Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Learning to Drive

Our US tour ended six weeks ago. Since I came home from my three day vacation with Jen in New York, directly after the tour ended, my time, or at least my thoughts, have been dominated by one thing. My driving test. With that, work and school starting up for the autumn, I've hardly felt inspired to write anything, never mind had the time. Until now, where I find myself back in the company of my fellow Victims, on board a KLM Boeing 737-800 series bound for Amsterdam.

We're playing the Bloodshed Fest at the Dynamo Club in Eindhoven tonight...

But back to the driving test.

It's completely ridiculous, but this process began in Corby over ten years ago with a nice old guy called Jim Scales. He was my first driving instructor. I was nineteen years old, quite late to be starting my driving lessons compared with the average age of learner drivers in Corby. The driving licence is essential to anybody living in small town England who wants to get out and explore further afield. Most of my friends by that time had had their licence a couple of years, but nonetheless, I was finally taking a grip on the issue.

After six months of weekly driving lessons, it was time for the theory test. My younger sister, who was also driving with Jim, took the test the same day. My dad gave the pair of us a lift in his post van to the test centre in Kettering. I remember we were both pretty nervous. The theory test had recently been made a lot harder. In the past the test had consisted of nothing more than a few verbal questions from the test instructor, sat in the car at the end of the actual driving test. Now it was our turn, they had transformed the fucking thing into a sixty five question multiple choice nightmare, which you would undergo sat in front of a computer in a, soulless, sterile room somewhere.

As it happened, for the first time in my life I had actually taken the time to study for a test and both my sister and I passed without any major issues. We were both chuffed as we waited outside for my dad to come along and pick us up again in his post van to take us back home. My dad has always taken full advantage of the post vans and trucks he's had at his disposal during his years of service to Her Majesty's Royal Mail...

So that was that. Now it was just the actual driving test to conquer.

Thanks to Raging Speedhorn, I never even attempted it. I had my driving test booked and was raring to go. My sister too. I couldn't wait to get my own car and break free from the shackles of Corby. When I had my car I'd be able to drive anywhere to see bands play. That was my overriding inspiration. As it happened though, we'd formed Speedhorn somewhere during the period of my driving lessons and of course, just as I was gearing up to take my driving test, the band was busy booking it's first real tour. A two week shunt around the UK with Ninth Circle from Scotland. The date for my driving fell right in the middle of it. As much as I was desperate to get my licence, I didn't even hesitate to cancel the date for my test, in order to go on tour. I didn't care if we were playing toilet venues in front of fifteen people a night, we were doing our first ever tour. Shows every night, beer would be flowing freely (or so I naively assumed), sleeping on people's floors, the adventure of it all consumed me. The driving test could wait.

If I knew then that it would wait another twelve years I may have felt differently...it's probably my only major regret in life. I don't regret the tour of course, even if the beer didn't flow freely and the shows were indeed attended by an average of about fifteen people a night, that tour set me on my path in life. My regret is that I never got off my arse and picked up the momentum again. Instead of booking a new test, I just waited. Even the driving lessons stopped. The thing is, we got home from the Ninth Circle tour and within a week or two we were back out again, this time with Breakneck from Kent. And then shortly after that we landed our first “big” tour, opening up for Earthtone 9 on a four week tour that took in the entire UK. Shortly after that we landed some support dates with Will Haven. Before I knew it a few months had passed and my cancelled driving test was nothing but a distant memory. - I'll sort it out at some point, I told myself.

Like said, it took over ten years to happen. I didn't even get around to booking a driving test at the first time of trying here in Sweden. Although, for different reasons entirely. Ten years on, and in another country, learning to drivng had become a whole other science. Not to mention insanely expensive!

Jim Scales' lessons, back in 1997, set me back fifteen quid for an hour's lesson. Now I know you have to take in to account the small matter of inflation, but an hour and twenty minutes of driving lesson in Sweden costs you the arse raping sum of ninety fucking quid! Even if the pound, low as it is now, would veer a little back towards it's usual rate, it would still work out at around seventy five quid per lesson. It just doesn't make sense to me.

All the same, I'd decided to finally get off my arse and sort my driving licence out, once a for all, aged thirty two years old. Those costs though, are simply not economically viable. I bought a couple of “ four lesson packages” for around four hundred and fifty quid, but when the robbing bastard sat beside me in the car told me I'd need at least another twenty lessons, I told him no fucking thanks. Time for plan B.

