Lone Driver: Life After Refresher Lessons

‘You either take a (BEEP) or get off the toilet,’ my sister told me on the phone. We had been discussing my recent refresher lessons, my neglected car and whether I could bite the bullet and drive it just once around the block.

I knew it was time. I had just returned from the supermarket with another puncture in one of the buggy’s tyres and, with two growing twins and a load of shopping, it had taken a gargantuan effort to push it home. The wind was against me as I walked along the main road, leaning into the side of the buggy so that it didn’t veer off the pavement. I could almost hear the pity coming from every vehicle that drove past us, as if they were gossiping about me in a secret automobile language.

When we finally got home, I was ready to collapse. My little Polo was waiting for us under the tree, with a fresh blob of bird poo on its roof and a collection of dead leaves around each of its wheels.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘Not now. Buggy’s blown a tyre.’

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I had taken five refresher lessons in the end. The cocksure part of my character had imagined (or, perhaps, hoped) that I would only need three, but my instructor and I decided to go heavy on the motorway driving to try and conquer my slip-road discombobulations. During my last lesson, I must have joined the motorway a dozen times, coming off at each exit so that I could turn round and practise joining it again. I wouldn’t have managed this alone or with a friend or relative. My instructor, Stephanie, was great at giving me emotional space and, more importantly, clear directions.

The story goes that it takes 21 days to break a habit. I only had a one-hour lesson to convince my brain that motorway driving was nothing to be afraid of. Whilst I had no idea whether I was heading north or south, joining the motorway did begin to feel a little less terrifying. But let’s not get carried away; a low-level residual panic could still throw my gear-logic out the window every time I fretfully fumbled my way into the flow of motorway traffic.

Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities, and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick.

I didn’t expect to feel ready to pack a bag and embark on a road trip up to Scotland but, after the final exhausting lesson, it did occur to me that the time we had spent driving back and forth between two motorway junctions could have been spent driving to my sister’s house or even half way to the coast.

Surely I could take my own car out for a drive around the block?

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A few days later, on a bright Sunday afternoon, I picked up my cars keys and casually told my husband that I was going for a drive. He was busy in the garden watching the twins as they frantically threw themselves (and each other) down the slide. He must not have heard me properly over the squeals of joy and screaming tantrums, because he just said ‘OK’ before rushing to moderate a very heated disagreement about the correct direction of slide-traffic.

As I left the house, feeling jittery and tense, I could hear the garden dispute escalating into hysterics. I opened the car door and sat at the wheel, regaining my composure by humming a song from ‘Moana’ (the kid’s current favourite movie).

Once I had closed the door and fastened my seat belt, it was just me and the stillness of the car. I took a deep breath and, grinning at my sheer gritty determination to get going, I turned the key in the ignition.

It was therefore a huge disappointment, but perhaps also a slight relief, when the engine failed to start. Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick. But I’m no fool – I knew it was the battery. It was as flat as the buggy’s tyre and my now deflated mood.

And so I returned to the house, immediately gravitating towards the kettle and adopting my wistful pose at the kitchen window. It was only then that I noticed the tree, under which the car had remained parked for so long, had completely and utterly died. Perhaps the car’s neglect had spread to its roots and it had tragically failed to bud into life, just like the devastating darkness that spread across the ocean and infected the coconut groves on Moana’s island village after the heart of Te Fiti was stolen by Maui (I might have seen it too many times).

And so, as the kettle gently simmered, I began to channel my inner Moana and thought it could be an appropriate moment to break out into a stirring song about triumph in adversity, overcoming self-doubt and set-backs. After all, what she wanted most in life was to be a voyager (yes, I’ve definitely seen it too many times).

But instead I made a cup of tea and looked up the number of the breakdown service.

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Refresher Lessons: Getting Back on the Road

Another morning at the kitchen sink, where my reflection in the window greets me with a little more decency thanks to a lie-in (if you can call 8am a ‘lie-in’). It’s Saturday, which made it daddy’s turn to supervise the domestic destruction carried out by the twins at daybreak. As I fill the kettle, I gaze out onto the street purposefully ignoring my parked car under the tree.

I am watching out for a different car, whose imminent arrival is already making me feel a bit uneasy. The car I am expecting belongs to a new driving instructor coming to take me out on refresher lessons. I opt for a tranquil herbal teabag – the adrenaline is making my heart fidgety enough as it is. As the warm tea softly brews, I reluctantly glance at my own dusty neglected car. It is now adorned with spiderwebs around its wing mirrors, like a layer of frizz that might form on the hairline of a hospital patient held captive and immobile in bed for too long. It’s a sad sight.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘No, sorry. I’m going out with someone else.’

Red Light

Given my history with previous instructors, I had been really worried about booking refresher lessons and had put it off for many weeks. After a few internet searches during what my little son calls ‘BBD time!’ (he means ‘DVD’), I had finally settled on two local names. It had only occurred to me later that both these instructors were women – probably my wounded subconscious influencing my decision-making. Once I had finally plucked up the courage to make contact, only one was available. Her friendly and relaxed profile picture depicted her leaning nonchalantly against a nice, clean, shiny, happy-looking car, which I am now looking out for from my kitchen vantage point. I sip at my tea and immediately feel the need to use the toilet. Again.

