Does maturity kick in when we turn 18… or when we buy a set of towels? Five fully fledged adults share the moment that marked the transition.
Getting a driving licence aged 17 by Richard Madeley, 63
I can pinpoint the exact moment I pushed boyhood behind me and felt like a grown man. It was on 1 October 1973 and I was 17. I was driving my first car (a battered ‘Harry Potter’ Ford Anglia) away from the drivers’ testing centre in Brentwood, Essex, my jubilant instructor Brian next to me in the passenger seat.
Jubilant because – to our mutual astonishment – I’d somehow passed first time. ‘Slip him a fiver, did you?’ Brian asked. The precise point of transition came about five minutes later.
‘Pull over,’ Brian suddenly ordered me. ‘Go into that lay-by up ahead.’ When I’d stopped, he got out of the car. I had no idea what he was up to. Had I done something wrong? Was this some final theatrical attempt to teach me how to be a better driver? Brian went first to the front and then the rear of the little Anglia, fiddling with something, I couldn’t tell what. Then he climbed back in.
‘Here,’ he said, throwing my mud-spattered L-plates into my lap. ‘You won’t be needing these any more.’
This was the moment I truly understood that I had earned my adult freedom and the relatively modern soubriquet of ‘a qualified driver’. I could go anywhere I pleased. I could use motorways, just like my dad. I could drive alone. I had a full driver’s licence in my wallet.
Yes, I’d had ‘wheels’ since joining my local paper as a cub reporter the year before at 16 – a little orange 50cc Honda moped. But at 6ft 2in I looked faintly ridiculous on it. I was sick of getting soaked on the way to cover rainy-day stories; tired of being gently mocked by my colleagues as ‘Agostini Madeley’ (after Giacomo, the Italian motorbike Grand Prix champion); weary of watching older reporters swanning off with their girlfriends in their cars while I had to catch the humble bus with mine.
Today cars are increasingly seen as planet-destroying indulgences, and I get that. But in 1973 the keys to my first motor represented glorious adult independence, especially that first day when I was allowed to drive it all by myself. In its own way, this was one of the happiest days of my life.
Being ambushed at knifepoint aged 18 by Sophie Heawood, 42
The cliff could have been higher, the waves could have been rougher, and the grass I was standing on was surprisingly green – it seemed such a picturesque place to die. The Atlantic Ocean below looked so beautiful with the morning sun glinting on its waves, and there wasn’t a soul around, apart from me, my best friend Nicola, and the two men who were holding me at the edge of the cliff, one of them with a tight grip around my waist and a large knife at my throat.
They were barely older than we were, as Nicola and I were only 18, backpacking through Morocco for a few months on our gap years before starting university back in England. We’d been in the country for two months and had arrived in this particular small town the night before. We’d decided, in the morning, to leave our hotel and stroll out along the cliff to take in the sights. Everything seemed glorious, although Nicola had been muttering to me with some concern about the two boys she thought were following us.
Suddenly they were getting closer. They had overtaken us; then they were right in front of us. I had just taken A-levels in French and Spanish and had been enjoying learning bits of Arabic and Berber before heading off to study languages at university, so I was quite pleased to be able to tell the pestering guys to leave us alone in a wide range of tongues. Quite pleased, that is, until there was a knife at my throat.
I remember not thinking but knowing, suddenly, in my guts, that this was it, game over, I die. But what I will always remember is how it wasn’t my whole life that flashed before me, like people say it does – it was simply the thought of my dad, and the knowledge that he couldn’t save me now.
I had been quite a daring teenager, getting into trouble at school and sixth-form college, and my dad sometimes had to come in to meetings to defend me against headteachers who had grown tired of my rebellious attitude. My parents had been bailing me out of trouble all my life, creating more options for me, even when it seemed I had used up all my chances. Well, there’s nothing like a knife at your throat to make you realise that all your options have now gone. It was the first time I had experienced any real degree of certainty in my entire life.
To cut a long story short: Nicola managed to jump on the bigger guy, startle him, and we were somehow, miraculously, able to run away. And I can’t pretend that, over the next few years, or even the very same afternoon when I rang my parents from outside the police station, they never bailed me out of trouble again. But I learned something that day that has never left me, and it is a feeling more than a fact – the physical understanding that we are, ultimately, alone. Your family can only take you so far, and after that, you do have to stand on your own.
