I recently took my seven-year old daughter to the cinema. We arrived early enough to see the pre-film advertisements, including one for the Ford Focus Titanium, a car with multiple safety features to assist the driver, including blind spot alerts and self-braking when the car is travelling at less than twenty miles per hour and senses a stationary car ahead.
“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed, practically jumping out of my seat, “I need that car.”
“What is it, Mum? What are you so excited about?” Nina asked.
“The Ford Focus Titanium… I really want that car!” I told her.
“Maybe you can ask for one for Christmas?” Nina suggested helpfully.
I grinned. “That’s a good idea, honey. But really I think we’ll stick with the car we have for a few more years. When our car stops running, maybe we could get one.”
My memories of car travel date from when I was perhaps seven years old, the same age my daughter is now. My mother used to take me and my younger brother and sister from Vermont, where we lived, to visit her parents in Pennsylvania at least a couple times a year by car. Mom worked hard to make these six-hour car rides as fun as possible, leading us in song and suggesting inventive games for us to play. While Mom succeeded to the degree that I remember the seemingly interminable car journeys fondly, there would invariably come a time on each trip when Mom would utter the threat: “If you don’t stop that right now, I am pulling over to the side of the road, and I will not start driving again until you’re sitting nicely.” In those days, long before mandated child seats, we three children would rotate our seating arrangements, with the lucky one sitting in the front passenger seat, and the two losers of the draw sitting in the back seat. The antecedent to the “pulling over” threat was often excessive tickling or roughhousing occurring in the back seat. Sometimes just the thought of stopping was enough to whip us back into shape, but sometimes it wasn’t. If we continued to create chaos, Mom would make good on her word and pull over, regardless of whether we were on a side road or a major highway. My siblings and I would watch our mom stare stonily ahead while other cars zoomed past our windows, and eventually we would settle down. When I was in the back seat, I both dreaded and anticipated the pulling-over manoeuvre; I knew it meant we were in big trouble, but I looked forward to either observing my mom’s silent resignation or listening to her voice her frustration, which usually went something like this: “I can not concentrate with you making such a racket in the back seat! How can I drive safely when you’re shouting at each other back there? I’m the only driver here, and the longer you act like that, the longer it will take us to get to Pennsylvania!”
I could giggle during Mom’s car tirades because I knew that within five minutes we would be back on the road, slowly closing the distance between ourselves and Pennsylvania. My mom is a skilled driver, and it was apparent, despite our interruptions, that she relished the feeling of freedom that comes from cruising along highways at seventy miles per hour.
I got my own Vermont driver’s license at the tender age of seventeen. My mom had assumed that, with her wealth of driving experience, she would be able to teach me to drive herself. Sadly, from the very beginning I had an unhelpful awareness of cars as rolling implements of destruction, possibly due to having mourned several cats that were lost to road accidents. In one particularly gruesome case, I was actually in the car when a young cat of ours that had been sleeping in the wheel well died. I was nine at the time, and I remember running down the street afterwards in tears, swearing to never ride in a car again. Some of our pets survived being hit by cars but were permanently injured, like our grey cat, Phineas, who limped for the rest of his life after a collision. By sixteen, I knew I needed to drive- there was no public transportation for anyone under 65 in my hometown, and the nearest cinema was in a town over twenty miles away- but cars terrified me.
My mom saw cars as a means to an end, and could not comprehend why I insisted on driving under ten miles an hour on the deserted dirt road she chose as a beginner’s slope. It became a vicious circle; my mom would get more and more frustrated by my slow speed and my hesitancy, then I would drive even less confidently, leading to more parental frustration, and still more timidity. While Mom had a healthy perspective on cars, she suffered from an occasionally debilitating fear of heights, so when I finally graduated to speeds above twenty and was ready to drive on paved rather than dirt roads, she became noticeably anxious whenever there was a height drop on the passenger side of the car. I grew up in Vermont, the Green Mountain state, so this happened often. After one particularly harrowing journey during which I had driven so cautiously that I had become a hazard, then so close to the edge of the road that Mom had become terror-stricken, I pulled over to the side of the road halfway down the small mountain that led to our village and stormed out of the car. My younger brother and sister looked on from the back seat as I shouted, in a typically dramatic teenaged manner, “That’s it, I am not driving ever again.”
“Beth, get back in the car,” my mom had ordered, through the rolled-down window.
“No, I am walking the rest of the way,” I replied defiantly.
My mom had quickly switched to the driver’s seat and started driving at a snail’s pace along beside me. “Get back in the car this minute,” she commanded.
“Beth, come on, get back in,” my brother chimed in. My sister sat stock still, looking uncomfortable.
After about fifty feet of this, with me striding purposefully along the grassy verge and my mom driving slowly behind me in the breakdown lane, I realized that it was actually quite a long walk home, and my self-righteousness faded enough for me to succumb and climb into the passenger seat.
Mom proposed driving lessons with the high school driver’s education instructor shortly after that incident. Mr Mason was a soft-spoken man of perhaps thirty, with dark, fine hair and a moustache. He taught both industrial arts and driver’s ed. He was a masterful melodic whistler. The more stressful the driving instructing experience became, the more intently Mr Mason would whistle, and I figured out that if the tune increased to a certain volume, the emergency instructor’s brake was likely to soon be utilized. To brake firmly when driving oneself is jarring, but to come to a sudden stop as a pseudo-passenger is even more unpleasant, and I learned to read Mr Mason’s whistling cues to try to avoid emergency brake situations.
As part of the driver’s education theory classes, we were required to watch a movie whose name I can’t remember exactly, but that sounded like “Death Machine.” The other students in the class were beside themselves with excitement when Mr Mason announced that the next class meeting would include the film screening. Everyone knew that “Death Machine” was something of a low-budget horror movie about the disastrous effects of drinking and driving; the plot centred on two high-school lovebirds who go out to a dance and an after-party, they drink too much, and the driver crashes the car, with fatal results for all involved.
I raised my hand.
“Um, Mr Mason, I really don’t want to watch the movie,” I said. Some of my classmates snickered.
“Well, you need to show me that you understand the consequences of drinking and driving,” Mr Mason said, thoughtfully. “How about you write a short report about that topic?”
“That’s fine,” I agreed. I spent the first half of the following class sitting on a bench close to the school office while “Death Machine” was screened. When I was called back, some of my classmates were vaguely green, while others were whispering to each other enthusiastically.
“Did you see how the train just plowed into them?” I heard one boy say. “And the blood splattered all over the windshield?”
“Can you shut up and stop talking about it?” a friend of mine hissed.
I had made a very wise decision to spend that half hour on the bench.
The remaining lectures, on topics like driving in the snow and appropriate use of headlights, were far less popular than the “Death Machine” screening with most of the class. After sitting through them, and enduring several more driving sessions with Mr Mason, all I had to do was wait until August, when I would be eligible for my full license. My seventeenth birthday came and went, and shortly afterwards I appeared as summoned for my theory and practical exams at the town music hall, a grand turn-of-the-century building wholly incongruous with a licensing test. I was given a sheet with ten multiple-choice theory questions. I needed to get six right to pass. I answered seven correctly, then moved on to the practical exam. Because I grew up in a small town, I knew the examiner, Mr Swift. He was older than Mr Mason, with white wavy hair and deep wrinkles. Mr Swift walked me outside to the test car. I panicked inwardly during the hill stop and revved the engine a bit but didn’t roll backwards. Mr Swift directed me back to the music hall, I parked acceptably, shut off the car, and less than an hour after the exam had begun, I was declared a licensed driver.
