IF THIS HILLMAN COULD TALK By Michelle Dorothy Riksman.
“Won’t be long, Mum,” called Mr. C from the lounge room, car key in hand, winking at his three children sprawled across the couch.
“Right-o, Dad,” called his wife Peg from the kitchenette, where she was making bread and butter pudding.
Allyson, three, who Mr. C called his peaches and cream was lying sleepily on the end of the couch cuddling her teddy bear, Danny Boy. Douglas, nine, the hoper, was engrossed in his Superman comic book. Janice, ten, the pleaser, sat waiting quietly to hear about the only subject talked about lately: the Hillman.
It was November 23rd, 1964. Mr. Carmichael, commonly known as Mr. C, was a thirty-eight-year-old bricklayer at BHP and a devout catholic. He was a fair-minded family man, a proud provider for his clan of six. Even his mother-in-law had taken up residence in his humble brick home in Bloomfield, NSW, Australia. Mr. C’s life was carefree and gay, bar the ongoing problem with his beloved “Hilda,” his aptly but secretly named Hillman Sedan. She was furious, but nobody in the household or neighbourhood could fathom why.
“Don’t come to blows with that Hillman again,” called Peg, scattering nutmeg over the pudding.
“Yeah, mate,” said mother-in-law Phyllis, hemming Ally’s Sunday School dress easily at her sewing machine. “You got that car brand spankin’ new. You’ve only had it, what, six months? Now it breaks down at every turn.”
“I know. It’s got me tricked.” Mr. C rubbed his right knuckle under his chin.
“Thought clean injectors might’ve helped.”
“That’s not all you’ve spent on it.”
“A new air filter,” Mr. C said, scratching his upper chest through his blue paisley polo shirt.
“New cars shouldn’t want replacements so early in the piece,” Phyllis said above the clatter of her sewing machine. “I’d take it back to the car yard.”
Mr. C hoped that Hilda would make it to Rigby’s corner shop without cussing - even getting out of the driveway would be a good start. The family wanted to bake a cake in preparation for tomorrow’s special occasion.
“It ran like a charm at first. Now it’s got a mind of its own,” called Peg, sliding dessert into the combustion stove. “I won’t drive it again, not when it carries on like that. It’s embarrassing.”
“It’s sure got a beef about something,” Mr. C said, grabbing a half-drunk bottle of Tarax Lemonade ready to spill on the couch between Ally and Doug. As Mr. C sat the bottle down on the kitchen table, he could still smell the delicious sausages and gravy Peg had cooked him for breakfast. He stayed put for a moment, picking fluff off his pressed black britches before moving toward Ally.
Squatting opposite Ally’s soft curls of buttercup yellow, Mr. C said in a sugary tone, “Look who’s turning four tomorrow. Daddy’s peaches and cream.”
Half on the lounge arm and half off, Ally looked at her father adoringly, holding up four little fingers in front of her flushed cheeks. She grinned, promptly planting them on her father’s freshly shaven cheek. When her warm hand gripped his chin, Mr. C jiggled his head and the soft blue ribbon in Ally’s hair wiggled as she giggled.
Mr. C sprang to his feet and turned for the door.
“Got that shoppin’ list, Dad?!”
“Did I put baking powder on it?!”
“Yep,” Mr. C said affectionately.
“Don’t strike bother in that Hillman again,” Phyllis said, working the foot pedal as though an extension of her.
“Ta, Phyl. Wish me luck!”
“Good luck, mate.”
“Luck!” called Peg, shedding her apron in one move.
“Cheerio,” Mr. C said, grinning at all three offspring before setting eyes on the four wheels in question. She looked grand. Owing to Mr. C’s polishing foray, Hilda was in mint condition on the surface, the ivory-coloured Duco shining back at him on the balmy Monday afternoon.
