IT’S ONE OF MY PHOBIAS

On the one and only occasion I attempted to test the air pressure in my own car tyres, I let all the air out and had to phone a friend to rescue me. He was scathing. Ever since then, the testing of tyre air pressures has been, to use one of my mother’s favourite phrases, ‘One of my phobias’.

‘One of my phobias’ means, for both of us, not so much ‘I am too terrified to attempt this under any circumstances’ as ‘I don’t intend to do this unpleasant thing EVER and you might as well abandon all hope of persuading me’.

So yesterday I popped in to the garage. They usually check my tyres for me for free of charge knowing I’ll come to them for everything else as well, even though I now live an hour and a half’s drive away. It was just as well I went this time. The kindly garage men discovered that whereas three of my tyres contained around the usual 30 whatevers  the fourth was down to 10 whatevers. This suggested a puncture but they couldn’t find one.  In spite of being stacked out with work, they found someone to take the tyre off, and there was a nail hiding sneakily inside the rim.

They gave me a long description of the exact technique they would use to mend the tyre – pulling something or other through something or other else and neatly snipping off the ends whereupon the mended section would wear in to the substance of the tyre… and this would be far less expensive than ripping the stupid thing off and stuffing another one on, as I had suggested. When bewildered, upset, bored or tired I find myself drawn to the Nuclear Option.

Until the day I left my husband I had never filled a car with petrol. Putting petrol in a car was One of my phobias, just as stairs, hospitals and an ever growing list of other things are of my mother’s. I didn’t know how a petrol pump worked and dreaded being observed by that forbidding lady in the glass booth as I peered at the instructions and tried to figure out what to do. I dreaded a queue of angry (male) motorists forming a line behind me. I dreaded the panic which was bound to overtake me if they started tut-tutting and hooting.

So I left my husband, who was no doubt relieved to get rid of me, with a car so full of cardboard boxes that I couldn’t see out of the back window. And part way to my destination the car started bleating that it needed petrol so, One of my phobias or not One of my phobias, I had to pull in at a petrol station and fill it. And yes, I did get it wrong. And yes, I did panic. And yes, the forbidding lady in the glass booth did stare at me.

You learn quickly and hugely when you are first on your own: how to fill cars with petrol; how to change light bulbs in spite of not knowing what to turn off first; how to describe what’s wrong with your car to a garage mechanic in spite of not knowing the vocabulary; how to find your way to the Civic Amenity Centre, a species of miniature, enclosed, Mad Max, post-apocalyptic landscape you never even imagined existed; how to prise out a broken plastic lawnmower blade with a kitchen knife and force another one on in its place… the list goes on and on. And yet after all these years of fending for myself I still feel deeply uncomfortable in  ‘male’ environments such as garages and Civic Amenity Centres (town rubbish tips). And this is true however nice the actual men who inhabit these spaces are. I grew up before Women’s Lib had really taken hold, and that may be why; a younger woman would wonder what on Earth I was talking about. Do you know, I was reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in the days leading up to my wedding. She laid out for me in forensic detail all the reasons I shouldn’t be getting married – and I still did.

Faced with garage personnel I find myself simpering, talking too much and making unfunny jokes. It’s a performance, I know it is, I can’t see the point of it yet I can’t seem to stop it. And then there’s the waiting. Cars take such a long, long time to fix. The garage does now have a shiny new coffee machine, I notice. Their previous model would spit out red-hot, watery coffee that smelled and tasted of engine oil, yet I felt compelled to get cup after cup of the stuff and sip it because it was so awful. Why was that?

Then there are the framed posters. You know how you find yourself drawn to anything printed when you’re waiting for a long time? I read the framed poster with the tiny print about correct and incorrect number plates, with diagrams. The correct plates are marked with green ticks, the incorrect ones with red crosses. I also read from top to bottom the one about tyre tread thicknesses and the various gauges used to measure these for the purposes of MOT testing…

Maybe a magazine? As always it was a choice between every single issue ever published of What Car? and a lone celebrity gossip magazine. Most people seemed to have plumped for celebrity gossip because the magazine was wrinkled and dog-eared. I learned that Kerry-somebody-famous had just divorced or separated from her third husband and that Colleen-somebody-famous was pregnant again. There she was in a skimpy bikini revealing her Baby Bump. I find this bewildering and I have to say a little distasteful. Why would you want to combine a bikini with a Bump and publish a picture of it in a magazine? Memories of my mother expecting – it must have been – my youngest sister. She wore a long smock to cover the bump, with a huge silly bow at the neck. Maternity smocks always seemed to have either this bow or another similar device to draw the eye away from the Bump. And over that, if coats were needed, a long, special, maternity swing coat. Expectant ladies looked Blooming in those days, not Bumpy.

What puzzles me even more is why, when I never leave the house without one paperback, usually two, or a paperback and my Kindle in case of unforeseen delays, I feel magnetically drawn whatever other stuff is lying around or stuck on the walls. I do believe I would have picked up one of those What Car? magazines rather than open my half-finished Brick Lane.

As far as the tip’s concerned, no problem with reading matter there. You just need to get into and out of them as quickly as possible because there are always queues of other cars behind you, and the smell is appalling. Until recently I would struggle up the steps to the various skips myself, heaving whatever giant bags of rubble or garden waste I needed to get rid of. Then I would take a deep breath, trying not to look anxious, and summon all my strength for the manhandling of each sack to shoulder height and the flinging of it over the rim of the skip. Until recently, the Waste Disposal Operatives would stand around watching me wearing the same look of sardonic amusement that the woman in the glass booth at the petrol station used to wear:

…and here comes the cabaret!

But on my latest visit, for some reason I forgot the act and allowed myself to hesitate by the open boot of my car, looking vulnerable, feeble and watery-eyed. More like the way I felt. At once a Waste Disposal Operative with hair like a labradoodle and a great bushy beard walked over and offered to help me.

This is maybe a lesson I should have learned earlier.

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