After several years of detente with automobiles, during which I tolerated them and they served my needs, I moved to Gothenburg, Sweden with my husband. Gothenburg had excellent public transportation, and Håkan and I had neither reason nor funds to buy a car. I took up cycling again, having cycled both by necessity and for pleasure during my childhood, and I became the sort of cycle commuter who owns and uses rain gear rather than leaving the bike at home. When we moved back to the U.S., after three years abroad, I carried on cycling.
Cycling is fine for local travel, but Håkan wanted a car. We had both taken up rock climbing, and a car would make it possible for us to get to the cliffs. The first time I drove the car we had purchased, Håkan feared for his life. I was accustomed to cycle speeds, and I steadfastly refused to drive faster than twenty miles per hour.
“Beth, you’ve got to speed up. This is Boston,” Håkan pleaded.
“I’m going over twenty!” I retorted, feeling like a Formula One driver.
“The speed limit here is thirty. To drive this slowly is actually dangerous,” Håkan pointed out. He knew me well; appealing to my sense of safety was a wise tactic.
“I guess you’re right… I’ll try to speed up,” I said, increasing my velocity to a breakneck twenty-five miles per hour.
Håkan sighed. “Why don’t I drive for a few weeks, until you get the idea that cars are not bikes.”
That would have been a good solution, except that I was studying not only neuroanatomy but also the effects of traumatic brain injury as part of my graduate degree when Håkan made the suggestion. On a scale of driving styles, with zero being extremely over-cautious and ten being prone to serious road rage, I would place at perhaps a three, while Håkan would fall somewhere between six and seven. It may be that six to seven is a sensible and safe range, but for someone at my end of the spectrum, riding with someone who falls there can make the passenger seat feel like the kind of fairground ride that would have a long warning sign at the entrance. The combination of my newfound knowledge of the effects of brain damage and our divergent driving styles led me to conclude that I would be best served wearing a cycle helmet and sitting directly behind Håkan while in the car.
The next time we planned to travel by car, Håkan set his jaw sternly as I retrieved my helmet from the closet, and he rolled his eyes dramatically when I climbed into the back seat behind him. When I placed the helmet on my head and he heard the click of the buckle, Håkan snapped.
“Beth, I know cars are exceedingly frightening, and I suppose I can live with chauffeuring you around, but I am going nowhere if you insist on wearing that helmet,” Håkan stated unequivocally.
“But the effects of a car accident can last a lifetime. I don’t want to end up with frontal lobe damage. You don’t even have to be driving very fast for a crash to have a serious impact on your cognitive function,” I replied, leaving the helmet firmly on my head.
“Your cognitive function can also be markedly impaired by hunger, and we are not going for pizza until you take that thing off,” Håkan announced with finality.
After a few moments of us sitting in the stationary vehicle, my desire for pizza overcame my fear of traumatic brain injury. “I’ll take the helmet off, but I’m not moving to the front, and you need to drive as carefully as possible,” I demanded.
Håkan emitted a long-suffering sigh. “Of course I’m going to drive as carefully as possible. Do you think I want to crash the car? I don’t want to get hurt any more than you do, and I don’t want to have to pay for damage to this car or any other car.”
“Well, it doesn’t only depend on you, there are other drivers out there who may make poor choices,” I retorted, putting the helmet on the seat beside me.
“That is true, and I will do my best to be on the lookout for them. I’m about to start the car, hopefully we’ll arrive in one piece at the pizzeria,” Håkan jested.
I smiled despite myself. I recognized that my behaviour was eccentric at best, crazy at worst, but my trepidation was so great that I had to jump mental hurdles to consent to travelling by car at all. Håkan knew that, and I was grateful that he loved me enough to tread lightly.
I only brought the helmet along that once. I persisted in riding in the back seat for a few weeks, until I gradually re-acclimated myself to the speed of motorized vehicles. After several months, I became confident enough driving to brave Storrow Drive, one of the most notorious roads in a city with a reputation for traffic madness. My driving odometer clicked on steadily for a few years until Håkan and I again moved abroad, this time to London.
As an American in England, I was allowed to drive using my American license for one year. I practiced seldom, content to let me husband drive whenever driving was necessary. Even after our son, Sam, was born, I managed to get where I needed to go without a car. I became adept at biking with Sam in the child seat, and even purchased a special cycle child seat that allowed him to recline should he fall asleep.
It wasn’t until Sam was five years old that my desire for an English driving license became overpowering. We had transferred Sam to a school that was further from our home, and while we were very pleased about the move, we were less pleased about the logistics of transporting him to the new school. I experimented with various solutions. Sam was fascinated by wheels and had started riding a balance bike at three. By five, he was comfortable on his two-wheeler, but biking to school took a solid twenty minutes and required cycling up a long, steep hill and navigating safely on the crowded footpath as school drew nearer. My husband was able to change his work schedule so that he could cycle to school with Sam most mornings, but I still needed to collect Sam from school in the afternoon. Sam’s little sister, Nina, was three years old at the time, and cycling with her in the child’s bike seat, particularly both up and down the precipitous hill, was taking its toll on my calves. If the weather was adverse, we could take the bus, but the bus stopped a fair distance from the school, at the base of the aforementioned long, steep hill, and Sam was even less pleased about walking up that hill than he was about cycling up it. It took less than a week of the new commute for me to understand that if I wanted to maintain any semblance of sanity, I would absolutely have to be able to drive.
I did some research into driving schools, looking for an acceptable combination of price and track record, and settled on a lesser-known but still reputable outfit.
When I opened the door for the instructor on the day of my first lesson, I knew instantly that I had not made the best choice. The instructor was significantly overweight, had a B-movie moustache, and talked like a phone marketer. As I drove along the less-crowded streets he had selected, I began to have flashbacks to high school and Mr Mason.
I cancelled the lesson I had booked for the following week with that driving school, and asked an acquaintance whose husband was also trying to get his U.K. license for advice.
“You should go with the English School of Motoring,” my acquaintance recommended. “They are very good. My husband still hasn’t passed, but that’s because he’s from India, and the driving there is not the same.”
“I’ve heard that,” I said. I had once proofread a thesis about traffic in India, and had sworn afterwards to never even think of driving in that country, as it was clearly no place for the timid. “How many times has your husband taken the practical test?”
“Oh dear…” I commiserated, hoping that I would not meet a similar fate.
“He still thinks the ESM instructors are excellent, he just can’t learn to drive the way the English do,” my acquaintance said.
I called ESM later that day, and set up a lesson with Dominic Delozier.
