There is a pool just before a waterfall. Clear. Still. With no waves to churn trouble. No silt to be stirred. The water circles slowly there, unaware of the cascading chaos metres away. This pool is the known. The understood. The mastered and attained.
And yet inevitably streams of life are pulled away. It’s their nature to move. So they flow, the light carving new lines upon them, until they reach the precipice of their destinies. Momentum gathers. Water banks up against the ledge. It presses forward in desperation before, in one sickening lurch, the edge is breached. Gravity yanks the stream asunder, sending it crashing into the Unknown below.
Does the water quiver just a little, the moment it plunges over the ledge? Does it tremble once past the point of no return? I wonder.
“Do you think you’ll be alright driving a large vehicle in England? It’s the other side of the road, you know.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve driven a rickshaw in Jaipur, for Pete’s sake. What can go wrong?”
Oh how sure of myself I was back in Turkey when people had asked.
Now here I was, a few thousand kilometres north, freezing fog lacing the roads in smoky clumps, sitting behind the ample wheel of my new van, which wasn’t actually a van at all, but a truck – a mini white-boxed motorhome. And I was terrified. Because I was a Turkish fish out of water.
Roads in rural Turkey are blissful affairs; long fat belts of tarmac cruising over the steppes with no more than a handful of motorists cruising along them. You can drive for hours, wind in your hair, not a tailback in sight feeling like the smug protagonist of a Volvo commercial.
But Turkey was far away from here. I was now in south east England.
Certainly England has many things going for it, unfortunately the road system isn’t one of them. The country has strangled itself within a skein of tarmacked lines. Driving isn’t leisure, it’s serious, slow moving drudge. And the roads are very thin aren’t they? Skinny, winding cords of worriment with too many parked cars clogging up the left hand lane. I’d erroneously found my way onto such a conduit now. I should have been on the B somethingsomethingsomething, but I’d taken a wrong turning. Thus I found myself threading through rural Essex on the tiniest of lanes, muddy ditches leering at me from the edges of the asphalt.
The sky was a smudge. Grey and soggy. It filled the windscreen in ill-defined splodges. Brambles scraped the side of the van like talons on a blackboard. I puttered along the road chewing my bottom lip, guts knotted into a macramé of offal. So many worries crowded my headspace, I didn’t dare blink. I was staring so hard into the wing mirrors I had a headache.
And then I braked. Because directly in front of me, rising out of the road like a luminous yellow ghoul was a skeleton of metal rods bound in health and safety tape.
I peered down from my cab. There, occupying half of the lane, was a freshly excavated crater. Great. Just fantastic.
My every muscle tautened. Could I squeeze past the hole? I had to. I couldn’t reverse as I was on a sharp bend with those ditches on either side. Muttering a quiet prayer, I pressed the accelerator, trying my best not to think about would happen if my right wheel dropped into the hole.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a Range Rover appeared from the other direction. It faced me off, all black and brawny, the heavy tread of the tyres visible through my windscreen. It was then I felt the distinct urge to pull up the hand brake, stick my hands in the air and bawl.
How strange life is! How relative. I’ve spent the past five years dealing with snakes, bulldozers, forest fires, wild boar, and maniac hunters blithely firing shots over my head. I thought my days of heart-clutching terror were over. This is Europe after all. Safe and sound.
Yet in truth it is not danger we are afraid of. No. For danger is everywhere. In the food we eat, the air we breathe. Every time we cross the road. What we really fear is the Unknown. The not yet understood, nor mastered.
As it happened, the Range Rover slowed. To my surprise, it reversed a fair way back to the main road, and allowed me to pass. But as I pulled away and onto another traffic filled B road, an undertow of terror still dragged at my nerves.
That night I had a nightmare. In it, I filled my van with all my friends from Turkey, drove it into a tunnel and scraped the left-hand side clean off. The left-hand light was still dangling from its socket in my mind’s eye when I awoke. Whimpering, I grabbed at my duvet, just to check I was in bed.
The next morning I walked to the front room and pulled back the curtains. There was my truck towering over the drive. And I felt sick to the depths just to look at it. How could I ever have considered buying this monstrosity and driving through Europe in it? How? I slapped my hand against my forehead and fumed. Where had this trepidation skulked all those hours I’d scoured the campervan section of ebay? How had it remained silent as I dragged my dad round to various corners of south east England to find my van? Where had it been when I bought the thing?
I was like the water in the pool, oblivious until the point of no return.
There was nothing to be done. I had the van. So I had to drive it. Pulling my guts together, I resolved to get behind the wheel every day until I was no longer scared.
For three days, my dad sat stoically in the passenger seat and transformed himself into a human Sat Nav. I tackled roundabouts, weaved along narrow streets full of parked cars, negotiated great armies of bollards (Britain seems to breed them). The dimensions of the van began to feel normal, while sitting in an ordinary car felt like being squashed. Soon enough, as is the case in every new event in our lives, the territory of the Unknown was pulled under my wheels. And as I rolled over it, I absorbed it, integrated it, until it became me. And I became something new. Namely White Van Woman.
In reality, the potential danger remained the same. But the Unknown was now known.
Why we are so mortally afraid of this Unknown, I have still to work out. Our fear makes no sense. It stunts our growth, reduces our capacity to adapt and thus our ability to survive and thrive. Yet this fear is everywhere; in the laments of those who want to return to bygone eras, in the repetitive blaming and suspicion of foreigners (foreigner = Unknown), in the resistance to the learning of a new skill, or the moving to a new place. When most people say they can’t go for a dream and cite any number of reasons, it is usually fear that is speaking.
What happens to the water in the pool after it plunges thousands of feet below? It bubbles and moils, pummelled by the force of the fall. But after that, it gathers itself and moves forward. If the water had eyes it would see, it now flows down a wider, brisker river, decorated with exotic new landscapes and plenty of oxygen. If it had a head it might think it was a good job it didn’t remain all its days in the pool. Because there’s so much to experience, and so little to lose.
Soon enough, I itched for the road. A solar panel was attached to my van. I bought a ferry ticket from Portsmouth to St Malo in France and packed the cupboards to the brim with what was left of my belongings. Then I opened the door and my dog climbed in. Finally, I pressed the accelerator.
Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.