Lesley loved to drive, especially long distances, and I have a distinct impression of her, on my right behind the driver’s wheel, telling me that sometimes she fantasised about being a rally driver.
My auntie Dot, Lesley’s sister, was married to Alec Reddie, an employee of the Ford Motor Company, and so it was that all the cars we drove were Fords. The Ford Motor Company no longer exists in the sense that it did when it manufactured the Fordson van that my mother drove. Some time after the manufacture of the earliest Fords, the Models T and A, the company diversified its cars into larger and smaller ranges. The Fordson van was on the smaller side, the van or pick-up version of models like the Consul, Prefect, and Anglia.
Wherever Lesley got the Fordson van, it was Vere who bought her all her other cars, the Consul, the Zephyr, and the green-and-white Taunus station-wagon, taking advantages of special deals that Alec could swing. Soon after we arrived at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, Vere bought Lesley the Ford Consul. The car we see in the picture looks and indeed is huge by current standards. Yet compared to the monsters like the Chevs, Pontiacs or the bigger Fords, it was a dinky little car in the bottom price-bracket.
The car that I drive is called a ‘Ford’ but is indistinguishable, except for the logo, from a Mazda, and the Ford conglomerate now exists in a realm beyond nations. I am accustomed to driving for many months without paying explicit attention to our car. This was not the case with early motor cars, which, in their complex unpredictability and insistent need for attention often resembled babies. In this sense, the Fordson van must have been a strong presence in my first six years, and in terms of the number of mentions and interactions recorded in Lesley’s diary, the Fordson must be considered a character in this drama along with the human cast.
Right at the start of the diary, on the 27th of April, she has an accident in the van. ‘On the way to Groote Schuur, another van crashed into my van and then into a third van. A case will come of it as a G.G. [Government Garages] van is involved,’ she writes. ‘The man who crashed into me had given the police an incorrect address – I gave the police a statement, which they seemed to think was very amusing! What clots they all are – Mr Calitz started writing the wrong numbers down for the vans and it looked as though I had crossed the street to bash myself!’ she adds the next day. On Friday ‘took my van to the garage. The damage is quite extensive. Metal and wood torn. It will take ages to repair.’
She gets the van back about two weeks later and immediately puts it to good use. The next day she is off to Hout Bay to paint, and on the Friday she ‘went out three times in the van – firstly for provisions, then to Mr Smith’s for framing – they’ll frame eight things for me. What an interesting couple they are – she with her stump, holding the telephone with her shoulder and he tall and grubby – dangling cigarette – frames are good and not too expensive – continued preparing frames in the afternoon then to the market with Terry in the evening.’ After that she uses it daily for trips to town, to market and so on. On the 18th of May, a Wednesday, she was ‘off to paint this morning only to find no contact to the battery – took ages to repair – then, with the light the wrong way, made a hash of a subject I’ve been longing to do for ages. Fetched the frames from Smith – they are first class – must still paint them.’
At the end of May, she plans the first of the painting trips that the diary records. On Monday the 30th of May, she ‘left town at eleven, and slowly came here – Hawston – stopping to give odd characters a lift on the way.’ It rained and she slept in the leaking van. She set off home on the Thursday, noting that ‘the drive through Elgin after the fresh rains was delightful.’ The next Monday, she’s off again. ‘Started out at about nine and arrived here about eleven thirty after a few stops on the way – car running excellently – wrapped the bonnet to keep her warm for her long wait.’
On Wednesday the 15th of June, she ‘wasted the whole morning in court – then Everett, the fellow who bumped our vans pleaded guilty and was fined fifteen pounds or fifteen days. Quite interesting listening to the odd cases. The case after ours was of a fellow who sat on a non-European bench. How ludicrous! Wonder what he got.’
On the 22nd, Denis, our motor-mechanic neighbour, fetched the van for repairs – in the pouring rain. The van behaved poorly in its role as a taxi during Terry’s affair, and it is Terry who attempts to seduce Lesley with an offer of a dodgy 1948 Chrysler. In mid-July, when she dashes to Johannesburg, she takes a lift rather than risk the long journey in the Fordson van.
But she undertakes the journey for her exhibition on the 1st of August. ‘The alarm went off at four forty five. I dressed at once and carried my food and hot bottle to the car. Drove about two hours with the lights on – through dense wet fog over Du Toit’s Pass – car running beautifully – carburettor trouble at Prince Albert then oil on clutch at Beaufort West where the car no longer went. At first mechanics weren’t interested – then they decided to take the whole engine out for me and get stuck into the job. I bought a bottle of whiskey for after hours and they worked magnificently – Johan the mechanic, a blonde handsome fellow, and Jack the foreman – a little bald Cockney. They cut the bill considerably – ten pounds eleven and six. I helped as handlanger – engine finished at eight thirty – I’m comfortably in bed at nine thirty feeling much more cheerful. I’m impressed by the speed and efficiency of Johan.’
The next morning, she ‘left Beaufort at about six – heavy frost and bitter cold car running excellently – later this morning I had a bit of carburettor trouble – then I looked under the car to see oil gushing out – and gently drove to the next town where the Ford dealers hoisted her up and wiped off all the excess oil –and diagnosed main rear bearing gone – engine ought to come out – cost about fifty to sixty pounds for repairs. So I came on as she stands, constantly filling her up. Arrived here at Brandfort where a farmers’ show is being held. Two men tried to pick me up who exactly represented the tatty fox and cat from Pinocchio.’
In the morning, she ‘left early and drove for an hour in the dark and bitter cold – the frost was white even on the tar – what exquisite scenes with the first light. Pink willows against a frosted ivory veld – black branches like lace. After stopping to help a phoney tramp, the car wouldn’t start – no petrol in the carburettor – it happened again near Johannesburg but I arrived just after lunch well on schedule.’
On Friday the 19th of August, she set out ‘after a completely restless and sleepless night, at five, and started the long way home with my little dog. At first I was dangerously sleepy but later woke and became more cheerful. Slept at a third-rate hotel at Colesberg after a row with the landlady about dogs at hotels! What a heavenly hot bath – washed my hair and directly to bed after driving for thirteen and a half hours. Left Colesberg at seven thirty – little Thunder [the dog] is so good! Had tea with the mechanic at Beaufort West and said I didn’t have enough money for a new engine. Pushed on to Laingsburg where the one and only hotel keeper wouldn’t have a dog. That was eight thirty pm so I decided to push right on home – another six hours driving – the lights against me were powerfully bright – my battery was discharging and my weak lights slowly became dimmer until the Cape Flats where I could no longer see and ran onto the pavement. I was towed into Cape Town by the Clifton plumber and both Thunder and I arrived home exhausted at about three fifteen in the morning. Jack got up and made tea.’
In her last entry, on the 25th of August, the van gets the first mention: ‘Took my van in to have the generator fixed and the lights rewired – will the troubles never cease!’