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.