I had wanted to feel as ready as possible for my refreshers lessons. I had listened to a guided meditation the moment I woke up that morning, breathing in confidence and exhaling fear before I’d even brushed my teeth. Other preparations had begun many weeks earlier, such as going for evening runs around a beautiful local nature reserve (thanks to ‘Couch to 5k’, I am now converted) as well as dusting off my old copy of The Artist’s Way to help me revisit much missed creative hobbies before falling into bed at night. I had even deleted my Facebook account and put an end to watching any nonsense TV.

As a queue of cars gathered behind me, too polite to beep or flash (a welcome change from London drivers), I imagined that I was driving a race-track security car tempering the speed of Formula One drivers during a downpour.

It was all working. I was feeling more like myself and much less stressed. But there was one thing that still remained out of reach: sleep. As the twins were still only occasionally experimenting with the notion of uninterrupted sleep, there was not much I could do to remedy the situation. I had yet to discover how feeling exhausted would impact my experience behind the wheel, and I was worried. I felt a tiny hand on my leg.

‘Mummy? Wha’ doing?’

My little boy twin had ventured into the kitchen covered in pink yogurt. I spotted the instructor’s car turning into our street and I felt compelled to take slow deep breaths through the nose to keep my heart rate steady before it reached the house. Yogurt twin looked puzzled.

‘I’m just breathing, my little monkey,’ I replied, stroking the impossibly soft hair on his perfect little head.

‘Well done, mummy!’ he squealed, before his bare feet thundered back out into the hallway where daddy was waiting with a flannel. Hearing a bit of praise, albeit from a two-year-old mastering his limited repertoire of random sentences, gave me just the boost I needed.

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Easy Does It

The gleaming Ford Fiesta 1.0 Ecoboost pulled up alongside my dust-pan of a car and my instructor, Stephanie, smiled as I walked over to meet her. I had decided not to disclose anything about my driving phobia, but she was aware that it had been years since I had driven and that I was way out of practise. We agreed that we would start by driving round the quiet streets to get used to the car and to see how much I could remember.

I drove slowly and cautiously, while Stephanie remained respectfully quiet, somehow sensing that chitter-chatter would not have been welcome. She was calm, kind and approachable and I felt immediately at ease in her presence. I was surprised at how smoothly I was driving, despite my shoulders inching up to meet my earlobes. The car felt so swish compared to anything I had driven before. It was comfortable, quiet and lovely to drive. There were fancy features on the dashboard that were alien to me and which I mostly ignored. I impressed both Stephanie and myself by finding the biting-point without much difficulty as we arrived at a t-junction on a slight incline. Mirrors, signal, gently on the gas – it was all coming back to me.

‘This is great. You’re doing well,’ she gently commented. Only this time, the praise threw me into a slight panic and I inexplicably performed an unscheduled emergency stop, stalling the car and propelling us both forwards into the grip of our seat-belts.

‘Ah, no,’ she said, ‘that’s not necessary in this situation.’

No kidding, I thought. I wanted to laugh, but instead I took a deep breath and continued driving at a snail’s pace. My mental wiring was obviously still a little off, but my personal victory was that I didn’t let it upset me. As a queue of cars gathered behind me, too polite to beep or flash (a welcome change from London drivers), I imagined that I was driving a race-track security car tempering the speed of Formula One drivers during a downpour.

Confidence Crash

My second lesson a week later was much less positive, to put it mildly. Buoyed by the relative success of my first lesson, I decided to take the bull by the horns and agreed to practise a spot of motorway driving. I have no idea what had gotten into me. Stephanie, still oblivious to my secret driving phobia, seemed to think I was ready.

As we approached the slip road, I was suddenly gripped by fear and I lost the ability to accelerate or fathom the gear stick. Stephanie quickly intervened and tears shot up into my eyes. I don’t recall how we joined the motorway, but once we were cruising in 5th gear down the inside lane, I remember whimpering ‘I’d like to go home now please.’ She must have been surprised to see this grown woman reduced to the status of a homesick child at an overwhelming, sugar-fuelled birthday party from hell. I was unable to look at her so I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but she remained calm and professional and somehow we made it home. It was all a bit of a blur.

Naturally, it was time to come clean. As we sat in the car outside the house, I told her all about my phobia.

‘I’m actually really terrified,’ I told her.
‘But you’re a good driver,’ she remarked.
‘Do you believe that some people just aren’t meant to be drivers? That they’re simply not safe on the road?’

She couldn’t answer me. We agreed to try again in a couple of weeks and she suggested I take my own car out, early on a Sunday morning, for a quiet solo drive. A case of ‘getting back on the horse’, I guess.

As I walked back to my front door, exhausted and deflated, the thought of riding a crazy wild stallion actually seemed like a much more appealing option…