By Rachael Procter
Image: Felix Russell-Saw
Every once in a while, I afford myself the opportunity to not-so-humbly reflect upon the fact that is has been a while since my last near-death experience. It might seem a little odd coming from an individual with the nickname “Dropter” – a reference to my inability to safely navigate through day-to-day life without resembling some sort of elephant in a changing cubicle. But I assure you: the damage caused from riding the bus and walking to work is fairly limited even for someone as un-street-wise as myself. You see, the streets have recently grown quiet, give or take the same obnoxious birds singing at the same hour every morning. The cats don’t deliver us presents anymore. The neighbours have solved their drama and no longer yell across our patio at one another. Life has been lacking in excitement. In danger. How to rectify it?
Well, breaks screeching in the wind, barely scraping out of the parking space within which that petulant L-Plate vehicle was refined, I knew: learning to drive was the way to do it. …
“Do you know much about driving?” SCREECH
My instructor was keen to establish my level of experience right at the beginning. “A wee bit, aye,” I said, fondly recalling being removed from the M&D’s dodgems on the account of screaming the place down, aged too old. “That’s okay,” he said sounding quite content as he scribbled some notes in his book. I recalled another memory: aged 8, Dad’s car door wedged into the wall of the house, the rubber sole of my trainer burning against the monoblock. My toes bent against my plimsoles in valiant bid to suspend approximately one tonne of metal from rolling down the length of drive way into the car parked behind it... I learned a hard lesson about hand breaks that day. “Well,” he said, “we have a fresh slate then.” I hmmm’d. This man was a beacon of belief. I couldn’t wait to disappoint him. “This is the clutch,” he bega. Wonderful, I thought. May I clutch it for dear life if I need? “If you just press on it with your left foot, you’ll feel it going all the way back.” “Ah, I do,” I agreed, through a false grin. I made a mental note to myself: in future, adjust the driver’s seat correctly. For thirty or so minutes, my instructor thoroughly talked me through the inside of the car while I sat behind the wheel, carefully pointing out key mechanisms and explaining the functionality of the gear stick, indicators, accelerator, clutch and breaks. In summary: there were lots of buttons with lots of functions that I did not know yet. “Now, if you’re okay with that… shall we try and get moving?” I paused furiously wriggling the gear stick for fun. “What, really?” “I’ll help you.” Panic set in. “Two seconds…” I furiously worked to adjust the seat, blindly pulling it forward with a random lever at my ankles until my foot could press the clutch all the way down. I concealed all expressions of surprise when I realised how far back it reached. “OK, I’m ready.” “So, what do we do first?” I froze. And then– “Check the mirrors?” “And?” “The blind spots?” “Perfect.” He seemed content. “So, do that now.”
I checked the rear-view mirror. Nothing approaching. I checked both wing mirrors. Nothing approaching. All clear. “Good.” Driving lessons are a marvellous thing. Here I was, a virgin to the highway code, taking to the roads under the guidance of a man I’d just met who had been recommended to me by a friend, of a friend, of a friend. He could have been a murderer for all I knew; a gun in his glove compartment, a body bag stored where the air bag should be, and yet we were strangely at ease with one another. “So, press your clutch all the way down and get into first gear.” I did as I was told like a performing monkey. I had no idea of the clutch’s true function despite being told three minutes or so earlier. “Perfect,” he said again. “What do we do now?” “One last check,” I said with my eyes fixated on the rear-view. In the mirror, I spotted a car approaching at snail pace – clearly cautious as it was headed for exactly where I anticipated moving towards. I channelled what would have been a violent yelp into a sharp inhale of breath and kept my foot attached to the break. Well, what I believed to be the break. I had a one in three chance of getting it right. I held my form, glancing behind me to see if the vehicle dared to move first. It was in this moment that I learned staying still and hoping no one sees you was defence mechanism not intended for use on the road. “It’s alright,” he said, sensing my hesitancy. “It will wait. We can now turn out of the space and head down that road. What do we need to do first?” I hesitated. “The hand break?” “Correct.” I twitched, remembering. “On it.” The car started to triumphantly roll forwards and I steered it away from the kerb with a newly found, short-lived confidence. My hands rigidly held onto the steering wheel. It was a lot more forgiving than I remember the dodgems being. I may even have shrieked joyously for a split second, bewildered by my abilities. “Remember to stay close to the kerb,” he reminded me a second or two into my winner’s lap. I quickly glanced to the right. “Oh, I thought I was.” He signalled to the left lane. “You should be there.” Mortified. SCREECH
