Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Long Drive, an Exam and IBS.

Before I hit you with this charming and hilarious anecdote there are a couple of facts you need to be aware of. Us novelists (get me) call it “backstory”.

1.       In times of stress I suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
2.      .Saying I have a fear of being late is like saying Prince William and Katie Whatsername are going to have a bit of a do next year.

Got that? Then I can begin.

I had an exam this morning.

So there was I congratulating myself on the foresight and frankly excellent good sense of living in a place that gets little in the way of bad weather... when I was considering how to get to the exam centre. Few trains – make that none - were running out to the part of Glasgow I was aiming for – a flake of snow on the line and the rail company gets a bit antsy - so it had to be by car. The roads outside my house were cleaned by a dusting of snow. Nothing to trouble a seasoned driver like myself. I checked all the news web-sites and travel-sites and there was hee-haw (Scottish for “nothing”) to suggest I would have any trouble. Apart from gnawing sensation of worry in my gut that there might still be large gaps in my knowledge, I was good to go.

I calculated – after consulting with Sir Google of the Maps - that on a normal busy traffic day my journey would take an hour. Given that I hate being late and given that I was heading off to sit an exam and given that there might be a trifle more snow where I was going I allowed myself 2 hours for travelling. Then I added on another twenty minutes to give me time to get settled in the exam centre.

The first fifteen – twenty miles were smooth. Like driving on silk. Then the snow appeared. And the traffic ground to a halt. The next fifteen miles would normally be driven – even during busy times in around thirty minutes. Today it took two hours.

Two hours of me going – c’mon, c’mon, come fukin’ on I’ve an exam to sit people.

Then I hit on the mantra of – I’m going to be late I’m going to be late I’mgoingtobelate.

Having an imagination is a curse during these times. A curse I tell you. In that capacious space I call a brain I had conversations with the examining body, my boss, his boss and my colleagues where I say, yes I did leave the house at 7:15 and no I can’t prove it because the CCTV cameras I have above my front door were switched off.

Then I (mentally) argue with the examining body telling them that they are a shower of money-grabbing basturts when they (mentally) tell me I can’t enter the examination room and I’ll have to do a re-sit and the re-sit will cost me £140.

Then I continue my mantra of – I’m going to be late I’m going to be late I’mgoingtobelate.

All this worry is having the usual effect on the linings of my bowel. They are getting irritated beyond any reasonable measure. I HAVE to find a toilet. Anyone who suffers this condition knows that when you need to go, it’s like a switch being flicked and you have to go NOW. The pressure is immense.

As I drive I pray that I don’t sneeze.

Thankfully – as the cold sweat beads in frozen pearls on my forehead – the traffic picks up. I come off the motorway and remember that there is a supermarket a few hundred yards ahead of me. I now have a dilemma. Be even more late that I already am or struggle manfully on and hope that the next part of the journey – which is five miles through several residential areas of the city – is a smooth one and I can arrive in good odour and with my dignity intact.

At this point in the internal debate process I deliberately ignore the fact that I have now joined another huge queue of cars and that the snow is at least six inches thick on the streets around me. And several people have abandoned cars at a jaunty angle to the kerb, in what can best be described as a “fuckit, I’ll walk” gesture.

It’s now a contest of wills. The pressure (and pain) building in my stomach versus my fear of being late.
The supermarket comes into view. I check the time. I have fifteen minutes to travel 5 miles when the last five miles took me just under an hour. Not going to happen, is it? Decision made, the pressure becomes all but unbearable. I swing desperately into the car park, throw open the door and slip/trudge my way through the snow to the supermarket toilets.

Sweet lord, you can imagine the relief.

I feel like doing a snow angel in the car park. I could even kiss the jakey at the door having his buckfast breakfast.

But I have an exam to sit.

I get in the car and drive off with the I’m Late Mantra once again taking up residence in my brain. A mantra that refuses to budge for the next thirty minutes. I spot the exam centre in the distance just as the snow starts to fall again. Big flake time.