Notes of sage and cinnamon from Mr. C’s Old Spice cologne lingered behind him as he stepped off the verandah onto the firm two-tracked, dirt driveway. He opened the car door and vaulted in behind the lean, black steering wheel. Mr. C sat well on his grey bench seat, casually picking Drum tobacco from his pouch packet. While rolling cigarettes, he admired the Hillman’s interior: the grey carpeted floor, the long gear lever, the painted metal dashboard and circular speedometer. Mr. C recalled the first day he drove the Hillman home from the dealer and how he took a pew on the front lawn, marveling at it till sundown. She became Hilda that day. The months following were terrific, easy Saturday night runs to the bowling club socials and carpooling to work, where every bloke admired Hilda’s purr.
She wasn’t cranky then.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Mr. C. looked through the squeaky-clean windscreen to find Jan and Doug standing on the couch inside the front window, their faces squashed together between the floral curtains. Mr. C grinned at them with all his teeth and wriggled his fingers above the partly open car door. The cool breeze fanned his hand. He tilted aside to roll down the passenger window to feel the fresh air.
Mr. C lit his newly-rolled cigarette, putting another behind his ear. To the far left of the steering wheel was the ignition, where Mr. C planted his key. He was so eager for Hilda to start without backchat, sweat patches formed in the pits of his shirt. Local mechanic Clive had inspected Hilda on four separate occasions in the past three weeks, and still confusion reigned on why she kept erratically stalling or failing to run - and that was at her least cantankerous!
Mr. C closed the car door and eased the choke out halfway. Arched forward, he glanced around self-consciously, gently priming the accelerator once. And again.
“I don’t want to hear you YAK-YAK-YAKKING back to me today,” Mr. C said out loud as if Hilda had ears to hear with and a brain to understand. With a silent prayer, Mr. C turned the ignition to the start position: YAK. Hilda turned over just once, starting without any convincing this time. Relieved, Mr. C rolled his window down, smirking and steadying his cigarette in his set mouth.
Using his rear-view mirror, Mr. C reversed confidently out of his bumpy driveway onto Edison Street. He whipped his cigarette from his mouth and changed from reverse into first. The sun shone high in the sky as he set off.
Nearby houses on large blocks, clipped green lawns, jacaranda trees, and charming gardens overlooked wide adjoining roads. Familiar sounds of kids frolicking in neighbourly yards, skipping cheerfully through sprinklers, waved at Mr. C as he cruised past. The joyful leaping of the German Shepherds Benny and Mack on either side of the street reflected Mr. C’s surprise and delight that Hilda behaved. Maybe today was the day that Hilda’s puzzling problems disappeared as quickly as they came.
Ahead at number thirty-six, Mr. King hovered by his bright yellow letterbox. He turned and lobbed an arm in the air as Mr. C passed.
“G’day, mate,” shouted Mr. C, wind wafting through his scant gold locks.
“She’s goin’ OK, mate?!” bellowed Mr. Watt over the blare of his lawnmower, referring to the Hillman. Hilda shimmered as she sailed by, and Mr. C signaled him with two fingers to convey his satisfaction, barely moving his elbow from the side window frame.
“Howdy!” shouted old Mr. Crow on the left, at the base of his lemon tree.
“G’day, Crowy!” Mr. C looked his way and shifted into third gear.
SNORT! Hilda coughed angrily and shuddered. “Blow me down!” Mr. C whacked his cigarette between his teeth.
“Still muckin’ up!” Crowy called as the Hillman disappeared from view.
Mr. C yanked open the ashtray where he tossed his near-finished cigarette. With the intersection to come, he plonked his foot on the clutch to shift back into second gear but, before he could, Hilda plunged into her usual theatrics. Mr. C held the steering wheel more tightly as Hilda slowed down dramatically and suddenly, refuting Mr. C’s attempts to accelerate. Hilda reduced speed so much that she nearly stopped altogether. How could this be? Mr. C was nowhere near the brake!
Mr. C glared hastily in his rear vision mirror, wanting nothing to be behind him. Despite this being so, Mr. C roared an order, “Let’s go, Hilda!” The car seemed to obey his instruction by suddenly speeding up as quickly as she had slowed down. Again, how? Mr. C was nowhere near the accelerator!
