Spring 2017

2018

2017

‘Small Country’

By Amelia Langford

Amanda Jane Robinson
© Amanda Jane Robinson

My father and brother are standing by an old yellow Mercedes Benz I’ve never seen before. Dad’s wearing a pair of blue-tinted aviators. I’m pleasantly surprised — sometimes he wears women’s sunglasses without realising and if a person kindly points it out to him, he doesn't seem to care. As someone who buys his sunglasses from petrol stations, he apparently has no understanding or appreciation of fashion.

‘Hi,’ I say and greet them with a wave (we are not a family of huggers). ‘So, off to Matakana?’ I ask. I’m looking forward to getting out of the city.

‘Nah, I’ve booked a place called the International Motor Lodge in Takapuna,’ Tom says.

‘What? Takapuna’s like, 20 minutes away from here!’

‘Yeah, we’re tired of driving.’

They’ve driven up from Wellington and stopped a night in Raglan to stay with Tom’s friend Robbins. Robbins has a radio show called Reggae Rodeo. Dad had made a guest appearance and talked about his love of singer Glen Campbell, which seems a little off topic.

I’d only planned to join them for a day and a half, but this itinerary is even shorter than I had anticipated. I drop my bag into the car and settle in the back, questioning the grounds for staying in Takapuna.

‘It’s too late, I’ve already booked. It was the cheapest option. And Matakana’s too far anyway,’ my brother says.

After driving over the Harbour Bridge, we soon arrive at the lodge. It’s probably the shortest road trip I’ve ever been on. The accommodation is a two-story lodge of the 1970s vintage — it looks tired and needs a new coat of paint. We slowly drive around to get an idea of the place and I see two bogans drinking outside one of the rooms on the ground floor.

‘I don't like the look of this place,’ my father says.

‘It’s not the Ritz but what did you expect?’ Tom says.

After about half an hour of debate about over whether to stay, we agree to forgo the accommodation and continue the road trip. We head north, regularly slowing down to see if any motels have vacancies. None do.

‘The International Motor Lodge is starting to look quite appealing,’ my father half-jokes. ‘The word international made it sound so glamorous,’ he muses.

Finally, we arrive in Matakana, as originally planned. During the drive I’ve found us a place on the internet which is a good price and looks clean. We’re all tired and my brother is complaining about feeling sick. I’m grateful to find a plush leather lounge suite to sink into and put my feet up on the coffee table.

Dad takes a stroll down to the village and picks up some snacks and beers. That night we watch the rugby and I check on Hurricane Harvey, which is about to make landfall in Texas. Bored by the rugby, I start reminiscing about our southern road trip.

‘Did you enjoy that trip, Tom? What was your favourite place?’

‘Yeah it was fine, but I don't really quantify things like that.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don't normally think about things in terms of favourite.’

‘Well, what was your favourite part of the trip, Dad?’

‘Oh, I loved that day we went to Sanderson. I enjoyed the Gulf Coast too.’

They don’t ask me what my favourite part was, they’re too absorbed in the rugby. I look at some photos of the destruction that Harvey left in its wake, and I’m amazed to see Port Lavaca, the place we had stopped for fried chicken. A sailing boat is submerged in the water. It’s possible that it’s one of the boats I saw the day we visited.

*

Back on the road the next day, Tom and I have seen nothing of Matakana save the motel grounds where a girl, jumping on a trampoline, had been staring into our hotel window and annoying Tom. It’s become clear he has a bad case of the flu — he’s wrapped up in a blanket in the back and is even more cantankerous than usual. Given this turn of events, I’ve decided to join them on the Wellington leg, to act as Dad’s co-driver. It seems unsafe for him to do all the driving. I can have a quick trip back to Wellington, see mum, and then get a cheap JetStar flight home. It seems ridiculous to make such a trip but I like being on the road, feeling adventurous again.

The Merc cruises along the motorway, humming like a speed boat. It’s a very long car, almost roomy enough to live in. I decide to ask Dad some questions to get some more material for some essays I’m working on. Tom’s asleep in the back so it’s a good opportunity.

‘How old is this car, do you reckon?’ I ask Dad.

‘It’s a 1983 Mercedes Benz 280 SE.’

He sounds like a cyborg.

‘What did it set you back?’

