Hot Shit!

The headline “Dung catches fire” does not do this story from the Isle of Wight County Press any justice:

Look, it’s a quiet place. Burning manure passes for entertainment.

Well, back to the old drawing board…

Marvin the Martian can cope with failure and so can I. I was doing swimmingly on today’s test until the very last minutes when I fluffed parallel parking by nudging the kerb three times. Until then I had nine minor faults.

Unfortunately, the fluster factor took over. Nudging the kerb once is retrievable, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to recover from it (doubtless it would have been less of an issue in a non-test situation). I should have just started again, but instead tried to correct the distances involved and just ended up repeating the error, getting more flustered. It’s that catastrophic moment when someone adds water to a jar of instant Martians.

I was possibly unsettled by the fact that it was a drop kerb, which is hard to see in the mirror, and the fact that the vehicle I was initially parallel to was a white Transit, which instantly blots out what is happening on the pavement as far as potential pedestrian hazards go. An hour earlier with P. I had managed several parallel parking exercises with no problems, though it is probably my weakest manoeuvre, and the night before with C. I’d done it in the dark with nothing to guide me.

Until that moment I was perfectly calm and confident. And was immediately after I knew I’d failed. I know I can pass this test, but alas my next attempt has to wait until 21 April because there are no clear slots until that date. Bother.

Heading for the finishing line

We’re in the last week or so of J.’s treatment in hospital. Her neutrofil count was up to 0.4 by Friday, which means she almost has enough of an immune system up and running to come home – we hope by Wednesday. However, she is still trying to fight off a chest infection, and has developed a rash that needs checking out, so her final coming home may be delayed. Mercifully, the squits induced by all the antibiotics are at last in abeyance.

She sounded pretty good on the phone yesterday, bright and cheerful, which is also a hopeful sign. Given that she is entirely fed up with being contained in a small room, and probably never wants to touch hospital food ever again – even I’ve gone off what’s served up in the canteen, and I only eat there a few times a week – she needs to come home.

J. is about a stone and a half lighter than she was when all this began six months ago. There was never very much of her anyway, so the hairless creature that will emerge from hospital will be shocking gaunt. A fattening but healthy diet awaits her.

One lesson here is that if you are going to suffer a critical illness, you want to be slightly overweight. Being a healthy weight for ordinary life doesn’t give you the reserves for six months of brutal drug therapy, nausea and diarrhoea. Middle-aged spread can be good for you.

Aliens in the car

Building up to the practical test, which happens only on Tuesday, a mere three days away, I’ve been trying to prepare for the experience by having different people in the passenger seat of the car apart from P. or C.

C.’s wife S. bravely sat in with me last Sunday after C. had warmed me up for an hour to knock off the accumulated rust of the week: it takes a few minutes to redevelop the good habits when I haven’t been driving for a few days.

It wasn’t quite the experience I’d expected. Early on, an alien in the car was deeply unsettling and guaranteed to bring on an attack of nerves. S. however kept talking to me the whole time (she says to distract me) and this kept me entirely relaxed. S. is my “other wife” when my J. or her C. doesn’t care to go to particular events like garden or country shows, so we’re used to keeping each other company. We did the usual run of the back way from Wootton to Newport (via Staplers Road), into the driving test centre, practised reverse parking into a bay in the Honda “tractor”, and then whizzed up and down the dual carriageway a few times to practise roundabouts (there’s one at each end) and getting up to speed. You can hit 60, but pretty much have to slow down immediately afterwards; I did it just to show that I could.

The debriefing revealed that S. hadn’t felt the need to apply her imaginary brake once, which at least shows that I can drive with consideration for my passengers, even if it didn’t create the whole alien encounter I’d wanted.

The was another lesson with P. on the Tuesday, which ended early because we’d arranged that another instructor, M. should take me out on a mock test, thus fulfilling the needs of providing an alien passenger and marking my performance. He has the same type of car as P., a Renault Clio diesel, so switching between them wasn’t an issue. 

But first I had a quick coffee break, heading for Coffee Republic on the recommendation of Jimjams, who seems to hang out there a lot after school. I had an Americano, which had a good crema but lacked the full body of the ideal one I’d had at Gossips in Yarmouth a few weeks earlier. The taste of the coffee was excellent – a good strong roast – but it probably needed another shot of espresso. I’ll be customising this drink next visit. The accompanying raisin Danish was excellent.

M. picked me up at Newport bus station, and after 10 minutes or so of chat and a warm-up to get familiar with his car we were off on the proper mock test. I had two “moments”, one where I didn’t understand where he wanted me to pull up relating to the wording he used for relative positioning, and one when a double-decker bus came out of a width restriction on a hill and I pulled over  to give it the most room possible and, I thought, kerbed the car in the process (which would fail me). However, in the analysis M. said I’d only touched it, and would only get two minor faults on the encounter with the bus (undue hesitation and an observational fault). The manoeuvres of choice were reverse parking into a bay, reversing around a corner and a turn in the road, all of which went OK.

