My foot stomps down on the clutch again and my whole body strains to feel the pleasant hum of the car kicking itself into life. Nothing. If something less than nothing could exist, it would sound like this moment.
We’re at the head of rush hour traffic, on the busiest intersection in Belfast. The person behind me lays on their horn. Inside the car, a doomed silence stretches, the three seconds since the lights flicked to green may as well have been frozen that way since the dawn of time.
“OK, nobody panic,” J beside me announces.
My internal voice screams bloody violence to all things automotive.
Needless to say, I am panicking.
I switch on the hazards as my very soul suddenly ignites to close to the temperature of the sun. I pray for a miracle as I manually turn the key - either that the car starts, or for a sinkhole to open up and swallow us whole. The three Americans along with me? Sad, but necessary collateral damage.
The car refuses to budge, and behind us the beeping tails off, possibly out of second hand embarrassment.
I briefly imagine having to get out and push my miserable lump of muck strewn metal and rubber to the side of the road. The long tail of cars tracking my slow progress with a mixture of pity, annoyance, and relief that it’s not them out there on the frontlines of disaster.
My temperature is now close to spontaneous combustion.
On the eve of our trip, my dad (for the third time) reminded me that I should have got my car serviced. To which I’d snorted and disdained, MY car would never. It had never broken down before, why on Earth would it let me down now? I couldn’t fathom it.
I wonder if I somehow cursed myself by being so cocky. It’s a lesson that keeps coming back around to smack me in the face.
A few years back, when I worked in a yard, a race was organised to see who among the women was fastest. I’d confidently told everyone who’d listen how I was going to blast to victory in our version of the ‘Oaks’ (a 200m sprint on dirt track).
Euros were heaped on me.
I eyed up my competition at the starting line and it dawned on me that I might have underestimated my opponents. Everyone was fit, fuelled, and throwing me flinty looks. I could practically feel the red dot singeing through my t-shirt, right through my back and into my heart, a target ready to be taken down.
As it happens, I had a bad start, jarring myself in a sneaky rut three strides in (a fact for which I later lamented to everyone who got stuck in my vicinity). I only managed a third place finish. You would think I’d have learned my lesson, both to keep my ego in check and to be better prepared (rookie mistake not to walk the track, double rookie mistake to tell everyone you’re going to win).
I did not learn my lesson. In either case.
Back in my car I offer up a final plea to the Gods that now would be a really wonderful moment to take pity on an idiot and that I’d learned my lesson for sure this time.
I’d prepare for stuff better.
I’d tone down my unswerving belief that nothing could ever go wrong.
I’d even admit to my dad that he’d been right (OK maybe not that one).
My sweaty hand gripped the key and turned. The car shuddered to life, coughed a little, then settled into a normal, ticking over rhythm.
If I’d been alone I’d have loudly threatened it with being torpedoed off the closest bridge for putting me through this kind of nightmare.
But I wasn't alone, so I laughed it off, fooling absolutely no one because my hands were still shaking.
J switched his Drum n Bass back on, the beat thumping along in time with my headache. A mere hour ago we’d picked him up off the side of a dead-end road, waiting to be rescued after being kicked out of Stormont.
He’d waved his arms overhead, flagging us down as if I wouldn’t recognise his unbothered grin, backwards facing baseball cap, and pointless sunglasses.
I don’t know if it was dumb luck or his Californian drawl, but the security was apparently pretty nice about the whole thing. Meanwhile I’d been mentally editing an email to his mother explaining how her son ended up in a Northern Irish jail.
When we finally pull into our street, I avert my eyes from the giant mural painted to the side of our AirBnB. The red hand of Ulster plastered smack bang in the centre.
I think about the teddy hooked to the passenger side visor, its miniature shirt turned inside out to hide the British flag emblazoned over the front. It crosses my mind to un-reverse it, but figured a Republic of Ireland reg car displaying a British flag might possibly be the most controversial move I could make.
So I leave well enough alone.
Sometimes the best move you can make is to do nothing at all.
My beloved Golf later hauled us from Belfast down to Meath and onwards to Galway. It faultlessly completed the WRC level switchbacks of the Burren outback without so much as a stutter.
I have come to believe the universe has a sick sense of humour.