A funny thing happened on the way to Adelaide
A car accident brings an unlikely collection of people together
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Melbourne, Friday, 8 am. In the extreme right-hand lane of the Western Ring Road, three social workers and a writer, or two men and two women, or a married couple and two singletons, were heading at speed for South Australia, when Jim at the wheel cursed under his breath and went for the brakes. Thirty metres ahead an old grey Falcon stood facing the wrong way in our lane, pointing straight at us, its passenger side jammed hard against the Armco railing. Jim swerved into a sliver of space and missed it. As we slowed, he shouted through his open window, “Have you already called?” I saw from my seat in the back the Falcon driver wedged upright behind the steering wheel, eyes open. He was shaking his head, with his right hand over his heart.
Jim pulled up just beyond the Falcon and jumped out. “Stay here,” he yelled over his shoulder. Jim is six foot three with the bulk and authority of a cop. We obeyed. Huge trucks barrelled by in streams of thunder. Our Mazda shuddered in their wake. The two Helens in the back twisted to the rear window. Richard in the front went for his doorhandle and we screamed at him. Jim reached the stricken Falcon in three strides. He yanked open the door and hauled the driver out: a man of 40, maybe Indian, dressed for work in white shirt and dark blue jumper with a little stitched logo. His face was smooth and still. Jim stepped him backwards, leaned him against the towering concrete pillar of an overhead traffic sign, and bent to look him in the eye. To the women watching through the wide, shallow frame of the Mazda’s rear window it was a silent movie, except for the bellowing of the trucks.
The Falcon driver looked up at Jim. His lips moved. With timid gestures, he rearranged the hem of his jumper. He stood gazing straight ahead, his long-cheeked face in profile as pure and solemn as Buster Keaton’s. “He’s in shock,” said Richard.
Jim was shouting into his phone, chin up, eyes focused on a far point. The truck wind blew his hair into a stiff crest. He kept his other hand flat on the man’s chest, holding him gently against the pale pillar as if he might collapse or lurch into the traffic.
Another man materialised up in front of our Mazda, a tall, strong, young African in a high-vis vest. He came loping towards us, sticking close to the central guard-rail. Seventy metres behind him, in the left-hand emergency lane, stood his rig, hazard lights fiercely blinking. He pressed between the two cars and the Armco and fronted up to Jim, keeping side-on to the Falcon driver. The truckie’s expression was either a smile or a flinch against the gritty air. His mouth, blazing with white teeth, was in vigorous motion and he made tremendous swerving and pointing gestures. “Wow,” said someone. “He looks like Chris Rock.” Jim put out both hands palms down, lowering and raising them in the international sign for whoa, whoa, whoa. The truckie stopped talking and listened. Richard scrambled out of the Mazda and ran back. In one large, graceful motion the African stripped off his high-vis vest and thrust it at Richard. The white man pulled on the frail scrap of orange. Suddenly vivid, he stepped partway into the lane with both arms out in a commanding posture. His wife clapped one hand over her mouth. Traffic began to slow and swerve. The truckie sprang into the Falcon and with a great pull on the steering wheel surged out through a gap in the traffic in a mighty U-turn. The women let out shrill cries of warning. The next truck tried to stop but did not quite make it. We heard nothing but saw the clip and jolt of impact. A breath, then the truckie planted his foot and the bruised Falcon sailed clean across two more howling lanes, broached the rumble strip, and stopped behind the blinking rig. Dancing back to our side, twisting and jogging among the trucks and cars, the African put out a hand to Richard for his high-vis and Richard relinquished it with a flourish.
Behind the Mazda, Jim was holding the blank-faced Indian by the forearm, the man’s hand in the air like a toddler’s in his father’s grip. By now the highway patrol had pulled up in the left-hand emergency lane. The solo cop darted across to us through the slowing stream, scowling like a thunderclap, pointing and barking inaudible orders. Jim and Richard jumped back into the Mazda and away we flew.
“I thought we were doing all right,” said Richard. “But he basically told us to fuck off. He was mad at us for moving the Falcon.”
“He was looking our car up and down,” said Jim. “Like we were responsible.” We all burst into wild laughter. Our hearts were only just slowing down. “The Falcon’s airbags went off,” said Jim. “Both of them. There was smoke. That’s why I dragged him out. That poor guy. He was so gently spoken. And the truck driver said, ‘He tried to kill himself! He drove right in front of me!’”
At Ararat we cruised into the cemetery, to pay our respects at Helen’s parents’ grave. Their deaths had occurred half a century apart, but their ashes had not long ago been brought to rest side by side in this couple of bleached and sloping acres, under a flowering rose. Richard put his arm around his wife and she shed a quiet tear. Jim touched her shoulder. I borrowed the toenail clippers that Richard carried in his shorts pocket and deadheaded the roses back to where fresh growth was starting.
We swooped back on to the highway. The paddocks were yellow. We saw hectares of stark black where the fires had gone through. The Grampians lay like a purple sword along the horizon.
At Nhill we sought out the roadside cafe in which the women remembered having been served, on our last trip to Adelaide, a sublimely archetypal salad sandwich, bulging with chopped lettuce and grated carrot and sliced tomato. Seeing the beetroot juice staining the white paper bags, we had turned to each other with a gasp, two former chalkies in lunchtime bliss. That memory got us through the fact that today everything in the cafe lay encased in rigid triangles of plastic or glistened with fat in a bain-marie.
Full of a complicated patriotism, we swept on towards Adelaide, heading for two days and nights at the festival of world music, where we would brazen it out among the tents in our ridiculous hats, and dance without shame in blazing sun, and rest on our rug in deep pools of shade; where after dark the warm gardens, lit by trembling lanterns, would become a paradise haunted by nymphs and satyrs and dryads of every race and clime, with tattoos on their slender limbs and circlets of flowers in their hair.
Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach, The Spare Room and This House of Grief.