Dominic knocked on our door a couple minutes ahead of our scheduled lesson time. I said a quick goodbye to the kids and opened the door, saying a silent prayer that this instructor would be better than the last one. Dominic was about my height and had the build of someone who had played rugby. His hair was greying, and his brow was becoming furrowed, but Dominic had bright blue eyes and remained handsome.
“You Beth?” Dominic asked, gruffly.
“Yes, that’s me,” I confirmed.
“The car’s just here. So you’ve driven before?”
“Yes,” I said, as we walked the short distance to Dominic’s parking space. The ESM logo on the car itself and the triangular ESM sign on the car roof made it instantly clear which car we were headed towards. “I drove for years in the States. I got my license at 17.”
“OK, so why don’t you sit right down in the driver’s seat,” Dominic suggested.
The car smelled faintly of cologne and cigarette smoke. I adjusted the seat and the mirrors carefully, checking that I was completely happy. I fastened my seat belt.
“Well, Beth, nice work with the mirrors, but next time put on your seat belt right after fixing your seat, before the mirrors. That’s what they’ll expect the day of the test,” Dominic instructed.
I reddened. “Right, sorry, I’ll remember that next time.”
“I’m sure you will,” Dominic said, with the slightest hint of a smile.
The weather was chilly, so I took it upon myself to roll up the passenger’s and driver’s side windows.
“If you don’t mind, Beth, I’d like the windows open just a crack,” Dominic said.
“Isn’t it a bit cold?”
“Well, I think it helps keep the air healthy in the car. I’m in the car for hours on end, you know.”
“I guess you are,” I conceded, opening the windows half an inch each.
“So have you passed your theory test yet?”
“Um, no, not yet,” I confessed.
Dominic gave me the look a teacher gives a student who has just offered a lame excuse about why her homework is late, with his eyebrows raised and an expression of consternation. “You best get on that, then,” he said.
“I just want to make sure I’m going to pass before I spend the money,” I replied, somewhat petulantly.
“Don’t wait until you know all the rules off by heart. Just read The Highway Code a couple times, then make your appointment. Tell you what, why don’t we switch places, and I’ll drive us over to Surbiton, where the roads are really wide. I think you’ll like it over there, it has an American feel,” Dominic said.
Dominic was right; Surbiton suited me well. The roads were very quiet and I didn’t have the feeling of playing an advanced game of chicken that I often had on English town streets. I performed some basic manoeuvres, then it was time for Dominic to drive us home.
“So I’ll see you next Wednesday at 8,” Dominic said, as he stopped the car just outside our house. “Book your theory test.”
“Will do,” I said. “See you then.”
I made an appointment to take the theory test in three weeks, and I increased the pace of my studies, using my historically tried and proven method of writing down salient points. I learned assorted rules about horses in traffic, and took to heart recommendations about how to best cross fords. My fear of driving through tunnels grew, based on the many cautions regarding the tunnel environment. Sam enthusiastically helped quiz me on the sign section of The Highway Code, the part of the book he found most fascinating. I memorized the appearances of the “Priority Over Oncoming Vehicles” and “Speed Humps” road signs, among others.
The portion of the test that worried me most was hazard perception. This segment entailed watching several short video clips filmed from the top of a vehicle. Each clip contained from one to several particularly hazardous driving conditions, and the test taker was expected to identify each instance within seconds by clicking with the computer mouse in any area of the screen. I can count on one hand the number of times I have voluntarily played video games, and Håkan has often marvelled at the slowness of my computer navigation, so I was far from a natural at hazard perception. I practiced using the twenty clips on the test practice CD-rom I had purchased, but I knew hazard perception was my weak spot.
As it turned out, it was not just my weak spot, it was my Achilles heel. I scored 48 out of 50 on the multiple choice section of the theory test and finished well in advance of the time limit, but I failed overall because of my miserable performance on hazard perception.
When Dominic arrived, early as usual, for my next lesson, he asked me how the test had gone.
“I didn’t pass,” I admitted, looking down.
“You surprise me, Beth; you’re a smart girl, didn’t you study enough?”
“It wasn’t the theory part, it was hazard perception. I don’t play video games.”
“Ah, hazard perception. Yes, that’s easier for the younger generation, they grew up using computers,” Dominic said, nodding.
“I first saw a computer when I was 18.”
“Right. Well, it’s back to the drawing board for you then, and you’ll have to practice more. You know they have a CD-rom with just hazard perception? Like two hours of it. Why don’t you get that?”
“Wow, that’s just what I need, two hours of hazard perception,” I said sarcastically.
“Hey, you’re the one that wants a license,” Dominic said, throwing his hands up in a “what do you want from me” gesture. “So are you ready for the Kingston one-way system yet?”
“Um, I don’t know, I’m feeling a bit low from failing the theory test, that might not help.”
“Oh come on, it’ll boost your confidence,” Dominic cajoled.
I received the hazard perception CD-rom, containing over four hundred practice clips, a couple of days later. I was a good student while at school, and I set about to master hazard perception methodically. The clips themselves were filmed mostly in western England or Wales. Many contained the Welsh word “araf” written in giant capital letters, sometimes alongside the English translation, “slow.” The sequences were filmed by a camera mounted atop a Department of Motor Vehicles car, giving an oddly high perspective on the traffic, and the clips ran the gamut of driving conditions, from a sunny day in city traffic to a rainy evening on a one-car-wide country lane. It was apparent from my scores that I preferred the country lanes. I was quick to identify horses in the distance, or a single set of approaching headlights, but I was flummoxed by vehicles behaving badly in city roundabouts or on motorways, just as in real life. The program picked up on this weakness after perhaps fifty clips and recommended that I concentrate on town and city driving sequences.
My dad and stepmom came to visit when I had about one hundred practice clips under my belt.
“So how’s the, what’s it called again, hazard practice going?” Dad asked.
“Hazard perception. I’m getting better. You’ve got to try it, it’s crazy,” I said, starting the CD-rom. I gave my dad, who has degrees in both engineering and law, a quick tutorial and let him loose on the first practice test. My stepmom stood on my dad’s left, her right hand resting on the back of his chair.
“The ball! The boy might run after the ball that rolled into the road!” my stepmom exclaimed.
“Got it,” Dad said calmly, post-click. “What language are those signs in? Gaelic?”
“No, that’s Welsh,” I answered.
“You have to learn Welsh to take this? Seriously?” Dad asked, clicking away intermittently.
“Well, Wales is part of the United Kingdom,” I replied, “So you have to know what ‘araf’ means, at least.”
“That’s what I’m going to say to you next time you’re speeding on the interstate,” my stepmom joshed my dad, “Araf!”
My dad’s results appeared on the screen. “Thirteen out of twenty; keep practicing,” he read, incredulous. “Better you than me, that’s all I have to say, Beth.”
“Right? The problem is I never played video games!”
“You’re just old, like us.” Dad smiled. “I’m sure you’ll ace it next time. When is next time?”
“Maybe in a few weeks,” I said.
