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Bits and Bobs

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In honour of starting my blog I thought I would include parts (I have deleted some of it for the blog but you get the gist) of a chapter from my novel on a UK driving experience. The main character’s name is Jenna, and this is a true story . . . Bits and Bobs, 34-years-old I learned to drive when I was 15. I was four-foot-nine at the time, and my mother placed phone books on the seat to increase my height in our Ford Bronco as we bravely practised on the back roads. Where I lived in Texas, you had to take a five-week class and learn a bit with your parents before being released into the open, wild plains. The test was simple, and it seemed that if you could see straight and put the car in gear, you had the state’s permission to drive . . .

The morning of the [UK] examination, I arrived an hour early, cruising around the driving test centre and remembering all that my husband had lectured me on: parallel parking, the odd reverse around the corner, and the backing into the parking bay. All ages sat in the waiting room, instructors nervously chatting, and students looking as if they awaited a root canal. As the clock ticked closer to the allotted time of the exam, silence began to suffocate the room. Thud, thud, thud. We listened to the examiners one-by-one walk down the stairwell hidden behind the mystery door we all stared at. The steel-faced man introduced himself in a hollow voice. ‘Mrs. McKenzie, proceed to the car.’ With the eye test completed, the examiner chose two out of fourteen questions regarding the vehicle in the ‘show me/tell me’ portion. I tried to translate what he asked. ‘Open the bonnet? Oh, you mean hood. That’s what they say in the States,’ I replied with too much cheerfulness. ‘Hopefully I’ll understand everything; I’m American if you can’t tell. You know, it may mean a bit of translating, your accent and everything.’ Not thinking the one-sided conversation had gone very well, I decided to keep my mouth shut unless asked for the rest of the test. The minutes wore on and my face grew flushed as I flew blindly through the unfamiliar streets. I noticed out of the corner of my eye the constant tic marks made on the paper and the deepening furrow in his brow. Michael took two times. No worries if it takes another time to pass. It is a good experience to know what this is about, I thought as we approached the test centre. When we stopped, he asked with concern if I had children. ‘Why yes, I have two,’ I replied. ‘That’s why I need this driver’s license. I have a lot of stuff to carry around with small kids, you understand? And I don’t want to have to push a pram up my big hill with two kids and bags of groceries–’ ‘Mrs. McKenzie,’ he said. Silence filled the car as he calculated his next knife-like comment. ‘I am so happy to not pass you, as you are unfit to drive with all your disregard of the speed limit and the lack of signalling in roundabouts. Were you not aware that you were five to 10 miles over the speed limit in certain places? You were very fortunate not to get a fine for speeding today. And I see you as a danger to those around you.’ With a disgusted huff, he left me in the car. Six weeks later, I took the second test. Oppressive clouds hung over my head and gathered strength as the day approached. I followed the same routine, though driving much slower than before, until the final approach to the centre. I slowed at the last traffic light, unfamiliar with the green straight filter arrow next to a red light, and managed to halt. The car behind me honked, giving the final blow of a major fault due to my driving affecting another vehicle. The instructor gave me my yellow sheet unphased by my quivering voice and red nose. I went home in tears and booked the next test. Test number three had a different feel. Though I still experienced the same wave of nausea that had plagued me before the other two exams, my instructor came down the stairwell with a smile. His chatty nature put me at ease. ‘So, yer American? Where from, love?’ he asked in a broad South Yorkshire accent. In the first ten minutes, he noticed the car seats in the back. ‘How many kids yer got, love?’ I told him a little about the children in the best American Southern sweetness I could muster. Staring out the window, he replied, ‘They must be gorgeous.’ Was he hitting on me? Was that a covert compliment? I quickly changed the subject. At the end of the test, I felt as though I had gained a new acquaintance, until I saw the marks he began to tally of my minor faults. Fourteen would fail me, and it looked close. Through my mind flashed the thought of using the previous compliment to my advantage. I abruptly discarded the notion, less for the unattractive prospect of flirting with an obese stranger, and more for the fact that a kiss of bribery would haunt my conscience every time I saw the license in my wallet. No thank you, I’d rather take the test again. ‘Love,’ he said. ‘I can tell you’re a good driver, but it’s just these bits and bobs.’ As he left the car, I decided that it was these ‘bits’ that were failing me, and his name must have been Bob. Test number four was the first examiner again. Throughout the exam, he wore a smirk and relished in failing me. Test number five still remains a mystery. It was a cold winter day, and when the examiner called my name, I realised I had gotten the hardest one. I had seen from previous interactions with other drivers that he was out for blood. I was no different. After the obligatory eye exam, he pulled out a small ruler of sorts to measure the tyre tread. What is he doing? None of the other guys have done that I wondered. ‘Mrs. McKenzie,’ he said. His shoulders were stiff and his hawk-like eyes pierced through me. ‘As you can tell from my tyre tread depth gauge, your tread is too low. I must inform you that if you would like to complete this test today, you must change your tyre to the spare in the next three minutes or you will not pass.’ He glanced at his watch as if he would be keeping time. Given that I wasn’t even sure where the spare was on my car, I certainly knew that it was not humanly possible for me to change the tyre.

. . .

With test number six, I had few minor faults, but an unfortunate major one: I had again affected another driver.  Another defeat tasted bitter.

During test seven, I felt more at peace despite the tyre gauge tyrant happening to be my examiner. Lacking small talk to fill the time, I manoeuvred the vehicle around corners and streets that had become very familiar. He was pickier than the others, and I also noticed that he liked to appear that he made marks on the tests just to throw me off. At the end, before pulling out of the parking area, I texted my husband with another, ‘I didn’t pass . . .’ Having learned from previous experiences of my extremely emotional homecomings, I knew Michael was prepping the kids one more time to be prepared for the worst. A minute before I reached the house, I safely slowed to a stop on the side of the road and re-sent the text with a mischievous grin: ‘I didn’t pass . . . gas, but I did pass the driver’s test!’ . . .

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