Henry: a love story

The problem with love at first sight is that you just don’t know when it’s going to strike. And when it does, it can impact on your life even decades later.

In 1994, we went on a trip from our inner city Birmingham flat to visit Geoff’s brother in Shropshire. He picked us up from the railway station and drove us out into the countryside, chatting about our journey.

At one point another car came hurtling towards us on the damp road, apparently heading somewhere in a hurry. The vehicle was tatty, with black paint weathered to a matte finish, dents here and there and mud splashed all up the sides. As it neared the car we were in, it screeched from far too fast to a complete stop in an impossibly short distance, and the driver wound the window down and began a shouted conversation with Geoff’s brother. It turned out that this was the latter’s girlfriend, who’d got tired of waiting for us and come out to see where we’d got to. And the car was a 1980 Toyota Corolla E70 liftback – a sporty looking thing amongst the relatively square models of the time, and which, we were informed, went by the rather prosaic name of Henry. And, as it happened, Henry was for sale.

£175 later, we were the proud owners of a new (second-hand) car, which didn’t even get us back to Birmingham before the brakes bound on and we had to pull off the road into a car park, trailing foul-smelling smoke behind us.

Henry (and Geoff), on a rather bleak looking winter’s day in the Lickey Hills.

As a child I’d spent many cold, uncomfortable hours holding a torch while my dad worked on a variety of old vehicles, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the concept of car repairs. And Geoff had not long completed a 4-year maintenance apprenticeship at Leyland. The fact that we were both reasonably practical was just as well, because over the next couple of years we spent quite a lot of time in scrapyards sourcing parts for Henry.

But there was one problem we couldn’t fix with the minimal tools we had available – rust. Even when we got him, Henry had a couple of nasty holes in his sills. These would pick up water from the road, and – because eventually the footwells were the only places where there weren’t holes – this gradually accumulated to the point where, when we came to a stop at a traffic light, everyone in the car had to lift their feet up to avoid the wave that sloshed backwards and forwards over the by now rather smelly carpet.

And so eventually Henry went to the great scrapyard in the sky. It was a very sad day, and for several years afterwards friends and acquaintances would ask me if I still had “that cool car”. Well, no I hadn’t. But I never forgot it.

Fast forward rather more years than I care to think about, and I’ve graduated from cars I had to fix myself  – and in one memorable case that I had to keep a roasting tin underneath to collect the oil that seeped out of it every time it was stationary – and my last two cars have been leased. As it happens, they’ve been Toyota Corollas too, but in name only, and simply because the latest Kias (my preferred brand) were both too expensive and underpowered.

I’m happy with new cars. I love the idea of leasing, where you don’t have to pay for any servicing or repairs at all. You simply ring someone else and make an appointment for them to worry about whatever’s wrong.

But, just like the rust on Henry, there’s one problem with new cars that I can’t overcome, and that’s the gradual, insidious creep of technology. I enjoy driving. I’m a good driver. I enjoy reading maps. I’m pretty good at finding my way in an unfamiliar area. I don’t need a car that beeps to tell me I’ve put it in reverse, that it’s going backwards or that I’ve crossed the dividing line between traffic lanes as I overtake someone else. Or a car that has umpteen distracting lights and a vast GPS screen taking my attention away from the business of driving. I certainly don’t need a car that’s going to stick slavishly to the speed limit, regardless of road conditions.

So I’ve known for a while that this golden age of driving cars I don’t have to repair was going to come to an end fairly soon. What I needed, I decided, was an analogue car. A car like Henry. And, because I’ve never forgotten that car (and with possibly a little encouragement both from the vehicle restoration exploits of my dad and brother, and from watching Rust Valley Restorers and similar programmes), I’ve long thought I’d like another old Toyota Corolla. But not just any model. That exact one.

They do come up for sale from time to time. They vary wildly in price, from a few hundred euros for what’s essentially a shell, to more than 20,000€ for one that’s been, one assumes, thoroughly restored.

Anyway, I had the misfortune of driving a new Kia a couple of weeks ago, and its incessant bleating reminded me that I was due to check the various used car sites again. For example, in Portugal there’s an exact match for Henry, right down to the patchy matte black paint job, but it’s clearly in a bit of a state and at 2000€ rather expensive, especially as I have no idea how I’d get it home (wherever ‘home’ is these days).

I checked the French sites. And then I idly checked the Swedish ones. And I found exactly the right model, in what looked like very good condition for its age, and only a few hundred euros more than the Portuguese one… only 100 km from my place in Skåne.

A couple of emails to my car-loving friends in Sweden, a check by them to verify that it is indeed in nice clean condition as it appeared on the photos – and three days later I’m now finally once again the proud owner of a 1980 Toyota Corolla liftback.

As yet unnamed new (very much second-hand) car. I’m told this one actually got home without something going wrong!

It’s not the same colour as Henry, but as those of you who’ve seen my nail varnish will know, I’m rather partial to this particular shade of emerald green.