‘This car would have been the cost of an average house when it was brand new, 34 years ago,’ he says.

‘Yeah, but how much would it cost now?’

My father pauses. ‘Probably about the price of an electric toothbrush,’ he jokes. He hands me a book from under the sun visor as if it’s a sacred relic: The vehicle log book.

‘The Merc’s only had two owners,’ he says, ‘so it’s in very good condition.’

I examine the log book. Inside, the spidery writing tells me the previous owner was Gavin McRae of Rangiora. It’s clear that Gavin had loved this car dearly and looked after it well. He has carefully inscribed every repair such as ‘cracked dash —$90.’

I investigate further and open the wood-panelled glove box. To my delight, I find a cassette tape. ‘Ah, this must have been old Gavin McRae’s!’ I say. On the cover a man with sweatpants and dreadlocks is standing by a DeLorean, the same car that featured in the Back to the Future films. He’s holding a ridiculously large cellular phone — of the kind that seemed wildly futuristic in the 80s but is now laughable. I look more closely and realise this is my brother’s friend, Robins. It’s titled ‘Back to the 80s mixtape: An hour of unearthed classic 1980s reggae music selected by Red Robin’.

I ask Dad about his car magazine club. I’ve been in a book club myself but never a magazine club.

‘There’s five hard-core members and three other occasional turner-uppers,’ he says.

‘So, you just talk about cars?’

‘Yes, though sometimes it turns to politics and we have to introduce a point of order. I have to say “wait, you’ve got to relate this back to cars” and so someone will say: “I saw Jacinda Ardern stepping out of a Holden Commodore” and then we can talk about politics.’

Now, I decide to test my father’s hubris.

‘Who’s got the best knowledge of cars in your club?’

‘Me,’ he says. I’m not surprised by this answer. ‘I have the nerdiest knowledge of irrelevant trivia – I know the CCs of a Triumph Herald, Ford Anglia and Vauxhall Viva,’ he says, as if that settles the matter. ‘Hey, here comes a Ford Sierra Cosworth, a very fast car in the 80s!’

I’ve heard that one of the best times to ask people personal information about themselves is in a car. There’s no awkward eye contact and people can gaze into the distance as they talk.

‘Why do you think you’ve always been so obsessed with cars?’ I ask.

My father hesitates and notices my pen held ready to write in a red notebook. He knows I’ll be using this for an essay but doesn't make any comment before answering my question.

‘One of my favourite TV shows was called Route 66. It was about two guys and one of them inherits a red Chevrolet Corvette. And then they just drive from place to place on Route 66 having adventures. They were the good guys. They did good deeds.’

My father seems to be in some kind of reverie and doesn't need any prompting.

‘Their Corvette had very distinctive tail-lights and at the end of the show, they’d drive off into the distance and you could see the tail-lights disappear into the darkness. I loved that,’ he said. ‘I remember one show where there’s what you would call, and this is an unfortunate expression, a ‘white trash’ guy who sits on his veranda all day on an isolated farm house, watching the cars go by. The guys ask him ‘why do you sit there all day and what are you looking at?’ And the white trash guy says ‘I’m looking at a maaaaan driving in his car, going to the city, to buy good things’.’

This sounds a little strange to me. Why on earth has my father remembered this particular episode? Before I can ask him, he continues to wax lyrical in a bad Texan accent.

‘And I guess that was the American dream — a maaaaan sitting in a fine car, driving into the city, to buy good things,’ my father concludes.

‘Do you remember the names of the two guys in the show?’

‘Of course. Todd and Buz.’

My father doesn't even hesitate before answering this. It’s like he is more familiar with Todd and Buz than his own contemporaries.

He then starts singing: ‘Da loodle-loodle-loodle do da do da do da. That’s the show’s theme song, by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra.’

He gazes out to the horizon before he continues his monologue.

‘I guess we were brought up on the theory that everything American was great. American cars were almost impossible to obtain so they were held in very very high esteem. A car was a real status symbol.’

My father grew up in the conservative Christchurch of the 50s. He lived in a state house until his dad, who had driven petrol tankers, started climbing the corporate ladder at Shell Oil. I can see now that my father has taken the American Dream and made it his own.

