The test was in Swansea; that was the first problem. Dylan Thomas once said Swansea is the place where hope goes to die. More to the point, the film Twin Town labelled it the "pretty shitty city." I have met few people from Swansea whom I have not liked, but I've equally met few people who liked going to Swansea. It is grubby, cramped and notoriously difficult to navigate. Not, then, an ideal place to take one's Module 2 exam.
Add to this the fact Swansea is a one-hour ride away from Cardiff. The day started out with a long, painfully cold trek across the erstwhile kingdom of Glamorgan. It was so cold we encountered snow in Briton Ferry, and at one point my hands froze to the point of losing all feeling. I had to pull to the side of the road to slap and clap and rub them back to life.
Just outside of Swansea we stopped for a late breakfast at one of the most depressing cafes in the British Isles. I was so put off by the lukewarm, greasy, soggy, overcooked, heatlamped breakfast served to me that I could not eat it. I nibbled at the toast, drank a cup of pencil-shavings tea and wished for the day to be over.
So, when I finally arrived the test centre that afternoon I was not in the best condition. I was tired, hungry, and suffering from a cold-weather-induced mental numbness. In the minutes before the test, waiting to be called by the examiner, when most people would have been nervously pacing or chewing their nails, I drifted in and out of broken sleep.
"Is this where you live?" the examiner growled, waving a stack of papers I had handed him upon being called into a small office.
"What?" I asked, still groggy.
"Is this your current address?"
What a ridiculous question. I had just handed him five sheets of paper, earned over a month-long gauntlet of written and practical exams. How would I have made it this far had that simple bit of information been incorrect? His question was so stupid, I decided, it must be a trick.
"I'm afraid I don't understand what you're asking," I said.
"This address here," he said, pointing to my address. "This is where you live, is it? In Penarth?"
"Well, yes," I said. "Of course."
Somewhere in the above exchange the examiner decided he hated me. And a tiny, anti-authoritarian voice in my frostbitten brain decided it wasn't too keen on the examiner. The tone became adversarial. When he asked me to show how I would check the brake lights, when I identified a major problem with the radio, there was a feeling of animosity, an agitation with each other.
The Module 2 exam is the final step in getting one's license in the UK. It is a simple enough thing: the examiner hooks you up to a one-way radio and directs you on a ride through various parts of the city. The purpose is simply to show you are a proficient enough motorcyclist to be on British roads by yourself. You are not necessarily tested on your ability to follow directions (if you go the wrong way it doesn't count against you, as long as you go the wrong way safely), but that becomes a de facto element of the experience. And, of course, being able to hear the examiner's directions is vital to your success.
Before we set out, before we even started the bikes, I had stressed to the examiner that there was a serious problem with the radio he was using. At the end of every transmission it would send an unholy wave of feedback through my skull. Because we had earlier silently agreed to be enemies, however, he refused to listen to my concerns. He just stared at me blankly and stated he would not be able to communicate without the radio.
"It's very painful," I said. "But I'll see if I can put up with it."
On another day, perhaps I could have. On this day, each screeching beep induced an exasperated rage in my already muddled brain. And that caused mistakes. On a right turn I swung out very wide, almost hitting the curb. I stopped listening to any directions and drove along until I found a safe place to pull over. Once I had done so, I sat on the bike for a moment to collect myself. In my mirror I could see the examiner behind me. I cut the engine and stepped off the bike.
"I'm serious about this radio," I said.
"I can't communicate to you without it," he stated again.
"I'm not willing to damage my hearing over this," I said. "Look. I've got £10 in my wallet. You hold this thing to your ear and tell me it doesn't hurt; I'll bet you can't put up with it. If we need to, we can cancel this test now -- call it a radio problem and reschedule. But I'm serious. This radio is not tolerable."
Petulant is the word that comes to mind when I think of his response. But he agreed and we went about the process of making the radio beep over and over in an effort to address the issue. We were able to reduce the feedback but then that meant not being able to hear his instructions. His annoyance with me was palpable. At one point I brought the radio around from my side and attempted to turn it down, unwittingly changing the channel.
"Don't fucking touch it," he shouted, swatting my hand away. "See?! That's why I'm always saying not to mess with it."
His expletive command had been his first and only instruction to me about the radio. I would very much like to go back in time and call him on his lack of professionalism, tell him that because of his response I did not feel I was being given a fair chance and terminate the exam. Instead, I found myself responding as one does when he has suddenly walked into a trap argument with a girlfriend.
"Hey, hey. It's OK," I said. "I'm sorry if I've upset you. I'm not trying to be funny, not trying to mess with you. I just want to be able to hear you, that's all."
We spent upward of 10 minutes working on the radio, eventually settling on a middle ground of barely being able to hear him and suffering feedback that was only annoying, rather than making me want to rip my helmet off. But you know how this story ends, don't you? You know there was no way even the slightest infraction would go unnoticed after all that. You know the only time he didn't speak in disdainful monotone was when we got back to his little office and he told me, "unfortunately, you did not pass," repeating it three times.
"I'll take this. I'll accept this," I said. "Fair enough, I was sloppy on one of those turns. But I'm serious about the radio, OK? Very serious. That was a real problem."
He got up and walked out of the room without speaking. I didn't move. I sat in the room, quiet, tired, angry, humiliated. British life is like this for me sometimes. I am given all these ridiculous hoops to jump through -- employment, immigration, motor vehicle licensing, etc. -- and I feel pushed around. I feel under cut. And it produces in me a simmering, latent anger toward this place I am trying so hard to call home
The ride back to Cardiff felt like punishment. Until I get my full license I am only allowed to ride a big bike when I've got an instructor around, who's able to communicate with me via radio. The earpiece was in, but my usually chatty instructor said nothing. We just rode on through the bitter chill. My teeth chattered. My hands went numb. In my heart I wanted to cry, but I was too cold, too tired, too defeated.