THE DRIVER | When Claire West passed her driving test, it was the culmination of hours, days and months of trying.
by Claire West
You haven’t, you’re joking.
No I’m not joking, here, look my driving licence.
Shaking, I place the licence into my boyfriend’s hands. My face aches from smiling several days later. This momentous occasion took place four and a half years ago.
Fast forward to today. I’m driving up a narrow, almost vertical hill on a beautiful October day. I should be enjoying the warm autumnal sunshine. But I’m blinded by the low sun. I curse out loud for forgetting my sunglasses again. A dustcart flies down the hill at speed, leaving no space for me to manoeuvre into. I curse again, as I reverse to let it continue its journey. This is the second challenge I’ve faced today. The weather was less beautiful first thing this morning. Thick fog hung in the air like a polluted London of old. As I drove carefully down a main road, a speeding car appeared out of nowhere, tailgated my car and frightened me. I mustered all of the concentration and self-confidence I could to continue driving.
It’s during moments like these that I question why I drive. If only I could walk the three miles to work. I find walking therapeutic, I zone out, putting the world to rights in my head. I feel alive as my heart pumps blood around my body. Of course, it’s not practical to walk. I have a son who needs dropping off at the childminders and picking up again after work. I inhale and exhale slowly. I know more than most that the ability to drive and the convenience it brings is something not to be taken for granted.
It’s a cliché, but I believe it to be true that it’s easier to learn to drive when you are young. I didn’t have the self-confidence to learn to drive at 17, and I also had no need to. A red bus would hurtle past every ten or twenty minutes, day or night. It was only when I moved away from London that driving became a necessity. With trepidation I embarked on driving lessons. I knew it wouldn’t be something I found easy. I struggle to learn new practical skills and follow instructions at the best of times.
“Over the years I’ve learnt that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. And that nothing worth having comes easily.”
I was a very nervous driver right from the get go. My boyfriend joked that it was like I was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room as I waited in the lounge to be picked up for driving lessons. I had lessons for many years, and the pre-lesson dread did not diminish. With hindsight I should have researched driving instructors rather than choosing one on the recommendation of a friend. I needed a patient instructor, one who would help build my confidence. My instructor shouted aggressively at cars who were impatient with the learner driver.
I shook at the wheel, sweat pouring out of every crevice and leaving a slick coating on the steering wheel. I did not progress, every lesson was littered with mistakes. I had no spatial awareness, often veering into the centre of the road too near to oncoming traffic. I continually glanced at the gear stick, rather than concentrating on the road ahead. The car stalled during every lesson. On more than one occasion my instructor grabbed the steering wheel to navigate me away from a dangerous situation. Still I plodded on, waiting for the breakthrough that never materialised. I wish my instructor could have been honest enough with me and end our lessons, or better still recommend that I try driving an automatic.
Self-doubt was all encompassing. I felt humiliated. I laughed off many ‘are you still driving?’ comments. Anger welled inside at the ‘driving is easy’ comments. I’m surprised I didn’t snap. Shout from the top of my lungs, that driving might be easy for you, but it’s not for me.
I failed five driving tests in a manual. I’m still in denial about the vast amount of money spent on lessons and tests.
It was after a particularly bad driving lesson, glass of Sauvignon Blanc beside me, that I reached out to the internet for driving advice, stumbling upon a newspaper article about how dyspraxics find it particularly hard to learn to drive. It was a light bulb moment. Everything I read both made sense and I could relate to. Within the week I’d switched to automatic driving lessons with a patient instructor. On my first lesson, she told me to just relax and enjoy the drive. Not to worry about anything. To put my manual lessons behind me.
Six months later, I passed my sixth driving test with one minor error. Not long after, I found out I was pregnant. Driving became a lifeline when my son was a newborn. I was able to get to baby groups, away from the isolation of the house. To connect with other adults and form friendships over a cup of coffee. Driving is the hardest obstacle I’ve faced in my lifetime. I don’t say this lightly having endured 48-hour, back-to-back labour with my son. I knew then the pain would come to an end and I’d be rewarded for my efforts. My driving lessons felt as though they would never end. I should of course have had greater self-belief. Over the years I’ve learnt that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. And that nothing worth having comes easily.
Once again I set my mind back to the day I passed my test. I drove home from the test centre, instructor beside me. The wave of relief passing over me.
‘I’m proud of you,’ said my instructor. ‘You worked so hard.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied sincerely, whilst the voice in my head echoed, ‘I’m proud of me, too.’
Claire lives in Rochester, Kent and is a mum to a 4-year-old. She works part time. She enjoys Zumba and swimming. She is also a member of a local mums creative writing group.