It is ironic that the first time I see petrol hit $2 a litre it is as I drive my new van toward the ferry terminal. The van, of course, should be electric, or powered by the captured methane of soft hooved cattle. It should not be a 1998 Toyota Townace that I flew from Hobart to Sydney to purchase. This is what comes of having driven two classic cars for the majority of my adult existence. You drive a classic car because you love it and are willing to mingle with esoteric groups of older men who can access a replacement for the part of your car that has just broken.
And because you prefer the solid clunk of a door closing to the clacky lightweight mash of a Yaris or an X-Trail, you spend time pondering whether driving your awesome vehicle is less or more sustainable than driving a modern plastic-fantastic, calculating the kilometres to the litre versus the age of manufacture and the longevity and anything else you think might be a factor.
The point is, I want a car that I can have a relationship with. Which is why I currently own one gold 2007 Nissan X-Trail (for rough Tasmanian terrain and the fold-flat back seats) and one 2001 white Toyota TownAce van (because you can sleep in it, and they have a reputation for extreme reliability). The former is a soulless piece of faux metallic plastic, the latter is mechanically wonderful, tough and lacks back seats. The fact that there were two models of my Townace van was something I was not aware of until it was too late. There was a delivery model (with no facility for slotting in back seats) and a passenger version. Mine turned out to be the former, meaning that I had to get rid of one child or find the latter. This took some thought.*
There turned out to be a passenger version for sale in Dulwich Hill, Sydney. This van had back seats, roof racks, less miles on the dial, working air conditioning and an extra battery. It was three years older than my white one, but looked excellent. I looked at it online, contacted the guy, pondered a bit more, asked him to knock down the price a little, and sent him a deposit. The van sounded like it was in good nick. The guy sounded like he was the real deal. I took a punt.
In amongst a cleaning job, house-sitting gigs and my four hours a week in the bulk food store, I managed to find a cheap flight and a cheapish ferry ticket to bring the van back to Tasmania. Booked them. When I mentioned it to the Smalls the following day, the youngest lost her mind in a volcanic outburst that would have instantly convinced someone teetering on the edge of procreation to happily remain childless. She detonated.
After several scream soaked hours I was finally able to explain the lack of fun that would be my van-collection: the ten hour drive, the rigors of the Hume, the fact that there would be one brief night at the Mothership’s before getting on a Very Early Ferry. And also THE EXPENSE. There had been apologies for her initial response but they did not become heartfelt until all of the logistics had been explained. Multiple times.
In between that day and the day I was to depart, my 9mo puppy was hit and killed by a car – our whole family descended into mourning. I had to clean the house I was minding, work my jobs and move into the next one, all while dealing with grief-stricken children and propelling my own self along as I swung from stoic to despairing several times a day.
Here begins the tale. Tail. Awake after a lovely night of solitude in my latest house-sit I found that Maggie, the dog that belongs to the house, was limping. I goggled. I could do nothing but comfort myself that she would be inside all day and thus would be forced to rest it.
It was not until I was on the bus to Hobart airport that I remembered to ask the van owner for his address. He responded with an address in Belmore Park, which meant very little to me. Then my phone rang – I didn’t know the number.
“Hello, is that Beth?”
“Um…yeah. Who’s this?”
“It’s Karim! With the van.”
“Oh sorry! Of course! What’s up?”
“What time are you getting into Sydney?”
“My plane lands at noon.”
“Oh – OK. How’re you getting from the airport to my place?”
“Train, I think. Or an Uber or something?”
“No way. The weather here is terrible. You’ll have to get a train and a bus to get to where I am. Want me to pick you up?”
“From the AIRPORT?”
“Yeah. It’s no trouble and it will save us both a lot of time.”
I was incredulous. “That would be amazing – thank you so much!”
I agreed to text him once I’d landed. Two hours later I was getting into his Volkswagen Caddy that had just pulled into the ‘Express Pickup’ zone. When I’d looked at the weather in Sydney before I’d left I had merely clocked the temperature, not the conditions. The rain was unyielding, I’d had to wade through several puddles in my sandals. Coat or umbrella? I had neither.
Karim drove with minimal concern, threading the car through Sydney as we chatted. He’d given me some enormous peaches as soon as I had buckled myself in and had tried to foist plums and nectarines on me as well. We swapped information. Beginning with vehicles and then expanding into the personal. He was a qualified chef from Algeria who was restarting his life since separating from his wife and their three young kids. He pointed out the names of suburbs as we drove.
“She was not the problem, no….that’s Camperdown over there…it’s her parents who never liked me and she used to resist them but over time they got into her head. She ‘s trying to stop me from seeing the kids…yeah – do you want to stop for a coffee or something? I work just over in that place…”
“How did you get time off work for our van deal?”
“Oh, I just told them I was taking off for the rest of the day. We’d done everything we could – all the other stuff that needed doing was outside and it was too wet.”
We get along easily. He meets my eyes. They are a steady dark caramel. He’s upfront and engaging.
“I had the air-conditioning re-gassed this morning. It wasn’t working…”
“Thank you! Was it just out of gas, or are there other issues?”
“Nah,” he neatly rounds a corner – we’re getting occasional polite beeps at intersections because we’re so deep in conversation, each intrigued by the other. “Nah, I got him to pressure test the system and there weren’t any leaks. Want to feel it? Or don’t you like air-con?”
