Poets and Storytellers United offered a small note about a child taking driving lessons. This wasn’t a prompt. Those came later in the newsletter. However, it sparked me, so here’s a wee prose offering. Or maybe it’s prose poetry. I don’t know. It’s a thing.
My boyfriend looked down at me.
“Why don’t you drive?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.” I felt foolish saying: “I’m terrified of getting behind the wheel of a killing machine.” Which was my real reason.
I also caught trains, trams, and buses, walked long distances, and saw the world that way. I knew every shop in Bentleigh, what was growing in gardens, train time tables by heart, and when the Glenferrie Road tram would arrive to shunt me to Victoria College from Malvern Station.
“I couldn’t wait to start driving,” he said. The implication hung heavy in his bedroom’s air. Normal people got their licence as soon as they could, and started driving to the places that trains don’t go. Normal people assumed an adult life as soon as they turned eighteen.
I was nearly nineteen, and still not driving. He played me ‘Sugar Mountain’ by Neil Young. Again. A song about growing up, or refusing to. “You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain”.
I began driving lessons in a manual car, but didn’t have enough arm strength to haul around the wheel of the heavy Nissan Stanza. That sent me, eventually, on a whole other journey into gym work and weight training, which later fed a feature article for my creative writing course. The Bachelor of Arts to which I travelled by train and tram.
I stopped lessons.
I began again a month later. The gears, the clutch, brake pedal, accelerator, indicators, mirrors, my driving instructor, me, and my fear had some more lessons. I wept during and after every lesson, flustered by everything to do and remember.
“You’re at least supposed to have been around Southland Shopping Centre on a Sunday,” my boyfriend said. “Had some sneaky practice before you get behind the wheel.”
I hadn’t done that. My dad was either not home, or laughing at the idea of me driving. My mum didn’t drive. Dad was teaching her, back in the day, but she took a corner a little sharply, he said words, she said words back, hopped out of the car in a snit, and never got behind the wheel again.
I stuck at my third set of lessons, in an automatic, with a man called Frank as my driving teacher. He was saving up for flying lessons, so willing to let me dawdle through as many lessons as I thought I needed. I still sweated during every lesson. I must have had fifty lessons.
My friend Sue had tried for her license four times. “The third time,” she said, “I got so nervous I drove on the footpath.”
Her words haunted me, and I wouldn’t even park in my parents’ driveway, because entering meant crossing a footpath.
Frank talked me into my first license test by simply booking it. I failed it within five minutes, when I couldn’t park between two bollards. Frank had never taught me that one.
We practiced parking between two bollards for a month, then I went for my license again.
I’d been warned about a particular assessor.
“Mr Smiley never smiles. He gets into the back seat and reads the paper the whole time. He’s got grey hair and thick glasses.”
I prayed for Not Mr Smiley. My first ever lesson in the universe never hearing the word ‘not’. Mr Smiley got into the back of Frank’s car. Off we went. Passed the parking. Out onto the road and off to Oakleigh Shopping Centre, which had a lot of different speed signs, traffic, and a few one-way streets. I passed everything, I supposed. We were on our way back to the testing station.
I pulled up behind a truck. The truck driver must have taken his foot off the brake because slowly the truck started rolling back towards us. I watched for a second then honked the horn. The driver slammed on his brakes so hard that the whole truck jerked back and forth. The rear doors of the truck swung open. A porcelain toilet fell out onto the bonnet of Frank’s car, and rolled off. Toilet rolls bounced free all around us.
Slowly, shaking, I clicked on the hazard lights, and parked the car. Frank leapt out to assess the damage to his baby, and swap phone numbers with the astonished truck driver who glared at me as though it was my fault. Mr Smiley stopped reading his paper and stared.
On his way back to the car, Frank scooped up some toilet rolls and popped them in the back seat with Mr Smiley.
“Drive on,” said Mr Smiley, his voice flat.
I sat in a pool of sweat, and I must be a good driver, because I drove on automatic back to the testing station.
“Sometimes I look at you young girls and I wonder if you should be on the road at all,” said Mr Smiley. “You didn’t avoid that accident, but I suppose it wasn’t your fault.”
Of course it wasn’t my fault, dickhead. I was more than the legal distance behind the truck. It rolled back.
Mr Smiley granted me my license. I drove home, staggered out of the car, went into the house. I cried, telling Mum I’d passed. She gave me a tin of celebratory vodka and orange.
“Let’s go for a drive,” she said, starting to put her shoes on.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’ve just drunk alcohol.”
Whew. Crisis averted. I didn’t have to get behind the wheel all on my own just yet. I would find excuses not to drive for six years, until after I had my daughter, and was so isolated that I made myself drive, just to be out of the house and find company.