I was going to learn to drive… that was my first priority on reaching the age of eighteen. I filled out the forms, posted the letter and waited for the provisional licence to arrive. It came a few days before we were due to go on holiday, touring in the south of England with a tent in the back of the car. It was the 70s. My first husband, like many young men of that era, had a passion for the big American style coupés and to be fair, we could have probably slept in the boot. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on the set of Starsky and Hutch. It was even the right colour… and he drove with that reckless, fine-cutting skill so many young men affect.
Even so, I was going to learn to drive it. I knew it intimately, having dangled off the end of the pulley rope holding the gearbox and crawled underneath it on more than one occasion to see what had fallen off this time. I’d helped fit the replacement engine, and over the space of several cars had learned how to replace plugs, points, HT leads, and distributor cap, as well as the standards like battery charging, oil and water changes. I’d seen what happens when blown gaskets let oil and water mix explosively in a Vauxhall Viva and helped make our first car from two even before we were married. But I’d only ever been allowed behind the wheel in order to pump the brakes as he bled them.
As far as my husband was concerned, cars were a male preserve; women were only labourers. We argued about my desire to learn to drive. Finally he gave in. I wanted to learn to drive? Fine. Get out and swap places…
Did he really think the steep and winding lane that runs up through Cheddar Gorge was the right place for a novice? I ground the gears into first… and actually pulled away. I stalled before I hit second, restarted and wove all over the road and was ordered out of the car. If I wanted lessons, I’d have to find the money to pay for them out of the housekeeping.
So I did. I’d had a couple when the accident happened. I wasn’t driving and it wasn’t my husband’s fault that a drunk driver ploughed into our Rapier H120, completely wrecking both it and my face. It was bad. He phoned my mother to tell her next morning… it was, he said, very bad. “Oh my God, is she alright?” “No, she’s a complete write-off..,“ replied my loving and imminently ex-husband.
From that day onwards I was terrified in cars. My husband’s reckless driving made it worse… my panic irritated him and he was unpleasant when angry. I left soon afterwards. It took two years for the scars to settle and most of the feeling to return to my face. Much longer for the damaged self-confidence to begin to heal… the scars stared back at me long after others had ceased to notice them. I had no desire to drive and walked wherever I could rather than even take a bus.
Twenty years later my partner, already struggling with an acute form of arthritis, was diagnosed with cancer. The hospital where we had to go every day for radiotherapy was thirty miles away and we were back and forwards between surgeons and oncologists. The bus services were not appropriate. I made a decision. We needed a car. I’d have to learn to drive.
To say I was scared would be an understatement. My instructor, though, was patient. Understanding. He even advised as I found and gutted an old Mini in that iconic tomato-soup red, stripped and rebuilt the engine, learning as I went. He was a little horrified by some of the things we did… oven cleaner and Brillo pads were not, apparently, the usual method of engine cleaning… but it worked.
The day of my driving test arrived. I took every precaution, drove carefully and considerately… and failed. In less than a month’s time the new test was due to come in, featuring a written component I hadn’t trained for. My instructor pulled strings, got me a cancellation on the day before the change, and my confidence was at zero. I drove, I felt, very badly… and passed.
The first thing we did was sell the Mini as it couldn’t get the wheelchair we now needed in the boot, buy a bigger car, and go camping… in Somerset, near Cheddar Gorge. I had come full circle.
My partner passed away not long afterwards. Within a year, quite unexpectedly and entirely against my better judgement, I found myself working as a white van driver, terrorising the roads and learning my trade in the baptismal fire of motorways and the streets of unfamiliar cities. Far from being afraid, I took to it like the proverbial duck to water and loved every second.
I’ve loved driving ever since, spending much of my time behind the wheel for both work and pleasure, revelling in the freedom and inner silence that the road-once-feared now offers.
What is waiting round the next bend of any road? The things we cannot do today, and fear we may never achieve, may be possible tomorrow. It is, I believe, always better to keep travelling than to remain as frozen by fear as a rabbit in headlights. “When you are going through hell, keep going,” you never know where you might end up…