It was 10:50am and I was more nervous than I’d been in quite a while.
I don’t wanna oversell it by saying it was the most nervous I’ve ever been – even though that’s probably a more enticing opening line. I favour honesty. So let me be clear – I was somewhere between very nervous and mildly nervous.
Part of the reason I was more nervous than I’d been in quite a while is that I’ve not done anything in quite a while. I mean I’ve done stuff, but just stuff like writing blogs and rinsing my coffee mug and watching Gogglebox. Those things aren’t nothing, but they’re predictable. Nerves start to creep in when we do things that are unpredictable. My reality during lockdown has been a series of mundane expectations fulfilled daily with no issue.
I guess Gogglebox can throw up a few surprises. Often a member of the Siddiqui family will come out with a line so witty that it totally unmoors me from my current reality and every synapse in my body starts to fire as dopamine ripples through me. In those moments my central nervous system will be in overdrive, thinking about how a family can be so funny and likeable and down-to-earth all at once. But those nerves are good nerves.
The nerves I was experiencing on Saturday morning were more the I-don’t-know-if-I-can-do-this kind of nerves. I was getting picked up at 11:00am, and I had already changed outfits several times. It was a hot day and lower-body dress code was a big dilemma for me. Jeans or shorts? Jeans seemed like they’d be more uncomfortable, but I worried shorts were too suggestive, too revealing. Same issue up top – jacket or no jacket?
My phone rang.
“Hey I think I’m outside, which one is yours?”
“Oh, great. It’s number forty-one. On the corner.”
It was the first time we’d physically spoken, and I quite liked that. It got it out of the way. I had wondered what their voice would be like. It wouldn’t have made a difference whatever it sounded like – I don’t have any preference for certain accents – but I guess it just helps me imagine what they’ll be like more fully. I also like to run through conversations I could have with people before they happen. It makes me feel more prepared. And to make that possible I need to know what they sound like.
I got the idea from reading loads of footballers’ biographies. Elite performers all seem to use visualisation to help them succeed. Before they score that winning goal in the World Cup final, they’ve already visualised that precise moment thousands of times, so they know exactly what to do when the ball comes to them. I do the same, but I visualise stuff like successfully ordering a Greggs, or saying hello to someone.
I put my facemask on and headed out. The nerves seemed to quadruple as I left the door. I still didn’t have a face to put the voice to, as I’d never seen a picture. One wasn’t provided and it seemed rude to ask. I didn’t want to seem shallow.
This weekend was our first opportunity to meet legally. Not that we’d met illegally before, but I just want to emphasize that everything was above board here before anyone tries to grass me in. Lockdown rules had changed, and – I know that’s a good thing – but a small part of me yearns for a permanent lockdown and a socially acceptable reason to never leave the house again.
I saw straight away which car was theirs. I went over to the passenger side and opened the door. Was that rude? Should I have waited for them to step out the car and greet me? I’m an absolute amateur when it comes to etiquette. I knew we’d be riding in the car anyway, so it seemed pointless to have them get out and say hello.
I got in. I’d gone for shorts in the end with an Adidas jacket. It seemed like a good compromise. Arms covered, but a bit of leg on show. When I sat down, it seemed like quite a lot of leg on show.
“Hi, I’m Samad,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Eric Rushton.”
Shouldn’t have gone with the full name.
“I’m really nervous,” I said. “I’ve never done anything like this before. In fact, I think I may be incapable of doing this, possible genetically.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” I said. He did have a reassuring quality about him. A kind of relaxed authority. He was maybe in his mid-thirties, which I thought was a good age in this context. If he was my age, I might have doubted his experience; but if he was middle-aged, there’d be a weird father-son dynamic.
“First of all,” he said, “I’m going to need to see your Provisional, then I’ll need to do a quick test of your eyesight.”
I pulled out my provisional. When I got it a few years ago, it never occurred to me that I’d actually use it in a driving context. I just saw it as a little green card that I needed to get into nightclubs, so I could stand around feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious and totally dejected about the possibility of ever finding love.
“Great,” he said, handing me back my license. “Okay, can you read the number plate on that Volvo.”
I didn’t know what a Volvo was, but I made an educated guess about which car he meant. I could make the number plate out fairly clearly; except I was having trouble distinguishing between an 8 or 9. I have a weird recurring eye thing where sometimes letters or numbers can go in and out of focus. Normally, it’s alright, but it was choosing to play up today. I guessed 8.
“Good,” he said. “Okay, I’m gonna drive us to somewhere a bit quieter and then we can get started.”
I’d already visualised this bit; he would use this as an opportunity to get to know me. I had prepared answers for a multitude of questions – where I was from, what I did for a job, my mum’s maiden name. I had all angles covered.
