All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 2 Driving lessons
On the day of my first driving lesson, I was waiting at the gate ten minutes before the instructor was due to arrive. Precisely on time, a small car that I later found out was a Honda Civic drew up outside the apartment, and a slightly overweight man in his late forties got out. The word 'avuncular' springs to mind as a good way of describing him.
“Miss Stow? I”m Harry Beams from Swenson's Driving School.” This later piece of information was rather redundant since it was painted on the side of the car.
“Hello Mr Beams, I'm Harriet,” I replied.
“Two Harries eh?” he joked and I had to stop myself bristling.
“My father's name was Harold, and yes, it's possible that I could have been called Harry if I'd been born a boy,” I replied, responding with a mild rebuke.
“Quite so. Shall we start the lesson?” Slightly chastened, I like to believe, Harry ushered me to the car, opened the driver's door and waited until I seated myself. It was then that I realised that I had made a mistake. The day was warm and I had decided to wear a skirt and top. The only problem was that the skirt was knee-length, and in sitting down I was exposing rather more leg than I intended. However, it was too late to do anything about it now.
Harry pointed out how to adjust the seat so that I was comfortable. He then got in beside me and proceeded to point out the various controls. I had decided to learn on a manual car at the suggestion of the driving school. This would enable me to drive either manual or automatic cars, so it seemed the better choice.
Once we had both fastened our seat belts, Harry showed me how to adjust the rear view and wing mirrors.
“A common mistake with pupils is forgetting to check the mirrors,” he said. “They are the only way to tell what's going on behind you. Turn your head to check the blind spot when you pull out into traffic and afterwards check your mirrors frequently. It will soon become a habit.”
At his direction I then turned the ignition key and the engine burst into life. I must confess my heart rate had already climbed. Harry told me to check the blind sport and then my mirrors (he had a separate one himself to keep an eye on things), and when I was sure the road behind me was clear, press down on the clutch, move the gear shift knob into first gear release the handbrake and slowly release the clutch while pressing on the accelerator. The car did a slight 'bunny-hop', but I still remember that amazing feeling of the car starting to move, and realising that I was making it happen. Reading back that sounds a little strange, but I've spoken to other woman and they all agree that it's a common experience. As the car accelerated, Harry advised me when to change up the gears so that the engine was not over-revved.
I drove slowly down the road, and with Harry's guidance, started to relax. Harry was a good teacher and I like to think I was intelligent enough to pick up everything he was saying. Everything was going smoothly when Harry very casually put his hand on my knee. I didn't panic but just kept driving. Then I said in a conversational tone. “Are you married Harry?” I knew he was because I had seen his wedding ring.
“Yes I am, with two daughters, why do you ask?” he replied, and his hand was still there.
“I'm sure your job is very important to you then, and it would be a shame to jeopardise it for an error of judgment,” I said. I can tell you that his hand left my leg as quickly as if it had been scalded.
The lesson carried on and we were now heading back towards my apartment. I could tell that Harry was sweating. I was hoping that by wearing a skirt I had not sent out the wrong signals, but then I thought 'Why shouldn't I wear a skirt if I wanted to? It's part of what women wear, and Harry was completely in the wrong.' However, I decided to give him another chance, so when I alighted from the car, which I did before Harry had time to walk around to the driver's side, I said “Same time next week Harry?”
“Err yes, same time,” he replied. I realised that up until that moment he hadn't been sure if I was going to take the matter further, and that by handling it the way I did I had taken charge of the situation. It felt very empowering.
The following lessons ran quite smoothly. I wore trousers for all of them, and Harry knew why, but I must say he didn't step an inch out of line. He told me that I was a 'quick learner', and before long he announced that we just needed one more lesson to practise reversing and parking, which I know is the 'bête noir' of many beginners, before I applied for my driving licence.
The following week I was waiting at the kerb for Harry to arrive when the car pulled up, and out stepped a tall handsome young man with blond hair.
“Miss Stow? I'm Dale Swenson. My dad owns the driving school,” he said by way of introduction.
“Hello Mr Swenson, is Harry not well?”
Dale looked a bit embarrassed. “Err no, Harry is no longer with us.”
“Oh!” was my response, but I thought 'Oh Harry, what have you done?'
“You don't seem totally surprised. I hope nothing happened....?” his voice trailed away.
