The Road Ahead

Katrin! You so slow! Look – everyone behind you is piss off!

I look in the mirror. A queue of traffic is building up behind me as I head south on the A202.

I’m being cautious.

No Katrin, you slow. You fail test if you slow.

It is May 2015. I am on the way to the driving test centre in Mitcham. I have been learning to drive – on and off – for almost three years. I am a slow learner.

*

Slow starter too. I was 30, in 2012, when I booked my first lesson. Thirty is milestone time. Change time. Time to focus. To make decisions. What do you actually want to do with your life? Get married? Have kids? Maybe. Not currently an option though. What else then?

I want to write. I want to make theatre. I want to make theatre that I can tour around rural parts of Britain in an orange VW camper van.

The year before I had taken a one-woman show to the Brighton Fringe. In my head, the show was portable: a fold-up table; two fold-up chairs; a couple of washing racks; a CD player; a large wicker washing basket; feather duster; costume; loads of Royal Wedding china and a suitcase full of linen. Easy.

At London Bridge station, I caused havoc with my overloaded and uncontrollable luggage trolley. On the way back, all of the luggage trolleys had been removed for maintenance and I was forced to summon a station mobility trailer to take me to the cab rank.

*

No no Katrin! – you too close to park cars!

Enter Bakir. My Bosnian driving instructor.

Katrin watch kerb!

I had heard plenty of horror stories from friends about their creepy racist sexist boring mean sometimes pervy driving instructors.

Bakir is none of these things. He is tall – huge in fact, more landscape than man – he is thoughtful, he is intelligent and he is hilarious.

Aaaah, I hate traffic, Katrin! I wish I can take out my eye, throw through sunroof, see problem ahead. Then put eye back in.

 *

Early on, I learn that I love manoeuvres. Anything where the car is moving very slowly and there is plenty of jiggery-pokery steering and mirror-looking to do. I like parking. I like reversing into a bay. I can pull up close to the kerb no problem. I creep like an expert. I love stopping at lights.

I hate hate hate going above 20 miles an hour. Hate it. I hate roundabouts. I hate cyclists. I hate other vehicles. I particularly hate hills.

Since I was small, my night-mind has played host to frequent anxiety dreams about driving. The landscapes differ but the core ingredients are the same. I am a non-driver. There is a car. There is a steep hill. There is an unspecified emergency. I must drive the car down the hill.

I wake up sweating.

In the day time I fear rollercoasters, log-flumes and skiing. The horror of giving in to physics – careering down, down, down – speed building up and up and up… the looming possibility of a crash. Inevitable maiming. Death.

But in car, you have brakes, Katrin.

I know, I know Bakir – it’s an irrational fear.

Then you must get over it – driving is freedom. Life skill. Driving is rite of passage.

But a car is a potential death machine Bakir – right?

Drive defensively – that was my grandad’s advice, which he gave to me – along with money for lessons – when I was 17. Drive as if everyone else is drunk or having a heart attack at the wheel. As if everyone else is a total idiot.

Ah Katrin! You only find occasional person having heart attack or on drugs or drinking at wheel. You must not assume this is all people, Katrin!

My grandad loved driving. He was always off in the car with my grandma – sometimes for a reason, sometimes for a holiday. Sometimes they would just go for a run. For fun.

My grandma never learned to drive, so when my grandad’s dimming eyesight forced him to stop, their world closed up. No more nipping to Boots’ in Brighouse. Or Sheila’s Café in Ripponden. Or Kershaws’ Garden Centre to look at the plants. No more jaunts up the Dales or holidays in Arnside. No more trips to East Riddlesden Hall where the cradle rocks unaided – so it’s said – every Christmas.

In the context of the greater good it was for the best. Having taken to driving almost exclusively in the middle of the road, my grandad had become the very hazard he warned of. But handing over his license was the beginning of the end. The car was his freedom. Then it was gone.

NO NO Katrin you TOO FAR in middle road. Why you not trust me Katrin? Why you not do what I say?