“So, why do you want to learn to drive?” he asked.
“I’m from Staffordshire, sort of near Stoke-On-Trent.”
“I mean… I do stand-up comedy.”
“Oh wow, really?”
I was excited, validated and a little turned on by his reaction. I forget that it can sound impressive to people, because most of my friends are sick of me banging on about it.
“Yeah, been doing it for a few years now… well, not much this year because of lockdown.”
“Ah, of course. Where do you do it?”
“Everywhere, really,” I replied. “But I’m reliant on trains and buses and I just want to be able to drive to gigs but I’m pretty sure if I ever do I will cause an accident and kill a lot of people.”
He laughed again, but I was only partially joking. I have terrible hand-eye coordination and I’m extremely clumsy. I drop things; I can’t walk in a straight-line; I trip over constantly. It’s one of my biggest insecurities. I get so embarrassed that sometimes when I walk into a door and give myself a black eye I have to lie and tell people that my girlfriend beats me. The idea that I’d ever be able to drive a car without immediately crashing it seemed impossible.
“You’re gonna be fine,” he said, smiling at me. “When I started, I didn’t have a clue either.”
I smiled back. I then rolled up my jacket sleeves, both because it was hot and also because I feel like he deserved to see a bit more skin after being so kind.
We parked up. I didn’t know where we were, but it was a quiet estate with very few cars on the road. My nerves had calmed a bit on the drive over, but now they were coming back. He started asking me questions about what I already knew. The answer was nothing. He asked me if I knew what a clutch was. I said no. He asked me if I knew about the safety checks required when sitting in the driving seat. I said no.
“What gear do you think we start a car in?” He asked.
“We start in first gear.” “Sure.” “Right, no problem,” he said. “We’ll go from the start.”
That baffled me. I love you Samad, but why on Earth would you think I would want to go from the middle.
He explained the safety checks to me. There were a lot of initials thrown at me. DSSSM was what I had to remember when I entered a car apparently. Doors, seats, seat-belt, steering and mirrors. To be honest, just remembering the words is easier than remembering DSSSM. Then he explained the hand-brake and the gear-stick and told me what the clutch was for. He started the car and talked to me about the “biting-point”.
With each new piece of information, my anxiety grew. I felt more convinced than ever that I’d never be able to do this. We were parked on the left-hand side of the road. He explained that he was gonna demonstrate starting the car, pulling out onto the road, and then pulling back in and parking on the left. He said to watch closely.
He checked his mirrors and his blind-spot, then off he went, talking me through each step.
“Right,” he said. “Now it’s your turn.”
Oh fuck. For some reason I thought I’d got away with it. There were only ten minutes left of the lesson. I was hoping he would drive me home, and then that would be that. Learning to drive was obviously a mistake. Already it seemed too complicated, and this was the first lesson. I’d make up an excuse if he asked me when I wanted to book in another lesson. I’d tell him my uncle had died or something – and that, unfortunately, he would be having a funeral every Saturday for the foreseeable future, so I would be busy.
Okay, I thought. Just get through this, embarrass yourself, and then you can forget about this stupid driving idea forever.
We swapped seats. Sat behind the wheel, I was the most nervous I’d ever been. This time, literally the most nervous. This was worse than any gig. I was behind the wheel of a death machine that I had close to zero idea of how to control.
He gently reminded me of the procedures. The safety checks and all that. Then it came to turning the key and starting it. I tried to remember what he said about the biting point and the clutch. Miraculously the car started, and I pulled out. He had his hand on the steering wheel as well to help guide me.
Fuck, I was driving.
I could see a car coming down the road in the other direction. I was aware that if I wanted to, I could just put my foot down and ram straight into it. I even had an urge to. Like that urge you have to jump off the edge of a tall building or a cliff. But I didn’t. I moved forward slowly, then pulled in to the left and applied the brakes.
I came to a stop. I’d done it. I was about a metre off the curb, but still. I’d actually fucking driven a car. One thing I could never visualise happening.
“Well done,” he said. “That was great.”
“Really?” I said, grinning.
“Yeah, most people stall on their first attempt at starting a car. That was really good.”
I dunno if he was just being kind, but I felt elated. That nervous energy had all turned into Siddiqui-reminiscent joy.
We swapped seats, and he drove me back to mine.
“Well done today, Eric,” he said when we stopped.
There was a pause. I looked at him and leaned in closer.
“Can I see you again?”
We arranged five more lessons. A big commitment but fuck it. With Samad guiding me, I was pretty sure I could achieve anything.
As I got out the car, he asked me one more thing.
“Are you on YouTube?”
“Err… yeah, got a few sets on there and stuff.”
“I’m gonna look you up after work,” he said, grinning.
Anyway, that’s about it.
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