The Lotus Instructions by Jo Stones
By Jo Stones on April 6, 2017 in Fiction
Jo Stones has lived in South London for thirty-four years, having been born and bred in Sheffield then New Zealand. She returned to study as an adult, graduated with a degree in film and works as an archivist for Film and TV. She returned again to study at Birkbeck University graduating in 2014 with an MA in Creative Writing. Jo is a regular at Mad Poets, Hanbury Street and is working on a Young Adult Novel as well as poetry and short stories.
The Lotus Instructions
‘I bought the Morris Minor in 1967.’
That’s my Dad talking about his first car.
We don’t usually talk about cars.
‘It’s raining here,’ he says.
He lives in North Queensland in the tropical rainforest.
Our long distance conversations are more often about what he might eat for dinner, giving up smoking, drinking, giving up drinking, cutting down on eating. Not about the cricket, he saves that for my brothers, and not about cars – in my view a car is a car – but I’m writing an assignment for my degree. I’ve asked him to do an interview about when he built a car. He’s chuffed and sets the scene.
‘I was in Leicester, doing orthopedics,’ he says.
While Dad was training to become a doctor he lived in Leicester Hospital. I was in Sheffield with my Mum and brother Chris. We had students living with us. Dad was rarely there.
‘It was only eighty-five kilometres but that seemed a long way then,’ says Dad.
‘You couldn’t afford the train?’ I say.
‘Not on nine pounds a week,’ he says, ‘so I took driving lessons. I bought the car from my instructor.’
The Morris was mink with red leather seats and miniature wings.
‘It was during the period when your mother and I were separating,’ he says, ‘getting the Morris enabled me to visit you and Chris.’
He’s referring to later that year. Chris had gone to live with our Irish Catholic grandparents in Torquay. I’d gone to our Lancashire Catholic grandma in Chesham. The grandma I was with had a black and brown dog called Toby. I would travel to my grandparents in Torquay for two weeks each summer. Our Lady was in every room. A dish was affixed to the wall inside the entrance, filled with holy water. You were meant to dip your hand in and do the sign of the cross.
Dad chooses his words carefully. He’s always done that.
‘I came home one weekend on leave and Chris was gone,’ he says, ‘and the next time I came home you were gone as well.’
Mum had another baby boy after me who died, a loss that has never been discussed. As an adult I know that the loss of a child has one outcome, depression and unbearable pain.
‘Yes, 1967,’ says Dad, ‘the year you went to live with grandma. I was uncertain of what the future held.’
‘Can you hear the rain?’ he shouts.
He’s holding his phone out of the window so I can hear the thick loud pounding sound.
‘Yes I can hear it.’
Sometimes in the rainy season he can’t make the drive home. He talks of ‘lows’, a sign that a cyclone could hit. Huge surges come up from the seabed, crashing against the coastal towns. Twice Dad’s been evacuated, out of touch for days.
‘I drove to Torbay in it of course …’
He’s back to talking about the Morris.
‘I did that so I could be closer to Chris, took the transfer, Torbay Hospital … I’d better go, it’s late here, but we’ll talk more tomorrow. Bye Love.’
I call Chris.
‘I’m interviewing Dad about his cars,’ I say, ‘we’ve only got as far as the Morris Minor,’
‘I remember that car,’ he says.
Chris has memory gaps. He had a drug-induced psychiatric crash in 1980. We were teenagers. He volunteers for hospital radio now, keeping well by sticking to his weekly routine. He has a beautiful heart and an astoundingly supportive psychiatric nurse. The years of medication have only dulled some of his memory.
‘Once I was sitting in the front of the Morris without a seat belt on,’ he says, ‘It wasn’t law then. Anyway, we had a prang and I bumped my head on the windscreen.’
Later I call Dad again. He remembers the accident.
‘The brakes failed yes. I ran into the back of a vehicle and had to get a new radiator.’
When I went to our grandparents in Torquay dad would drive over. Chris and I would play in the parked up Morris. We’d press the button that made the miniature wings flick out from either side. On the road they were indicators but in the parked up car they were wings, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
‘I had a couple of girlfriends,’ says dad, ‘Maureen was a nurse at Torbay hospital, and there was another one, Pat.’
I don’t remember Pat. Maureen was kind with long straight dark brown hair. All dad’s girlfriends had long straight hair, as did mum.
‘Off to be now Love, call me tomorrow.’
‘I’d started work a few months before you and Chris came to live with me.’
Dad’s moved on to the autumn of 1969, his first GP job which came with a house. It was in Oughtibridge, near Sheffield. dad still has a letter six year old me sent from Chesham.
‘I hope you are happy and your new house in Oughtibridge is nearly ready. I think about you every day. I can’t wait to come and live in it.’
It’s covered in stick figures skipping and a picture of a house.
‘I spent all the spare time I had decorating,’ he says, ‘the windows and doors leaked and were drafty. We had no heating — just that big Aga in the kitchen and coal fires.’
