Sunday, May 2, 2010

How I Discovered My Mother Could *Really* Drive

Well of course I knew she could drive, because she, along with dad, had been driving me around forever.  Mum had (likely still has, sorry mum) a number of dodgy driving habits, none of which are terrible, mind, but were often exasperatedly commented upon by dad when discussing driving with his kids in preparation for the day it was Their Turn (wow!) to drive.  It's why I am very respectful of clutches and not 'lugging' engines, and enjoy driving very smoothly.  Thanks, dad.  But despite hints from her storytelling of her past times, I did not know until fairly far along in life that she could actually *drive*.

When I was really young, like 6 or so, I decided I wanted to learn guitar.  It's good to have supportive parents in that way, and lessons with a local teacher were arranged.  A half-size guitar was purchased.  Soon it became apparent that this was not going to be just a passing thing - I was really into it - and a better teacher was sought, not just some teenager who taught from his bedroom.

Anyway, a thing happened that was a bit of a theme in my upbringing, mum decided she would learn also.  So we would go together.  There are layers and meanings and histories around all of this that are not germane to this story, except that in one sense, it was a good forum to start learning to be friends with your mum, rather than just be her kid.  By the time of this story, I was probably 11 or 12, fairly advanced for my age guitar-wise, and we were going to a small group lesson of similar-level students rather than one-on-one lessons.  It was ace.

At this time, we had two cars.  In fact I think we were always a two-car family when I was growing up, like most families where we lived.  One was a dreadful Ford Cortina station wagon in emerald green, and the other a very cute Leyland Mini LS (the Clubman shape) in Plum Loco with a black concertina vinyl sunroof.

Ours was this colour, Plum Loco was the Duco name, but we called in puce.  Ours had the Minilite wheels also. This is not Charlie Brown, I don't have a pic of it at the moment

Awesome sunroof!  Ours didn't have the racing stripes.  Or the girl.

We bought it second-hand, and called it "Charlie Brown" because its number plate had the letters CB at the start.  CB 681, my Rain Man programming says.  Seems right.  Anyway, it wasn't just your average Mini.  Clearly the 1275 GT engine had been gently 'breathed upon' by an interested mechanic or two prior to its life with us, and the colour plus that awesome sunroof made it quite a standout.  Not quite Cooper S spec mechanically (it only had the one fuel tank) but a potent enough beast for sure.  Or so I later came to understand.

I loved that sunroof.  My dad used to work in the city (Sydney) so had a monster commute each day.  Every now and then there was reason for me to go in with him, like when I was doing work experience with some godawful lawyer's firm (what was I thinking?).  With more than one person in a car with a sunroof, you are at an advantage on the Cahill Expressway.  I could stand up on the seat looking out over the snarl like Rommel surveying a battlefield and direct dad into the lanes best flowing up ahead.  I felt exceedingly cool.

Prior to this though, and at the time of our story, dad was maths master and occasional deputy (usual deputy if truth be told, given how frequently the regular deputies were variously, ah, indisposed) at a more local high school, and he along with the car was quite a standout himself.  Shining white hair and even more of a beak-like proboscis than myself (thanks again, dad!) his presence in the Mini was rather noticeable.  Being a longstanding staff member and deputy he was well known by pretty much all the student population as well.  After hours, we took the Mini off to guitar lessons.

So, yes, you can get two guitar cases and two humans in a Mini.  Quite easily, actually.  In fact, with the sunroof fully open you could just about get a double bass in there too.  At this time, we were going to a small class of similar-level students rather than one-on-one lessons, just a couple of suburbs away.

It was a perfect daylight savings summer evening, with the sun only just getting low in the sky as we placidly headed home, heads full of tunes from the lesson, fingers still absently flexing and contracting in time to the music, making little phantom movements, practicising on their own.  We were just about to start out along the winding, leafy narrower streets that would take us up and over the plateau we called home.  It was a really pleasant suburb to grow up in then, Wheeler Heights, as suburbs go.

With absolutely no warning, an LJ Torana shot past us, overtaking around a blind bend, full of teen testosterone and probably tight jeans, shouting out and gesticulating in that particular variety of language and cadence endemic to the adolescent of the species in its first car, with a group of friends.  It was clear from what little was able to be understood and also from the fleeting look of slight puzzlement from the nearest passenger for the half-second they were alongside that they thought dad was driving, and the show was intended for his benefit.  Off they went.

 A direct descendant of the original Vauxhall Viva, the LJ Torana is an exemplar of the 60s/70s philosophy of shoehorning a heavy and powerful engine into the front of a small car.  Fast in a straight line for sure, but unfriendly in corners unless very expertly set up and driven.  As most weren't.

Now it can be said that my mother had, possibly still has, the ability to display the qualities of patience and forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness even.  She was a teacher also and thus had to cultivate a variety of useful responses to the vicissitudes of youth.  It can also be said of my mother that she is possessed of an unpredictably short fuse, and an occasional determined desire to be the agent of natural justice.  To seek vengeance, if you will.  It was this latter spectrum of qualities that rose to the fore on this occasion.

