It was a dark and stormy night. Whoops! Correction. Last night was a dark and stormy night. The meeting I was attending broke up around nine pm. Downstairs, the rain stopped long enough for me to reach my car parked a few minutes away. I hadn’t wanted to take the train. I wouldn’t get home until well after eleven pm and I didn’t feel safe on the public transport at that time of night.
I punched ‘home’ into the satnav, which proceeded to wind me around suburban streets in a zig-zag pattern, right, left, right, left – when all the time my innate sense of direction told me the main road was straight ahead. The rain was falling heavily again, and cars were parked on both sides of the darkened back streets. It was difficult to pick out exactly where my side of the road actually was. Finally, the satnav merged me onto the main highway, much further south than where I would have joined left to myself, and just beyond a wide curve which hid the traffic I was joining.
On familiar territory at last, I relaxed and turned on the radio. It was a political panel discussion. Last week our (Liberal) Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, fought off an internal leadership spill. The word on the street is that he ordered his front bench to vote for him, meaning that when the votes were counted, something like 60% of his back bench voted against him. He prevailed. Partly because no one actually stood against him. In a television interview that night, he told the reporter “I know how to beat Labor Party leaders. I beat Kevin Rudd, I beat Julia Gillard, I can beat Bill Shorten as well. What I’m not good at is fighting the Liberal Party and that’s why I say to all of my colleagues: we will now go on together to build a better Australia and to point out that Bill Shorten has no answers; he just has a complaint.” (Translation for non-Australian readers: Bill Shorten etc are the opposition Labor Party)
I sighed. When will we ever have a government that stops focusing on beating their opponents into power, and concentrates instead on governing the country? Visionary Australian Prime Ministers who can actually lead seem a distant memory. Maybe they were always a myth.
The rain was pelting on the roof and I had the radio volume up loud. I passed a railway station lit brightly enough to be seen from space. Whenever I pass this station I wonder why it is so well fitted out in comparison to others on that line. Although it is close to the end of the Sydney suburban rail network, it is not a connection hub. I found myself wondering about who was their local parliamentary member and how much clout he or she had.
Five minutes later I slowed to go through Heathcote, the gateway to the Royal National Park and a landmark on the freeway drive south to Wollongong. Moments later, we all accelerated again, striving for the 100klm (60mph) limit, except the rain was so heavy and visibility so poor that most of the scant traffic was doing less than that. No one could put their high beam on though, as we would dazzle oncoming traffic and the light only bounce back at us in the rain. Every so often a flash of lightning lit the way ahead.
I became aware of an unusual sound from the tyres. For a minute or so, I told myself it must be the sound of the wet tarmac. I strained to see if the road surface was different on this stretch. Then I turned the radio off and listened harder as I drove. The cabin was filling with a howling noise. Not normal. Not good.
Last year, I had a flat tyre on exactly this stretch of highway, going in the opposite direction. Could I really have a flat again? In the old days, you knew immediately, the car would wobble, almost out of control, and the steering wheel would drag heavily. In my more recent experience, with tubeless tyres, the only signal is the weird noise.
There is bushland either side of the freeway at this point, and no lights. In the darkness, with the rain still lashing down, I tossed the alternatives in my mind. Trash the tyre by driving on – or stop the car here and risk getting hit by a following car when I got out to see what was the problem? I chose to drive on, slower, but still covering about a kilometre a minute. A couple of minutes later, I pulled over onto an unlit, deserted side road that leads up to a pet hotel. No traffic going there at this time of night. Out of the car in a break in the rain – sure enough. Driver’s rear tyre, flat as the proverbial tack.
When the road assist arrived about thirty minutes later, he didn’t bother to greet me. He looked at a cement dividing strip at the entrance to the side road. “S’pose you managed to hit that?”
“Well, no, actually,” I replied. “This happened a couple of k’s back.” I didn’t know whether to be more mortified at the suggestion that I had driven straight off the road into a cement bollard, or to be admitting that I had knowingly driven the tyre into the ground.
When I was much younger, I used to change my own flat tyres, although in reality it was a two woman job. One to hold the crowbar and another to jump on the handle to loosen or tighten the nuts. These days, there is no point trying it yourself. Another break in the rain gave him the ten minutes he needed. All I did was stand by with umbrella at the ready as he placed his jack – which looked more like a breathing machine – under the car, attached it to a compressor, sent the car shooting in the air and then got out his racing car style zzt-zzt machine to unscrew the nuts.
I’d run the hazard lights while waiting for him to show up, so I asked him to wait while I checked that hadn’t flattened the battery as well. Then he decided to stand on the cement bollard with his torch while I reversed up to get in position to drive back on to the highway. It was a kind gesture. Can you imagine if I had hit it and caused a second flat? Then I really would be in trouble.
I still had thirty minutes of high speed freeway driving to reach home. I left the radio off and imagined every odd motor sound as more signals of trouble on the horizon. The rain came again so heavily that all the southbound traffic bunched into a congo line, snaking along below the speed limit, all with our hazard lights on. We left braking distance between each other, but none of us dropped so far back as to lose sight of the lights in front. “Visibility was poor” is an understatement, and there was still the steep descent of Mount Ousley to negotiate.
Eventually I walked in the door sometime after eleven pm – around the same time as if I had taken the train. Bill commented that he’d heard “a bit of rain” and seen the occasional flash of lightning.
“Bill,” I said, “Out there, it is a dark and stormy night . . . ”