To take lessons with ESM, I had to book blocks of five lessons at a time, and each block took a substantial toll on our bank account. I was fond of Dominic; I had learned that he played in a rockabilly band, that he liked to ride motorcycles, and that his girlfriend refused to drive on any route that included a large roundabout. But I was also keenly aware of the impact the driving lessons were having on our family’s economy. I saw an ad for a special offer on three lessons with the biggest competitor to ESM, and I jumped at the possibility of saving some money.
The AAE instructor, Gary, bore a strong resemblance to Colonel Mustard in the board game Clue, right down to the well-tended moustache with curled ends. Dominic didn’t really want to be a driving instructor—he had worked as a mechanic until car repair became too computerized—but he enjoyed meeting the spectrum of students that the job brought his way, as evidenced by his frequent retelling of stories other students had shared with him. Gary, however, was all business. He quizzed me on my skills; I said that my biggest difficulty was parallel parking, so he got right to work, directing me to parallel park repeatedly on the little-trafficked road that ran along the Thames close to our house. It wasn’t a relaxing lesson, but it was useful practice, and while I missed Dominic’s friendly manner, it seemed I had chosen well by opting to switch to the AAE.
Until the second lesson. Gary seemed to figure that if I had perfected parallel parking on a quiet road, it was sensible to try to transfer my skills to a busier road, so he led us into Isleworth, to the kind of residential street that is not unusual in London, where the cars are parked tightly on both sides and it is impossible for two cars to pass each other in the middle. Driving on such roads is like playing a long game of “Chicken.” Each driver has to anticipate what will happen should an oncoming vehicle appear, and there is an unwritten flowchart: if there is room for one vehicle to pull in somewhere, the other vehicle can drive on, hoping that the first vehicle will give way. If there is nowhere nearby for either vehicle to slot into, one of the cars will have to reverse. This can, in extreme cases, mean reversing all the way to the nearest junction (I don’t believe it is even legal to drive that far in reverse in the United States). On top of the excitement of wondering what will happen with oncoming traffic, a driver also needs to be on the lookout for car doors that may be opening and people who may be walking into the road to enter their cars.
For me, driving on this sort of road, particularly when I was still not fully acclimated to sitting on the right-hand side of the car while driving on the left-hand side of the street, was like finding myself in one of Dante’s inner circles of Hell. My shoulders rose two inches, my chest became tight, and my fingers began to cramp from the vise-like grip I was maintaining on the steering wheel.
When I saw another car coming towards me, I asked Gary breathlessly, “What should I do? I don’t know if I can pull in to that spot? Do I have to reverse?”
“He flashed his lights at you,” Gary answered matter-of-factly. “That means he wants you to go forward.”
I tried to mentally judge the route forward. “But I don’t think I can fit through there!”
“I really don’t think so,” I maintained, creeping forward at less than five miles per hour. The driver of the oncoming vehicle flashed his lights again. I was close enough to see his face now, and saw his expression of impatience and frustration.
“Just take it slow, there’s plenty of room for you to pass,” Gary said reassuringly. As we slid past the other car, Gary waved to the driver and nodded his head, gestures I had also seen Dominic make to many other drivers. The man returned Gary’s nod grudgingly.
As if that near-death experience had not been enough, Gary then suggested I practice parallel parking on the same street. I survived two acceptable parallel parking manoeuvres, but came home with shaking legs and tattered nerves. After a much-needed cup of tea, I called the AAE and cancelled the third lesson with Gary, then dialled ESM and booked another block of lessons with Dominic.
Dominic parked outside our house a good ten minutes before my lesson was due to start, as usual. At two minutes before eight, he knocked quietly on the door.
As we walked to the car, Dominic asked, “So where you been, Beth? I haven’t seen you in several weeks, everything OK?”
I glanced at my feet. “Well, I gave the AAE a try,” I muttered.
“What?” Dominic gasped in mock horror. “Beth, you’ve been two-timing me! I can’t believe it! Here I was, thinking we were getting on just fine, and you go and take some lessons with our biggest competitor!”
I grinned; he was taking the news well. “You’re a great teacher Dominic, but the AAE had a special bargain, and I was trying to think about the bottom line. But I learned my lesson—he made me drive on one of those horrible English streets. I was sure I was going to die then and there.”
It was Dominic’s turn to smile. “You prefer Surbiton, don’t you, more like home.”
“You got that right.”
“Well, let’s head over there then,” Dominic said cheerfully. “If you stick with me, Beth, that’s where you’ll take your practical exam. I know some of the examiners over there, they’re good guys.”
“I won’t stray again,” I joked.
“I hope not. Today we’re going to focus on reversing around a corner,” Dominic informed me.
Dominic looked at me sideways. “You’re in quite a mood today, aren’t you?”
“I just want to get this all over with,” I complained. “I’ve had my license since I was seventeen. I want to drive my son to school. Cycling is an absolute nightmare.”
“You will get your license. You just have to relax a little. Have you rescheduled your theory test?” Dominic asked.
“No. But I feel that I could drive safely in Wales.”
“The clips are all from out there, aren’t they? Well, book your test. You can’t do the practical until you’ve passed the theory, you know, so you want to get that under your belt.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, like a cross teenager who has been given a piece of good advice by their parent. “I’ll check the calendar.”
On my way to my second attempt at the theory test, I pondered what I would do if I failed the hazard perception portion again. I didn’t limit myself to one worry; I also thought that it was possible I would fail the theory multiple choice as well. That particular anxiety proved unfounded; I sailed through the theory multiple choice questions in no time. I did my best on the hazard perception, and when I went to collect the credit card that had served as my ID, I held my breath, awaiting the verdict.
“Can I see your second ID?” the man working behind the desk at the test centre requested.
“Of course, here you are,” I said, handing over my passport.
“Let me see… oh, you did very well on the theory. And you’ve passed the hazard perception section too, by the skin of your teeth.”
“I passed?” I asked incredulously.
“Congratulations,” the man said, sounding bored.
I became so euphoric that I practically floated out of the test centre. Kingston suddenly looked like a quaint and welcoming market town, rather than a gritty budget shopping hub.
“I could drive here on my own soon,” I thought to myself gleefully. “Well, I could at least drive to the parking lot outside of the city centre, so I don’t have to get through the one-way system,” I corrected myself, quickly making my aspirations more reasonable.
When I next saw Dominic, he asked about the results of the theory test.
I puffed up with pride. “Passed,” I said.
“Good girl. We just need to do some more work on roundabouts and the motorway, and you’ll be ready to try the practical,” Dominic said.
Dominic began taking me to busier roads, including streets that required the wave, the gesture of thanks drivers gave each other when they were allowed to pass. On one of those streets, I decided to show Dominic that I had seen and internalized that particular aspect of driving in England. When an oncoming vehicle slowed, granting me priority, I raised my right hand just far enough off the steering wheel to offer a wave.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Dominic demanded.
“Um, waving? You wave all the time?” I said.
“Yes, I wave, but that doesn’t mean you can!” Dominic blurted out. “You have to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times, or you’re guaranteed to fail the practical,” Dominic explained, more gently.
I nodded, chastised. “I just thought, since you do it so often, it was almost like a necessary hand signal,” I said, trying to justify my action.
“Is it in The Highway Code?” Dominic quizzed me.
