I’m sorry to say I’ve been pulled over by the police for speeding. One minute I was cruising along – in a bit of a daze, it has to be said – and the next thing I was sitting in a five series Beamer cop-car while the nice officer printed out my yard long yellow ticket of shame. After 34 years of motoring, my license is now besmirched with three skull and cross-bones (endorsements). There was also a sixty pound fine. The fine is neither here nor there, but those endorsements are going to haunt me for the next four years.
Altogether then, a bit of a bad day?
Well, yes, indeed a bad month so far really, but not on account of that traffic violation. After all, there are worse losses at sea, as my mother used to say. Strange, that use of the past tense – I’m still getting used it.
The stretch of road I was travelling is one I drive every day and it’s always had a forty limit. In recent weeks though, a two hundred yard stretch of it has been lowered to thirty. It sounds lame, but I really hadn’t noticed the new signs. So even when the cop-car settled on my tail, I felt safe, making sure the speedometer was reading a little under forty. The cars in front of me got away with it. I got the flashing blue lights and the humiliation of a very public pull over.
It’s no excuse of course, that my head was in a different place. I should have seen those thirty MPH signs, which are as plain as day, and if I was really so distracted by my mother’s death, then I shouldn’t have been driving in the first place, should I? But at least I know it’s a thirty limit now. And I promise to be more careful in the future.
My sons thought it was ironic. They say I’m the slowest driver in the world and something of an embarrassment. Maybe my credibility has gone up a little now? Number two son was the most comforting, telling me I’d done well to reach my fifties without acquiring some kind of motoring violation. I suppose he’s right. My good lady also told me it was better to be philosophical about it than beating myself over the head. No use resisting it Michael. Remember that one? There are bigger things to deal with here – so get over it!
Resist it? No, I didn’t resist it. At least I tried not to. I tried to let it wash on through because I was conscious of being in a fragile state and I could do without the extra damage. So what did I feel, sitting there in that cop-car, while the man went through his “booking the motorist” script? Well, I felt very little, because only a small part of me was actually there.
Some of me was still sitting with the Reverend Deacon, attached to the local Catholic church, just an hour earlier, who, after a long and emotionally moving chat about my mother, had raised his hand, and the good book, and offered me his blessing. I’m not a Catholic, not much of anything with a label these days, and my mother, raised a Catholic, was severely lapsed to the tune of fifty years or so – though the Reverend Deacon politely and charmingly disputed there was such a thing as a lapsed Catholic.
Anyway, I didn’t really feel qualified to be receiving that blessing, but I was grateful for it all the same, thinking I could probably use the help. But to be pulled over by the cops an hour later? Well,… surely the Lord moves in mysterious ways?
Another part of me was standing in the chapel of rest at the funeral home, the day before. I’d not really been able to associate the deceased person before me with my mother, but she had at least looked peaceful, and though I’d known the effect was entirely cosmetic, it had helped to soften the memory of the last time I’d seen her, the day she’d passed away.
And of course, another part of me, perhaps the most significant part, was still there that day, at her bedside, bearing witness to her passing, while praying to a god I’d no idea I could be so familiar with. For good measure I’d also prayed, Chinese style, to the ancestors, calling them back from across as many generations as I could remember, to lend a hand, because in a situation like that you need all the spiritual support you can get, whether you believe in that sort of thing or not.
I have the feeling they didn’t let us down. I have the feeling that in our darkest hour I crossed a threshold into the most extraordinary metaphysical realm and felt myself carried aloft, embraced by the loving arms of an ancestry I’d never dared trust, until that moment, to be real .
So,… there was the cop, a big chap in a nicely pressed shirt, but curiously grubby trousers, and he was telling me I’d have to take my licence in to the cop-shop within the next seven days. And there I was, making a mental calculation, wondering if I could fit that in with everything else that was going on – like the small matter of my mother’s funeral, and appointments with solicitors, and a million other pressing post mortem details. And I wondered briefly about saying to him: look, cut me some slack will you?
