‘The wheels will roll at 8.30. You need to get up now, we don’t want a big hold up in the bathroom. Get up now don’t just lie there!’
‘Open your eyes - the wheels will roll at 8.30 - precisely’.
I look at dad through screwed up eyes that are totally unwilling to open wide and inwardly silently groan: ’I’m asleep go away’.
Once my eyes begin flickering and there is at least an attempt to wake up, that look of stress begins to leave his eyes and off he hurries to do battle with my sisters.
‘The wheels will roll at 8.30. You need to get up now, we don’t want a big hold up in the bathroom. Get up now don’t just lie there! 8.30 precisely’
‘Go away, I’m asleep’, a chorus of older sisters shout.
I knew you would try and ruin the day - get up now and get in the bathroom’. He raises his voice louder and coming into the hall shouts: ‘Oi Lazybones are you up yet? You are deliberately causing a hold up in the bathroom. Get up all of you, stop trying to ruin the day’.
Dad has fairly recently left the army but you wouldn’t know it. This is our roll call to begin a family day out in the car. By the time I leave the warmth of my bed, dad is positively hopping from foot to foot with anxiety. It is clear that his useless family are out to ruin the day. As I glance in his bedroom, his pyjamas are perfectly folded ready for inspection (who is going to inspect his folding?).
Eventually washed but still looking far from ready to go anywhere I stumble into the kitchen. Here is the kingdom and domain of Attila the Mum. Does she bother saying ‘good morning’ to me her youngest? We certainly don’t kiss or do anything soppy or enquire if either of us had slept well. The build up of anxiety is well underway. Attila’s face is set and just spoiling for a fight with anyone foolish enough to remotely upset her, while she is furiously packing hand-made food, assembling cups and saucers, dusting the portable propane gas stove needed for boiling the kettle, milk, sugar, tea. The two camping chairs for parents, and an extra blanket for Attila who always requires a lot of pampering, are already leaning against a wall and ready to come with us.
Our African Grey Parrot, called Aku, has been cleaned and has fresh food. I’m sure Aku who spends most of his days sitting unblinking in a quite large cage, overlooking the main eating table staring at his combative family of five, invariably screaming and yelling at each other, must be truly looking forward to the family disappearing for a whole day. As our final screams at how useless we all think the others are, followed by the final slam of the front door, Aku presumably puffs up his feathers, and settles himself on his perch for a good parrot snooze, and no doubt, in parrot language whispers to himself ‘Good riddance’.
Unfortunately, with Aku in mind, our new purchase of a second-hand Oxford Green Morris Traveller, our first car, has been chosen deliberately so that Aku’s cage can fit neatly into the cargo area in the back. It is only when Aku begins to swing from side to side as his cage is lifted off the cupboard by dad, and is transported down the pavement to the Traveller, that Aku begins to join in the general behaviour of the family, and proceeds to put up a huge fight to let dad know that he is much happier being left in the kitchen. With loud, terrifying, warning screeching he proceeds to stick his large vicious black beak through the bars of the cage and does his best to rip large lumps of skin and gristle from the palm of dad’s hand. To save himself Dad begins to swing the cage dizzyingly with his one hand, and with his other furiously hits the side of the cage while shouting death threats to our ‘beloved’ bird. By the time Aku arrives at the car we watch a furious, murderous bird being unceremoniously dumped into the back of the car. Attila is the only one who seems to be able to handle Aku with complete safety and I assume it is a relationship based on sheer fear of each other. I am terrified of Aku and watch those yellow eyes glint menacingly in a clear warning of my possible fate. It is not my fault that the poor bird is being forced to dice with death by spending a day in the Traveller with his adversarial and quarrelsome family. I spend most of my family day out anxiously look over my shoulder from the safety of the passenger seat, checking that Aku is not close enough to totally massacre me.
