Authors: Peter Carey
He looks at Carmen’s face and tries to see exactly what has happened to it. It is older. Her sweater is covered with small “pills” of wool. Her hair is pulled back and done in a plait but doesn’t hold in her ears which seem to stick out. She has got fatter. Her mouth is full of hamburger while she tells him. He knows. He has seen it. He watched it all. She knows he saw it. She wipes her mouth clean of hamburger grease with the arm of her sweater, and tells him about what happened last night.
He says, I know, I saw.
But she tells him, because she feels he sees nothing. She has told everyone at the Ladies’ about him and they’ve come to gaze at him, individually and in groups. He puts up the blankets to keep out their stares, but Carmen invites them in. Their husbands come and invite him to cricket or two-up. He thinks of Frank and the Dodge that will come.
He says, I saw.
He saw, last night, the convoy of trucks come in through the main gate of the drive-in. Everybody went to look. Crabs went afterwards and stood on the edge of the crowd. For some reason they cheered, they cheered the trucks and the drivers as if they were liberating troops. But the trucks only held more cars, cars without wheels, cars without engines, crippled cars, cars unable to move. Crabs watched silently, wondering what it meant.
He watched while the huge mobile crane shifted the cars from the trucks to the ground. He watched the new cars being arranged in lines, in vacant spaces. And when everyone else had lost interest he still watched. He saw the prefabricated Nissen huts come on a huge Mercedes low-loader. He watched the Nissen huts unloaded under the harsh glare of searchlights that had been mounted on top of the old projection room, on top of the Ezy-Eatin.
And he was still there at dawn, when the low-loaders, the cranes, and the other trucks had gone, he was there when the buses began to arrive.
He was there, removing two wheels from a 1956 Dodge.
Everybody goes to stare at the arrivals. Carmen is frantic, she begs him to come. He has never seen her so happy, so angry. Her eyes are sharp and clear. He would like to screw her but he is busy. He would love to hold her, to calm her, warm her, cool her. But he has two wheels from a 1956 Dodge and he is busy. In the corner of his eyes he sees exotic things: cloaks, robes, dark skin, swarthy complexions. He hears voices he doesn’t understand, he thinks of the tower of Babel and then he thinks of the Sunday School where he heard about the tower of Babel and then he thinks about peppercorn trees and then he thinks of the two wheels and he tells Carmen, soon, I’ll come soon.
The jack is in good shape. He has kept it in good shape. He jacks up the back of the car and removes the bricks. Then he puts on the new wheel. The tyre is a little flat. He guesses at about fifteen pounds per square inch, but it is good enough. Then he removes the front wheel, and puts it back in the spare compartment, and then he puts on the new front wheel.
He will need petrol. Maybe oil too.
He feels as if he is alive again. He will bring the car back to Frank. He will tell a story to him, a fantastic story. He was driving in the country. He was forced off the road by a Mercedes low-loader, and cut off by a jeep. They lifted the Dodge onto the low-loader with Crabs and Carmen inside, and drove off to a country rendezvous. There was a gang. Crabs joined the gang. At night they drove off with the low-loaders. Crabs drove one of them, a Leyland. They stole cars from off the highway. Made the drivers walk home. Crabs became their leader after a fight. He regained the Dodge. Rebuilt it. Then he escaped and brought it back here, to you, Frank.
He is happy. There is tumult around him. He will need to check the oil and petrol. He lifts the bonnet and has the dip stick half out when he notices the carbies are missing. He stops, frozen. Then, slowly he begins the check. The generator is gone. The distributor also. The fan and fan belt. The battery together with the leads. Both radiator hoses and the air cleaner.
Something inside him goes very taut. Some invisible string is taken in one more notch.
He walks, very slowly, back to the newly arrived Dodge. There are people in it. He ignores them. He opens the door and tugs the
bonnet release catch. Someone pulls at his clothing. He knocks them off. He opens the bonnet and looks in, looking for the parts he will salvage. There is nothing there. No engine. A dirty piece of plywood has been placed inside to give the engine compartment a floor. Some small chickens, very young, are drinking water from a bowl in the middle.
He lies back on the leopard skin and gazes at the sights outside. Carmen is beside him. She is snuggled up against him. She is saying a lot. Slowly Crabs begins to see what his eyes see.
A large group of Indians, dressed in saris, are gathered around a battered blue Ford Falcon. One of them, an old man, squats on the roof. The Ford Falcon was delivered last night. A group of men, possibly Italians, lean against the front of Frank’s Dodge. They are laughing. They seem to be playing a game, taking turns to throw a small stone so that it lands near the front wheel of a bright yellow Holden Monaro. Small children, black, with swollen bellies run past shouting, chased by a small English child with spectacles.
Carmen is crying. She is saying, they are everywhere. They stare at me. They want to rape me.
Crabs has been thinking. He has been thinking very deeply. Things have been occurring to him and he has reached a conclusion. He has formed the conclusion into a sentence and he tells Carmen the sentence.
Crabs says, to be free, you must be a motor car or vehicle in good health.
Carmen is crying. She says, you are mad, mad. They all said you were going mad.
Crabs says, no, not mad, think about the words — to be free, you …
She puts her hand over his mouth. She says, it stinks. It stinks. The whole place stinks of filthy wogs. They’re dirty, filthy, everything is horrible.
