Brakes on the righteous

The Camberwell junction intersects in five directions like a star. These days movement across the various points is controlled by traffic lights, regular relentless and well-timed traffic lights that slow the process of moving through; along with restrictions on turning right in the centre. 

In the early 1960s there were no such lights, instead a huge red banner was suspended by thick wires running parallel with the tram lines.

DANGER. An intersection that needed courage and cunning and some unspoken cooperation on the part of the various drivers at all points, to get through. 

My mother learned to drive in her early forties and was timid behind the wheel. Made worse by the fact that whichever one of us kids sat in the front passenger seat beside her, we took delight in helping her along with the indicator switch.

We’d have done more if we could get hold of the wheel, but my mother shrugged us off and pleaded to let her drive whenever someone anticipated the turn ahead with the indicator light before she had decided herself. 

Try driving around this lot:

On this day as we travelled down the Burke Road hill past the gold-domed Our Lady of Victories church with the blessed mother holding her infant up high in her arms against the skyline, my mother went to slow down for the ascent.

‘The brakes have failed’ she wailed and kept pushing her foot down against the floor.

It was early afternoon and the car ahead of us was the space of three cars ahead, far enough to be sure we would not crash into it but the intersection was not something we could anticipate.

None of the cautious slowing down and gazing into the eyes of the driver on your right to decide whether it should be your turn to inch across or to check out the perpendicular where cars streamed in from Camberwell Road towards the town hall. 

We held our breath as my mother’s car sailed through. Not a single car to left or right and then we drove back up the hill at a slower pace as my mother kept her accelerations to a minimum.

Then she steered us onto Prospect Hill Road and into the car park at the back of the shops where she managed to slide into a spot uphill before she could put on the handbrake and we were safe. 

I drive through this intersection often these days, the ghost of my mother at the wheel beside me, as I push my foot against the brake and tense my calf muscles against the glorious resistance of the brake pads that tell me all is well. Not like my mother’s foot on the brake that gave again and again as if an elastic band had snapped and there was nothing left to hold us back from plummeting to our deaths.

We need our brakes to slow us down, to stop us mid motion, to protect us from too much.

The brakes are on at the moment big time under Covid and the slowness of our lives in lockdown stirs up another ghost:

The day a lunatic driver sped out from behind our car when my husband and I were returning from a school event on the other side of the hill and then mid lane on the other side of the road this driver sped beside and in front of a tram. Then he completed an illegal right hand turn onto Riversdale Road against the constant blinking of the crossed arrow that said ‘No right turn’.

Was it schadenfreude when my husband and I cheered inside our bubble of a car, when a minute later a police car sped through the intersection lights flashing and siren wailing? He was sprung.

The pleasure I felt when someone who had behaved badly was brought to justice or at least the brakes applied and he will suffer some consequence for his rush, continues in my memory.

I have a strong resistance to anyone turning right at that intersection against the forbidden sign.

If they put their indicator on in front of me when we are stopped at the intersection then try to make the move right once the lights change, I blast on my horn as if all my grievances against someone else’s wrongdoing is awakened and I become the most self-righteous person imaginable. 

Only for those few seconds before the person recognises the futility of their efforts and continues on in a straight line having to find a place further ahead where they can execute their right turn.

The satisfaction of the righteous one worries me. But I can’t stop myself at moments like these. It’s the only time I ever use the horn. Otherwise when someone does something that alarms me, I might threaten to push hard on my horn, the satisfaction on the movement, but I don’t go through with it.

I have been on the receiving end. The day I drove up the hill where a new round about had been constructed and I failed to give way to a car on the right which came into my view too late. The man in the car whom I had obstructed was furious with me, He drove close behind me and when I was next at the lights, stopped, I watched in my rear vision mirror as he climbed out of his car and came towards mine. I undid the window,

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said before he had a chance to speak. ‘I didn’t see you there till it was too late.’ The man was lost for words. I could tell. He had stored up a tirade in those seconds since my failure to give way to him and my apology took the wind out of him. 

‘Don’t do it again,’ he said and huffed back to his car. 

I had figured the safest bet was the apology but even today I wonder what might have happened had someone really wanted my blood. Road rage is a scary thing. Inside the bubbles of our cars we unleash all manner of feelings we normally keep the brakes on.

My apology put the brakes on this man’s rage. My mother was not good at putting brakes onto my father’s rage.

But that’s a whole other story. 

Each hour, a roomful of shame

Here come the catkins. In a matter of days, they’ll sprout filaments that in time fall to the ground like confetti and get caught in my pillowcases as they dry on the line, or creep under doorways. Only to disappear when the first leaves arrive. And the tree becomes a summer umbrella that wards off heat and houses birds.

An empty tram rattles past. How must it be for tram drivers, these days, for train drivers and bus drivers, those people whose task is to ferry people throughout the town, when there is no one to ferry?

