The Shiny Cars
Percy was standing next to his car, staring at the new dent in the wing. He straightened as Toby approached and smiled.
“Well? Did you enjoy the race?” he asked.
“Oh wow! Yes!” said Toby, “It was the most exciting thing ever.”
He looked at the dent in Percy’s car. “Can that be fixed? You must be angry with those careless drivers—will they be punished somehow?”
“Punished?” said Percy, sounding alarmed. “Goodness no! Drivers do not get punished for bad driving. It doesn’t work like that.”
Percy shook his head. “You have lots to learn Toby,” he said, “let’s get a drink.”
Toby collected his car. A woman was standing, looking at the jaunty angle and the two wheels which were over the line, but she didn’t say anything. Toby’s face was very red as he drove from the car park, and back to the refreshment tent with the striped flags.
They collected steaming mugs of hot chocolate, and found a table near the back. Percy took a sip, then placed his mug very carefully on the table and looked at Toby.
“You asked if drivers are punished,” he said. “Well, that never happens, not directly, not here. This whole place is a training ground, everyone here makes mistakes – some are tiny, some are huge – but we don’t get punished. Life goes on, the opportunity for training continues, right up until we’re called to the real track. Then it’s a bit different, I suppose, though I still don’t think punished is the right word.
“You see, we are allocated cars, and tracks, according to how well we drive. Sometimes a driver has made lots of mistakes, but has become very skilful. Another driver might have made fewer mistakes, but have learnt very little. The better drivers have the better experience at the real track. That’s all. It’s not really punishment. It’s. . . fair, I guess.”
Percy stopped talking and stared at his drink, as if searching for inspiration.
“Anyway, it wasn’t the fault of the driver who dented me,” he said at last. “That driver has a car that’s very difficult to control. Occasionally, the steering wheel simply stops working, and the car zooms out of control, right across the track, crashing into whatever happens to be in the way. We have to learn to avoid them, the driver has to learn how to use his brake and accelerator to bring the car back under control. It isn’t easy. They’ll never be much good, not here on the training circuit, not with those cars. But the skills they’re learning while they struggle to control those cars. . . well. . .”
His voice faded away, and Toby looked at him. Percy’s face had a far-away look, a wistful glimmer in his eye, almost, thought Toby, as if he’s envious of those drivers. Almost as if he wished his own car was as difficult to control.
Toby shook his head. It made no sense to him. He wanted to win races, not struggle to control an unreliable broken old car.
“Shame about that pretty car at the beginning,” said Toby, remembering the spotted car that had lost control at the start of the race. “Was that car hard to control too?”
“No,” said Percy.
Toby looked up, surprised by his mentor’s voice. But Percy’s face was closed, his expression stony. He clearly was not going to elaborate.
Toby told him about Clarissa, wanting to change the subject, not sure if he had inadvertently said the wrong thing by mentioning the spotted car.
“She didn’t seem to know about the real track,” said Toby. “Don’t all the drivers go there, after their training?”
Percy was frowning. “Yes, all drivers go there. But some of them have forgotten, or never seem to care, or perhaps they weren’t told at the beginning, like you were.” He paused. “To be honest, I don’t know why some drivers don’t seem to know or care about the real track. It seems to be one of the choices here, if they don’t want to train for it, they don’t have to. But I don’t understand why – like your friend Clarissa – some of them never seem to know about it in the first place.
“But that doesn’t concern us. Not right now,” said Percy, sitting up straight. “Have you decided? Which group of drivers most interests you? Where do you plan to start your training?”
Toby was holding his hot chocolate with both hands. He took a long drink, wondering whether Percy would approve of his choice, and if he didn’t, whether Percy would try to influence him.
“The shiny, decorated cars,” said Toby over the rim of his cup. He felt that this was somehow the wrong choice, and he was sure that Percy would, in fact, say something negative. But his mentor simply nodded his head.
“Remember that you can change your choice, at any time, if you feel the training isn’t helpful,” said Percy. “Now, let’s plan to meet again, right here – in two weeks? Then you can tell me how you’re getting on.”
Percy nodded at Toby, and stood up, then without another word he walked, slowly, away.
For a moment, Toby sat still, watching his mentor as he made his painful way out of the refreshment tent. Toby felt uncomfortable inside, as if he had made the wrong choice, but also strangely determined to follow his heart. Of all the drivers he had seen, the ones with the shiny cars, with their many accessories, was the group that most attracted Toby. He wanted to be part of that group, he wanted to look like them, be accepted by them. He grinned, his worry dissolving as he thought about the colour and gleam and novelty of what he had seen. He placed his cup on the table, and went to find his car. He was going to be the driver of one of the best cars on the track.
