My father found her hanging around outside the Australian Embassy on the Strand in London, just after Christmas 1975. She was already quite elderly, and ran out of puff at the mere mention of a hill. We called her Bella. I have no idea why Bella, or why we decided she was female. She was, in truth, an unfashionable VW campervan, or Kombi, white, weary and somewhat woebegone. We took her to Europe for a month every summer for four years, and somehow she lasted the distance, although I have memories of having to get out and walk when she chugged through the Italian Alps in second gear. I probably made that up.
Bella had a pop up roof: a triangular structure of red and white striped canvas. She had rough yellow and orange striped fabric seats that scratched the back of our bare legs just like the old British Rail seats did. The front passenger seat secreted a gas stove which meant tipping the seat up and cooking through the front door, whether or not it was raining. In the back, two dicky seats faced the rear, and a bench seat faced forward, and transformed into our parents double bed at night. Two canvas hammocks folded out from the roof, which meant that getting into bed involved clambering up over our parents bed and onto the sink. When the hammocks were out, Mum and Dad couldn’t sit up in bed without banging their heads on the metal support bars.
As there were four kids, we couldn’t all sleep in the van unless there was an emergency. Then the older two would have the hammocks, my younger sister would sleep across the front seats with a roll of foam filling the gap in the middle, and our smallest brother slept under the laminated table. For normal nights my father bought an upright green canvas annex that clipped – or rather clung – to the van’s sliding side door like the leaning tower of Pisa. It could stand alone, but perilously, as even the slightest breeze threatened to upturn it or send it flying like a kite across the campsite. All the tent pegs were permanently bent double, as every campsite in which we ever pitched that tent had rock-solid ground, which caused my father to grumble loudly, as the pegs bent and buckled, and he would frequently batter his thumb with the mallet trying to bash them into the not-so-good-earth. Also, the annex had no floor, which allowed rivers to flow through it when it rained. For a little security, Dad laid a ground sheet under the blue foam we used as a mattress. The foam got thinner and thinner with the passing years, and it was hardly thick to start with. Like the Princess and the Pea we could feel the tiniest pebble or root between our shoulder blades. Our cheap, blue nylon sleeping bags had different coloured linings and we would fight for the colour we preferred. Every night. And there we would sleep, lying in a neat row like electric blue sardines.
For entertainment we took books, a cricket bat for French cricket, a pack of Happy Family cards and a huge ream of computer paper on which my sister and I drew endless, identical, onion-headed beauty queens with felt tip pens, the only variation being the colour of their hair (brown, yellow or red) and eyes (blue, green or brown). And I guess their dresses were different colours, but probably identical styles, as neither of us had an ounce of artistic talent. Nevertheless, we would entertain our brothers for hours on long trips, making them the official judging panel of our glorious beauty queens.
Our trips to Europe inevitably included Italy and at least one flood. I remember one when I nearly got washed into Lago Maggiore, the sole remaining camper in our tortured tent.
On long trips, Mum would sit in the front trying to inspire us to admire the view. “Look kids! A castle!” Or “a river!” Or “a cow!” Anything, to tempt us to look up from our drawing/reading/card games. “Mmmmm,” we would mumble with no interest whatsoever. “Have you got Mr. Butcher?” “No. Go fish.” Sometimes she would instigate a singalong and we would all kneel up on the dicky seats and bellow into Dad’s ear, working our way through every tune we knew. Dad always requested ‘Lord of the Dance,’ so that years later I would use it in our wedding ceremony in his honour, an old friend playing it on the flute – all the verses – while we signed the register.
I sat up with Dad one night, not long before I would wend my own way back to Europe as a young adult, trying to see how much we could remember of those trips. Mostly, I had only snapshot memories: long forgotten images of a waterfall or a castle (surprisingly), a burning hot beach or a stomach churning boat trip. I did recall, however, one restaurant on Lago di Como where Dad bravely ordered goat, and was served up a tureen with the entire skull complete with eyeballs, much to our unanimous disgust. And we still laugh at him for insisting that he loved Turkish coffee, only to be handed an undrinkable thimble of black silt.
Already designated the only keen writer in the family, I remember one year Dad encouraged me to keep a journal. I bought a giant notebook into which I stuck a tram ticket and a post card of a castle on the Rhine, a description of a torture chamber and some tedious details of our camp dinners, before I lost interest. Mum struggled, with only two gas rings and a griller, to feed six people on plastic plates with tinny cutlery, squeezed around a wobbly folding table, so perhaps the less said about meals the better. Somehow we always managed to buy the last baguette in the boulangerie, which would be stale, dry and rock hard by dinner time, like the camp grounds. And I remember hating the saltless European butter and the gloopy margarine. Wasps invaded the strawberry jam and the UHT milk, always heavy, sweet and tepid, poured over stale cornflakes made me want to puke. Bella had no mini fridge, just a cold box, which always smelled damp and mildewed, for we rarely managed to keep it full of ice. Usually there was only a puddle of water in the bottom, in which the margarine and milk could paddle. And there was a permanent, battered tin of Spam in the cupboard in case of emergencies. It sat there for four years, untouched, and it was rusty and probably poisonous by the time we sold the van.
Yet I remember those summers as unusually happy, family times, despite mum’s despair at trying to get all the clothes washed and dried in heavy rain. Our usually quarrelsome pack seemed to have an unspoken truce during that month away. We played together all day with barely a squabble, and I was allowed to read the bedtime story as we were all packed tightly into our sagging, drunken tent at 7.30pm, while the European kids played on through the long summer evenings, until eleven o’clock or midnight.
Bella was our summer holiday recreational vehicle, but also the family car. She came on picnics and family outings and weekend trips, and very occasionally she would do the school run – under duress – when it was too wet or snowy to walk. We could squeeze ridiculous numbers of children into the back, in an era when seatbelts were not yet obligatory, lounging across the bench seat, kneeling up on the dicky seats or sprawling over the bed at the back. When we returned to Australia four years later and we had to sell her on, it felt worse than leaving the family pet behind.
My parents have had a series of campervans since then, mostly boxy Nissans, and none as memorable, inefficiently designed, un-chic or beloved as Bella.