The family was just the right size for a car, because a car has both front and back seats, and this family had two grown-ups and two children. It meant everyone had their own window. With mother and father, Val and Verdun, always in the front seat, daughters, Susan and Peg, would peer out at the passing world from their own back seat windows. Even though they were sitting together on the same back seat there seemed no point in Peg talking to Susan about what they were seeing, as they were both seeing different things all the time. Driving anywhere was always peaceful.
It was a perfect arrangement and it worked most perfectly in a car with four doors, so each member of the family had their own door too. They didn’t have to tilt seats, push anything forward, climb over anything, or wait for anyone else before simply opening their own door to get out. This is why the Skoda always felt just right for everyone.
Verdun loved his Skoda with that inexplicable love some humans can have for a machine. He pampered and petted and played with it every day. He knew every inch of it and every bolt in it. Every moving part worked beautifully even if a piece of neatly twisted wire held things in place here and there. Peg learned how to love cars from the way Verdun loved the Skoda. Much later Peg even got her name from a much-loved car. She had another girl’s name in the Skoda years but when she grew up and splashed out on a brand new Peugeot 505 GTi she knew enough about number plate allocation to try to time the purchase to get a number plate beginning with PUG. Car registration number plates in New South Wales, allocated in order back then, were into the Ps and PUG is a pet name for people who love Peugeots. Much to her disappointment she was given a PEG registration number instead. There were no choices then, not even in colour, so she was stuck with her yellow and black number plates beginning with PEG. This might not happen in other cities, but if you drive a car around Sydney with PEG number plates it won’t be long before everyone calls you Peg. She still has her PEG plates and remains Peg to this day.
After the Skoda, the family had a Prefect and then the wonderful Zephyr 6 that never needed the wire tightener or indeed any wire at all. In fact the wonderful Zephyr 6 heralded the end of not just the wire repairs but also the amazing car painting era, except for a few little sprays from a cute little spray can kept in the glove-box specially for the odd small emergency touch-up. All new cars these days have those little cans already in their glove boxes full of that perfectly matched duco, waiting a tad ominously for something to happen. You cannot of course call duco applied in a little spurt or two, car painting in any sense of the word. Painting the Skoda, on the other hand, was a work of art.
As it turned out it was a work of art that nearly killed them all. That is, the Skoda nearly killed them all, technically speaking, in that it could have caused them all to die. Well to be precise they could have all died in it. If there were any actions to be taken into account it would have to be Verdun’s. In this case it was lack of action from him that was the problem. However only the Skoda died in the end, so there really wasn’t anyone, or even a car left, to blame. But how did I get to the end so quickly? It wasn’t so simple at all.
In the beginning, Verdun took delivery of his Skoda, which wasn’t new, and his Hoover vacuum cleaner, which was brand new, at about the same time. Neither were, by themselves, miraculous arrivals. The family had owned different second-hand cars before the Skoda, and Verdun worked as a manager for Hoover in the factory at Meadowbank, so arriving home with something brand new, whole and in working condition made by Hoover, while rare, was not unexpected. More often than not he would arrive home with boxes of materials that had been discarded by the Hoover factory, such as washing machine knobs or laminex lids from a superseded model of the Hoovermatic washing machine. Verdun would find uses for such things. A washing machine knob would turn up on the old Ferris wireless that had lost a dial, for example. The radio played perfectly on wash for years.
Another knob found its way into the Skoda as a more efficient switch for the windscreen wipers. There wash made wonderful sense to everyone in the family, even though the green and cream colouring of the knob against the mission brown dash of the Skoda was a bit off-putting to the occasional new passenger.
The red laminex washing machine lids, on the other hand, made very trendy coffee table tops for years. Peg, Verdun’s eldest daughter, received such a coffee table, beautifully made with Hoover packing box legs, for a wedding present.
