On learning to drive

In the year I turned twenty-two when banks refused to speak to women unaccompanied by men, my elder brother took me to the CBA bank on Chapel Street in Prahran to arrange a loan. He offered to go guarantor, given the success of his carpet business and this was his bank.

For the first time in my life, I held down a proper job as a base grade social worker in Prince Henry’s Hospital on St Kilda Road close by the newly established National Gallery. 

The banker who was younger than me summoned his senior to complete the paperwork, which my brother signed; confident I would repay the $1000.00 loan we took out so that I might buy a white VW beetle he’d seen on the market. 

I had never been more delighted with myself and terrified at the same time. As if I had entered the world of adulthood at last, and this on the cusp of saying goodbye to my first ever boyfriend. A man I no longer loved. 

It was a good thing for a twenty-two-year-old single woman to take on the responsibility of debit book and car even as I had not yet passed my driver’s licence.  I would soon enough, I reassured my brother as he drove me in my new car to my new home in Narong Road in Caulfield. To a flat I shared with a younger sister.

A brown box of similarly shaped apartments, they stood one on top of the other. On either side there was a sea of concrete with not a single tree beyond the nature strip. I had my own car spot under a tin covered shelter that projected from one of the side fences. I climbed up the stairs to my home. 

I was ‘a new woman’, as one of my older women friends liked to describe herself whenever she embarked on a new project.

The thing about owning a car, I needed first to drive it. To learn its feel as though it was a second skin, only I could not get beyond my anxiety every time I sat behind the steering wheel. What if I crashed? 

Even today I have such dreams in which I’m out of control of my car and as hard as I might press down on the brake it will not stop its reverse slug out into traffic as I wait for the thud which never happens. Not in my dreams. Though it has happened a couple of times in real life, not the failure of my brakes but the accidental hitting of an object I had not earlier noticed behind me. 

Nothing dramatic but in my twenty second year the idea of me in charge of a vehicle was terrifying. Too many things to coordinate. I was not a physical person. Never able at sports or artwork. Never good at putting two things together fast.

The clutch and accelerator needed to be synchronised as I lifted my foot off the brake and all this to avoid the jerky movement of a stalled car. For months I paid for two lessons a week, given there was no one who could take me out to practice between sessions. My only time behind the wheel was with my instructor.

The first time I went for my licence from the driving school in Oakleigh, the closest licensing depot to where I lived in those days, with the instructor at my side and the examiner and his clip board in the back seat, I again experienced the temporary paralysis I suffered many times in the early days of my driving life. 

I was okay at slowing down, foot gently on the brake to squeeze it down, but as I did so there was a technique I had tried to learn in my instructor’s bright blue Datsun 180Z whereby I needed to clutch and de clutch to go down the gears and all of this as smoothly as possible so as not to stall the car or come to a clunky halt. It all needed to happen in a matter of seconds. Given my then limits at coordination, I preferred not to come to a full stop unless I needed to. I drove slowly out of the car park through the driver’s licence depot grounds, towards the gate that took us onto Dandenong Road. 

As I approached through my periphery I could see a man on the footpath walking with a wheelbarrow full of what looked like manure. He moved briskly enough, and despite my slow physical coordination skills, my brain computed that by the time he was mid driveway, I too would be mid driveway. I needed therefore to stop. I did not want to stop. I slowed down to second gear and crawled my way to the entrance but the man with the wheelbarrow took that moment to tie his shoelace right in the middle of the driveway. 

To stop the car was to jerk awkwardly to a lumpy halt. I wanted to get past the wheelbarrow man who was by now righting himself to continue his journey. Too late for me. My instructor slammed on his brakes, the car came to an angry halt and the wheelbarrow man wandered on, oblivious to our presence.

‘That’s an automatic failure,’ the examiner said from the back of the car. ‘Change seats with your instructor. You’re not ready for your licence yet.’ 

The next time I went for my licence, several months later, I had mastered my stops and starts enough to get me out of driveways, even when obstacles appeared, and I needed to slow down and stop before I was ready. 