“A minor incident,” I replied. “I decided to give him a second chance.” 'Oh dear. Why can't some men think with their brains rather than other organs?'
“That was kind of you, but unfortunately he chose someone else who was less forgiving. Anyway, what's done is done. I see that this is to be your last lesson and you need to practise reversing and parking,” Dale said, breaking in on my thoughts. 'Would you like to drive to the back of the supermarket car park? There is always a lot of space there, and we can run through the techniques.”
I got in and we drove to the local Tesco. As Dale predicted, there was plenty of space, so he set up some cones and we got to work. He was a very good instructor, and pointed out a few techniques that Harry had not mentioned, and soon I was finding that I could easily swing the car into the allotted parking space.
“Excellent!” was Dale's comment. “I think it's time you applied for the theory test.”
At this time, there was only a multiple choice test, as the hazard perception test had yet to be introduced, and I was able to take the test in the DVSA office in Stratford. I had to wait a few weeks before doing the test, but I'm pleased to say that I scored thirty-four out of a possible thirty-five for the test.
For the practical test, it was necessary for us to drive to Warwick which was the nearest location where they were held. There was another wait of some weeks before the big day arrived, so I had one more general lesson with Dale to make sure I didn't forget anything important.
The morning of the practical test I was up early and was having breakfast when the phone rang. It was Dale.
“Harriet, I'm sorry to disturb you, but one of our pupils had an accident in the Civic yesterday, nothing serious, but it's not available for your test. I can bring along a Vauxhall Astra if you like, or would you prefer that I cancel the booking?”
“Oh please don't cancel,” I responded. “I've waited weeks for this test and I'll probably have to wait weeks again if I don't go today.”
“Very well. Then shall I come early so you can get used to the car?” he said.
“Yes please,” I replied, so as promised, Dale turned up an hour early.
The Astra was around the same size as the Civic and not that much different to drive. By the time we reached Warwick, I felt quite confident as I parked the car. We walked into the office with the various pieces of paperwork which are required nowadays in order to get a car licence. After announcing our arrival at the desk, we were told to take a seat and wait. Five minutes later a tall imposing man with a very serious face came over and introduced himself as Samuel Watkins. I was so glad that I was wearing trousers again. I had a feeling that a skirt would have seemed very frivolous to this man. Dale waited in the office, while Mr Watkins and I walked out to the car. I started the Astra and went through the usual routine before moving off into the the traffic. At Mr Watkins' direction, I went through a series of maneuvers and all seemed to be going well. He was making notes on a form attached to a clip-board and I had to resist the temptation to look over and see what he was doing. I knew instinctively that this would not be a good move!
We were about to turn back to the office and had stopped at a crossroads controlled by traffic lights. The lights changed to green, and I was slowly moving off when out of the corner of my eye I saw a car bearing down on us from the right and obviously going far too fast to stop at the lights. Mr Watkins was looking down at his clipboard and didn't immediately notice the other car. I was nearly half-way across the intersection and had a split second to make a decision, so I stepped on the brake and swung the steering wheel to the left. The car's rear swung around and it came to a shuddering halt. The stolen car, for so I later learned it was, drove past my door, tyres screeching as the driver swerved to miss us by the proverbial 'coat of paint'. Right behind was a police car, sirens blaring.
I sat there for a moment or two to recover my equilibrium.
“Are you alright, Miss Stow?” asked Mr Watkins, real concern in his voice.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied, my heart still pounding.
“Well, I think we can put that down as a 'controlled stop',” he said with what I later realised was an attempt at humour. A 'controlled' or 'emergency stop' is one of the options that the examiner can chose to request, usually by giving advance notice and then holding up his hand and saying 'Stop'. In my case I don't think Mr Watkins had intended to have one, but it had chosen us instead.
“Then I think you should drive back to the office now.”
I was only too happy to comply
Once we arrived back at the office, he informed me that I had passed the test, although there were a few minor points to remember. I had trouble taking in what he was saying as my heart was doing joyous cartwheels. He issued me with a pass certificate, and asked if I would like to have my full licence to be sent to me automatically. I said I did, so I handed over my provisional licence so that this could be arranged.
Dale congratulated me and offered to drive us back to Stratford. As we drove along, I told him what had happened with the stolen car just missing us and how I had reacted.
“What you did to avoid that car was classic stunt driver stuff,” he said as we drove along.