“Um… no, I don’t think I’ve seen anything about the wave there…” I stammered.
“Nothing about flashing lights either, right?”
“I guess not,” I agreed. “But I didn’t flash my lights.”
“Good. Don’t. Leave the waving and the flashing to me. You just keep both hands on that wheel and don’t even think about flashing the lights until you’ve gotten rid of your L plates,” Dominic said, referring to the large green “L” stickers new drivers often displayed to alert other motorists to their lack of experience. “Now how are you feeling about the motorway?”
Several lessons later, Dominic said the magic words. “Beth,” he began, “I think you’ve gotten your confidence back. You were shaken by driving on the left, but you’re accustomed to it now. You’re doing very well on all your manoeuvres, you seem comfortable in traffic… I think it’s time for you to take your practical test.”
I had an immediate sensation of panic; my hands went cold and it felt as if the blood had fallen out of my head. “Do you really think I’m ready?” I asked, my voice quavering.
Dominic nodded. “I’m not saying you will definitely pass—you may seize up on the day—but even if you don’t pass first time, the sooner the first time is, the sooner you can try again. You have to wait a certain amount of time after your first practical before you can retake it.”
That changed matters. “Ah, so this would be like a practice run,” I said.
“You might pass, but a lot of people don’t pass the first time,” Dominic confirmed.
“Let’s book it.”
Dominic booked me a test slot in two weeks’ time. Our next lessons focussed on what to expect during the exam. I needed to be able to identify certain parts of the vehicle under the hood. As a teenager, I had spent one summer working at a full-service petrol station, where my duties had included topping up the oil and checking the water levels, so this part of the test did not worry me. (When I was off-duty at the petrol station, I was allowed to sit behind the counter and read as much as I wanted, making full-service petrol station attendant my favourite job to date.) Dominic reminded me several times that if I began to adjust my mirrors before fastening my seat belt, that would be a serious strike against me. I nodded; yes, yes, seat belt first.
Dominic was a stickler for punctuality, so we arrived well before the exam was scheduled to begin. I was asked to fill in a form, and then I sat and waited for my examiner to be ready. When my turn came, the examiner walked in and shook my hand, and I followed him out to the front of the building where Dominic’s ESM car, the car I had been driving for several months, was parked. I was thinking about my seat belt so intensely that I forgot to think about what country I was in. I walked directly to the American driver’s side, the English passenger’s side, and opened the door. Only when I went to sit down did I realize my mistake. I jumped back from the car in alarm.
“Oh my! That’s the wrong side! I was just so eager to put on my seat belt!” I exclaimed.
The examiner looked at me tiredly, and I knew that I had failed the test before even demonstrating my excellent seat belt protocol. I walked around to the correct side, fastened my seat belt, fixed my mirrors, then soldiered on through the hated parallel parking and around several roundabouts. When I shut off the engine and the examiner broke the news that I would need to retake the practical test, it was only confirmation of what I had already surmised.
Dominic met me in the waiting room. I noticed the scent of coffee and smoke as he sat down next to me.
“No luck this time, eh?” he said, in hushed tones.
“’Fraid not,” I replied. “It didn’t help that I temporarily forgot I was in England.”
“Yeah, I saw that. Oops.” Dominic chuckled. “Guess you were nervous. You won’t be so nervous next time. I’ll drive you home.”
“Shouldn’t I drive, for the extra practice?”
“We actually don’t let students drive home after they’ve failed the practical. You may not be thinking as clearly as you should be.”
I smiled ruefully as I opened the passenger door of the ESM car. To think, after all this time, I had forgotten what side was the driver’s side.
“Do you think we could listen to some music? Just to take my mind off blowing the test?” I wondered.
“Yeah, sure, that’s a good idea. You like bluegrass, right?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I think you’ll really like this, then,” Dominic said, turning on the stereo at a volume I wouldn’t have expected to be possible in an ESM vehicle.
I know it doesn’t suit everyone, but I find bluegrass soothing for the soul, so I immersed myself in the music rather than asking Dominic what my strategy should be for passing the next time I took the practical exam. Dominic, as might be expected for a driving instructor, was an exceptionally good driver. Slumped in the passenger seat, listening to music that spoke to me, I truly relaxed for the first time while in a car in England. It was the most valuable driving lesson Dominic could have given me at that moment. I was even able to let go, for a short time, of the niggling conviction that driving on the left side of the road, while sitting on the right side of the car, was just plain wrong.
I spent the next several driving lessons practicing the manoeuvres that I had lost points on during the first practical exam. I complained bitterly to Dominic about the impossibility of roundabouts.
“You’re not the only one that feels that way,” Dominic conceded, “But there’s no reason to be frightened of roundabouts. You just have to learn how they work. It’s very straightforward, once you’ve learned the rules.”
“Mmm…” I mumbled. “Right. Very straightforward.”
“You’re much better at them than you were when we started.”
“That’s not saying much.”
“You know, Beth, that’s your biggest problem. You need to change your attitude. You know how to drive. I can tell that you used to drive regularly in the States. You failed the first practical mostly because you lacked confidence. You need to say to yourself, ‘I can drive. I can do this.’ Because it’s true, you can, I know you can, and you know you can too. You just have to relax.”
I stole a sideways glance at Dominic. He had my number, in more ways than he could imagine.
“I see what you’re saying,” I said.
“I’m not trying to be harsh. I want you to have your driving license, is all, and bigging yourself up is the way you’re going to get it,” Dominic continued.
“You know, I should do that with more than just driving.”
“That may be, but my remit is driving,” Dominic said, smiling.
“Let’s do this thing. What’s next for today, the motorway? The Kingston one-way system? Bring it on,” I said, with bravado.
“Now you’re talking.”
During my lesson following Dominic’s self-confidence pep talk, I was driving on a busy road that ran alongside the Thames. A cyclist was in the left lane. I followed the cyclist for some time, cognizant that the drivers behind me were becoming frustrated by my slow speed. When there was a brief break in oncoming traffic, I made my move. I pushed the accelerator pedal and swerved around the cyclist, pulling back into my lane just before the oncoming vehicle’s driver would have had to leave her lane to avoid a collision.
“What was that?” Dominic questioned me. “Why are you driving like a yob?”
“I didn’t want to hold up the cars behind us any longer,” I said. “I wanted to exhibit self-confidence.”
“There’s self-confidence, and there’s foolhardiness. Yobs are foolhardy. That kind of move would result in a certain fail during the practical.”
“But most drivers wouldn’t stay behind a cyclist for longer than necessary.”
“You’re not most drivers right now. You’re a learner, in a driving school vehicle, with big old signs announcing it to the world. Other drivers will expect you to drive slowly, and you were cutting it pretty close even for an experienced driver. Until you’ve passed your exam, no more foolhardiness, OK?”
Chastened yet again, I nodded my head.
“When you’ve passed your test, you can drive aggressively. But for now, you need to just drive sensibly—not timidly, not recklessly, just sensibly. Can you do that?”
“I can try.”
“Good. Now listen, there’s a chance you may get a friend of mine, Greg, as an examiner when you next take the practical. In case you do, let me give you some inside information; Greg is a Buddy Holly fan.”