Crabs sees a car moving along the lane that separates this line of cars from the next. It is a 1954 Austin Sheerline. Inside is the manager, he sits behind the wheel stiffly, looking neither left nor right. It is moving. Crabs is excited for a moment, wondering if he can buy the car with his meal tickets. The car narrowly misses the Indian family and, as it passes in front of him, he sees that the Austin is being pushed by an English family, a man, a woman, and three young boys.
Crabs says, a motor car or vehicle in good health.
Flags, some of them ragged and dirty, flutter in the evening breeze. With every step Crabs smells a different smell, a different dish, a different excretion. He walks slowly along the dusty lanes filled with bustling people. Carmen is in the Dodge. He left her with the bicycle chain and the doors locked.
The situation has become such that no progress is possible. Crabs is now formulating a different direction. Movement is essential, it is the only thing he has ever believed. Only a motor car can save him and he is now manufacturing one. Crabs has decided to become a motor vehicle in good health.
As yet, as he walks, he is unsure of what he will be. Not a Mini Minor. He would like something larger, stronger. He begins to manufacture the tyres, they are large and fat with heavy treads. He can feel them, he feels the way they roll along the dusty lanes. He feels them roll over an empty can and squash into the dust. Then the bumper bars, huge thick pieces of roughly welded steel to protect him in case of collision. Mud guards, large and curving. They feel cool and smooth in the evening breeze. There is something that feels like a tray, a tray at the back. He can feel, with his nerve ends, an apparatus, but as yet he doesn’t know what the apparatus is. The engine is a V8, a Ford, he feels the rhythm of its engine, the warm, strong vibratings. A six-speed gearbox and another lever to operate the towing rig. That is what the apparatus is, a towing rig.
He feels whole. For the first time in his life Crabs feels complete. He shifts into low gear and cruises slowly between the lanes of wrecked cars, between the crowds, the families preparing their evening meals.
And he knows he can leave.
He has forgotten Carmen. He is complete. He changes into second and turns on the lights, turning from one lane into the next, driving carefully through the maze of cars and Nissen huts, looking for the gate. The drive-in seems to have been extended because he drives for several miles in the direction of the south fence. He turns, giving up, and shifting into third looks for the west fence where the gate was.
It is late when he finds it. His headlights pick up the entry office. No one seems to be on guard. As he comes closer he sees that the
gates are open. He changes down to second, accelerates, and leaves the drive-in behind in a cloud of dust.
On the highway he accelerates. He feels the light on top of him flashing and, for the pure joy of it, he turns on the siren. The truck has no governor and he sits it on 92 m.p.h., belting down the dark highway with the air blasting into the radiator, the cool radiator water cooling his hot engine.
He has gone for an hour when he realizes that the road is empty. He is the only motor vehicle around. He drives through empty suburbs. There are no neon signs. No lights in the houses. A strong headwind is blowing. He begins to take sideroads. To turn at every turn he sees. He feels sharp pains as his tyres grate, squeal, and battle for grip on the cold hard roads. He has no sense of direction.
He has been travelling for perhaps three hours. His speed is down now, hovering around 30. He turns a corner and enters a large highway. In the distance he can see lights.
He feels better, warmer already. The highway takes him towards the lights, the only lights in the world. They are closer. They are here. He turns off the highway and finds himself separated from the lights by a high wire fence. Inside he sees people moving around, laughing, talking. Some are dancing. He drives around the perimeter of the wire, driving over rough unmade roads, through paddocks until, at last, he comes to a large gate. The gate is locked and reinforced with heavy-duty steel.
Above the gate is a faded sign with peeling paint. It says, “Star Drive-in Theatre. Please turn off your lights.”
I was employed, originally, as a Shepherd 3rd Class. That was in the days of the sheep and even now that the sheep have been replaced by horses I believe that my position is still Shepherd 3rd Class although I have had no confirmation of this from The Company. My work place is, to the best of my knowledge, known officially as THE SOUTH SIDE PAVILION but it is many years since I saw this written on a delivery docket and I have never seen it anywhere since.
Yesterday I wrote to The Company asking to be relieved of my post and I used the following description: “I am employed as a Shepherd 3rd Class in the South Side Pavilion.” I hope it makes sense to them. I had considered a more detailed description, something that would locate the place more exactly.
For instance: “The pavilion is bathed in a pale yellow light which enters from the long dusty windows in its sawtooth roof. In the centre, its corners pinned by four of the twenty-four pillars which support the roof, is a large sunken tank which resembles a swimming pool. The horses require the greater part of this area. I, the Shepherd in charge, have a small corner to myself. In this corner I have, thanks to the generosity of The Company, a bed, a gas cooker, a refrigerator, and a television set. The animals give me no trouble. However they are, as you must be aware, in danger from the pool …”
I didn’t send that part of the letter, for fear of appearing foolish to them. The people at The Company must know my pavilion only too well. Probably they have photographs of it, even the original architect’s plans. The pool in the centre must be known to them, also the dangers associated with the pool. I have already made many written requests for a supply of barbed wire to fence off the pool but the experts have obviously considered it unnecessary. Or perhaps they have worked out the economics of it and, taking the laws of chance into account, must have decided that it is cheaper to lose the odd
horse than to buy barbed wire which, for all I know, might be expensive these days.