Oil Spills No Tonic

Share this story

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA—When a day starts off really badly, I sometimes feel the most sensible option is to go straight back to bed. I say this with conviction as this week, I had not one but two major mishaps before the day had even properly begun.

First, I filled the steam iron with tonic water. Yes, tonic water. Should have drunk the gin and gone back to bed. The ironing board is permanently set up in the garage for easy access and ironing on demand. Tellingly, it is not a pastime I enjoy. The tonic water had been sitting there for some time, right next to the spare fridge that tends to freeze up. I only recalled later that I had removed the frozen bottle of tonic water some months earlier.

Hurrying as usual, I grabbed a shirt and eyeing the tonic water bottle, proceeded to top up the steam iron. Seconds later, an aroma best described as burnt toffee, wafted through the room. The iron then began spewing caramel-coloured liquid all over my clean shirt. Careful not to raise the alarm, I quietly rinsed out the caramel water and was rather relieved that the iron didn’t seem to have suffered any lasting damage. I simply retrieved a fresh shirt and continued as normal. As it turned out, it would take a tad longer to rid the iron of caramel residue.

Next I decided the slight ‘misfiring’ of my car engine was certainly an oil deficit. I know nothing about cars. As one of the three girls growing up in a household, I wish I’d listened when my dear dad was doing his seasonal oil change. The only technical car word I recall was ‘sump’.

I headed for the car and in my defense, this was probably one occasion where my family should have taken notice of what I was saying. I cheerily announced to no one in particular that I was “going to fill up the car with oil”.

As I later learned, you fill up a car with petrol and merely ‘top up’ with oil. That’s why there’s a marker on the dip stick. It’s meant to indicate when to stop. I filled it up like a kettle.

I felt quite emancipated until I drove my son to the bus stop and noted a slow trail of smoke wafting from the bonnet. Too embarrassed to stop, open the hood and pretend to know what I was looking for, I waved my bemused son and his mates goodbye and left under a cloud, as it were.

Still reluctant to reveal to the rest of the family that I may have permanently damaged a very valuable mode of ‘uni’ student transport, I did the next sensible thing after searching the entirely unhelpful car manual. I quietly Googled ‘what happens when you overfill a Yaris with oil’.

Good old Google – seems other dummies have done it too. Most of the commentary was not too encouraging. Engine damage ‘could’ result, said one. Another bright spark suggested sucking the excess out with a tube. This was the practical option I chose. I cut off a short length of garden hose and proceeded to suck. Surprise, surprise. There’s an obstructive metal plug that prevents such pastimes.

The only other alternative was draining the oil by locating that pesky little sump. Google called it a ‘sump plug’ and again, there are people out there in cyberspace looking for theirs too. I tried squeezing my head under the car to search for said ‘sump plug’ but the low carriage clearance was a little prohibitive.

Note to manufacturer: Make allowance for head under car. The obvious solution was to jack the car up. It was only now that my husband fortuitously lifted his head from his very important document and asked what the heck I was doing. Close call. It could have been a beautiful climax to a catastrophic morning – Yours Truly found squashed under the car, head positioned inches from the sump plug. Strangely, the car righted itself. Engine seems fine.

The heartening aspect of being ever so slightly dippy is that there are others out there with similar traits. I was relaying my dramas to a very trusted friend who, unlike many sensible people, can totally relate to the slightly offbeat episodes that plague me. In other words, things that don’t happen to the average ordinary person. Bless her.

She doesn’t, for example, ask why I didn’t just call RACQ. Or: did I not know that the tonic water was tonic water given that it was in a tonic water bottle? Near the fridge. As a fellow and perhaps a far nuttier nutter than myself, she always comes up with a far more rewarding story. For example, I told her about our Golden Orb spider that had taken up residence, complete with the resplendent web, in the inside corner of the front windshield. Unlike most families who would possible screech in unison and remove or squash the spider, it remained there for two days because no one wanted to break its beautiful web. That’s not normal.

My friend, whom I’ll call Sally, on account of work colleagues regarding her as the picture of efficiency and normality, didn’t flinch. Just that week she had had a run in with a different sort of creature. She had pulled on her jeans in a hurry, noting that they were a little tight from a recent indulgent holiday. While seated in the car with her family she felt something wriggling near her thigh.

With great difficulty and hysteria, on account of her constricting pants, she managed to grab hold of the wriggling creature while frantically sliding her other hand down her jeans.

Screeching, she revealed to all that she thought there was a cockroach in her jeans. With great difficulty and hysteria, on account of her constricting pants, she managed to grab hold of the wriggling creature while frantically sliding her other hand down her jeans. “I pulled out a gecko,” she said, deadpan. Of course, she did. Better than knickers. She’s done that too.

She’s also been party to her husband’s car careering into the fence of an unsuspecting family’s home. Police were called. When my car rolled down the hill sans handbrake, it was only a gentle incline, so it simply ramped the curb, scared the daylight out of a man walking his dogs, and stopped by itself. While it’s always comforting to have someone with whom to share such stories, there are times I’ve wondered about some familial link.

My mother did, after all, once hurriedly open the left-hand double garage door to reverse her car, forgetting she was parked in the right. It’s the only time I ever recall hearing my dad use the F-word. I’ve also pondered whether these quirks are not perhaps part of something more sinister. Like the dreaded ‘A’ word of the early onset kind. Seen the movie, Still Alice, read the book.

It does seem, however that I’m off the hook. I read an article recently that said the reason we lose our keys, vacantly put the shoe polish in the fridge or fill up our steam irons with tonic water (Ok, no one else has actually done this), is that we have too much going on in our brains. We have passwords, work agendas, school pickups, teacher interviews, texts to send, finances to juggle, emails to read, people to phone, stuff, stuff, stuff all going on in our overloaded grey matter. It’s no wonder we sometimes have a short circuit.

After some reflection, I decided that what the experts were really saying but were far too politically correct to reveal, was in fact that nutty was the new normal. I’m sticking with that.

© Lois Nicholls June 2015

Photo courtesy:

Filed under: Humour


Lois Nicholls is an Australian freelance journalist. She is also the author of "Aussie, Actually," which captures her heartfelt experiences as a South African migrant living in Australia. Her second book, "Bye-bye Bikini", published in August 2018, is a series of frank and humorous essays navigating everyday life from the perspective of a fifty-something former newspaper and magazine journalist. Her first children's book, "What Dog is That?" available in hardcopy from was published in May 2019. Her books on Amazon: