Leo Ferguson told himself he was delighted to work for Penfold Publishers because he loved books, which was true, but he sometimes also told himself he had no aspirations to be promoted, and wasn’t even especially ambitious and that wasn’t true. Not really. 

    So when he was called to Alexander Penfold’s office and Alexander told him he wanted to promote him to area manager, though he went through the motions of self-deprecating reluctatnce, he hoped Alexander wouldn’t take him too seriously. There was something endearingly old-fashioned about Alexander. He was always smartly dressed, nearly always wearing a tie, and nearly always with a tiepin on the tie. Leo noticed that the one he was wearing that day appeared to have a crown green bowling club logo on it. Odd, he hadn’t known Leo was keen on bowling, but it was quite easy to imagine him on the green. Come to think of it, his bald head made you think a bit of a bowling ball.

    “Leo?” His boss’s voice was good-humoured, but Leo knew he didn’t take kindly to being ignored and hurriedly collected his thoughts and stopped indulging in slightly surreal images of Alexander’s head metamorphosing into a bowling ball. “I know it’s quite a lot to take in.”

    “It’s an honour,” Leo said, “I’d be delighted.” The fact it would almost certainly mean a rise, though Alexander hadn’t said so in so many words, was decidedly welcome, too. 

    “There’s just one thing, though. To do the job you’re going to HAVE to learn to drive. We’ll gladly pay the cost of the lessons, and you’ll have a company car, of course. High time you did, anyway. I’ve never quite fathomed why you’ve not got round to it. I mean, all due respect to those Eco-types, but with the public transport how it is round here, it’s a necessity, not a luxury, and I don’t know how you’ve managed. And you’re from a family of drivers.”

    Alexander’s words seemed to fade into the background and combine with the drone and creak of the ancient photocopier in the adjoining office. It was true. He did come from a family of drivers. His grandfather was still driving at 80 and was a safer and better driver than most half his age. His little sister Rosalind had passed her test within a month of her seventeenth birthday. 

    “I – I don’t know, Alexander,” he said. 

    “What do you mean, you don’t know?”

    “I’m the odd one out, I think!” he tried to make a joke of it. “I could – pay for taxis, if need be.”

    “No, Leo. I’m sorry, lad, but that just wouldn’t work. To do this you simply HAVE to have the flexibility of being able to drive.”

    “Then – no disrespect, and please don’t think I’m not grateful, but I might have to pass up on the promotion.” He could hardly believe he was saying it, and yet could believe it all too well. “I mean, you know I’m appreciative of the offer …”

    “No!” Alexander interrupted. “I’m sorry, but that won’t do. That isn’t an option.”

    “I’m sorry?”

    The older man sighed. “Use your head, Leo. You know Samantha is retiring,” he referred to the area manager of decades standing, “And this time she actually means it. She’s going to stay with  her daughter and son in law in New Zealand for a while. She knew our ways. YOU know our ways. I can take on someone else on the bottom rung, so to speak, and jiggle about, and I think Marc is probably ready to step into your job, with a bit of fatherly advice and a few deadlines to concentrate the mind. It’s either going to be you or I’ll have to advertise and bring in an outsider. And I know which I’d infinitely prefer to do. I trust you, and I know what makes you tick and you know what makes me tick, and you’re part of the Penfold family.” He wasn’t, not literally, but he knew what Alexander meant and was touched by his words. In an unusual gesture for an undemonstrative man, Alexander took Leo’s right hand, that had been resting on the oak desk, in his slightly chubby paws. “Listen! Give me credit for not being one of those men who says, pull yourself together, and man up and all that,” he sounded half-wistful, as if he sometimes couldn’t help wishing he were, but that wasn’t the kind of thing you admitted to. “I “get it”, as Lena on reception would say, that you’re a bit nervous about driving and it’s never appealed to you. That’s fair enough, and I know an instructor who had a reputation for patience and all that. And the fact your family all seem to be naturals doesn’t mean you have to be. My dad was a great one for rugby, and my brother too, and between you and me and the doorpost I’m quite glad that now I’d be considered well past it because the mere thought of the scrum scared me witless. But you can get through life without playing rugby. Surely you don’t mean to go through your whole life without getting a driving license?” He sounded genuinely bemused, and had plainly been expecting that Leo would jump at the chance of the free lessons and the company car and the chance to combine his promotion with joining the rest of the adult human race in the 21st century. The conversation hadn’t turned out how he’d expected at all. For a couple of seconds, both men were silent, and the noise of the photocopier seemed to grow louder, but make the silence greater. Alexander broke it. “I suppose I was jumping to conclusions. And it’s not fair to expect you to make a decision on this at once. Go and think it over.” Leo knew a dismissal when he heard one, and also knew that the unspoken rider to the flexible and reasonable sounding “think it over” was “and you’ll see that I’m right.” He passed Leo a little business card with a picture of a benign looking little blue car on it and “Drive-Rite Instruction. Nervous Drivers our Speciality” in a friendly font. “Do at least give them a ring, lad.” That really was his dismissal, and Leo wasn’t sorry. But he took the card gingerly, as if it were a baked potato left too long in the hot embers of a bonfire. 