Verdun had varying success as a builder. With his brother-in-law’s help and after years of scrounging materials in those lean post-war years, he built his house in Regent Street, Ryde. It still stands there today. A testament to how well it was built. However the faux sandstone wall he built at the back of the house has long gone. The wall was masonite painted a nice subdued yellow, rubbed with sand carefully collected from the Painted Sand Beach in Queensland, and with joins nicely drawn in with one of those very modern texta permanent pens. Sadly it did not quite work. Suffice to say Verdun loved building things so much that even now, as I am writing this story, he is known fondly as the old builder.
The arrival of the Skoda and the new vacuum cleaner was marked by one of life’s magnificent coincidences for Verdun and his family because the new vacuum cleaner came with the latest, most modern attachment, a spray painter. There was a neat glass bowl that screwed with technologically brilliant precision to a gadget that plugged into the end of the vacuum hose. Of course the vacuum had to be switched to blow, the opposite of its usual suck, for it to work. Many an unfortunate about-to-be spray painter made that single ill-fated mistake, and in doing so ended the life of the vacuum cleaner. In a couple of instances it also almost ended the life of the person who threw the switch. Not because the act itself put them in danger but because of the irrational, unpredictable and often astonishingly violent reaction of someone else in the family who perhaps had a more regular relationship with the vacuum cleaner, minus any fancy attachment.
Verdun of course never ever forgot to switch to blow. He may have been guilty of sometimes switching on a little bit before he should have or not switching it off precisely at the right second. The shrubs at the side of the house and sometimes the driveway walls of the house itself could tell you the stories of the little too soon and little too late flicks of the Hoover vacuum-cleaner spray-painter. But all in all Verdun was a very responsible user.
If there was a problem, and no-one to this day would say there was, it may have been that Verdun loved his spray painter attachment and his Skoda just that little bit too much. Separately they were both very special. Together they were pure heaven. The pleasure Verdun got from spraying that amazingly fine spray of paint that spread like the finest piece of silk over the sleek shape of the Skoda was beyond explaining.
It didn’t matter much what colour he used or even the kind of paint. All paint was scarce and expensive back then so he took whatever he could whenever he could and was especially grateful to get someone’s leftovers for free. This meant that sometimes the Skoda would change colour every month for three months and then stay the same colour for ages. His favourite time to paint was Saturday night so the Skoda would be a gleaming new colour all ready for the trip to church the next day.
In their beds in the shared bedroom on the other side of the house, Peg and Susan would hear the vacuum cleaner fire up on that special Saturday night and tingle to the excitement of waking up to a newly coloured Skoda. Sometimes Verdun’s school teacher wife, Val, was not so thrilled, especially if the family had to wait around and miss the early church service because the Skoda wasn’t yet dry enough to drive.
Peg and Susan got used to peering through very clean car windows that were rimmed with a thick layer of what was left of the taped newspaper used to stop the spray getting on the glass. Verdun always removed the paper but somehow did not very often get around to scraping off the multi-coloured little strippy bits left at the edge. But the chameleon Skoda was always a delight to the children.
After several thrilling years with the Skoda, one memorable week, during his annual two week’s leave, Verdun had been watching with dwindling patience as a neighbour, Mr Gallati, meticulously painted his house in the boldest of colours. Verdun would walk around each afternoon to check how the paintwork was going. It was not his job to pick up the girls from school, even though he was on leave and Val was working. That was Val’s job, including fetching five year old Susan from St Patrick’s kindergarten on top of the hill at West Ryde. These were the relatively peaceful years before Val and Verdun argued about whose job it was to do what. The arguments came, the world tilted, but Verdun can still reminisce about the years of clear divisions, if you were, inexplicably, to give him a chance.
On the last day of Verdun’s leave Val was late for the pick-up. Susan stood alone with her teacher, the last child on the hill still waiting for her mother. All the good mothers had long come and gone. You could see the roads in all directions and there was no Val to be seen. That night in the back bedroom, after lights out, Peg got the whole story from Susan.
“What colour is your mother’s car?” Miss Kindergarten had asked, her Snow White brow slightly bumpy.
“I don’t know,” Susan had replied. “It could be brown. No I think it is blue…or white.”
Miss Kindergarten’s face had contorted into improbable furrows as her blue eyes widened. She had stared down at Susan. “You don’t know the name of the colour Susan?” she had asked, her voice high with concern. ‘Special needs child’ was the one single corrugating thought that kindergarten teachers struggled with in those days.
