THE BUSMAR ASTRAL
Little Sis and I stood staring at the contraption. It resembled a fairy caravan and from that point of view we were thrilled. “Can we put up some curtains?” I asked. Dad, hands in pockets and a roll up cigarette stuck to his lip, laughed. “Girdles, this is a deluxe form of transport. There’s no need for curtains”. I felt slightly concerned. The application of some tiny curtains would at least give privacy. But why did I need it? The little knot of trepidation inside of me somehow knew we would.
“It is your new mode of travel,” continued Dad proudly. “Open the door and get in, then.” We complied pulling the front seat forward and scrambling into the back. To be sure, our shoulders did overlap a little but we were very cosy and comfortable. We shrieked out “It’s lovely, Daddy!” He smiled broadly, his fag travelling up to the corners of the mouth. “We’ll make our first trip a picnic to South Weald”. A treat indeed.
For weeks Dad had been labouring in his shed well into the night and, when the beast grew too big, in the garden by lamplight. He was making his very own sidecar. Constructing a replica of a picture he had seen in a motorbiking magazine. The Busmar Astral was the very last word in sidecar design. Shaped like a huge egg with a flat bottom, its passengers could ride in comfort. It was just about as big as any sidecar could be (that is without toppling over) and indeed I do not think a bigger one has ever been made since. With his old job and use of van now gone he had purchased a huge, but old, Ariel motorbike. It kicked up an awful racket on start-up and coughed out a huge plume of exhaust on take-off. It rumbled and shuddered long after being switched off and we could hear him coming a mile away. Mum would begin ladling out his soup at the ready and I would run and light his paraffin stove in the shed in time for his evening work. All this before the massive headlamp lit up the front of our house and the smell of fuel filled the hall.
The motorbike was a strong beast and Dad thought it tough enough to carry his family. If only they made a sidecar large enough.
The picture in the magazine confirmed they did. Way beyond his means to buy outright, he set about creating one himself.
First the side frames bent into shape followed by the cross structure. Thin ply wrapped the frame. Next, window slots were cut out and an opening for a door. By now so great was the structure that the huge mass had to stand in middle of the front garden otherwise the completed behemoth would never get through the sideway alongside the house. Sitting alone on our bathroom stool in the centre of the grass, his lantern hung aloft on a bit of old rope tethered between the drainpipe and outside streetlight, he looked like Giuseppe fashioning a camper van for Pinocchio. Since it took on such a fairylike allure, Jana and I were fascinated: watching from our bedroom window, we witnessed Josef Eduardo Novotny’s creation take shape…
Often a small knot of people would gather on the pavement to watch. They reminded me of those I had seen watching the clearance of huge bomb craters in London. A sort of dignified respect hung in the air. There the onlookers would stand stock still and observe… and even applaud, especially after a particularly tricky bit of engineering had been successful.
After the skeletal construction came the bullnose front. Submarine-like and covered in thin sheet metal, it really did resemble an underwater missile. Once the pliable plastic windows were formed and set in a thick rubber seal, however, it took on a strange majesty somewhere between caravan and camper. On top a concertina pleated waterproof fabric was put in the roof which could be rolled open in temperate weather. A front seat and back seat were upholstered in red leather and a lipped tray set in the nose with a round cup opening into which Mum could put a mug to contain her tea. A black rubber floor made from old lorry mats and the fuselage hand-painted in smart black and maroon it was almost ready for its first spin. Splendid, superbly fashioned and very much admired by most.
Winter was upon us so dad added a little brazier to his tableau beneath which he would place some big potatoes for roasting. The knot of followers had now grown considerably and had moved from the pavement to the front lawn even bringing their own orange boxes to sit on. They were in for the long haul. Dad by now was giving a nonstop commentary on the work in progress and explaining how each minute part should be dealt with. Some of these men even went on to build their own budgie nesting boxes, gates and sheds, so inspired were they by Dad’s ingenuity. Often us kids would creep down in dressing gowns for tea and roasted jacket potatoes with salt and melted butter and mugs of tea. Word got around. Weather permitting the show aired every night and the followers grew. With the addition of a couple of church pews and a London Transport bus seat, women now joined the club. They were soon all a little in love with Josef. When rain threatened a huge tarpaulin was thrown over the construction and anchored down with tent pegs. Light work was made of this since everyone lent a hand.
What must we have looked like to the unsuspecting eye? What discussions must have been held late at night in the kitchens in our street? What a pantomime, poppy show and spectacular spectacle this family of Bohemians must have presented? A little doubt began to niggle in my mind. Were they all laughing at us…?
At this point the joy us kids felt turned into squirming embarrassment. Our toes curled in our T-bar sandals. The homemade sidecar now anchored so proudly to a chassis was HILARIOUS and, worst still, our dear Dad looked funniest of all.
Donned in a Soviet hat with side flaps down, huge, black aircraft goggles, massive leather flying jacket, high military boots and elbow-high leather gauntlets he became the object of ridicule. There was no hiding him and we began to feel shame. A disturbing feeling which did not sit well. We loved our Dad and knew he had worked long and hard to make our lovely sidecar but we were not hunting with the alpha pack of kids, and we were therefore at risk.