A sense of purposelessness, of futility. Why run if there’s no one travelling.

The catkins on the pin oak pay scant attention to the pandemic.

The empty trams, schools, playgrounds, the bus shelters. The seasons go through their cycles, a marker of time. For most there is a sameness to the days, as if we’re held in solitary and must resort to our minds and memories for comfort.

There’s little else to give pleasure unless you’re good with your hands, and can sew dresses, make masks for the protection effort, grow vegetables and keep your house clean.

These human tasks that help to keep us purposeful even at a time when so many of us feel useless.

The way I felt as a child when we stayed for days at my brother’s house. During school holidays with no structure in our lives, left to make sense of our time on our own.

I had books to read but coming out of a full school term I wanted something else beyond books. And this was not my home. This was a series of rooms in a small half house where my brother who had taken on work as a printmaker, lived alone in anticipation of marrying the new woman in his life.

We could stay with him for a few days during the holidays to give us a break from our father’s bender, to keep us safe. It was not home.

When you’re at home, you can always find ways of occupying your time. No matter how trite. Your space and time are your own and if boredom hits, there are ways around it.

But staying in my brother’s house there was no way around the boredom. He showed us how to use his record player and I sat for hours listening to the plaintive voice of Paul Robeson, Ol’ Man River, the songs of the slaves and I linked my own situation to theirs even as I knew I had it so much better.

To feel sorry for myself was a danger I needed to bypass but tempting.

When you’re fifteen years old and the grownups have left you to your own devices, in charge of younger sisters and a brother who can amuse themselves in front of a television set or in the garden dragging sticks and loose bricks to make a fort, my mind soared to lofty thoughts.

These were the days of terrible poetry, words scrawled onto scraps of paper, forced into rhymes that made no sense but sounded exquisite to my fifteen-year-old ear.

Poetry in preference to doing things.

These were the days when my body felt like an enemy. Every day my clothes too tight and getting tighter. Every day a smell that came from under my armpits, between my legs, a strange sickly smell, the smell of my mother, of ageing, no longer the jam and butter toast smell of childhood.

I roamed from room to room. Scraped my hand along the sheen of my brother’s red velvet coat, the one he wore on weekends when he was out to impress the woman who was to become his wife. In the days when he clenched a pipe between his teeth, twenty-one years old and as ancient as my grandfather whose pipe tobacco he imitated.

Amphora of the forest smell. An old man and not yet married, but ready to enter the new world of adulthood, which called to me too through the stink of my body, only I did not want to go there. Not yet.

Did not want to struggle with the sense I needed now to preen and pamper myself as my older sister did. Smear lipstick around my mouth much as mother did at five o’clock before my father came home when she needed to take on a smile of welcome.

Welcome to what? I did not want this life of shame. This life of closeting myself inside a body that was no longer mine but belonged to any man who would have me.

The nuns taught us we must take care not to offer ourselves up too soon. Chaste love is pure love, like the love of god for us, his children. The other type of love, the lustful type was sinful and belonged to the territory of that dangerous garden, the one in which Eve tempted Adam.

Original sin on our souls forever more.

It was Eve’s fault and she has paid for it ever since as all women were to pay for it. I too when my turn came, and I did not want it.

I only wanted the day to pass. Inside the kitchen beside the bench that shone silver under the weight of the dishcloth I had dragged over again and again.

Our sink at home was never so clean as my brother’s sink. He had learned under the ministrations of the woman he was to marry. She taught him how to keep a clean house. How to wear deodorant under his arms so that he no longer wore the stink of untamed adolescence, the way I smelled myself, only mine was a female smell, more sickly than my brother’s smells and worse in some ways. An in-between smell, between stale clothes that have been left piled in a cupboard for weeks on end. The musty smell of neglect.

The musty smell of my underarms as the day dragged on and my body became even more of a burden when my mind could find no way of offering solace.

I think of these days now. The days when time dragged. Nothing to do. No place to go and no one nearby to offer the comfort of friendship or a mother’s love. We were alone in those days. Sisters and brothers rattling around our older brother’s house watching out windows as the sun moved across the sky to signal the day’s close when my brother returned home from work and there was activity again in the form of a meal to prepare. Food to eat and then the bliss of sleep.

I think of these days now, under Covid. Endless days when nothing happens and yet everything happens. Our lives slip by and the catkins will soon turn to lime green leaves, that splendid spring colour, which lasts only a short while before the green deepens and then sometime later as the end of summer turns to red, yellow and brown. Then dry out, crackle and die.

The cycle begins again.

In Covid the only cycles come with the weather. The cycle of human activity, the trams filled with people on their way to work, the cars on the roads going somewhere, the people on the street walking purposefully.

Now we can only kill time until time stops killing us with its relentless fear of contamination.