On Christmas Eve dad drove his Morris down to collect Chris, bringing him back to Oughtibridge. Grandma, Toby and I travelled up from Chesham in her powder blue Ford Anglia. The Morris and the Anglia spent that night parked together. The outside of the house was pitch black from years of soot.
‘The village was much as it had been one hundred years before,’ says dad.
A Doctor Thompson owned the house and the surgery attached. He’d gone to live in Africa. A crocodile had eaten him or at least that’s what Chris and I believed. I mention this to dad. He laughs.
‘It must have been a story I made up for you as children,’ he says, ‘Doctor Thompson and his wife went to work in an African Mission. His father, Doctor Thompson Senior, was the first doctor in the village. He’d turned the old stables into a garage, built the pit in the floor. There was a stout beam in the ceiling, ideal for fixing cars. He would’ve had a car when he came back from the First World War.’
Women in the village smiled and were kind to us. Patients brought us Beanos and Curly Wurlys and gave dad the gossip, fussing over him. When Chris and I went to the chip shop we’d get extra chips for free.
‘I first arrived in Sheffield in 1958 and the city was full of bombsites,’ he says, ‘It was because of the steel factories. It would have been a target because of that, an important part of the war effort.’
‘Do you remember when you had a free Sunday you’d take us swimming to The Oasis in Rotherham? Or to see a James Bond film in Sheffield?’ I say, ‘or we’d go to a pub where you knew the landlord. The landlady was so fond of you and would bring us steaming plates of beef stew on pancakes.’
‘That would have been the pub in High Bradfield,’ says Dad, ‘He was my patient. I used to go for a beer. You didn’t worry about drink driving then.’
The Morris stopped working so dad bought grandma’s Anglia and drove us to Scotland for a week’s holiday. It rained the whole time. We drove through a huge wide puddle at full speed, forcing giant waves to burst up and outwards from both sides.
He also bought an old army Land Rover.
‘It was from a big wreckers yard,’ he says, ‘The guy got vehicles from the military. I paid about two hundred pounds for it.’
Dad had to drive out to patients in the Yorkshire hills. In winter it usually snowed.
‘The drive could be treacherous,’ he says, ‘Those old industries were still doing okay. The illnesses people suffered from were often chronic, respiratory illnesses, from digging coal. And the material for lining steel furnaces caused Silicosis. People had Emphysema, TB, Bronchitis … there were still many war veterans who’d been injured in the Second World War.’
‘It wasn’t an easy time,’ he says, ‘I was single, lonely. It was nice having my children back, but I was fed up a lot of the time. I can’t remember knowing any other single parents. I didn’t know any guys who were but I didn’t think of myself as a single parent, or of it being anything unusual.’
Dad worked sixty hours a week. We had housekeepers.
‘I got them from agencies,’ he says, ‘One or two good ones and a few who let me down badly. Kathy was ok, and June.’
We had eight housekeepers over two years. The one dad liked the most was June. June wore mini skirts. One morning she was in dad’s bed. I asked why. She said she was cold which seemed a reasonable answer. June had long straight hair.
‘I think I was a bit depressed,’ he wrote in an email a few days after our phone chats, ‘Perhaps it was taking on two new objectives — going from junior hospital doctor to country GP and at the same time going from being a bachelor to being a father again. I wasn’t doing well at either.’
‘I had friends who had sports cars. I envied them, and the girlfriends they could attract.’
Dad always seemed to have at least one girlfriend.
‘I’d seen the Lotus Elan cruising along the motorway, really good looking cars with power and agility. I dreamed of having one. A car is important for a young man, a statement of his masculinity. And the Lotus was a solid statement.’
‘I saw a Lotus Elan in a showroom window, racing green. I went in and got the guy to take me for a test drive. I was hooked. It had really good suspension, which enabled it to go around bends at speed, a powerful engine, and the transmission and brakes were all top class. He was a good salesman.’
‘So when I could, as soon as I could, I sold the Anglia, borrowed the rest and bought one, a Kit Set White Lotus Elan Series 4, Special Equipment, Fixed Head Coup E. Maybe we had to go without a bit for a while …’
‘It was delivered in parts directly into the garage, the old stables.’
‘Taking on a car build must have felt quite daunting,’ I say, ‘you had us to look after and a demanding job and you’re not usually good at DIY.’
‘I had a lot of help from my friend Mike and from a mechanic I knew,’ he says, ‘I could never have done it on my own.’
Mike knew the ropes, he’d built one before. He built another one at the same time as dad built his. ‘The instructions were vague, typed on one sheet of paper,’ says dad, ‘like ‘Now insert the engine.’
I registered on Lotus Elan.net posting a request to find the original instructions that would have come with the kit set Lotus Elan. I was soon inundated with emails from Elan enthusiasts —pictures, information, history, scanned pages from specialist magazines and manuals. Everyone said there were no instructions. One Elan enthusiast even searched for dad’s old car.