I meant to learn. I really did. My friend Rachel passed her test at school. She took a group of us on her maiden motorway voyage to see The Rocky Horror Show in Manchester. We crammed into her mum’s car wearing corsets and lab coats and impossible shoes. Apart from Rachel – she wore flats.

During university and the years that followed, one by one, everyone learned to drive – apart from me. It became a long-running joke. As our 20s wore on non-driving became – along with irregular vegetarianism – part of my identity. Impractical. Head in the clouds. Artsy. Theatre maker. Can’t drive. I live in London. I’d protest. There’s no need. Which was true. Or was it an indication of some deep-seated psychological lack – an issue with taking responsibility? Growing up? Getting on in the world?

*

Bakir talks all the time.

I love to play with stuffed animal – oh Katrin! If people can see me they think I am insane. I make all kinds of voices for animal.

I need to concentrate, Bakir.

It is my job to distract you Katrin. Imagine you are real-life driving. There is always distraction.

Other person in car. Radio. Kids…

*

You know Katrin, I am with my daughter alone last week four hours. I am going mad. I realise my wife she must have very strong mind. She is doing it every day. I am going mad in four hours.

But isn’t it nice Bakir – you know – to see your daughter growing up? Isn’t it fascinating?

Katrin children grow up slow – not fast like hamster. Is…well… little bit boring. This looking after children is hardest job.

*

It takes me three years to learn to drive. I keep stopping.

The first stop comes three months in when Bakir announces that he is moving to Germany to drive busses.

Money better there, Katrin. Is ok Katrin, you will find other instructor. In fact – I give you phone number – Zeno. He is instructor – you have lessons with him.

I try a lesson with Zeno but it’s not the same. Zeno is very serious. It will never work. Then my grandad dies and I am at home a lot. Then I am working flat out on a show. The world turns.

Six months later, I get a phone call. Bakir is back.

I miss family. Plus money for driving bus in Germany. Not so good actually, Katrin.

I start again – sort of – but I can’t do regular lessons. I have lost momentum. Life keeps intervening. My grandma dies. I am home again a lot. Then working out of London a lot. I am skint. The world turns.

*

I finally resume proper lessons in March 2015. Bakir forces me to book my test.

You need deadline. Otherwise you never do it.

There is a goal. A schedule. A plan. And we go further now. Beyond the little roads of Lambeth – to Dulwich to New Cross to Mitcham in Surrey

to study area of test centre, Katrin.

We take on duel carriageways, flyovers – we negotiate enormous three-lane, five-exit roundabouts. We go at 30, 40, 50 miles an hour.

More gaz, Katrin, more gaz! That’s it – now you driving! How does it feel?

It feels good, actually. Out of my comfort zone for sure, but good.

*

I am driving – carefully – through Peckham Rye. Other cars overtake me.

Everyone here is breaking the speed limit, Bakir. I am driving at the speed limit. They are not.

They are bad people, Katrin.

Do you always drive at the speed limit?

No comment. 

*

One day – in the glorious sunshine – we stop at the top of a hill in Dulwich to admire the view. I ask Bakir what he would do for work if he were back home.

To be honest, Katrin. I would probably be criminal.

How come?

I have friend. He has PhD but he is waiter in restaurant. There is no work. Sure – there is work day to day. But not work that allow you to plan, save, build future for family. So you work in dock, you take little thing from shipments – not a lot, but… you sell it on. That way you can do more than survive. Here it is not like that. Here is so many opportunity. You can train, get course. You can learn anything if you want to. Here is paradise.

Looking out at the sun shining down upon London, at the green of the parks and the unmarked blue of the sky, I agree. Here, indeed, is paradise.

*

Do you like animal, Katrin?

Yeah – I guess. Not all of them. I like cats… Horses.

I like animal. If I could live all time alone with animal then I will do this.

Wouldn’t you get lonely? Without people?

No. I am not fan of people. Animal you can trust. People can do terrible thing. I never feel this way. Then I live through war. I am 13 when it start. Horrible things. So many dead people. People with bits of them missing. Things people do. Turn on each other for nothing. I do not think people automatically good, Katrin… Now get ready – duel carriageway coming up.

