The Hume Highway, NSW, various Sunday nights, 1997 – 1998
It was always a finality to those weekends I’d spent in Sydney. The long drive home alone in the dark, punctured only by the obligatory stop at Marulan for something to eat and to change the cassette tape. Most of the music I would normally be listening to was on CD; but my 1988 Ford Laser sedan, the first car bought with my own money (and the debt to the credit union) only had a cassette player.
Of course I didn’t just tape a CD – that would be too easy. I’d create mix-tapes of favourite artists; often gifting a side to one artist, loading it with favourites and checking against the running time for them to fit as close to 45 minutes as possible. The tape was my time-marker as well as my driving companion. Ninety minutes – the first tape was my signal to half-way; the second my signal to home. Was I there yet?
I had been given Songs From The South, Kelly’s greatest hits album, and had my favourites, which would probably have been pretty typical of a young public service graduate who grew up in the southern suburbs of Sydney who had moved to Canberra for work and hadn’t really fully committed to it yet. My short list was written quickly, but it was unfortunately too short.
I don’t know why I decided to cram in Winter Coat to fill the space on my Paul Kelly tape. It is slow and not great for driving to. On the album it was wedged between Careless and From Little Things Big Things Grow. It wasn’t anything special and I had no kindred sentiment to the song.
I did have my own winter coat, a black woollen overcoat and it was the warmest thing I owned. My purchase had been an ordinary transaction in Grace Bros in the Canberra Centre. I’d been on my own; no romantic wandering through shops with a lover. And I don’t think anyone even considered haggling in the womenswear department in Grace Bros. My coat was too new to trigger memories, as were most of the clothes in my Canberra wardrobe.
But it did get chilly in those cold cold Brindabella hills. It was only in the height of summer that my Marulan stop wouldn’t involve me putting on a jumper or turning the heater up higher. My coat would lay on the back seat, just in case I needed it. It had survived my first Canberra winter, where I’d walked to the bus stop in below zero temperatures and felt the icy concrete through my shoes. Twenty years later I can still remember the ache in my feet.
So the tape was complete and it sat in the tray in the front with another three or four tapes, ready to be chosen for the drive home or back. Sometimes I’d choose, other times I’d just grab one without looking at the label. I don’t remember when I first played it; but my tape version will always stick in my memory. It was incomplete, with Paul Kelly rudely cut off mid-phrase. No swelling final lines, no plaintive recollections. Just a whirr.
Years have come along, years have gone. The gearbox failed on my car in 1998 and I bought a new car with a CD player. I had no more use for tapes. No need for a song that would never be played in full to serve as my marker. I could (and did) listen to the CD – but it wasn’t the same. My coat gave me faithful service, but it didn’t make the trip back with me to Sydney when I permanently returned, several years later.
Whenever I hear the song now I am back in my first car, the 1988 Ford Laser sedan, driving from my childhood home to my first adult one. Although I played countless songs over those drives, it was one I never sang along to. As soon as I heard the opening line I knew that I was getting to a milestone. I would look to see where I was and work out how far I had left to travel. And I always half expect it to stop before the ending.
I think I prefer it incomplete.
© Kath Presdee