Plan B came in the form of my good friend Olle, who plays bass in our band Battle of Santiago. For the nominal sum of about one hundred quid per person, you can go on a course where you sit in a room for four hours whilst a speaker tells you the dos and donts of being a passenger driving instructor, a “handledare” as it's called in Swedish. This worked out great for a while. I drove with Olle on a weekly basis and just as once again, I felt progress was being made, things went off track. Olle and his brother opened their own restaurant, the wonderful Parkliv, right in our neighbourhood. That was great but the driving lessons with Olle dried up as he was forced into working two hundred hours a month to make his restaurant float.

I decided to take up with another driving school, a few months later, once it became apparent that driving with Olle wasn't happening. Olle felt that I was as good as ready anyway, but I felt that it would be a good idea to book a few more professional lessons just to touch up on things before I booked a test. The first lesson I took with this new driving school, although a little nervous whilst driving around with the teacher watching me, went well. Or so I thought. At the end of the lesson the driving instructor, a middle aged man called Amir, told me that I would need at least twenty lessons, at ninety quid a pop. He may as well have asked me to bend over and drop my fucking kecks!

After another couple of “package lessons”, the mandatory courses of “halkbanan” (where you drive around on an ice track and try to steer the car without crashing it, actually really good fun) and “riskettan” (another afternoon spent in a classroom, this time the speaker informing you that drinking alcohol and taking drugs are not activities one should mix with driving a car...I kid you not) all for another couple of hundred quid, and it was time for Plan C. The final push.

Jen had by this time been driving for five years and with that, was now eligible to be my “handledare”.

Since we have a car I could now drive constantly, practically every time we went out in the car together. Within a couple of weeks Jen thought I should apply for my test. Time for the fucking albatross to be removed from around my neck. I thought to myself that ready or not, always prone to self doubt, I had to at least experience what a driving test is all about. It had now been over ten years since my sister passed her test at the second attempt. How the fuck did I let it go this long?

It was only a couple of weeks before Victims were going to the States for a three week tour, so the theory and practical tests would have to wait until I got back. What the fuck, I'd waited this long, what's another few weeks? The usual inner rationalising rearing it's ugly head. The truth is, just thinking about the test made me nervous. They say it's the most nerve-racking experience one can go through...just the fact that “they” say that had my arse twitching.

By the time I got back from tour I had four weeks until D-Day. Driving Test Day... Doomsday, both fit perfectly well. The weird thing is, I was really nervous before my theory test. The fucking theory test is what pained me the most. I'd already done this once, and now I have to do it all over again, in a second language. Talk about doing things the hard way. The trouble is, studying driving theory was as boring as shit back then and it was just as fucking boring now. I've never been the most disciplined when it comes to studying, and this was no exception. With everything else happening, such as work and school (I'm studying Maths for some reason...), I found it hard to get inspired to open that damned theory book. It took until the week before the actual test to really start cracking on with things, reading the book and trying out old theory tests on the internet.

I packed it in that last week and by the time the test came around I felt confident. I still couldn't shake the nerves though. I felt that it would be far more humiliating to fail the theory test, as opposed to the driving part. After all, nobody can really expect to pass their driving test first time around, we all know it's a fucking scam and chances are you've failed it before you set foot in the car.

Case in point. My mum failed her test first time around because apparently she looked in her mirrors too much! Not that she didn't have her eyes on the road, just that the inspector was grasping at straws for something to fail her on. She drove just fine, but it's a fact that they can't pass everybody, they have statistics to adhere to and my mum just happened to be on the wrong end of them that day. Her driving teacher was so furious that he wanted to lodge an official complaint...

Anyway, the theory test came and went. I passed it. I felt that I could breathe out, even if only a shallow, trepidatious breath. Your theory test certificate is only valid for two months. If you haven't passed your driving test by that time, you have to re-take it. Of course, it can take up to six weeks to get a time for a new driving test so really the whole thing is a piss take, just another way of fleecing money from you. It's not like once you have your licence you have to take a theory test every year. You never have to take the fucking thing again so where do they get this two month bullshit from?

The weird thing is, with the theory test passed, almost all of the nerves I'd been feeling had disappeared. One week to go.