I tended towards the slowness of a learner but the examiner of my second try was okay with this if I obeyed the rules. He did not even bother to put me through my paces on an uphill start. The one effort I dreaded. Another effort that required I park on the side of a hill my car facing upwards midway. When I went to start I needed to hold the hand brake in place until the moment the gears engaged before I could shoot off, otherwise the car rolled backwards. In this instance into the driveway gutter and I’d lose points on my test. 

Years earlier when I was ten and my mother had first learned to drive a car in her early forties, we sometimes found ourselves stuck at the top of the Mont Albert Road hill where the headlights regulated the intersection with Balwyn Road. So many times, even as my mother pulled the hand brake up to its highest grab, the car’s brakes were faulty, and we crept backwards into the car behind. 

It was all she could do to keep the wheels engaged sufficient to hold the car in one place. I sat in the back seat in terror of the bang. I imagined it coming through rear and impaling me on some bit that stuck out, crippling me for life. Worse than this, the shame of the commotion and my mother’s helplessness to save us from the humiliation of her lack of control over her car. 

On my second test all went well until it came to a parallel park. A technique I had practised time and again but could not master. Something about the mathematics of it all. The number of times I needed to turn the wheel backwards and forwards. The way I needed to position my car parallel to the other stationary car parked on the side of the road and manoeuvre my way back into the small space behind. Like an elephant without feet who could not get a sense of what she was doing.

I listened to my instructor and tried to drag the wheel as he had urged but never once did I master the parallel park. A pity, because by the time my second examiner had reached the end of my test and decided on one last performance from me, he chose just that.

A two-car space on a side street off Warrigal Road with enough room for a single car. I wound up an at an extraordinary angle from where I had begun, and examiner number two also decided I was not yet a fit person to be in charge of a moving car. 

It took me over two years to learn to drive and for six months after I spilt up with my first proper boyfriend. He who occasionally let me practice behind the wheel of his automatic Monaro. Which was not much good by way of practice as I needed to learn in a manual. 

I earned enough money to pay for two lessons a week. Two driving lessons a week akin to the two therapy sessions I began a few years later when I met Dr M for the first time, and he took me through my cerebral emotional paces in his consulting room near the Austin hospital. He said almost nothing in response to my many outpourings, including the frustration of learning to drive. 

My driving instructor spoke to me often. I was a cash cow customer, but it frustrated him that he could not get me exam ready which was his aim. 

‘You’re phobic about driving,’ he told me, all of twenty-two years old and my first official diagnosis. He was right. 

At night I dreamed of driving backwards, my car out of control and always the terror of backing into the car behind me. I drove for long stretches in my dreams in this terrifying backwards sweep but somehow managed to avoid everything that came behind in the magical way of dreams.

On my third and final test, examiner number three took pity on me. Once more I failed the parallel park but since everything else was passable he said, ‘I’ll let you go.’

And so that day filled out my licence form at the learner driver’s depot, then took the train to work as usual and told my friends I was now officially a licensed driver. I still had a problem with stopping when necessary but at least I could go.

In my twenty third year I met a man, Robert, who shortened his name to Bob. Not such a surprise thing to do but this Bob had none of the lightness of touch of a Bob Hope comedian, or the charm of a man who might have carried such a name in the 1970s. Bob had class or so I reasoned from his crisp South African accent, more British than Afrikaans with a clipped way of ending his sentences that appealed to my ears. 

He was tall but uncomfortably so as if he was afraid of hitting his head on a door lintel or an overhanging branch on a tree. He was not handsome in any traditional sense but then again I was not beautiful so the two of us matched one another in form, despite the differences between us. And they were many. 

To begin he was interested only in making money. In getting ahead in his job as a stevedore so that he might escape the upstairs flat he occupied in Inkerman Street St Kilda where bits of paper attached to sticky gum collected with dust in the corners of the stairwell.

Bob should have been a Robert. A man who had no interest in feelings and was surprised, he told me one day, when we sat in my small VW beetle soon after we met that his penis grew hard at the sight of me. 

