I’ve decided to leave well on time. It’s only just after lunch and I reckon I’ll arrive at the hotel early in the evening. That means that I will drive most of the way while it’s still daylight. I get tired driving in the dark for too long, over unfamiliar roads, not sure about exits and what lies beyond, and then deep inside I’m nervous about whether or not the satnav will drop me at the right spot or whether I’ll find myself once more in the middle of nowhere with the female voice calmly telling me ‘You have reached your destination…’, and all around is dark and not a house or hotel in sight.
An hour and a half later I cruise along the M14, well on my way to the M6, then the M5, then Wales. It’s quite busy on the road, and the average speed in the outside lane is between 65 and 70 miles per hour, well within the speed limit. I leave plenty of space between my car and the car in front of me and notice in the mirror that a police car is stuck behind me and at times comes quite close up. I wonder whether it wants to get along faster, overtake me on its way to somewhere urgent, and I pull into the left hand lane, letting it pass. Two policemen in the front of the vehicle look at me, sideway, and then say something to each other. Something is up and I wonder what it is, they move ahead of me in the left hand lane and then their blue flashing lights come on, briefly. The sign on top of their car shows in red lettering ‘….me…’, then a pause, then ‘….follow….’ and again ‘….me…’ Arms are out of windows on each side, signaling urgently for me to follow them. Bemused I follow them, off the motorway, they seem to know where they are, and we drive into the parking area of a road side restaurant or hotel, I cannot remember. It feels as if I am suddenly inside an airless car, a strange kind of expectation and bewilderment envelopes me; what is it they want of me and I wonder briefly if perhaps one of my rear lights is falling off, or one of my doors is not properly closed, or… well, all sorts of nonsense.
When we come to a stop at the very end of the car park, where it’s quiet and there is not another car parked anywhere within the next four rows, the driver gets out and walks up to my car, swaggering in his uniform trousers and blue shirt sleeves. I’ve come to a stop next to their car and I wind down my window, wondering what on earth they want of me. My car is in good shape, it’s just been MOT-ed for the first time, had a complete service recently.
‘Would you mind just answering a few questions’, he says. ‘You don’t appear to have a valid insurance.’
I must have gaped, my mouth falling open.
‘Must be a mistake,’ I say. ‘I’ve only very recently renewed my insurance.’
I am asked to sit in the back of their car. It’s all beginning to feel a bit unreal and I wonder about being ‘stopped and searched’, the sort of thing that appears to happen to other people, you read about. I keep quiet as they show me their little computer screen, fixed to their dashboard, which has my name on it, my address, and the notice ‘no valid insurance’. What on earth is going on? What has made them look up my vehicle registration number in the first place and why does it come up with ‘no insurance’?
I get my mobile out of my handbag and tell them I’ll ring my broker who will let them know that I have paid and confirm the insurance number. They do their own calling, to a central office, to a motor bureau of some kind and various others. I hear one of them say:
‘We have a lady here who has no valid insurance, can you check this up for me please’, and wonder about presumed innocence before being branded guilty. It becomes clear to me that the central big brother is assumed to be right, it has found me out, and I am the guilty citizen. It begins to feel slightly Kafkaesque. Inside I’m fuming but decide to keep my cool, I move slowly and speak slowly. I’ve got to get to Wales, for that meeting at 9, the next morning. The policeman in the front passenger seat sits back, taps the computer screen again and says ‘Well, you can see. There is no record of your insurance. You don’t know what your broker is up to, do you? Some of them just take your money and then don’t pass it on.’
Is he kidding? My broker confirms that everything is fine, and quotes the insurance number, which I pass on. They obviously don’t believe me and I give them the broker’s telephone number, my insurer’s name, the insurance number and laboriously they follow it all up via their call centre, each making a number of calls. Meanwhile, the policeman sits back and starts elaborating all the horrendous things that can happen to me if they don’t get confirmation. My car can be impounded; I will be liable for driving without insurance. The continuous assumption that I am guilty of some heinous crime is infuriating, but I keep my mouth shut. I want to get out of here as quickly as I can, and be on my way.
Twenty-five minutes later a call from the centre confirms that I have insurance, that all’s fine. The two men don’t offer an apology, and instead try to instill on me that this is all the fault of my not having a proper broker (‘blast your broker!’, the driver says), or that I have an insurer who does not play by the book, somehow. The policeman in the passenger seat, his thick and hairy right arm, bare from the elbow, with a large faint blue-green tattoo, smirks when I try to open the door to get out and be away:
‘You’ll find you cannot get out,’ he says. ‘It’s locked, because we do have real criminals in here sometimes.’
The driver gets out and opens the door for me. They do not acknowledge that they have inconvenienced me in any way. I wonder about that half an hour of their time and mine: what on earth made them look up my number in the first place? Nothing better to do when cruising along a busy motorway, but to look up the first registration number you get stuck behind, a nice car, a female driver?
‘Traffic police; they play car bingo,’ a colleague tells me later. ‘They probably decided that they needed to make up their quota by having another car model starting with a V.’
When I arrive at my hotel, which is just outside a small Welsh village, it is completely dark. Welsh country lanes and valleys are the darkest on earth, I think. The receptionist says he’s giving me an upgrade and I spend the night in one of the largest and most comfortable rooms I have stayed in for a long time. I open one of the windows and the stillness, the fresh and frosty country air together with a light and warm cover, send me off into a long and deep sleep. There’s not a sound, until the alarm wakes me up for the working day.