“I didn't have time to think, I just acted out of instinct,” I replied.
“Are you thinking of buying a car now?” he asked.
“Yes I am. It will have to be a second-hand car since I'm not earning millions yet; maybe a Civic, since I really like driving it, although the Astra is alright too. The one thing that bothers me is the thought of going into a used-car yard and facing the salesmen. I'm going to feel like a goldfish in a pond full of pirhanas.”
Dale laughed. “Would you like me to help you? I've been around cars all my life and know a thing or two about them. I also know where most of the car yards are in Stratford.”
“Oh would you Dale? I'd feel so much more confident going there in the company of a man. I'd pay for your time of course.”
“We can talk about payment later. I'd be happy to help out,” replied Dale. “Why don't I check out their websites and see who has something suitable? Then we can arrange a time to go.”
“I'm free most mornings when there isn't a cast meeting,” I replied.
True to his word, Dale phoned me three days later. “One of the yards has a Civic and an Astra, and another has a Civic. They're all about three to four years old, and we can go to see them tomorrow if you like?”
The following morning Dale came to pick me up. It was another warm sunny day, and I decided that on this occasion it really would be right to wear one of my pretty summer dresses with bare legs and sandals. I was counting on the fact that the car salesmen, and they nearly always are men, would be ruled by their hormones and want to please a pretty girl by giving her a good deal. Oh dear, does that sound really cynical? Women are the weaker sex after all, so have to play to their strengths, and one is said to be the weakness of the stronger sex for the weaker sex!
When Dale got out of the car, it seemed to have an effect on him too.
“Hello Harriet, you look....nice,” he said.
“Only 'nice'?” I replied, teasing him.
“Well, it's the first time I've seen you wearing a dress,” he responded.
“As you know, there was a reason for that, and I didn't think it appropriate for the driving test either,” I replied.
“But today you think it might help get you a good deal?” he said smiling.
I blushed. “Well, it can't do any harm. How about I play your girlfriend for the day?”
We drove to the first car yard, the one that had the Civic and the Astra. We walked along the rows of gleaming cars and it wasn't long before one of the salesmen appeared. Around fifty years of age, somewhat overweight and wearing the loudest tie I've ever seen, he was almost a caricature of a used car salesman.
“Archie Leach at your service. Can I help you, Sir, Miss?' he asked, addressing himself to Dale as I knew he would.
“Yes. We're hoping to buy my girlfriend her first car.”
“I see. Did you have anything in mind? We have some very suitable cars for young ladies.”
“Well, I see you have a late model Civic and an Astra, maybe we could start with those.”
“By all means,” he said, leading us towards the Civic which stood nearby. It was painted duck-egg blue and I liked the look of it immediately. Yes I know, that's a very 'girly' remark, how can the colour make a difference to how a car performs, and that's the most important thing, but surely it can't hurt if the car looks nice?”
Archie invited me to sit in the driver's seat which I did being careful not to show too much leg. He showed me how to adjust the seat, and pointed out the carious controls. It wasn't much different to the model I had learned to drive in, but I listened as though I'd never seen the model before. Dale asked to look under the bonnet, so that was duly raised and he peered inside.
“Now you've heard the story of the little old lady who only drove to church on Sundays, well this is her car, and if you don't believe me you can check the log book. It's in the glove box along with the RAC check. Would you like to take her for a test drive?” said Archie and we said we would. I drove the car carefully out of the yard and down the road so that we were out of his view. Then I pulled over so that Dale could drive.
“It seems to handle well,” he said. “But I suggest we head up to the M40 so that we can try it out at speed.”
“Won't Archie wonder if we've stolen it?” I said, knowing this would take some time.
“Not a chance,” said Dale. “I left my car there and it's worth more than this one. Would you check the glove-box for the log book and the RAC test he says it has had, please?”
I found both of them and it showed that the car had been serviced regularly and the report was a good one with only a few very minor things to adjust. The M40 test proved to be successful. The car had good acceleration and there were no rattles or squeaks at seventy miles an hour.
When we arrived back, Archie did look a little concerned and joked “I thought you'd run off with it.”
“We had to give it a good test,” replied Dale. “Now how about the Astra?”
We went through the same process again, and as we were driving back, Dale asked which car I preferred. I decided on the Civic and he said that was a good choice as it was a year younger than the Astra, and had less mileage on the mileometer.
