When I was in my late 20’s and hadn’t yet passed my driving test, I bought a scooter. A cream Vespa, with a matching cream box and a 125cc nippy engine so I could zoom off from the lights like Evel Kineval. I wore a petrol blue PVC wet look mac and sixties boots and thought I was pretty cool. I used to park it up near the nursery. I would push Daisy’s buggy, laden with her baby paraphernalia, her lunch, my lunch, my bag full of teaching folders, up the hill in Brighton, all the way to Young Sussex Daycare. I would dump all the stuff and then peel off the rain cover of my scooter and jump on it and speed off.
I lost my cool a few times as I couldn’t reach the ground with both feet at once, so sometimes the scooter would tip from under me and slide over, sometimes on top of me, sometimes on black ice. Usually, I was wearing heels. I would cry then and have to get a passer-by to help me lift the scooter back up and then I would get back on it, a bit wobbly, with ripped tights. It was worse when it happened in the school carpark as year 10 would be watching and laughing at me. But in general, I was scooter-pro.
Almost 20 years later and here I am in Java, Indonesia. It is 35 degrees outside and I am staying in a house in a village which is not next to a row of shops where there is food. The only way to not have to walk for an hour in the heat is to use the scooter parked outside. How hard can it be I think – I was ace twenty years ago, on my cream Vespa.
The small streets are pot-holed and dusty. The big roads are jam-packed full of hundreds and hundreds of weaving, revving, blazing motorbikes and scooters filled with experts and no traffic rules. My Indonesian host had told me there were no safety laws so I did not need a helmet. I wore one anyway, and with no billowing hijab and my pink nose and sensible german travelling shoes, I was a flashing tourist beacon.
I make it into town somehow, edging my way along the edgiest edge of the roads. stopping every few kilometres to check on my phone where I am and then memorising the next few kilometres. In fits and starts I get there. I leave the scooter with a friendly kiosk lady for 3 thousand rupiah and hang my helmet on the handle like a local.
In the afternoon, I wait for the ferocity to seep out of the sun which is around 4.30 in the afternoon. So does everyone else. En masse the whole of Yogyakarta appears to decide that now is the precise time they want to race home on their scooters. I sit, faltering at a junction for a few minutes waiting for a break in the traffic so I can turn into the main road. A few more minutes. There is no break. A bike comes up behind me and streaks around me into the traffic and off he goes straight to where I want to be. I swallow and do the same. I’m in – I have made it into the fray.
I know I have two sets of lights and then a right turn. I stick to the edge as traffic flows past me – I am a pebble on the riverbed of the hot grey road. I miss my turn. Or at least I see my turn but can find no earthly way of having the nerve to cross the flow and take it. So I go the wrong way, pull over to consult the map, and know I cannot possibly turn and defy the traffic to get onto the other side of the road. I continue, and plan to take the next turn and double back. I miss the next turn for the same reason. I go further and further from where I should be, the blue line on my map adjusting without comment. At this rate I will never get home and the sun is setting. I don’t cry.
I am overtaken by a woman with a tiny baby staring wide-eyed into the traffic and a toddler clinging on behind her like a monkey. She is wearing a helmet and her pink frilly hijab flows out behind her into the child’s face. The children have no helmets and blink in the dust. She speeds away from me. Scooters and trail bikes and vans and motor-tricycles and big white cars with darkened windows pass me. I inch into the middle of the road as I am determined that at some point in my life I will actually turn right and if I am not in the middle how will I do it? I am going over 30 kilometres per hour and I am much much too slow for everyone and they beep and swerve around me and I am being swallowed by fumes and traffic is pressing in on both sides and I feel my nerve start to go. I am in a hot dry burning bottleneck and I am the cork.
When I was 14 I used to play in the rectory garden on a trail bike with the vicar’s son Nigel. I had bare feet and shorts on mostly and I’d do skids and swerves and rev the engine. Once I went through the rectory fence. Literally through it – I turned the throttle instead of the brake and there was a hole in the fence the shape of me and the bike. I fell off and badly burnt my bare calf on the exhaust. I got back on, shaken.
The traffic is revving as one humming growling body, as we wait for the lights. I rev too, but with my brake on, feeling the little scooter ready to jump into the action. What if I go too fast and slam into the two schoolboys in front of me? What if I am too cautious and cause a concertina behind and bikes pile up on me and they all blame me then I fall off? I tell myself to keep my cool as I have been in worse situations. We are a thrumming jumping motorcycle mass and we leap as one and lean into the junction and suddenly I am with them, not too quick or slow, not dead, and I am flowing along the smog-filled river with the setting sun in my eyes.
After several further stops, turns, turnarounds and pauses to check my dying phone and swallow hopeless feelings, I feel sure I recognise a particularly vicious pothole. I have to decide whether to veer into the middle of the road to avoid it like everyone else, or go over it in a straight line and get a jolt of agonising pain in my crushed joint. I choose to swerve, like an Indonesian. Then I bump my way down the little lane to home and turn the engine off. My host asks how my day was. I tell her I took a little detour on the way home to have a look around.
Manc-skills work anywhere.