Kitting out her first flat aged 27 by Deborah Ross, 57
The first time I felt like a grown-up was when I shifted to owning more than one towel. For years and years you have the one towel; that is the towel your mother gave you when you left home as it was old by then, and it was ‘peach’. (It was always peach or ‘avocado’; I chose peach.) So you have the one raggedy towel, and that’s fine because the young mind cannot conceive of towels in plural, just as, for instance, the young mind cannot conceive of tablecloths or paying bills promptly or drinking wine that isn’t from a box or the faff of never being able to find your reading glasses or setting time aside so you can go through the Lakeland catalogue properly. (I would say, if you wish to go through the Lakeland catalogue properly, you need to set at least half an hour aside, if each sink accessory is to get a fair viewing.)
I had the one towel and we were on excellent terms – until I was in my late 20s and bought my first flat. I was thrilled, pleased as punch and amazed that this place was mine; but hanging in the bathroom? The one raggedy towel, which was now less peach, more no colour at all, and with ratty edges flailing everywhere. This was not the towel of a bath sheets, two regular towels and two hand towels to my name; knowing I had a choice of towels; knowing I could rotate towels. This was adulthood.
And it just ricocheted from there. It opened a whole new world, and I did start to wonder: could I have more than one duvet cover? Another saucepan? Would a tablecloth be quite nice? It takes another decade or so before you find you are fetishising over sink accessories, but this was the start.
Meanwhile, my son left home recently so I gave him one of the mid-blue towels as they were old by then, and the edges had started to come away. I like to think of it as a kind of circle of life. But with towels.
A motherhood revelation aged 39 by Kate Garraway, 52
By the time I became a mother at the age of 38, I was living a life that appeared very mature. I had a house, a mortgage and a job on TV delivering news that mattered to people, which I took very seriously. But on the inside I still felt like the 15-year-old worried about looking cool enough for the school disco (I never did!).
Motherhood changed all that – but not straight away. When my husband Derek and I first had our daughter Darcey, I was largely focused on the physical tasks of keeping her safe and well (the very act of breastfeeding made me very conscious that Darcey only had me and my body keeping her alive). But even that weighty responsibility didn’t make me feel like a grown-up.
Then one day, when she was about 13 months old, we were in the park and, for the first time, she said very clearly, ‘Mummy.’ I was distracted, checking the brake on her pram. So, she repeated: ‘Mummy! Mummy, listening me?’
She had never said that before. I looked at her and replied, ‘Yes, sorry, I am listening to you.’ Then she said, ‘Bird. Big bird.’ I looked around and saw a large crow a few feet away from us. I realised that she was frightened of this bird, which must have seemed enormous to her. She was calling me to say: ‘I’m scared, I need your attention and I need you to make sure that it’s OK .’
At that moment everything shifted for me. I was taken back to my own childhood, to the time in my life when my parents seemed to have supernatural powers that could solve everything. I realised that my responsibility wasn’t just to keep Darcey fed, watered and safe. I was also responsible for how she felt – her sense of self, her confidence to cope with the new, the unknown and the ever-widening world around her. She now saw me as the superhero who was going to solve her problems. It was completely overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure how to deliver.
So I just said to her: ‘Yes, it is a big bird. It’s a bit scary, isn’t it? I’m sure it doesn’t want to hurt us, but shall we move further away so you feel safer?’ I couldn’t wave a magic wand, but I could acknowledge her fear and try to show her how she could change her situation to feel better.
Darcey is now 13 and very much a teenager. We went on holiday with friends recently. She put on a dress for dinner – she’s usually quite a tomboy – and it hit me that she’s turning into a woman. That little frightened toddler now has long hair, and is striding around on her long legs. I couldn’t help but wonder how soon it will be until she has her own first ‘adult’ moment.
A tenth-birthday treat by Sam Leith, 45
Kids don’t wear hats. Caps, maybe. Not proper hats. I was about to turn ten – it was the 80s, so I was almost certainly under the influence of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones – when this revelation came to me. I wanted a hat for my birthday. It would be a mark of maturity. And not just any hat: a fedora. A wide-brimmed, serious hat for the serious young person I thought I was. My parents, being indulgent sorts, indulged me. We went, as my birthday treat, to a proper hat shop. I was measured. I got an actual fedora, just the right size for my small head, made out of real felt with a silk lining and a hatband and substantial tape around the inside rim. I shudder to imagine how much it cost.
It even came with my initials in capitals on two embossed tin tabs – one S, one L – inside the brim. So that it would, y’know, be easily identified among the many fedoras on the pegs in my primary school cloakrooms. How ridiculous do you imagine I looked as a skinny and knock-kneed ten-year-old surmounted by a fedora? Well, quite. A year later, realising that I looked bloody stupid in a hat was the decisive moment at which I passed from childhood to maturity.