On Boxing Day Stacks, Royal Marine, drove from Manchester to my panto digs in Blackpool to cook for me. I was Mother Goose that year and, as usual, couldn't get home and back between shows on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. As he got out of his car carrying bulging Sainsburys bags, the ripped jeans and Aran sweater were a surprise (I'm used to seeing him in desert combats) as was his height. There's always a moment when I'm wondering what he's remembering about the times we were out in Iraq and Afghanistan together, and I think he might be doing the same. 'Princess...'
As I was due to take my driving test, and he's master driver trained, after lunch he took me out in his Lexus IS.
'You can drive round the block and I can see if I'm going to let you go further, Iestyn.' He handed me the keys. 'Do not prang my pride and joy, or I'll shoot you.'
'There's muck on the windscreen and above that wheel.'
'You either think that's funny, because of nerves...or do you think pointing that out to the examiner will get you bonus marks?' A lot of Stacks's questions are rhetorical. I kept shtum. 'Let's do the engine check. How do you open the bonnet?'
'No idea. But I'd have read the car's instructions.'
'Try and put your examiner's mind at rest a little by calling it the "owner's manual". Also, make sure you turn up for your test looking like an experienced driver. Nothing that can impede foot movement, sight, hearing, hands on the wheel.'
'So, no S and M bondage gear but a High Vis vest?'
'Concentrate. You've got the bonnet up...I'll do that for you...now, show me the brake fluid.'
See, I did notice that he seemed to wave his hand over the engine like he was performing a magic trick...
I guessed wrong.
'Lesson number one, an examiner will make doubly sure you know by, like I did, making a misdirecting movement. You pointed to the window wash.'
I guessed correctly.
'Your examiner will know full well that your instructor has been taking you time and again round the highways and byways of - where's your test going to be? - the highways and byways of Barnet. So, just at random in a lesson ask to take a turning you never do. Just in case you end up being directed down there on the day. Up your anti, so to speak.'
I did just that. During my next official lesson I insisted on taking the first right turn opposite the test centre. My instructor said, 'Nobody ever gets asked to take this route in their test.' Well, on the day of my test, blow me down if I didn't get asked to take that first right hand turn.
Stacks and I got in the car. I did my checks. Moved the seat forward. Checked the mirrors. He said, 'You'd almost always have to move the seat, you know that, but also move at least one of the mirrors, even if it's just a touch from where it was and back again. Show you're doing the right stuff. And catch his eye in the rearview mirror so he knows you know he knows. Don't go overkill and give the wing mirrors a go over with Windolene. Another good little trick is to show you've developed little habits in your driving...like you have in your performing, actually. You always sing
that sewing in the dirt song when you darn your ballet shoes. And check that your passenger - your
examiner - has his seat belt on. Right, start your engine. And can you just park up again behind that blue Volvo, please, test-taker? Then we can do the distance sight test and lights.'
I did so.
'Excellent parking, mate. But gotcha. Major fault. You can't get safely out of this spot, with the turning behind you, car in front. Sight lines. All of the above. That's a thing they do, first off. Tell the examiner no, you'll go ahead to a suitable place to park up. You can always say no to something, as long as you have a reason you can give. While we're here, check your rear hazard lights.'
I didn't have a car behind me to reflect them, so I switched on the hazards and got out to look.
'Excellent. Check the reflection if you can, if not get out and look. Number plate on that Fiat? Correct. Drive on up the road and await further instructions.'
He decided that my drive up the road was okay, watching me closely, but still (his breathing was unsteady) checking how close I was getting to parked cars. 'Turn left.' I sensed him looking at my hands on the wheel. 'Good. Onward, and take the right at the junction. Don't sit so tensely. Onto the dual carriageway. Yep. You're in control of your driving. One thing - pull away sharper. Get through first and second to third quicker. Hang on, let me just teach you to pull away in third, so's you know...'
Which later terrified my official driving instructor.
‘Only pull up in the safe and convenient place if it really is,’ Stacks said.
In my test, I told the examiner (when he gave me this instruction) not to hold his breath: ‘We’re on a hill, approaching a blind bend, there’s a school crossing, a very splurgey junction and that church.’
Perhaps the church needn't have been in the mix.
Over cheese and port, Stacks said I'd been in perfect control of my/his vehicle. ‘You just need to stop shouting “hill start” every time you do one. And have better manners. Let alone some Christmas spirit. The pleasant old lady crossing, yes in the wrong place, was clearly a local character, waving and smiling – not an atrocious old trout who should get out of your fucking way.’ He tutted. ‘And talking of better manners: can you please pass the port to your left – did I teach you nothing in the Basra APOD mess?’