Hilary Swank drove my car: A Christmas story

I don’t have a child and it’s increasingly unlikely I will, but it seems to me that one good reason to have a child is to tell them stories from your life while they are still young enough to be interested. My father told me stories in the dark when I was small. He was the hero in some of them and in some of them the fool, and in some there were no heroes and no fools but just things that happened.

If I had a child today I would tell him or her about something that happened ten years ago exactly, in the last week of November in the cruel year of 2003. I would give it a name, like The Pre-Christmas Miracle, or How An Oscar-Winner Saved My Life.

But first I’d show them my car, and explain that it didn’t always look this way. I bought that car twelve years ago with some of the proceeds of my first book, largely with the idea of being more attractive to women. With time it has been scuffed and scraped: a darkened headlight from that incident on the M1 after Fashion Week; the sand-blasted wheel-well from the beach road outside Maputo when I nearly left it there and hitchhiked home; the sighing suspension from that time driving in reverse around some wine farm after David’s wedding in the hot laughing dark; the general slowing down and dullness that comes from growing old.

Whenever old friends see my car they urge me to buy a new one. I think they use cars as a substitute for their reflection in the mirror: as long as it’s new and shiny, perhaps they are too. My car is like Dorian Grey’s portrait to them: it shows the things that time has done to us. I don’t want a new car because I’m loyal and I’m sentimental, and because once upon a time that car saved your dad’s life.

Here’s how it happened. By the end of the cruel year of 2003, I was almost out of money. I hadn’t worked for six months, and I hadn’t been wise: I believed that living too frugally is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I spent money the way I always had: on books and drinks and staying out too late, on travelling and coming back and travelling again, on new best friends whose names I don’t remember now. “If you don’t treat yourself well,” I’d say persuasively to myself, “who will?” And anyway, something would come up.

As December approached, nothing had come up. I was out of money. It doesn’t snow in Johannesburg so I didn’t have to chop up furniture for the fire, but I owed rent and there were medical expenses in the family. The wolf was at the door, making a low scratching sound with its paw. Finally I added up some figures. In time I would need more, but right now I needed fifteen thousand rand.

People are tired at the end of the year, and the sorrows of the festive season still lie ahead. If I just reached the far cool banks of 2004 I’d find the energy and enthusiasm again to make everything all right, but how to cross the dry dead wastes of Christmas first? If I was telling this story to my kid, I’d say I was down to my last twenty rand. That’s not quite true, but it may as well be.

What else are you going to do with twenty rand? I took it to the Xai-Xai bar in Melville for a last drink in the yellow sunshine. There was no parking outside so I had to leave the car down a sidestreet. I drank my drink and still nothing happened. I still had to find fifteen thousand rand.

Then just as I was leaving a woman came in – a strange, harried woman such as I hadn’t seen before. She was out of breath, because she had been to all the restaurants on the block.

“Does anyone here,” she gasped, “drive that silver convertible?”

I almost said nothing. Who needs new problems? But then I raised my hand.

“We’re shooting a movie,” she said. “And we need that car.”

“For how long?”

“For December. We want to take it to the Karoo so Hilary Swank can drive it on screen.”

Hilary Swank? I hesitated. She’d won an Oscar, but she hadn’t yet made Million Dollar Baby.

“We’d pay,” said the woman.

“Oh?” I said. “How much?”

“Fifteen thousand rand.”

From time to time, when I need my faith renewed in Christmas and the good things of the world, I rent Red Dust and watch to see my car. It looks lovely there – shiny and silver and young. In my heart it always looks that way.

Times, 20 November 2013