A wise woman with a French accent once told me, "Until you can drive a car, you cannot drive your life."
"But that's ridiculous," I scoffed through a mouthful of biscuits. "I am completely in control of my life!" Then I slipped on some cat sick and banged my head on a door frame. I had not only lost my keys again, but also my mojo, my waistline and, damn it, my sense of life-purpose too.
Perhaps she had a point.
I had recently turned 40 and two weeks before that, my dad had very suddenly and very shockingly died. It was my first experience of primary, knee-buckling grief, and it unravelled me profoundly. Part of my healing, was to finish the job my dad had started 25 years before on the summer heat- cracked roads of a New Hampshire mountain; I was going to pass my goddamned driving test if it killed me. Yes! In his name, I was finally going to grow up, grow a pair and drive my life.
So, for my 7th driving test attempt (yes, I know, but before you laugh disdainfully, unless you took your test in an inner city on a budget of £50 in a stick shift, you can totally talk to my disinterested hand) I took myself off and away from my family for a five day 'crash' course (really bad name choice) culminating in a test on the final day.
My first day did not bode well. I was met by a Boris Becker look-a-like in a scarlet Ka that smelled so strongly of air freshener I immediately had an eyeball-popping coughing fit. For the entire 5 day course I wheezed asthmatically, although I actually have the lungs of a whale.
On Day One, I explained to Boris about my nervous wreck-ness; how I could sort of drive, but just couldn't handle the test itself. In the past, my exam nerves rendered me temporarily deaf and incapable of understanding the words "left", "right" or "stop." For the duration of the test, I would leave my body and look down on the proceedings like I was having a near death experience but without the angels. I didn't mention this to Boris, but I was actually profoundly terrified that if I could drive, I would probably kill someone.
After pouring my heart out to Boris, I searched beseechingly his shell-suited frame for evidence that he might be my savior. A creeping sense that I was going to be disappointed finally overwhelmed me and so I cried. By way of comfort, Boris told me about his recent divorce. This was going to be a long five days.
Turns out Boris's ex-wife slept with his best mate. "Oh that old cliche," I said empathetically as I scraped the Ka painfully into third gear.
"Yeah...I found them at it," he said through gritted teeth.
"Oh... er... um..." I manage to impart wisely as I juddered the car into a parking lot at McDonalds (his suggestion for lunch). "I cant imagine why... er... how awful."
I was starting to feel pretty uncomfortable by then, like I was having a last meal with someone whose wife didn't actually leave him, but who was probably in a bag in the trunk of the Ka. Was my last meal going to be an acrid McVeggie burger with limp Mcfries and was I going to be McDead by the morning?
After five days of grueling driving lessons punctuated by soul destroying conversations, Boris's endless narrative of woe and misogyny and twenty greasy food stops, I felt no more prepared to face the examiner than I had been before.
The night before the exam, highlights of the preceding days ran before my eyes;
Me, crying in the middle of a roundabout.
Me, abandoning the car at some traffic lights and sobbing on a curb.
Me, finding it impossible to poo due to the sudden intake of junk food.
Me, calling my husband and yes, sobbing while warning him not to get his hopes up.
Later that evening, deflated and dreading the test, I met up with a lovely old friend of mine who, over catch-up pots of tea, gave me this advice:
"Sara, it's 20 minutes of your life. Just act. For 20 minutes, act like you know what you're doing. All the examiner has to do is believe you. Make him feel safe even if you don't feel safe yourself. For God's Sake woman you are a MOTHER! Do what you have to do every day. Pretend. Pretend you're happy even when you've had bad news. Pretend the 3 1/2 hour music concert was wonderful. Pretend you've had days when the sheer breadth, scale and depth motherhood hasn't threatened to swallow you whole. Pretend Father Christmas is still coming although you've been out of work for a year. Pretend daddy is coming home. Pretend you'll never die. Do what you do when your kids are scared, pretend you're not!"
So, the next morning during my test, I gave an Oscar worthy performance. I made Ryan Gosling in Drive look like a boy in a GoKart. I pretended I wasn't scared, and by some miracle, I passed.
Three years on and I'm still afraid of motorways. I have yet to attempt the Chiswick roundabout or the Westway, and I still have to plot out every car journey before I undertake it. The fact is, I conquered an exam, not my fear of being in control of things I perceive to be powerful. A reluctance to put my foot down on the pedal of my life, to whack it into fifth gear and GO ALL THE WAY UP TO ELEVEN still has a Darth Vader type grip on my core being. But I'm getting there. Dad would be proud.