RACV Short Story competition winners

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

There was roadside assist by hovercraft, love beneath the West Gate Bridge as RACV man rescues alien-plagued damsel, and a rev-head wedding with a hubcap as ring-bearer.

RoyalAuto readers are an imaginative bunch. And prolific too. We received more than 500 entries to our Short Story Competition, announced in February RA.

We admit that asking our entrants to end their submissions with the line ‘that’s why I’ll always be with RACV’ was hardly going to elicit negative responses, but our judges were nevertheless taken aback by the warmth of feeling displayed throughout.

“Nearly every single person wrote longingly and lovingly about RACV,” says author and playwright Hannie Rayson, who shared judging duties with columnist and author Danny Katz, and author Abigail Ulman.

“Many mentioned dulcet-toned angels with calm sweet voices at the end of the phone, and all the RACV men were Adonises, ‘knights in shining yellow’ as one writer put it. It really showed the affection the public have for the RACV.”


Our winner, Matthew Roberts’ Yellow Van Man, was described as “sweet and nostalgic and sad”, as siblings retraced the breakdown spots of their childhood on the road from Leongatha to Tidal River.

The wedding-themed second place-getter, by Gwenda Steff, was full of “sweet dialogue and a cinematic touch”, while Norm Pidgeon’s futuristic offering was “out there creatively, imaginative and fun”.

These three received RACV vouchers to the value of $500, $350 and $150 respectively.

Jannette Gibbons’ tale of a joyous teen roadtrip fuelled by junk food, and Tom Spikman’s Cowboys and Engines, received special mentions, as did 85-year-old Clyde Woods’ memories of World War II, including a stint delivering the worst kind of news as a telegram boy.

RACV writing competition judges


Read below for our top three entries, and three special mentions. Matthew Roberts’ Yellow Van Man will be printed in the June issue of RA, accompanied by a Carolyn Ridsdale illustration.

1st - Yellow Van Man

By Matthew Roberts

“No ambulance. No bloody way. I'll die at home.”
“Dad, you’re not dying.”

He was. I still don’t know how he knew.

“If I’m going, I’ll go in the Commodore.”
“Dad, no one has weeded the Commodore in ages, let alone driven it.”
“Your mother loved that car. Always started for her.”
“And if it won’t start?”
“RACV.”

Dad didn’t trust many people, but somehow if you drove a yellow van with blue writing on it your acts and words were unquestionable. So many family holidays paused while we waited in the sweltering bush or driving rain for Ken or Steve who would lift the bonnet and mumble in secret with Dad. That special language, which all too often included the shaking of heads and clicking of tongues.

He hated service centres and warranties; as adults we took to finding places for him but he’d always find fault somehow. Shysters. Bloody hopeless, the lot. Better to wait ’til it breaks down.

This yellow van man was called Geoff. He pulled a few plucky privet seedlings from the leaf litter at the base of the windscreen, then asked Dad to pop the bonnet. Dad pulled himself to his feet, ignoring my sister’s hand, then shuffled to the front, hand over hand on the possumpoo-splotched duco.

“The VS,” said Geoff. “One of the best.”
“Wasn’t it?”, Dad wheezed. “My wife gave up Corollas for this one.”
“Smart lady.”
They stood there and stared at the engine in silence. Then Geoff lowered the bonnet without a word, smiled at my Dad and went to his van.
“What’s he going to do?” I asked Dad.
“Nothing.”
He looked at me half smiling, half something else.
“It’s had it. He’s getting the paperwork.”

Dad stuck to his guns, but in the end it was an ambulance that got him to hospital. When he came to he was livid.
“I said I’ll die at home!”
“No one has said you’re dying, Dad!”
“No, you’re right. No one has said it because no one has got the guts to.”
“Dad, that’s...”
“The truth. You think I can’t read faces? I’m old but I'm not stupid.”
“The doctors said-”
“Yeah, yeah I know what they said. Wasn’t what their faces said”
“Dad-”
“I’ve had it, son. Like the car. At least Geoff didn’t bullshit me. When it goes, it goes.”