This is thoughtful. Lots of people would presume that air-con was a necescessity. They’d bung you in their car, close all the windows and crank the fake air until your eyeballs coagulated.
But the humidity is syrupy and we try the air-conditioning. It’s functioning well. We turn it off and put the windows down. Plimsoll Street in Belmore Park is ratty in the way that whoever had chosen the name back then would now be unhappy about. (A plimsoll/plimsole can refer to a canvas soft soled shoe, or the line along the side of a ship showing the legal limit of submersion. Both things comfortingly clean.)
We pull up to a block of flats – the 1960s kind; square at the front with two apartments at the top and two at the bottom. Brick. Medium brown. Karim moved here because it comes with an undercover parking spot at the back. The van is in it, and the VW Caddy remains on the street. We walk down the driveway on the right hand side of the building.
“Do you know your neighbours? Do you like it here?”
“Yeah – I know all my neighbours – they are all my friends. It is good here,” he says, leading me around the corner. And there, under a functional but scrappy carport, is the silver van. It looks exactly the same as it did in the pictures. There has been no photoshop.
He shows me all the mods he’s made – the central locking, the back door key, the immobiliser, the stereo with a speaker in the back so chunky that I can hardly lift it, the strip of led lights and the wood-topped box in between the two front seats (that I later discover is a repurposed ammo box). He shows me the dual battery rig he’s set up for camping and how to flip the back seat (back seat!) forward to make room for a mattress.
“Do you want a mattress? A pillow? When are you leaving for Melbourne?”
“Um, after we sort out the money.”
“What!? No. Really? You must be very careful, that is a long drive. You need to take breaks. The weather is going to get worse later today.”
“It’s cool Karim, I’ll figure it out.”
I’d hoped for an easy electronic transfer, but Karim would prefer cash. We drive to the ATM in the van – he drives. There is predictable fuckery about withdrawal limits, pin numbers, the fact that I have only one card with me in an effort to travel light. I manage to get out $1000 in cash, hand it over:
“We can wait for the bank to up my daily limit, or I can transfer you the rest now.”
I’m hot. I’m losing travel time. He shrugs.
“OK. Just transfer the rest.”
As I said, we get on well, so there is chatting – but I’m also conscious that I’d hoped to make it to Melbourne before midnight. So I’m not concentrating properly while walking down the street simultaneously talking and transferring funds. I transfer $3000 instead of $2000.
“FUCK! Karim. I just transferred you too much money. I wasn’t concentrating. I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t stress,” he says “We can fix it. I’ll keep the cash and just transfer the $1000 back to you.”
At this point, in a crime novel, he snatches my phone, throws the car keys at me and runs. You know. For a thousand dollars. Instead he frowns into his phone for two minutes and then my phone peeps – he’s transferred it back to me. With the money sorted, he returns to the topic of my imminent ten hour drive.
“You need water,” he says, “and snacks. Follow me.”
For some reason I assume he’s talking about water for the car, in case it overheats or something. It’s not until we’re in an Asian supermarket standing in front of bottles of flavoured water that I get it. The water is for me. He holds up a noxious green filled bottle.
“Try this one! Aloe Vera juice!”
“Peach flavoured ice-tea?”
“And some plain water…”
“Karim, you don’t need to do…”
He cuts me off. “Yes! You’re buying my van. You’ve bought my van! I will look after you. You know what the name ‘Karim’ means – it means ‘generous’.”
I look it up later. Google says the name is of Arabic origin and means ‘generous’ or ‘giving’.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to…”
I eyeball him. “Read my lips. NO SNACKS.”
We wait in line for the register. I ask him what culture his name is from. He tells me it’s Berber. The word Berber instantly brings a kind of woollen something into my mind. Incorrect in this context.
Berber is one of the oldest languages. He grew up speaking it in Algeria.
“How many languages do you know?”
“Um… Berber, French – I studied that at university – English and Italian.”
“Jesus. Which language do you dream in?”
“Always it is Berber. But books? I only read in French – you wouldn’t find books in any other language where I live.”
We reach the check-out and it’s the first one I’ve seen where, although there is an actual person there, you hand the money to a machine, which seems to count it and spit out the correct change.
“Wow! These haven’t made it to Tasmania yet!”
“Yeah – they’re to minimise germs I think.”
Karim has bought about six two litre bottles of water in variegated flavours. He’s put two each per plastic bag, something that I feel both aghast and stymied about.
He drives the van for the last time back to his flat.
“You know,” he says, “I am your friend in Sydney. You need anything, anything at all, call me up. I’ll organise it for you. We have a connection now.”
I’m touched. I have learned he loves to go ocean fishing.
“Next time we sail to Sydney, I’ll call you up – take you out on the water for a day. OK?”
“For sure! Keep my number!”
“I’ll have you on speed-dial for van help.”
We shake hands, hug, and I am trundling through the back streets of Belmore Park. He’s given me directions to find the freeway that have instantly dissolved – I pull in to fill the van with fuel. I had thought that the interior was identical to my white TownAce, but the release for the little door to where the petrol goes in is not where it should be.
I grab my phone. “Karim! It’s Beth – calling you on speed -dial. How do I open the little door to put petrol in?!”
He directs me to the left side of the driver’s seat and I immediately see a little handle that I would almost swear has just appeared there. I thank him for what feels like the hundredth time and start my drive back to Tasmania…
*This has actually been sorted, with a back seat transplant from the silver van to the white one. GLORY BE!