The more Hilda surged, losing power and gaining it again, the more powerless Mr. C felt. Between his disappointment and bewilderment, he became aware of Miss Tucker, swaying gently on her outdoor metal swing chair with Lady, her tan and white, floppy-eared basset hound, slumped across her lap. From Miss Tucker’s perspective, it must have looked like the Hillman was almost bunny-hopping along the road, as though Mr. C was going and braking and going and braking.
Stationary at the intersection, Hilda idled slowly, too slowly for Mr. C’s liking. The vehicle jerked. He could feel Hilda wanting to stall, so he quickly turned his head to the left, right, and ahead before flooring it. The Hillman increased in power as it should but juddered forcefully, the engine cutting out just before the back wheels were through the intersection. Mr. C took advantage of the minor slope in the road and steered Hilda toward the gutter.
Now the wheels stopped rolling and Mr. C immediately went for the key, but thought better of it. In earshot of a laughing kookaburra, he sat alone, baffled.
“What is all this, Hilda?” grilled Mr. C aloud, as if Hilda had a mouth to tell. At home, Mr. C had a way of solving family matters with round table discussion, where, luckily, no hiccup was unsolvable. This act of stubbornness took the cake. The reality was that everyone in Bloomfield wanted to know if this Hillman could talk, what would she say?
“Oh my heavens,” uttered a lady’s voice.
Taken by surprise, Mr. C looked to his left fast, trying to see through the dense shrubbery. Plant lover Mrs. Graeme, under a wide-brimmed, olive-green hat, knelt among her well-tended camellias.
Mr. C chuckled shyly. “Hello, Mrs. Graeme. I didn’t see you there.”
“Want me to get Norm, dear?”
“That won’t be necessary, thank you very much.”
“Still no idea what’s wrong with that Hillman?
“If only I knew.”
“Clive’s garage is open. You’re lucky it’s not a weekend.” Mrs. Graeme waved a fly away with her secateurs.
Mr. C nodded, leaning on his left hand. “I hope to make it up to Clive’s now. Not much chop on my rostered day off.”
“I’ve got two more camellias to deadhead.” Mr. C chuckled respectfully as Mrs. Graeme got to her feet.
“You wouldn’t believe how many spent flowers I’ve clipped. Twelve buckets full.”
“All looks lovely.” Mr. C lowered his head civilly, even a little nervously. “I might see how the Hillman goes now.”
“How are Peg and the kids?” Mrs. Graeme dropped her secateurs on the grass and straightened her garden clobber.
“Everyone’s well. Phyl, too,” Mr. C said with a glint in his eye. “The little one is four tomorrow.”
“Oh, my. I bet she’s excited to have a birthday.”
“How will you celebrate?”
“With sponge cake and a big surprise.”
“Oh, my. What…?”
“A two-wheeled bicycle with training wheels.” Mr. C smiled broadly.
“Little Ally will love that. She won’t be off it.”
“You’d be right.”
“I bet she won’t need training wheels for long.”
“Mark my words. Be sure to remember me to everyone.”
“OK. See you. Say g’day to Norm for me.”
Mr. C settled back into his driving position and Mrs. Graeme kicked her bucket, spilling old flowers, ultimately breaking her gaze from Mr. C and his Hillman.
God willing and with a forehead coated in sweat, Mr. C turned the key without delay. YAK-YAK muttered the Hillman, idling so-so. He plunged onto the road only for the engine to cut out. I’ll never get up to Clive at this rate, Hilda, Mr. C thought.
With no cars in sight, Mr. C tried to start the Hillman mid-road. YAK-YAK-YAK, voiced Hilda, starting. Mr. C accelerated more gently this time. The Hillman crawled a short distance but started shuddering again. The engine petered out just as Mr. C approached the main road. A hairy situation: though Rigby’s shop and Clive’s garage were near, the Hillman needed to climb a minor hill with a bad temper. YAK-YAK-YAK-YAK. The engine was alive, but Mr. C was on tenterhooks giving way to his right. He listened to the rhythmic sound of his blinker; click clock, click clock, click clock.
