Beryl Fawcett. I’ll never forget her name. She’d come from Malaysia and I met her at a party in Cape Town. It was 1961 and I was about fifteen, just ready to leave school. ‘What do you do?’ I asked. ‘I’m a social worker.’ she answered. I’d never heard of one. ‘Tell me about it.’ I said. Beryl worked among the rubber plantations, tending to the desperately poor and needy. She seemed exotic and well heeled, but had a deep commitment to society. I was hooked.
Back home I faced my father in his study. ‘I want to go to the University of Cape Town next year.’ I said. ‘What on earth is this about? he said, ‘Your academic track record’s bad, and as far as I can see, you have spent most of the past two years on Clifton beach!’ My father was incredulous. Girl cousins in my family leave school, and very soon marry nice suitable husbands.
But, I knew my father valued education. I knew that eight years of war had caught him. He’d wanted to study engineering, but by the time the war was over he had my mother and me to support.
I also knew that he wanted me to study further, but he was also right. Up to now I had paid far more attention to parties, the beach and the razzmatazz crowd of the Cape than to any studies. I could see him mulling it over. ‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘This is the deal. I’ll give you one year at the University of Cape Town. Pass everything and I’ll give you a car. Fail even one subject and you’re out.’ ‘Deals on!’ I said happily and bounced out of the study.
The University of Cape Town’s results come out in December. They post them on boards outside the Administration Department and you have to go and look them up. In front of everyone. It’s nerve-racking. Searching, searching for your name you go … Social Anthropology? Yes! Political Philosophy? Yes! Social Work? Yes! Social Administration? Yes!
‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ I yelled through the front door. Celebrations all round. The weeks passed, then the months, but no car. Then, six months into the new academic year, I came home to find a small bubble on four wheels standing outside our front door. What on earth was it? I walked around it curiously. I’m not tall, but I could see right over the top, and I could definitely see a sun roof. I opened the front door … nice little dash, gears. I opened the boot – crikey, that’s the engine. Puzzled, I glanced up, only to see my father’s amused face looking at me through his study window.
‘It’s yours,’ he said coming out the front door. ‘It’s a Fiat 500. ‘Now let me tell you about it. It’s Italian. They were launched about five years ago. It was a time when Italy was still suffering economic shock waves from the aftermath of war, and this little car was said to bring wheels to the masses. They’ve had wonderful write-ups in all the car magazines. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the Italians. When you were born I was given special leave. But the very next day I was sent back to Italy. I stayed there long after armistice, as part of the mopping up operations.’
My father doesn’t talk about the war, I thought, so why’s he telling me this? ‘Well,’ he continued, ‘Every Italian family that we came across, whether in the country or the small towns, welcomed us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The warmth and hospitality made a bloody awful job bearable. And what really impressed me was that they’ve got style – they can’t make a garden without a fountain, and they can’t build a bridge without an arch. So when I read about this little Fiat 500 I thought … That’s the car for my daughter. It’s got style, it’s got panache, and it is virtually indestructible. Now go and enjoy it.’
Enjoy it? From the very first drive around the block I was in love with it. This was the ultimate fun car of the sixties, and as students we were there to have fun. I have no idea how many friends I stuffed into my little Fiat, but it was akin to sardines lined up in a tin. The sun roof open, the tallest friend would stick her head out like a giraffe. ‘Left, left!’ she’d yell from her lofty perch, ‘Oops, no, right, right!’ The petrol lasted forever, and so I’m sure did the car. But there came a day when we had to part. Married and with a small baby, my beloved Fiat had to go. Safety and sobriety won the day.
It’s forty years later now, and no, I’m not old. I don’t feel as if I have adult children. I don’t feel as if I am about to become a grandmother in six months time. Rather, as I sit here in the peace of the Italian countryside, with the noise of the tractor running up the vineyards behind me, and the fountain playing on the terrace, I feel exactly the same as I did when I got home that day in Cape Town -the day that that tiny Fiat 500 stood outside the front door, with my father hiding behind his study window. For … I am waiting for my Fiat 500 to come driving down our bumpy track.
How did this come about?
It’s three years since we bought the wing of the old farmhouse in a beautiful Tuscan valley, and we love it. Living in London, up to now we have hired a car at Pisa airport. It’s easier, and my husband’s quite right – we have no worries of lifts to and fro from the airport, of batteries running flat, or dirty cars. And, yes, rental cars are the answer, but where’s the soul?
Last year I found a new friend. She lives in the village of Castellina nearby and she is a gardener. I met her in the nursery near Poggibonsi and very soon we were chatting plants. When we parted I followed her out to the car park. And there, in front of my eyes, was a little Fiat 500. A bright mustard colour Fiat 500 … station wagon! I’d never seen that before. ‘Where did you get it?’ I gasped.
‘Oh, I’ve had it for ages,’ she said. ‘I love it. The station wagon version was built especially to take a 55 litre demijohn of wine in the back. Only in Italy! It’s my baby. Because of its colour I call it the Baked Bean.’
Well, I felt exactly as Toad of Toad Hall felt when he set sight of his first car. ‘Poop poop,’ he said, ‘Poop poop! Ratty, I must have this!’ From then on every time I saw Jazz I dreamed about the possibility of owning one. ‘I’ll have a look,’ she said. But Fiat 500’s are prized these days, the prices go up, and who is a reliable dealer? The months ticked by. Then came the phone call. ‘My sister’s got a Fiat 500 that she’s thinking of selling,’ my friend said. ‘They live in the UK and she feels that she’s just not over here enough to warrant keeping it. Are you interested? ‘Am I indeed!’ I say, ‘What’s the colour?’
‘It’s red, with a sun roof, and we all love it,’ she said. ‘It’s called Campari.’
© 2015 hemispheresapart.com
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