“Susan, try to think. What colour is your mother’s car?” Miss Kindergarten had said.
Just then the Skoda had hurtled into view around a distant corner, Val hunched over the steering wheel as if the forward tilt would make the car move faster.
Susan had beamed up at Miss Kindergarten and said, “Yellow!” The Skoda was a lovely daffodil yellow, a perfect match to Mr Gallati’s newly painted house. It was also still very wet and had still had the newly taped newspaper coverings over the back windows. They billowed beautifully in the afternoon sun.
The day the Skoda died, and when everyone in the family nearly died, came not long after that. By then the Skoda was green, and it was the very best colour it had ever been. Peg thought afterwards had she been able to choose a colour for the Skoda that day it would have been green. Verdun had scrounged mightily to get this paint. It was not kitchen green or even glass green, it was a most unusual beautiful deep emerald green. The Post Master had found the paint in the post office shed at Verdun’s endless insistence he look through the stack of old stores to see if there was paint of any kind back there. Sure enough there were two tins, both had been previously opened and hammered back shut. They were extremely rusted. Old of course was no problem at all to Verdun. He knew every secret of paint, especially how to make it thin and flowing and glossy again and perfect for the Hoover vacuum cleaner spray painter.
Peg remembers Verdun’s excitement about the green paint. It had already been a memorable week for Peg because she had won the Coca-Cola project competition for her project on sugar cane two weeks before, and the first of her twelve crates of Coca-Cola had arrived. There was a slight worry about how she would get everyone to drink up their coke as quickly as possible so she could cash in the empty bottles at the corner shop for tuppence each. However with Peg’s tutoring Susan soon developed a remarkable skill at being the fastest child in the neighbourhood to skol a glass of coke and Peg’s burpfest competitions became legend. Peg remembers the enormous amount of satisfaction she felt, not just at being able to look forward to one crate of one dozen bottles arriving in the first week of every month for a year, but at the wonderful prospect of eventually collecting money on every single one of them.
Only people who have won something with their projects will understand another level to Peg’s happiness. She had used the exact same project only a few months earlier to win a year’s subscription to Science magazine. When she got the project home after the Science magazine judging it took only a few minor repairs to have it looking very spic again and ready to win yet another prize.
Peg remembers well the night the Skoda turned green. She had been lying on her bed reading her fourth well-won Science magazine with the newly delivered crate of Coca-Cola sitting very specially on the kitchen table for everyone to traipse in and admire, when Verdun had fired up the Hoover. Life was just about perfect and the Skoda would be a brand new colour for church in the morning.
It was a feeling that spun its way into the next day. The Skoda was such a beautiful green. The sun was shining as only the sun in Sydney in May can do. It took the chill from the night away, had Val peeling off the cardigan of her twin-set, but didn’t make the inside of the Skoda feel like inside of St Peter’s brick oven. The family even managed to make it to the early church service because the Skoda had dried so nicely for them. After the service Verdun decided to make the most of the beautiful autumn day and take the family for a drive to Aunt Jess and Uncle Laurie’s house in Mortdale. They had only just reached the highway when little wisps of smoke started to rise from around the edges of the engine hood. They all noticed it at the same time.
“I don’t think that’s good Verdun,” Val said.
“No,” said Verdun. He kept driving. He was very calm.
In fact everyone stayed very calm, even when smoke started to pour out of the cracks around the car engine hood and began seeping into the cabin from under the dashboard. By the time the Skoda rolled into the driveway of the Atlantic service station at Five Dock Val had her window down and the smoke was making Susan sneeze. Verdun pulled neatly to a stop directly in front of the petrol bowser that said Flash. In those days the petrol grades for Atlantic were Extra and Flash. Flash seemed particularly apt for a freshly painted emerald green Skoda.
At that exact second the engine caught alight. Extraordinarily, no one in the Skoda thought to get out. The mother, father in front, and daughters from the back seat, sat in their spots in the Skoda staring at the red flames escaping from around the beautiful emerald green engine hood. It was a mesmerising sight.