“Alright, let‘s go and see how much we can get off the asking price,” he said.
Arriving back at the yard, Archie asked if we had made a decision yet.
“Yes,” I said. “I'd like the Civic, but the price is a bit more than I wanted to pay. Can you do any better?”
Archie pretended to think deeply. He wasn't a good actor. “Well, because it's your first car I can take a hundred pounds off, but that's the best I can do I'm afraid.”
I looked at Dale. “Darling, why don't we go and look at the one at the other yard?”
“Yes I think we should,” he replied. “If we decide on this one, we'll come back Mr Leach.”
We turned and walked towards the road, hand in hand. “Any minute now, any minute now” Dale murmured. There was a sound of footsteps hurrying up behind us.
“Wait a moment please,” said Mr Leach. “I'm down on my sales figures this month and I'd really like you to have the car.” He paused for a second, breathing heavily. “I'll tell you what I'll do; I'll take another hundred off and throw in a year's servicing. I can't be fairer than that, but you'll have to sign the contract now.”
“What do you think darling?” I said to Dale. He gave the slightest flicker of a wink, and I took that as a 'yes' and said “Very well, Mr Leach, you have a deal.”
We went back to the office and I signed the papers, politely declining his offer of arranging insurance by which I'm sure he hoped to recoup some of the money. I was told the car would be ready to pick up the following day.
As we drove back to my apartment I thanked Dale. “That was very well done, Dale, you're quite an actor.”
“Why don't we celebrate by me taking you out to dinner?” he said.
'Oh dear, this could get tricky,' I thought, and aloud I said. “I'm at the theatre six nights a week and only get Sundays off. Maybe we could do lunch, but only on the condition that I pay. You haven't told me yet what I owe you for your help.”
“Lunch will be fine,” he replied, and I thought that I had better be straight with him now before this went any further.
“There's just one thing you should know Dale, I already have a steady boyfriend.”
“Well, there's a co-incidence, so have I,” he replied ,and burst out laughing at the look on my face. “We don't all act like Mr Humphries, you know?” (He was referring to the outrageously gay character in the British television sitcom “Are You Being Served”.)
“I'm sorry,” I replied, blushing a bright red.
“Don't be, I'm not,” he replied. “So can we still be friends now you know?”
“Of course,” I replied. “In fact I don't have many friends here, so another one would be most welcome. My boyfriend Reggie is living and working in London at present and soon he's going to York University, so I still won't see him very much.”
“There's another co-incidence,” said Dale. “Frank is working in London too, so I'm a bit short of friends. I'm more interested in art than sport, so that doesn't help.”
We arranged to meet the following week for lunch, and Dale reminded me to arrange insurance before I picked up the car the next day. I did as he advised, and felt very grown-up as I drove my new car out of the car-yard the following day. Unfortunately the apartment didn't have a garage, so I decided to buy a car cover to keep it in as good a condition as possible.
Mary admired my new car. “I love the colour Harriet, it's lovely,” she enthused.
The next thing to do was to ring Mum. “Guess what Mum? I've bought my first car,” I said.
“Goodness me, my little girl is really growing up!” she responded.
“I'll drive up and see you as soon as I have enough time,” I said. “You know how difficult it is at present with all the performances.”
“Yes I do darling, and shouldn't you get some more practise before you do a long trip?” she said.
“Yes you're right, and I promise that I will be careful when driving. I know that getting my licence is only the first stage.”
I asked how Mum was going and she said she was fine. She was enjoying her work at the theatre box office, and I wasn't surprised at that. Mum loves people and chatting to them.
Next I rang my sister Emma to tell her about my new acquisition. “How's 'Bump' going? I said. 'Bump' was our nickname for the baby she was expecting.
“He or she is growing fast. I keep having to adjust my centre of balance. By the time I'm ready to give birth, I'll really be leaning over backwards,” she laughed. I asked after her husband David and the Apollo Players and it seemed all was going well.
“We're missing you of course, but that was a wonderful opportunity to work at Stratford. How is Mary going?”
“She's fine. She's taking the two matinees each week to give me a break, so it's a win-win situation.”
Emma laughed. “Maybe she won't want to come back to Bridchester after a taste of the high life.”
“I think she will,” I responded. “She is missing up there.”
I thought she would ask me if I was missing Brid too, but she didn't. My sister is very wise.
To be continued
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story.
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