Of course the story doesn’t end there. I still have my leased car for the next year (assuming I ever manage to extract it from the car park at Copenhagen Airport where it’s been languishing since mid-March). And I’m well aware that an old car isn’t something you just get into and drive. I fully expect to spend more time with my head under the bonnet trying to work out why it’s not running than actually driving it. But to my mind, that’s a price well worth paying for a car that doesn’t whinge at me every time I think about changing gear.

Writing as therapy, or why reality isn’t necessarily relevant

I’ve been thinking a lot about reality recently. And it’s occurred to me that for a relatively idealistic person, I tend to adopt an extremely narrow, logical approach to my past. Consequently, when I think back over my life, I ignore the things I don’t remember. Probably we all do this.

So I remember bits of our family holiday in 1979, if only because it was shortly after the election of Thatcher as PM, and I was still so politically naive at the age of 11 that I still thought it was a good thing for a woman – any woman – to be elected to that position. I’d never heard of Conservatives, or realised that a political party could despise its fellow citizens to quite such an extent.

And yet I don’t remember anything of the summer a few years earlier, when we had a visit from my Aunty Pam and Uncle Pete, during which – to judge by our slightly raffish appearance  – we were impersonating some kind of Mafia family.

L-R: Me, Aunty Pam, Dad, Uncle Pete, my brother John, Mum.

So does this mean that my aunt and uncle didn’t visit us in summer 1974? And if I sit down now and write a detailed account of my (imaginary) Austrian cousins visiting us in 1983, what distinguishes the two? A real visit of which I remember nothing, and an imaginary one of which I have an extremely clear recollection? Which is the more real?

Research has shown that the brain doesn’t really know the difference between reality and imagination. This is, apparently, very useful when it comes to setting yourself goals. So for example, if you tell yourself in sufficient detail how fit you are, your brain goes, “Hm. So I am. Then I need to behave like this“, and off you go, refusing dessert and getting to the gym four times a week like you always intended to. (It should be said that although I believe this works, I haven’t yet managed to implement it in terms of practice.)

And I’ve recently discovered, both from personal experience and from watching someone else do it, that you can deliberately rewrite your past, giving yourself a more satisfactory plotline – whatever you personally consider to be satisfactory. This means that those little niggles (“Why didn’t I say ‘Yes’ when he asked me out?”, “I should have taken that job offer”, “If only I’d gone to that party”…) can be resolved. And it’s surprisingly liberating.

Now, obviously you can’t rewrite the big stuff in your life. If you’re an impoverished 45-year-old bartender, you can’t have accepted that job offer if it would have led you to becoming a billionaire at 30. But you can definitely picture yourself taking that job offer – whatever it was – and it not leading to the success you’ve always imagined. Maybe you’d have burned out at 23? Maybe you’d have been on the street at 25? Maybe you’d long since have been dead? Instead, you’re a bartender, and yeah, perhaps it doesn’t pay much but you enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories and having your afternoons free. (And if you don’t, get a new job. Life is short!)

But for small regrets it’s surprisingly effective. You think of a situation that you’ve always regretted, and you sit down with a pad of paper, or at your computer – personally, I always write best on paper, but these days I have to use one of those soft propelling pencils so that my atrophied writing muscles can cope – and you write yourself an alternate story as you’ve imagined it so many times. Write it like you’re a novelist. Put in description, dialogue, comedy, drama… whatever it takes to make it believable. Plunge into the story like it’s a warm bath, submerge yourself in the bubbles, feel it permeate your pores as the scent of Badedas tickles your nose. Write it and rewrite it. Live it. Feel the excitement, the nervousness, the elation – or the boredom, the arguments, the misunderstandings, the failures. Or, more likely, both.

Because if you look back over your real life, even the best bits aren’t perfect, are they? If you were editing the film of your life, you’d tweak stuff to make it flow more smoothly. Well, when you rewrite your past, don’t do this. Instead, bring your most level-headed realist to the table and give them free rein to sneer as much as they like. Write as it would have happened. And see where it takes you. In my experience, it takes you down a path that makes very little difference to where you are today, or to who you are.

And if it does, you’ve learned something. Perhaps you realise that you really can’t stand being married to your spouse any more, that you haven’t felt excitement – or even affection – with them for years. Or your reinvented past when you worked as temporary crew, delivering yachts all around the world, is so challenging, so much you, that you decide you can’t live another moment without getting back on the water somehow. Maybe you can build on those lessons and make small changes in your current reality. Maybe you have to throw it all up and start again. Or maybe you just manage to finally put some of those regrets to rest and be happier with what you’ve really achieved.

Whatever the result, I guarantee you’ll find it an interesting experience – and if you have literary ambitions, a better writer, too.


Summer writing circle assignment #1 – describe the furniture in your grandparent’s house

Gate and house beyond
c. janeishly 2014

You don’t always realise, as an adult, how much the things you encounter in childhood have affected you.

“Smells often trigger memories”, people say – and it’s true, to an extent, but for me it’s always been textures that really make the biggest impact.

My paternal grandparents’ house was full of textures; luxurious textures of substances I’d never encountered before and indeed seldom have since.

The house was huge – an L-shaped four-storey Georgian terrace with a cellar and a roof that I was allowed to climb out onto on a few rare special occasions.