Dad has recently passed his driving test after at least 5 attempts, there may have been many more - who knows? The driving test days were fraught with rows and yelling from Attila that dad was useless and couldn’t even pass a driving test. Britain had just entered the cusp of the 1960s and things were changing and changing rapidly around us. In ’60's Britain we were just coming out of the difficulties of the 2nd World War and although many bombed out sites were still part of the normal view, Britain was now in the process of re-building itself. New houses and offices were going up everywhere and despite Nissen huts still being lived in, most people were getting rehoused into identical redbrick homes usually owned by the Local Councils. In the ‘60s only the rich owned their own houses - and we weren’t rich. The army had recently gone through huge budget cuts and dad, along with many others, was part of the ‘cuts’ and now in his 40s had had to find a new job. This was a man with three small children, a wife who never stopped moaning, and who only had modest savings and no property. He left the army and joined the War Department Constabulary as a Police Constable, and not only did this supply him with a uniform (dad was only really comfortable in a uniform) but a house and a safe job until retirement. To celebrate, and joining many male war survivors, he bought a car - an Oxford Green Morris Traveller estate - and then attempted to learn to drive. Frankly until he died in the ‘90s, and despite sitting behind a driving wheel probably every day of his life, I don’t think he ever really quite came to grips with driving.
As soon as the sun shone, and dad had a weekend day off, it was time to take out the Morris Traveller. Watching my parents prepare for a short day trip must seem that we are giving a pantomime performance for the neighbours who must think we were moving permanently. Dad clings to his army training, and ensures that until we are all ready to go and lined up by the front door of our house, with the food, chairs, and the parrot - nothing is going anywhere near his car. We three daughters are meticulously inspected as if we are on the army parade ground and once we pass that inspection the final roll call is dad eliciting the assurance that we have all gone to the toilet, and this part of the passing out parade includes Attila.
‘No-one is going to the toilet until at least two hours into the trip - do you understand?’, Dad intoned.
Finally, the front door is flung open and myself and the rest of the family all march in single file to the Traveller which is sparkling from dad’s constant polishing. As we three girls march down the pavement the sun bounces off our highly polished, ultra shiny, shoes and seriously the glare almost blinds me. Dad has as usual spent hours and hours cleaning every pair of shoes in the house so should we be urgently called up for military training our shoes are ready and prepared for battle.
The inside of the Traveller has been dusted, brushed and polished to within an inch of its life. This is a car that is for sitting only (no snacks, sweets or drinks) and good behaviour is expected. We three girls stand outside the Traveller whilst my parents fling open the back doors and place a lunging, angry Aku in first. Next go the chairs and the food and within seconds the fussing and sniping at each other begins. We girls are firmly locked out of the seating area until the car had been packed and re-packed several times, and this gives us plenty of time to administer the first punch or hair-pull with complete impunity from Attila as she is too busy arguing with dad.
While my sisters and I are standing on the pavement punching hell out of each other one of the kids who lives in our street pops over for a quick observation:
‘Is your dad finally using the car? My dad says your dad never stops polishing that car but never takes it out’.
The punching stops briefly whilst we turn our attention to Kevin ’We’re going out for the day’, says Kate in that ‘be very impressed’ voice.
‘Where?’, says Kevin.
‘Don’t know. Dad where are we going?’
Dad comes hurrying over, still not opening the car for us, and demands to know exactly what Kevin’s father has been saying.
‘Open the door dad! Open the door.’
Attila starts her usual refrain ‘See even the neighbours think you’re stupid’.
Dad’s face starts to wear that stressed, pained look, knowing full well this is how our day will continue. Finally, dad produces from the cavernous pockets of his voluminous trousers the keys for the body of the car, and is about to triumphantly allow entrance to the hallowed sanctity of the Traveller when Mo, my sister, starts to whimper: ’I need the toilet’.
‘I knew it, I knew it’, my dad explodes.
My other sister joins in and says ‘I want the toilet too’ and just as dad looks as if he about to put his hands to either side of his head and scream, all four of us females decide that a visit to the ‘loo’ is now essential. Frankly I’m not too sure if I need to go - but what the hell - everyone else is going.
At last the family is once again collected outside the locked car and my dad triumphantly opens the door.
By the time we are ready to leave, half of the neighbours’ kids have now lined up on the pavement looking at us with curiosity and amazement. The car is packed to the gills and the kids are clearly wondering how long we will be gone for, little understanding that within about four hours, the car will return.