Toby arrived at the place where the drivers of the shiny cars met. It was a sunny part of the training ground, an area of grass and tarmac with plenty of space for parking. Toby stopped in one of the wide bays, and stepped from his car. No one looked up when he arrived, so he walked over to where a driver was busy polishing a lime green car.
“Hi,” said Toby, holding out his hand. “I’m Toby, I thought I might join you?”
The driver stared at Toby, looked at the hand being offered, and shrugged. He turned back to his car, and rubbed the yellow duster across the paintwork, adding another layer of polish. While the driver polished, he glanced several times at Toby’s car, as if evaluating it. After a while, he straightened and came back to Toby.
“Your car is new?” he asked.
“Looks in nice condition, anyway,” said the driver, nodding his head. “Okay, you can join us – at least for now. Maybe you could look into having a roof design added or something.” He returned to his polishing.
Toby stood watching for a minute, then realised the conversation had ended, and he had – he thought – been accepted into the group. He decided to look around.
One of the main features of the area of shiny cars, was a shop. It was behind the parking area, and had a tall red tower and glass doors that hissed open when he approached. Toby walked inside, then paused, dazzled by the displays. There were golden cages for holding luggage or picnics that could be fitted onto the back of cars (Toby wasn’t sure they would add much to a driver’s speed). They had slim golden bars, and silver locks and the insides were lined with plush red silk.
One wall of the shop was devoted to cans of paint: rainbow paint, sparkling stars paint, paint that would flash, fluffy paint, plus paint of every possible colour. Toby stood, staring at all the cans and displays. He realised his mouth was open and shut it with a swallow.
The middle of the shop had a display of seats. Apparently, all car seats could be replaced with sofas in various colours, or swivel seats (Toby wondered how he would manage to drive if his seat was constantly turning in circles – but perhaps it would make reversing easier.) There was a mountain of cushions, and a great stack of mats to blanket the floor of the car. Toby went across to touch a furry mat, feeling the soft fur slide beneath his fingers.
“That would be a pain to wash if your shoes were dirty,” he thought.
“Oh, but one wouldn’t wear shoes in the car, would one?” said a voice next to him.
Toby realised he must have spoken aloud, and looked down. A tiny man, no taller than Toby’s waist, stood beside him. He smiled up at Toby and held up a fluffy white mat.
“Feel how soft this one is,” he suggested, his voice silky. “Imagine it under your feet, warm and comfy, helping you to relax. See how beautiful it is.”
Toby ran his hand over the mat. It enveloped his hand, was like touching a cloud, so soft he could hardly feel it, yet warm and comforting.
“It would go perfectly with our snow range,” the tiny man was saying, leading Toby across to a display of snowflakes that appeared to be floating down from the ceiling.
“One can attach the snow-maker to the ceiling of the car, they have a special dry-melt feature, so the driver remains dry, but the temperature remains cold. Go on, touch one.”
Toby stretched out his arm, placing his hand under the stream of snowflakes. He felt the feather-light touch of each flake, cold as ice for a second, before it melted away to nothing. When he removed his hand from the flow and looked, it was completely dry.
“They come with dancing lights,” the tiny man was saying. He pressed a switch, and beams of bright light shone from one side, touching the snowflakes so they turned silver, dancing in the breeze like a thousand stars.
“That’s beautiful,” breathed Toby, enchanted.
“They can all be attached to the inside of your car within the week,” the man said. “Shall we choose some seats to match? Something cuddly I think, to make you feel cosy.”
“But,” said Toby, his forehead wrinkling, “won’t they get in the way? The snowflakes I mean. Won’t they distract you when you’re racing? Stop you seeing clearly. Won’t it be a bit. . . dangerous?”
“Racing?” repeated the tiny man, his voice full of distain. “Racing? Well, of course, if one intends to risk spoiling one’s car by racing it, risking dents and damage, worn out tyres and scraped paintwork, then this is not the shop for you!” He stood up on tiptoe, reaching towards Toby’s ear.
“But is that what you really want?” he said, his voice soft and enticing. “Do you want to risk spoiling that car. You’ve only just received it, haven’t you? Don’t you want to make it look lovely, to enjoy it for a while, to enhance it before you start worrying about racing and spoiling it? After all, you’ll probably be here for some time, you have plenty of time to enjoy what you have been given, it seems to me that it would be rude not to. Plenty of time for racing and being rough later. Don’t you think?”
Toby nodded, feeling uncertain. “Well,” he said at last, “perhaps the cushions. If I only buy the cushions, they wouldn’t distract me too much. . . would they?”
They were undoubtedly beautiful. . .