I went round to his place after that, and finished what Geoff started.
I weeded the Commodore.

*

He wanted to be scattered at the Prom. We took my sister’s 2010 Outback. The only time it’d had trouble was when my nephews left the light on in the back row.
“Automatic lights-off function,” Dad had chortled while attaching jumper leads, “lights go off after 36 hours.”
Acts of toddler aside, the car never faltered.

We stopped at each of the places we could remember waiting for the RACV three decades ago. Seven times between Leongatha and Tidal River, my sister pulled over and killed the motor. We sat in silence mostly.

“Jacko,” my sister said suddenly at a clearing near Fish Creek.
“What?”
“RACV guy’s name was Jacko when we broke down here. He had a glass eye-”
“-and a scar on his face, yeah.”
“Dad reckoned it was a war injury.”
“He was probably right.”
“It freaked me out. He pressed his nose against the window, to be funny I guess.”
“But it made you cry, I remember.”
“Dad laughed and told me not to be a cry-baby. But Jacko said sorry for upsetting me, and went and got lollipops for all of us.”
“Mum confiscated them the moment we were back on the road. Too sugary. She was ahead of her time, wasn't she?”

Down at Tidal River, coming back from the beach with an empty biscuit tin (“no bloody urn!”) my sister stopped.
“Here. We played breakdown trucks here.”
“Are you sure it was here?”
“Yep. You pretended to be Wacko Jacko and chased me into those bushes, remember?”
“Nope. Doesn't sound like me. I was a lovely big brother. Nope.”
I thought at first she was laughing at my hilarity, facing away from me.
She let me hug her though. First time in a long while.
My sister mumbled something through snot and polar fleece.
“What was that?”
“I said nothing bloody breaks down any more. Dad was right, we all live in denial because we don’t know what broken is. Six years I’ve had that car, six years I’ve paid my bloody membership. But the thing just keeps going. Never needed a Jacko or a Geoff. And next year I’ll pay again, and the year after that, and ...”
“Me too, sis. Me too.”

*

These days I drive a privet-loving, possumpoo-blessed 1996 VS Commodore.
When it goes, it goes.

That's why I’ll always be with RACV.

2nd - Rev-head Wedding

By Gwenda Steff

Finally, our big day had arrived. The church was prepared. We’d tied white bows and posies of baby’s breath on the end of each pew, arranged lilies and agapanthus in deep urns on pedestals and opened the register in the vestry ready for signing. I was wearing Mum’s wedding veil and dressed in the retro 1960s silk and lace number she had whipped up on her Singer treadle.

The weather was doubtful. “Showers clearing,” said the Google forecaster.

Ours was a marriage made in ‘rev-head’ heaven. I had met Ned, the love of my life, at the Summer Nats in Canberra a couple of years ago. He was there in his 1965 XP Falcon station wagon with the round tail lights and I was driving my yellow Holden 1970 Torana GTR-XU1 with the black wind scoop. After our first drag race, it was love at first sight over the bonnet.

“Let’s use the cars for the wedding,” I said when we got to the pointy end of planning.

“And your brother could carry the rings on a hub-cap cushion,” Ned said.

He’s such a romantic.

Ned’s Dad had spent the week cleaning and polishing the cars. Mum and her friends had spent the week cooking up a storm for the reception at the church hall.

My bridesmaid sister arranged me in the back of the XP, adjusted Mum’s veil and jumped in the front seat with Dad.

Ned’s brother, his best man, was driving him in the GTR. Ned gave me the thumbs-up out the side window and we were away. I leaned forward and gave Dad a hug from the back seat.

“Here we go,” I said. “This is the best day of my life.”

My sister turned up the volume on the Dixie Cups and we sang our own tuneless accompaniment to “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re goin’ to get married …”.

We were about 10 clicks down the highway when my iPhone rang.

“We’ve got a tap under the bonnet,” Ned said. “We’re going to pull over.”

As the GTR eased onto the road verge, I could see steam rising from under the bonnet.

Dad eased his foot off the accelerator, depressed the clutch and applied the brake.

Dad rarely resorted to swearing. But as he pumped the brakes, a string of expletives escaped him and we slammed into the wind scoop of the GTR in front of us.