To the uneducated spectator, it may have seemed as if nothing had changed, even in the slightest.  To my practiced eye however, the almost-imperceptible narrowing of the brow, the ever-so-slight forward hunch into a reminiscent semblance of a fighting stance, and then of course the perfect heel-and-toe downshift into second and foot-to-the-floor acceleration gave the game away.

The deluxe version of the Mini is equipped with a handy hand-hold strap at the top of the door pillar, and I employed mine now, pressing myself back into the flimsy seat thinking "OMFG she's going to chase them; don't do this mum this is way too fast please no, don't...." but also, at the same time, I was enjoying a slight epiphany.  OK, so I couldn't technically drive myself as yet, but I began to realise, as we cocked a wheel at the perfect apex of a cut-off right hander, as the engine was being kept exactly in its sweetest spot, as the braking for corners was done late and hard and without hesitation, that this woman actually knew full well what she was doing, and was involved in a seamless mechanical empathy with our little Charlie Brown as we flew onwards in hot pursuit of these importunate youths. How cool, my mother is waaaay breaking the law too!  And I began to enjoy myself, despite the terror.

Along one of the few straight bits on our pursuit route mum turned to me, calm as a new summer day, and said evenly:

"We will get them, you know."  And I believed her.

The police used to use Minis, before they replaced them with Chargers, because in the real world of crappy roads and tight corners they were the fastest things going at one point.  The LJ would pull away from us on the sweeping bits, but as the road tightened, and in the braking points, we caught up rapidly.  20 years of driving experience (and local knowledge) was also on our side.  To the absconders' credit, they were trying very hard, and to their pilot's further credit, they were actually slowing for Give Way signs.  This last fact, the tenacity of their pursuer, and the twisting, uphill nature of the terrain spelled their doom.  Mum was never more than a handful of car-lengths back, and the sight in the rear-view mirror as she expertly pedalled the ferocious wee Mini sometimes to within inches of their back bumper must have been just a little chilling.  Her face determined, but utterly calm.

They only had one last chance.  Momentarily stopping at an intersection, the Torana then shot off on the last relatively straight bit of road before the confines and Stop signs of the plateau above.  With an engine three times the size of ours they had a good advantage to begin with, but even then they must have known the game was up.  As the road tightened and what would be the obvious finish line drew near, with us right behind yet again, the Torana came off the gas, and ever, ever so slowly rolled to a halt, heads bowing.  20 or 30 corners, maybe a minute and a half, two minutes tops.  An eternity in racing.

My fear returned doubly the moment I realised we had become victorious.  What the hell would my mother do now?  Any enjoyment and pride I had been experiencing in her exploits was now subsumed back into the familiar adolescent terror of being embarrassed by your mother.  OK, she's going to pull up behind them.  Probably get out and say, she's........going to oh no, pull up beside them which means I'll be right next to the driver and........

I think at this point in my life I may have once heard my mother swear, in that way intended to convey coolness, to display rapport and oneness with the 'young crowd' etc.  I think she might have said something was 'shitty' once.  But surely she wasn't going to get into all that now.

Nope, instead, she employed the Evil Schoolteacher's Glare of Authority with added Triumphant Fuck You-ness, leant across me, and now having the full attention of the carful of slightly fearful and chastened man-boys, extended a fist, and a solitary finger.

The wrong finger.

The index finger.  Oh, fuck, my mortification is now complete.  We drove off, luckily just before the laughter became apparent.

Sorry mum, I can't remember if I ever pointed that last bit out to you.  About the wrong finger.  Guess you know now, anyway.

I have no idea what transpired with those kids later on, but I do remember mum telling dad "that we'd chased them" without, I think, going quite fully into all the driving details.  Or the finger.  I wonder now if my dad was puzzled by a weird plague of kids at school looking at him and pointing up to the sky, sniggering.

But that's when I discovered that my mother could *really* drive.  So the stories were quite possibly true, after all.

Dad thought it might be better if I got professional driving lessons, when the time came.

Fair enough too, I reckon, but then as luck would have it, the driving teacher I scored was an ex Sydney taxi driver.....

DISCLAIMER:  This story is completely true, for a given value of 'true'.  Mum may remember it differently.


  1. Fantastic! I was "on the road with you"!
    I hope to be described this well by my sons some day!


  2. Hahahaha, good story Aadhaar. :)

  3. don't soccer players raise their index fingers when they score?

  4. There is no such thing as a 'wrong'finger.

    All are valid.

  5. OK, the finger thing. Yes, the intention is communicated regardless. However, in the very early 80's in Australia, the two-finger variation had only just ceased being highly rude and insulting, and the American 'flipping the bird' thing had only just arrived. The correct finger was required to demonstrate downness with the thang. Use of the incorrect finger in this instance simply meant an attempt to hook into a new young meme and by doing it incorrectly, severely embarrassing a budding adolescent whose only real and fervent desire is for acceptance by his peers, and some modicum at least of coolness. Still, I got over it. Tell you what though, I have never been a bird-flipper.

  6. this is an hilarious story, and I hope your mum enjoys the retelling.
    she probably just couldn't bring herself to 'give the finger'.