“I like Buddy Holly. I have his Greatest Hits CD.”
“I figured as much.”
“So am I supposed to say, ‘Hey, I hear you like Buddy Holly, how about passing me?’”
“Maybe not quite like that. But you could slip Buddy Holly into the conversation after you’ve done your manoeuvres.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
It was perfect English spring weather on the day of my second attempt to pass the practical driving exam; sunny, except for when the slight breeze pushed a fluffy white cloud in front of the sun, and warm, but by no means hot. We had so much time to spare when we arrived at the test centre that Dominic casually suggested grabbing a cup of coffee.
“Sounds great!” I said. “May help me take my mind off my nerves.”
“Jeff, another instructor, is going to come along too,” Dominic told me.
“And good news, it’s my friend the Buddy Holly fan who will be sitting in the car with you today,” Dominic added.
We met Jeff, a spare man who had at least a foot on Dominic and nearly two feet on me, outside the test centre, and the three of us walked to a cosy diner in the village high street.
“This isn’t Starbucks or anything,” Dominic said apologetically. “It’s a real greasy spoon. But you can get a coffee for under a pound.”
“That works for me,” I said.
I asked for tea, while Dominic and Jeff ordered coffee. Jeff excused himself to smoke a quick cigarette just outside the diner door.
“How are you feeling about the exam today?” Dominic asked me.
I considered. “Better than last time.”
“Good.” Dominic turned to Jeff, who had rejoined us at the table. “So, Jeff, did you hear about the new leasing regulations?”
“Yes, it’s so annoying, they just want to make it more difficult for us, don’t they?” Jeff leaned forward, and I wondered off-handedly what it would be like to be so tall that sitting on a chair in a restaurant would require a careful arranging of limbs.
Jeff and Dominic engaged in a critical discussion of their employer, the driving school, while I sipped my tea and pondered how to mention Buddy Holly to my examiner without seeming contrived.
On the walk back to the test centre, Dominic reminded me to make sure I got into the car on the correct side this time. Jeff guffawed when he heard the story of my mistake, and the two of them began to brainstorm other ways my American driving background could negatively affect my exam.
“Don’t reach for the gear shift where the door handle is!” Jeff warned me.
I went straight for the right side of the car when my exam commenced. Dominic’s friend, Greg, was a thin, soft-spoken man. He ran me through several manoeuvres, then led me to a road I hadn’t visited before, a country lane that began with a tight barrier requiring precision steering to avoid nicking the side-view mirror. I passed through easily, and something about Greg’s exhalation indicated to me that although the test was not over, I had passed.
“This is the kind of driving that I’m used to,” I told Greg, “Having grown up in Vermont. It’s just a small state, and there are lots of back roads.”
“What part of the States is Vermont in? After the junction, take your first right.”
“It’s close to New York,” I replied, signalling for the turn.
“Continue straight ahead through the mini-roundabout. Have you travelled much within the States?”
“Not as much as I would have liked. My husband and I went on a cross-country road trip many years ago; we drove to Utah, then back through parts of the South.” I saw my opportunity to mention rock and roll, and added, “We went through Tennessee on the way home, and we visited Sun Studios and Graceland.”
“Graceland, that’s brilliant! Are you an Elvis fan then?” the examiner asked, with animation.
“Elvis was a talented guy.”
A wistful look appeared on Greg’s face. “I like Elvis, but I prefer Buddy Holly.”
“I have Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits collection,” I remarked, as casually as possible, while inwardly celebrating that I had been able to mention the great man in conversation.
“We’re going to do the reverse around a corner manoeuvre here, so you can pull into that road on the left. Which is your favourite Buddy Holly song then?”
“That would have to be ‘Runaway,’” I said, while slowing down and signalling left.
The examiner seemed satisfied with my choice. He talked me through the manoeuvre, and we made our way back to the test centre. When I had parked the car appropriately, he told me the good news.
“You’ve passed your practical test, Beth. You are now qualified to drive in the United Kingdom.”
“Oh, thank you so much. This will make a huge difference to my life,” I gushed.
“I can tell you know how to drive. Just remember to stay relaxed on the road. Best of luck to you.” Greg offered me his hand to shake.
Thrilled, I went in to the test centre to find Dominic. “I passed,” I said, beaming.
“High five,” Dominic said, grinning, holding up his hand for me to slap.
“So do I get to drive home this time?”
“Still no. School policy is I drive home after exams, pass or fail.”
“They probably figure too much excitement is just as dangerous as too much disappointment.”
“They’re probably right,” Dominic opined.
As Dominic drove home, I realized that I had not quite worked out that passing my practical would mean no longer spending an hour with Dominic every week. I had lived in England for many years by the time I began taking driving lessons, but before Dominic, strangely, I had never really spent much time with anyone English. My best friends had been American and Australian. Dominic had not only taught me how to drive in England, he had also given me my best glimpse yet into the English character through the many stories he had told me.
“Thank you for teaching me how to drive in England,” I said, before I left the little black car with the big triangular ESM sign on top for the last time. “Let me know if your band ever has a gig, I’d love to come. You’ve got my mobile number.”
“It’s been a pleasure, Beth. I’m sure I’ll see you around. Enjoy your license, yeah?”
“Yeah, I will. Thank you again.”
“No worries. Off you go.”
That same day I affixed a green “L” to the rear windscreen. The next day, feeling like the queen of the road, I proudly drove my son to school. I welcomed the liberation of not needing to choose between my usual suboptimal transport options, cycling or taking the bus. Granted, cycling was good for fitness and fresh air, and I had perfected my bus entertainment strategy by consistently bringing small packages of gummy bears that I would ration out slowly, over the course of the twenty-minute journey, to the children. But cycling came with the stress of assuring that my son’s six-year old perspective on traffic safety caused no injury to himself or others, and taking the bus meant jollying both children through a long walk both up and down the hill to Sam’s school. Driving entailed parking, but if I left enough time, I could usually find a space that would not place undue strain on my parking skills. If the day was fine, I could choose to drive to school but cycle home, or vice versa.
I felt reasonably confident driving to school. I was intimately familiar with the route, and at no point was the speed limit greater than thirty miles per hour. I was very reluctant, however, to drive anywhere other than to the school and back. I feared that my poor sense of direction, combined with the challenge of driving in England, would lead to disaster. Perhaps a year after getting my license, my children were invited to a birthday party in an unfamiliar part of town on a day that my husband was away on business. The party was being hosted by a friend of mine from Australia, Ellie, who claimed to find English driving intimidating, like me, but who was actually brave enough to drive into central London on her own.
“Oh, the party venue is easy to get to,” Ellie assured me over the phone. “You just go out the A316, then drive through all the roundabouts until you see the stadium, pass the stadium, and at the next roundabout you want to turn right. You’ll see the little library, and the venue is just after that. Easy peasy.”
I should have remembered, when Ellie said it would be simple, that although Ellie routinely parked on the top floor of the town’s multi-storey parking garage where she could have a double space if necessary, she was nonetheless intrepid enough to drive to Heathrow and Legoland with her three children in tow.