It pleased me then to imagine I could arouse a physical response so loud from another human being though these days it leaves me queasy to think the only part of me Bob desired was my body. 

In those days I did not care too much about my body and the car I had bought and by then paid off was something I happily handed over to him to drive after he had pranged his ageing BMW one night after a work event on a boat in the harbour.

He was fearful he’d be summonsed for drink driving in the days when breathalysers did not exist, and it was his word against the other driver’s as to which one of them had been drinking the most.

The court case took months and in the meantime in his carless state what would he do to get to his job in Port Melbourne from St Kilda? I worked further away but on a direct route by train and was only too relieved to hand him the keys as an excuse not to drive my car to work even though it was by then official, I had a licence, I could drive.

As often as I could I stayed overnight at Bob’s place in St Kilda and watched as each morning he toasted tomatoes and cheese on thick slices of white bread dripping with butter. I refused to share this food. I did not need to eat such food, certainly not for breakfast and he was happy for me to use his telephone perched on a shelf on a wall in his pokey dining room to call for a taxi to take me back to my place in Caulfield from where I took the train onto my work. By then I’d moved from Prince Henry’s to my second proper job at a counselling centre in Glen Waverly.  

I sat in the taxi time and again and marvelled at the way my life had turned into this long adventure. Nights away in the home of a Robert who paid little attention to me as a person but appreciated my body for comfort before sleep. And then in the morning smiled as he closed the door on my retreating back. 

I needed to prove myself to Robert. He told the story of his past as much as he ever shared with me. That he was once married to a woman in Johannesburg and one day he came home from work unexpectedly in the middle of the day and found her in bed with another man.

That was it. He packed them off then and there and never saw his wife again. His fury with her led him to move countries and there he was in Australia preparing ships’ cargoes down at the docks. A man intent on doing a good job of making sure those huge liners were replete while he had no desire to connect to another human being, especially a woman again. Though he tolerated me. I was ten years younger and good at bending to his every need without imposing my will on him.

Until one night something inside me snapped. The social worker in me started to whittle away at his silence. I wanted him to tell me about his childhood. I wanted him to talk about his feelings, to talk about where he saw us as a couple.

‘I have no feelings,’ he said. I’m not interested in that clap trap and although I wheedled and whittled, pushed and poked, prodded and needled him, he would have none of it. As obdurate as stone. And I walked out of his flat never to return. 

As I walked home from his closed door, awash with sadness at once more being alone, I looked up at the sky above Hawthorn Road. A tram rattled by and obscured my view. High above the tree tops I saw the silver crescent of an autumn moon and knew I would go into this next winter ready to start all over again. A car filled with boisterous young men screamed by and they opened their windows to jeer obscenities at me. I tuned them out. I’d had enough. I slipped the key into the door of my home and looked to the darkness of my near empty apartment, a free woman at last. 

The next day I rang and asked Bob to bring back my beetle. I wanted it back in my car port before the evening. He did as I asked, no words spoken. And from that day on, I decided to drive myself places in my sad dinted car, with its tendency to stall. Not because if its own mechanics but on account of its driver, who had a bad habit of losing control. 

Hankies on heads

‘I am out with lanterns looking for myself.’ Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson had a way with words. She caught them on trip wires and shot them out to topple us. 

I find myself lost in memories and peering into a world that is occupied by people, mostly family, sisters and brothers, sometimes mother and father, the world of my childhood.

I watch from the comfort of knowing I am one of them. I belong. 

Alien things happened within this family and still I belonged. The visits to church for Mass on Sundays. Compulsory for all good Catholics, only my father refused and one by one my older brothers followed in his footsteps and failed to abide by the rules.

 I tried to learn the rules, but they kept shifting. It was once compulsory to fast for three hours before communion. It was once compulsory to eat no meat on Fridays, the day of fish. Women were required to wear hats in church, or some other type of covering.

