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. 

Forever in reverse


My mother learned to drive late in life. She was over forty years old when she first took us out in the pale green Farina my father had bought for her, through the leafy streets of Camberwell to visit relatives in Ivanhoe or Brighton, or to take us to the beach.

It was a hot day and the car was full of kids, me, my two younger sisters and my brother and we passed the Trafalgar Road intersection off Burke Road on our way through the Camberwell junction, a six way spilt across three roads, Camberwell, Riversdale and Bourke.

In those days there were no lights at the intersection and the give way to the right system applied. Nor was there a roundabout, which made it tricky to get through the intersection even at the best of times.

The car seats were wet against our hot bodies and we had the windows down to let in air.

‘My brakes aren’t working’ my mother said as we slipped past Our Lady of Victories, the church on one side of the hill. It boasted a huge ball of bronze at the top of its central dome above which rested a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in gold with a crown, sceptre and baby in her arms.

I had no time to admire the church, no time to think as my mother pushed her foot onto the brake, which offered no resistance. It hit the floor, and the car rolled on.

Her foot went down again and again as she tried to get traction. There was no slowing down as the car gained momentum on its approach to the bottom of the hill and we braced ourselves.

It must not have been our time to die for by some miracle there were no cars at the intersection on our right and even on our left, nor on the diagonal along Camberwell Road.

All clear at four o’clock in the afternoon just before the evening rush – a miracle.

Somehow my mother managed then to slow the car down as we crawled back up the opposite hill, turned right onto Prospect Hill Road and then round the back to the car park where my mother managed to stop the car dragged back by the weight of the uphill crawl. She propped it in place against a gutter.  Wheels held firm.

‘We made it,’ I said and we sighed a collective sigh, climbed out of the car and walked to the bus stop to complete our journey home.

The mechanic came later to tow the car to his garage and fix the faulty brakes but not well enough such that a day or so later after repairs had been completed, my mother pulled up, this time in Canterbury on another intersection where Balwyn Road crossed Mont Albert.

There at the lights, first car in line on Prospect Hill Road we waited till the lights turned green and I felt my mother’s Farina slide backwards closer and closer to the car behind.

My mother wrenched on the hand brake, her foot on the main brake and her hand held firm to keep the car from rolling back. But ever so slowly it crept towards the bumper bar of the car behind, until those lights changed and within an inch of coliding we took off again.

I cannot stop on a hill without thoughts of my car rolling into the one behind; no matter how good my brakes.

A few months after she began to drive, my mother had an accident in the green Farina. She was alone on her way home from work when her car collided with another vehicle she had not seen and although no one was hurt, the Farina was a write-off and spent the next several months stationary in our back yard.

My parents had neither the insurance nor the money to fix it.


Thereafter my mother gave up driving but I now dream of travelling backwards in honour of those memories.

More than once I dream of putting my car into reverse in order to get out of a situation and then find I cannot get back into drive.

Once in reverse, I roll backwards for ages and panic that at any moment I’ll crash into the car behind, only to wake before the crash, or somehow, as if by some miracle, the car locks back into second gear and I’m saved.