On Fathers, Failure and Facing Your Fears

April 30, 2015

I was 30 years old when I got my driver’s licence. Yep. And when I say licence, I mean the probationary kind, the kind that allows you to drive a car without anyone sitting next to you. Not the full kind. I still don’t have that.

I know, I know. This is unusual. This is bizarre. But for me, getting my Ps was a really big achievement. Can’t any idiot drive a car, you ask? Well, this idiot had more trouble than most.

I’ve never really needed to drive. I’ve lived in Melbourne, Sydney and a few places overseas, and until last year I was always perfectly happy without car keys, thank you very much. In Melbourne, I rode my bike, walked, or took the tram, train or bus. In Sydney, I took the bus, the ferry, or I walked (no bike – too hilly!). And trust me, you wouldn’t want to drive in PNG or China if you didn’t have to.

When I hit 28, I started to project forward another 10 years. All those well-meaning but annoying comments from friends and family (‘Don’t you think it’s a skill you might want to have?’) started to niggle at me. What if Steve and I had a child, and neither of us could drive it to school? I was also starting to feel a little bit pathetic on camping or interstate trips with friends, being always the passenger, never the one behind the wheel. So I had a few lessons with an instructor in Sydney, up and down the hilly, narrow streets of Balmain, but then life, work and travel got in the way, and the will to keep practicing faded.

After two years living in Sydney, I returned to Melbourne, got married, and decided that IF NOT NOW, WHEN? I had to learn to drive now, or else maybe I never would (I think I live my life a little bit by this philosophy – thus China! If not now, when?!).

My Dad generously agreed to help me. Weeknight evenings, weekend mornings, in the dark, in peak hour, in the rain. My Dad would show up at my apartment, park outside and patiently wait for me to join him in the car. He was never late. He never needed to change an agreed time. He was 100% absolutely reliable and punctual. I love this about my Dad. If you ever need something done on time and on spec, ask Dad.

The issue of not actually needing to drive anywhere still applied to driving lessons, though. ‘Where should we go?’ I’d ask. ‘I don’t know, Izy, just drive somewhere’ said Dad. Off we’d go, winding around the streets of Elwood and St Kilda in the dark, or tackling Brighton Rd at peak hour in the pouring rain. Once, we decided to drive to Carlton through the city after work. Thinking we’d be very clever and go around the CBD, we went through North Melbourne, past the Queen Vic market. Wrong! It was a warm Wednesday night, and the night market was in full swing. We sat in traffic for an hour along King St near Witches in Britches, with angry taxi drivers beeping when I refused to turn right into a crowded intersection.

After a year of lessons with Dad, and a few with an instructor, I decided that it was time to book in the test. I made an appointment for November at the Bundoora VicRoads, thinking that Bundoora was a nice, quiet area to take a drive test in, much better than Carlton with its trams and bike lanes. I was nervous. Very nervous.

Everything went fine. The testing officer, a woman of about my own age, didn’t even ask me to do a reverse park – only a three point turn. Score! There wasn’t much traffic and as we headed back to VicRoads, I was feeling quietly chuffed with myself. Yes! I had surely passed on the first try! Go me!

I could see the VicRoads office ahead of me. The woman told me to ‘turn right into the VicRoads car park when safe’. I looked at the road ahead. There was a white four wheel drive coming, but it was a fair way away. I indicated, turned right, and entered the car park. The woman looked at me in shock. ‘Didn’t you see that four wheel drive?’ she asked. I looked back at her, also in shock. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Of course I saw it. It was ages away, so I turned’. Her face said it all. We walked into the VicRoads office in silence. ‘Please wait for your name to be called’ she said, and peeled off to do her paper work. I sat with Dad, shaking. ‘How did you go?’ he asked in his kind way. ‘Um, everything was fine, but then…’ I fought back the tears. I knew I had failed. Sure enough, what felt like an hour later but was probably only ten minutes, the woman called me up to the desk. ‘You did well’ she said, ‘However I can’t pass you today. You failed to give way to that white four wheel drive, which is an immediate termination error’. I could feel the angry tears behind my eyeballs. I argued with her, saying that I didn’t agree, I had judged it to be far enough away to make the turn, of course I wouldn’t have put us in danger, etc, etc, but it was pointless. She was unmoved. ‘Well’, I said, ‘You’re the testing officer. What you say goes.’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Also, you stopped too long at the stop sign. Better luck next time, Isabel.’

I am not used to being refused things that I have worked towards. I wanted my licence. This person was standing in the way of me getting my licence. I was angry at her – actually, at that moment, I hated her. But what was the point in that? She was, after all, ‘just doing her job’. It was not personal. I would just have to try again. As Dad drove home, taking the long route through his childhood suburb of Brunswick, he pointed out his old school, the newsagency his parents used to own, where he used to hang out as a boy. I sat sulking in the passenger seat, half listening, forcing myself not to cry. People have MUCH bigger problems than this, Isabel. Don’t you dare cry over a driver’s licence!

