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. 

The punishment and the crime

My friend offered to drive me to a meeting in Fitzroy on Saturday morning. She knows the area well and took us several streets away from the planned meeting place where the council offers four hours of free car parking.

We pulled up alongside a high black van. I noticed this van in part because my friend took a while to get out of her seat and I went across to her side of the car to wait. When she finally opened her door, it slid ever so slightly against the side of the van, which was not only large and black but also very new in appearance.

As my friend came towards me after she had closed her door, I saw the tiniest fleck of white on the otherwise pristine black wall of the van. I had no time to mention it to her nor was I certain that my friend’s car door had caused the fleck of white on the otherwise perfect exterior of the black van though I imagined it might.

My friend was busy talking to me about the events of her life and given we were engrossed in conversation we walked away without a second thought until we reached the corner and were about to move out of sight of the van and her car when a disembodied voice called out from behind us


‘What was that?’ I asked my friend.

‘Just some rudeness,’ my friend said, and we walked on up the street, but in my mind’s eye I could see the owner of the van kick in the door of my friend’s car or slash her tyres or some other act of revenge.

The day took off from there, begun with an uneasy thought that we had done something wrong and that we might be punished.

It was a full day of meetings followed by lunch and another meeting and although my friend observed shortly before we began our afternoon meeting and people were rushing out to put more money in the meters for their cars parked nearby,

‘I’m being an optimist and trusting I won’t get a ticket.’

Only then I realised we’d parked in a four-hour zone. My friend parked there regularly she said, and so far, so good. She had not yet suffered the pain of a parking ticket.

By days end, I was relieved to find there was no white ticket on the dash board of my friend’s car. But after my friend reached my house and we pulled into the curb on the side street nearby I urged her to park closer to the kerb for fear of losing one of her side mirrors as can happen in narrow side streets.

She re-parked then and got out to check her mirror. The mirror’s rear protective covering was gone, she said. ‘It was there this morning,’

I told her then about the man in the van and she seemed to have registered his presence. My friend said nothing other than it was bad luck. Maybe she was trying to save face in view of a bad experience but for me the memory has stayed.

It seemed a cruel response to a tiny fleck of white paint, if indeed that was the cause, but it’s hard to think about it in any other way. I did not catch a glimpse of the man in the van. Nor did I have the presence of mind to take down his number plate. And what good would it have done? How could anyone prove this road rage?

That evening, I toyed with driving back to the parking place alone to search the gardens nearby in the hope I might recover the rear of my friend’s side mirror. I still might be there, both as proof of the black van driver’s wrong doing, and also to fix a broken car.