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I’m on the road to car confusion

Susan Reuben's lost her way

    (Photo: Getty Images)

    Last week, I took my car to the petrol station. As my petrol gauge had been creeping ever closer to zero over the previous few days, it seemed like the logical thing to do. I started to fill up… but after only a few seconds, the pump clicked and stopped. I tried again and it clicked and stopped. Then again — same thing.

    So there was no choice but to drive forward to the one in front and start over. As my payment was being processed for a second time, another car drove up to the broken pump. Not wanting the driver to waste his time, I went over and explained that it was broken. He said in that case he’d wait for my one to be free.

    Then I started filling up again at the new pump… and after a few seconds it clicked and stopped.

    Only then did I start to ponder.

    I got back in the car, turned on the engine and looked at the petrol gauge. The tank was already full. It turned out that my husband had filled it up since I’d last checked. In fact, after all the clicking and stopping the pointer was now considerably higher than the “full” mark.

    I walked back over to the car behind me and explained the situation with as much dignity as I could muster. (Not much.) Then I drove off. The tank by this stage had so much petrol in it, that the next day I drove for one-and-a-half hours and the gauge was still pointing to “full” by the end of the journey.

    My problems with cars are varied and wide ranging, and they tend to be heightened by the frequent presence of small children in the back. My youngest son, Boaz is a particular asset in this regard. When he was two, every time we were setting off, he’d ask, “Can I drive?” He’d say it in a tone that suggested it was a genuine possibility — and be correspondingly disappointed that I always said “No”. To compensate, he liked to encourage me on my way by calling, “Faster! FASTER!” from the back seat, as if we were powering down the wide-open highways of the Midwest rather than inching through the N3 rush hour.

    With or without children, remembering where I’ve parked is a significant problem because I have a catastrophic lack of spatial awareness. So long as I mark my car’s location on Google Maps before I walk away, then all is well. But in the bad old days, when you weren’t able to use a series of satellites 11,000 miles up in space in order to establish your exact position on the Earth’s surface, things were a lot less certain.

    The biggest crisis this ever caused was at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society’s flagship garden. I had bought an enormous plant in a ceramic pot from the shop. It was closing time, and as the assistant was himself leaving, he kindly offered to help me out to the car with my purchase. We set off, making cheerful conversation along the way… but when we reached the spot where the car should be, it simply wasn’t there.

    “Are you sure you parked in this car park?” asked my companion. When I asked him what he meant, he explained that Wisley has three car parks — all huge and all identical looking.

    So we headed to car park number two, the conversation now a little more strained (the plant being really quite large and the pot correspondingly heavy). Naturally, the car wasn’t there either.

    As we set off for car park number three, dusk was falling. We now walked in complete silence — he sweating with exertion and me with embarrassment.

    I did eventually find my car — but I haven’t been back to Wisley since. The trauma was just too severe.

    The main reason I get into these difficulties is that my mind tends to be elsewhere. I would like to claim that I’m busy pondering important matters: achieving peace in the Middle East, for example, or how to fight intolerance in our increasingly polarised society. In reality, I’m more likely to be thinking that I mustn’t forget to take my oldest to his barmitzvah class or that I really need to stock up on fishfingers.

    It occurs to me that as Boaz is both more mechanically minded than me and has a far better sense of direction, next time he says, “Can I drive?” I should reply, “Yes, sure.” Admittedly it would be breaking the law, and he might be inclined to take us to a soft play centre or an ice cream shop when we are meant to be heading for school — but that aside, I think I’m on to a winner.

    @susanreuben

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