An elephant without feet

The longer you leave it, they say, the harder it becomes to learn to drive. Cars are monstrous hunks of machinery, ideally under our control, but to get that control takes practice, lessons in technique and a confidence in your ability to keep a car in its place on the road. 

The first time I went for my licence from the driving school in Oakleigh, the instructor at my side and the examiner with his clip board in the back seat, I again experienced the temporary paralysis I had suffered many times in the early days of my driving life. 

I was okay at slowing down, foot gently squeezed on the brake, but there was a technique I tried to learn in my instructor’s bright blue Datsun 180Z whereby I needed to clutch and de clutch to go down the gears. All as smoothly as possible so as not to stall the car or come to a clunky halt. This needed to happen in a matter of seconds. But given my limited coordination skills, I preferred not to come to a full stop unless I needed to.

I drove slowly out of the car park through depot grounds, towards the gate that took us onto Dandenong Road. As I approached the exit through my periphery I could see a man on the footpath. He pushed a wheelbarrow full of manure. He moved briskly enough, and despite my slow physical coordination skills, my brain computed, by the time he was mid driveway, I too would be mid driveway. I needed therefore to stop. I did not want to stop. Instead I slowed down to second gear, and inched towards the exit. At this moment, the man with the wheelbarrow stopped to tie his shoelace in the middle of the driveway. 

My instructor slammed on his brakes, the car came to an angry halt and the wheelbarrow man wandered on oblivious to our presence.

‘That’s an automatic failure,’ the examiner said from the back of the car. ‘Change seats with your instructor. You’re not ready for your licence yet.’ 

The next time I went for my licence, several months later, I had mastered my stops and starts enough to get me out of driveways, even when obstacles appeared. 

I tended towards the slowness of a learner but the examiner of my second try was okay with this as long as I obeyed the rules. He did not even bother to put me through my paces on a dreaded uphill start. The one effort I dreaded. Another effort that required I park on the side of a hill my car facing upwards midway. When I went to start I needed to hold the hand brake in place until the moment the gears engaged before I could shoot off, otherwise the car rolled backwards. In this instance into the driveway gutter and I’d lose points on my test. 

Years earlier when I was ten and my mother had first learned to drive a car in her early forties, we sometimes found ourselves stuck at the top of the Mont Albert Road hill where the headlights regulated its intersection with Balwyn Road.

So many times, even as my mother pulled the hand brake up to its highest grab, the car’s brakes were faulty, and we crept backwards towards into the car behind. It was all she could do to keep the wheels engaged sufficient to hold the car in one place.

I sat in the back seat in terror of what was to come. I imagined the car behind coming through our rear and impaling me on something, crippling me for life. Worse than this, was the shame of the commotion and my mother’s helplessness to save us from her humiliation . 

On my second test all went well until it came to a parallel park. A technique I had practised time and again but could not master. Something about the mathematics of it all. The number of times I needed to turn the wheel backwards. The way I needed to position my car parallel to the other stationary car parked on the side of the road and manoeuvre my way backwards into the small space behind. As if I was an elephant without feet who could not get any sense of what she was doing.

I listened to my instructor and tried to drag the steering wheel as he had urged but never once did I master the parallel park. A pity, because by the time my second examiner had reached the end of my test and decided on one last performance from me, he chose just that. A two-car space on a side road off Warrigal with enough room for a single car.

I would up an at an extraordinary angle from where I had begun, and examiner number two decided I was not yet a fit person to be in charge of a moving car. 

It took me over two years to learn to drive including the six months after I spilt from my first proper boyfriend. He who occasionally let me practice behind the wheel of his automatic Monaro. Which was not much good by way of practice as I needed to learn in a manual car. 

I had a proper job by then. Graduate social worker in Prince Henry’s hospital on St Kilda Road near the National Gallery where I earned enough money to pay for two lessons a week. I was a cash cow customer, but it frustrated my instructor that he could not get me exam ready. 

‘You’re phobic about driving,’ he told me, all of twenty two years old and my first official diagnosis. He was right. 

At night I dreamed of driving backwards, my car out of control and always the terror of backing into the car behind me. I drove for long stretches in my dreams in this terrifying backwards sweep but somehow in the magical way of dreams, I managed to avoid everything that came behind.

On my third and final test examiner number three took pity on me. Once more I failed the parallel park but since everything else was passable, he said, ‘I’ll let you go.’

And so, it was the day I took out my licence and filled out the form at the learner driver’s depot, I took the train to work as usual and told my friends I was now officially a licensed driver. I still had a problem with stopping when necessary but at least I could go. 

Still, my VW beetle sat in my driveway. I had bought it ahead of getting my licence but then could not bear the anxiety of driving. I loaned it to my next serious boyfriend after he had suffered an accident in his car and needed new wheels to get about. 

Don’t be mistaken by the smile. I was even more terrified on a horse than behind the wheel of a car.

That’s a whole other story. 

Home alone 2

Last night, home alone, I disliked the way my mind slipped into thoughts of danger as soon as darkness descended, rather like a small child afraid of the dark.

I lit up the backyard as if I was having a party and this way did not notice the black hole of darkness at the rear of the garden, the place most frightening to me. 