“Sorry!” Of course, I thought. We are not in Spain. We were approaching a small junction. “Now, just be careful of this car pulling out,” I heard him say. Though Spain must be cold this time of ye“A CAR!” I screeched. I slammed my feet hard against the breaks and the car jolted to a halt at the roundabout, much to both my instructor’s and the driver opposite’s disdain. My shoulders were pressed so tightly against my earlobes that I feared I may one day have no choice but to walk down the aisle like Quasimodo. “It’s alright, you have right of way!” He was very good at reassuring me at several points throughout the hour. “It can go first,” I said. “It doesn’t work like that.” “Oh.” Well, pardon me. “And what do you notice behind you now?” I resisted the urge to turn my shoulders 180 degrees and, instead, checked the mirror above my head. A big, blue beast of a banger hovered impatiently behind me. The car was blue as well. “Don’t panic,” he nipped, like he just knew I would. Every word he said was calmly laced with reassurance. I wanted to do everything right but I didn’t even know how to do everything wrong yet. I released my foot from the pedal and allowed the car to etch forward again, ever so slightly. I passed the car waiting in front a half-arsed smile that said both, ‘I’m learning, sorry’ and, ‘please send help,’ at the same time. I focused on the white perforated circle in the centre of my lane that connected the three roads together like a nucleus. I rigidly encircled it under my instructor’s step by step tuition, surpassing it with barely a centimetre to spare. I also nearly brought home some nearby garden’s plant pots as a souvenir. I felt like the first main obstacle had been surpassed. The car was now travelling steadily along the road fairly harmlessly. I checked the rear-view mirror once again. Low and behold, the great blue shark was still right behind us, it’s nose almost touching our bumper, clearly rigid with impatience. “Was I going too slow?” I asked suddenly feeling guilty. “No, you were doing 18 in a 20 zone,” he assured me, sounding almost impressed. I felt myself looking at him in horror. He seemed so relaxed but to me the past ten seconds had been a whirlwind. I was so sure we’d driven so quickly that with even half an inch more of pressure on the gas this Corsa would be embarking on its very own aviation adventure. “That’s not that fast,” I said, shakily. SCREECH
“It’s not bad for your first lesson,” he said. “Now, if you follow this road the whole way around, we’ll come to the roundabout at the top of your hill.” “Pardon?” “There’s a roundabout at–” “You said roundabout,” I winced, slowing down slightly. “I’ll guide you through it,” he said, sort of airily laughing. All the way through to The Otherside, I wondered, not breaking the silence. The blue car behind was now turning down one of the narrow streets we’d already passed but not to worry: I slowed down to join a short queue of cars and accepted that my untimely demise would fatefully be at the hands of a local roundabout. It was a strange sensation, approaching death. The views around me were of the town’s dingy, abandoned clothing factory, some overgrown and unloved front gardens, and the top of my street which was far from what I’d romanticised death feeling like. There were no visits from any of my deceased relatives telling me, “everything will be alright,” with hands outstretched against a backdrop of pure white light, between flashbacks of my past lovers and flattering video clips of me laughing candidly. My papa lived in the house on the corner directly adjacent to ours which was slightly closer to this fateful roundabout that would soon claim my life. I wondered if he’d hear the crash, if he’d leave the comfort of his chair to investigate and be met with my mangled cadaver. If he’d retell the story to my family, or spare them the de– “Sharp right.” I snapped back to reality and began gently turning the wheel right. “Keep going, keep going, keep going,” my instructor said with a tone of urgency. Soon his hands were on my wheel frantically turning the wheel for me. It was happening. Lord take me home! “Straighten up, quickly! There’s a car!” He released the wheel and it spun between my hands. The car straightened up so perfectly in the lane I concluded I must in fact have now crossed over. “That was quite a sharp wee turn, eh?” My instructor was laughing. I hadn’t imagined him being here with me. What had I done? I breathed heavily through my nose, the non-textual equivalent of “LMAO”. I felt the air touch my lips. I was certain ghosts did not feel heavy breathing on their holographic skin. SCREECH
With every one of my instructor’s careful reminders to stay in the centre of my lane, I regained presence in the vehicle, and soon, I was confidently swooping between the parked cars on our busy hill without any guidance. We sped* past my papa’s house and I gazed longingly out of my window, hopeful that he would feel my desire to acknowledge him but also appreciate why my hands would never leave this steering wheel again. My house was now in sight. I felt the brake lower beneath my left foot despite not placing any pressure on it. “Oh, how is it doing that?” I asked, genuinely curious. He gestured to his feet. Suddenly, it dawned on me that my instructor did, in fact, have his own pedals at the passenger’s side all along. Pedals which would have been useful thirty seconds previously when death was imminent. The only thing I’d been fairly exemplary in executing this past hour was bringing the car to a halt but here he was; reliving me of my duties and shattering my faith in humanity all at once. With the safety of my house in full view, he’d deemed now his moment to shine. As the car stopped outside of my drive, it took every fibre in my body not to do one large clap in front of his face without smiling. Grinning, he rubbed his hands together and turned his head to mine. My unimpressed eyes bore into his cheery face like lasers. “Same time next week?” he said.
DISCLOSURE: I did in fact have a really fun first lesson and, despite my “near death experience”, I will be continuing to learn to drive. *Sped: the equivalent of 18 miles in a 20 mile zone. Not too bad for a first lesson, I’m told.
A dramatic account of my first driving lesson.