freshly squeezed pulp noir
Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Instalment 7: pages 28-31 [Elliot drives to the coast in search of Marina and reminisces]
Wednesday afternoon: driving to the coast
The change in the weather Eva had mentioned that morning was now drawing in, and with it the beginning of another claustrophobic Canberra winter. By evening, the basin would be capped with wood smoke and clouds that hunkered into Black Mountain like an old coat. By the time I left the city a cold and level wind had begun flailing the highway with rain. The only sensible place to be was indoors. It had been a while since I’d taken a road trip without Eva and I hoped I was ready for some solo driving again.
Without Eva, there was just the tape deck for company. I slipped the Lester Young Trio on, Nat Cole’s piano trickling in ahead of Young’s mellow, drawling sax, Buddy Rich just brushing the drums in the back, and after that – even with the windscreen fogging up, and my wiper blades flapping like old shoe-soles – I just enjoyed the drive. With the heater cranked right up the car was warmer than the flat would’ve been, though damper. My decrepit Ford Laser had had a bad run with its rubber door seals. If parked on a sloping road, water was able to gush in where the passenger door met the roof. Not counting on rain, and forgetting its infirmity, I had once parked the car out front of the flat for an early getaway the next day. In the morning I’d discovered rapidly blossoming pond life in the passenger side foot well. After some bailing with a cup I’d laid down a packet of baking soda and an old towel. That hadn’t entirely prevented the old-porridge, wet-dog smell of damp carpet; it still returned again any time, like now, that the weather turned damp.
I hadn’t needed to pack. I hoped to be back by dark, but I’ve often found it best to keep an emergency kit in the boot: towel, toothbrush, sleeping bag, change of shirt and underwear – just in case I can’t drive home before dark. It was a habit I’d first developed as a teenager. Too many times at house-parties I’d drunk too much to drive and woken up tired and aching on the floor, in desperate need of clean clothes and brushing my teeth. The habit had revived itself in the last year, since I’d begun to studiously avoid night driving.
I stopped off for new wiper blades and several little felt pine trees for my rear-view mirror. The rain persisted across the railway tracks at Bungendore, through the dairy country and up the winding two-lane highway into the foothills of the Clyde Mountains at Braidwood. I didn’t relish the prospect of the mountain curves in the rain, even though this was a slack time for traffic. The cold had made me hungry, and I’d skipped lunch, so I stopped for a tandoori chicken pie at a bakery that smelt of warm bread and stewed meat. I counted the coffees I’d already had that day, and decided prudence dictated against another. One more and I’d be jittering too much to see straight, let alone drive.
Heading up into the mountains the clouds turned to fog, thick and ghostly, the skeletons of bushfire ravaged trunks standing sentinel beside the way. My early escape was thwarted by a truck somewhere up ahead, crawling round the serial hairpins. I followed the little red eyes in front, wending my way into the gloom.
Quite suddenly, as the road dropped to the bridge crossing the river at Nelligen, the sky cleared and a crisp balmy autumn was restored from baleful winter. I puttered into Bateman’s Bay under a warm and smiling sun. Pulling up near the pier of the Boathouse fish and chip shop, I stopped to buy fish and observe a little ritual. The morning’s three coffees were still coursing through my system, and I was discovering my pie had not been enough for lunch.
As always, I managed to scald my lips on crisp, still-hot batter. I breathed short puffs of steam, cooling my mouthful as I reclined at a picnic table to watch the locals, who scurried by in track-suits and woolly jumpers. I’d stripped back to my shirt sleeves to enjoy the mild fifteen degree day.
I sat and shuffled memories of the family holidays, road trips, debauched uni breaks and weekends away with girlfriends that had begun here. My habits had worn a deep groove, and for a moment the record was stuck again: me on a bench eating fish and chips while the seagulls began to skulk and cluster, each seagull eyeing off its neighbour, each knowing they’d soon fight among themselves for my leftovers. I could remember when I’d come this way with Marina, on our first weekend away together alone. I’d gone in for the fish, while she had gone off to buy wine. On her return, she’d found me already sitting on the bench, eating the chips. She’d laughed and kissed me lingeringly, while skittering seagulls made their raucous demands.
Returning to the present, I broadcast my remaining chips to the greedy white multitude and returned to my driving. The car smelt better: more like damp pine plantation than peat-bog.
Danielle’s uni-holiday coast-house weeks were another deep worn memory. People would drop in and out over the days or stay the whole week: swimming, eating, drinking, reading trashy romance and horror novels, playing cards just to slow the drinking, or, come nightfall, dancing badly in the family room. Danielle had one rule: she confiscated all watches on arrival. Her coast house knew no time, except the happy rhythm each day followed. People would wake up extremely late, a self-selected group would cook breakfast, others would amble down to the beach at about the worst time of day for the sun, lunch would occur in the late afternoon, and a different self-appointed shift would cook dinner while others made a supply run to replenish the essentials – usually beer and mixers. I was never sure how the place managed to accommodate us all. The logistics behind finding everyone a place to sleep were always a trifle mysterious, but between a double master bedroom, a bunk-house that slept five and floor space cluttered with sagging foam mattresses from a cupboard, a dozen odd people could be packed into close, thin-walled proximity – which generally kept a lid on any blossoming relationships.