Yesterday I spent the day with my friend Emma, who lives in a part of Tunbridge Wells where the local residential roads are rather narrow, even the ones intended for two lanes of traffic to pass each other. And yet street parking is allowed, which creates bottlenecks.
This doesn't matter too much when the traffic is light, but at busy times - at for instance just past 6.00pm - the traffic is relentless, full of tired commuters wanting to get home, and at these pinch-points one long line of cars generally has to hold back so that a long line coming the other way can get through. This does normally work, after a fashion, if there is daylight and if all drivers are prepared to be patient. But it doesn't work well in the dark, when one can't see far ahead, can't see to reverse, can't see drivers' expressions and their (hopefully) polite gestures and acknowledgements, and headlights are right in your eye.
I got caught up in exactly that kind of after-dark nightmare.
I'd said goodbye to Emma, and was now sitting in Fiona, engine running and indicating that I wished to pull out, but wondering when that might be possible. I was parked half in the road, half over the pavement, just to give passing traffic more room to manoeuvre - and incidentally to save Fiona suffering such things as a scraped or smashed door mirror. I witnessed a harassed-looking woman, coming from one direction (slightly uphill, so some awkward clutch-and-gear-work needed), confronted by a chap coming from the other direction (slightly downhill). She couldn't see to reverse. The man didn't budge. He sat there po-faced. I was looking at him. They resolved this by creeping past each other with an inch to spare. Her face was a picture of end-of-tether annoyance, possibly despair.
I was so glad that I'd parked so much off the roadway. But as she got by, I now moved out - just as a car (that I hadn't been able to see approaching) swept around the corner. He had to brake for me, but we stayed cool, and he politely let me through, as did a couple of other male drivers a little further on. However, I gave way just as much as anybody else. Clearly no-one was going anywhere unless there were lots of give and take. But it wasn't easy to judge, in the dark, whether one should move forward or hang back. Some pushy drivers were being more than cheeky. Some were letting the prospect of getting home have absolute priority, and were prepared to adopt a 'let me through, curse you' attitude. Nobody in their right mind would want to mess with someone like that. Better to stay calm and let them go.
Most of the cars were smaller than mine. And it struck me that Fiona really wasn't at all suitable as a town car. She was just a bit too big for this stuff. I hadn't really understood this when driving around Brighton. But Tunbridge Wells brought it home to me. Thank goodness I lived out of town!
And then I got caught out.
The road was straight, but there was a line of parked cars on my side of it. This constricted the road width so that two cars wouldn't be able to ease past each other. Short convoys were going through while drivers on the other side of the road waited until they had passed; then it would be their turn.
I joined the tail end of one such convoy, but before I had passed all of the parked cars, the driver at the front of the oncoming queue decided to move forward. This blocked my way. He was driving a quite new, white, 14-registration car - a Hyundai, I think. I didn't want to argue about who had the right of way. I decided to back up, if that were possible. But in the dark, with all those dazzling headlights, reversing wasn't a simple matter. I managed to slowly move back two car's-lengths, then realised that I had nowhere to reverse into, because the traffic coming up behind me had filled the spot where I might have gone. I had no escape route, and was stuck. Hyundai Man could be as annoyed as he pleased: I couldn't get out of his way.
Then I noticed that Hyundai Man had a great option available to him. There was a wide stretch of pavement he could mount, and pass me that way. The kerb was low, and would be kind to his tyres. No pedestrians were around. No lamp-posts were in the way. I wondered why he hadn't already seen this obvious solution.
In daylight, my plight would have been obvious, and I could have given him a pantomime of conciliatory gestures, conveying this message: 'Whoops! Sorry I misjudged your intentions! As you can see, I can't go back. But look, what if you pass me using that convenient bit of pavement? It seems almost made for the purpose!'
But he probably couldn't see that I was stuck. It was too dark, and Fiona's bulk was hiding what was happening behind me. Although Hyundai Man wasn't actually hooting me, you could tell by the way he edged forward that he was impatient, and close to losing his temper. I wondered if he would be getting out of his car - never mind the other traffic - and then stalking up to my own, bent on giving me a piece of his mind with a limited but vile vocabulary.
Why didn't he use that lovely stretch of prime pavement? Anyone on the ball would be up on it in a flash. Certainly any resourceful man of action. Indiana Jones would have done it. But really he didn't need to be Indiana Jones to turn his steering wheel just a little, and get up there. I had to do things like this all the time, so that all those Unstoppable Important Men coming towards me could pass. Why not him?
I felt sure it was useless making any in-car signs, shrugs or other gestures. He just wouldn't see them.
And yet the impasse had to be resolved. Too many people were being held up. So I opened my door window, stuck out my arm (which I hope he could see) and pointed to the pavement. I didn't stab the air - I just waved the hand to indicate what might be done.
Well, he roared forward, and did get by using the pavement - as if he'd seen that solution all the time - but he shouted at me as he did so. I didn't quite catch it, but it sounded like 'You Cocksure Bitch!!' - which doesn't make sense to me, since I did reverse as far as I could, and had generally given way to him.
It must have been my hand gesture. Perhaps he found it too imperious - as if I considered myself lofty, and was giving him an order. So he took umbrage. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, imagining his having one hell of a bad day at work, including a humiliating ticking off from his boss. He wouldn't have liked a woman (in a car bigger than his) making gestures at him, however well-intentioned. The last straw, in fact.
Fortunately the cars behind him had somehow seen the drama unfolding, and had hung back, so that I was able to drive on without another Considerate Gentleman swearing at me. I gratefully flashed my thanks to them.
I now remember that I ran into another example of male driver impatience when going home last year, in Tonbridge, and I'm now thinking that Kent abounds with short-fused abusive men of this type.
I really wouldn't like to be Hyundai Man's wife or girlfriend. How horrible that would be.