Steve Braunias travelled to Aramoana and asked his friend Shayne Carter to take on a high-risk mission and teach him how to drive. He lived to tell the tale.
For a dopey, easily confused boy, a daydreamer, vague, dim, anxious, driving a car was always going to present immense difficulties and profound complications. None of it made a lick of sense – what foot went where, the physics of space and velocity. I just wasn't cut out for it. I had a few half-hearted and informal attempts. Things got off to a very bad start but gradually, slowly, after many years, they got even worse.
At 16, I visited my father in Lake Tekapo, and sank his Landrover beneath thin ice. Poor old dad. I remember his silence. A parent suffers a very particular, very sharp pain to see their child has grown into a complete wretch. Anyway, that was the very bad start. The worst was about 14, 15 years later when I visited a girlfriend in Karaka Bay, Wellington, and she said, why don't you drive my Volkswagen, and I said, okay, and 60 seconds later it was in the Cook Strait.
Shame about her VW but I wasn't too fussed. I never wanted to drive. The whole business struck me as monstrous, foreign, deeply boring. Friends at college would gather around their first cars in driveways, open up the bonnet, peer in, and pass knowledgeable comments about pistons and such; I mooched nearby with my hands in my pockets, pale and thin, lost in daydreams. Really, I was deeply boring. I stood around while everyone else was on the move, on the road, in motion, looking for the exit signs pointing away from our small town.
But I was keen to escape, too. I viewed the high, dark ranges with wild surmise, and wondered what was on the other side. I knew it was the world. The problem was how to get there. It felt impassable. I was in crisis talks with myself. I thought: I give up.
This is how character is formed, or deformed. We hold on to such moments. They assume the power of a spell, and we go along with it all our lives. I gave up: I became one of life's passengers, mere cargo. People have often asked, "Why don't you drive?" I've sometimes replied, loftily, "I prefer not to." But really I was just afraid.
I was seeing a psychiatrist a few years ago. No, I mean she was my girlfriend. I liked her a lot but it was never going to last very long. She saw straight through me. One day she asked, "Are you really that hapless?" This was the role I played, to the hilt – the hapless non-driver, who just went along for the ride. But it wasn't an act. The fact of not being able to drive shaped who I'd become – someone on the margins, someone not so much hapless as kind of totally useless.
The child wretch is father of the man. At 58, I'm still standing around, mooching with my hands in my pockets, a fat stationary lump – but I broke the spell last weekend.
I got in a car, and I drove it.
I drove it around a corner and into the path of a Kenworth truck. I drove it on to a narrow pier – the sea was wild, gosh there was a lot of it - and slammed the accelerator instead of the brake. I drove it in Dunedin and Aramoana and Milton. South Otago flew past in a green, watery blur as I hit speeds of up to 20km/h. Please stand by for the most exhilarating, most fantastical sentence I have ever written. I drove to The Tucker Box on Mason St, parked, went in to buy a cheese roll, and then drove off.
Shayne Carter is best known as the singer and songwriter of the Straitjacket Fits classic She Speeds, and no doubt every headline writer at the Herald is just itching to call this story "He Speeds" – but I can't allow it, I can't demean Shayne with a pun. Shayne was my driving instructor last weekend. He got me behind the wheel. He saw it through. I owe him my new life.
It came about because he abandoned me three years ago when he learned to drive at the age of 50. I felt it like a wound. Uselessness loves company and I took consolation that I knew other people who couldn't drive. There was my niece Katrina, but she decided to learn when she was 35. There was my colleague Philip, but he decided to learn at about the same age. Well, there was always Shayne, widely regarded as the last great rock star in New Zealand, daemonic onstage, seething and intense offstage – who I viewed as a friend just as lame as I was, a plodder, carless, going nowhere. Good old Shayne!
But then he moved from Auckland to Brighton in Dunedin, where there was one bus an hour, and he decided to learn to drive. "Good one," I said, feebly. For a while I considered ending the friendship. His learning to drive was a kind of betrayal. I flinched every time he brought up the subject; our phone calls were filled with his heartless braying, his jovial travelogues. It got even worse when he shifted out to Aramoana on the Otago peninsula, and started to take long drives along the coast and in the country, just for the sheer pleasure of it, he bragged.
I brooded. I festered. I auditioned new friends, but all of them knew how to drive, so what was the point? And then an idea began to ferment. I would visit Shayne at Aramoana and ask him for lessons. Who better? Who else could relate to the self-loathing that I felt as a non-driver? Who else could understand that I looked on it not as a quirk, but as a sign that I'd failed as a human being?
I hit him up. He was open. Talks developed, and we discussed it at length when he came over for dinner a few weeks ago with his friend Don McGlashan. Emily made a Moroccan fish dish. I played records. Shayne had flown into Auckland from South Korea, where he'd played music with the Atamira Dance Company; Don was about to depart for England and Canada. Two brilliant, acclaimed musicians, on the move, going places ... I was the inky hack, going nowhere in Te Atatu, but Shayne was confident he'd teach me to drive in no time. Very confident. I don't respond well to confidence, and began to slide deeper and deeper into the couch, traumatised at the notion that I'd actually get behind the wheel of a car.
It's okay, said Emily, lovingly. You don't have to do this, she said.
He will do this, said Shayne.
Don said nothing, simply observed.
I got up to change the record. Side one of Revolver had finished. The room had gone very quiet.
Shayne was playing Thelonious Monk on the stereo when he pulled up in his maroon Nissan Maxima automatic at Dunedin airport on Saturday night.
Wellington writer Ashleigh Young was in the passenger seat. She's an editor at Victoria University Press, which will publish Shayne's autobiography Dead People I Have Known in May 2019; Ashleigh was in Dunedin to work through the manuscript with him. It's going to be a very good book. At one point he writes about his brief stint as a sports reporter at radio 4XO alongside an 18-year-old who walked around the studios "smoking pungent cigarillos and smelling of cologne". Good old Mike Hosking! As for Shayne: "I was studio bound as a reporter because I couldn't drive."
But now he was the master instructor, and I was his trembling pupil. After dinner with Ashleigh we drove out to his cottage in quiet Aramoana. At about midnight we walked the length of the famous Mole, or Cargill Pier, a 1200-metre breakwater built with rock quarried from the hills above the town. The black sea rose in a tremendously frightening swell, and shattered at our feet. I went to sleep thinking about death.
The day dawned blue and almost warm. Our first lesson took place outside Shayne's house on Plucky St. It didn't go well for either of us. It felt deeply unnatural to walk around to the right-hand side of the car, and open the door; I was an impostor at the wheel. His instruction was to start the car and nudge it forward, then stop. It was a complex manoeuvre. I kind of got there after 20 minutes but my nerves had shattered like a wave. The car seemed immense. It was a large metal box of death. Anything could go wrong at any second. I couldn't control a car; the thought struck me as I sat with my face whimpering against the steering wheel that I'd never been in control of my life.
As for Shayne, he hadn't looked where he was going, and nearly reversed out of his driveway into a truck and trailer.
"I've actually destroyed three cars," he said, as though the information had just occurred to him.
I said, "What?"
"The first one I just drove into a wall," he said. "The second one, the engine blew up – no one had told me you had to fill it with water. The third one, the engine fried again. I filled it with water, but forgot to screw on the cap. That was on Christmas Day. I was in the Cromwell Gorge. A friendly mechanic from Clyde towed it to his garage, no charge. Very friendly people down here, mate."
I felt liberated by his speech. The brash Shayne who confidently announced he would teach me to drive was an intimidating figure. But here was the old familiar Shayne, with his mishaps and his comedies ("The first one I just drove into a wall"). I could relate to that; and later that day, down at the wide, empty streets of the Dunedin port, I got back into the right-hand side of the car, and drove it.
The port has long been a favoured destination for beginners – we saw four other cars with L plates. True, the four drivers were smooth-faced teenagers, and here I was, an ancient mariner of the port. No doubt I presented a pathetic sight. But I gave no thought to that. I was fully engaged with taking corners, indicating, turning, maintaining the lane, thinking ahead, braking, easing forward - I drove to The Tucker Box on Mason St, and parked.
Afterwards, we had lunch with Ashleigh in Mosgiel, and dropped her at the airport. I had another lesson that afternoon at the ports. Another one, the next morning, in the rain, around Aramoana – I owned Plucky St, and dared to drive the thin, sea-sprayed width of the Mole. Then back to the port, where there was a minor incident with an oncoming Kenworth, and the major pleasure of pulling up at The Tucker Box, and wolfing a cheese roll. Then, finally, to Milton, a small town in south Otago, along the back deserted streets.
"Dominating," said Shayne.
I said, "You think?"
"Yes," he said.
I began to miss the old familiar Steve, with his haplessness and uselessness. It wasn't much of a character but it was my character – who was I now? Where was I going?
I flew home that night. In the morning, my daughter asked if I could pick up an after-school snack in town.
"But it's so cold today," I said. "I don't know if I want to leave the house."
"You could drive," she said, and looked at me in a way I'd never seen.