By Eve Hall
We bought Araminta the day after the doctor told us we would soon be the proud parents of twins. Until then, we’d found our scooter perfectly adequate – it was simply a matter of wedging our two-year-old son between driver and pillion passenger. But by no stretch of ingenuity could we fit a family of five on a two-saddle scooter. It was time, we decided, to move into the car-owning bracket.
And so, for £45, we became the puffed-up possessors of a thirty-year-old Austin 10 saloon, Araminta. Her name came with her pedigree. She was small, dark green, square and lady-like; an old gentlewoman, fallen on hard times, hiding her patches, darns and brittle bones under turquoise corduroy seat covers with red piping and a dignified, glossy bonnet.
Life had obviously dealt her some hard knocks. South African roads in the 30’s weren’t geared to smooth driving. There were ruts, potholes and seasonal rivers – with either dry stony beds or foot high torrents. All lay in a small car’s path with horrible caprice. Araminta had negotiated them with well-bred dignity, but life’s roughness had left its marks. The silky, tarred roads of the 60’s were kinder to her delicately spoked wheels, but she could only cope with gentle outings.
She was to be mine; the two of us would ride daintily to the shopping centres, we would take my son to the park and make fortnightly visits to the hospital. On Sundays, Araminta shuddered a little as my six foot two-inch husband lowered himself gingerly into one of her bucket seats; but she accepted the extra burden with a sigh, and a slight sag.
Time had lowered Araminta’s standards. We found out that almost any small, flat instrument could be used to switch on her ignition and set her purring.
Life with Araminta was sometimes pleasant. She empathised with my breeding mood. Pregnancy has always sharpened and altered my sense of smell and she billowed fumes from her dashboard that smelt terrible to others, but delightful to me. Our reliable petrol gauge was a long bamboo pole that we indelicately poked into her petrol tank – a six-inch mark meant almost a week’s fuel inside her, while a damp patch at the end meant she was in dire need of nourishment.
Time had lowered Araminta’s standards. We found out that almost any small, flat instrument could be used to switch on her ignition and set her purring. If I mislaid my keys, she would, obligingly, allow herself to be turned on with a nail file, a screwdriver, or a knife. She was a little cranky; her windscreen wipers only worked manually. It was uncomfortable to steer her with one hand and with the other to have to rhythmically turn a large wiper knob back and forth, almost as if I were spinning a top. This happened whenever I was caught in one of Johannesburg’s violent summer storms.
Sadly, Aramínta’s terminals were worn. At first; I called mechanic whenever, abruptly, her engine faded away; but I soon found out how to revive her without expert aid. Surrounded by buses and home-going rush-hour cars, all hooting and jeering at my inert Araminta, I waddled out serenely, stomach to the fore, lifted her bonnet, and jiggled each terminal for 20 seconds. Araminta once more came back to life as I turned the nail file, and with my young son waving his podgy hand at the angry motorists, we could chug off once more.
Araminta and I parted company for a while, when my stomach grew too large to fit behind the steering wheel. My legs were too short to reach her pedals when the seat was shoved back. My husband took over the wheel and I became a passenger, which I think she resented. But on the day the twins heralded their arrival, she took us to the hospital with gentleness and despatch.
Araminta greeted the slimmer me with coolness. She was hard put to accommodate the two carry-cots with their noisy occupants and a bouncing toddler, and she groaned under the weight of the huge shopping bags. I think she found the atmosphere of fecundity indelicate, and she particularly resented our Sunday outings when five people and their paraphernalia strained her springs to the point of twanging.
She registered her first protest without warning. As we went over a slight bump in the road, her back window quietly fell out and vanished between the back seat and the boot. We fished it out and tried to squeeze it back into its original position, but the slightest jolt always brought it down again. We tried plastic sheeting too, but it wasn’t completely successful, and then agreed that the best plan was to add an umbrella as a permanent fixture. The umbrella was stored at our feet alongside the petrol gauge, and when the heavens broke open (as they often do in the high veld) I sat on the back seat and held the umbrella over the sleeping twins.
