Short Story: The Test
Short Story: The Test
It still hasn’t rained. The forecaster had said that there was a 100 per cent chance of rain this afternoon but not a drop has fallen. I suppose I can add the forecaster to my ever-growing list of unreliable men. Bill, of course, is at the top of that list. He had an unreliable heart, which is why, every Friday morning, it’s me pulling on my old, dirty gumboots and dragging the rubbish bag to the end of the driveway.
“Left indicator please,” the instructor, Mike, yells through the big front window. “Annnnd the right indicator…..that’s great.” And just so I really know I’ve done a great job, he gives me an enthusiastic double thumbs up. I feel awkward because he obviously feels bad for me; he can smell the self doubt in the thin layer of salty sweat coating my skin.
Mike climbs into the passenger’s side shutting the door behind him. I quicken my breathing feeling greedy for the oxygen left in the car. “Do you mind if I crack the windows a little?” I ask, already doing it.
This is my third attempt and I’ve made a deal with myself that if I don’t pass this time then that’s it —I can’t take the humiliation of failing and failing and failing.
“Okay, we’re going to pull out here, head to that set of lights and turn right. I’ll stay quiet, only giving you instructions as we drive. I’ll give you plenty of notice before we have to make turns. Try to stay alert but as relaxed as you can be; David told me what happened last time and I’d like to avoid anything like that happening today. I’ve got a headache and a lot to get through. In saying that, feel free to chat while you drive. Some people find that it helps them to stay calm — just try to enjoy the ride, okay?”
Yes, okay, Mike, you bald-headed prick. I knew this was harsh and, of course, I didn’t say it. I just nod and give him a smile, which he doesn’t reciprocate. I wish I could request a woman to take me for the practical test. Men, especially middle-aged bald pricks, just remind me too much of Bill.
I turn the key, starting the car. All the moisture in my mouth seems to evaporate, leaving my mouth dry and my tongue feeling large and swollen. Could my tongue block my airways leaving me unable to breathe? Could I then panic and ram the car in front of me like last time? What would Mike say? If I did ram the car in front of me, choking on my own bulbous tongue, he’d say, “Christine you stupid cow, what did I say? Oh, you’re choking are you? Well that’s just great, you always do this. I wake up with a headache and so you choke to death on your goddamn tongue!” I knew that I was projecting what Bill would say on to Mike. I didn’t know Mike very well at all, but I bet he’d actually say something a lot kinder like, “Wow, are you okay?” And maybe even try to unplug my tongue.
We’d been driving for about 10 minutes with the instructions being the only words to interrupt the silence. “Okay Christine, you’re doing well so far. Take a left up here and follow the road around.” After a short pause, “Sorry, I should have asked earlier, do you prefer to be called Chris? Or Chrissy? It’s just that my sister is called Catherine and she’s a Cat. Hates to be called Catherine.”
So much for sitting quietly, I think to myself. “Oh, Christine is fine, thanks.” I glance to the left using my peripherals to try and make eye contact, but his head is down and he’s scribbling illegibly. So I carry on, “I used to go by Chris when I was younger. I never liked the name Christine, but when I met my husband he called me by my full name and I’ve gotten used to it.”
Nodding, he said, “Well, if you don’t like the name why don’t you ask him to call you Chris?” He takes a deep breath, “Actually, sorry, not my business. Take the first exit at this roundabout and head out towards the airport and be aware there are roadworks up ahead so pay attention to what the signs say.”
We drive for a while not saying anything. The brown hills roll by, the road is straight and well maintained. A surge of excitement hits my chest as I remember that once we get to the airport I’m already halfway through the test. All I have to do after that is make it back without any mishaps.
I clear my throat and explain, “I can’t ask my husband to call me Chris; he actually died a few months ago. That’s why I’m here, at 48. Bill used to do all the driving.” I swallow. “Since he’s been gone, I’ve had no way to get anywhere. We — I mean, I — live pretty far out of town so it’s necessary for me to be able to do this. I have to do this.” I say the last part more to myself than to Mike.
Even if Bill were alive, I wouldn’t tell him I prefer to be called Chris because he already knew that. We’d had an argument just after we were married when we were heading out to a friend’s birthday party and on the card I’d signed, ‘Love Bill and Chris’. I’d been in the bathroom putting on lipstick and when I got to the front door I found the card ripped to shreds on the wooden floor. As soon as I saw it I knew that the night was ruined. Bill hit the car horn for an obnoxiously long time, letting me know to hurry up or I would miss my ride. When I got in the car I apologised for taking so long and asked timidly, “What was wrong with the card?”
“I think you already know what was wrong with the card.” I stayed quiet. “Do you want people to think I’m married to a man? That I’m some goddamn dandy? Because Chris is a man’s name; I married Christine. Christine is your name, correct?”
When he went off like that I didn’t know if he wanted an answer or not. “Aye, Christine!” And he used his left hand to shove my face hard into the passenger window. I’ve gone by Christine ever since. Thirty years.
