"You only want me for my .... driving licence!" No, you don't hear that often, but that was the key to my Saturday. It is a little-known fact that beneath my surly, green, eco-loving, walk-everywhere, exterior, there lies in the wallet in my back pocket, a full, clean, driving licence. It could hardly be cleaner, as I have never driven a car since the day I passed the driving test - the 5th of August 1999. I never wanted to drive, wasn't any good at it, and have no intention of ever doing so again, unless I move to a big house in the country (which is another way of saying the same thing, like the Psalmist).
But yesterday a driving licence was needed, plus the person to whom it is attached, as my friend James needed to go back and forth between his late mother's house which has just been sold, his own, and a charity shop. He has done a rather curious thing which is to buy a car - a most enormous car - before actually passing his own driving test, so he has a toy he can't play with unless there's an adult present. At nearly 40 I trust he will find these words deeply offensive. I'm guessing the car was a good buy at the time and it made sense to seize it, and he has a very good plan to secure that licence very soon, through one of those intensive courses over several days. As a seasoned passenger over many years, I am a stern judge of car drivers and I can say with no dissembling after being driven some miles on various different kinds of road, that he most certainly deserves to get that licence.
But until then, I come in handy! The first problem was getting to him, as obviously he couldn't come to pick me up. He lives in Greater Leys on the edge of Oxford one way, and I live in Barton on the edge of Oxford a little further another way. We're both outside the ring road, and so in estate agents terms, decidedly on "the wrong side of the tracks". The ring road is possibly the dullest road in the world. I dislike it intensely, and I particularly dislike it on warm mornings when on the one side that has a footpath, there is absolutely no shade at all. I wore long sleeves, to try to protect the peeling remains of the birthday tan I collected during my birthday lunch on the terrace at my mother's house in Sussex a week ago. My Panama hat has a broader brim than my last one, so that provided protection not only for the tips of my ears, but also for the end of my nose. So, I didn't feel burnt when I got to the Leys (the walk is just over an hour), but I very quickly felt muddled, lost, and furious.
Blackbird Leys was invented after the war, with council houses and a couple of tower blocks, to stuff the poor into from the redevelopment of the centre of town, which the developers intended to make nicer - by moving out the poor people. For six years, HL and I lived on the edge of it, although in a later development than the original settlement. Greater Leys was invented when Oxford was running out of places for poor people to live because even Blackbird Leys was getting gentrified by the right-to-buy and the children of the people who lived in the smarter parts of town wanting homes of their own. It's on the site of the old sewage works. It is the most higgledy-piggledy arrangement of streets and mini-parks and what nots that I have ever come across. It makes precisely no sense at all. James said it is because four different companies were given building rights. I think the illogicality of the place is so consistent that it really reflects the fact that none of the planners, nor anyone on the council giving permission to build, knew anyone who would live there, and would never need to find an address there.
But eventually I unravelled the spaghetti and found the house, and the enormous car, and James, and his daughter, and off we set. The emptying of a home when someone dies is a melancholy thing, and to return to a place where you've been a welcome guest at lunch, and see it almost empty, and without its soul is a reminder of mortality. My friend died in February. But it must be done and things had to be shifted.
There were hitches. The "white goods" were all wired in to the wall, rather than just plugged in to sockets, and having sold the house, it seemed a bit risky to chance causing an electrical fire before the completion date. So, calmly, that part of the mission was dropped. Other things were deemed not worth the effort of shifting. Nonetheless, we did shift a lot. I'm not a natural labourer, and particularly since being ill a few years ago, haven't all that much in the way of what you might call strength, but I can be determined with a job that seems possible.
In the midst of our endeavours, having dropped off a load of small furniture and kitchen stuff at the charity shop in Headington, it was time for lunch. Where? Well, what do I know about going out to lunch? I normally don't even bother with it on my own at home. But I dimly remembered a country pub a kind friend had taken me too, so off we went. We found the village. But not the pub. I felt more than a little foolish. James, finding the whole thing highly amusing, consulted his telephone, as the young people do these days, and discovered the White Hart in Old Headington - about a quarter of a mile from the charity shop we'd left some time before. Scampi and wine improved my spirits and dispelled my sense of being an utter fathead unable to find the simplest pub without cocking it up, to misquote the late Peter Cook in "Here Comes The Judge" (and if you haven't heard it, find it on the internet, it is quite brilliant).
And off we headed to find some strapping materials to make the lid of the boot behave when things too big for the back of the car were shoved into it. James's daughter is rather an engaging child, perfectly prepared to say you're a twit, but also to think about any eccentric questions you might ask before coming to her conclusion. We had a conversation, whilst her father was in Homebase buying strapping materials, about bottoms. I'm not entirely sure how this came about. It might have started with our lunches, and how, having eaten scampi, I had consumed several creatures, when her burger might perhaps have contained the meat of only one. She suggested it was probably the cow's bottom she'd eaten, but then said I'd probably eaten the little prawns' hearts. And she might well be right, I don't know the biology of a prawn. But I didn't see much need to be sentimental about either - and looking out of the car window pointed to an arriving customer and said as much about his bottom. And several others. She seemed to find this rather funny. She had a basket of Barbie and Ken dolls, in various states of undress, which I affected to find quite shocking, and insisted that she clothe them at once. Then, for distraction, two ancient ladies arrived, and I said "I bet their combined ages are 180 - so what's the average for the two?" And although she got it wrong first time, she knew it was wrong, and instantly corrected it, and we had a conversation about the confusingness of numbers. She'd said 60, which is of course related to 90, and to 180. People who are good with numbers won't understand why this is confusing, but it made sense to us. And then her father returned, and we could stop this nonsense, and spare his only child the ravings of a madman.
And in time the work was done, the shiftable things shifted, some of them donated to the good cause of the hospice where their owner spent her last days, some valuable driving experience (not least to a non-existent pub down windy country lanes) had been clocked up, my licence had done more sterling work than in the last sixteen years, and it was time for the walk home. It was just as hot, but no longer in such direct sunlight. On the dreary ring road I passed two young ladies who, inexplicably, swapped their sandals with each other, as I passed. What was that about?
I can only assume that they had a story to tell. I hope I have.