The fifth time of failing was the worst. It wasn’t so much the grinding dull ache of being such an idiot, wasting the money, arguing with the examiner, for Pete’s sake! It was more the sense that she just didn’t have what it took to pass the wretched driving test. Whatever that was. Just like so much of her life, she just didn’t have that key to life which other people seemed to find under their pillow when they woke up each morning. Equipping them to sail out into the world with the Right Attitude, the one that passed exams, got the drink at the bar, tipped the waiter the right amount and got their sweet peas to germinate. Very likely stopped their children swearing, too.
That magic key prevented them replying to “Just pull up over there and we can go through a few points on the Highway Code,” with “Oh no, we can’t stop along this bit of road, we’d be blocking the driveways and that is against the Highway Code.” Or, probably, waiting for an interminable five minutes while a very fat lorry squeezed through a very thin space instead of reversing five metres into a neat gap so that the lorry could just sail through. Or hesitating over whether to pull out so long that the examiner heaved a hefty sigh, whereupon you shot out just in front of furiously hooting white van. Or, possibly worst of all, turning right, trying to at least, before the examiner put his foot down, hard, on the brake, across the oncoming stream of four-lane traffic on the bypass.
For, O examiner, instructor, passenger, husband, I have done them all, Denise thought. Really, I just can’t drive. I’m incompetent. How can I possibly tell Dave?
Everybody else in the whole wide world can do it, so why not me? she wondered, trudging wearily back to the car. There her instructor sat, chain-smoking like a fiend, pushing her hands through her hair to fluff it up and flicking through her copy of a celebrity magazine. Her lipstick was smeared in the way that only she seemed able to effect, giving the impression of someone who had been eating a pot of raspberry jam before responding to the call for a swift blowjob. Her sparkly top, of a pale blue only becomingly worn by those under the age of 16, was cut unwisely low and clung to her fiercely underwired and uplifted breasts like a death wish.
“OK?” chirped Shania as she leant over and opened the door. “Driving us home, are we? Oh no, I can see not. Oh well, never mind dear, better luck next time, got the form to send off for the next one?”
Numbly, Denise passed it over. “And the failure notice?” She passed that over, too.
Shaking her moussed-up hairdo so that a fine spray of perfume and cigarette smoke wafted around the stuffy car, Shania flicked her cigarette out of the window, where it stuck on the wet door. “What’s this, Failure to reply to Highway Code questions? Not like you, Denise, I seen you reading the book.”
Grimly, Denise explained. Why on earth had she assumed that he was trying to trick her by asking her to pull over and ask a few questions? Shania laughed merrily. “Oh well, that’s one mistake we won’t be making again!”
If only, thought Denise, I could be so sure. How can I be such an idiot? Why do I worry so much? I must stop worrying. Oh dear, how can I do that? Homeward bound, she slouched lower in her seat as Shania wove skilfully through the rush-hour traffic, hooting and cursing occasionally at particularly clumsy driving. “Arsehole,” she remarked without heat as someone cut across her on a left turn.
She drew up by the ladies’ toilet on the roundabout. “Got to rush in here, dear, I’m flooding out my pants. Women’s troubles, eh? Still, better than having a you-know-what that don’t rise at command!” and with a cackle she disappeared into the dingy green door.
Denise stared numbly into space. Could it be that Shania was part of the reason she kept failing her test?
Or rather, was Shania part and parcel of her whole Not in Control of Her Life Approach, as the women’s magazine she was reading that morning had put it? Ticking lots of bs meant, the quiz informed her, that she was a Big Softy: You Let Others Decide For You and then Feel Bad. They’re right about the feel bad bit, that’s for certain. Shania never seemed uncertain about anything.