As with most relatively major life events, I had told my friends and family that I would be taking my test that day. The well-meaning messages came in – ‘How did it go?!’ – and I realised that I shouldn’t have told so many people. I was embarrassed to tell them that I had failed.

Rather than dwell on my failure, I booked in a test for the following week, this time in Carlton. Closer to home, I knew the area…what could go wrong? This time I told fewer people that I was getting back on the horse – just some close friends, my husband, my brother and Mum. It was an early test in Carlton, the first of the day, and Dad arrived at my place at 7am, ‘just to make sure we’re not late’. We were extremely early, of course, so we had some breakfast at one of those wood-panelled Lygon Street cafes. My stomach was churning and I barely ate any of my muesli.

This time, the moment of failure came earlier. The testing officer, again a woman of about my own age, took me through the back streets of Carlton and asked me to do a reverse park. Gulp. All those practice sessions with Dad came through, though, as I reversed cleanly into the spot against the curb. ‘Good’ she said. ‘Now please pull out from the curb and turn right at the next intersection’.

Now we were on a main road, with the No 1 East Coburg tram ahead of us, and the early morning traffic streaming past. All good. ‘Turn right at the next intersection’, she said. I did a head check and pulled into the right lane. There were traffic lights, several cars ahead of me in the right lane, and the right turn arrow was red. We waited, and as the arrow went green, the front cars pulled out into the intersection and waited for a break in the flow of oncoming traffic. One turned…then the next…I edged forward so that my car was across the pedestrian crossing, waiting for my break in the traffic, terrified of ‘turning dangerously’ like I had the last time. But then the light went red. And I didn’t know whether I could turn on a red light or not – wouldn’t that be an immediate failure? So I just sat there, in the middle of the pedestrian crossing, giving an apologetic wave to the school kids as they maneuvered around our car. The woman sighed. ‘Please reverse back behind the line,’ she said.

I couldn’t bear to see Dad’s kind face back at the VicRoads office, but there he was, patiently waiting for me. ‘How did you go?’ he asked tentatively. ‘Um,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure. Maybe not too good’. ‘Oh well’, he said. A few minutes later, out came the woman to confirm my fate. ‘Blocking a pedestrian crossing is an immediate failure’, she said. Again, I tried to reason with her as the angry tears threatened. This was obviously my new thing – arguing with VicRoads staff members. ‘But I was trying to be so careful!’ I said in despair, ‘Can’t you tell I’m a safe driver? I was doing everything so carefully!’ ‘Mmm’, she said, ‘you were a little TOO cautious. Better luck next time, Isabel’. Dad and I drove back home to St Kilda.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I booked in another test for the following week. No turning in front of oncoming vehicles. No waiting in the middle of intersections…if the light goes red, just TURN. I knew the drill. The night before, Sunday, we had some friends over for dinner, and the topic of my two failed driving tests came up. ‘Are you going to go again?’ someone asked. ‘Yeah, I guess’ I said vaguely, knowing full well that the answer was ‘TOMORROW MORNING but if I fail a third time I don’t want people to know!’

At 9am the next day, the rain was pouring down in Melbourne. This time, we didn’t have breakfast on Lygon Street. This time, the testing officer was a man (did that make a difference? I don’t know). This time, with windscreen wipers swiping at maximum speed, I passed the test. ‘Congratulations Isabel’, said my most-favourite-person-in-the-world-at-that-moment. ‘Now please line up over there for your photo, licence and payment’.

As we got back into the car to drive home, Dad opened up the glove box and presented me with a pair of P-plates. ‘I had these here the last two times, but I didn’t want you to feel bad…anyway, here you go. Well done!’ I was 30 years old and getting my Ps felt like the most exciting, hard-fought victory in the world.

The following weekend, I decided to drive myself to Wilson’s Prom and camp at Tidal River. A friend lent me her little red Suzuki, and I set off, terrified but determined, in a car I had never driven, to a place I had last been to on a family holiday when I was 15 years old. It was the first time I had driven a car on my own. I drove in silence, too scared to put the radio on in case it distracted me and I crashed. By the time I arrived in Korumburra, I was soaked in sweat, and so tired from the intense concentration that I had to get out and rest at the visitor centre. I ate some Savoys with chunky dip, washed my face, stripped off a couple of layers, did some stretches, and continued on. And after that Fish Creek turn off, once I hit the Prom road, all the nerves (well, most) left me and I felt an immense sense of happiness. I was driving on my own, in the most beautiful place in the world! I let out a woop for only the kangaroos to hear.

More about isabelrobinson

Isabel is a writer from Melbourne. She loves long train journeys, Vegemite toast and cryptic crosswords, preferably all at once.