Unroadworthy by Wendy Steele

Image by Olivier Brugger on Unsplash

I’ve been up for hours and am outside energetically weeding my front garden when the neighbour over the road surfaces like a bear coming out of hibernation. I can see from here that she hasn’t done her hair and I don’t think I’m imagining the wobble and weaving in her walk. Eleven o’clock seems late for getting up and early for drinking. I lift a friendly, non-judgmental hand in greeting but she doesn’t see me, bleary eyed and unsteady, heading for her car.

And she’s off, scraping the brick letterbox on her way out, lurching in a wide arc across the court as she struggles to compensate for the alcohol pulsing through her system, pumped around by a broken heart, a burning, numbing anaesthetic that puts the world in soft focus. I empty my bucket of weeds into the green waste bin and pick up the secateurs. Time to prune away some dead wood.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and I notice that her Holden is back in the driveway. From here it looks like she’s put another dent in it. It’s not a new car: the duco is dulled with wear, the windscreen probably has all those miniscule chips and scratches that stop just short of unroadworthy and the panels bear the scars of past clashes and strife. Time and hard use have worn the old girl down – it’s a long time since she was new. The garage is so full of junk, no doubt, that it sits exposed on the driveway, unprotected from the elements.

A four wheel drive pulls up in the street and parks outside my neighbour’s house. I recognise her ex-husband as he gets out of the car and comes round to the kerbside. Their two children are in the back – he makes sure that they both get out on the nature strip side. He is a good and careful father. I wonder if he knows how much she is drinking. I wonder if he would be happy to bring them back to her if he knew.

Later, a Suzuki Swift with the Domino’s logo painted on the driver’s door parks behind her on her driveway and the delivery girl carries pizza boxes to the front door. Preferable to her going out to get them, I suppose. As I add more vegetables to my soup pot, I think about Monday morning and the school run traffic. I check my filing cabinet and hunt out a phone number so I can ring someone I haven’t spoken to for a long time.

Sunday morning and my washing is all on the line, but there’s no sign of life over the road. I think about taking some soup over but decide to keep a low profile for the moment. Time seems to pass slowly as I bake date scones and chocolate chip cookies. The smell of it fills me up, so I make a piece of toast for lunch, saving myself for my visitor. I am in my garden, weeding again when a shiny black panel van pulls into my driveway. The driver is ten years older than when I last saw him, a troubled youth turned success story. A sapling that thrived in a garden without weeds.

He smiles at me as I put the kettle on and spread butter on date scones. As I arrange cookies on a plate, I take in the changes wrought by a decade. He has filled out and put on muscle, but it’s more than that. The pinched look that drew his eyes in and his mouth down is gone. He fills the chair like he fills his place in the world – a man at peace with himself. There is grease and dirt ingrained in the creases of his hands that no amount of scrubbing can remove, a testament to the hard work of earning an honest living.

‘It’s been a while, Marg,’ he says, reaching for a scone. ‘A card at Christmas is more your style than a phone call.’ The question is unspoken.

I slide the mug across to him. ‘I’ve been thinking about how we met and what you used to be good at,’ I say. ‘I was hoping you could help me out with something.’ He raises his eyebrows, then contemplates his scone. He wraps his hands around the mug and thinks for a moment.

‘You always were my favourite social worker,’ he says.

Early on Monday morning, I’m up, showered and dressed. On the kitchen bench is a container of cookies, as full as my neighbour’s driveway is empty. I think of a boy who passed through my care, a boy with a wicked way with locks, wires and wheels. Who channels his mechanical skill now in an honest day job. Who agreed to swerve back into the path of wrongdoing just one more time to set someone else on the right road.

It’s unlikely that the Holden will turn up any time soon, and unfortunately my neighbour may find it hard to finance a replacement vehicle for a while. When I take the cookies over and offer to help with the school run, necessity may tip the scales. ‘Are you sure?’ she may ask.

‘Of course,’ I’ll reply. ‘What are neighbours for?’

Wherever that Holden is, the tyres will deflate, the engine will seize up, the radiator will run dry and the duco will perish some more. But taking it off the road might be the way to put her back in the driver’s seat.

Wendy Steel is an English and Literature teacher who enjoys writing poetry and prose. She is a big fan of Cate Kennedy.