The Driving Test
by Jo Metivier
The view from my bedroom window is the dullest in the world. What could be deadlier than a row of prim two-up two-downs with hipped roofs like old-fashioned police helmets? Sick of waiting, I stopped dancing on the spot, jammed my phone into my jeans pocket and dropped into my desk chair, pulling my notes towards me.
Ten minutes later the print was jiggling in front of my eyes; the skin around my thumbnail chewed raw. As I scraped black polish from my nails, I heard Nan, Filthy habit. I sat on my hands, staring at the wall papered with post-it notes and index cards.
The shriek of grinding gears outside propelled me out of my chair. My phone blowing up in my pocket. A glance at the first message: Passed, and I thudded downstairs. In front of the mirror, I pushed my hand through my hair. Good enough.
What girl wouldn’t have her head turned by an ancient Mini Cooper the colour of Blu Tack? Josh scrambled out of his sister’s car, all billowing hair and flapping Nirvana tank top. As he leaned against the car, under a weeping ornamental cherry tree, his shy grin did what it always does. This was everything: the way I slipped so easily under his arm; feeling his heart beating against my ear under a thin layer of cotton and warm skin. I squeezed his ribcage and let go.
“Con-grat-u-la-tions,“ I said, posh, like the Queen.
“You know, I didn’t make a single mistake.”
He looked like he might cry. “You don’t believe me?”
“Of course I do, dickhead. I’m proud of you.” The black look cleared.
“Let’s spread the good news then.”
I struck a silly pose, draping myself over the bonnet, hitching up my leg like a model. The sun stung my eyes as Josh snapped the car from all angles. He kept smiling so I smiled too. When he was done I pulled him close again and took some photos of the two of us, cheeks pressed together. I chose the one I looked best in, tagged and uploaded it. We appeared solid, our glowing faces pushed up against the lens. So happy.
He opened the passenger door. I got in, wriggling my shoulders against the hardness of the seat. He looked pale now; his knee was jiggling. I started to chew my fingernail but stopped and gave him a smile instead. As he went through the steps of mirror, signal, manoeuvre, I rolled down the window a notch, lifting my face to the gap.
The gears squawked as the car bounced forward onto the main road. Sandwiched between an SUV and a people carrier the Mini seemed fragile next to those huge new cars.
Josh raised his voice over the whine of the engine as he crunched up into third gear, lines of concentration etched around his mouth.
“I’ll go on the ring road.”
“A bit temperamental.” He meant the car.
“Nice of your sis to lend it.”
“My sister doesn’t do things to be nice. This car doesn’t suit her image. It’s mine if I can persuade the parental units.”
We crawled through the roar and diesel stench of the high street. Merging onto the dual carriageway, we left behind the blocky sprawl of council offices and business parks. I reached towards him then took my hand back before he noticed.
“Will your mum and dad go for it?”
“They said if I passed my test, they would. Have to wait and see if they keep their word.”
I risked teasing him a little. “Best enjoy ourselves while we’ve got the chance, then.” I patted his knee. Thigh tensing as he pressed the accelerator, he threw back his head and roared, black hair whipping his face.
“They wrap up that boy careful as a Fabergé egg, Mum said once.”
Clannish. This is what Nan calls my boyfriend’s family. When she gets started I have to leave the room. To be fair to her, his family haven’t exactly rolled out the red carpet for me. It turns out a girl from the scruffy end of the village with a single mother who refuses point blank to sell tickets for the Christmas bazaar isn’t what they had in mind for their son.
They wrap up that boy careful as a Fabergé egg, Mum said once. It was Christmas, the last one in our own house. After Dad died we moved in with Nan to save on rent. And to make sure she wouldn’t do anything silly, Mum said, not that she’ll ever thank us for it.
That year my dad was doing well, and we bumped into Josh’s family in town. I’d not long ago started secondary school and Josh was in my class. I only knew him as the shy, beautiful boy who turned white around the mouth when the rough boys picked on him and sometimes fainted in assembly.
We’d been promised a white Christmas; yet the snow was turning to mush in the gutters. I had on my new sheepskin boots and was prancing about, overheated and giddy, avoiding the slushy puddles, but I stopped to hear Mum. She was telling Dad how she remembered Josh from the surgery. A sweet baby, she said and gorgeous with those eyelashes, but clingy, fussy even then.
