NOVEMBER 20, 2013

Having got Mum on board, I’m about to drive off with her and Dad in the back. But first I pick up Mabel’s 1968 diary from the front passenger seat and ask Ian for a date at random.

“June the Sixth.”

Dad can always be relied on to pick a summer’s day. “OK. Are you listening, Mum? This is what you were up to in the summer of ’68. ‘
Driving lesson 2pm. Did a reverse turn. Robert Kennedy died.’'

“Which Kennedy?” asks Ian.

“Robert,” I repeat. But I’m not so interested in that. Already I’m flicking though the diary to see when Mum started driving lessons. It seems it was May. On the 18th she wrote that she had a driving lesson at 11am that involved a lot of gear changing. A week later it was clutch control that she was mastering. It seems she was having a lesson a week with an instructor, plus lessons in the evening from Ian.

“Was Dad patient with you, Mum?” I ask, starting the car. No answer from Mabel. “I had to be at times,” says Ian, as I drive us through the town and out onto the open road. Oh yes, Dad would have been patient all right. Just as he’s patient with her now, holding her hand, talking to her, singing even. Though getting little or nothing back.

Why did Mabel learn to drive at the age of 42? In the long term, her driving license was the key to her being able to hold down a part-time job when my parents were able to afford a second car. But, in the short term, it meant Ian and Mabel weren’t tied to a Saturday shopping trip. Instead, Mabel could drive to the shops on a weekday evening, with me on board to help carry the groceries. I recall how boring I found traipsing around the supermarket and I tried to protest my way out of that particular duty. But Mum couldn’t carry all the shopping on her own and so that was that. The task became a lot easier when I realised I could stay in the car and read, as long as I got to Mum’s side before she was through the checkout. But I’m getting ahead of things, Mabel hasn’t even passed her test yet.

When we stop for tea I flick through the diary. Mum failed her first test on October 11, 1968. Why did she fail?
‘Drove for a bit with the brake on so that did it.’ She took the test for a second time in the first week of December. I tell my parents that I’m about to read aloud the diary entries leading up to it.

“’Sunday. '
Duncan was sick and quite a lot of black blood etc. came from his throat and nose. He felt a little better after that.’”

Did I?

‘Driving test 11am. Duncan’s nose started to bleed at 10.10am and stopped just as the doc came in at 10.25. I wanted to put off the test but Ian got Judy to come up and I managed to get to the test centre at 11am and I went ahead and passed my Driving Test. I felt on top of the world. Duncan is much better, his temperature is normal.’

It seems that I helped Mum pass her driving test by taking her mind off it! Actually, I do remember feeling quite proud of myself when, lying on my sick bed, I said I’d be all right and that Mum should go off and do the test. And I remember how she was when she came home - radiant with happiness. When you are given official leave to roam the highways and byways of the country at will, it is one of those magical moments in life. I was in my mid-30s when I learned to drive. I was living in London, so didn’t need to drive at the time. But I could see the day was coming when my being able to drive would contribute to my parents’ welfare. And so it’s turned out.

I’m in the back seat now, trying to feed Mabel some cake. She’s staring into the middle distance, ignoring the cake when I wave it in front of her. Ignoring it when I waft it under her nose and even when I touch her lips with it.

“Cake, Mum!” I say for about the fifth time.

After a full minute, she realises what’s on offer. She takes a bite out of the cake and I know that once she starts chewing then she’ll be aware of the treat until its finished. She won’t take another bite before she’s ready though, so I have to be prepared to be patient. I am prepared to be patient.

I remind Dad (and Mum) of Mabel’s prime driving days. We were living in a village, twenty miles or so from Nottingham, where Mum had a job working in Boots.

“Mabel’s Mini,” Ian recalls.

“You loved motoring back and forth to work in that blue Mini, didn’t you, Mum? On your working days you would get home buzzing from your day selling stuff in the perfume department, or the sports department, or electrics.”

“Tales from the retail trade,” recalls Ian.

Mabel doesn’t say anything because she’s not heard me. The cake’s finished now. So is the tea. Mabel’s driving days ended seven years ago, when we bought this Renault. We’d got rid of the previous car because it was getting awkward for Mum to drive. We didn’t realise that with the early stages of dementia setting in, it would prove impossible for Mabel to learn the slightly new ways of this car. She quickly lost confidence in her driving and it became clear that she was no longer safe behind the wheel.

Ian drove on. Until when? I suppose it was about two years ago, when he was 85, when I realised that he wasn’t keen on even driving from one quiet spot on a country road to another any more. So I stopped asking him if he wanted to.

I look from the back seat where the three of us are sitting, forward onto the empty driver’s seat. Mabel and Ian got so much from their years of driving, but those days are over now. Or are they? Well, in part that’s down to memory. And in part it’s down to me.

“You passed your driving test, Mum!” I say, giving her a squeeze. “Remember!”

 - 199
Above: Outside Fernbank in 1949. 19 years before Mabel learned to drive in Hamilton.

Below: Outside The Beeches in 1994. Mabel still had 12 years of driving left in her, though in the family album she's written: "Goodbye to "Mini" it's off to the scrapyard."