When we arrived in Madrid we didn’t have a car. In fact, neither of us knew how to drive. I had taken few lessons when I was eighteen, but all I could remember was that my feet barely reached the pedals of the Ford Anglia and that the driving instructor smoked more cigarettes with each successive lesson. I think I made him nervous.
But we didn’t need a car anyway: there was a Metro stop round the corner and plenty of buses. Dave was happy to get the bus to the school so he could do his marking on the way. The number 26 left from Sol so he always got a seat.
Ten years later, things had changed. The school had moved out to the suburbs, and Dave had two children to take with him as well as the marking.
Matters came to a head one day as he was crossing Plaza Mayor on the way to the bus stop, the marking in his backpack and carrying one child, the other trailing reluctantly behind him. It was winter. It was drizzling. A drug dealer came up to him and asked him if he wanted to score some smack.
“I must have looked like I needed it,” he said when he got home that afternoon. “I think it’s time I learnt to drive.”
So he did. After passing the theory exam, they told him he could start the practical lessons the following week. He’d got a slot for 7.00 p.m. every night, but when he arrived for his first lesson the place was in darkness and there was a sign on the door saying it was closed in honour of the Saint’s day for driving instructors. We never discovered who the patron saint of driving instructors was, but on reflection it seems only fair they should have one. They probably need to pray to him daily when they go out with their novice drivers.
Two years later we wanted to move out of Madrid altogether, and then it was my turn. After my previous experience, I’d always claimed I wasn’t cut out to drive, but it’s amazing how you can change your mind from one day to the next: I just woke up one day and thought, ‘Well actually, there are plenty of people stupider than me who’ve managed to pass a driving test’ and took myself off to the nearest autoescuela.
The day eventually came to take the theory exam. There were four of us from the same driving school taking it that day, so I got the bus with them out to the ‘Centro de Examenes’ in Alcorcón. Two of them had taken the test several times already without passing it, which wasn’t very reassuring, but I was glad someone knew where we were going because I didn’t. The Centre turned out to be a huge official building in the middle of a barren landscape just off the motorway, somewhere to the south of Madrid.
A couple of hundred people were already there. The place was heaving, and everyone seemed to be having animated discussions with their friends or shouting to someone they knew the other side of the vast hall. Some of them were standing around under the No Smoking signs puffing away on a last cigarette before the exam started. Others were at the bar for a last-minute coffee or something stronger. It was a normal bar with hissing coffee machines, trays of crockery crashing in and out of the dishwasher and paper all over the floor. Why was I surprised? Madrid has more bars than any other city in the world, six to every 100 inhabitants. I read that on the Internet, so it must be true.
Eventually we were herded into the examination room: a couple of hundred small desks and a raised platform at the top where three or four invigilators sat, with a picture of the king, a clock and a wooden crucifix on the wall behind them. Silence descended while we went through the multiple-choice questions, trying to remember the difference between what you were supposed to do and what drivers actually did.
They marked the papers right away and I’m glad to say I passed, but the two girls who had failed before failed yet again. While we were waiting for the bus back, one of them said sadly, “I don’t know what I’ll do now. Maybe I should see a psychiatrist or something.” Her friend opened her bag and pulled out a Saint Christopher, a head of garlic and several mini gonks she’d taken along for luck. “They didn’t do me much good, did they?” she said, “By the way, what’s a clutch?”
Now I only had to learn to actually drive a car. In Madrid. Out on the M-30. On day three. My slot was at 8.00 in the morning, at the height of the morning rush hour. That first day was a hair-raising experience: I started shaking uncontrollably as cars whizzed past me on either side, their horns blaring. “¡Tranquila!” said the driving instructor, and reminded me I was in a dual-control car. He seemed remarkably calm, not at all like my previous chain-smoking driving instructor back in England. I wondered whether he was getting any assistance from the patron saint of driving instructors.