“The roundabouts aren’t easy,” I argued.
“Most of them are light-controlled. It’s just a question of making sure you’re in the correct lane at the roundabout when you want to turn off, otherwise you’ll end up on the A316 in the wrong direction, and it may be difficult to turn back around.”
“Hmm…” I said. “Maybe I should see if there’s a bus?”
“Oh, Beth, give it a try, you can do it, I’m sure you can. If I can drive there, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble either.”
On the day of the party, I left the house with time to spare. I cleared the first roundabout, then the second and third. Finally I passed the stadium and prepared for turning off when I next had the chance. But when we reached the critical junction, I found myself in the wrong lane, and had no choice but to continue straight ahead.
“I missed it,” I muttered to myself. “I can’t believe I missed it.”
What happened next is a blur to me, but I somehow ended up on a small road close to a train station, where I pulled over to consult the A-Z.
“Are we at the party?” Nina asked.
“No, honey, I’m afraid we’re not. Mommy is just a little bit lost.”
“Oh, Mum,” Sam groaned. “I don’t want to be late to the party!”
“We won’t be very late. We’ve still got some time. It’s merely a question of going back the way we came,” I said, hoping to prevent a meltdown. “I’m going to make a quick phone call.”
I dialled my husband’s mobile number. “I need a bit of help,” I told him, glad he wasn’t in a meeting.
“Where are you?” he asked.
I described my location. “We need to head back, it will actually be easier to take the turn from this direction,” I said, looking at the bright side.
“You’re also very lucky, because if you had kept going, you would have ended up on the motorway,” my husband informed me.
“Good thing I didn’t,” I agreed. Håkan ran me through the route I needed to follow and wished me luck.
“A sat nav would help even more than luck,” I tossed out. Håkan grunted.
Our lack of a satellite navigational system was a sore point. I had started asking for one as soon as I received my English license, but we needed to count our pennies, and good sat navs were not cheap. Håkan also had an intrinsic dislike of the sat nav concept; he felt that by consulting a map beforehand and having a map to refer to while en route, I should be able to find my way. I drove to unfamiliar places so seldom that I had to admit a sat nav was more of a luxury than a necessity. So on the day of the party, parked close to the railway station, I found myself poring once again over the map prior to making a new attempt to reach our destination.
“You’re very lost, aren’t you,” Sam said accusingly.
“Only a little. But now I know what to do.”
Nina piped up. “How late are we going to be, Mum? What if we’re the last ones there? What if we miss the party tea?” Nina scrunched up her face and prepared to cry.
“We will definitely not miss the party tea. I bet we won’t even be the last ones there. Now you both can actually help me, when we get through the roundabout, you can look for the library,” I said, using the time-honoured mothering technique of distracting children by giving them a task to perform. The ploy worked. Nina’s lip stopped trembling, and Sam looked slightly less angry.
We were, in fact, the last guests to arrive at the party, twenty minutes after the party had started, but to Nina’s relief, we had not missed the party tea. Ellie greeted me, looking concerned. “What happened, Beth?”
“Oh, I missed the roundabout, and we ended up by a little train station. I’m sorry we’re so late,” I added.
“Don’t worry about that, but how distressing for you! I know that train station, I’ve ended up there myself. If you hadn’t turned in there, you would have found yourself on the motorway,” Ellie said ominously.
I nodded gravely. “Håkan told me. That would have been bad.”
“Well, I did that once too, and the thing is, there’s no exit for something like twenty miles, so I was very late getting where I was going that day.” Ellie smiled. “Let me get you a cup of tea, I think you could use one after the trauma of getting here.”
“Thank you, that sounds like just what the doctor ordered.”
After the birthday party debacle, my hesitancy to drive to new places on my own increased. There were some destinations that were so useful, or so desirable, that I did learn how to find them, but I could count them on my fingers, and none of them were more than a fifteen minutes’ drive away. I made do with my limited range for well over a year. But there was one establishment I was desperate to be able to drive to on my own that was well outside of my comfort zone: Ikea.
Because I had lived for many years in Sweden, home of Ikea, a trip to the store, with its gigantic sign in the colours of the Swedish flag, eased my homesickness for the country. Customers walking through the store’s front entrance are met by Ikea employees wearing yellow and blue that distribute the store’s distinctive bright blue and yellow carrier bags . All the products in the store have Swedish names, often including one or more of the three extra letters in the Swedish alphabet, the food served in the cafeteria is Swedish food, and on the way out, there is a large poster of the Stockholm skyline that includes a view of one of the apartment complexes my husband and I lived in while there. Nostalgia, combined with the chance to purchase packs of one hundred white dinner napkins at £1.99 each, made Ikea an irresistible magnet.
The first time Håkan tried to drive our family to Ikea, we got lost. We ended up in a residential neighbourhood in North London that we would not have visited otherwise. After trying to find our way out for maybe ten minutes, I insisted that we accost passers-by for directions. While my first request for help was unsuccessful, my second request fell on fertile ground. The man I called out to (“Excuse me! Sir! Sir!”) took a few steps closer, then explained to Håkan, through my rolled-down window, how Håkan could best drive to Ikea. The second time we went as a family, we managed to choose a day that a major football match was taking place at Wembley Stadium; the return trip, that normally takes less than half an hour, lasted well over an hour. After our second trip, Håkan had both dialled in the route and learned to unfailingly check the Wembley schedule of events prior to planning an Ikea visit. But the damage was done; I had personally observed how onerous the journey was, and I doubted wholeheartedly that I would be able to pull it off. It didn’t help that Håkan had told me repeatedly that the Hanger Lane roundabout (a roundabout so large that it is officially named a gyratory system) had once been named the scariest roundabout in England.
In time, my longing for lingonberry jam and cheerful fake flowers became stronger than my fear of the route I would have to travel. I asked Håkan if I could drive the next time we ran out of dinner napkins and had a sound reason to head north. He agreed, and patiently explained, using a diagram, how to best handle the Hanger Lane roundabout. Armed with his tips, and with Håkan sitting beside me, I exceeded my expectations and completed the journey both to and from Ikea without incident. After two more test runs, I felt I was ready to tackle the drive solo. One Wednesday, after the kids’ bedtime, I asked Håkan to wish me luck and set off. I adhered strictly to my instructions at Hanger Lane, and exhaled when I emerged from the roundabout on the proper. As soon as I had parked the car in the massive Ikea parking lot, I texted Håkan the good news. He congratulated me, and I walked into the store feeling like I had just won a medal.
A few months later, a friend of mine who doesn’t drive asked me if I would be going to Ikea anytime soon.
“Probably, but I don’t know if I’m secure enough driving to have a passenger,” I said.
“I was hoping to get some Christmas decorations there,” Maria said. “I promise not to be a back-seat driver.”
I reconsidered. “Well, I guess you could come along, but only if you swear to be absolutely silent during the Chiswick and Hanger Lane roundabouts.”
“I can do that,” my friend agreed, grinning. “I could sit quietly the whole way, if that’s what would suit you best. I just want cheap Christmas tree ornaments.”