Dangers lurk there, hidden from view in the back near the fence among the overgrown monstera and watsonias. There behind the bay tree that houses several families of possums with their incessant noises at night. The dogs hurtle out there when let out for a pee. They are not afraid of the dark, but the younger dog reacts to every unknown sound as if an intruder is about to burst in. 

Last night was no exception. Only the younger dog was worse. Perhaps being at home alone with only one other human made her wary of the noises coming from the street outside. She also set her big sister dog off. And every time they barked I had to check the street for signs of the dark shadow of a man who was about to launch at me, though no such man materialised.

I do not suffer such fears when others from my family are at home. When I am not alone. 

I met a woman once whose marriage was in trouble because she could not bear that her husband, who travelled for his job, went away on frequent overnight trips, and left her alone. They both considered this fear a function of some childhood trauma, but they were neither of them compassionate towards her distress. Both she and her husband thought she should get over it. As I would like to get over it, but it’s not so easy.

To begin there are the memories of night-time terrors when a peeping Tom’s face appeared at my bedroom window. I was ten and had just crawled into bed when my eyes tilted towards the uncovered window. The light was still on as I was waiting for my sister to come to bed when I picked up the pinkness of a round face of a man who stared into the room as if he was looking for something. I was frozen in terror. The face disappeared in seconds, and I ran to the lounge room to alert my brothers who ran out through the back lane behind our house. They chased someone up the street, but he never materialised.

I had imagined this time at home alone might be peaceful, but the dogs were restless and there was no one else to pick up the slack of their endless desire for interaction. They wanted to play, or walk, or cuddle up close and I wanted the alone time to wander into the recesses of my thoughts where new ideas might emerge. 

And then there are my dreams. So many over the years, of intruders, men who break through the door. And always this sense I do not know their intentions, but they mean to harm me. 

There is a German word nachträglich. Roughly translated, it means ‘afterwardsness’, or in French après coup. Academics of the psychoanalytic variety use it to refer to the way in which we refashion memories as we think back over them and can attribute sexual meaning to events from the past we once thought innocent. 

Those delightfully long German words can be intimidating for those of us who can’t master much language beyond English. What must such words be like for German speakers who also employ slang and like to shorten their words to get into that human impulse towards ease of communication. 

My mind is top heavy with random thoughts. A dream that left me breathless in the middle of the night when I stood outside a now retired colleague’s house and wanted desperately to see him again. He was busy at work with others and as I stood outside in the dark I became deranged, rather as the character Jed Parry in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, becomes obsessed with the idea that he has received a sign from God that an almost stranger, in the form of the book’s narrator Joe Rose, is in love with him. Joe who loves Clarissa with a passion fit to burst. Both intelligent people from Oxford. 

The book reeks of the same atmosphere as books written by people like Margaret Drabble, all those years ago. A British sensibility. A style of writing riddled with complexity of meaning, interlaced with the meandering thoughts of central characters. AS Byatt’s women and men, and I feel inadequate to the task of writing, even as I have read so many books that have a different flavour. 

In Enduring Love Ian McEwan even offers a potted view of history through his character’s perspective. This man Joe is a rationalist, in love with logic and science, as distinct from his beloved Clarissa who teaches literature and poets like John Keats. She reckons Joe’s rationality makes him an innocent. 

Innocent of what? Of awareness that people are more complex than the dictates of science allow. At one point in his internal reverie, Joe laments the absence of storytelling from science today, and yet he harangues Freud and psychoanalysis for their unprovable ways of thinking. 

Everything must be rational, Joe thinks as he watches – almost in slow motion – the drama of a small boy trapped in a run-away hot air balloon. His grandfather has lost control of the balloon and several men from around the countryside, including Joe, on a reunion picnic with Clarissa, rush to catch hold of the anchor ropes to try to pin it down. Even with the weight of four men holding it and a small boy in its basket, the balloon rises, caught on an air drift. 

As the balloon continues to rise, one by one the men let go of their grip on the ropes just in time to fall safely, until the last man cannot hold any longer. Too late for him. The balloon is by then too far from the ground and when John Logan lets go, he plunges to his death. A hero, we are led to believe, until we meet his wife, Jean later. She reckons her husband is no hero. Instead, she believes he was hell bent proving himself to a be a strong man in front of his secret lover, who had stayed hidden in the trees below as the balloon floated away. John Logan and his lover were also out for a picnic. 

The story is full of twists and turns. They centre on the accident and how a glance from our narrator becomes the point where Jed Parry’s delusion is sparked into his belief that Joe is secretly in love with him. Jed it turns out suffers from a delusional disorder called De Clerambault’s syndrome, named after a French psychiatrist in 1921. 

I’m intrigued by the way McEwan plays around with someone else’s madness, albeit among fictional characters. But to me he underplays the complexity of what it means to be so overwhelmed by a fixed belief in mutual desire, even when not reciprocated. 

I’ve yet to get to the end of this story, but I can see the ways in which the slightest decision , however seemingly innocent, can have far reaching consequences beyond our wildest dreams. 

Especially, when it comes to the craziness of love. As complex as a cobweb.