There’s nothing like driving on a lonely highway at night.
In the millisecond between one feverish white line and the next, a snapshot rears up to keep me company, of a different road, a different person—a hellishly long drive in the middle of winter, a fifteen-hundred-k-two-day drive from tropical woop-woop to the big city lights.
The next millisecond flash brings a week of icy cold nights with a crackling log fire, getting up at the crack of dawn, crunching frosted grass underfoot, steam rising from grandma’s scrambled eggs, shopping in the big city, rugging up in borrowed winter scarves and coats.
Another flash, and it’s the return trip. The campsite at the halfway mark, dusk, the infamous Murder Stretch of the highway. On cue, my brain replays that peculiar sound of a 1970’s automatic slowing down, dad looking for the turnoff, mum telling him ‘you’re doing it wrong’. Then the soundlessness of coming to a complete stop, no-one game to move, the air too thick to breathe, everyone waiting for the signal—mum’s sigh. A kind of strangled exhalation through her vocal cords, part relief, part depression, part annoyance.
Another white line, and we’re pouring out of the car, exploring the tiny little campsite on our flyspeck part of the map (‘watch out for the murderer, kids!’), dad setting up camp in the dark and making lifelong friends with complete strangers who don’t speak English.
Flash. One of those friends, a big bearded German guy, staying with us years later, us piling down to the beach for a glorious summer barbecue, the summer sun on my shoulders, heartfelt laughter, kabana wafting on the hot afternoon breeze, California moke on the sand dunes.
Glittering flash, driving with a broken front windscreen, the howling wind and rain near freezing us to death, dad squinting in the cold rush of air, he keeps driving.
Flash, a different trip, the electric window stuck in the down position, rain again, everything we own saturated and soggy, dad keeps driving through this disaster too.
Banging, crashing, flash, and we’ve lost a tyre, my tyre, behind my head, a jolt of fear as steel-belted radial explodes on steel car panels, a thudding tachycardic hell breaking loose, cursing coming from the front seats, car pulling to the side of the road, the stench of brake fluid. No rain in this snapshot.
Another white line and it’s a summer trip, a stretch of stop-go-controlled washed out road, winding round the side of a mountain, the last car through, jealousy because those stuck behind us were trapped for four more days. Helicopters dropping them parcels of food, blankets and water, their faces on TV, missing out on school.
Another millisecond, alone on a greyhound bus, off to meet my other grandma on her deathbed. She’s frozen in my mind, her mouth open, speaking to me, her ulcerous leg between us. The smell of diesel, yellow sulphur streetlights, and the burn of too-hot-petrol-station-coffee late at night. A complex picture of the end of all things.
It’s no wonder I’m clinging to the steering wheel like it’s a lifeline.