The time came for the third test and I resolved that if I didn't pass it I would pack in.
In 1974 my friend Bernice acquired a small red van (ex-Post Office), painted two daisies on the body and called it “Flower Power”. She was teaching at Benton Grange School, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, for adolescent girls with problems. I was again working for Stanley Miller Ltd. We decided to take a holiday together and arranged to have it in September.
I asked, “should we get some brochures?”
“Not so” Bernice decided, “we should camp”.
I was horrified, but she assured me all would be well and she would take care of me. A social worker friend was being married and asked for a set of horn teaspoons, saying that boiled eggs tasted better off horn. So Scotland was our destination; first stop Grantown on Spey. Bernice’s dog Delilah, a black labrador, was to accompany us.
On the first night, the tent was erected and we had a meal, washed and spent a pleasant evening in ‘The Coppice Hotel’ lounge. No pubs. Iona was our goal. On Sunday morning we went to the Presbyterian Church, feeling conspicuous in anoraks as the congregation was in its Sunday best, with the women wearing hats. However, we got a warm welcome and an invitation to the Bible group the following Thursday, although we hoped to be in Iona by then.
After church, we had a picnic lunch and visited Aviemore and district, then back to the campsite. I had been unable to rest the night before due to the cold. On our next visit to the Coppice Hotel, Bernice insisted that I had a wee dram of malt whisky (Glenfiddich), saying it would get into my circulation quickly. I slept like a log! On Monday we packed up and went to Carrbridge, where we bought the spoons for Coral. I bought a chain and St Ninian’s cross, in stainless steel and blue stones, blue being a colour I associated with Our Lady.
We went on to Inverness and in the process went astray. I didn’t drive and was a bad navigator, not reading the map correctly. We got off course for Inverness and arrived in the Lochinver area. The first campsite didn’t cater for dogs but suggested Clachtoll as a possibility. We couldn’t find it and instead arrived at an isolated cottage, on a small bay on the West Coast, far above Oban. The lady of the house generously offered us the use of their land and standpipe for water. We pitched the tent, made a meal and thankfully went to bed. We could lie in the tent, look through the open flap and watch the sea lapping the shore, the weather was fantastic. We would stay a few days and explore the area, picnicking through the day with bread rolls fresh from the village bakery and having a cooked evening meal back at the tent. Bernice was an old hand at camping and had brought the pressure cooker.
Each evening we went to the Lochinver Hotel, near the pier. There we would have a lovely warm wash in the ladies room and then a social hour in the lounge. There were many visitors, mostly backpackers from the continent. Most of the fellows had long hair, and the publican remarked, “you can’t tell the difference between guys and dolls until you fondle them”. I blushed. Each night I had a wee dram and hoped Bernice kept check on her drink. The roads were narrow with passing places and some of them had sheer drops into lochs.
One afternoon, we were in an isolated area and Bernice asked me how I would get home if she had an accident, say a broken arm or leg? I supposed I would get the train and she replied “what, there are no buses, never mind trains”. I was silent, whereupon Bernice suggested that I should learn to drive. I couldn’t see that happening!
In May 1975 I was watching Sunday Worship on TV, a service from The Belfrey Church, York, led by the Reverend David Watson, and in his sermon he said, “if there is anything you think God wants you to do, do it now”. I phoned Benton Motoring School and asked if they could take an old hag on. If I was under 80 years of age they would came back the reply. I had never sat behind the wheel of a car and during my first lesson I thought I would turn the wheel so much it would come off – I was a nervous wreck – and I’m sure the instructor was too.
I carried on and a test was booked for 7th October. I should have cancelled that date as it was the day I had become a widow a long time before and it was on my mind. I failed the test on reversing. The next test was booked for 23rd December, another bad time as Christmas is always painful, and again I failed.
I was having driving lessons during the week and helping at Minsteracres at weekends. The top form girls at St Bede’s School, Lanchester were going to Lourdes during the summer holiday and each one had to take a petition. Kathleen Brannagan, who lived in Consett, asked if she could take one for me. Ellie suggested that mine could be “to pass the driving test”. I told Kathleen I didn’t believe in that rubbish and would not ask for a petition. She pleaded that she had to have one and I told her to please herself. Then I thought no more about it.
The time came for the third test and I resolved that if I didn’t pass I would pack in. The test was in February and it snowed the day before and then froze. I was so nervous, I thought I had made every mistake possible, going over the kerb and nearly putting the examiner through the windscreen when a child ran across the road in front of the car. I carried on to the reversing manoeuvre, in Heaton Road. Two women stopped and stared on the corner of the street and then a coal wagon drew up behind the car. The result was the examiner opened his door and said, “you seem to be too far from the kerb here”. I was relaxed – what was the odds, I had blown it. After a few minutes I was directed to Cragside and told to reverse in the road adjoining the school. I decided I was saying the wrong prayers to the right person, or the right prayers to the wrong one, so I said a quick “Hail Mary” and got around like a bird, perfect! I passed the test.
The following Saturday I was at Minsteracres, full of joy, to be told that the day I had taken my test, 11th February, was the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. I was nine days short of being 52 years old.