*

We stop off at the small rural town of Te Kauwhata, south of Auckland, to get lunch. A small bakery on the main road displays pictures of American-style fried food on its windows but there’s also a sign for coffee, which is more promising.

‘What do you want Tom, a filled roll and a juice?’ asks Dad.

‘Under no circumstances will you get me a filled roll. That’s the most abhorrent item to be found at a bakery,’ says Tom. ‘And only get orange juice if it hasn't been reconstituted.’

He’s clearly still suffering from his flu.

When we return, I hand Tom a mince pie and a Fresh Up apple and orange juice. He raises his eyebrow at the juice.

‘What?’ I say, sensing the juice is not up to his standards.

He pauses as if about to say something belligerent and then just shakes his head and says ‘never mind’.

Tom mopes in the car while Dad and I stand by the road and sip our takeaway coffees. Dad looks slightly dishevelled — his blue tartan shirt is only half tucked into his shorts. Dad and Tom both have chicken legs and shorts just serve to emphasise them. I think back to an old photo of them standing by the Vic Hislop shark museum in Queensland. Hislop was a mad man who believed sharks should be eliminated — referring to them as the devils of the sea. In the photo, Dad and Tom are standing in front of the jaws of a Great White, wearing caps, checked shirts and shorts. Their stance is exactly the same — arms crossed, peering sternly at the camera.

*

We drive past paddocks of grazing foals and bare winter trees standing stark against the grey horizon. Perky daffodils are blooming on the roadside, but it’s certainly not spring yet. Billboards of toothy election candidates leer out at us from the side of the road. About mid-way through Ngaruwahia, I question Tom about his extreme views on ‘filled rolls’.

‘The filled roll is emblematic of a shocking time in New Zealand culinary culture. It boggles the mind that we once thought grating carrot and putting it into a soggy white bread roll with slices of beetroot, processed ham, low-grade cheese and chunks of boiled egg was somehow an acceptable form of cuisine.’

I had no idea he felt so strongly about such a humble sandwich. He Googles a photo on his phone to prove his point and shows me an image of a filled roll with egg filling exploding out of it.

‘Disgusting,’ I say, and I really mean it. I’m not a fan of filled rolls myself though I’d never given it much thought, until now.

My father laughs but doesn't add anything to the discussion. His silence is conspicuous. He is no doubt afraid to confess that he has eaten a fair few filled rolls in his time. This car is not a safe space.

‘But Tom,’ I continue, ‘aren’t you a fan of the nostalgia of the Kiwiana tearooms culture though? Maybe not the filled rolls but the custard square, the lamington and the raspberry slice?’

‘First of all, the custard square is notable for containing the most bacteria of any item in a cafeteria,’ he says.

I am a loyal fan of the custard square, as is my father, and this is very disappointing news. But I decide to provoke my brother further about his dislike of the filled roll.

‘So, are you telling me if you were starving, you wouldn't eat a filled roll?’

Tom pauses.

‘If it was a choice between life and death, then course I’d eat a filled roll,’ he says. ‘But in such circumstances I’d probably also eat the flesh of a human...Hey, don’t record me, you don't have the right to record me!’ he says, spying my cell phone pointing in his direction. He’s clearly feeling better.

*

It transpires that Tom has taken far too much cold and flu medication. I wonder aloud about ringing the poisons centre. One of the centre’s employees, Robin, had been very helpful when I had to ring him after accidentally drinking washing detergent on New Year’s Eve (a friend left the liquid in a Soda Stream bottle, which she had planned to use to wash her wetsuit. Unfortunately, I got there first). Tom insists he’ll be fine.

We’re listening to the radio now. The presenter, Tony Veitch, is talking about last night’s Bledisloe Cup game.

‘It wasn't a great game of rugby but it was brilliant drama and theatre,’ says Veitch.

I’m beginning to regret joining this road trip. It was fun for the first few hours but we haven’t even reached Hamilton yet. It’s a grey, depressing Sunday and I could be at home reading or watching Netflix.

‘Look, there’s a ’56 Corvette! Just like in Route 66. That’s spooky,’ my father says.

When we turn off for Turangi, I offer to drive for a spell. Otherwise my father will have to drive for nine hours without help. Dad seems strangely reluctant, but he agrees to pull over and we swap places.