Lured originally by an ad at the school gates: “Learn to Drive with a Mum Like Yourself, One Who Really Cares and Shares”, she’d been learning with Shania for eighteen months now. What Denise didn’t know about Shania’s intimate life could only be so disgusting that you’d have to turn on to her webcam site to see it (Denise had the address, the card and the password – special rates for the adult only section — but she’d rather die than try). Lingerie, vibrators, boyfriends’ prowess, or lack of it, choice of DVDs: it was a world of porn and posing that seemed to square oddly enough with Shania’s day job of driving instructor, but was positively shocking when contrasted with her oft-repeated desire to train as a doctor.
“It’s not too late, I swear,” she had often told Denise after a failure to reverse round a corner. “There’s this college in Oxford, or Cambridge, it doesn’t matter which, one of those dead posh ones, that they take you up to 40 if you’ve got life experience and you’re a woman.” Here she would laugh meaningfully. “Well, I’ve got life experience and I’m certainly a woman! Plus,” she exhaled smoke breathily, “I’ve gone all the way up the St John’s Ambulance Emergency Aid ladder.” How many of the other St John’s people had looked up her skirt en route, you couldn’t help wonder.
Slumped in her passenger seat, Denise considered her options. Could she really listen to any more tales of life chez Robinson? If Shania was not accusing her teenage daughter Malibu of stealing her vibrator (“I mean, if she wants one, she’s only got to ask, know what I mean? It’s her fifteenth coming up next month, she’s a woman in all senses of the word, but stealing your mum’s is that sick or what?”), then she was moaning about her young son Ashley’s lack of achievement (“I know he can read, why does he pretend not to?”) and difficulties at school (“They say he’s disruptive but what with the marriage breaking up and his dyspraxia and his asthma what do they expect? They pick on him cos he’s free school meals. They keep putting peanut butter into them sandwiches, I swear. It makes him go mental.”) Could she, on the other hand, sack Shania, who had told her, throatily, hand on knee, back last April, “I’ll be with you, honey, to the end. We’ll pass that test, women together. I’m on your side.”
But more immediately, how could she possibly tell Dave that she had failed for the sixth time? And thus was condemning him to at least another month of not only working from eight till eight at a job he hated, but also dropping off Nathalie at her new school much too early but at least on time. Contrary to what tenous hopes she had cherished for her two beloved people, both Nat and Dave loathed the time they spent together first thing after getting up. Dave didn’t understand why Nat had to spend so much time on her appearance: “She’s only 11 for Christ’s sake!” Nat couldn’t see why “Dad gets so grumpy, you’d think the world would end if he doesn’t get to his work on the stupid dot like he says. What dot, Mum?”
Denise just smiled vaguely. It was often the best way to deal with domestic disputes. Questions like that could open up cans of worms. She couldn’t see any use in getting into the differences between the old way of thinking of time like a clock face and the new digital, flashing-up-on-your-phone way of seeing it as a lot of numbers marching into the future and eating it up, like the bloody mice ate the tulip bulbs. But no, not the wreck of the garden again. Why did everything in her life seem to get so vague, apart from the failures, which stood like statues in the fog, pointing accusing fingers at her as she cowered and shrunk away.
Stop now, positive thoughts, the magazine said. Positive, non-Big Softy thoughts and focused action. She must try and work out what to do about driving. How could they even afford more lessons? Dave would just pop. O poor man, he did work so hard. But that was what she had thought the last two times, which is why she never took the three double refreshers Shania offered (“That woman thinks you’re a goldmine!”) and instead just had a couple of weekly ones to keep her hand in. That didn’t seem so clever now. False economy, she knew, just like Uncle Josy always told her mum, even though with him it was always just an excuse for spending too much in the sales. “You don’t want to waste your money with false economy,” he used to boom, fanning out several packs of dress shirts or Argyle socks or room fragrance, all things that no one would have dreamed of buying otherwise. And which he never used either, not going anywhere and hardly ever cleaning either.
Oh, how could she be so stupid? It seemed as if – what WAS Shania doing in there while the rain started to pelt down the windscreen? – there was never any relief from things going steadily downhill and wrong, wrong and wronger. She moved restlessly in her seat. Probably she should have gone to the loo as well, but it really looked too disgusting in there. The phone chirruped in her bag.