We’ll get going if this falcon driver steps on his accelerator. He mustn’t know it’s on the right, Mr. C. thought.
He waited, internally willing Hilda to make the left-hand turn without halting in the middle of the main road.
Relieved she kept going, Mr. C realised the inevitable and drove half on the road and half off. He accelerated carefully. Hilda responded favourably.
Go! Go! SNORT, SNORT.
Hilda leaped forward and juddered too ferociously to remain on the road at all, so Mr. C veered to the curb. Having conquered the slope, Hilda rolled to a standstill before Joe’s Barber Shop, the engine only running by the skin of her teeth. Without further ado, she halted. You’re crankier than ever. YAK-YAK-YAK, COUGH. Hilda fired up only to stall at once. You’re incorrigible. YAK. Going. SQUAWK. Stall. I can’t even get out of neutral. Mr. C’s concentration waned as he sensed the gents who waited for their cut, gawking at the battle between engine and man. Hilda had had it up to her roof!
Mr. C wished the earth would swallow him whole. Defeated, he took the key from the ignition and made the short walk into Rigby's shop.
Equipped with baking powder and other cake goods, Mr. C stood opposite the shop counter and reached around for his wallet.
“How are you, Mr. C?” Mr. Rigby’s daughter, Cass, arose from behind the beige cash register.
“Pretty good, love.”
“Dad told me you’re brawling with the Hillman?”
“Sure am. It’s broken down again outside.”
“Again? Clive was just in here.” Cass rang up the last of the groceries.
“He’ll be sick of my mug. Throw in a few of those chocolate bars, would you please, love,” Mr. C said as an afterthought.
Young Cass added the bars to his carrier bag and Mr. C handed her two shillings.
“G’day to your Dad for me, OK?”
“OK, Mr. C.” Cass handed him sixpence. “Hope you get to the bottom of your car trouble.”
Mr. C thanked Cass, then pulled apart the coloured strip doors at the shop entrance and headed straight for the phone box. He opened the door and closed it behind him, and dropped the grocery bag at his feet. He put a penny in the coin slot and called Mrs. Bell, the only neighbour on Edison Street who owned a telephone.
“Hello, Mrs. Bell. Mr. C here.”
“Hi, love. What do I owe the pleasure?”
“The Hillman’s acting up again.” Mr. C chuckled dimly.
“That Hillman’s an enigma, love.”
“Want me to duck down to Peg and let her know?”
“That’d be very nice of you. Just tell her I’ll be a little while, you know.”
“OK then, love.”
“Ta, Mrs. Bell.”
Mr. C put the grocery bag on the passenger floor of the Hillman and sat in the driver’s seat, gearing up to have a yak with Clive.
“Stone the crows!” Clive shouted, catching sight of Mr. C with his head down.
Clive left the rear of a white Volkswagen Beetle and meandered to where Hilda had conked out to offer Mr. C aid. Clive grabbed a red Dunhill cigarette packet from his top pocket and bent over to speak to Mr. C through the passenger window.
“Back again,” Clive said, half tickled and half puzzled.
“She’s letting me down again, mate.” Mr. C met Clive’s eye and let out a chuckle.
“I know, mate. I heard it before, bummer. We’ll have another look under the hood.”
Clive stood tall, lighting his cigarette before leaning down and releasing the latch. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Clive rested both hands on the rim of the bonnet and carefully scanned the engine. Mr. C waited for an oncoming car to pass before stepping out of the vehicle.
“She was surging something shockin’ a minute ago,” Mr. C said with a raised voice, clipping the door shut.
“Yeah, it’s a mystery, mate.”
Clive huddled over the engine, checking its parts once again. Mr. C stood to the right of Clive, eyeballing Hilda’s leads with a frown.