The weekend before the theory test we'd taken the car, with me at the wheel, over to Jakobsberg, where I'd be taking the driving test. Outside of the driving test centre, at the very first junction, is a heavily trafficked roundabout. What I hadn't noticed whilst driving around the fucking thing was the fact that it had pedestrian crossings at each exit. I drove right through a red light. Jenny had called it but I panicked and drove right through. Fuck, I had been a bit of a wreck after that. I could only reason with myself that it was better to make such a colossal fuck up then than on the day of my test.

The weekend before D-Day, we spent the Saturday driving around Jakobsberg. I must have drove around that roundabout twenty times. I wasn't falling into it's trap again. That day in Jakobsberg went well and I felt, for the first time, that I might just have a chance of passing my driving test.

Two days to go and I still felt no nerves. I had drilled it into my head that it wasn't the end of the world. The percentage of first time passers wasn't very high. It would be no great shame if I fucked it. Everybody gets nervous whilst taking their driving test. It's OK Gareth.. I spoke to my parents a couple of days before who were full of encouragement for me. My mum, for not the first time in my life, knocked me sideways with a couple of pearlers.

I asked her again about her driving test episode. She told me about the first time and how she was robbed. The thing is, she'd felt no nerves whatsoever then and was shocked when she failed it. The second time around she was a nervous wreck. So nervous in fact, that she took a shot of vodka before leaving the house! I almost spat my tea out as she revealed this to me. My mum is this little woman who would have you believe that butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but every now and again she'll tell you something that stuns you. Who the hell would drink a shot of vodka before a driving test? My mum, that's who. Obviously she failed the second time around, and in spectacular fashion. She was still so nervous, despite the vodka, that she couldn't stop her leg from shaking. Whilst performing a manoeuvre, the engine stalled. It put her in pieces. She couldn't keep the engine ticking over and eventually started balling, telling the inspector that he would have to drive the car back. “Get a hold of yourself Mrs. Smith!” boomed the inspector, but it gave no effect. He had to drive the car back and my mum failed the test again.

She passed at the third time of asking, this time with the help of a valium pill. She was totally chilled for that one apparently. Again, tea shooting out of my mouth, I insinuated that she must surely be joking. “Ah, it was only half a pill”, she reasoned. Somebody down the Rock had given it to her... It didn't really make much difference by that point anyway since she'd discarded the Learner Plates from her car long before that third and final test, at my dad's insistence. My dad, a law unto himself apparently, had thought the whole thing a complete rip-off, and with only my dad's approval of her driving ability, my mum did indeed take herself to work every day in her little red Mini.

The day for my driving test finally arrived. Still no nerves. I almost started wondering if something was up with that. Jen had decided to work at home for the day and she came with me to the test centre. I drove over there as one last practice. It was only when I stepped out of the car and started the walk towards the doors of that very nondescript building that the faint pang in my stomach started to appear. By the time I was sat in the waiting room, along with six others, although not paralysing, the nerves were well and truly in the fucking building!

I'd arrived far too early. There was a big clock on the wall. My test was in twenty minutes. Tick. Tock.

Eventually a gang of inspectors walked out of a side door into the waiting room, all of them holding clip-boards. I quickly scanned their faces. A couple of middle aged guys who looked normal enough. An older lady, stern look, not the kind you'd want to fuck with. Surely not her! They started to call the names of the other testees in the room. My name was called last, by a young man, well, my age at least, appearing through the crowd with a friendly smile spread across his face. Thank you Jesus! I felt my chances had just greatly improved.

We sit in the car, I await to hear which safety check I will be asked to perform. These checks have been whizzing around my head for the last few days. There is an outer check, and inner check and a pre-drive check. Each check has about eight or nine points that needs to be attended to. Or so I thought. In actual fact the only thing this friendly inspector, who's name is Magnus, asks of me, is to check the hand-brake is functioning properly. No problem. That cleared, it's time to drive. My thoughts go straight to that fucking roundabout. If he asks me to go left, I'm praying there is no traffic and the light is green.

