“So if you hadn’t braked with the dual controls and grabbed the steering wheel we’d have crashed head-on into the bus?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“But I am improving aren’t I, John? You won’t give up on me, like all the other driving instructors have?”
“No, Bernard, not to worry, we’ll get there in the end.”
The end? After numerous near misses and screeches of brakes, even though I’ve been teaching driving for twenty years, I was already a nervous wreck and we were only ten minutes into Bernard’s eighty-fourth lesson with me, and it seemed as if he was never going to improve.
It’s a fact I’ve discovered that some of the most intelligent people on the planet can never learn to drive, yet some of the stupidest cretins alive can be experts behind the wheel. Bernard was neither of these extremes, and, in fact, he was one of the nicest, most charming, agreeable people I’ve ever met in my life. It was because I liked him so much that I wanted to do my utmost to help him pass the driving test, which was, to him, like some kind of unattainable holy grail.
But on days like today I had to admit that it seemed more and more like a losing battle.
The situation began when I had the bright idea of adding ‘nervous drivers welcome’ to the advert for my driving school, in an attempt to drum up more business in the face of all the competition. Depressed Deirdre had been difficult to handle when she just stared ahead, unable to even turn on the ignition, insisting on telling me about her nightmares full of horrific car crashes. Manic Mavis had seemed wildly enthusiastic until in the middle of a high-street traffic jam, she fell forwards, resting her head on the steering wheel, screaming and in hysterical floods of tears, refusing to move, while cars were blaring their horns all around us.
Bernard had been different. He always did his very very best, concentrated hard and tried to be cooperative. You couldn’t help liking him, and he was great company, indeed me and my wife Betty had become close friends with him, going out for meals regularly. He’d taken his test so many times that all the driving examiners at the local test centre knew him well and liked him too – he was so much an accepted part of their life, that he had even joined their darts team at the pub, and they always invited him to their Christmas parties!
And, strangely enough, to everyone’s surprise, I’m delighted to say that we did actually get there in the end. Bernard was slow and steady and obeyed all the rules of the road, so my conscience was clear, because I trusted the professionalism of the examiners, who wouldn’t risk allowing anyone to pass unless they were confident of their ability, hopefully, to avoid serious accidents.
“Do you know, John, eventually passing my driving test has increased my confidence so much that it’s opened up a whole new world for me,” Bernard told me cheerfully as we sat together in the pub a few days after his epic driving-test pass. “I’m doing new things all the time now. For instance I’ve applied for different jobs – better paid ones. What’s more, I asked this girl out who I fancied for ages, but was scared to try my luck. And do you know what? She said yes!”
Betty and I met Bronwyn soon afterwards and she turned out to be a very nice girl indeed. She was somewhat large and forceful in her manner, but she supported Bernard in all his decisions apart from one. “I love Bernard and I’d do anything for him,” she told us, “but I refuse to go in the car with him at the wheel. He’s had so many near misses and scrapes and after the last accident his insurance premiums have gone through the roof. Fact is,” she said affectionately as she took Bernard’s hand in her own, “You’re a terrible driver! You somehow managed to scrape through the test but you’re hopelessly impractical and you’ve got no spatial awareness, and that’s why you’re always having accidents.”
Soon after that Bernard got offered a marvellous job in Scotland, and after he went we lost touch, apart from occasional phone calls and Christmas cards.
Which was why it was such a nice surprise to meet him five years later, quite by chance, in the restaurant at Gatwick Airport, when Betty and I were due to fly to New York for a holiday.
“What a coincidence to meet up like this!” I said to Bernard as we shook hands enthusiastically, and Betty gave him a hug. “Are you going on holiday too?”
“No, more of a business trip, that’s why I’m not with Bronwyn,” Bernard replied, as we settled at a table. “I’m on my way to New York. In fact it looks like we’re all going on the same flight. Ours is the Boeing outside the window.”
We looked through the glass to the runway, where the huge Boeing 707 was parked, its majestic nose seemingly huge, and I thought with wonder of how insignificantly small we all were in comparison.
“By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask,” I went on. “I know you got a good job in marketing when you moved to Scotland. Are you still in that line?”
“No,” he replied, leaning closer. “In fact, thanks to my confidence boost, I decided to completely change careers, to do something I’ve always wanted to do. It wasn’t easy. I went back to University, did a lot of training, but I made it in the end.”
“Marvellous. So you’re some kind of international high-flying businessman then, are you?”
“Not really.” He smiled.
“So what is your job?”
At that moment the tannoy announced our flight was taking passengers and we had to assemble in the departure lounge immediately.
“Well, John and Betty, I doubt if we’ll be able to talk on the flight, so let’s meet up tomorrow in New York, I’ll give you a call.”
So saying, Bernard took off the light jacket he was wearing to reveal the smart black and yellow-striped epaulettes on the shoulders of his sparkling white shirt.
“I always cover up my uniform when I’m at the airport and not actually on duty,” he confessed as he slipped on the stylish black jacket with the trademark three gold bands at the sleeves, gazing down at them with pride. “Strikes me that if the public can see that their pilot is just an ordinary-looking bloke like me, they might not feel confident that he could fly the plane. . .”
(Image by Marcel Langthim from Pixabay)