“Goin’ on like a two-bob watch or what,” muttered a truck driver, leaving Joe’s Barber Shop.
“Right, mate,” Mr. C said.
“She’s still stalling on acceleration mainly?”
A motorbike whizzed past.
“Still stalling when you accelerate?!” Clive said in a louder voice, turning his head slightly.
“My word.” Mr. C took the rolled cigarette from his left ear and placed it between his lips.
“Trouble starting after she’s been sitting?”
“At times. She started perfectly today.” Mr. C smirked, lit his cigarette, and stepped up onto the grassed verge.
Clive straightened and took a firm drag on his cigarette. “Nothing’s wrong, nothing obvious anyway.”
Smoke wafted from Mr. C’s mouth and nose as he rubbed his right knuckle backwards and forwards under his chin. Clive tapped his fist on the radiator cap repeatedly. The cogs turned inside his mind with each tap. He dropped his cigarette butt onto the road and squashed it bit by bit with his battered work boot.
Clive rubbed his oily hands on the sides of his already oily, blue overalls. “It’s gotta be something specific.”
“I’ve pulled my hair out on this one, mate.” Mr. C said accommodatingly, curled over the passenger seat, crushing the end of his cigarette into the ashtray.
“To think all this nonsense came from nowhere. She’s even worse now!” Mr. C said.
Without hurry, Clive lit another cigarette and gently kicked the curb with his boot. His eyes poured over the Hillman as he drove smoke from his mouth, trying to weigh up causes. A canary yellow Combi van passed with a friendly honk. Both Clive and Mr. C raised their arms, gesturing together.
“Mal and Bette,” Mr. C said, stepping back onto the verge with folded arms.
“On the blink again?” Asked Mr. Bramble, hurrying out of the Barbershop with a flattop.
“Never-ending,” Mr. C said, letting out a cough.
Clive strolled attentively to the rear of the Hillman. “There has to be an answer to all this, but what?”
Hunkered down, Clive smelled the grimy exhaust pipe and then rolled his index finger inside it. Mr. C moved closer and bent over with curiosity. Smoke trailed upward as Clive held his forgotten cigarette across his right knee. A long line of ash dropped onto the tar.
The two friendly fellows sighed together as Clive finally stood up. Mr. C scratched the back of his neck and Clive’s cigarette butt, no longer alight, fell from his fingers.
Clive asked as a last resort, “When did you fill up with petrol last, mate?”
“Two weeks or so ago,” Mr. C put his hands on his hips. “I’ve still got a good quarter of a tank left.”
“You know what…”
“What? Lay it on me.”
“I think someone’s put water in your petrol tank.”
A look of confusion clouded Mr. C’s trim features.
“Anyone got it in for ya”?
“Wouldn’t think so,” Mr. C said, almost rendered speechless.
“That’s why all the surging. Stone the crows. I’m surprised this Hillman gets anywhere. She’s got guts.” Clive went for his cigarette packet, glad to have finally solved the mystery. “Water in your petrol tank. Nothing like this happens around here. This is the first time any hoodlum…”
Clive’s voice began to sound dim and rumbled into the background. Mr. C wracked his brain. Gradually the blankness on Mr. C‘s face altered into an expression of realisation. Slapping his right hand on his receding hairline, he anchored his head in a miserable bow.
“I know who did this,” Mr. C said, taken aback.
“You do? I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of this one, then.”
Clive expects Mr. C to expose the offender, but Mr. C’s mouth stays shut, his hands clamped together on his head as he glared onward. Mr. C was not one to fling into fury, but he was trying to collect himself.
“Anyway, mate,” Clive said, breaking the silence. “This beast will be no good to you now.”
“Yeah, not with, ahh, water in your tank.”
