As soon as the doctors diagnosed me as a stroke victim, my driving licence was taken away. I think this a perfectly sane and correct reaction. I’d hate the idea that there were strokies out there driving SUV’s.
I had a driving test last week in a dual-control car. My teacher David was very good. He specialises in helping to get stroke survivors back on the road. As soon as I sat in the driving seat I felt a huge sense of relief and confidence. Of course I’d be able to drive a car again, I got my original licence without too much trouble and I’d been driving for years. David asked me to drive out onto the beach road that links St Kilda to Port Melbourne. It’s a beautiful road with the sea on one side. I used to drive it every morning when I was working in Nott Street, Port Melbourne, which I did for many years, putting together weekly sketch comedy shows and other productions. It could be an exasperating job, and that drive to work, with the sea on my left, lifted my spirits before I spent the day making decisions about how we could make our productions as effectively and cheaply and humorously as possible.
Now my instructor had asked me to drive that route again, and I felt secretly delighted. This was my beautiful commute road. I was confident I’d be able to negotiate such a simple drive. We started well by avoiding the usual crazies on Fitzroy Street who really do seem to want you to run them over. Always drive along Fitzroy Street carefully and slowly, especially outside the Gatwick, and I’m not going to pass judgment, so please people, don’t send me that blood awful poem Blame the Gatwick, which is trotted out whenever something unsavoury like a murder happens there, and fellow St Kilda citizens would prefer it hadn’t and express their alarm or concern.
Back to the driving test. The beach road was perfect, with no crazies wanting you to end their lives and wanting me to put them out of their suffering. I drove in the right lane for a bit and was surpised to find myself running over the cat’s eyes that divide the right lane from the left. I swear I was driving as carefully as I could, but I kept hitting those cat’s eyes. David took the wheel to direct me back to the centre of the lane. I freaked out. It seemed to me we were about to drive up onto the plantation strip that divides the northbound road from the southbound. I was convinced we would mount the curb and maybe crash into the odd tree, but David told me gently that he was actually redirecting me to the centre of the lane, where the road laws dictated I should be. I remained freaked out. When David let me have the wheel again, I determinedly drove the car back to where I thought we should be, which was far too close to the left lane. Since I was so determined to enter the left lane, David advised me to do so, after it was established that there were no cyclists or cars in that lane. I felt relieved. We were no longer in danger of mounting the right kerb, not that we ever had been. But I kept veering across onto the bike path. After a bit of extra driving, navigation and parking around Port Melbourne, where I saw that the Nott Street Address where I used to work had been changed into a big white thing (I wasn’t hallucinating, David saw it too) David told me to drive back home.
The whole experience was unsettling because it made me realise that I was suffering left side neglect and this was definitely a result of the stroke. People think I’m bunking off when I tell them I can’t do much because I’m still stroke-effected. They think I’m lazy. But the damage to my basel ganglia is very real and I’m not the man I was. I asked David when we would have another test, expecting this might become a weekly thing, the way it used to be. He suggested that three months would be a healthy interval. (Three months! I can remember having my licence taken away for three months when I was in my twenties and a lollypop man reported me to the police because I had crossed over a school crossing while there was still somebody on it. That sounds homicidal, but school crossings are a little different from zebra crossings. In the case of zebra crossings, you may drive over them carefully, provided the pedestrians have already crossed and are well out of your way. But with a school crossing, you are in the wrong if you drive over it even if somebody still has the heel of their foot on the crossing as they are stepping off to the pavement. A three month suspension had seemed an eternity then, and I was kindly ferried around by my girlfriend Carolyn, whose understanding of road law was just a little less than mine. I had been a passenger when she tried to overtake a tram on the right. Carolyn accused me of being a bad passenger because I kept saying inflammatory things like ‘Stop!’ or ‘Please stop!’ or ‘Please don’t knock off the old lady with the shopping trolley.’
I deserved the suspension back then, I'm the first to admit it. Now, I’ve just been given another suspension while we try to work out my left field perception problem. I deserve this new suspension too. I positively, absolutely don’t want to cause a car accident, because I’ve been in one and they’re nasty. It was in a Sydney cab, so I plead mitigating circumstances m’lud.
Three months does seem an inordinately long time between driving lessons, and who knows if I’ll be any better next time? I don’t know what exercises I should be doing to improve my left side cognition, because my neurologist is on holiday.
My car is an unimpressiveVW Golf and I’ve had it for ten years. Like al the VW Golfs in St Kilda it is silver. I mainly use it to drive to schools on the outer edge of suburbia; schools that have been kind enough to pay me to speak with kids who are ‘studying’ my books, poor sods. A few schools study my book Tumble Turn, which I give away with this site, and will continue to do until Penguin reprints. Since the stroke, I can remember aspects of writing that book much more clearly than ever, so I’m happy to talk about it. I find it much harder to recall recent, trifling things, such as what day it is. The recent break-in and theft of my computer means that I had to come up with a whole series of new passwords, very few of which I am able to remember. No wonder I’m nervous about getting involved with Internet banking.
The stroke happened eighteen months ago. Forgive me if I keep banging on about it, but it’s changed my whole bloody life and not for the better. Someone made an extraordinary statement the other day. They knew someone who was about my age and who had also suffered stroke. This person apparently said that the stroke was the best thing that could have happened to him., I wanted to know in which alternative universe this person lived, because I can think of absolutely nothing that is good about a stroke. But apparently this person’s life improved because he realized his lifespan was limited, not infinite, and if he wasn’t happy with his lot, he had better change a few things about his work and lifestyle. The trouble is, I rather liked being an author, even though I sometimes grumbled about it. I would very much like to be an author again, but I know for a fact that I can’t quite do it at the moment. The most frustrating thing for me is I left my nice TV job to write novels, that were profoundly ignored by the people who are not supposed to ignore this sort of thing. I’ll admit, with apologies to my good friend Graeme Base, that I was actually offended when his book Truck Dogs, made the CBCA shortlist one year and Tumble Turn didn’t, and Truck Dogs actually won! But just before the stroke, all that was starting to change. My Penguin titles The Life a Teenage Body-snatcher and The Shiny Guys were starting to appear on shortlists. I was finally invited to speak at The Melbourne Writers Festival, and I was getting more speaking engagements generally, though I think that was probably because I was also script-editing a show, Kath and Kim, which had suddenly became very popular, and teachers found it somewhat easier to get kids to watch an episode of the series rather than look at one of my books before I came to speak. At a writers festival in Kunanurra, pictures of Kath and Kim were pasted up everywhere, inviting the public to see the show’s ‘creator’ speak about the experience of being terribly funny and popular. You’d swear the lovely ladies from Fountain Lakes themselves were coming to the Pilbara. I didn’t like being a spokesperson for their show, though I’m proud to be a part of it. It is spectactularly unfair for Jane Turner and Gina Riley who were the sole creators and writers of the series. I have never seen two people work harder, and my contributions were relatively minor, but you can read about that on my website. Somehow though, I was starting to get noticed as a writer of books. The stroke rather rapidly put an end to that.
I’ll let you know how I get on with my left side neglect. It’s probably more interesting than writing about how bloody wonderful I am and the trials of being a writer for young Adults. (There really aren’t that many trials. I quite liked my old life.)