“No, we can talk most of the time, just not during those roundabouts,” I said.
“It’s a deal.”
On the appointed day, I picked Maria up at a bus stop close to our house.
“Hello,” I greeted her.
“Hello,” Maria said. “Are you sure this is OK?”
“Yes, it’s good practice for me, and it will be nice to have company for lunch,” I assured her.
As I drove, we chatted about our daughters and their school. When we drew near to the Chiswick roundabout, I reminded Maria that I would need to concentrate.
“Go for it,” she said. “We’ll talk again in a few minutes.”
I made my way through the roundabout in silence. When we had safely accessed the road we needed, I broke the quiet. “That’s one done, one to go,” I tallied aloud.
“That one went smoothly,” Maria said, with the hint of a smile.
We observed the same protocol for the remaining roundabouts of the round-trip journey, and Maria thanked me sincerely when I dropped her outside her flat, laden down with a sizeable bright blue plastic carrier bag full of Ikea goodies.
A few months after Christmas, when another friend, Lily, expressed interest in picking up some Ikea products, Maria, Lily, and I agreed that a joint outing would be fun.
“Who should drive?” Lily asked. “I’m not sure I know the way.”
“I could drive,” I said, reluctantly, “but you and Maria would have to promise not to talk at the roundabouts. That’s the arrangement Maria and I made last time.”
“You did not,” Lily said, incredulously.
“We did,” Maria confirmed.
“I’m a bit of an anxious driver, especially in England,” I confessed.
“Shall we take my car, then?” Lily offered.
“That sounds great,” I said.
I was speaking to Lily on the phone some time after I had come out of the nervous driver closet.
“Sam has a cricket game that I would love to take him too on Saturday, but it’s far away, and I don’t think I could find my way,” I told her. “But I wish I could, because I’d like to see him play, and it would be good for Håkan to spend more time with Nina.”
“Why don’t you take him then? I’m sure Nina would be thrilled to have her dad to herself on a Saturday,” Lily suggested.
“I would get lost,” I argued. “I’m the one that doesn’t let people talk in roundabouts, remember?”
“I don’t see why. It’s only driving. The best way to get better is to drive more,” Lily counseled. “You should just get in the car and drive everywhere. Don’t you like to drive?”
“I was better at driving in the States, but no, I don’t really like to drive.”
“I love driving,” Lily said. “It makes my husband crazy, but if there’s traffic, I will take a different route, because I know eventually I’ll find my way. It’s a wonderful feeling of freedom,” Lily rhapsodized.
“Maybe if we had a sat nav, I would feel more confident,” I said.
Lily thought about this. “To tell you the truth, my TomTom irritates me. I would rather use Google maps. I look at the map before I leave, and that usually gets me where I’m going. And if it doesn’t, I work it out on the fly.”
“That’s so funny, that’s exactly what Håkan does,” I remarked. “That must be the Way of the Secure Driver.”
“You could be a secure driver too, Beth, it’s just a question of practice. Mind over matter,” Lily said, encouragingly.
I didn’t drive Sam to his cricket match that weekend, but I took Lily’s words to heart. When we decided to go on a family camping break for a couple nights in Devon, I volunteered to drive most of the way. I lasted for a good three hours before turning the wheel over to Håkan. During those three hours, instead of thinking to myself, “Oh my gosh, I’m driving in a foreign country, other drivers may behave in ways I don’t expect and I don’t know the roads,” I thought, “I’ve lived here for ten years, these are my roads too, and actually, I’m a reasonably safe driver.”
The day after we arrived in Devon, Håkan had scheduled a well-deserved four-hour surfing lesson for himself. My task was to entertain the kids, in weather that alternated between light drizzle and heavy shower, until the kids’ surfing lesson in the late afternoon. About ten miles before the campsite, I had spotted a tenpin bowling alley, and I knew there was an aquarium in the town just past the bowling alley. I reviewed the route back to the town with the aquarium with Håkan, then dropped him at the beach and set off. The kids were playing happily on their respective Nintendos. I managed the one turn that was necessary to take me to my destination, and was pleased to see the bowling alley appear on my right. But bowling was my backup option; my top pick was the aquarium, so I drove on, hoping that there would be tourist attraction signs for the aquarium as I approached the town. There were no signs. I made a number of quick choices, and ended up on a residential road clearly not close to any sort of aquarium that people would pay to visit. I slotted myself into a parallel parking space, and because crying seemed likely to upset the children, I chuckled to myself.
“Where is the aquarium, Mum?” Nina asked. “And why are you laughing?”
“I’m not really sure where it is, honey,” I admitted, “And I’m laughing, well, just because.”
“Oh, Mum,” Nina said. “Can’t we just go back to the bowling alley?”
“It may come to that. Let me see if I can find the way to the aquarium with my phone,” I said, fiddling with my hand-me-down smart phone.
“Your phone is too slow,” Sam said matter-of-factly. “That won’t work.”
I watched the gear symbol on the phone spinning around and around as the phone endeavoured to take me to the site I had requested.
“You’re right, Sam. It’s not going to work. Let’s go bowling.”
“Yay!” both kids shouted in unison.
I drove successfully back out of the town and parked in the bowling alley lot. The kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves bowling, particularly Nina, who won the game (it should be noted that I was the only one playing without bumpers).
I may not have made it to the more cultural aquarium, but I had been able to drive myself and the kids to a fun place, in the rain, in unfamiliar territory, without becoming unreasonably agitated, and without getting hopelessly lost. Lily, like Dominic several years ago, had put her finger on it; I didn’t need to learn any more about driving, I just needed to change my attitude.
I still struggle with various facets of driving. Parking, for example, will never come easily. My daughter’s swimming lessons take place at a leisure centre where the parking is limited and tight. Before a recent lesson, it took me several attempts to back into the one available space. Both kids peered through their windows and shouted warnings and guidance in true back-seat driver fashion. When I was finally within the lines, I shut off the engine, but I paused before exiting the car.
“Just think if we had a Ford Focus Titanium,” I mused. “Parking would be so much easier. The car would beep, and it might even do the parking for me, I’m not sure.”
“Can’t you get one?” Nina asked. Nina found my driving tribulations more stressful than Sam, who tended to remain unfazed.
“That wouldn’t make sense, not when we have a car that works perfectly well.”
“I could save my pocket money,” Nina suggested.
Love for my daughter, combined with anxiety about the effects of my inadequacies on her psyche, spilled over the sides of the container of my emotions.
“That is so sweet of you, Nina, but don’t worry, this car is just fine. You know kids,” I said, in that I-have-something-to-impart tone of voice, “when you grow up, I hope that both of you will become really good drivers. I know that I don’t always set the best example, but I am sure you both will be very capable, and I want you to enjoy driving. A lot of people think driving is fun, and I hope you will feel that way, although I also hope you will drive in a safe and responsible manner. Do you think you’ll be able to do that?”
Nina and Sam looked straight at me. “Yes, Mum,” they said together.
It was obvious they knew the answer I expected of them, but hearing them agree to enjoy driving cheered me up regardless. “Good,” I said. “Now let’s get out of the car.”