Mr. C remained unforthcoming, so Clive didn’t press the issue. Instead, he closed the bonnet of the Hillman for the last time then strode up onto the grass to join Mr. C, but Hilda and her demise occupied him. For a moral man who knew right from wrong, this act, water in a petrol tank, may have thwarted his capacity to pardon. The community knew Mr. C for his kind nature and fellowship. He was a husband and father, an upstanding, church-attending citizen. The “why” question concerning the Hillman was now resolved. The next two questions were “who” and “how” would Mr. C handle such a rare and brazen act? The neighbourhood would have high expectations. But would Mr. C be able to confront the culprit with compassion? That was a tough call for any man who named his car and talked to it.
Mr. C abruptly turned to Clive and threw out a hand to shake his. “Thanks for all your help, mate.”
“Anytime, mate, anytime.”
Mr. C cranked the ignition. YAK-YAK, YAK: On. Hilda was getting tired. No wonder, given all she’d had to stomach.
“I’ll drive by after to check you made it!”
Mr. C turned the Hillman around with unusual force and drove away at full throttle. The mighty rev sounded like a shrieking fox, a shrill matching Mr. C’s frustration. Determined to get home, he motioned Hilda onto Edison Street like a magpie swooping a threat. Petrol fumes hung in the air as Hilda fell shamelessly into her surging antics, her bellyache throbbing. So flustered was Mr. C, with a Chevy now in his wake, that he flailed an arm out the window, insisting the driver go around him.
Homeward bound, Mr. C took advantage of the momentum gained and steered Bilious Hilda onto his driveway in third gear, braking minimally. Mr. C bounced around in his seat, just shy of hitting the roof as Hilda lumbered over every mound on the track before rolling to her end.
Mr. C sat slumped on a milk crate close to Hilda, all tanked-up with no place to go. Her bumper bar was so shiny that Mr. C could see his gloomy reflection in it. He stooped even further.
Knock, knock, knock. Click, clack, click. Tinkering sounds hampered Mr. C’s contemplation, so he rose from his hunch and popped his head over the gate to find Ally busily making a mud pie.
“Hello, little one,” Mr. C said sweetly, smiling with all his teeth.
Gently surprised, Ally balanced her ice cream container of sludge on her special brick.
“Don’t you look a treat, ay.”
Ally waddled to the gate in her favourite attire: white shorts, skivvy, and black gumboots. She held her arms well above the box brownie camera case that she wore around her neck. Mr. C unlatched the gate and whisked Ally into a nursing position, the backs of her knees in the crook of his elbows. He moseyed around for a little while and spun on the spot twice. Ally giggled, her eyes of sapphire fixed on her father. The closeness reminded Mr. C of when he bottle-fed Allyson.
Mr. C popped Ally down, keeping hold of her hand and winking at her with merriment. There’s no soul more capable of distracting Mr. C from his woe than his peaches and cream.
“Have you been helping Daddy?”
“Show me how you’ve been helping Daddy.”
Mr. C patiently waited while Ally toddled toward the garage with an air of importance. She returned with her little white teapot from her tea set, headed to the outside tap, and filled it with water. Steadying her teapot, she shuffled purposefully to the Hillman, wary not to spill a drop of water as she lowered her teapot, sure to place it on an even part of the ground.
Ally stood beside the Hillman and, with utmost concentration, she slowly unscrewed the petrol cap and set it down by the tire with care, gently picking up her teapot while there. With devotion and focus, she positioned her spout at the Hillman’s reservoir, right into the filler neck of the petrol tank. Just as Ally was about to upend her teapot,
“OK, you can stop now, darlin’.”
Shortly after Clive told Mr. C that someone had put water in his petrol tank, he’d remembered a seemingly innocuous exchange he’d had with Ally at the petrol bowser one day. She had asked her father a question about the Hillman that, in hindsight, must have driven her reasoning.
“What do they put in cars, Daddy?” Ally had asked from the back seat.
“Oh, water and other things.”
Mr. C knew he couldn’t punish Ally, not when she thought she was doing him a favour. He simply wished his reply that day hadn’t been so off-handed, so cavalier. This leading Ally, the helper, to think, Daddy won’t have to pull up here.