    As he went home on the bus that night he tried to rationalise things. To cut them down to size. He could at least phone “Drive-Rite”.   He wasn’t going to be driving the next day, after all, was he? He’d have to get a license first, so would commit him to nothing and do no harm. He could call them there and then on his mobile. No, it was best waiting until he got home. He had what he thought was the best of both worlds – two years ago he had moved into his own little flat, but it was within a few minutes walk of the family home. He wasn’t obsessively sentimental about the flat, and certainly intended to move into a bigger property some time, especially when he settled down. But for the time being it was a little refuge, a place he looked forward to going home to at night, and where he could pick his own hours (he tended to be an “owl”) and pick his own music and TV, and leave the curtains open at night, something his mother would never had done, though to be fair, even when he was a little boy, she’d let him do it in his own bedroom. 

    So now I’ll phone “Drive-Rite” he thought, after having a mug of coffee and feeding his cat, Pasha, an amiable if somewhat slothful Persian. Halfway through dialling the number, he paused. He stopped. It was as if he were physically incapable of dialling that number. Don’t be so ridiculous, he told himself, of course you’re not physically incapable. There’s nothing wrong with your fingers. As if to prove it to himself he flexed them  in an unnecessarily dramatic gesture. The blockage was in his mind and had nothing to do with his hands. And he couldn’t flex his mind. Well, some folk might say you could, but he was always glad Alexander had no time for those “mindset courses” himself and had no intention of inflicting them on others. He’d once said, “I’m all for sympathy and accommodation and helping people talk things through, and sometimes most folk need a pat on the shoulder or a kick up the backside, or both. But a person’s mind is their own business, and I’m not going to tell them to shift it about!”

    Leo never thought he’d have such a thought, but right now he wasn’t entirely averse to having his mind shifted about. Then he became (or told himself he did) more defiant. Did Alexander have the right to say he had to learn to drive to get the promotion? Well, come to think of it, he probably did. That was the trouble. Wasn’t it?

    Pasha could do “aloof” as well as most felines, and sometimes Leo understood why his father, who had always been more of a dog person (though he still had a bit of a soft spot for her) had said there was truth in the saying about dogs having owners and cats having staff. But sometimes she definitely, and he would never think otherwise, seemed to know when this particular servant was troubled. A warm, furry white weight landed on his lap, and a pair of uncannily blue eyes looked into his with a gimlet stare as if to say, “Listen, cats don’t drive. And we manage perfectly well without don’t we?”

    “Spoilt rotten lazy lumps like you do!” he said, scratching her under the chin in the spot he knew she liked, and trying not to dwell on the fact that he was talking to a cat (which millions of other people did) and that he was sure he had read her mind, which was more troubling, but not nearly as troubling as the driving business. “I bet you could, if you had opposable thumbs,” he said, and she gave him a look as if to say, not if we could have chauffeurs. 

    Normally it would have been a pleasant evening. He had his favourite three cheese pizza in the freezer, and a new book by one of his favourite authors. But the pizza tasted too bland and too – well, cheesy, at the same time, and he couldn’t get into the book. He kept looking at that card, even long past the time when he could have phoned “Drive-Rite”. 

