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. 

Un-anchored again

When people ask how we met, I tell them in the Anchor and Hope, a place so named for its reputation as a place in which people sought to anchor relationships for life. At least the women were there to find love, while the men, I can’t speak for them, though he was different.

Or so I thought at that first meeting. 

On a crowded dance floor where I tried hard not to see myself from the outside, to forget that my shoes pinched the back of my heels and were dangerously high on their platform wedges and the point at which our faces met was artificial because I was at least half a foot shorter than he. 

Height was everything to me then. Height and the capacity to lure a man into thinking I was a great catch. 

That’s what people looked for in the Anchor and Hope, but here the fishing analogy stopped because the hotel from which many a marriage had sprung was over the road from the Bryant and May Matchbox factory in Richmond and miles from the sea.

‘Let’s get a drink,’ I said to this man whose name I had not yet determined. I wanted to get close enough to my friend, Jan, the one I’d travelled with. You never went to the Anchor and Hope alone. But hoped that the one you’d return home with was not the same as the one with whom you’d arrived. 

Or so was my reasoning, though I had never told Jan this. Never told her how much I saw her as my entry point into a world that evaded her as she stood alone at the bar twiddling the one drink she’d allow herself. 

‘I just like to watch,’ she told me more than once. 

Watch over me more like. I knew I’d have a job wriggling free of her, when the time came, but I had no hope of anchoring a man if she was my too constant chaperone. 

I muscled my way through the crowd of dancers, as much as I could use my elbows to prize people apart, to make a tunnel through which I hoped my unknown man might follow as I clunked across the floor.

Platform shoes were okay as long as you kept your feet firm in the centre. If you tipped too far forward or on your heels, it was only a second before you lost your balance and fell. 

‘You can go without me,’ I said to Jan. I had to enunciate each word clearly and raise my voice over the DJ’s keyboard whine. 

‘No way,’ Jan said. ‘I can’t leave you here.’ I knew she’d be like that. Just like a schoolteacher I thought, all frowns and wrinkles, or worse still my mother. Who disapproved of most everything I did when it came to meeting men. 

‘I know what you get up to,’ my mother said one time when I asked to stay over at a friend’s. ‘I was young once too you know.’ 

‘Why not leave me to it,’ I said to Jan. ‘I’ll be okay.’ I filled my eyes with all the hope I could muster. All the intention I could summon into my pupils that stared at her as if to say, ‘You do as I tell you. I’m the mother now.’ 

Was it so reckless of me to dismiss my driver, my one point of certainty in this crowd of uncertainties? But I held fast to my bravado. I was ready to take on anything. 

His penis was crooked, I saw that first morning when he tried, not for the first time, to get it turgid. I could see between the sheets the way it tilted at an angle midway up the shaft, not enough to cause me discomfort, nor enough for him to remark on or apologise, not enough for him to suggest there was anything about him that should give rise to concern. 

His name was Robert, but people called him Bob. Bob the stevedore. I had never heard of a stevedore before until Bob explained to me that his job was to manage all aspects of shipping merchandise for a large company. I was in awe. Here was a man who hobnobbed with international glitterati of ships’ captains and their wives. Here was a man who spent his days down at the harbour on board the huge vessels that docked at Port Phillip Bay, vessels bound for Germany and India and all over and here was I in bed with such a man, notwithstanding his crooked penis. 

If it did not bother him then why should it bother me?

I was a femme fatale, a woman of the world, twenty-two years old and full of the confidence of my preened and perfect body. At least I had tried to make it so. Tried to fit in with the movies I had seen where women gasp and groan with delight in the arms of their lovers. Not that I had felt any reasons for groaning and gasping. Sex had been perfunctory from my point of view. A process of arousing Bob’s crooked penis until its bent corner showed and then encouraging a good deal of thrusting and sighing and all the appropriate noises that accompanied the sexual act until it was over and I could lie back satisfied in the knowledge that I gave such pleasure to a stevedore who preferred my company to that of the ships’ captains and their wives.

It was hot that day and my face burned red from too much time in the sun. We had spent the best part of the day at the Karingal trash and treasure market trying to flog a cargo of kids’ toys that someone had offloaded onto Bob for a paltry sum.

