Fishtailing

We are low-life. Did you know that Gina? Did you hear them?”

Yes. I heard them.” She looked over at Brad, he was gripping the steering wheel hard; veins popping out in his forearms, his face red and contorted with anger. He turned the key and pumped the engine into a fury. He released the handbrake and dropped the clutch, their exit heard by the lazy Sunday afternoon neighbourhood. Gina looked down into her lap.

He would go silent now, she knew the pattern. He wouldn’t exceed the speed limit, but he’d go loudly up and down the gears and barely slow down for corners or roundabouts. After a kilometre or two he would hit the top of the steering wheel with an open palm and yell, “Fuck.” He would light a cigarette and pull off to the side of the road. Then he would laugh. Starting with a chuckle, building up to a cackle – it settled him. He would reach across, without looking, and put his hand on Gina’s thigh and say, “Sorry, Gina. I’m OK now. Sorry.” Then he’d pull back out onto the road and drive, slowly and quietly, singing the Bob Marley song, ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’.

And he was right, everything would end up being fine. They’d get home, he would make his sandwiches for tomorrow’s work. Gina would send Aunt Mary on her way with $40 for looking after the kids. Brad would have one last smoke out the back and butt it out in the pineapple tin ashtray. He would clean his teeth and come to bed. Then he would apologise for driving like a hoon and explain that it was better than decking someone.

Gina had a pattern too. She would accept the apology and remind herself of all Brad’s good points. She would pray that the next social event would not end the same way. She would analyse her friends. Are they really my friends at all? Why do I feel excluded when I’m with them? Is it me being with Brad that’s the problem? And why do the husbands make such a sport of baiting him?

The treatment had been getting worse – this afternoon perhaps worst of all. Fiona, her friend since kindergarten, suggested in front of the others that she take Gina out shopping. “What has happened Gina?” she said, standing back, looking her up and down. “You used to be the fashion plate of Year 12. Now, and I don’t mean to be rude darling, but for goodness sake you look like one of those single mums you see outside Centrelink.”

I don’t mean to be rude? Are you kidding? You’re saying this to impress Cleo, aren’t you? And how dare that … blow-in … invite every couple here but Brad and I down to her swanky holiday house at Kiama!

Gina managed to hold her tongue, excused herself and went outside for air. Fiona’s husband, Andy, was incinerating the marinated meat on the steel device that was not to be called a BBQ. Apparently it’s an outdoor catering ensemble. And who said men can’t do two things at once. Andy was in fine form.

How can you stand working with that low-life down at the factory? I’d be worried about catching a disease, mate.” Andy had never once used Brad’s name.

Brad took a swig of his beer.

Aren’t they closing down next month? What’re you gonna do, buddy? I mean the immigrants will be alright, they live fifty to a house, you know. But how are you going to pay your mortgage on a dole cheque?”

I’ve got a trade, I’ll be right.”

What, fitter and turner? Good luck, mate. No offence, but with all these robots and what not … ”

Gina interrupted the boys’ club just in time. “Excuse me gentlemen,” she said.

Sure, Gina. And might I say you are looking delicious this afternoon.” Andy couldn’t help himself.

Without responding, she pulled Brad off to the side. “Let’s get out of here … now.” Brad needed no convincing.

Sorry lads,” he said. “Gina just a got a call from the baby sitter, Liam’s vomiting. Gotta go.”

This particular Sunday when they pulled over to the side of the road, Gina broke the pattern. She put her hand onto her husband’s left thigh. “I’m so sorry Brad. I know it’s been me insisting we go to these events. I’ve been stupidly wishing that things would change, that these people would finally accept us for who we are. What a fool I’ve been. These people don’t deserve us. They are the low-life, not us. I’m so sorry. We’ll never go again. It’s over.”

Thanks love,” he said. “Man, I was so close to snotting Andy. Especially when he said you looked delicious. Seriously, he’s such a wanker. Handy Andy, he should be called.”

They’re all wankers.” Gina smiled and started laughing. Brad joined in. He’d never heard Gina say wanker before. It was cute – hilariously cute.

After the couple regained some composure, Brad pulled back out onto the road. A light drizzle began to fall. He turned on the wipers and the headlights. The days were getting dark earlier as winter approached. They rounded a slight curve and, with the lack of recent rain making the road extra slippery, the car began to slide. Brad reacted and eased right off on the accelerator; the tyres gripped. He continued on with caution. He was a good driver, even when he did the noisy exits. Gina never felt scared or in danger.

