I didn’t drive for more than ten years after passing my test. Driving combined all of my fears. It was public – you cannot drive without encountering others. It involved judgment – everybody thinks they are a great driver, so everybody feels free to beep and gesticulate if they think you’re getting it wrong. And it mattered – make a mistake on the road, and I might kill myself or someone else. I entered full-scale terror mode every time I got behind the wheel – in fact, well beforehand. If I knew I was going to have to drive, I would start worrying about it days in advance. I’d imagine the wrong turns I could take, the manoeuvres I might mess up, the abuse that would be tossed at me. My heart would thunder, my palms sweat and my breath become shallow. I could not make good decisions – I could not make decisions at all.
I remember driving behind a group of cyclists on a narrow road, with my dad in the passenger seat. Every car in front of me had overtaken them without incident or, apparently, hesitation. I drew nearer to them, unable to judge whether this was a safe overtaking spot, afraid to ask because I thought the answer would be accompanied by incredulity at my stupidity. We got closer, drifting nearer to the rearmost cyclist’s back wheel. My dad began to shift in his seat, his legs unconconsciously pumping pedals, his arms twitching in his increasing desire to grasp the steering wheel. Eventually he said,
“Well you’re going to have to do something!”
I took that as permission and pulled out. I’m not sure what I would have done if he had stayed silent. It’s possible I would have simply knocked over the cyclist. There is precedent: on the last occasion I got behind the wheel before my decade-long hiatus, I scraped the car of my dad’s neighbour because I could not decide how to avoid doing so. How did I manage that?
Well, I had somehow got myself into a situation where I had to go and pick up my (then) new boyfriend from the bus station. I knew I would be terrified, and there must have been multiple points at which I could have avoided the situation. I could have arranged to get the bus. I could have confessed my fear to my dad and asked him to drive.
Instead, I climbed into the car.
I turned the wheel, as early as I dared without scraping the driveway gates. But I could see I was going to hit the car opposite. I reversed and started again, but the car followed the same path as before, as if driving by itself. Gripped by a sense of futility and panic and an overriding desire to just get out of there, I kept on going. The noise as the car’s sides scraped together was high-pitched, metallic and full of shame. When it finally ended, I did not hesitate. I put my foot down and sped off, trying to convince myself the damage would not show on either car. The drive into town was endless – I made the wrong choice at every junction, making a twenty minute journey take at least twice that. By the time I arrived at the bus station I was a gasping, pitiful mess. My poor boyfriend, who’d been under the impression he was dating a competent, confident woman, had to coach me all the way back, telling me when it was safe to turn, whether I was in the right lane, even though he’d never driven in this city before. And, of course, we arrived home to find that the man across the road had visited, bemusedly asking my dad why his daughter had scraped his car and then sped off.
I do not think my driving instructor had helped. His main teaching tool was disapproving silence. I imagine this works for some people: perhaps the pressure drives them to work out what they ought to be doing. It simply gave me time to reflect on how stupid he must think me and sink further into my soggy pool of self-hatred. The last straw came when I was attempting a reverse parking manoeuvre. Another driver came along on the other side of the road and, although I could see he was not going to stop, I foolishly kept going, swinging the nose of my car into his path. The driver leaned out of his window to shout,
I cringed and looked at my instructor, who nodded and said, “He’s right”.
What a difference a change of style makes. Over a decade later, I bought a car with my partner – the same long-suffering man who’d guided me home all those years ago. Frugality overcame terror and, unwilling to pay for a car I was too frightened to drive, I booked a set of refresher driving lessons. A calm, podgy man turned up and told me to get behind the wheel. When, within minutes, I almost ploughed into oncoming traffic, he quickly grasped the situation. Guiding me into a quiet street, he turned to face me and said,
“Look. You’ve got the same piece of paper as everybody else on the road. You’ve got every right to be here. Now let’s go.”
I went. And I’ve never looked back.