TERRY PRONE: It was a scrape but it pricked my conscience — eventually

Terry Prone on car trouble and inanimate hypochondriacs

INANIMATE objects suffering from hypochondria aren’t as much fun as humans suffering from the same condition.

Human hypochondriacs come in infinite varieties. One kind is fixated on diagnosis. Like first-year medical students, they track potential symptoms, link them to recently read features about diseases, and convince themselves they’re about to go down with something serious. They may never develop anything much in the way of illness, but they have the thrill of the possibility of developing Lyme disease or some exotic new virus.

Another kind of hypochondriac gets a genuine but small-scale illness they then escalate to something much more grave. So a cold becomes bird flu with just a frisson of double pneumonia thrown in. The desk drawers of this hypochondriac are full of painkillers and ointments, just in case, plus boxes of Elastoplast. In addition, some of them do fussy obsessive things like secretly wiping the doorknobs in their office building with gel-soaked wipes during flu season.

A very small proportion of hypochondriacs have insight into their condition. They know they’re slightly ridiculous in their conviction that the Ebola virus wakes up each morning determined to seek them out. They know one night’s insomnia doesn’t usually kill and most people survive a pulled muscle, but that knowledge sits outside their daily reality, so that, although they can be humorously charming about their health fixation, neither the charm nor the humour makes the fixation go away.

My car’s hypochondria caught me unawares. It was in full flower and pretty chronic when I first noticed it. A bit like the human who decides they’re suffering from every available symptom, my car notifies me every day about how off-colour it is. One minute, we’re tooling along quite happily, the next it does an electronic burp and lashes an icon or two up onto the dashboard. As in: “Alarm. I may be suffering from these conditions.” Occasionally, it will then decide I’m not taking it sufficiently seriously, and will offer a third icon. Three icons give a sense that the car is saying “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead”. It usually does this in the middle of a traffic jam on a roundabout.

Some of the lit-up illustrations it sicks up are easy to interpret. An exclamation mark inside a circle means you’re driving with the handbrake on. Useful signal, I hear you say? Of course — if the handbrake is actually on. It’s not helpful if the handbrake is definitely off. Maybe, you think, the car is suffering from pain from somewhere else in its insides, but how do you work out the source?

Sometimes it tells you the handbrake is on, the tires are out of alignment and something else as obscure as Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” requires attention. Trying to convey by phone to a helpful friend, relative or garageman what the icon looks like is problematic.

Most of the time the garage guys, when they cop on, tell you to ignore the icons. They don’t actually say you own a vehicular hypochondriac, but that’s the bottom line. You’re driving a mechanical neurotic attention-seeking con artist that has nothing ailing it at all.

Which was fine up to last week, when no icon came up but the brake made a noise like “bokbokbok” and stuttered under the driver’s foot. The results of phonecalls, in that case, were very different. The message was “get that car to a garage, fast”.

I did. Four new tires. Four new brake pads. Labour. Considerably north of 2,000 smackers and the car in intensive care for three days. Since the man in my life was felled with flu at that time, I took his car, which is more than 20 years old and roughly the size of a modest cruise ship.

My car, being neurotic and self protective, bleats like a sick sheep if you come near any solid object. The cruise ship doesn’t. And so, swinging into a car parking space, its front bumper caressed the rear bumper of an empty parked car in a decided way. The interior of the cruise ship was immediately filled with panicky profanities.

I parked, got out, and took in the inexorable fact that the other car was scraped. Not badly scraped but scraped nonetheless. If cars were designed for the real world, the bit where it was scraped could be pulled off and replaced in five minutes, but cars are not designed for the real world, so in theory, if the owner of the vehicle wants to, he or she could demand I pay whatever it costs to replace acres of metal wrapped around the backside of his or her car.

Not good. I took a photograph of the damage and got back into my car. It was perfectly clear the other car’s owner wasn’t in range and nobody else was close enough to see the two-vehicle encounter. I could reverse right back out of the parking place this minute, and who’d ever know? What harm to the other car, which is 10 years old anyway that it got a bit of a scrape that doesn’t in any way reduce its performance and disimproves its appearance only if you go down on your knees beside it?

EVENTUALLY, I found a sheet of paper and wrote a letter confessing my offence and apologising. (No, I didn’t do what the urban legend has a driver doing: Writing a note that reads “I bumped your car, and people watching think I am leaving you my phone number but I’m not”.) I gave my number and an invitation for them to contact me when they had an estimate of what the repairs would cost, folded it a couple of times (because it was raining) clipped it firmly behind a windscreen wiper and drove away.

It took me 20 minutes to grow a conscience, though. High-minded me, who, in print and on the airwaves, gets regular opportunities to excoriate figures in Irish public life for their lack of conscience, spent 20 minutes actively planning to do a complete stranger an injustice. No, let’s carve away the euphemism. I planned to cheat the other car owner. To rob them of money.

No virtue resided in my eventual caving in to duty. I did it resentfully, as if it was their fault for leaving their car where I could scrape it and I did it, not for them or because it’s objectively right to pay for damage done to someone else’s property, but because not doing it would have made me feel badly about myself.

Just as bad, when I got home, it took me a full day to tell the man in my life that I’d damaged his car.

“I see no scrape,” he said, coming back from inspecting it. “And what does it matter, anyway, as long as you’re safe?”

I think I’ll just go out into the back garden. I belong with the worms.


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