‘Dad, am I driving like a normal driver yet? Are you relaxing like a normal relaxed passenger or are you still worrying all the time we’re going to crash?’ I love going for driving practice with Girl. It takes me right back to that precious late adolescence I’d almost forgotten: the period where the thing that matters to you more than anything in the world is the imminent prospect of freedom behind the steering wheel of your very own car.
Think of it! Any time you like you can just get into the driver’s seat, start the engine and go anywhere you want. Scotland. Cornwall. Across the Channel on a ferry. To mates’ parties, beaches, the pub, to uni… I quite understand why Girl is so keen. But I also now realise why, subconsciously, I fought quite hard to put her off.
‘It’s no skin off my nose giving you the odd lift to wherever you need to be,’ I’d say, casually. Or: ‘I’ve just had a look at the cost of insuring provisional drivers and it’s even worse than I thought!’ Or, desperately now: ‘You know, driving is so much hassle these days I wouldn’t bother till you’re older.’
But the thing about teenage females is that they know exactly what they want and exactly how to get it. We dads are putty in their hands — and always have been, right from that first moment, when they gazed up from their Moses basket and smiled and gurgled at us (in the way that boy children don’t do nearly so well, because they’re far less evil, manipulative and shameless).
So first I was organised and chivvied into forking out for driving lessons; then into buying a car which was meant to be shared between herself and her brother, but which she has commandeered; then into sorting out the insurance, so we could enjoy ‘quality father-and-daughter time’ dicing with death on the roads of Northamptonshire.
Actually it has hardly been scary at all. The worst bit was when we repeatedly stalled while trying to negotiate a busy roundabout at rush hour and the queue of traffic built and built behind us, till eventually we had to swap over — luckily the driver immediately behind was a woman of about my age so she knew the deal and we exchanged fond parental smiles — and I got shouted at a lot by Girl because obviously everything was totally my fault and it wasn’t funny, not one bit.
You’ll put up with anything, though, where your daughter is concerned. As we set off the other day, I sang cheerily to her: ‘And if a ten ton truck/Kills the both of us/To die by your side/Well the pleasure and privilege is mine.’ Because that’s how I felt. It’s how all fathers feel about their girls, I suspect, which is why young women are so dangerous and ruinous: our special princesses go out into the world buoyed up with expectations of other men that reality can rarely fulfil.
Girls use their dads to practise their wiles on and their rages — to see just how far they can go before you snap. I wish I were capable of being stricter. (When one of Girl’s best friends tried it on with her dad, he threw all her clothes out of the window. Respect!) But I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven myself for my failure to buy her a pony.
Or, indeed, for the time when I shattered her ankle, necessitating a stint in hospital having a pin put in, followed by weeks off school. As usual, it was fond love that made me do it. My fantasy was that we could spend lots of quality father-daughter time fox-hunting together. So one day, I pushed her beyond her capabilities, over a tiger trap jump, to give her a taste of the thrills to come. She took the pain very stoically: we even managed to get her jodhpur boots off without cutting them. But that was pretty much the last time we ever went riding together.
This was a particularly harsh blow for me, because those riding sessions had been one of our weekly bonding moments. You need these as your daughter gets older, especially during that phase girls go through where they decide that you’re not, after all, the most amazingly wonderful daddy in the whole world but just another lumpen, smelly male with terrible dress sense and — ew — a pot belly and receding hair, and a totally inappropriate sense of humour.
Hence my gratitude for these driving sessions. I know I’m being exploited. I know I’m trading short-term gain for long-term pain, giving her the skills which will enable her to spend much more time away from me. But that’s the deal with teenage daughters — you’ll take whatever crumbs you can get.
Obviously you have to tread carefully — as you might with a particularly fragile nuclear device, which could go off at the slightest misstep. For example: no direct questions — that’s the adamantine rule. Especially no questions about anything to do with boys. Or emotional matters generally. Your job is to sit there and wait for the information to be volunteered. And while it is permissible for you to drop general hints of acquiescence, under no circumstances must you react too strongly or venture anything that sounds like an opinion.
Ideally, you need to think of yourself as a devoted old dog gazing up at your young mistress with adoring eyes, wagging your tail gratefully whenever she deigns to notice you, accepting totally when she doesn’t.
But they love us really. And they’re much more likely than our sons are to get us access to our grandchildren, and to visit us in the old people’s home. So really we can’t complain. Nor would we dare.