Duel carriageway. Motorway. Highway. Freeway. America. Land of the free. Land of the automobile. Me at the wheel. Top down. Hair whip blown straight back shining in the perfect sun with the straight road ahead. East west on a road trip. Get your kicks on Route 66. Chicago, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. Boom bang a bang Santa Monica California and we’re there. Road well travelled. Dream of a road trip. Dream of a dream.

Katrin, slow down – you over speed limit! 

*

My mum passed her test first time. My dad passed his second time. It took my friend Becky nine attempts.

*

We drive – Bakir and I – down a little industrial road with flat higgledy warehouses and workshops. Giant lorries are loading and unloading. A queue of crashed, burnt out, broken-looking cars decorates the stretch of grass verge at the entrance to the test centre. Perhaps it is a warning. Like heads on stakes in olden times.

Through the gates there is a Portacabin. Behind, a large cordoned area patterned with traffic cones like an urban gymkhana. A solitary motorcyclist weaves in and out.

Inside the Portacabin the examiners are waiting. One is – tall, slim, handsome. Bakir whispers:

He is good looking, no? How you say – hot? Maybe you get him, Katrin!

I say I would prefer someone old and un-hot.

In that case you want Jack. He very old. Very un-hot.

I say yes, Jack sounds good.

Ah but he is toughest examiner, Katrin – always pushing into hardest parts of test area.

In that case, I do not want Jack.

*

I do not get Jack. I get ‘Carl’.

Carl refuses eye contact. Carl does not shake my proffered hand. Carl is largely silent.

Although he says the word ‘regret’ I can tell that Carl is delighted to inform me that I have failed. Not in minute two – as I thought – but in fact, Katharine, at the very end. Turning right – back into the test centre – I had hesitated. This constituted – I felt – a serious error of judgement.

At least I made Carl feel.

Although a part of me is hacked off – because driving tests are heinously expensive – most of me is delighted that I will have a little more time with Bakir.

*

If you could have fast car, Katrin, what you have?

I’d have a yellow Lamborghini.

If you have yellow Lamborghini Katrin, one weekend, you give me and I drive around in it whole weekend. I cancel lessons. Everything.

But you’ll speed, Bakir. You’ll drive like a loon down narrow roads with parked cars on either side.

No no Katrin. True I am used to doing this when I am young but now I am family man. Isn’t it?

*

When I finally pass my test a few months later, Bakir drives me home in celebration. We talk about writing, theatre, stories. Dreams.

Katrin, did I ever tell you my dream?

No.

If I win lottery I will buy island. And I will take with me lots of women and I will marry them all and make population for the island.

That is going to cause problems Bakir. There will be a lot of in-breeding. Plus it is weird.

No Katrin, why weird? My dream is not weird. Anyway, what is your dream?

I say:

I don’t know.

Then I say:

Well. I would like to write something brilliant.

What about, Katrin? History?

Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe a play. Maybe a story.

I give you a story, Katrin. There are 12 kings and they each have island in a galaxy…

Why are they all kings, Bakir? What about queens?

You interrupt my story. There are 12 kings. And they all happy on their own island in galaxy. But then one of them want more land more space. And they fighting each other. There is war.

Why is there always a war?

Is nature of kings. Anyway. War is going on for long time. But is all fine in end because new king comes from another galaxy planning to conquer their islands and extend empire. This king is alien king. And suddenly 12 kings have common enemy. And they join together to defeat alien king. And everyone ok. There. That is my story. I make it for you. You can have story.

I thank Bakir for the story. And he drops me off on the Kennington Road.

*

I don’t see Bakir again for a year. The fourth of June, 2016. I am jogging along Lambeth Walk and a car emblazoned with a driving school logo passes me. I catch a glimpse of Bakir from the side as he disappears up the road.

Later I send him a WhatsApp message.

The two blue ticks tell me he’s read it.

But he never replies.