The car laboured into a curve on the route out of town. The air in front of the windscreen rippled and shifted as I peered at the twisting road ahead. A canopy of trees closed over our heads, the summer glow dimmed, and the car plunged into semi-darkness. The cords in Josh’s forearms stood out. My t-shirt felt damp. I smiled.
Five miles of single carriageway unfurled before us. Josh breathed out. “Here we go.” Bursts of notifications buzzed in my pocket. I wound down the window the rest of the way allowing a sweet-smelling June breeze to waft my hair. I let my head roll back against the seat. Wild garlic and cow parsley filled my nose, a warm blanket of freshness overlaying the reek of damp carpets and rust and petrol.
The car leapt over a dip in the road. My stomach dropped to the rust-eaten floor. I clutched the dashboard, but he laughed so I laughed with him. The road levelled out. That cocky smile…
Since we got together people think everything I touch turns to gold, like the song on the crappy CD Mum plays when she’s vacuuming. Tapping out the cheesy rhythm on the windowsill I hummed the chorus to myself. I’ve got the Midas touch, oh sugar…
They’re wrong. My boyfriend has a mood disorder. Josh’s illness is the kind with an official diagnosis and an inch-thick medical record.
He gets in a pother over the tiniest things. Choosing between salt and vinegar and cheese and onion is a ten-minute task. Once he disappeared in the middle of a school field trip. When we got back to the coach he was slumped in the front seat, asleep, or pretending to be. Next to him was the certified First Aider, just sitting there with a face like a bucket of spanners. You could see she was fed up about missing the tour, but Josh didn’t get sanctioned, not even a detention.
When it comes to the life-size problems facing us as adults, will he be strong? Perhaps my own fears and insecurities will never have room in this relationship.
We hurried along a straight stretch of road at thirty-five miles per hour, the skin of his knuckles white around the wheel. I spooled up a familiar song on our playlist, and his grip slackened. He let go with one hand to drum on the dashboard as he eased his foot off the accelerator for a bend in the road ahead. A good test for a new driver. Rehearsing with my own feet, I waited for Josh to change down the gears.
Too fast. We’re going too fast. The engine and the words rumbled in my ears as the car sailed out of its lane, barreling along the wrong side of the road. Josh pushed the brake, too late. Screeching, I set my useless feet against the chassis, ramming my palms into the dashboard. As the car careered into the tightest point of the bend I could see Josh making adjustments to the steering, trying to regain control. Don’t slam the brakes, I chanted, eyes glued to his Converse. The car left the road. Oaks loomed. I grabbed at my seat belt.
The car bumped, bumped, bumped and came to a juddering halt. I raised my eyes and surveyed the calm, green brightness of a hedgerow. I could hear a robin. We were on a wide verge on the wrong side of the road. A blast of turbulence shook the Mini. A transit van hurtled around the bend and was gone. It must have been going at least sixty. The June air was scented. Marsh marigolds bobbed their heads along the ditch. Josh must have switched off the ignition but I had no memory of it.
“Oh fuck. Oh fuck.” His head was bowed, hair hiding his face.
“It’s okay. We’re okay. You did great.”
“I almost fucking killed us both.”
“You under steered. It happens.” My voice echoed in my ears, level and untroubled. Josh, dug a blister pack out of his jeans and shook a pill into his hand.
Fifteen minutes later we drew up outside my house going ten miles an hour. My hands on the seat belt trembled. Stuffing my hands in my hoodie, I leaned over and kissed Josh. His cheek was cold, the skin around his mouth pale. “Okay?”
“Yeah.” He plucked at my arm, pulling me closer to rest his head on my shoulder for a moment. His hair like silk against my neck. “Thanks for being cool. Text me later. You’re cool aren’t you?”
“Sure. Of course.” I got out and watched as my grateful, handsome boyfriend executed a careful three-point turn and drove away.
In my room revision notes fluttered on the wall. I slumped in my chair, throwing my phone across the desk. I sat ragging the skin around my fingernails, scratching at that old polish. Sighing, I reached for my phone. A bright drop of blood fell on the screen. I deleted Josh’s number then rubbed the blood all away.
Jo Metivier | @JoanneMetivier
Jo Metivier is writing a novel about badass governesses in the nineteenth century. Previously, she spent several years as a PhD student talking to creative writers, which led her to decide she was one of them. She is a member of the Write Like A Grrrl community of feminist writers and lives in Dover.