And the textures began there, with the house itself. Tall and white, it seemed to be made – or at least coated in – thick white icing, which spread inside to the turgid swirls of the moulded ceilings in the large formal rooms at the front of the house.

Smooth too were the banisters of some shiny wood, starting with a spiral at the bottom and ending blankly in the wall way way up at the top of the house where the maids once lived.

The stair carpet was held down through all that distance by stair rods, exotic and previously unknown fretted pieces of brass clamping the carpet into place.

My grandparents rotated slowly around the house like a pair of nomads, each sleeping in a different bedroom every time I stayed there, and I never managed to arrive at a satisfactory count for the number of rooms.

On one of the half landings was a low upholstered chair, with short wooden legs and a sprung, circular seat. As I climbed up to whichever bedroom I’d been allocated for that visit, I would stop and touch the fabric – thicker, close pile for the raised dark red flower patterns; shorter, rougher cream sections in between.

And on another half landing was a wooden chair with a neat hexagonal seat and a very narrow, tall back incised with sharp patterns.

I liked the upstairs drawing room – a hangover from the days when the ladies would leave the gentleman to their port – with its unusual revolving bookcase, and I always looked forward to sitting in the dining room on Boxing Day, eating my grandmother’s wonderfully wine-soaked gravy.

But it was the living room I loved most.

That was where the enormously thick patterned rug covered nearly the whole floor. That was where I could stroke the almost greasy smoothness of the ebony bookend elephants with their ivory tusks and admire the big elephant supporting the coffee table. There were even more of them in the hall, holding up part of a large dresser. Elephants weren’t just decorative in that house; they had work to do.

The living room was mainly occupied by my favourite piece of furniture – a massive three-piece suite in horsehair, covered with a heavy cream fabric with a kind of indented square pattern that I can still feel under my fingertips to this day. Never will another sofa be as comfortable as that one was. The seat cushions were deep, firm but giving, and the back was so tall you felt like you were cupped in a giant hand.

The animals were mostly in that room, too – with the exception of the two dogs, who were restricted to the kitchen, and the huge goldfish who lived in the bath and had to be removed if you wanted to use it.

Bluey the cat had a breathing problem, and he would lie by choice in what looked like a very uncomfortable position with his head and forepaws draped over the arm of the sofa.

Ginger was a long tailed cat with a timid but suspicious temper who I always picture slinking away under the elephant table. He slunk away for good in June 1973, during TT week, and that was the last anyone saw of him.

The other ginger cat, Veg Veen, had a Manx name and was a Manx cat – something of a runt, I think, as his back end was even more deformed than is normal for the breed and he walked with a distinct sway to his gait.

Also in the living room could be found Brandy the guinea pig, who spent most of his time in a large basket of prickly straw beneath one of the windows. He made lovely friendly squeaking noises – until one day we visited and found him lying still and quiet beneath a heap of straw. Nana hadn’t seen fit to mention that he was dead.

And if I walked from the living room, always smelling of cold tobacco from Grandad’s pipe, through the hall, past the huge oil painting of a flock of sheep being driven home in the evening light, and through the kitchen door, with its distinctive click, I would be greeted by Zeb and Kirk, the two Alsatians, or later by Uncle Fred’s old dog, Fow – a black and white mongrel that Nana insisted on renaming Beauty, but who was deaf as a post and would in truth wag its tail at any name.

Or I could go out into the cold, greenly damp back yard, always in shadow, and look at the mysterious mangles – nobody ever seem to use them, so why were there so many, their rubber rollers all cracking from age? And then to the vast steel food bins full of oats and barley for Nana’s two horses, Tosca and Venus, who lived out in an enormous field way up in the hills and were very rarely ridden.

Or out of the front door and up the long garden, where if he was in the mood Blue would bat at palm tree fronds waved for him for maybe two minutes before becoming bored, and finally to the heavy black gate, it too thickly coated with paint, with its characteristic squeak and its unpredictable weight that left me scarred for life when it suddenly closed on my right ankle.

All this and more was contained in that house – the miniature orange tree in the bathroom and the smell of the orange and lemon-shaped soaps in glass jars.

The ancient liqueur chocolate ornaments that were hung on the Christmas tree on the landing, year after year and which I gradually plundered, the taste of old chocolate and strong alcohol blending on my tongue. Everything was exotic, rich, mysterious, expensive.

And even outside the house; at one point my grandparents drove a Rover – only one step down from a Rolls-Royce, it seemed to me, and I can still feel the hot, cracked leather on the back of my legs, smell that luxurious velvety scent and hear/feel the satisfying thunk as the thick doors slammed shut.

It’s no wonder that my own house – “only” a Victorian four bed end terrace – seemed rather dull by comparison.

Nor, now I think of it, is it any wonder that to this day I like big houses.

I recently nearly bought a 15th century townhouse in a small French town. This sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was – the asking price was €60,000 and it needed complete renovation as there was no electric, plumbing, or even windows in most of the building. When renovated, it would have been beautiful, impossible to heat – and have had 250 m² of living space, not including the huge attic. My friend, who visited it with me, asked, “But what would you do with all that space?”

I thought of my grandparents and smiled. “Live”, I said.