Two service station attendants suddenly appeared. Their faces under their brown Atlantic caps were contorted with fear and anger as they screamed at the flames and Verdun. Peg remembers the Eagle wings on the Atlantic Service Station logo of their overalls seemed to flap gently as they waved their arms in frantic gestures to Verdun. The emblem was just so right too. The attendants were flying around each side of the Skoda trying to find bits of it, far enough away from the flames, to grab and push. Verdun seemed to know exactly what they wanted from him. So as he opened his door to get out to help them push, he pulled the little fancy lever that popped up the engine hood.
Heat and flames curled suddenly out of their now open emerald green bed like party whistles. Flames stroked gently over the hood and touched the beautifully painted roof. They licked sweetly sideways at the bright red Flash bowser and melted the little ridge of remnant paint around the edges of the front windscreen. Small bubbles of blue, yellow, white and brown suddenly appeared, framing the Atlantic Service station scene from inside the Skoda. Peg and Susan felt the extreme warmth on their faces and for an instant could not hear anything as the fire consumed even the sounds of the moment. That is probably just as well because the faces under the brown caps were no longer screaming incoherently. The words they were using were the worst verbs and nouns ever to be found, and certainly not suitable for the ears of two young girls who had just been to church.
It was sheer luck both attendants had their heads bent and that they were wearing their winter Atlantic Service Station attendant’s uniforms with long sleeves. Those lovely thick brown caps took the brunt of the flash.
The puff into heat and silence ended as abruptly as it had begun. It was just a second really and that, perhaps, might explain why Val and the girls stayed sitting solidly in the unseared middle of it all. Why get out of a burning car if it has already exploded?
As Verdun and the two, probably forever traumatised, attendants pushed the Skoda away from the petrol bowser Verdun’s face was very close to the freshly singed roof. “I just painted her last night,” he said to the mechanic who arrived, in wet overalls with eyes wide and cheeks red from running, to dump a bucketful of water into the Skoda’s engine.
Rubber smouldered and metal things hissed as Verdun, ever the gentleman, walked around to Val’s door and opened it for her. To this day no-one knows why the family reacted so serenely to the fire in the Skoda’s engine. Family storytelling has it that Verdun stayed calm so the family stayed calm. Perhaps it was just a Skoda thing, a sort of trust that nothing terrible much happens to people inside them.
“I don’t think the Skoda will get us to Laurie’s this morning,” Verdun said as Val and the girls reluctantly got out of the car. Only years later when the tale had well and truly become part of family folklore did the proximity of the Flash bowser, the flames and the Skoda’s petrol tank gain any particular significance.
Of course the Skoda did not get them to anywhere ever again. That day was the very last time Peg saw the Skoda. It took many buckets of water to get the flames out. Even half an hour later as Uncle Laurie arrived to pick them up in his Holden station wagon, rubber somewhere in the Skoda’s engine was still slightly smoking. A few Atlantic Service Station customers had gathered around it to have a look. One of them took up the bucket to splash some more water into the engine as another pushed the hood back further.
Verdun called out to them as he slipped into Laurie’s wagon next to Peg, “Watch the paintwork mate!”
© Maralyn Parker 2016
Yes this a true story.
My intent was to make it read like an old-fashioned children’s story ( with some wry observations for adult readers). It just seemed right because of the content.
I thought you might like to see some photos. This is a Skoda Advertisement image from the time.
Here is Verdun and Peg with the newly acquired Skoda
and Val and Peg with The Skoda.
Peg is a raconteur in her sixties today. She has a thousand stories and a special way of making us laugh about the tragedies of life.
Val died many years ago but Verdun is still very much alive. He is ninety eight years old as I write this. He is still living in his own home, however I wouldn’t go visiting at the moment. He is a bit moody because he is selling his Mitsubishi Challenger car. It has done over 300,000 kilometres. (He drove it around Australia, twice, after he turned 92 years old.)
Verdun might not be driving at the moment but he is still enjoying his baking (not big wedding cakes as he used to, but still wonderful cakes).
And all of that, of course, is another story.