I should preface this blog entry with a disclosure: I am first and foremost a scooter rider. I adore my scooter (yes, she has a name) and whizzing around the city. There is nothing more liberating (and thankfully free of physical exertion) than zipping down the street, wind blowing in your face, the occasional obscenity yelled from a frustrated motorist when you cut them off… And while I haven’t relinquished my scooter, recent vocational fate dictated the purchase of a car. And, melodramatic as I am, I have rued the day ever since.
For I have had – of course! – much trouble with my car since I bought it two months ago. It has visited two separate garages in my area; it has not started a total of six times. I have been bombarded with warnings about ECUs, thermostats and fuel lines. This mechanical jargon both bewilders and frightens me.
A few weeks ago, I went down the coast for the weekend. Late on Sunday afternoon, ready to return to Melbourne, the car wouldn’t start. After much shouting and slamming of palms on the steering wheel, the RACV came out to have a look. Fuel-pump problems, apparently – the car needed to be towed. A couple of days later, I had a call from the mechanic. It wasn’t the fuel pump at all, he said with resentful cheerfulness, but the head-gasket, radiator, battery – you name it, it needed to be replaced. ‘Better check your warranty,’ the mechanic advised. A warranty from a used-car yard, I hear you titter. That covers nigh-on nothing. ‘Try to look on the bright side,’ I told myself through clenched teeth. ‘It’s just money.’
When I finally collected the car early one Saturday morning and began making my way back to the city, I had not been driving for more than half an hour when the motor cut out and left me stranded beside the Geelong Highway. Fate, it seemed, had once again intervened!
In those first moments, I tried to be calm, rational. Impartial. ‘You’ll be laughing about this,’ I told myself, ‘tomorrow or the day after.’ I imagined scenarios of a young woman stranded in a car, and convinced myself it could almost be glamorous. (But really, there’s nothing suave about hauling yourself out of a 1995 Holden Barina, hunched beneath your umbrella as rain and wind rages, shouting to the chubby tow-truck driver over the roar of passing trucks and cars pulling caravans.)
As the car was wrenched onto the truck, I had (a bit too much) time to reflect, perched high beside the driver, on the Car Question. What do cars really represent? Notions of industry, modernism, capitalism and change flittered into my worried head. But then, what of the broken car – what does that signify? Are these constant breakdowns symbolic of deeper fissures in my life? The mind began to reel…
But Rebecca, I reassured myself, you’re a writely-type. You actually don’t know much about cars – and this symbolic speculation is counter-productive. Instead, I began (as you do) considering all the stories I knew that involved cars. And I formulated a brief list:
The Great Gatsby: Myrtle Wilson is struck and killed by a car
Wind in the Willows: Toad steals a car
The Turning: the opening story, ‘Big World’, two young guys in a dead-end town dream of escaping in a garishly customised Holden Sandman
Crash: JG Ballard’s requiem to auto-fetishism (bless)
Christine (a sentimental favourite): Stephen King’s novel involving a red 1958 Fury named Christine, which transforms into a murderous automaton – and sends owner, the nerdy Arnie, demented
Grapes of Wrath: the car and a little old Industrial Revolution
Noddy: and his little red and yellow car
I supposed Australians have a slightly different relationship to cars as our British or, particularly, American counterparts – and you can see this in our literature. And remember what Delia Falconer, editor of The Penguin Book of the Road anthology, said about roads: ‘In our literature, the road appears as something haunted and hyper-alert. Things shimmer, sensations are heightened; relationships become slightly unreal, even characters’ relationships with themselves.’
Indeed. Hungry, dehydrated and feeling sorry for myself, my senses were certainly heightened on that long, lonely service lane.
Oh, and the car? It’s due for collection this weekend. There’ll be another, irate instalment if fate once again intervenes.