Must be Dave. Should she answer it? O God, no point in not.
“Hi,” small voice.
Short pause. Forced cheerfulness. He knew, she knew he knew.
“How did it go, love?”
She fought back the lump in her throat which threatened to become an all-engulfing nuclear bomb.
“Sorry, Dave, no.”
“You’re kidding aren’t you? When I took you out on Saturday you were fine. What went wrong, for Pete’s sake?”
Should she tell him? It was bound to come out, anyhow.
“I told the examiner I couldn’t answer the Highway Code questions because he wanted us to park on someone’s drive.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“He failed me because I didn’t answer the Highway Code questions.”
She could feel his exasperation like an electrical charge in the phone.
“But you know the Code! You always have! You’re a teacher! Teachers understand instructions! They pass exams. Or used to.”
“I know Dave, I know the Code, course I do, but I never got to answer the questions because I told him he shouldn’t ask me to stop illegally. On someone else’s drive.”
“What? What do you mean, illegally?”
“Across the bottom of someone’s drive. Preventing their access, you see. That’s against the Highway Code.”
There was a muffled noise: of disbelief? Perhaps she should leave the country? But what with, there’s absolutely no money left, and where should she go?
She ploughed on.
“I thought it was a trick instruction, you see, so I challenged him.”
No mistake now. Dave was laughing. Thank God, he was laughing. A lead weight rolled off her stomach and settled down in her boots, where she was used to it.
“O Denny you are a card. Whatever will you think of?”
Humiliating but could be worse.
“There was the roundabout as well.”
“I waited too long, I think. And then…”
“Someone go into the back of you?”
“Well no, but they might have only luckily it was a very old car with a very old couple in it and they probably barely noticed that I’d started to go before I stopped again.”
Dave was laughing so hard that he sounded quite wheezy.
“Denny, Denny, Denny.” At least she could still make him laugh. That was oen of the things that had drawn them together, that and his bright blue eyes and his jawline, he did have a lovely jawline, but like Clint Eastwood but nicer personality. She always said, you couldn’t meet a nicer man that Dave in a month of Sundays.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Shania emerge from the Ladies’ loo, adjusting the sparkly top, a spring in her step and a fag on the go.
“I better go Dave, she’s got another lesson soon.”
His tone changed.
“Yeah well, we’d better have a little talk about Ms Robinson this evening.” And he hung up, no goodbye.
A tear trickled down Denise’s cheek. Was it fair, honestly?
Opening the door, Shania was humming. As she slid into the seat, Denise could smell, stratified in layers like a fudge cake, new application of perfume (“Passion” for sure), fresh cigarette smoke and on top of that fresh mouthwash smelling oh-so-pink, an application of hair product (“Bouffant! Bouncy! Mousse that’s flouncy!”) new lipstick (“Drunk on magic”) and a monster spray of Intimate deodorant. It was the olfactory equivalent of having all of your hairs stroked the wrong way and Denise shrank a little further into her seat.
“Well wow!” she began. “It looks like it’s all on again with Trev.” Denise nodded noncommittally. Who the hell was he? But, then who the hell cared?
“You remember I told you about how I sneaked into the hospital recovery room to be there when he woke up from his hernia operation?”
Denise blinked. “I think I’d blanked that out,” she muttered.
Shania ignored this attempt at humour.
“I just had to give the porter a quicky and I was in. I told Trev, “You see how I love you!” Plus, of course, I am going to be a doctor so I need to be in a few recovery rooms for my research for the interview.”
“Yes, when is that?” asked Denise, hoping to be spared the rest of this story.
“Tuesday. Anyhow, when I go, like “Peep-oh! Surprise, Guess who loves you very much and is here for you darling!” He goes, “O no, Fuck off you old slapper,” so naturally, we’re not going out no more after that. Bloody cheek! And after all I done for him and all, specially with the penis ring and that. Still, I did pull his oxygen tube out, just to warn him like not to speak to a modern woman like that.”
