If there are two
buggies or a wheelchair already in situ on Dublin Bus, you need to wait for the next one. A recent trip to Galway would have taken our family two hours by car. We could have loaded up the car as we pleased. On public transport, impeded by our luggage, the trip took us well over five hours.
Another thing: if you are a Car-Free Person, you are pretty much at the mercy of those who do have a car if you need to get anywhere.
You have to cadge lifts. You have to wait patiently on others. You are working to the schedule of the person with the car. You have to hope that they suggest going to the shops/the beach/anywhere. It’s only now that I realise how much of a gamechanger having a car of one’s own could potentially be. How freeing. How flexible. How convenient.
I long to be able to bundle my daughter into a car seat and drive her to swimming lessons, instead of lugging all of our stuff on a 40-minute walk. I’d love to visit the sea without taking two types of public transport there. I envy other parents the freedom they have to take off around the country with their kids and full, clean licence in tow. I’d love to put four-hour bus journeys with a very young child, and all the madness therein, behind me.
Which is why I find myself scooting around housing estates on a drizzly Thursday afternoon, in first gear half of the time, while a man politely murmurs ‘oops, hello’ every time I crunch the brakes a little too hard. I was surprised to find that I was more nervous about driving than I thought I would be. It is a truly strange feeling to be a little afraid of doing something that you did as a matter of course decades earlier. Is that because I’m becoming more risk-averse in my advancing years? Or am I simply more aware than I was at the age of 14 that I have a properly dangerous weapon under my bum?
As the clock ticks on the driving lesson, I find myself getting more confident. It feels truly brilliant to be driving in traffic again. Somehow, it feels grown-up.
Best of all, I can just about taste sweet, delicious freedom. It’s right there, on the tip of my tongue.