My sister helped me out of the XP and held my train up out of the mud. We circled the vehicles. Steam spewed out of both radiators.

“Is it the water pump?” I asked.

“Shouldn’t be,” said Ned. “I checked it yesterday.” He ran his fingers through his Brylcreemed hair. “Could be a seized piston.”

Dad looked at the damage to the nose-and-tail and shook his head.

“We haven’t got time to muck around,” he said. He grabbed my iPhone and rang RACV Roadside Assistance.

We caused a bit of a stir on the highway as we waited. A couple of grey nomads in a Winnebago pulled up and took photos of us leaning against our catastrophe. A car load of late guests videoed us as they checked on our welfare. They promised to announce that the bride would be ‘fashionably late’. When a stock transport splashed through the puddles, it sprayed my silk and lace with a muddy cross-cut and whipped Mum’s veil off my head in its jet stream.

“You don’t need it,” my sister said, and stuffed the dirty veil into the back of the Falcon.

When our new best friend, Tania, arrived in her RACV tray truck, we stood on the side of the highway like a guard of honour and applauded.

“You’ve got a hole in your engine block,” she said as she pulled back from under the bonnet of the GTR. And to Dad, she said, “You’d better get those brakes fixed.”

Tania winched both vehicles onto the RACV tray truck and we all piled into the cabin.

Outside the church, the guests formed a guard of honour.

Mud-spattered, and without Mum’s veil, Dad finally walked me down the aisle to marry the love of my life.

“Do you take this woman …?” My little brother held up the rings on his hub-cap cushion.

“Yes,” said Ned, and placed the ring on my finger.

“Do you take this man …?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes!”

The congregation applauded and we kissed.

After we’d signed the register, we had our photos taken with Tania and the RACV truck.

We can’t drive Ned’s XP – or my GTR – on our honeymoon to this year’s Summer Nats. But RACV got us to the church on time.

And that’s why I’ll always be with RACV.

3rd - Calder Freeway 2039

By Norm Pidgeon

It is nearly midnight on 23 June 2039 and I am travelling to the airport. This trip is such a breeze, with my trusty automated car doing all the work. I call her Leia, because her voice reminds me so much of the princess in that vintage Star Wars movie. But it’s not quite accurate to say she does all the work. The intelligent road network is sharing the load, commanding the vehicle to take its place in its priority order at intersections and merge points. I don’t have to do a thing, except sit back and feel a little smug.

Half of my life’s work is embedded in the systems that guide my way tonight. Since the late 2020s, my software business has specialised in adapting imported automated vehicles to Australian standards and rules.

There is a light drizzle tonight and I can hear the swish of the wipers on the front windscreen and the quiet hiss of spray from the tyres. I love sitting inside this cocoon and sensing the slight shifts in speed and direction as road positions are negotiated, agreed and executed. I can visualise the sub-routines humming away in Leia’s incredibly powerful electronic brain and the constant interplay of communication that will be happening with the world outside.

There’s a perfect example coming up. We are nearly at the split of the Calder Freeway away from the Tullamarine Freeway and Leia will move across at least one lane to the right. She should start about…. now.

Hang on. Nothing’s happening!

“Leia! – what are you doing? You are missing the airport exit. Right lane now!”

Still nothing. My brain is frozen as I stare at the navigation screen that confirms our smooth progression on the Calder Freeway side.

Too late! We are past the split.

“Leia – what has got into you? Reset for Tullamarine Airport. Take the next exit to Milleara Road.”

Leia doesn’t acknowledge me and hums along the motorway as if she hasn’t a care in the world. We miss the Milleara Road exit and a feeling of panic is starting to rise, as I struggle to think of other options.

I force my brain to cool a touch with some deep breathing and I suddenly realise that I have been stuck in the voice-control paradigm. Maybe the microphone that receives my commands is on the blink. I can try manual commands on the control screen. Should have thought of that earlier!

I reach for the touch-screen. A simple Trip Cancel should do the trick. I can reset the journey to the airport and maybe get out of this. I brush my hand across the Trip Cancel icon, but there is absolutely no change to the onward charge of the renegade vehicle. And no visible reaction on the touch-screen.