We’re at the airport. I indicate right and then left to come out of the roundabout and start the drive back into town. “I’m sorry about your husband,” says Mike.
“How long were you two married and if I’m distracting you or probing, please feel free to tell me to shut it.”
“No, you were right, it helps the nerves to talk. We were married 30 years, I met him when I was 18.” I look quickly at Mike, his eyes bulging as I spoke, like he thought it was impossible I was ever that young.
“Wow, that’s impressive. Well done, you two!”
I find it strange when someone congratulates you on along marriage; not a happy marriage, but a long, torturous one. If I’d been braver, I would’ve divorced Bill and sat this test long ago. Bill might still be alive if I’d done that.
We continue the drive in silence. It feels good to be close to another human being. I catch myself inhaling dramatically each time Mike exhales as though trying to recycle the air that has passed through him.
“Okay, make a right hand turn up at these lights and Christine, we’re almost finished. I don’t want to jinx it, but in a short while you may just have your full licence and you’ll never have to do this again.” Mike sounds hopeful. I shouldn’t have told him about Bill dying. The last thing I want is more pity, it makes the guilt unbearable.
Waiting at the lights I look into the car on my left where a young boy is sitting in the passenger’s seat. Being cheeky, he pokes his tongue at me. Instead of poking my own tongue back at the boy, my face automatically shrivels into a squinty, mean frown. The light goes green and they drive away, the boy looking back sadly. I’ve never been very good with children.
Bill said once it was a blessing that I was barren because I couldn’t have handled the pressure of being a mother. As I’m turning, the first few drops of rain hit the front window.
“Here we go,” says Mike. The rain arrives and it quickly turns into a downpour. I think of the farmers rejoicing and the brown hills we had passed soaking up the moisture like sponges.
Straining to see out the window, I flick on the headlights and wipers. Quietly giving myself congratulations on knowing what to do in the event of a monsoon-like downpour.
“You might also want to put your front demister on,” says Mike. He’s right, I can barely see through the front window. My small balloon of confidence is prematurely popped.
I look desperately at all the buttons and think, ‘Maybe if I just push them all at once, give the centre console a high-five and hope for the best?’ I push what I hope is the button for the front demister, but instead aloud angry voice erupts through the speakers.
“Well, I just don’t see why the Government…,” I shudder, Newstalk ZB, Bill’s favourite station. I feel right back at home in the kitchen drying the dishes. The night it happened I could hear the radio from the lounge. Bill always had the volume all the way up. At first I thought it was coming from the speakers, “Chriiiistine! My heart! Christine!!” Confused, I walked slowly into the lounge, Bill was kneeling in front of his La-Z-Boy, his right hand clutching at his chest. “Call … the … ambulance … Christine …” I stood there looking at him, twisting the tea towel in my hands. “Christine! Get … the … phone … arrrghhh!” His face was as red as the tomatoes we’d just had with dinner. “Call … the … arghhhhh.” He collapsed onto the floor. His vacant eyes were locked onto mine, but he wasn’t saying anything. I was afraid that if I moved he would yell again, so I stood there, a living statue, only taking a breath when it was desperately needed. I did eventually call the ambulance, but he was gone long before they arrived.
“Christine! Christine! Pullover!” yells Mike. “Please, pullover, okay; don’t panic.” I flick on my indicator, manoeuvre to the left and stop the car, directly opposite VTNZ. All I’d needed to do was go around the roundabout and back up the other side of the road. I’d failed again.
“Are you okay? Here,” and he puts the demister on, clearing the front window. “Take a deep breath,” he says. My cheeks are all wet and my nose is streaming uncontrollably. I look into the rear-view mirror and I’m shocked to see that my eyes are all red and puffy. When had I started crying?
“I’ve messed it up again,” I say. “This was it, my last chance.” Wiping my eyes, I look at Mike feeling embarrassed that I’m crying in front of this almost stranger. But he’s smiling at me with such tenderness that I can’t help but cry a little more.
“It’s not over yet, Christine. You technically haven’t made any critical errors; we can still do this. You know what to do. We’ll sit here as long as you like but when you’re ready, let’s show ’em how it’s done.”
A few minutes later, we’re back. Still sitting in the car, Mike fills in my temporary licence, telling me that the proper copy will arrive by post.
“Thank you for everything,” I say. “I think if I’d had any other instructor it wouldn’t have gone so well for me. You’re not a bald prick at all.”
“Did you say I was a bald prick?” Mike asks, smiling.
“Oh, I didn’t, did I?” I laugh.
He opens the door to get out, “This is a win Christine, be proud of yourself for persevering”.
I smile and nod, still a bit dazed that it has gone my way.
“Bye, Christine,” he says through the window, waving as he walks away.
“See ya Mike … Oh, and Mike.”
“Yeah,” he replies.
“Call me Chris.
About the author
Louise A Sargison is a budding writer/comedian. Graduating from Victoria University with a BA in English Literature, she has spent the past decade travelling and trying her hand at different styles of writing and performing. She lives in sunny Hawke’s Bay and enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading and going to see live music and comedy.