They came to the bends. It was a three kilometre winding stretch of road with double lines all the way. It was not the place to get stuck behind a truck, but nowhere near as bad as being stuck at a BBQ with a bunch of pretentious wankers. There was no truck ahead. Brad began whistling his Bob Marley anthem. Tonight, Gina sang along, “Three little birds … Perch by my doorstep … Singin’ sweet songs.”

A set of headlights appeared behind the happy couple and cast shadows of their heads onto the car’s interior. Brad flipped the rear view mirror into night mode. The car edged up close behind – uncomfortably close, dangerous.

Bloody idiots,” said Brad. “I’m not speeding up that’s for sure.”

As though it heard, the car behind eased off and retreated. Then, in a deliberate taunt, it sped back again to hug their tail. A horn sounded, “Beep, beep,” and then, “Beeeeeeeeep!”

The car swerved onto the wrong side of the road to overtake. With the road at that point curving quite sharply, and blindly, to the left, the impatient driver’s attempt to overtake was thwarted. They eased off and pulled back in behind. The horn sounded again.

This is crazy,” said Gina. “Someone could get killed.”

Brad shifted in his seat and focused on the road ahead. “About two k’s before I can pull over,” he said.

The driver behind would not wait. He or she, took the very next opportunity to pull straight out, floor the accelerator and dart around.

Phew. They made it,” said Brad.

But the car, now in front, had not finished. It quickly slowed right down. Brad had to step on the brakes to avoid running into it. The occupants could be seen for the first time. Well, the three in the back seat could. There was a girl in the middle with two young males either side of her. The girl had swung around and was kneeling on the back seat. She pulled up her top to expose her breasts. The boy on her left leaned out the window and was sticking up his fingers and mouthing off – the words lost to the night. The boy on her right was systematically emptying the car of bottles and cans.

Brad swerved around the discarded empties without incident. The car then sped off and disappeared around a bend up ahead.

What sort of car was that Brad? We should report them before they kill themselves, or worse, someone else.”

Yeah, I’m not sure. It’s had all the badges taken off, that’s the cool thing these days. It might be a Subaru Impreza.”

Guess we’ll never know.” As the words left Gina’s mouth they rounded the next bend to see that the car had once again slowed right down.

Looks like they want to play some more.”

Gina placed her hand back on Brad’s thigh. He maintained a safe distance and kept his cool. Gina got a pen from her handbag and found a used envelope in the glove box. She wrote down the registration. The painful game of slowing down and then speeding off continued. As they came near the end of the bends Brad said, “The big straight’s coming up, bet they’ll take off for good then.”

He was right. The car in front slowed down almost to a stop and crept around the final bend. Then at last the road opened up in front. It was a flat section with an overtaking lane and a broad shoulder. If need be they could pull over and stop completely, let these hoons go on their way. But Brad had been correct. At the sight of the open road the offending vehicle sped away. Each gear change signalled by a white puff of exhaust.

The menacing vehicle hit top gear, yet still it increased in speed. Through the drizzle Brad and Gina saw the red tails lights begin to swing from side to side.

Oh my God,” said Brad, “they’re fishtailing.” Every swing increased in amplitude.

Let go of the wheel, let go,” yelled Brad. But the driver, young and likely drunk, wrestled with the wheel, frantically steering harder with each change of direction.

In a matter of just a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, the car, now completely out control, spun wildly on its own axis, drifted over to the right, hit the gutter and flipped up into the air. Spinning like silver confetti it disappeared into the trees. A flash of orange light illuminated the forest. A mushrooming cloud of thick smoke followed.

Nauseous from the shock, Brad and Gina, arrived at the point where the car had exited. Flames were licking up the trunk of the tree that had stopped the car. Brad ran down the embankment, howling and calling out. Gina, hyperventilating, rang emergency.

Maybe someone had been thrown clear of the vehicle. That would be their only chance.

Brad came back, crushed and crumpled by the futility of his attempts at resuscitation. Blood on his hands and face. One male had been flung out of the car but life had been irretrievably smashed from his body. The others were all being incinerated inside the steel cage that was once a car. There was nothing else to do but hold each other and wait.

***

Hi Gina, it’s Fiona. Hey, Cleo has asked me to ask you if you and Brad would like to come to a BBQ at her place next Sunday? They’re celebrating her hubby, Phil’s, promotion at work. He is going to ask Brad if he can install a stainless steel outdoor kitchen out the back on their deck. We all thought he could use the work.”

Gina hangs up on Fiona without a word. The phone rings again. She lets it ring out, vibrating on the kitchen bench. It rings again. Gina picks up her phone, walks out the back door and throws it over the fence. It spins like silver confetti through the air and hits a gum tree, smashing into tiny pieces.

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