Bob, whom I came to realise not only assisted ships’ captains and their wives, but also dabbled in some private attempts at retail sales as well. Things that ‘fell off a truck’, as he liked to say, and along with his crooked penis, his crooked bent as the handler of someone else’s lost goods did not trouble me.

I was in love. He might as well have been a ship’s captain himself for all the glory he exuded and all the promise of a better life somewhere beyond the narrow confines of my home and life in suburban Cheltenham. 

I had hoped to travel alone with Bob that day but his friend Eddie from the flats where Bob lived, a gay guy who was as in love with Bob as I was, not that either would have said as much, insisted on coming along and Bob was happy for the help.

            I was good at talking to customers, but Eddie was good at the heavy lifting. So, there were three of us at dinner in the Thai restaurant where I drank two glasses of wine fast and the waiters were slow to bring food. On the menu, the chilli prawns looked delicious, but I had not thought that the word chill meant as hot as they turned out to be. I had never been to a Thai restaurant until this day and had no idea about tastes other than your ordinary Australian or European fare.

‘You’ll like them,’ Eddie said, and Bob agreed. ‘Go for it.’

            I nearly burst into tears at the first bite. A whole prawn’s body which I tore off and into my mouth to the flames that burned my throat and a sense that along with my sunburned face, I might explode.

‘Water.’ I grabbed for the water bottle and pushed aside my wine glass. I could not eat the stuff, but I was hungry. Hungrier than I had imagined until those first sips of wine when my body told me I needed sustenance to stop me from going under and I was angry. 

There was no bread in this Thai restaurant, nothing to sop up the taste or get rid of the pain. So, I guzzled water and spooned mouthfuls of plain white rice into my mouth by way of comfort.

‘Why didn’t you tell me that chillies were so hot?’ I asked Bob as we crawled into bed that night. Under the blankets and alone my stomach still aching from the mess of wine and white rice before and after the chilli assault. 

‘You think you’re so sophisticated,’ Bob said. ‘Such a woman of the world, but I can see through you.’  My heart skipped a beat. What could he see? What did he know about me? My cheeks burned beyond the heat of the chilli and the sun. ‘You fake orgasms,’ he said. ‘You’re a fake. You just pretend.’ Even in the dark, I could see the profile of his nose against the white wall beside us.

I wanted to blame it on his crooked penis, to say that maybe he too was lacking in the sex department but that was way too cruel, so I stayed silent. ‘When women orgasm, their necks go red,’ Bob’s mouth opened with each word. ‘You can see the real thing. But nothing happens to you.’

When people ask me where we met, I say the Anchor and hope. Anchored to the notion that things between us could be as bright and shiny as a new born baby, I hoped to fit Bob as a permanent fixture into my life but as the weeks passed by I could not get beyond the idea that he thought me a fake just because I didn’t do sex the way he liked and he could not consider that not only was his penis crooked or his habits outside of work hours with those things off trucks but also that he lacked in emotional intelligence. That’s what I came to call it in the years that followed, after we had broken up.

Bob once had a wife and her name was Marlene, back in Rhodesia where his stevedoring days began. He had a wife whom he thought had loved him until one day he came home and found her in bed with another man. The usual story. He ordered them both out. Packed his bags and within days was on board a ship to Australia. He was not one to trust women with his heart, only his body, but I was one to trust with my heart leaving aside my body. My body was the one place he could not get inside, no matter how hard he might have tried. And in time I met him one last evening for a supper of toasted cheese and tomato, his favourite and nothing too hot about that.

‘Why don’t you ever talk about your feelings?’ I asked. He stood with his back to me at the sink to rinse the last plate before he stacked it to dry alongside the cutlery that stood upright in its steely canister. 

‘I don’t do feelings,’ he said.

‘Everybody has feelings,’ I said to his silence. Then something snapped inside of me. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ 

 I stepped out into the night. Stalked down the steps of his flat with its chewing gum wrappers and cigarette butts in every corner and took off for the railway station and the two-train trip home to Cheltenham. I could hear the rattle of a train in the distance and looked up to the wall of sky, punctured by the tops of trees and apartment buildings as a few lonely stars glinted at me.