Last week Lou bought a silvery-blue 1988 Mercedes 260E from a dealer who smelled of Old Spice after-shave and wore a black silk shirt. Now the three sisters-in-law were off to visit Aunt Eleanor in Adelaide – a surprise for her ninety-fifth birthday.
Sally, with her freshly-glowing red hair, arrived on time. But Cressida was late, weighed down by a green shopping bag of books and ‘provisions’ for the journey. There were exclamations about the magnificence of the car – it doesn’t look 20 years old, oh – elegant leather upholstery! But Lou was keen to get going. Sally was navigator in the front passenger seat and Cressida curled up on the back seat with The Age and the first of many Granny Smith apples.
The morning peak-hour traffic was already bumper-to-bumper on Kingsway as they edged out of Melbourne, with Sally adjusting temperature controls and reading directions from the rather battered Owner’s Manual.
‘They recommend a setting of twenty-two. Are you happy with twenty-two Cressy?’
‘Mmm. . .’ Cressida seemed to be engrossed in the newspaper.
Sally read on: ‘Fresh air enters the vehicle through the opening in front of the windscreen. . .’ No one seemed interested, so she stopped.
Once they were free of the traffic Lou relaxed a bit and she and Sally chatted about Aunt Eleanor – her skill at contract bridge and her ability to recite all Melbourne Cup winners since 1934. Cressida started another granny smith.
The railway line running alongside the road to Beaufort reminded Lou of a train trip to a music camp in Adelaide in her student days – playing instruments all night heedless of the other second class passengers. . . .
‘Can you stop? I’m going to be sick.’ Lou quickly pulled over. Fortunately the road was straight at this spot. Cressida opened the back door and sat with her head between her legs.
So they stopped at a servo in Beaufort to get Cressida some barley sugar. This delay left them stuck behind a big semi-trailer that kept veering to the left and throwing up gravel.
By the time they reached Ararat Lou was hungry. She remembered a good coffee place in the main street. It was like a 1970s coffee lounge. Sally made some selections from the juke box and they ate their scrambled eggs and muffins to Hey Jude. Lou and Sally had a conversation about the benefits of living in a regional town. Cressida was rather quiet.
‘Come on – let’s go,’ said Lou. ‘We should change drivers – do you want a go, Sal?’
‘Sure.’ Sally caught the keys as Lou tossed them over the roof of the car.
And so Lou sat in the back seat of her own car while Sally grated the gears and jerked forward as she got used to the feel of the gentle Mercedes accelerator. After the first hundred metres or so she said, ‘It hasn’t got much oomph – my foot’s flat to the boards!’
‘That red light means that the hand brake’s still on,’ said Lou.
Everyone retreated, for a while, to their own worlds. Sally kept her foot firmly planted, and Great Western was just a blur. But Lou remembered the time she and Charlie had turned off the highway around here and made love on a mound of pine-needles. They went through Dadswells Bridge – memories of student bus trips; stopping there before sunrise, drinking weak instant coffee and eating greasy chips under the gaze of a giant koala.
Lou was relieved that the car was running smoothly. The dealer had told her at least twice that he had been an altar boy. He wanted payment in cash – a heavy brown paper envelope stuffed with more hundred dollar notes than she had ever seen before. She feared some sinister problem, although the local mechanic said the car was sound.
At Horsham they bought petrol and some food for lunch. They would have a picnic at the first pleasant-looking roadside stop. Lou suggested the Horsham gardens.
‘Oh no, they’re just like a suburban park.’ Sally wanted to eat in the bush.
They were soon on the highway again with the speedo needle hovering between 110 and 120. Signs suggested that they were nearly at Dimboola when the car took an abrupt left turn and skidded in the dirt.
‘What the heck . . .?’ called Lou.
‘Lunch in the Little Desert!’
‘But . . . we haven’t got time! We want to arrive in daylight.’
‘It’s not far.’
At Horseshoe Bend they made sandwiches and swigged mineral water to the buzzing of insects and twittering of little yellow-breasted birds. To Lou and Sally’s surprise, Cressida was remarkably well informed about native plants. She and Walter lived an indoor life, reading and writing impenetrable science fiction. Visitors had to pick their way to the front door through a tangle of dock weed and fishbone ferns.
