Driver Licence To Kill
By Mike Bell
The road was clear; traffic light green. I was in such a good mood. We, my wife and I, had spent my birthday weekend in Bangkok. As I drove back towards Pattaya on the number seven road, a cloud flickered on the horizon. The flashing lights ahead could mean either an accident or police check. I was not unduly worried when it turned into the latter. I’d not strayed above a hundred once. I smiled as I handed my license to the officer. His emotions were difficult to read; besides the crotch hugging uniform, he wore designer sunglasses with reflective lenses. He was polite as he pointed out that my license had expired on my birthday, four days ago. I could not believe five years had slipped by since I first went to the License centre in Bang Lamung.
I’d hated the place; it was crowded, hot and sticky but at least I hadn’t had to endure an hour’s safety video and a test like my wife. Things had moved on however. This time there were lots of signs in two languages. I queued under one that read; MONKS, THOSE WITH DISABILITIES, GRANDSIRES. I am not sure what category I fell into but I was given a blue ticket and sent upstairs. There was air-con. My spirits rose as I watched a group being ushered into a fenced off compound under a sign reading; PARTRICAL TEST. I grew apprehensive as I noted a couple of farangs amongst them.
It quickly became clear that despite having a Doctor’s Certificate, passport and telephone bill with my name and address on it, this was not going to be merely a paper-pushing exercise: a quick unsmiling photo; money handed over; new license collected and home by lunchtime. Like it or not, I was going to have my Partricals tested!
I was in the next batch of learner drivers; over twenty of us. There was only one examiner, a rather bossy lady who gave instructions in Thai and pigeon English. The colour blindness test sped quickly by. There was a test of one’s peripheral vision responding to different lights glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. I smiled smugly at one fat Westerner who had to be supported whilst he squatted to take this test. Then it was time for the Emergency Stop test.
I was unsure of the rules; whenever the instructress spoke in unclear English, twenty Thais responded to what she had just said in Thai. I was distracted by a bad smell of rancid som tam emanating from one of my class mates. I watched as a succession of people sat and braked when the red light came on. A series of green lights crept up vertically; if they passed a certain line you failed. No one failed except me! I shook my head ruefully and waited for a retest. I failed that too! Two strikes and you were out; at least until next week. I tried to explain that the machine was faulty; that the geriatric farang in front of me had passed; that I had been driving for forty years without any mishap (till I came to Thailand.) The examiner was unmoved and I was drummed unceremoniously out of the class.
The next week was hell on earth. I had my wife slap the dashboard unexpectedly whilst I was driving around (illegally) so I could practice my emergency stop. I canvassed friends about the machinery. Most were sympathetic and blamed it on poor maintenance; others advised watching and counting.
On the fateful day, I was up with the lark; strangely calm; a steely determination stamped across my face. The centre was packed. Despite my early arrival I was in the second group through; this time there were thirty nine in my class. The fortieth was banished before the class started as he had left his glasses in the car and was not prepared for the colour blindness test. This time there were two examiners. A male had joined the bossy woman and they seemed intent on rattling through us.
It started out as a desire to save time. After all I had passed this test last week: I’d even given the colours red, green and yellow in Thai; surely that counted for something? The successful examinees were made to stand in an untidy clump near a desk. A few casual steps and I had joined them. A daring plan began to form in my mind. Despite having nothing to fear from the Peripheral Vision test; I managed to insert myself among the successful candidates, again without taking the test. The Emergency Stop was looming and despite all my practice during the previous week, the self-doubts began to creep in. Would nerves slow my reflexes? What if I failed again? Was I condemned to being a learner driver for ever?
The class of thirty nine formed two orderly queues for the brake-pedal machines. They were passing at the rate of two per seven seconds. The queues deteriorated into a single crowd of onlookers. Gradually I was pushed towards the back; then to the side; then, to my surprise, I found myself amongst those who had completed the test successfully. We all wore the same smug expression.
I remember sitting in a room watching a poorly acted video designed to teach simple safe driving messages. Although there were sub-titles the messages were lost in a convoluted plot about the death of our hero’s sister years earlier so he didn’t want his wife to drive. All the time I was waiting for an official hand to clasp my shoulder. I began to breathe a little easier when I had paid my fee and was waiting for my new photograph: they would surely not dash my hopes at this late stage? I imagined the examiners studying a closed circuit TV video and pointing at the furtive farang slipping silently to the side.
Finally I had it in my hand– a new shiny license that would keep me from this accursed place for another five years. I walked towards the stairs, my license prominently displayed for all those still waiting to take the test. My face was a picture of false modesty. As I descended I saw her; her eyes scanning my face for signs of failure or disappointment. I had planned to tell my wife everything; to make a joke about cheating the system. When I saw the anxiety etched on to her face, I could not do it. I held aloft my new license as if I was the FA cup winning captain. Her smile was of relief and, yes, dammit, pride in her husband. I could not take that away from her.