Despite previously discussing where I thought I made most of my faults – mirrors and gears – mirrors didn’t feature at all in my minor faults, and gears only twice, and the result was that M. would pass me with eight minor faults. My old friend the not fully released handbrake featured twice… I can do better.

Last night’s session with C. showed again that I can drive with confidence, and that when you’re learning at that point it the becomes a matter of coping with situations that other people create. Like cars parked on double yellow lines a short way before a traffic lighted junction that suddenly set off without indicating.  I went on about that for minutes…

So do I feel I can pass on Tuesday? Yes, and I feel ready for the test: but I think I should fail. I just don’t think that I have enough experience of different situations. And I finally watched the Driving Standards Agency’s DVD on preparing for the test that reveals the less that comforting statistic that the pass rate for the practical test is only 42%.

Anyway, as on test and mock days I’m sure that someone pays people to be idiots in front of learners just to test them to the limits, success may depend on how much these idiots are bank-rolled on Tuesday.

There’ll be Pixies at the bottom of Fairlee Road’s gardens

The number of groups appearing at this year’s Isle of Wight Festival that I really want to see is increasing. To add to the fabulous Arcadian Kicks, my must-hears now include 60s group The Zombies (whose album Odessey & Oracle is a regular on my iTunes playlist), and the absolutely phenomenal Pixies, who I last saw live at Reading in 1990. It’s been reason enough to dust off my copy of their album Bossanova.

Also returning are Paolo Nutini, who had a very good live set at a previous festival, and The Australian Pink Floyd Show, who I’ll give a second chance in the hope that I can stay awake… or that I can enjoy the experience horizontal.

Oh yes, the festival site is off Fairlee Road in Newport, hence the daft headline. I’m almost certain the local rag will use something similar…

In the stalls…

So where was I? Another eight sessions with either P. or C. have passed, and the ones with C. have been eventful. I am tempted never again to speak of the Staplers Road junction just above the Coppins Bridge roundabout because it has resulted in the most memorable event of all the lessons so far.

Every time so far the lights have been green, and I have never had to worry about stopping and doing the tricky hill start at this junction. That is until one evening with C., near the end of a two-hour session, when they changed, leaving me at the line ready to turn right. I thought I’d conquered hill starts, but this patch of road is particularly steep, I didn’t give the engine enough revs, and I stalled. At the point I thought “O, I’ve stalled”, C. acted promptly to stop us rolling back downhill by applying the handbrake.

I didn’t panic, and re-started the engine ready to try again, revved, and then found I couldn’t move the handbrake. C. had applied it so firmly that I couldn’t budge it. And so I stalled again, panicked by the fact that I couldn’t work out how I was going to move forward. There was a moment of tense discussion…

Anyway, I tried again, and this time the lights had changed back to red, so I had to wait calmly, trying not to think too much about the queue of cars that had built up behind me.

Attempt four was balked when a young driver screeched up on the inside lane and cut in front of us for the turning. I can only assume that any problems he’d had when learning had all been forgotten; I can only hope that after I pass I show the tolerance of and patience with learners that others have shown me.

We made it on go five. C. worked the handbrake and I just floored the accelerator. The tyres protested noisily, but we were up and round into Staplers and on the route home. We got back and then went for an emergency pint of tranquillising Gales HSB at The Cedars in Wootton in order to restore a feeling of normality.

I am amazed by C’s tolerance and patience, especially as next time out we had one of those moments when I turn crimson after missing two turnings in East Cowes, which I simply can’t see in the dark, but which C. knows are there because he works there. In daylight, of course, there would be no problem.

Still, the most recent night’s session with C. was great: the first one since P. recommended I book my test that I actually felt like I was ready to take the test, now just over two weeks away. I’ve at last managed to park the Honda by reversing into a bay, twice, meaning I can do it in our own car and in the instructor’s.

P. has arranged an hour with an “alien’ in the car, another instructor who will take me on a mock test. The idea is that I have someone in the car who I don’t know, rather than someone with whom I feel comfortable, so I am as prepared as I can be when I take the test for real: I know I will be a bag of nerves, but I would like to have the experience of being a bag of nerves when it’s not quite so crucial.

The last session with P. was good too. I hadn’t realised he’d been marking me from the outset, and it was only right at the end of almost two hours, and having successfully reversed round a sharp corner, that I clipped the kerb on coming out of the junction again, haven forgotten to edge out further. He said it was the first serious fault all lesson, and up till that point I had made only five minor faults, three on mirrors, two on gears. I may yet master how to control a car!