Shattering the tranquility, Lou’s mobile phone rang. It was the dealer.
‘How’s the car going?’
Why does he care about the car now? Her pulse was racing.
‘Fine. I’m on the way to Adelaide.’ She tried to sound dismissive.
‘Just past Horsham.’
‘Enjoy. You got yourself a gem of a car.’ He rang off.
Back at the wheel Lou was tremendously relieved when the engine kicked in and hummed as they returned to the highway at a more leisurely pace.
‘Cress, see if you can get us some music,’ said Sally. ‘Did you load up the CD player Lou?’
‘Yes – twelve random discs!’
Cress selected Elvis, and they hurtled through the Wimmera bellowing Long Tall Sally.
About 10 km before Keith, Lou saw a blue flashing light in the rear view mirror. She thought of Sally’s speeding and kept going with her eye firmly on the speedo needle. But the police car caught up and she had to pull over. She lowered the electric window.
‘I was only doing ninety.’
The policeman glanced around the inside of the car. Cressida was trying to conceal an apple that she should have thrown into the fruit fly bin at the border.
‘Nah – speed’s okay. We’re after a stolen vehicle,’ he said. ‘Just need to check the rego. They said that a vehicle of this description was in the Horsham area – a 1980s Merc. I picked you up at the border.’
‘Yes,’ said Lou.
‘You the owner?’
‘Yes, I am.’
Lou peered into her purse, heart pounding, and found her licence.
‘Where’re you heading?’
He went to the passenger side and squinted at the registration sticker.
‘Doesn’t match the one I’ve been given.’ He scribbled in his pad. ‘But the other details match. We’ll have to check the engine number – hard to get at in this model.’ He fiddled in his pocket and brought out a rather dog-eared card, which he handed to Lou. ‘Please call at the Adelaide depot in the next couple of days. They’ll have to check her on a hoist.’
Lou didn’t dare show irritation at the car being ‘her’.
‘Have a good trip!’ He banged his fist on the roof of the car.
Everyone was silent as they drove off. But at Keith they needed coffee.
‘No speeding fine – what a relief!’ said Sally. ‘We were lucky. They use radar on this road.’
Lou felt weak-legged. The others didn’t know about the dealer or the cash. She’d known it was risky. But she had trusted the mechanic.
Just out of Keith they were slowed down by a road train. These processions of seemingly inseparable vehicles usually travel at night. It was only five o-clock. Lou gave it her full concentration, passing two trucks at a time whenever there was a straight stretch of road. She realised from the lack of conversation that the passengers were asleep. Relieved to have some time to herself, she watched the sunset and changed the music to something soothing; Ella Fitzgerald singing Someone to watch over me.
I need that, thought Lou. Another thing she hadn’t told anyone was that the car had been unregistered. The dealer had cut the price to cover the cost of re-registration. She clenched her teeth, anticipating the suggestions that she should have had a man help her buy it.
At last, signs were pointing to Mount Barker. Now Lou had to concentrate on dipping the headlights for oncoming traffic. The highway wound down through the darkening bush with little clusters of lights in the distance. After a while there were traffic lights at an intersection. They were in Adelaide. Everyone woke up.
It was eight o’clock. Not too late to phone Aunt Eleanor. Lou dialed and heard a click as the ringing sound was transferred somewhere.
‘Hello, is Eleanor Fortescue there?’
There was some hesitation. ‘Who’s speaking please?’
‘I’m her sister’s daughter-in-law.’
‘Oh – a relative, then?’
‘Well – some sad news, I’m afraid. Mrs Fortescue passed away last night – very peacefully.’
The next day, while the others helped to clean out Aunt Eleanor’s room at the nursing home, Lou took the car to the police depot. There was a stuffy waiting room with a coffee vending machine and a water cooler. She was too restless to read Wheels or New Idea. After about twenty minutes a policeman towered at the door.
‘You can collect your car, madam. No problems. Your engine number’s okay.’
[Originally published in Issue 1, 21D, December 2010.]