As soon as I get into the driver’s seat, he starts to stress. ‘No, no, no, that’s not the windscreen wipers! The other side!’

‘Ok, ok,’ I say. ‘How do you turn this handbrake off?’

The handbrake is a strange lever on the right of the steering wheel and like nothing I’ve seen before. When I finally get the big car coasting down the road, my father cries out again. ‘Watch out! You’re about to drive into that bridge!’

I’m still a few metres away from the bridge but I suppose I was heading in that direction.

‘This car is like driving a boat, you’ve got to be alert the whole time and constantly adjust your bearings,’ he says. ‘Perhaps just cruise at 70 kilometres for a while.’

We crawl along and I keenly grip the wheel, making adjustments every few seconds to keep the boat on a steady path. Even though we’re travelling at 70km per hour, it feels far slower. Luckily, there are no cars behind us. Perhaps due to my father’s reservations, I’m starting to feel quite nervous about my own driving, too.

‘This is frickin’ ridiculous,’ my brother says, ‘we’re in a 100k zone!’

‘It’s fine. We’re not in a rush, no rush at all,’ my father says. I notice he is sitting very alert with his hands braced against the dashboard. I wonder why he feels so nervous of my driving. Maybe it was because he had seen the large dent in my ’97 Nissan Pulsar after the car accidently hit a friend’s garage.

‘Look, if you’re going to kill us, just make it fast,’ my brother says.

‘There’s a car behind us now,’ I say. ‘I’ll pull over to the side of the road and let it pass.’

‘Yes good idea,’ says Dad. ‘Careful.’

I cruise onto the side of the road, the car sliding to a quick stop, as I pump the brake.

We sit in the car and watch the other car zoom past, glorying in its speed.

‘You know what? I feel pretty refreshed. I think I’ll drive now,’ my father says.

‘Ha! It’s only been ten minutes!’ my brother says with glee. ‘Wow, lucky Amelia came along to help with the driving.’

‘No, that break was very helpful. I’m feeling much more alert,’ my father lies.

*

On the Desert Road, out of boredom, I decide to play Tom’s 80s reggae cassette. It’s starting to get dark and the desert looks vast and prehistoric. There’s a sign for the Kaimanawa horses, so I keep a lookout for the wild stallions. Synthesised reggae beats blur from the speakers.

‘Do you like this music?’ I ask my father.

He pauses. ‘It’s good for driving.’

He’s right. It’s pretty upbeat. Although we both know he would prefer old crooners like Glen Campbell or John Denver.

We drive by the army barracks in Waiouru. Our nation’s defence force dwellings look like depressing toy houses. None of them have any lights on, despite the encroaching darkness. I wonder if the forces are all away on some secret mission.

‘I’ve got the dictionary in the back, guys — in case we get bored,’ Dad says. ‘I thought we could look up words. What does bibulous mean, Tom?’

‘I don’t know. Who gives a shit?’ he says.

‘It means to imbibe,’ says Dad.

That’s the end of the dictionary game.

*

Hours later, we’re finally approaching Wellington. I have always loved the drive along Wellington’s motorway at night, the glittering lights surrounding the harbour make the Capital seem so sophisticated and metropolitan. An image it can’t live up to during the day.

We’ve been listening to a radio presenter talk about the old Italian civilisation, the Etruscans, for the last half hour. The presenter seems in awe of the Etruscans and their ‘love for life’. I’ve never heard of them before. I assume he will soon run of material and we’ll be on to the next topic. But no: ‘Aaaand after the break, we'll be back with more about the Etruscans!’ he says.

‘What more can they have on the frickin’ Etruscans!’ my brother complains.

Thankfully we pull up at my mother’s house in Newtown before we can find out. My fever-stricken brother, huddled under a blanket, races to the warmth of the house. I’m fond of the old Edwardian villa that creaks and sways in the wind. I say a quick farewell to dad, before watching his red tail lights slowly disappear into the darkness.

About Amelia Langford

Amelia is a writer and journalist who has worked in print and broadcasting. This essay is taken from the collection ‘Liz Taylor, My Family, & Other Misfits’ written in 2017 when Amelia was a member of the Master of Creative Writing programme at the University of Auckland. Raised in Wellington, Amelia now lives in Westmere, Auckland and works for Radio New Zealand.