There was little to fear from those who were familiar with us as a family. Dad with his affability and charm was well-known, loved and admired by our neighbours who had showed great interest in his entrepreneurial skills and sometimes even tried to copy them, often very badly.
They gathered around the Astral murmuring their approval.
“Spot on Joe, my Lil would love to sit in one like that.”
“Pukka job, Joe, looks just like the bloody picture.”
“Your Valerie will look like the Queen of bleeding Sheba in that, Joe.”
“I could get me pigeon crates inside easily.”
“Could even get me ma-in-law in that!”
Such was the response and admiration that several homemade would-be side cars began to take shape in the small backyards down our way. Single ones to be sure and often ending up resembling an old boot but nevertheless, enthusiasm had been born and it was an A for effort all round.
Ours was something else though. You see our Dad was skilled at technical drawing and had cut his template from proper measurements thereby achieving the exact proportions as those shown in Motorbike Weekly.
But beyond our street, it was true that we had become a laughing stock. People pointed and screamed with laughter falling into hedgerows, kids run after us yelling and even the roaming dogs would gather speed alongside us. They had never seen the like. Up until a few months ago neither had we. We felt ridiculous, and shamed… would cower down in our seats should we see anyone we knew from school. But the news was out, and our popularity grew daily. The kids tormented us no end.
Your family is nutty.
Your Dad looks like a German outrider in that gear.
Your Mum boils up bones for soup, doesn’t she?
My Dad says your real name is Novotnovitch.
We think you are Russians.
Is your Dad a spy?
Worse still, when the accoutrements appertaining to our outings became too cumbersome, I was allocated the pillion to free up valuable storage in the sidecar. Dad would donate his Russian cap to me and zip my windcheater up to my chin. Then with a scarf, baggie trousers and my swimming goggles in place I would wrap my arms around him hoping against hope that I was somewhat disguised. I often burnt my ankles of the red-hot exhaust and it was no fun in driving rain, but generally, I loved it, especially when little Sis would stand up and hand me a gobstopper through the roof of the Busmar.
Embarrassed as heads began to turn and fingers began to point, nothing, absolutely nothing could overshadow our wonderful forays. Touring beautiful, unspoiled Essex away from the monstrous estate, we picnicked in such interesting places.
Dad had fitted a rack on top of the sidecar into which we bunged all our picnic paraphernalia. The Primus stove was stowed in a tiny little drop-down boot in the back, the space being under our seat. Jana in the back, Mum in the front, legs outstretched comfortably, tea in the holder, baby Alexandra tucked into the torpedo point. Dad had a definite nose for winnowing out the most secret parts of the countryside. The secret, most beautiful spots.
On that very first trip, he drove into a derelict farm, through the farmyard, past the barns into the open fields beyond. I remember Jana and I checking out the barn which was stuffed to the roof with the contents of the house. This we climbed up into the hayloft finding nests in the eaves and bats. The furniture was huge old Victorian stuff, cast iron beds, horsehair sofas and paintings of bucolic scenes in heavy frames. Today it would be viewed as a goldmine of antiques and curios.
Dad came to call us. Food was up. He stood for a moment looking at the stack of dusty furniture we were climbing on. “Get down at once,” he ordered. We did as we were told. He continued, “You must understand that all this was once some lovely family home. Valued possessions where people lived their lives, slept ate and had their little ones! You must respect that they are gone; forgotten forever, and nobody gives a single thought to them. It’s heart-breaking.” Instantly, we sensed it too and hung our heads. The history and sadness issuing forth. The poor fox in his glass case already dead before he even graced the sideboard. The taxidermist inserted glass eyes alert to danger; but false and none seeing. It went straight to our hearts. The once-proud chaise spewing out moth-eaten stuffing. The baby cradle vacant now and still; the tin bath no longer needing to be filled with warm water. All dead and dissolving to dust. We had no wish to clamber further and came away, quietly closing the huge doors behind us as one would close those to a church.
“Come girdles and look. You see these stones and how clear the water is rushing over them?” We observed and agreed it was so. Dad was filling the tin kettle. The primus was already lit. He looked up “Only ever drink from running water. It’s clean, you see. Never ever still. It’s poison and dangerous; you cannot know what lies beneath. The same goes in life, clear and open, NEVER deep and unknown.”
Our country picnic was sublime. Goulash with dumplings and red cabbage and lashings of sour cream; cooked slowly overnight and warmed up on the primus. A small plume of smoke from a little sulky fire kept the midges off us. Dad with his Observer and Mum with her Woman’s Weekly. The baby in her basket. The bubbling brook for paddling. A jam jar with a string handle and long net for catching tiddlers. Sublime memories forever imprinted in my mind.
Home in our Busmar Astral, our wing commander Dad at the helm, scarf blowing in the breeze. Mum passing her tea over to us for a sip. Nectar.
Another life lesson learned. Others could laugh at the spectacle all they liked, and they did. We didn’t give a hoot. We were strong we were proud, we were ahead of the game. Our Dad was a wonderful teacher