He might have made some sympathetic noises, I suppose, but I’m not sure how much power of discretion these guys have once the details of your misdemeanour have been punched into the big-brother machine, and anyway it seemed – I don’t know – undignified, I suppose. So I said nothing and took the ticket. And my mother would not have wanted me to be a cry-baby about it anyway.
I’ve never liked the way policemen say “sir”. It’s better than being called something impolite, I suppose, but there’s always something false about it. This policeman’s sir came at me cold, impersonal and slightly weary. It reminded me of the cold, impersonal and slightly weary hospital doctor who, two weeks before, had discharged my mother at dead of night, in obvious pain, and unable to stand unaided – sent her home to die because there was nothing more he could do for her, and he needed that bed for someone he had more of a chance of helping than an eighty three year old geriatric with advanced terminal cancer, who might have lingered in his ward for weeks.
How many more of you are out there, tonight in that situation, you poor souls? My thoughts are with you.
So, I’d driven her home in shocked horror at the withdrawal of my nation’s compassion, a compassion apparently metered by the scalpel of economic expediency, and an ongoing political disaster piloted by opportunist powerbrokers, oblivious to the small lives who make up the conscious and moral majority of the people they claim to serve.
It was a short sharp lesson in contemporary reality, that although our professional public servants still do their very best, they’ve also got this unspeakable army of amoral bean-counters on their backs. So it’s unwise to rely on them to be there at your hour of greatest need – at least not in any truly meaningful sense. For that you’re going to need the presence of those who love you, also if you can arrange it, the loving presence of your god and, with still more luck, a blessed over-pressed and underpaid community nurse with a vial of Diamorphine, ready to send you off into your dreams.
Your ego caves in, absolutely, at times like these. It realises resistance is futile, that for all it’s huffing and puffing, it’s pathetic self importance is no more than a teardrop in the ocean. And when the ego finally shuts up, you discover what’s left is, perhaps incredibly, a stillness, and a loving peace like no other.
So even though I was sitting in a cop car, accused of an indictable offence, as the officer ominously put it, and being handed a speeding ticket, feeling it punctuating insensitively, as it did, one of the most emotionally sensitive periods of my life, I found it hard to take him seriously. Instead I felt an incongruous, yet also a very real loving presence. It held together the various bits of me that were still strung out and floundering in the wake of dark events those past weeks, the likes of which I can never speak of in full, and it was telling me to be calm, to be mindful, but above all to stop struggling. Because a rabbit caught in a snare basically strangles itself to death because its instinct is to struggle, and it lacks the insight to pursue any other course. If we can stop struggling, however, we stand a chance of untangling ourselves from the myriad snares of the world. We survive, and we discover a better way to be.
I’m not sure if smiling at a policeman is a good idea, but I found myself smiling at him anyway. I heard myself telling him it was no problem, that I should have been paying more attention. I think I even made some lame joke about it being a fair-cop. He didn’t smile back. He thanked me for my time in a tone of voice that implied no gratitude at all, and he dismissed me curtly with yet one more policeman’s “sir”. Then he swung that fat five-series-Beamer round and headed back to his hunter’s lair with his radar gun, ready to blow a hole in someone else’s day.
I like to think I dismissed his sickly presence from my life as quickly as he dismissed me. He was just a man doing his job, and it would have been churlish to wish him any bad Karma on account of it, but I trust he had slim pickings from the day he pulled me over.
We said our final goodbyes to my mother on April 12th. The Reverend Deacon did a splendid job, memorable and intensely moving, and I took comfort in commending her into the care of a faith she had once sworn an allegiance to. If I made a mistake in any of that, I hope you can forgive me Mum, but what we did was done with love, respect, and an appreciation for the life you lived, for us.
On the way home from the crematorium I sat in a black Rolls Royce, cruising along rural lanes I’d known since childhood, and the funeral director became chatty, talking about many things – the lovely spring sunshine, the bluebells, and the first dandelions making their appearance in the wayside green. Death and renewal – a curious juxtaposition, but a comforting one. He also talked about the speed limit, and how I’d do well to pay attention to a certain stretch of road that’s recently become notorious as one of the worst speed traps in Lancashire.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “I think I know the one you mean.”
Thanks for listening.
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