He asks me to go right. Shit, haven't been this way before... He calmly asks me to drive towards Jakobsberg. OK, there's the sign, straight on. I move into lane and ease my foot on to the gas. Magnus politely tells me that Jakobsberg was actually the first right. Right? What fucking right? I weakly mumble a “Sorry”. Don't really know why I said sorry, I feel like a right tit already. “It's OK, just head towards Viksjö instead”, he calmly says. I don't know if he's patronising me now or just being nice. Shite, I'm guessing I've already fucked it. Within sixty seconds. What a fucking waste of eleven hundred kronors! I've heard people say it before, but it's true, because from the moment I'm sure I've fucked this test, before I've even really got started, I completely relax and just start driving. It crosses my mind that now and again those people have gone on to pass their test, since they were so sure they'd fucked it that they just relaxed and ended up driving well. I'm sure that that only happens to others though. One thought is rapidly crushing the other.

This car feels weird. It's a six geared Volvo, quite a big car. I'm having trouble getting a feel for second and third gear since there doesn't seem to be much pull in them. I drive relatively well for the next fifteen minutes and when it comes for the time to pull into a car park and perform a manoeuvre, in this case reverse parking, it goes flawlessly. I'm pleased with that but can't help feeling that it's a waste since I've already failed this test.

It's what happens next that assures me I'm not going to make it this time. Magnus asks me to take the next exit, which is heading towards the motorway. I'm on the acceleration lane heading towards the E18 and I'm flouncing around somewhere between second and fourth gear. I can't seem to get any speed and by the time I arrive in the three-laned 110 clicks and hour zone I'm chugging along like a dehydrated slug at around sixty-five. Embarrassing. I know exactly what Magnus is jotting down on his clipboard. We're soon off of the motorway and we've pulled over again. As if to confirm my fears, Magnus gives me a time-out pep-talk.

“Stop driving like you think I want you to drive, and just drive how you would normally in your own car, how you feel for it. And for fuck sakes, when you hit the motorway, keep it in a low gear and get your speed up.” He says it in a friendly, encouraging tone, but I'm guessing that he's just kindly handing out words of advice that I can take with me into attempt two.

I start the engine again, and resigned to failure, just kick back and drive the car back to the test centre via the same strip of motorway. I pass that fucking roundabout on the way back in. See you next time, I think to myself.

Even as I pull into the car park, I miss the parking space and have to readjust a couple of times. Fuck this, get me out of this monstrosity of a car! Magnus, with a voice now a prophecy of doom, says, “Well then, that was that.” I just let out a big, frustrated sigh. “Yeah...” I'm already thinking about when I can book another test, sure that I'll pass second time around now that I know what to expect. I only hope I can squeeze it in before I have to take another fucking theory test.

“I have to say, it wasn't the most eco-friendly driving experience I've had, and it's a close call, but you've passed.”

For a moment I can't quite gather what he's just said. I start to laugh, as much in shock as anything else. I look at him to check if he's taking the piss out of me. He has a wide smile across his face, as if he's genuinely happy for me. I almost hug him. I can't fucking believe it! Even as he's filling out the certificate, I have to double check that he's ticked the green “Approved” box. Fuck me. He has.

We talk for a while longer but none of it registers. All I can think about is how kind this Magnus is, how lucky I am that I didn't have that old boot inspecting me. I almost ask him if he's on Facebook, maybe we could go for a drink sometime. I can't think straight. And then that feeling of jubilation turns to panic. I want to get away from the test centre as soon as possible just in case they realise they've made a mistake.

I thank Magnus one last time, wish him a good day and hop off out of there. When I get to the next street I realise what a glorious autumn day it is we're having. The sun is shining high in a clear blue sky and the air is as crisp as a packet of Walker's. A feeling of relief washes over me. I've never, ever experienced such a weight being lifted from my shoulders.

I call Jenny, who I know is nervously waiting for the phone to ring. I consider for a second about pulling off the classic Smith parp and pretending to sound all depressed when she picks up. Jen answers and hesitantly asks how it went. “I got my driving licence!” I scream down the phone, tears of joy welling in my eyes. I haven't felt this good since Liverpool won the European Cup in 2005.

So that's that. I finally did it. And as the messages of congratulations began to flood in via my phone and online through the various social medias I have an account with, a recurring theme kept coming to the fore. “Congrats on your test, just think, now you can drive the van on tour!”


1 comment:

  1. Came across you two year old post today just by chance... have to admit that loved every bit of it.....felt like being at your place and enjoyed getting the license.....

    Why dont you start writing books?