Two years ago yesterday I passed my UK driving test. This means I’m no longer on probation; until today, if I’d gotten as few as two speeding tickets I’d have had to go through the entire horrifying process over again to resecure my licence. I’m not exactly a speed demon, but with all the cameras about it can be a bit nerve-wracking, even for the innocent.
Back in the 80s I passed my first test in the US with the same ease that most of us do over there, where driving is virtually a birthright. But when you decide to settle in the queen’s green and mostly pleasant land, she demands a retest. She gives you a year’s grace on your old licence. After that you’re treated like a brand new driver, in need of reeducation to prepare you for Britain’s roads.
Let’s just say I’ve lived here long enough to have passed that deadline. Drove through loopholes real and imagined for a while, then finally gave it up for seven long years of public transport and private means of locomotion often involving pedals. The rural paradise we call home is not so paradisiacal when you don’t have a car.
April 30th, 2013
“Can you honk the horn please?” asks the man with the clipboard after enquiring of me how to check tyre pressure. Yes Sir. Show and tell over, he settles in to ride shotgun. “Go left.” Mirror Signal Manoeuvre, Sir Yes Sir. Roads may have not been built for cars, but Tunbridge Wells is full of them today. Even if it wasn’t, I must be observed to be observing. Schrödinger would approve.
Left, right, left, and on it goes, not a particularly exciting ride until The Event. I start turning into a street which is really a parking lot with a narrow corridor as a courtesy to those of us going somewhere. Suddenly another vehicle appears dead ahead. The rear end of my clown car is sticking out into the 4-way intersection and I’m completely stuck, an embarrassed jetty in the eddy of traffic. All I can do is keep an eye on everything and make slight adjustments so the other guy can pass.
“I’ve just failed,” I mutter miserably. As a human being, I almost want to add. We carry on until he says to pull over to the kerb. “You haven’t failed,” he says. “That wasn’t your fault.”
Does he mean it, or is this merely an act of mercy so the rest of our ride isn’t covered by a dark cloud on this otherwise beautiful afternoon? Whatever the case, ample time remains to screw up. Even with a lot of driving experience under my belt it’s still possible to make a mistake. I don’t, unless you count giving a pedestrian right of way because his body language told me he just might be stepping off the pavement.
“You didn’t check your mirror when you stopped,” says clipboard man later. That’s because I was busy making sure I didn’t end up with a young lad under my wheels, I want to say, but don’t, because at the end of the ride he signs off on me, making him my new best friend.
Back at the test centre I could kiss my driving instructor. We shake hands instead. We’ve been through so much together. She’s heard an abridged version of my hopes and dreams. She’s listened to me vent. She’s the one who informed me that Maggie Thatcher had died just as we were about to start a lesson. She’s been drill instructor and personal Sat Nav from hell: “Check your mirrors.” “Handbrake on.” “Faster.” (As a cyclist I don’t care for that last one, but the system likes you to be near the speed limit. And we wonder why speed is a problem.)
Once upon a time she was the better half of half of Wang Chung, which has little to do with my (re)induction into the league of motorists but is one of those random scraps of information I love to collect. I’ve been taught to drive – correction: I’ve been taught how to pass the test – by somebody once married to a verb. Cool.