Finally, the big moment has arrived, us three kids sitting in the back, Aku sitting in the cargo area furiously trying to rip our lunch to pieces, Attila already complaining about something, and portly dad squeezing himself behind the driving wheel, constantly looking at his watch and saying ‘look at the time, look at the time, day’s nearly over’.(It was 8.35 precisely meaning we are running a whole five minutes late!).
As dad puts the key in the ignition we can almost touch the build up of stress and fear coming off him as he makes at least two attempts to get the engine to fire up; Attila uses the opportunity to tut at each failed attempt. As the Traveller coughs into life Attila immediately grabs the door-strap and hangs on for dear life as we kangaroo-hop up the road while dad is furiously trying to find a gear to suit the pace of the next jerk and hop that the Traveller is achieving.
Attila not only couldn’t drive, but couldn’t navigate either. From the Automobile Association (AA) we are supplied with highly detailed typed routes for getting us from A to B, so quite why Attila couldn’t manage to read the routes was lost on us all. Instead the routes are passed back to my eldest sister aged ten widely acknowledged to have a brain the size of a gnat, and she is now attempting to read the route to dad.
‘Turn left at the next turning’.
‘Turn left, turn left, turn left - Oh you’ve missed it’
Soon the fighting between us three in the back begins in earnest because we all want to read the route and about 20 minutes after leaving home we are lost and the first massive row of the day has truly started. Eventually it all quietens down as my father inexpertly executes an 18-point turn, waving and smiling at the farmer who seems to be trying to work out why a whole family has arrived in his farmyard in a green Traveller with a parrot in the back.
Eventually we are underway and soon dad is attempting to navigate the new ‘A’ roads or Dual Carriageways and things are looking considerably rosier from our back seat. Along the Dual Carriageways are lay-bys. (A lay-by in the 60s was a fairly narrow paved area at the side of a roadway designated for drivers to stop for emergency parking or where vehicles could wait if having mechanical problems.) This is where dad chooses to pull in and proceeds to yank the chairs out from the back of the car and assembles the stove to make tea. We children are directed to sit on the ‘grass’ (in reality a few green tufts and gravel), whilst Attila and dad sit in their chairs facing the traffic on a main thoroughfare, making cups of tea and munching egg sandwiches, whilst lorries and delivery trucks hurtle past us at what, 40 mph? In the lay-by are a couple of bushes and the odd tree and this where my whole family takes it in turns to go and pee.
There are no motorways, and most roads have numerous curves and bends, and dad furiously goes through every gear in the gearbox, knuckles white with exertion gripping the driving wheel, whilst we hurtle round corners or bends at, possibly 10 or 15 miles an hour. All the while Attila is making wild grabs at the car door-strap and screaming helpfully: ‘You’re going to kill us; you’re going to kill us all”; and dad’s strangled voice is screaming back ‘Shut up, shut up I’m concentrating here’. I honestly don’t really know where we went for our day out, but I do remember it was fraught.
In fairness to Attila my dad’s driving is dreadful. We kids watch with mounting alarm as his left hand bravely leaves its permanent resting place - the gear stick - and we watch breathless, while both hands are now on the driving wheel. Suddenly his left hand shoots out and seems to be grabbing at fresh air whilst frantically seeking the gear stick. His whole body hunches forward as he prepares to attempt a different gear ensuring to crunch and scrape the gearbox as often as he can. To add to the excitement of our day out, occasionally dad has achieved the ‘scream’. This is when he has failed to find any gear at all and we sail along, seemingly without any control of the car whatsoever, accompanied by an amazing sound - the gearbox and Attila hitting the same high, tortured note, until dad is finally forced to remove both hands from the driving wheel to fight the gear stick into submission.
What about Aku? Aku has never said a word throughout our whole trip and his poor legs, feet and claws must be aching like hell with the effort of clinging onto the perch while dad has thrown the car round corners and bends, sweating, swearing and cursing under his breath as yet again the wrong gear has been chosen.
We get home, tired and tetchy, and just glad to be alive. Attila is still moaning and muttering the word ‘divorce’ but puts the kettle on. And dad? Dad is furiously polishing and cleaning the car whilst planning our next trip.