Charlie Was My Darling


Maria named everything we owned. I’d have to see the objects again to recall their specific pet names, but the one that mattered to me was when she named my car Charlie.

I’d started learning to drive when I was 21 and looking for a job as a journalist. I thought it would give me an edge in job interviews (little realising that I’m just awkward and terrible in all sorts of interviews anyway). When I got a job as a journalist, I stopped the lessons. Which was all kinds of stupid.

Between then and thirty I only drove a couple of times – infamously crashing a Formula 3 car into gravel so deeply that the rescue car got stuck retrieving me. I’d warned the PR that I didn’t know which was brake and accelerate any more, so absolve myself of responsibility.

Anyway, I was determined to learn before I hit 30, so I slogged and spent my free time on it, and passed first time just before my 30th birthday. My father, a car nut and drunkenly happy, bought me a car he saw outside his restaurant. I can see him, holding me newborn in his arms, talking me through my early years (before the divorce); he obviously loves me deeply and he’s been making up for the crappy early years ever since.

I loved him for it and I loved the car. The car was a 13-year old BMW 316i, bright red and rattly around the edges, with two long scratches down one side. He’d had many accidents and many owners in his past; his last owner drove him to Bulgaria and back regularly, soo he had more miles on the clock than Methuselah. This was Charlie.

A Charlie lookalike.
A Charlie lookalike.

Maria and I had a good old time, barrelling around the roads of England every couple of months, to friends’ weddings or just running to the big out-of-town shops. Charlie was comfortable, powerful (too powerful for a new driver) and cheap to run.

It was apparent, though, that I couldn’t really afford him; the insurance for a new driver on a beamer is huge, extra for a PR. The tax, the repairs… keeping him going was always expensive. I only managed by scrimping on everything else and budgeting carefully. I couldn’t let Charlie go. It would be like putting down a pet (and I remember the horrible death of Maria’s gorgeous hamster and her careful crooning words as she talked it to sleep.)

When we split up, Charlie came with me everywhere I went, though. He came with me to my aunt Lesley’s while I stayed there and recovered. (I’d quit my job, after all, because though the people were lovely I hated the work – and because I’d not been able to stop crying, every day.) He came with me to Baalbec towers, where my flatmate Lee drove him until he died – and a little bit afterwards too. Lee tried to repair him, but entrusted him to incompetent mechanics (who couldn’t even spot a cracked radiator, but held onto him for three months, trying all different, expensive things out.) Then, when I went to renew my insurance, it turned out that freelance journalists who are new drivers are nearly uninsurable, especially for over-powerful BMW hatchbacks. So we got a SORN and left him to gently moulder.

When my dad emigrated to Cyprus, he shipped his car over there, which meant he needed a car for when he was back in the UK. I took Charlie away from the shit mechanics, diagnosed the problem myself, bought a new radiator and paid for a new mechanic to fit it. They then claimed the car was a wreck; but when my dad came back from Cyprus, he came down, saw the car, checked it out (as a car nut), and drove it away. The mechanics had been lying, hoping to sell it on.

So Charlie went north again. And while my Dad was away, his kind-of-brother-in-law (a charming American émigré whose life had hit a roadblock) drove Charlie without a care until he was well and truly broken.

Not Charlie

When they took Charlie in for one last fix-up, they found all sorts of stuff; he had been completely rebuilt after a serious accident, but there were signs of more than that. It’s likely he was a chop-job – built from parts of other cars – but done well enough that most mechanics didn’t notice. I rarely had trouble with him (except right at the beginning and right at the end), but had to accept that he was done. They scrapped him. Put him down.

I miss Charlie, for himself and for his associations. He was like the first pet I’ve had in years, and naming him had given him some of the aspects of that name – cheekiness, Englishness, and a certain laziness. He was cosy and sweet-smelling just to sit in and relax. He unlocked that freedom of the roads that you never get with city public transport. And he was around at a key, mostly good, time of my life. I want to tell Maria that he’s dead now, but it doesn’t seem like the best reason to contact an ex-…

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