The Bright Side Of The Road

Sarah Turner was the sort of girl who ought to have had hazard-warning lights fitted, and she knew it too. Whatever she got, she wasn’t ever happy with it. She only ever appreciated something when she saw it in her rear view mirror, but by then it was usually too late to go back. In case you haven’t guessed from the metaphors, Sarah was a driving instructor too.

She’d been single three years before she met Ronnie and as with any other situation, given enough time, she’d grown accustomed to being on her own and moaning about it. It wasn’t for want of opportunity. She met lots of single men in her job, and a good number of them ended up fancying her rotten – which usually worked in Sarah’s favour. Being smitten meant her pupils didn’t concentrate on their lessons as much as they ought to, so they ended up having to take more and more in order to reach a passable standard. Sometimes they even talked themselves out of putting in for their test (“I don’t think I’m ready,” – when patently they were) purely to spend more time under Sarah’s tutelage. When compared to her older, somewhat less aesthetic colleagues at the driving school, Sarah’s lessons-to-pass ratio was woeful, yet she had no shortage of willing students… most of them seventeen, and walking gear sticks of testosterone. But though she was only ten years past that herself, and had no disinclination towards younger men, she wasn’t about to realise some teenage masturbationary cliché merely to fill the vacancy in her own life.

Besides, she was comfortable on her own. She enjoyed the attention. There’s a certain kind of spotlight that only shines on a single woman in her twenties, and for Sarah it was a Super Trouper. It wasn’t just the scrutiny of the opposite sex she found so appealing, but the diligence and concern of her own. Her friends calling up and inviting her round so she wouldn’t be alone on holidays and special occasions. Colleagues offering the use of husbands and boyfriends for “those little jobs round the home” (although Sarah was quite competent at putting up shelves and fixing dripping taps herself, she never turned them away). And, of course, the matchmaking.

“There’s this wonderful single guy lives just across the road from us – he’d be perfect for you!”

“This friend of ours, he split up with his wife last year. He’s a little older than you, but he’s such a caring… So thoughtful… Not at all ‘macho’.”

“You must meet my cousin Mark.”

But though Sarah was always flattered by the recommendations, she rarely took them up. What if they didn’t work out? She’d feel like a disappointment: not to her date, but to his advocate. Besides, there was something else she liked about being on her own, though it wasn’t something she could have put into words. At least not until she finally succumbed to the inevitable…

Sarah met Ronnie on a frosty February morning when her first pupil of the day decided not to Give Way where the sign, and simple common sense, indicated – and ploughed straight into the side of Ronnie’s oncoming Saab. To a degree, Sarah blamed herself. Partly because she hadn’t been quick enough on the dual controls, but mostly because she’d known full well that Gordon, her failed-three-times co-pilot, was one of her more infatuated students, and yet she’d worn that skirt without even giving it a second thought. Or perhaps she had, subconsciously encouraging the consequences.

Fortunately, Ronnie proved the ideal crashee. He was kind, concerned, understanding – and, Sarah thought, dashing (though he had been well within the speed limit) – without even a moment’s recrimination. Perhaps it was the skirt? Nevertheless, as they traded insurance details on the edge of the ring road, Sarah dared to add something extra. Her private number, ‘Call me!’, and three cross kisses.

And so began the great romance of her twenties, with a man who proved both addictive and infuriating in equal measures. On the one hand, Ronnie was handsome and generous and dry-witted and calm. On the other, he revealed a surprisingly nerdish side that a shallower Sarah would have spurned and sneered at, were she not so enamoured. He worked in computers, and for his hobby enjoyed hijacking wiki-sites with unbelievably bogus information. The fact that hazelnuts grow upon, and in certain parts of the world are farmed upon, dead bodies was one of his. As was the rumour that the star of many popular 80’s teen movies was once addicted to eating his own zit puss. And the spurious pub bore trivia that a young Lee Harvey Oswald sang the ‘Doo Wah’ backing vocals on Frankie Lymon’s 1956 number one, ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’? All down to Ronnie. On top of that, he bought birthday cards with fart jokes on them (even for the love of his life), wrote ‘ect’ when he meant to write ‘etc.’, and once, when Sarah was engaging him in what she’d imagined to be the foreplay of a comedy pillow fight, had instead to be rushed to the local A&E after a nasty reaction from an undisclosed allergy to feathers. Yet for all his idiocies, Sarah loved him madly, and might still have been with him, were it not for some strange factor beyond both their controls – an undeniable shift in the attitudes of others.

The truth was, people paid Sarah far less attention once they heard she was in a relationship. Gone were the puzzled expressions and head scratching pouts, the familiar-yet-flattering queries – how could someone as sweet and/or pretty and/or funny and/or gorgeous as her be without a man? There was no more matchmaking, no more confidential “enjoy your freedom” winks from long-term spouses, and a decided change in the way certain of her male acquaintances (not just the single ones) spoke to, joked with, and looked at her. Even her students seemed different – her pass rate increased, but her waiting list went down. Surely word couldn’t have spread so fast round the seventeen-year-old male learner driver community… could it? Well, it was a small town.

But it went much further than that. Beyond everybody suddenly starting to take Sarah for granted, there was something else she found herself missing from her single days. The ache of loneliness was gone. It seemed strange – no, downright bizarre – to miss such an emotion, but there was an intensity to loneliness that no amount of kisses over the handbrake, linked arm walks down by the canal, or cross-restaurant smiles could ever hope to match. She missed the late night ache of it, the long blank weekends, the silent pause down the telephone line after she told her mum, ‘No, not at the moment, no-one special’. As well as the attention of others then, she missed their sympathy. Put bluntly, she missed having people feel sorry for her. Maybe she actually had been better off before Ronnie…

“I’m sorry,” she told him, on their last night in the bowling alley bar, “I just… I counted them up – all the traffic lights between your house and mine – and there’s just too many to realistically sustain a relationship.” She’s thought long and hard about it and this had been the best she could come up with. It was pathetic, she was ashamed of herself, but it was too late to go back now. “I mean, come on – you drive that road often enough… Doesn’t it make you insane, all the red lights? Don’t you think it’s maybe somebody trying to tell us something?”

“No,” said Ronnie, staring down at his scorecard (he’d won that night too – but only because she let him), “no, I’ve never even considered it.”

And so things returned to how they had been before, exactly how Sarah wanted… except they never can, and never do. It took her a while to realise this, but realise it she did, a couple of months later, crawling along with a jumpy pupil on the high street. There on the zebra, having just come out of the fun pub, Ronnie – with his arm around another girl.

“Emergency stop!” said Sarah, slamming her palm down hard on the dashboard. The student obliged, and the sound of horns filled the early spring air.

“Stay here,” said Sarah, getting out of the car and crossing the road, oblivious to the already-angry traffic. “Practise your… waiting for roadside assistance…”

So there she stood, outside the Firkin, cringing and cursing herself while Ronnie and his new girlfriend carried on up the street towards the gaudy yellow facade of the Golden Sunset Chinese. She was filled with that same crazy self-loathing “you idiot!” sensation one gets after dropping the last toilet roll into the loo, only magnified a hundred times. And now it was too late. Too late to have realised that objects in the rearview mirror may appear brighter, happier, and more desirable than they actually are.

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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