This is a tale of suffering, redemption and white vans. Late last year I needed to transport some furniture from our house in Sussex to my son's rooms in central London. I should have paid a man to do it for me, but foolishly confident in my driving ability, I decided to hire a van and drive it myself. It was a white Ford Transit 280 panel van, which if you've ever driven you'll know presents special challenges to the driver. It's long and wide and you can't see out of the back. You never really know how close you are to anything else on the road. Turning corners brings with it new surprises every time. Overtaking becomes an act of reckless abandon.
My journey from London to Sussex was a two-hour version of running the gauntlet. Reversing in my home yard, I collided with a small shed, causing permanent damage. It turned out that, unknown to me, the van had a welded iron step on the back which hit obstacles before you knew you were anywhere near them. At least I owned the shed.
I loaded up the furniture, gulped down a cup of tea, and braced for the journey back. By now it was rush hour. The next three hours reduced me to a twitching, sweating wreck. My nerves shattered, I steered the monster through ever-shifting lanes, across oncoming vehicles, between chasms of buses, at last to the kerbside on Charlotte Street.
Here I found an available parking space, and set about reversing into it. As I reversed I noticed a group of three people at a pavement café waving to me. I got out, trembling violently, like one who has just endured a stormy Atlantic crossing. "The car parked behind you," they told me, pointing accusingly, "you've shifted it three feet." And so I had. "And," they said, shaking their heads in honest outrage, "it belongs to a disabled person." I examined the car. There were white scratches along its front bumper. It was parked in a disabled space. It bore a disabled badge. So now I was a bad driver and a bad man. Under the stern gaze of the café trio I left an apologetic note on the damaged car's windscreen, giving my phone number. What more could I do?
I unloaded the furniture, dripping with sweat. Wanting only to escape the monster, I drove the van back across town to its base on the Edgware Road. On arrival, the hire man told me I must fill it up with petrol before returning it. "Just charge me," I said. But he wouldn't hear of it. "The company charges double if you leave them to fill it up themselves." Still shaking from my ordeal, I waved a credit card before him, crying, "Charge away! I'll pay anything!". He gazed at me with understanding. No doubt he'd witnessed others in this state before. "Tell you what," he said, "how about I drive you to a petrol station, you fill up, and I drive her back?"
He danced the great van through the traffic with a nonchalant skill that would have shamed me had I not been so grateful. Once refuelled, he went out of his way to drop me off at Edgware Road tube station. It was an act of pity, and sheer goodness of heart.
I took the train to Oxford Circus and emerged longing with all my heart and soul for a shower and a gin and tonic. I wanted both equally, and both at once. I went into a pub and asked for a takeaway gin and tonic. Did I have my own glass? I shook my head, unable to speak. The barman, responding to my naked need as mortal to mortal, presented me with a pint filled with gin and tonic. "Keep the glass."
By the time I arrived back in Charlotte Street I had drunk three-quarters of my pint of G&T and was feeling considerably brighter. To my dismay, the café trio were still at their table. They waved as to an old friend. I looked for the car I had damaged. It was gone. "Did the disabled driver get my note?" "He wasn't disabled at all!" they cried. "He was a fit young man! You shouldn't have been so honest! You should have hit his car harder!"
The combination of alcohol and redemption eased my pain. The trio were on my side. They smiled on me. I was the good guy once more.
I took my shower and emerged to find my phone ringing. It was the non-disabled owner of the car I'd damaged. "You the chap left the note?" I confessed I was. "You made the white scratches on the bumper?" I confessed I had. "No you didn't, mate. Those scratches were already there. Thanks for doing the decent thing. Everything's cool."
There's no moral to it all. But I ended the day with a warm glow that was part gin, part soap, and part good feeling towards my fellow man. Six total strangers crossed my path that afternoon, and all six acted with kindness towards me, in their different ways. That's worth passing on.
'Motherland' by William Nicholson (Quercus £16.99, e-book £7.99) is out 14 Feb