A new sensation washes over me. My brain floats about a foot above my skull and I have the distinct feeling that I don’t exist. In this briefest of universes, stubborn Leia is the only reality and I am a detached observer.

I try again to drag my brain back into gear while another two or three kilometres drift by. What else can I do?

The last resort. Kill the whole onboard system.

I face up to the fact that there is no other choice. At least I know how to do it. I reach under the control panel and find the diagnostic plug. There is a small emergency reset button on the side for just this sort of occasion. I press it and the screen on the dashboard immediately displays: “SHUTTING DOWN.”

It is a safe and orderly shutdown. The vehicle first manoeuvres to the emergency lane and slows down, smoothly avoiding other late-night travellers. I bet they are not having such drama. As she comes to a halt, Leia says “Goodbye” in her sweetest tone and shuts down altogether. I am ready to strangle her if I could find her throat.

So now I am stuck here with my lifeless shell. I can’t afford to start her up with the errant behaviour unexplained. I will need to reload a core set of clean software. Thank the stars the RACV will already be on the way, with an auto-call the last of the emergency shut-down procedures.

Ah! Here they come now – zooming in with one of their new hover-vehicles. What a relief! They will have a clean software pack and we can reboot Leia. I may have to change her voice and her name so that the memory of this night can be put to rest. But I will wait and find out what went wrong first.

For now, I may even make it to my flight and get to see my first grand-daughter.

And that’s why I will always be with RACV.

Special mention - Two Mates and the Open Road

By Jannette Gibbons

My mate Tom and I had always done everything together for as long as I could remember. We played on the same footy team, listened to the same music, bought the same phones, that sort of thing. Then we got our first cars.

My mate Tom’s car was big and glossy with a giant rear spoiler and bumpers so low that it barely made it over speed bumps. It shone with newly applied wax and attracted lots of attention from the girls. Tom had worked hard and saved hard for his car. He stocked shelves at the local supermarket on Saturdays and Sundays and also had a sideline selling his old Lego on eBay.  Not whole Lego sets though. No, not Tom. He sold parts. He had a roaring trade replacing the pieces that some poor kid’s mother had sucked up the vacuum cleaner along with a spider. All kids knew those pieces were gone forever because no matter how dead that spider looked, the minute you put your hand in the bag that spider sprang back to life. Yep, my mate Tom was pretty loaded thanks to arachnophobic mums all over Australia.

My car was what I liked to think of as a potential classic. Saving wasn’t what I’d call a personal strength but I’d done my best. I loved that car like it was a new Ferrari.  When I first drove it home one of the neighbours phoned the police to complain about an abandoned vehicle parked in our street. My mum had to explain to an amused police officer that it hadn’t been stolen and dumped, it was in fact her son’s pride and joy. After that I kept a little stack of notes in the glovebox ready to attach to the windscreen which read “I am not abandoned – my owner’s name is Nick Jones”.

So, when it came to our first road trip together, naturally we chose to take Tom’s car. Tom collected me on a sunny Saturday morning and with a few clothes and beach towels in the boot and a box of food essentials on the back seat we hit the outskirts of Melbourne within an hour. Shortly after that we hit a nail on the road, blew a tyre, skidded into a patch of gravel and ground to a halt.

Tom and I liked to think of ourselves as two capable 18-year-olds but apart from knowing that the flat tyre had to come off and a new one put on, we were pretty clueless. So, we took a few selfies for our Snapchat story and ate some of our chocolate stash. Refreshed by a sugar boost, I remembered my RACV Free2go card. One quick phone call and two packets of salt and vinegar chips later our saviour the RACV man arrived. Half a Mars bar after that our saviour informed us that Tom’s spare tyre was also flat and skidding into the ditch had knocked out the wheel alignment. We weren’t going anywhere. After a quick selfie with the RACV man we admitted defeat and called our parents. Dejected, we sat on the side of the road, waited, polished off a box of melting Maltesers and braced ourselves for that sensible parent advice we really didn’t want to hear.

