There is a true story we tell about when my wife and I bought our first car. We wanted something that went forward, something compact and something cheap, definitely second hand. The only other stipulation was that it had to have a boot large enough for me to put my bike in. I would concede to taking the bike wheels off if I absolutely had to.
Picture us cycling together up the busy duel carriage way that is the Dundonald Road out of Belfast, to visit a second hand car dealer. And then my prizing my bike in and out of the boot of various cars on the forecourt to find one that might do the job.
We ended up with a little Korean number called a Daewoo Kalos. Though compact, it happened to have a particularly tall boot and – as later perfected – with a twist here and a push there it would take one road bike nice and snug, with the wheels tucked in afterwards.
This was before we had two children you understand. Once they came along I earned a degree in car packing. The kids didn’t seem to mind getting shoved in with their toys, luggage and various cycling accoutrements, even if it meant their faces were pressed up against the windows and their legs were bent at unfortunate angles.
They had it easier when we weren’t taking my bike along. But that wasn’t very often.
That Daewoo was the car in which I drove both of my newborns home from hospital. It was the car in which I travelled to my first ever bike race. And yes, it took a few bruises along the way.
The affectionate scrape down the side, applied by my wife the day after we bought it. The caved in front panel after a disagreement with some concrete in an East London car park. The dent in the door, the result of my wrestling with an old fridge too close to the car. The random dashboard light that couldn’t quite decide whether the driver airbag was engaged or not. The long since lost radio, with the defunct CD player full of coins inserted by the children.
These things happen. The guy at our local garage in Essex would often be happy to fix it up with duct tape, year after year, before passing the Daewoo for an MOT.
But a month ago – with its drivers living back in Northern Ireland, just a few miles from where we first bought it – our little silver sliver of Korea finally surrendered. The garage announced it was terminal. Over here, MOT tests are independent of garages. I suspect the pronouncement was well overdue.
It was a relief to some extent. For a year or more, I’ve had a secret hankering for a Citroen Berlingo. A proper family car. A motor which will easily fit my bike in the back (wheels still engaged), some luggage, a picnic basket, kids, and whatever else you’d care to throw in it, and still leave enough legroom, plus one or two snacks for the journey.
We actually settled on a Peugeot Teepee. If you know anything about cars (I don’t), it’s essentially a Berlingo with a Peugeot badge stuck to the front. Let’s be honest, it’s a van with windows. Ours is black, it looks like a Hearse, but boy is it roomy (I think I just aged five years.)
Only there’s a problem. On Wednesday, we’d used the internet to choose the Berlingos and Teepees we were going to test drive and we booked a Friday appointment with the second hand dealership to do it.
But on the Thursday I heard from the DVLA. The thud of a thick envelope onto the doormat told me I had been banned from driving again. For all the MRIs and results days and blood tests and medication I’ve had, it was the worst news I’d received for a long time.
You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, and there’s no more parking lots for me any time soon, Joni.
When I was first diagnosed with a brain tumour – in fact, from the day my GP came round with the news it was suspected – he told me I could no longer drive. Anyone who has epileptic seizures (thanks to a tumour or for any other reason) is automatically banned from six months or more. From what I understood at the time, it was unlikely I’d every drive again.
At the time we lived in a small village in the Essex countryside. The nearest shop was over two miles away. Apart from the school run, which was a walk, I became trapped when it came to moving anything that wouldn’t fit with me on my bike. That included my two children, who I could no longer take swimming or for an after-school treat.
No trips to the shops. No hassle-free days out with the kids by myself. No drops off at parties or play dates. No driving so my wife could have a drink (and I don’t drink thanks to my meds.) No driving to early-morning cycle events without waking the whole family and asking them to take me there, exactly the reason we’d wanted a roomy boot in the first place.
Of course it was not the end of the world. But I found the loss of my driving genuinely disabling and definitely depressing. It meant my wife had to drive us everywhere. Trips long and short, trips abroad, journeys around the country to visit friends.
I felt helpless, guilty and isolated. My sudden inability to drive was a key factor in our decision to move out of the countryside and back to a town: one with shops, playgrounds and great transport links within walking distance.
The first three or four months of living with a low grade brain tumour are ones of devastation, fear and confusion. Then the grind sets in: the seizures, the drugs and most grating of all for me, the inability to drive.
It seems overdramatic, but in a world where we’ve taught ourselves that popping into a car is a right, and that it’s the most natural and obvious thing in the world, not being able to drive is an invisible yet tough-to-deal-with symptom of a brain tumour. It somehow changes the very essence of who you once were. And there can be no going back.
Or that’s what I thought.
Then, earlier this year, a reader of these pages pointed me to the driving legislation that had recently changed. It seemed, if you have epilepsy where the seizures are consistent and stable for over a year; and if your seizures don’t affect your consciousness or ability to act; and if you have the backing of your neurologist, then you can apply to get your driving licence back.
In my case, because I’d voluntarily surrendered my licence, I could begin driving just as soon as my application reached the DVLA. Sure there were forms to fill in. The DVLA would check with my doctors. But all that was a formality. I met the criteria, it was just a matter for the paperwork. And in the meantime I could drive.
Release. Joy. Freedom. And a weight from my wife’s shoulders. My first drive was to take my kids for an ice cream.
It took seven months – looking back now, seven wondrous months – to get the DVLA to look at my case. Seven wondrous months for them to see the obvious and send me my licence back. I even chased them three times, just because I wanted to carry my licence in the car, instead of a print-out of the legislation.
Seven wondrous months until that dull thud on the doormat. From inside I’d expected to pull out my licence, my face staring back at me. But instead it was a waffling letter that concluded my application was refused.
My emotions: confusion, anger and then regret that I’d even chased them for an answer. Would the slow grind of DVLA bureaucracy have kept me driving for many more months if I hadn’t bugged them? I was disappointed that my wife would once again be the only one able to sit behind the wheel. I might as well go out and buy one of those stickers for the back window: ‘Mum’s Taxi’.
I’ve appealed the decision. The legislation is very clear and I do meet the standard. I’ve checked and my neurologist still firmly backs my ability to drive. I’ve sent the package back, with a detailed note about why they’ve got it wrong. But having taken seven months to make the first decision, I don’t have high hopes for it to be considered any time soon. And this time, I can’t drive while I wait.
Before I was banned, we’d planned a two-week Christmas trip around England, visiting friends we hadn’t seen since the move to Belfast. Driving home for Christmas, but it’ll be my wife only behind the wheel.
Happily enough it’ll be our new (second-hand) Peugeot Teepee she’ll be driving. With any luck we’ll have my bike in the boot, next to a pile of presents. We’ll have excited children in the back seats enjoying their newly discovered space. I guess I don’t mind being navigator this time. I’m sure the DVLA ticked the wrong box and I’ll soon be behind the wheel again.
And our old car? The dealership offered us £100. That’ll fill the tank on our new car one-and-a-bit times, helping to fuel our Christmas road trip. I can think of a no more festive send off for our dearly missed dented Daewoo.