I examined the women on Sundays in their many flavoured hats, like gigantic bunches of flowers on top of every second head, or sober quiet styles, French berets, squat pill boxes. And every so often someone who had forgotten her hat or lost it or had no money to buy one, pinned a handkerchief to her head. 

There it sat on top of her wiry hair like a flattened sail on a sea of curls. Like the women you saw streaking though the shopping centres on rainy days who did not want to get their hair wet and so covered their heads with plastic shopping bags. 

Something interrupts the scene, something incomplete, out of place like the whole of my childhood. One image only with hints of disorder like hankies on heads, not folded neatly inside pockets or used discreetly on noses then scrunched into balls and tucked into sleeves.

In summer we wore a strict uniform to school. Mushroom pink waisted dresses in linen with a white detachable Peter Pan collar, white gloves, long white socks, brown lace up shoes and a navy blazer, which we wore all year around. Hot and heavy but compulsory for half of the year when the sun blared on us like loud music. As if we were in a desert and even our straw hats, also compulsory, did not offer much shade. Bold girls scrunched their blazers into balls and stuffed them in their school bags only to drag them out when they reached sight of the line of prefects on duty at the school gates.

I was not one such girl. I was obedient. I kept to the rules, most of the time and when I slipped up, my rule breaking was silent and hidden from every single person who might possibly add to the critical voice in my head that told me I was bad. So bad for my sin, for the missal I found in the back of the church on Sunday, one that had a translucent cover of mock pearl with a gold crucifix embedded inside in the front cover. It bore no name and sat forlornly on one of the seats in the back pews. It had no home, nor owner, so why not take possession of that book?

 But as Mrs Milanova, the woman who became my conscience in the form of my psychoanalyst, came to tell me years later, ‘Things that are stolen can never be used.’

She was right. I never used the missal I took from the back seat of the church. Instead, I hid it away in the top of a cupboard where I forgot its existence along with the many other small things I had found left abandoned on the street or in our church.

The past gets swallowed up in the present. A daughter just rang to tell me she has covid. Caught most likely on Friday night when she was out for dinner with a friend. They ate outdoors but from sharing platters and this morning two RAT tests later reveal she is covid positive. 

The friend rang this morning to alert my daughter to the fact that although she is still negative on her RAT test, she has symptoms and her brother who lives with her, has Covid. My daughter was unwell last week with mastitis, feeding her four-month-old. And she took several tests throughout the week, including a PCR on Thursday that came back negative.

So presumably she caught the virus on Friday with her friend. My daughter has no symptoms as such but isolation for the next seven days with two small children in her care and a husband who goes bonkers when confined to the indoors. Not much fun. But hopefully none of them will get too sick. 

When I was a child I knew of contagious diseases, but my mother had instilled in her children a fantasy of immunity that came through our genes. She talked of germs but seemed unworried by them even when two of my siblings contracted rheumatic fever in their teens. She said nothing at the time. Maybe she did not know that this disease came out of a bacterium which entered people’s hearts. Again she might not have known, the incidence of rheumatic fever occurs in indigenous communities, and in ghettos where there is poverty and overcrowding. 

Our childhood struggles were hardly at the level of real poverty, though there was a time when a girl at school told me I was poor. How she had decided this I do not know. Perhaps because when I was in primary school, much to my shame, my mother could not afford to buy leather shoes, the kind worn by most children at Our Lady of Good Counsel school. instead, I wore blue plastic sandals. The buckle up type you still see these days at the height of summer. Blue plastic sandals that I wore with socks at school and after school abandoned the socks. Without socks the sandals collected dirt and the sweat on my skin left black lines on either side of my feet. Dirt that even then horrified me for the way it stuck. My white school socks were equally hard to keep clean given the sandals were wall to wall holes on a thin strip of plastic on which I walked. 

But this was not poverty. This was inconvenience. After the girl told me I was poor I went home and asked, my mother.

‘You’re not poor,’ my mother said. ‘Not if you have a roof over your head and food to eat.’

That sorted it then. A simple solution. A roof over your head, no accounting for its quality and likewise for food.