Now maybe what happened next was because our parents remembered being young and carefree themselves. Or maybe it was their sudden delight at opening their fridges and finding something still inside. Either way the mini convoy that approached us that afternoon wasn’t what we’d expected. The tow truck arrived first pulling up in a cloud of dust, closely followed by Tom’s dad in his work van. And bringing up the rear, waving a couple of chicken schnitzel wraps out of the window, was my dad in a familiar dented red sedan. “Thought you boys might be hungry,” he said as he pulled up.

I looked at Tom and grinned. “Yes,” we yelled together as we fist pumped the air. Our road trip was back on. As Tom and I piled our gear into my most treasured possession we couldn’t have been happier. “I think I could go a pizza for dinner,” Tom said as I revved the engine and turned up the music. “Yeah me too,” I replied. With our parents, Tom’s car and the tow truck shrinking in the rear view mirror we were off again. Two mates, the open road and a fuel tank gauge stuck on empty.

And that’s why I’ll always be with RACV.

Special mention - Cowboys and Engines

By Tom Spikman

BANG!

“What the…?” Then another volley, BANG, and I rush over to the kitchen window to witness my father-in-law pulling up out front in his sputtering, dilapidated old ute.

“Pop’s here!” I yell, and there is a blur of my five-year-old flying out the front door, just as one last backfire goes off. I hear my daughter Indi laughing in hysterics. “Do it again Pop!”, as Ole Walter pours himself out of the vehicle, grabbing his cane, or “horse” as he calls it, and slapping his salt-encrusted dirty akubra on his head. “Nope, shot enough rabbits this morning!” That was a swift end to my Saturday morning quiet time and I put another pot of coffee on the stove.

Walter deftly manoeuvres his way through the minefield of boots in the entry with Indi close by his side. “Oh, you’re out of bed!” he says to me sarcastically, pulling up a chair. Old Cowboys reckon if you’re not up at the crack of dawn doing something, then you’ve wasted the day. “Yeah,” I fire back, “just waiting for the cricket to start so I can lay around on the couch all day drinking beer.”

“I thought as much… hey, you want to go fishing Joe?” Walter says to Indi. I think he secretly always wanted a grandson. Indi’s eyes light up and she spins to me, “Can I Dad?”

“Of course you can, here’s a container, go find your Mum in the garden because she knows where all the big worms are.” And with that she was off. I turned back to Walter. “You’re not going anywhere with the ute running like that!”

“I know, that’s why I came over, so you can fix it.” I thought by now he would have realised that if something can’t be fixed with duct tape and a hammer, well, I’m not your man, but like him I will never concede defeat without at least giving it a go. “I’ll have a look at it, you never know, it might be something simple.” Famous last words.

I grab my little box of assorted small tools out of the garage and meet Walter out at the ute where he has the bonnet up waiting. I look in and laugh. “What a mess! Do you ever get this thing serviced?”

“Nope, you don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” he says smugly with his matter-of-fact common sense.

“But it is broke!”

“It ain’t broke, it just needs a tweak or something.” I shake my head and dive in, pull on a few belts, take the sparkplug wires off and put them back on, check the oil, you know, all those things that don’t make a difference one way or another. “Okay, crank her up and see what happens,” I say, stepping well back.

Sputter, smoke, bang! “Okay, turn it off,” I yell over the din. He does and shuffles to the front of the ute again. “ I don’t know,” I mutter. “It’s all Japanese to me … you know, you really should join the RACV.”

“Join them? Why I’ve been a member since God was a Cowboy!” he cackles in my ear.

“Why didn’t you call them then?” I respond in disbelief.

“Well, it’s not an emergency… and besides, it’s Saturday.” Walter has an answer for everything.

“Well Walter, it’s broken down, and they operate 24/7 you know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”

“Really?”

“Yeah really! Now get out your card and we’ll give them a call.”

An hour and a pot of coffee later the RACV man has come and has the ute running like a sewing machine in no time at all. Amazing work, something to do with the distributor cap and the points, blah, blah, in one ear and out the other. I quietly thank him for coming to my rescue.

