Do you drive? Rob asks me.
We are sitting in the kitchen while Pippa glues labels to honey jars. The labels read: ‘PURE WELSH HONEY’. On either side, flowers. Beneath: ‘PUR CYMREIG MEL’. I have come into the house on my last day here, where I have been tucked away in a small cottage to write, away from the city where I come from, away from the crush and stress and noise of it, and the constant buzz of technology. Blinking phones. Traffic lights. Email notifications. Twitter. WhatsApp. Out here, there is green space, and birdsong. The occasional text message makes its way through, a brief flutter of WhatsApp communication with a friend in Paris, but otherwise, quiet. I have left my muddy walking boots by the front door, and Rob is pouring coffee. Proper coffee, he says with a grin.
I take my coffee in a mug which has a puffin stretched around the curve of it, bulging at its yellowish midsection. A puffin in mid-Wales. No, I say to Rob. I don’t drive. We have been talking about forests, and bookshops, and how we orientate ourselves: what it is to find and to lose ourselves. How easy it is to take out the wrong map in a foreign place, or to lose the map, or never to have had a map at all and to get muddled in the Street View of things, the snapshot mosaic of modern topography.
When driving downhill, Rob tells me, it’s easy to feel you might be out of control. You lose perspective. Lots of people find it hard, or if not hard, then challenging. It’s largely psychological.
I tell him I didn’t know that. I had always thought the same might be true for driving uphill, which has always made me, even as a passenger, feel mildly anxious. How can you be sure the car won’t simply start to roll backwards? How is it that it doesn’t? Has he ever felt anxious about this? I wonder if perhaps this is a non-driver’s concern, one that would vanish in a moment of good-humoured clarity if I were to find myself behind the wheel instead of beside it.
Rob thinks for a moment, then says, very slowly, no, he doesn’t worry about that. Driving uphill, he says, you can feel the car pressing into the hill, and the hill pressing back. It’s a means of orientation by physical resistance, and the locus of control is the spot at which the two forces meet. You push the car. The car pushes back. And somewhere between is the hill, which is also a force in this equation. Travelling downhill, particularly at high speed, that sense of clear orientation (driver held into place between two opposing forces) vanishes, because the car no longer feels within your control; it feels as though there are no forces acting on it, no resistance. The locus shifts, or is dislocated, and falls behind you with the rushing landscape.
We have a lot of problems in this area, with young drivers, Rob says, shaking his head and stirring honey into his coffee. I wonder to myself if this has to do with control. Young gods, testing the limits of velocity. Restless village teens impatient with the slowed-down pace of things, excited by the possibilities of rough roads, steep inclines, sharp corners. Rob thinks in more pragmatic terms. At least, he says, in older vehicles, you could feel the car’s movements, its resistance, and that of the road; you could feel the calibration of each of your own decisions – to turn, to ease on the brake, to work through each gear. And each decision had a physical reverberation; through the gearstick, the pull of the wheel as you move through a turn. Now, cars seem to be designed to remove any distraction. Ergonomics from the inside-out. The engines are whisper-quiet, the windows roll automatically, the wheels have power steering and they are kitted out with sound systems that blot out everything else. You flick a switch and it’s as if you aren’t driving at all. As he speaks, I am trying to understand this in terms of movement, closer to a language that has textures I can visualise; I think perhaps he means, you aren’t a bird in the air any more, moving through a current; you are a slipstream. I recall an accident in the local area; it had been on the national news a few days before I arrived. Rob nods. Yes, we have a lot. That one was particularly bad. Five young people died. Accidents like that simply come up on you with no warning. I think of the sets of choices we move through, the young gods and a desire to crash through systems and regulations, wilfully ignoring every stop sign, each one a chance to slow down, to stop, to change direction, to turn around. You can’t feel the give in these modern cars, Rob is saying. The warning signs are obliterated by the ergonomics of the machinery: the rattle that tells you to shift down a gear, the pull that makes you steer harder or more wide into or out of a corner. Without this, you are out in open space, simply deciding to move this way or that, and assuming the car will mirror your movements exactly. And then, suddenly, it doesn’t.
We each take a biscuit from the plate. The honey jars are stacking up in the crate by the table, gleaming with trapped sunshine. Outside, a bird calls, and I want to ask what its name is, but I don’t. I wonder how far it has flown, how hard it has had to push into the wind, or how far a single current might have taken it on its way, without it needing to engage a single wing-stroke. When I’m driving downhill, Rob says, if I ever start to feel that wildness creeping in at the corners, I know it’s isn’t the pull of freedom, but the threat of disorientation. It’s always been important to me to know where I am. I’ve always had a good sense of where I am, only needed to be in a place once to know my way around, and back there. Now that I’m getting older, it’s not as automatic. I have to work at it. I can’t afford to lose myself, my perspective, or my control. So I adjust my mind. I think to myself, a gradient is only what I perceive it to be. I level out. This is not a downhill road I am falling down. It is simply a road I am driving along. And then, I’m back in the car, back in control, and I am driving again.
Kids these days, he says, getting up to check on the hens that are clucking at the porch, they want to drive without driving. And that’s a problem.