My second driving instructor was called Alan and I remember him well.
I don’t remember the name of my first but he looked like Mr. Bronson, the grumpy headmaster from Grange Hill. This toupeed, bespectacled man, who faced his mid-life with a furrowed brow worn over a sea green trench coat, would spend the lessons crossed-armed and taciturn, huddled in the passenger seat of his green mini-metro as I drove.
Three lessons with Mr. Bronson and I was already bored of coasting the back streets of Birmingham in second gear. I desired so much more. I had so much more to give. But that day was going to be different. I knew it. I felt it. I wanted it. That day I was going into third gear!
I had practiced the manoeuvre over and over in my head the previous night. And as I exited the roundabout and the dial reached a heady speed of twenty miles per hour, I pressed the clutch and grabbed the gear stick. But before I could fulfil my destiny, Mr. Bronson woke up.
‘What do you think you’re doing!’ he barked.
‘Changing into third,’ I said.
‘What on earth for? You’re not ready!’ he said.
And that was that. I looked elsewhere and found Alan. In contrast to Mr. Bronson, Alan was a bearded, bubbly man in his thirties, he was like Brian Blessed’s younger, slimmer, less shouty brother, and would always wear a polo t-shirt whatever the weather.
After my unfulfilling term under the tutelage of Mr. Bronson I didn’t expect much. But Alan surprised me and soon, not only was I driving around the suburban backstreets of Birmingham in third gear, but I was darting around country lanes on the outskirts in fourth!
Alan was the greatest driving instructor a seventeen-year-old could have wished for. He taught me how to control a rattily diesel 205 around tight country bends at fifty miles an hour by decelerating as I approached, then changing down and maintaining speed until I reached the apex, at which point it was foot to the floor again; he taught me how to fill up the car, though this may have been more through laziness than a desire to educate (however, he did stop short at getting me to pay). But best of all he taught me things through playful, sneaky techniques, things that have stayed with me my whole life.
He bent and ducked and swooped, checking every mirror inside and out.
‘Take the next left,’ he said.
It was a busy week day on the outskirts of town, the roads were full of midday traffic. Lorries were delivering goods to supermarkets, shops, and restaurants so mums with toddlers could top-up their groceries, and office workers could escape their hum-drum desks for an hour. I bent and ducked and swooped, checked every blind spot I could find. Meticulous and wanting to impress, I indicated with careful precision and took the next left, feeding the wheel in a textbook manoeuvre. Proud of my flawless technique, I pressed the clutch and grabbed the gear stick. The car slammed to a halt. I had hit the brake pedal instead of the clutch! I apologised and resumed.
‘Wait!’ he said. ‘Look at that.’ he tapped the rear view mirror with his chewed biro.
I looked and saw nothing, shrugged, and started again. And again the car lurched to a stop. Then I realised Alan had engaged an emergency stop using the override pedals.
‘Look again,’ he said. ‘What’s on the road?’
I looked and this time I understood. Lying on the road was a half-eaten burger. He was obviously hungry and perhaps, I thought, my next lesson would be learning how to navigate a McDonald’s Drive Thru.
‘Oh yeah,’ I said and started off before the car lurched again.
‘The lines! The lines!’ he said. ‘Look at the lines! What do you see?’
‘Two white lines,’ I said.
‘Yes. Yes. But what kind of lines? Come on. Come on,’ he said ducking and diving and swooping at every mirror.
‘Dashed ones?’ I said. Hungry and still thinking about the burger.
‘Yes! Exactly! Two dashed, white lines! What does that mean? Think! Think!’
I thought and thought. ‘Give way?’ I said.
‘Exactly, but for who?’
‘For people coming up to the lines?’ I guessed.
‘Precisely!’ he struck the air with his biro, ‘Which means what?’
Then it clicked. ‘We’re going down the wrong way!’
For some reason the road had no no-entry sign (or I had missed it) and Alan deliberately led me down it to prove a point.
‘Well done! Now quickly!’ he said, ‘Do a three-point turn and let’s go!’
And as I watched the truck coming towards us down that one way street. I knew this was my moment of redemption! I would absolve myself of my foolish ignorance of the highway code by performing a flawless three-point turn (remembering to engage the handbrake and check both blind spots in-between movements) and make a quick getaway towards the nearest Drive Thru before the lorry would reach us.
Ten turns later. Somehow I had wedged myself between a row of parked cars, the truck had caught up and several cars behind it were honking in a symphony of lunchtime frustration.
Alan continued to elucidate through deception and I would pass my test several months later with flying colours. And from that day on, I never went the wrong way down a one-way street again.