Indi is chomping at the bit to go fishing and her mother is running around like a headless chook filling the ute with bags of food, sunscreen, hats, jumpers, bottles of drink, all the while giving instructions to Walter. “Now Dad, don’t you take your eyes off her and don’t let her too close to the water! Don’t be too long or she will get too tired.”

“Yes dear, yes dear.” He turns to Indi. “Jeez, mothers, who would have ’em?” “Yeah cheese!” Indi says, smiling.

Just as they are leaving I say to Walter, “And the next time your ute breaks down, don’t call me.”

“Wouldn’t think of it.

“That’s why I’ll always be with RACV!”

Special mention - A Boy at War

By Clyde Woods

I was born in Ballarat in 1930. My family consisted of my parents and two much older sisters. Then there was me, the baby. I was nine years old when the war broke out in 1939.

At first it made no difference to us kids, who continued to go to school, do our chores and then play. The war seemed far away.

But gradually, things changed. Our parents often talked about how badly things were going for the Allies and, on a more personal note, my sisters and our cousin joined the army. (The cousin died in a Japanese POW camp).

The war news became worse and worse. But then in 1941 America entered the war following Pearl Harbour.

Everything changed: Australia was on a war footing.

At school we practised hiding under the desk in case of a bombing raid. We dug trenches and ran to them when the siren went off. Many of us joined the air cadets hoping that one day we would fly a Spitfire – of course we never did.

As the Japanese came closer and closer to Australia and Darwin and Broome were bombed, panic reigned. Even us kids were caught in the fear at that time.

I heard my parents talking about the Japanese invading Australia. I asked my father if they would come to Ballarat. I don’t remember his answer. My father was scared for my sisters.

On the home front no lights were allowed to be seen. Wardens patrolled the streets to check on the blackouts. Street lights were turned off; cars had only slits for headlights. The only lights visible were the searchlights combing the skies for invisible Japanese planes.

Rationing was introduced: there were coupons for everything. Clothes, food, petrol (a gallon a month). You couldn’t buy almost anything without the precious coupons.

Many families, such as ours, were almost self-sufficient. We had a large vegetable patch, chooks, caught rabbits (our staple diet) and cut bush timber for firewood. There was a barter system between neighbours. We traded surplus eggs, vegetables and rabbits for homemade bread, pies and fruit (a neighbour’s orchard). We never went hungry.

When I was 14 I left school and became a telegram boy. We were not popular as we often had to deliver bad news (KIA or MIA). When they opened the door the lady would go white with shock and she suspected the worst. I even saw them faint which was pretty scary for a 14-year-old.

But then the American soldiers came; they were everywhere; billeted in private homes or on the big camp in Victoria Park. Us kids would go there after school and let them ‘dink’ us into the city for two shillings – then back to the camp for another ‘fare’ – we were rolling in money which helped our family.

The Americans were not over-popular with the Australian soldiers who claimed they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. But we were glad to see them; now the Japanese couldn’t get us! They were our saviours.

The year 1945 brought peace to the whole world – our boys and girls came home from overseas – many of them were never the same.

Both during the war and for some time after there was strict petrol rationing. There were some ingenious solutions. You would see cars with great big gas bags on the roof or charcoal burners on the back. My father installed a gallon can under the bonnet connected to the petrol system. You would start the engine on petrol and, when it warmed up, would switch to kerosene. God help you if you didn’t drain the carbie when we got home as it wouldn’t start on kero.

During the war we had a Willys-Overland car. It taught me a lot. I learned how to crank it without breaking my wrist if it ‘kicked’ back; how to adjust the magneto and hand throttle levers, how to time the ignition (yes Dad it’s on top dead centre), how to ‘poison’ the plugs to start it, how to fix a puncture, how to do a grease and oil change, and how to double-clutch to change gears. All this stood me in good stead when, many years later, I bought my first car (a 1946 J model Vauxhall) which I spent more time fixing than driving. This car gave me mechanical troubles until I sold it many years later.

I joined the RACV in May 1968 and have had 50 years of wonderful service.

That’s why I’ll always be with RACV.