Denise couldn’t help gasping.
“But wasn’t that very dangerous, Shania?”
“Not really. Remember, I have done the advanced St John’s Ambulance Emergency Aid course, so I’m a professional, like. He was a bit purple, but he got over it.”
Denise groaned. Who was it wrote that hell is other people? Probably the only thing worse than listening to Shania on her love life would be the Tube in rush hour and your face shoved in a sweaty armpit while other people simultaneously picked your pocket and felt your bum.
“Are you all right? Soon be home, you can put your feet up, get hubby to make you a cup of tea shouldn’t wonder. What do these men think we do all day, eh?”
“Dave’s very good really but he has to work so hard,” whispered Denise.
“Yeah, that’s what my old man said but turns out it was that tart at work what kept him so hard. Not that I’m hinting nothing about your Dave, obviously. Still, I’d give him a ring…”
“What, Dave?” Denise couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. If there was one person Dave had a bad word to say about, and it would be the only one she’d ever heard, it was Shania Robinson. Why Denise had kept on with Shania in the face of disapproval, at first quiet and lately outspoken, was a mystery to no one more than Denise herself. Yet it seemed somehow that to give up Shania, useless instructor as it had to be admitted she was, flagrant transgressor of all the rules of decency and common sense, not to mention wild fantasist and thank God there could be no chance under the sun of her ever being a doctor, would be to give up any pretence at making her own decisions.
“No, Trev! I give him a ring just now, in the bog, and tell him, I’m putting this tampon in me now, who do you think it makes me think of? Except you are much, much bigger!”
Denise groaned once more. Would it never end?
“Yes, can’t forget that, can we love? Prince Charles wa’n’it? Works for Royalty, works for me is what I say! Anyhow, it worked a treat and I’m going straight round to see him after I’ve dropped you off. Bet he’s missed his older woman, eh? It’s only 12 years but they can make all the difference to an impressionable lad. Oooh, I cannot wait, Denise. All that throbbing manhood will be once more be mine.”
She laughed and swung ferociously round a corner, shot over the roundabout and deftly nipped across a red light before screeching to a halt a substantial distance away from Denise’ house.
“I’ll let you out here shall I? Only thirty pounds as you failed darling, and besides, I am feeling lucky, lucky, lucky! So let’s share the joy and forget the extra two pounds fifty, eh?”
Numbly, Denise handed over three ten-pound notes and clambered out of the car to stand and watch a three-point turn that pinged three different bumpers before zooming back into the main road.
Ahead of her, the tree-lined street of red brick houses; behind, the failed test. Rain ran cold like reproaches down the back of her neck. She turned up her collar and trotted down the road. There was the house, number 33, cerise front door and “Georgian stone” (perhaps a mistake) stucco, still haven’t done anything about the peeling paint on the windows. It didn’t look great, specially not the garden, (have the mice eaten the tulips again this year?) but it was her home.
At least, time for a cup of tea before Nat got home. Maybe toast some malt loaf and then eat it with her in front of the telly. Cut up a few apples into boats, she’s always liked those, and some segments of clementines. Ooh, I could do with a cuddle, thought Denise.
On the table in the hall lay two packs of seeds. Morning Glory and Red Poppy, some of her favourites. When would she plant them, when would she ever have time? On the front of the packets, improbably bright blue and red flowers flashed their faces. She put the seeds down and went to put the kettle on.
On the dining-room table a big pile of exercise books looked at her. She’d taken the afternoon off for the double driving lesson and test. Her heart sank at the teasing, not particularly good-natured, that she would get in the staffroom next day. Sometimes it felt like working part-time she actually worked twice as hard for half of the time and had to apologise as well for having time off, not that it was time she got paid for. Maybe Nat didn’t need her so much, after all the asthma was nearly gone, now they had the garden and lived back from the main road more than in the flat, it seemed to have lessened a lot. Maybe she should go fulltime. She’d still have the same holidays as Nat. And the mortgage repayments could do with a shot in the arm. Or Dave, Dave could do with a shot in the arm. Dave.. what was it that Shania was hinting at? Surely Dave would never…? Did she give him enough time and attention? What with Nathalie’s asthma and the marking and never getting the house straight and then Mum was getting quite demanding, did she give her marriage enough Quality Time?