    He was used to not being able to get to sleep, and often genuinely regarded his tendency to insomnia as a privilege, but this time it was different, and the only thing to be said for the small hours was that there was still a buffer between him and the next working day. He was no teetotaller, but he supposed this might have been the first time in his life he had a shot of whisky at three in the morning. He remembered a report he had once heard on people failing breathalyser tests the morning after a drinking session. Nobody’s going to breathalyse me on the bus, he thought, as he poured himself another whisky but with the awareness that he wasn’t born to be a binge drinker. Which was as well, of course, but at times an alcoholic haze seemed decidedly attractive. I want to go back to this time yesterday, he thought, when I hadn’t had that interview with Alexander and he hadn’t offered me that promotion and hadn’t given me that card from “Drive-Rite”. He had even stashed the card between a couple of loyalty cards he hardly ever used in his wallet. Finally he fell into a restless sleep and decided on waking it was a good thing he couldn’t remember his dreams. He didn’t exactly have a hangover; there was no pounding headache or ominously uneasy stomach, but he cleaned his teeth more vigorously than usual and generously swilled the mouthwash, and forced down two slices of toast to put a lining on his stomach. He knew that “feeling sorry for yourself” was often used as a euphemism for being overhung, but he felt himself cowering in a damp blanket of self-pity that had little to do with his small hours Scotch. 

    He realised that the strange thing was, if he called in sick, Alexander would almost certainly believe him and take it at face value. He wasn’t naïve, by any means, but when he trusted someone he credited them with being as “honest and decent and truthful” as he was himself. And oh, it was tempting. He still had time to make up his mind.

    Over a second cup of coffee, much as he tried to fight against it and block it out with the upbeat blandness of Breakfast Television, his dream began to come back to him. It was less than surprising that it concerned driving, and he was at the wheel of a car, but he wasn’t scared at all. He realised why the little blue car on the “Drive-Rite” card had looked strangely familiar – it was like a toy car he’d had when he was little, the same rounded corners and slight resemblance to a bubble, though this car was red and not blue. He was a little boy, and not surprisingly, in a family of drivers, he’d wanted a car for his seventh birthday. He knew it was only a pedal car, of course, but it felt real to him, and he pedalled along at a fair lick, imagining he was in a Grand Prix race. At that time his career of choice was a Grand Prix driver, and he was too young for his parents to discourage him. Just as, in his mind, he was in the home strait at the Nurburgring,  his progress was stopped by a sickening bump and crunch, and he saw little Ben Crompton, their neighbours’ toddler son, lying on the pavement in front of the car, not moving. Time didn’t seem to move either. But voices emerged from the frozen tableau. Ben’s mother, whom he called Auntie Dee, shouting, “Oh God, he’s dead, you’ve killed him!”

    The little red car wasn’t damaged, but Leo felt as if he were trapped in it, though he was desperate to get out. His grandfather rushed out of the house, his pipe still in his mouth, and scooped him into his arms as he heard the words over and over, “He’s dead, you’ve killed him!” 

    He hadn’t killed him. Ben had been knocked out, and sprained his ankle, and they kept him in hospital overnight as a precaution, but he was as right as rain within a week, and seemed totally untraumatised by the accident.   His kindergarten teacher reported that he even quite enjoyed a minor degree of celebrity with his peers. Auntie Dee bore Leo no grudges whatsoever, and even admitted that she’d probably over-reacted. But when you saw your only child lying apparently lifeless on the pavement, common sense went out of the window. 

    I’ll never get behind the wheel of a car again, never ever in my life, he had thought that day, with childish intensity. The red pedal car remained unused. His parents didn’t force him, and his dad kept it from rusting. In the end Rosalind inherited it, though she had a snazzy little pedal car of her own.

    I had forgotten about it, Leo thought, absent-mindedly picking up his mug of now lukewarm coffee. But as he sat on the bus, he realised that the opposite was true. It was time he did try to forget about it.

    Later that morning, he went online to the DVLC website to see to getting a provisional license, and made a phone call to “Drive-Rite”.



November 14, 2019 08:15

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