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. 

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