“I am not a vampire. I’m a driving instructor from the Transvaal!” - Alexei Sayle
There is something very, very frightening about a teenager that’s just passed their driving test. They’ve spent months, and in some cases, years sitting next to a very calm middle-aged driving instructor, going at no more than twenty-seven miles per hour. All of a sudden, this old bloke from the Ministry of Transport has told them that they’re good enough to drive on their own and has given them a piece of paper that says so.
All of a sudden, you’ve gone from doddering learner to full-on speed demon, with your own car and no old fogey with their foot on the dual controls. You go mad. You forget you’ve got a brake pedal. You’re allowed music. Loud music. And a terrified world awaits you.
That is exactly what happened to my sister. She’d been taking lessons for over a year with the very, very nice Mrs Wootton and her lovely, lovely Mini Metro (never been above thirty mph, never had an accident, but seen hundreds) and passed her test at the second attempt. And the next day she’d decided to drive us all to college.
I was used to getting on my bike in the morning, cycling a couple of miles to the station and catching a couple of trains over to Bracknell. It only took an hour, you met friends on the way, and I got to leer at this girl with huge jubblies that always took the same train as me. If I felt truly adventurous, I’d ride the whole way there - thirteen miles was a good workout as I was running marathons at the time. But what the hell, I thought I’d try it just the once.
Things didn’t go well from the off. Mum had bought us an old, rust green Renault Four, a car that looked, and behaved like a dalek. It was quite possibly the worst car in the world ever. The steering wheel in about three feet across, and the gear stick comes out of the centre of the dashboard, and you need to lever yourself up with both feet and all your weright to move the thing, usually accompanied with the sound of crunching gears and the screams of pedestrians as you weave across the road. And it didn’t like starting in the mornings.
Twenty minutes to nine and there’s strange clunking noises coming out of the front of the car. It’s as dead as a dead thing, and I’m looking wistfully at my bike, absolutely certain that I’m going to be late for my Applied Maths lecture with Mr Valley, a tutor whose attitude to latecomers to his lectures is to flog them to death and hang their limp bodies out for the crows.
“Don’t you dare get on that bike” is her pointed advice. I get the message. After all, she’s older than me, and has tried to kill me dead on many occasions before. Once, on the point of drowning, my entire life flashed before me, an experience that scarred me for life and simultaneously gave me the idea for this blog.
There’s an explosion of sound and fumes as the engine miraculously bursts into life. We pile in, ghetto blaster on the bench seat between us is belting out the latest Bowie, and we’ve got fourteen minutes to get to Bracknell. At an average speed of sixty miles per hour. In a car with a top speed of sixty-six mph. With a driver of one day’s total driving experience. Sure, we’d make it.
Like lunatics, we powered down the road, bouncing up and down on rubber band suspension. Through the village we thundered, overtaking at least three cars the second the traffic lights went yellow, and into the countryside towards Bracknell. And that’s where we met the tractor.
Tractors are the curse of British roads. Along with their partner in crime, the holiday caravan, they’re always there when you least want them, on the most difficult, narrowest, windiest bit of road with not a hint of a passing place. And the drivers have a habit of making them as wide as possible, so that even if there was a fleeting glimspe of a gap, he’s shut the door more efficiently than Michael Schumacher in a Formula One car. If it was a tractor, going slower than your dead granny.
That’s when the swearing starts.
“The bastard! There should be a law about bloody tractors this time in the morning.”
Less than ten minutes to go and Bracknell is still far over the horizon.
Like an expert, Jill drops right down the gearbox, guns the engine, pulls out and goes for it.
Like a klutz, she’s done this on a narrow stretch of road with a blind bend less than a hundred yards away.
And coming round the bend is a bright red Ford Cortina. Heading right at us. Flashing his lights and leaning on his horn.
Oh God, here we go again. Every. Little. Detail. Of. My. Life. In front of my eyes. All checked off and remembered for future reference.
And somehow we’re through. I still haven’t quite managed to work out how, as I was far too busy cataloging 1976 at the time. But like a cork from a bottle, we flew round that bend on two wheels, missed every single bit of traffic, the ditch, a fence and a sign that read “Danger - Soft Verges” which tore me from my flashback, imprinting these words onto my retinas as I screamed for mercy.
There was no stopping us now. The engine roared and we left a mess of tractor, Cortina and the Grim Reaper in our wake, the only noise being the sonic boom as we shot into the distance. It was like Knight Rider, only with the calm computer voice replaced with “OH MY FUCKING GOD WE’RE GOING TO DIIIIIIE!”
It was a miracle. Guided by forces unknown, we arrived at Bracknell College only two minutes after we’d left home twenty minutes before. I sprinted up to the lecture on the sixth floor to find, exhausted, that I was the first person there, with Mr Valley complimenting me on my good time-keeping. The rest of the group arrived ten minutes late after their train was held up at Wokingham. You can still see their bodies, swinging slowly on the gibbet outside, an example to all who would cross the Valley of Death.
I declined a lift home.