Driving LicenceDriving Licence – Part 1

As we drive along the twisting lane clouds of mist are rising in the valley.

“It’s as if a steam train has just been through,” I say dreamily to Jane.
“That’ll be the legendary Chatel-Nooga Choo-Choo,” she replies.
“You’re quick today. Can you remind me,” I say, “why exactly are we going to Chatel this morning?”
“We need to ask Sarko a few things.”
“Sarko?” I repeat, shaking my head to clear my thoughts. “The President of France is coming to Chatel today?”
“No,” Jane replies. “This is Sarko the local GP. His surgery’s open this morning.”
“Is one of us ill?”
“Not yet.”
“So is this a preventive visit?”
“No. It’s about whether we need a medical test to get French driving licences.”
“What sort of medical test?”
“That’s one of the things we don’t know.”
“Are there more things we don’t know?”
“Oh yes.”
“Like what?” I prompt.
“Well…” Jane pauses. “We don’t know how much the tests cost, or how frequently we’ll have to have them… or even if we’ll pass the test.”
“Is there anything else we don’t know?”
“Yes. We don’t know how to control the water heater.”
“What? You mean it’s out of control? Like a stroppy teenager?”
“No, Alex, I just mean it’s not under our control.”
“Who’s controlling it then? The Moonies?”
“Hold on. Let me rephrase it. We need it to use cheaper electricity and not run throughout the day,” says Jane, slowly and deliberately.
“It’s running throughout the day? You mean the tap’s leaking?”
“Alex!” Jane howls. “I’m not talking about water running, I’m talking about the heater running.”
Sensing I’ve pushed my line of questioning a little too far I try to calm the situation and ask, “Are we going to ask Doctor Sarko about the water heater?”
Jane gives me a dark look. “No, we’ll go to the café for that.”
“Oh,” I say, and we continue the rest of the drive in silence.

When we arrive at the car-park by the church it is nearly empty. Autumn is here, the schools have re-opened and the tourists have gone south with the swallows. The church starts to toll the hour – it’s always a reliable ten minutes late. With the ninth ‘dong’ we are at the door of the surgery. The brass plaque next to it says that on weekdays the surgery starts at 8.30am. Today is a Wednesday. The front door is unlocked and we walk in. Sitting side by side in the waiting room are two men – retired agricultural workers by the look of them, with round faces and huge calloused hands. If not identical, they look very similar – same sort of clothes, same body shape, same expressions – TweedleDum and TweedleDee – only older.
“Bonjour, messieurs,” we say.
“Mossieu’ dame,” they reply in chorus, with a thick local accent.
They are both smiling at us. After a moment, as if electrically-operated, TweedleDee’s head turns and he looks at the wall ahead of him. He raises his bushy eyebrows, purses his lips then starts to speak.
“Sorry,” I say, “I didn’t catch that.”
As TweedleDee’s head turns back to smile at us, TweedleDum’s head rotates a quarter-turn so that now he is looking at the wall, then he speaks.
“He won’t be here before ten o’clock.”
“Who won’t be here before ten o’clock?” I ask, wondering if, perhaps, the Tweedle Triplets are meeting up today.
“The Doctor,” he says. “He doesn’t get here before ten on Wednesday mornings…”
As he is nearing the end of his phrase TweedleDum’s head turns toward us and, in perfect synchronisation, TweedleDee’s head turns toward the wall and he picks up the sentence without a pause:
“…and tomorrow he won’t be here at all because he’s going fishing – that’s what he does on Thursdays.”
“Thanks,” I say, not knowing which way to look.
TweedleDum turns his head away from us. The Tweedle Twins are now both facing the wall, their eyes are tightly closed and their lips are compressed.

“Let’s go to the café for a bit,” Jane whispers.
As we close the surgery door behind us we hear a gale of laughter and through the small side window we can see the Tweedle Twins hugging each other, their bodies shaking and tears streaming down their cheeks. Jane and I stare at each other.
“What was all that about?” I ask.
Jane shakes her head and shrugs.
“A Samuel Beckett script for the Archers?”
“Perhaps they’re not waiting for the doctor at all – just using the waiting room as rehearsal space when they know he’s out.”

We walk along the narrow cobbled street to the crossroads.

At the café Jean-Paul is sitting alone at the bar. We shake hands.
“You don’t usually come here on a Wednesday morning,” he says.
“No,” Jane replies, “but we might need a medical test to convert our UK driving licences to French ones. The problem is the surgery isn’t open yet.”
“No. That’s because it’s Wednesday. Just as well you didn’t choose to come tomorrow.”
“Yes,” I say, “so we’ve heard.”
“What d’you want to drive?” asks Jean-Paul.
“Oh, I don’t know… the same as I can with my British licence… normally it’s just my car, sometimes towing a trailer…”
“Ah well, if the trailer has got four wheels, or if you want to tow a caravan, you’ll have to have a medical.”
I look puzzled. Jean-Paul adds, “Don’t worry, it’s not very complicated – just things like standing on one leg.” Jean-Paul is never overly comprehensive with his explanations.

Jean-Paul leaves and Bernard, the café owner, comes out of the back room and we order a coffee. When he brings it to our table I ask, “Why is it under French law I can tow a trailer that’s got two wheels with no problem, but if it’s got four wheels I have to have a medical test?”
Bernard looks blank, as if I’d just asked why French rain is so wet.
“OK,” I say, “let’s skip that question and go on to the next. How do we get our water heater to work at off-peak hours only?”
This gets Bernard’s interest – he’s an electrician by trade. He joins us at our table with a note-pad and a ball-point pen.
“Well, it’s a bit complicated,” he starts, warming to the subject. “There are different ways it might be done.”
After ten minutes two sheets of paper are covered with sketches of systems – wires going in and out of boxes, annotated amperages. Bernard looks up at us as if expecting a response.
“Hmm…,” is all I can think of to say.

In a back room the phone rings. Bernard leaves to answer it.
We look at the clock on the wall – it’s a quarter to ten.
“Time to go back,” I say.
As we reach the café door another villager enters. More handshakes.
“Keeping in good health?” he asks, smiling.
“Hope so,” I reply. “We’re just off to the doctor’s to find out.”

 

To be continued tomorrow…

 

 

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Short Story – Driving Licence – Part 1 By Alex Russell
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