Toby arrived at the training ground on a Wednesday, which was rather a good day to arrive because all the drivers were preparing for a race. Toby could feel a knot of excitement in his tummy, as he drove he stroked the steering wheel of his car.
“I’ve been issued with my car,” his mind sang. “My very own car! I own a car! I have my own. . . Oops!”
Toby stopped singing and clutched the wheel very tightly as his front bumper skimmed the edge of a cone that had been placed on the corner of the road. He turned the wheel quickly and too fast, nearly driving off the edge of the road. Gasping, he turned the wheel the other way, almost driving into a long yellow car that was passing him. The driver of the yellow car honked his horn before gliding past.
Toby giggled. “Not quite got the hang of driving yet,” he whispered, “but it will come, it will come.”
The racing circuit stretched out next to the road. At the moment it was being prepared for a race, with flags being raised and seats being cleaned. Toby noticed a brass band unpacking, and a man sorting great black cables that looked like giant snakes and were probably part of the sound system.
He drove slowly along the perimeter of the racing circuit, avoiding people rolling fat tyres, and mechanics dressed in grey overalls splattered in oil, and important looking souls striding around with clipboards.
He edged his car towards one end of the circuit, where a group of people were standing together in front of some monitors. As Toby approached, a tall man with grey hair that reached his shoulders noticed him, and waved his hands to stop the car.
Toby pressed the brake, and the car stopped, but not until it was well passed the man. Toby sighed, swivelling in his seat so he could see behind him, reversing the car. He managed to stop slightly too far ahead of the man. Very slowly, his foot hovering over the brake pedal, Toby edged forwards. He stopped, with a jolt, level with the man.
“You must be Toby?” said the man, glancing towards the monitors before staring at Toby very hard with his grey eyes. A lone bubble floated in the air above him, and sank slowly out of view.
Toby looked up at the man and felt suddenly worried, aware that this man was someone important and perhaps Toby should have known that and not approached him quite so boldly. Another bubble had replaced the first, and was drifting on the air towards the man’s head. The man was still staring at Toby, his long neck craning towards Toby, his mouth a thin line of disapproval. He seemed oblivious to the bubbles. Toby nodded.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m Toby.”
“You’ve been allocated a mentor,” said the man, looking cross. “You’ll find him over by the refreshment tent; ask for Percy.”
“A mentor?” repeated Toby, confused. He hadn’t realised they would be expecting him, he had hoped to simply watch and try to work out for himself what was happening.
“Yes,” the man was saying, “a mentor.”
Several bubbles were now floating around the man, the sunlight giving them rainbow patterns as they drifted down. One landed on the man, popping in a miniature shower of soap droplets. The man glanced up, looked at Toby and scowled.
“I realise you haven’t had time to learn your car yet, but could you do something about these bubbles? Hardly the right time for them, is it?”
“Me?” said Toby, wondering why the man would think he had any control over the bubbles. Did he expect Toby to get out and start popping bubbles?
The man sighed – an exasperated rush of air – and pointed behind Toby’s car.
Toby turned, and was surprised to see a whole shower of bubbles—tiny dancing bubbles, great swollen floating bubbles, groups of bubbles that clung to each other as though in a family, lone bubbles that drifted independently—all seemingly being pumped from the rear of his car.
“That switch?” said the man, nodding towards a red button on the dashboard.
Toby pressed it, and the bubbles stopped appearing. The few remaining bubbles continued to float on the air, a lazy drift towards the ground.
“That’s better,” said the man. “Now, your mentor. Someone to explain things and help you to improve. You do want to improve, don’t you? You want to be accepted?” The man was frowning now, beginning to look seriously cross.
Toby nodded. “Yes, yes, of course. Great. Thanks.”
The man stepped back, obviously expecting Toby to leave. Toby released the brake and eased the car forwards, heading towards the refreshment tent with its red and yellow striped flags.
As he drove, Toby noticed the sights and smells and sounds of the racetrack as they seeped through his open window. On his left were the stands—row after row of seats, each row slightly raised so that the back row was almost floating in the sky. Toby doubted that anyone would see very much from the back row, but perhaps simply being there, watching the race and listening to the noise would be exciting enough. The stands were almost empty, only the first few rows beginning to fill as the spectators arrived. It was still very early, and the people arriving would have a very long wait before the race began.
On his right, Toby could see the circuit, a wide expanse of black tarmac scarred with tyre marks. There was a small white fence between the track and the small road that Toby was on, but he could almost imagine he was part of the same circuit, that he was making his way to the start-line, about to compete in his first race. He imagined the cheers, people shouting his name, the car underneath him growling in impatience to speed along the track, his fingers clenched the steering wheel, his foot hovering over the accelerator. . .
Then someone stepped into his path, and Toby had to brake suddenly, and his daydream finished.
Toby sighed. He wondered how long it would be before he entered his first race. He knew that some drivers had to wait years and years, and he frowned. He hoped he would be one of the lucky ones, and that perhaps in a few short weeks he would be whizzing around that circuit, learning new skills, testing his ability against other trainee drivers.
He was almost at the refreshment tent now. The tent had flaps that were drawn wide, revealing small round tables inside, where people rested glasses of beer and mugs of cocoa. A woman in a very large hat covered in daisies was leaving, walking carefully over the grass in her high-heeled shoes, calling to someone behind her.
“Do hurry Percy dear, or I shall have to scramble for my seat with everyone else. I do like to be settled before most people arrive.”
“Percy?” thought Toby. “Percy was the name of my mentor.”