Araminta and I grew further apart. The heady fumes I had so enjoyed when I was pregnant now made me feel dizzy, and I was worried in case they should poison the children. Her terminals had to be jiggled more and more often, and a trip of two miles sometimes left me exhausted with the exercise of constantly hopping in and out of the car. Her back seat sloped in such a way that no matter which way the carry cots were placed, the twins were always lying at an angle, with their feet up high and their heads lower down, jammed into a corner.
The orange box that held up the front passenger seat snagged stockings and it meant that any additional passengers could choose between riding astride the box, or sitting buddha like, cross-legged, on the seat – a very uncomfortable position to maintain if you happen to be holding an umbrella over two carry cots.
Then, one crowded, eventful Sunday, Araminta greeted us with a flat right back tyre. Surprisingly enough, she had never had a puncture before. This was fortunate because there was no spare wheel.
A friend towed limping Araminta to a garage where she was greeted with the usual hilarity, mingled with pity and disbelief; cars in South Africa in the 60s tended to be large and American, glittering with chrome. They lived fast and died young.
An attendant whipped off Araminta’s wheel, patched up the tube, and put it back on again. With a light laugh, disdainfully, he waved us away accepting no money. We were obviously deserving of charity.
We re-loaded children, bottles, parcels of nappies and bathing suits and set off once more. People on the pavements and drivers in big flashy cars stared at us as we began to weave our way through the weekend traffic. They waved energetically, They even hooted. We were used to attracting attention, and so we waved back with fine grace, smiling at their friendliness and enthusiasm. They carried on waving. Some of them seemed to be shouting.
“You know” said my husband “I think they’re trying to tell us something.”
That made us both thoughtful. No smoke was pouring fore or aft. Nothing rattled more than it usually did. Was her gait perhaps a little unsteady? Rocking slightly, we reached the top of a steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, perhaps 500 yards away, was a garage.
“I’ll coast down to it”.
Silently now, carefully, engine off, we rolled down the hill. Araminta was hobbling now. The garage attendants stood at the bottom of the hill looking up at us as we descended. They were openmouthed. A small crowd had gathered. We pulled into the garage and came to a stop.
Araminta lurched, tipping back at an angle as the right rear wheel detached and rolled forwards for a few yards. It spun lazily and came to rest against a petrol pump.
The pump attendants started laughing, which startled the children making them wail. My husband murmured ‘Christ!’ and reached, hands trembling, for a cigarette.
It wasn’t Araminta’s fault, of course. The wheel had been carelessly put back on.
But this incident was the beginning of the end. Over the next few months, Araminta shed more of her parts. She also started discharging her batteries every time we took her out, leaving us stranded and then tired. We made one last attempt to save her, but the mechanic told us it would cost £100 to have Araminta rewired. We decided to part company. We gave her to a young man who lived down the road.
For months afterwards, as we sped past his garage in comfort in our new, more streamlined car, with its full complement of fittings and, oddly soundless springs, we saw Araminta in the young man’s driveway: there she was, dismembered and disemboweled, her bonnet gleaming like a polished skull, while the young man whistled happily over her black old bones.
Eve Hall, 1968
Eve Hall was a writer, a fighter, a tireless development worker and a pioneer in income-generating projects for women for the ILO. In Kenya she was the women’s editor of the Daily Nation, In Dar-es-salaam she started the ANC magazine the Voice of Women, in India she worked as Oxfam’s press officer. She spent ten years in Somalia working with refugee women and another ten years working for women and girls in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and South Africa.
Eve grew up in Paris during the war, but moved to South Africa with her mother, Lisa, to rejoin her father. Eve was one of the small group of Congress of Democrats Activists (the white wing of the ANC) who stood up against Apartheid in the early 60s, which resulted in her imprisonment. Her husband Tony, a journalist, was banned and subsequently they took their three children, and travelled from country to country, doing their best to make a contribution to the general human weal. In 1991 Eve and her husband Tony returned to South Africa.