I notice a sign for a car park. I follow said sign. The sign leads me to a car park with a steep entry slope. An old man goes in before me. He gets half way before he gets stuck. Silly old man, I say. He allows himself to slide back down in reverse and shame-faced he rejoins the traffic on the hunt for another place to park.
I turn into the car park, thinking this is a dawdle. Easy peasy. Just before a wee warning light comes on in my dashboard to tell me my traction is gubbed. I can’t go any further. I’m stuck half-way up. I allow myself to slide back down in reverse and shame-faced I rejoin the traffic on the hunt for another place to park.

The snow is getting really heavy.

I remember the warning on the exam paper work that says the invigilator will refuse entry to you after the official start time of 9:30. It is now 9:52.

I find a sort of legal parking space. For residents only. But I reason, who’s going to see me in this whiteout? Then the imagination kicks in. If this snow continues I’m going to need someone to dig me out of this car park.

I phone the examining body and explain my situation. The very nice lady on the line says I have a choice. Given the circumstances they will allow me to come back another day and they wont charge me a fee. Or, they will order the exam invigilator to allow me to sit the exam because I had travelled so far.
I look out of the window. Huskies would struggle in these conditions. But the next exam date was in February.

Nope. Not going to happen. I had put in the work and I needed to get this one over with.

I trudged through the snow for the mile or so to the exam centre.

I entered the building like an extra from Nanook of the North. A movie would have had me in slow-mo shaking my head with bits of snow flying from me in all directions.

A very nice wee invigilator man guided me to the exam room and  got me settled in. On reflection I was still a wee bit agitated. It’s fair to say, as we say in these here parts that I was up to high doh.

The very nice wee man kept saying, relax just calm down. Mate, he said, gonnae relax?

He must have wondered who this feckin’ mentaller was that had just walked in. I managed to get the breathing under control and set to the questions with relax, calm down echoing in my ear.

There was about seven or eight other people in the room hard at it, faces fixed on their exam papers and as the time progressed – because I had started late – I could hear more and more of them whisper an anguished “shit” when their result came up on the screen. Everyone was failing.

Which distracted me somewhat.

Did I tell you I have an imagination? I paused in the answering of question 34 to (mentally) tell my about boss the entire escapade. Then I answered the questions he (mentally) forwarded from his boss – ie, what do you mean you failed?

Anywho, the clock was ticking. Time is one thing snow doesn’t muffle. I eventually got to the end with 3 minutes; 45 seconds to spare and the legend “PASS” appeared in front of me.

I looked again. And again. I checked again.

Those four letters were gigantic on the screen. PASS. I swear choirs of angels were singing. A child laughed as it passed on the street below. A brass band charged up and down the corridor. Well done you, said the nice wee invigilator man, you’re the only one who’s passed this morning.

Ah cannae fuckin’ believe it, I said. Then I apologised for my bad language. I don’t normally swear, sir, I said, but ah cannae fuckin’ believe it.

Suffice to say, when I got back to my car the wee traction warning light was on and I had to clear the snow from my wheels before setting off on the return adventure home.

By contrast to the snow-laden streets I had just left, when I drove into my hometown I was sitting at traffic lights outside a school. It was playtime and a wee boy was down on his knees just inside the school railings, gloves to one side, scraping at the tarmac with his fingernails in a foolhardy and desperate attempt to collect some frost into a snow ball.

Now that’s what I call determination.


Oh – and by the way – Happy St Andrew’s Day.


  1. Absolutely brilliant, Michael - both the post and the PASS! Maybe you're one of those people who really does perform well under pressure. And you deserved it after all that effort (and angst).

    I was supposed to be going to Dumfries today, made it to Glasgow and the train was cancelled. This is the worst conditions we've had here for years at this time.

  2. Thanks Rosemary - and we still have v.little snow in Ayr. The wee fella is disappointed.

  3. Michael, I can't even begin to tell you how much I identified with this story except to summarize by saying I have the same fears and afflictions and encountered them on the way to my SAT,back in the day (standardized test prior to University). Only, add to that that my testing center lost heat and then electricity. The imagination raced, I tell ya.

    Good job on the pass.

  4. Michael, I am so thrilled about your 'pass'! Never knock the happy outcome. Haven't we all been trapped in our cars knowing that being late was tantamount to failure. So, in addition to passing, look at the bright side...you did NOT have the queen of chaos as your copilot!! i do have a particularly funny test story...i took a civil service exam for a job i didn't want while i was still in college. i'd gone out the night before, didn't get any sleep and was the last one seated for the exam. I fell asleep! while taking it and the proctors actually laughed at me. i was the last done with a minute to go. okay, two weeks later, we get our scores. out of 40 people i was one of 3 that passed. by the way, i was finishing last in my class, so the professor was amazed. as was I! but...there is always a cloud with the silver lining. i made the mistake of taking that job for which i passed the test and it ruined the rest of my life. ruined.

  5. p.s. we even heard about your snowstorm here in the states.

  6. Exams, eh Nevets? Could do without 'em.

    Thea - OMG the thought of QoC as the co-pilot. There would have been a murder. As for the snowstorm, the worst of it is on the other side of the country.

  7. I suspect your passing had something to do with the relief of a) actually reaching the exam site, and b) reaching it in one piece.

    In December of 2004, I had to drive from Missoula, MT to Helena, MT (the state's capitol) to take two securities exams. Trip = 115 miles. I'd aleady postponed twice and wasn't allowed to postpone again.

    This was my very first car trip to Helena and I had to drive over McDonald Pass (the Continental Divide is at the top, some 6,000 feet above sea level.)

    It snowed 5+ inches during my 3.5 hour trip (which usually takes 2 hours). I barely arrived on time...to find that I was one of three people who even bothered to make the trip, despite the fact that 25 people has registered and it cost $$ to reschedule.

    I'd originally been scheduled for one exam at 8:30 a.m. and one at 2:30 p.m. The people at the site must have been related to the people at your testing center: they were kind, understanding, and let me take my exams back-to-back.

    Don't know how I passed both, especially in light of the fact that the computer disk for one practice exam wouldn't work the previous day and I "failed" the practice exam for the other one by 2 points.

    Seriously, now, I believe that unconsciously knowing you overcame such adversity just to get to the damn site (in one piece) had a lot to put yourself in the proper frame of mind to past the test.

    Funny how adversity can affect us in such a positive way. What is it they say? "Anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

    Congrats on the pass. Whatever license you get by passing - don't let it lapse!

  8. I'll say! I came out of the Insurance Exam room and when the clerk said wow, that's a high score (an 84) I thought, if that's high... Most everyone was flunking and the clerk said, whatever you do don't ever let it lapse.

    How wonderful of you to share all the tiniest details with us! It certainly added to the drama of your ordeal, and the spectacular ending. Hope the wee lad gets to play in the snow before winter's end.

  9. Thanks, Linda and you are spot on. It certainly focused the mind.

    Marley, I fear if I'm ever going to ensure the wee man has enough snow to play in I'm going to have to move house.

  10. You have a 'wee traction warning light' on your car????

    Oh, by the way, nice posting and great stuff with the pass. Respect, young man.

  11. Bill - as my tyres were losing grip on the road, a wee light came on (and I know what you were getting at, smartarse) to tell me I had no traction. I was like, no shit sherlock!

    As for the exam pass - when you earn your millions from all of your wonderful, fantastic writings you know where to come.(bows and genuflects)

  12. Congratulations and safe driving x

  13. Hey R, nice to hear from you. Hope all is well with you?

  14. All is good. thanks. Caught up with your blog and happy to see you and doing good x

  15. Catching up here. Congratulations! And I feel your pain with the IBS.