He stopped the car and leaned forwards on his seat, waiting for Percy to emerge. Would he be very large, wearing a leather jacket and driving goggles, like drivers from the past? Or would he be in tight jeans and a tee-shirt, with long hair and a wicked smile, like some of the wild drivers he had heard about? Toby rather hoped that his mentor would be one of the wild drivers, full of skill and daring, not afraid to take risks, a little frightening but admired by everyone for the speed at which they spun corners and raced the straights.
The daisy-hat woman had stopped walking, and Toby peered round her, staring hard into the gloom of the tent. But he couldn’t see who Percy was, because there was an old man in the way, a tall thin man who walked with a stoop and leaned heavily on a stick.
Toby sighed in frustration, waiting for the man to pass, so that he could see his mentor.
The old man made his way from the tent. He walked very slowly, as if worried something might break, using his stick almost like another leg. Step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step.
It was almost unbearably slow, and Toby felt like screaming. He was at the training ground, and for Toby that meant speed and daring, learning skills so that he could drive even faster. It was not about waiting, for what felt like several hours, while a stooped old man inched his way closer. Toby tried to peer round him, searching for a sign of his mentor, when, horror of horrors, the old man glanced up at the woman, and pointed at Toby and said: “He’s here. Go ahead without me.”
Toby gasped. Could this old man, this slow old man be his mentor? What could he possibly teach Toby about how to get the fastest speeds from his car?
By the time the man reached him, Toby was scowling. The elderly man leant down, and peered in the window. He smiled, and Toby saw yellow teeth and watery eyes. He felt something heavy lodge in the base of his stomach, and sit there, cold and heavy and full of disappointment.
“Hello Toby,” said the old man, meeting his eyes. “I can tell from your face that you weren’t expecting me, you were expecting someone young and colourful and fast?” He didn’t bother to wait for Toby to reply, he simply smiled and shook his head.
“First lesson,” he continued, “don’t judge a driver by his appearance. I know I look old and slow. I am old and slow. But put me into a car, and I’ll leave you standing at the start line while I finish the race!”
Toby felt his face turn red. “I wasn’t, I mean, I didn’t think. . .” he began to stammer.
“Yes, you did,” said the man – Percy – but his voice was calm, he sounded more amused than annoyed, even though he was correcting Toby, letting him know that he was wrong.
Toby wasn’t sure that he liked being corrected, but there was something about the way Percy spoke, about his complete assurance, that was somehow comforting. Toby began to wonder if perhaps this driver could, after all, teach him to drive faster.
“Now then,” said the man, leaning on his stick and turning his head away. “My car is parked round the back. You wait here, and then when I come back, follow me.” He grinned, flashing those yellow teeth at Toby again. “Don’t you worry, I’ll make sure you can keep up!
“I want to take you for a quick tour of the training ground. You’ll see that there are all kinds of drivers, and all kinds of cars. No one gets to choose the type of car they’re given, but how you use it is up to you, and drivers vary in how they think it’s best to behave.
“Drivers tend to keep close to drivers who think the same as they do, so as we drive around, you’ll begin to spot the different training methods. Each type of driver has a special area, their training area. It has a training track to help drivers prepare for the racing circuit, and of course that helps you to prepare for the real track. Which is what it’s all about!”
He glanced at Toby, who felt as if he was standing under a waterfall of words, and he didn’t understand any of them.
Toby must have looked as confused as he felt, because Percy stopped talking and patted his arm.
“Never mind about understanding it all now, it will be obvious when you’ve seen it for yourself. Let’s start with a little drive around.
“When you’ve seen it all, looked at all the groups of drivers, seen how they have decided to train, I want you to choose.”
“Choose?” repeated Toby, not quite sure what he was being told.
“Yes, choose,” said his mentor. “It’s up to you, like I said, you can choose how you want to train. You can choose which group you want to belong to. You can always switch, of course, if you realise you’ve made a mistake.”
“Switch?” said Toby.
“Yes, if you change your mind,” said his mentor, nodding his head, his lips pressed together.
As if, thought Toby, he expected Toby to change his mind.
“You see, it can be hard at first glance, to know who has the best training method. Everyone is here for the same reason, we all want to be the very best drivers that we can be, and to improve our speed and skills, ready for the real track.
“No one knows for sure how long their training will be, that’s all decided by The Engineer. But everyone wants to be ready. We don’t know exactly what the real track is like, but we do know that the best drivers will get the best cars, and the most interesting route. No one wants to end up being given a bus that can’t turn corners or make it up hills! Do they lad? Think how awful that would be!”
Toby nodded, but he was not quite sure what the old man was talking about. He had heard of the real track of course, everyone had. And he did know, sort of, that he was at the training circuit so he could improve his skills ready for the real track. But if he was honest, simply arriving, and being given a car—his own car!—well, that was exciting enough in itself. That had rather focussed his thoughts on the present, on what was happening now. He had, he was forced to admit, forgotten for the moment what it was all about.
But Toby did not feel inclined to explain all this to an old man with yellow teeth. Instead, he nodded, trying to look both wise and bored, as if to show that the man was telling him nothing that he didn’t already know.
The mentor grinned, and flashed a look at Toby that conveyed he knew exactly what the young driver had been thinking.
“Now, you wait here, I’ll collect my car. We’ll have a short drive around, then get back for the race. You can watch, try to spot some of the groups of drivers, decide how you want to train. We can talk properly after the race.” He patted the top of the car, and began his slow walk back towards the tent. Step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step. . .
Toby watched him go, yawned, and closed his eyes. This was not going to be quick.
He opened his eyes. Percy had moved about an inch. Toby sighed, reached forwards and pressed the red button on his dashboard. When he turned to look, bubbles of all shapes and sizes were being pumped from the back of the car. Now what, wondered Toby, could possibly be the point of the bubbles?
Thank you for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow, please share with anyone you know who might enjoy a story.