‘It was registered on 7th April 1970,’ he said in an email, ‘the Sheffield dealer was Hallamshire Motors, on Broad Lane. The kit didn’t come with any instructions but in the workshop manual there were details for rebuilding. I’ll dig mine out for you.’
He said the lack of cohesive instructions was so that the buyer didn’t have to pay purchase tax. The manufacturers got around it by printing some useful information in the back of the manual for any necessary ‘Overhaul and Rebuild.’
Dad’s old friend Mike also emailed me with his account of the story. He was the one who did most of the building of both his and dad’s car, he said.
‘Your dad kept getting called out on house calls.’
Chris and I remember both dad and Mike in the old stables laughing and drinking beer. dad’s Lotus was white and Mike’s was red. It was such fun. We didn’t notice or care who was doing what.
‘I could do things like putting the seats in,’ says dad ‘and I put the suspension parts in, after being shown how to do it.’
I remember dad and Mike grinning in their mechanics overalls, standing in the pit that old Doctor Thompson had built in the floor of what had once been stables.
‘They said it could be done over a weekend,’ says dad, ‘Perhaps two mechanics could do it but it took us a lot longer than that — two or three months. The Lotus agent took it away on a trailer, checked everything I’d done was alright and then that was it, I had the car.’
It was a two-seater. I had to squeeze in the back. We laugh about that now.
‘It was an important symbol for me,’ says dad, ‘worth more than you can imagine to my soul, or inner self. Until that moment I had been a GP in a niche that didn’t suit me, a solo parent who didn’t know how to run a family. Now I was a sports car driver as well.’
He admitted that there were some glitches.
‘I put the exhaust and silencer system in. Which is probably why it would come apart quite often.’
I remember things falling off. He would stop the car and Chris would jump out, running back to collect whatever it was. Chris thought it was the exhaust pipe but Dad says it was the silencer. Chris always sat in the passenger seat. I remember feeling restricted, my plump little body crammed into the tiny space behind. Dad admits it wasn’t a very practical car for us.
‘I really loved that car,’ says dad, ‘I’ve never felt like that about a car since, though I have liked a few, including my new Jeep. Now, when I look back, I wish I had kept it, stored it maybe, had a saloon car for the family.’
He sold the Lotus when he remarried in 1972.
‘I got the Escort then, a rally sports 1600 with studded tyres for the snow,’ he says, ‘I thought I could recreate the dream but it was nothing like the Elan.’
My brother, Nick, was born a year later and dad bought a maroon Austin Maxi. He shipped it out to New Zealand when we emigrated there a year later. My brother Andrew was born the following year and dad bought a red Honda Accord.
In every car there were always empty cigarette packets, chewing gum and mints littering the floor. Sometimes when we were going places he’d sing ‘Jackaroo Davey’
In 1980 our family fell apart, I left home and came back to England. Visiting dad four years later his second marriage had ended. He was driving a secondhand Honda Civic and in the midst of re-training as a psychiatrist which involved having psychoanalysis himself.
‘You had a dream about the Lotus,’ I say.
‘My analyst, Dorothea, was powerful at times,’ he says, ‘in the forties she’d met Jung. There was a photo of her and him on her wall.’
In the dream he had found his old Lotus Elan with the original logbook. As he looked through the long list of all the owners he saw his name right at the top.
‘Dorothea interpreted it as a wish to maintain my libido; that I wanted to go back to a time when things were more straightforward, when life was full of possibilities.’
Dad rebuilt his life.
‘I bought a Lotus Elite, hoping to recapture the gains I experienced with the Elan but it was not to be. It broke down on my first journey, and was in the garage for 3 months waiting for parts. Not as good a car as the Elan by a long way. I concentrated on getting through my psych training which was what I wanted to do.’
It took dad seven years to become a psychiatrist then he was hired to set up mental health systems in North Queensland working with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
‘Before that it was only the police or the law courts who dealt with any mental health problems they suffered,’ he says.
Ten years later he was hired to counsel soldiers returning from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘I’ve settled for a Jeep now,’ he says, ‘Better for North Queensland. I’m a bit old now to drive a car as fast as the Elan. I’ll stick to my Jeep.’
I call dad on my way to work. It’s his birthday.
‘Sorry for missing the post with your present,’ I say.
We talk about my idea of arranging a party with all the family in North Queensland for his seventy-fifth birthday next year.
‘The great thing about your plans is you’ve plenty of time to organize them,’ he writes later in a text.
I wake up the next day. I’ve five missed calls on my mobile from one of his ex-girlfriends. I call her back. I’ve never met her.
‘Your dad’s had a heart attack.’
She says he’s dead. I don’t believe her.
I fly to Australia.
Dad was reading a book called The Archeology of Aboriginal Dreamtime. It didn’t seem like light reading after a days work. There’s a word game, a shopping list, an unfinished chess game on his coffee table. His cherry red Jeep is in the driveway, parked by him.