She poured hot water on her teabag in the mug and sit down with an “ouf!” at the table. At least, no more Shania for a while. Or maybe ever, if it came to it. Her ears adjusted downwards to silence. Relative silence, anyhow. A muffled shriek and the cat wriggled out from underneath her. “Oh, puss, I am sorry,” said Denise. The cat shot her an injured look and stalked off, tail in the air. She quashed incipient guilt feelings: he’d be back for food.
The door clicked and in came Nathalie. Ears pricked, denise could ehar hallway sounds: bag put down, shoes off, coat hung up; it all sounded ok, no slamming (that had recently started, worse luck) and no coughing.
“Nat, that you darling?”
“Hello, Mum, any tea going?”
“Come on in darling, would you like some malt loaf?”
In walked her young lady daughter, near as tall as herself now and just look at that shiny brown hair and bright brown gaze. What a beauty. Denise put out her arms and Nathalie walked in to her embrace, not too old for that, thank goodness. Denise buried her nose in Nat’s neck and drunk in the warmth and closeness and smell, obviously for a bit too long since Nathalie started to wriggle “Mum!”
“I want my tea, Mum!”
“Coming up, sweety.” Denise heaved herself out of the chair. It was definitely getting more of an effort even though she’s only 37, what does that say about not getting enough exercise? Perhaps it was a good thing after all that she’d failed her driving test. No, it wasn’t, not at all. Oh, blow, have to tell Nathalie.
“Well, duck, failed again, sad to say.”
“I know; don’t be mean darling, please.”
Nathalie looked at her mum, about to expostulate. Her face clearly showed exasperation. Then her face softened. She came round the table and put her arms round Denise from the back.
“I don’t mind, Mum. You’ll do it one day. Dad said you can do anything if you put your mind to it. And you’re the best Mum, you really are.”
Denise sniffed. Her throat felt tight with love and pleasure. She wanted to cry.
“Mum, is this malt loaf mouldy?” Nathalie held up a slightly furry looking slice.
“Only that bit, dear.”
Nathalie wrinkled up her nose.
“I don’t think I fancy it, then, Mum. Can I just have some fruit?”
“Of course, dear.” Denise heaved herself back out of her seat. Perhaps she was putting on weight and that was why she felt so heavy. Come to think of it, was Nathalie worried about her weight, only asking for fruit on a chilly spring day? What about all that cosy toast snuggling that Denise had been building up to?
She walked over to the counter. The discarded malt loaf had a decidedly moribund air; perhaps not. She picked up an apple and started to slice it.
“Oh, it’s ok, you don’t need to make boats for me, I’m not a baby.”
Denise flinched and put the knife down.
“OK, love.” She tried to keep any suggestion of hurt out of her voice (next thing you know, she’ll be getting married and moving out!) but Nat must have sensed something because she came over and hugged her mother again.
“If you like doing it, Mum, I’d like apply boats.” Denise looked up and met a serious gaze. “It’s just that I don’t need them any more, you see.”
“I see.” She resumed carving the apple, humming slightly. Not getting married yet, anyhow.
As they snuggled under the cover in front of the TV, the cat purring and kneading at Nathalie’s feet, Denise felt her misery untangle. She must just put it down to experience. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again as her mother was prone to remark. Well, she hadn’t succeeded at first, or even at sixth, but April was another month.
And there were still the seeds to plant. Morning Glory and Red Poppy. They would make a brave show. Probably just time to get them in before it got dark; ground was nice and wet. And something upbeat to tell Dave when he got home. Perhaps with a chilli con carne, those peppers needed using up.
Yes, thought Denise, putting her mug on the floor and curling her body round her daughter’s slight frame, there were still the seeds.