The next driver that Toby encountered was the owner of the green and yellow spotted car that he had admired in the race. He found him in a corner of the shiny car section, surrounded by a group of other drivers. They were all staring in dismay at the green and yellow spotted car, which was hardly recognisable under the dents and scratches. In some places the paint had been completely worn away, and jagged metal, harsh and ugly, stuck out at sharp angles.
“Perhaps you could get the dents bashed out and a new spray job,” one driver was suggesting, his foot feeling the curve of a particularly large dent. “If you spend enough money, I’m sure it could be repaired.”
Another driver was shaking his head. He stood very upright, with his arms folded, and Toby could almost feel his disapproval before he spoke.
“That’s the trouble with those races,” the driver was saying. “You spend time and money trying to make your car look nice, and then it’s all wasted on a single race. I told you, I told you not to enter. But would you listen? No! You thought you knew best, and now this has happened. All that time and energy wasted, and all you’re left with is this! This ugly scrap of metal.”
Not waiting for a reply, the angry driver turned sharply round, and stalked away. The other drivers followed him, all shaking their heads, all showing their disapproval.
Toby was left with the driver of the wrecked car, who looked up at him.
“You’re new aren’t you?” he said.
Toby nodded. “Just arrived. Er, sorry about your car. I watched the race, it was exciting, wasn’t it?”
“A little too exciting for me,” said the driver. He glanced towards the departing drivers, who were walking away in a huddle, their voices low, their heads bent.
“It’s all very well for them,” said the driver, his voice very quiet, so Toby had to lean forwards to hear him. “Most of them haven’t been here for very long, they’ve probably got ages and ages with their training cars.”
The driver turned back to face Toby. “The time goes really fast though, you feel like it will never end, and then suddenly you realise you’re driving one of the oldest cars on the circuit, and – ” He bent low, and whispered to Toby, “and you know what that means. It means that you might not have much longer before, you know what.”
“What?” said Toby, feeling confused. “Oh! Do you mean the real track?”
The driver’s face turned very red and he drew back a step. “Shhh! We don’t talk about that here, not so loudly anyway. None of us likes to think it could be, you know, ‘our time’. Not yet.”
“But isn’t it good?” said Toby, even more confused. “I mean, don’t you want to go to the real track?”
The driver looked shocked.
“You do know what happens to your car don’t you? When you leave for the real track – you do know you can’t take your training car with you? Surely they told you that much.”
“Yes,” said Toby, still uncertain what the driver was trying to tell him. “But you won’t need it at the real track, will you? We all get issued with a new car, a real car.”
“But that could be anything,” muttered the driver. “We have no idea whether they’ll be coloured, or have features, or anything.
“And I realise I may not have long, I realise that I needed to improve my driving a little, before I go, before my log book runs out. And so I entered that race, thought I’d give it a try. And now look, look at what happened. All I did was ruin my car. Ruined it.”
Without warning, the driver sank to the ground, put his head into his hands and began to cry. Tears ran down his face and dripped from the edge of his chin, and he sobbed great heaving noisy sobs, as if something wild was living inside of him and trying to break free.
Toby was very unsure of what he should do, so he moved nearer and reached out a hand, and very gently he patted the top of the driver’s head.
“I have some white cushions,” he said, groping for something to say. “Would you like those?”
The driver stopped crying and grabbed Toby’s hand and started to shake it, up and down, very fast. Toby worried his arm might fall off.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” said the driver, his wet face beaming. “That will help so much, can I collect them right now?”
They walked back to Toby’s car, the driver snatched the cushions from the seats and bounded back towards the wreck that he owned. Toby watched as the cushions were placed lovingly inside, positioned on each seat.
“It’s a start, it’s a start,” Toby heard, as he slowly drove away.
“What a very strange man,” thought Toby as he left. “I’ll go and see him tomorrow, and find out if he plans to race again.”
But Toby had no opportunity to see the driver again.
When Toby returned the following day, there seemed to be very few people in the shiny car area. A few cars gleamed in the sunshine, but there was no sign of the drivers. Toby parked next to a particularly pretty blue car, which had fluffy clouds attached to the roof and rainbows that shone down each door. He walked over to the shop, the doors swooshed open and Toby peered inside.
The shop appeared to be empty. The displays shone at him, tempting him inside with their colours and textures, but there were no drivers. Toby started to walk away, when he spied the tiny man, sitting behind a counter.
“Excuse me,” Toby called. “Do you know where everyone has gone?”
The tiny man shook his head, his face somber.
Toby left the shop, and walked along the narrow pathway that led to the back of the area. It was lined with trees, and Toby could hear birds singing, and leaves rustling in the breeze. Sounds of cars drifted towards him from far away, where drivers in other areas were training, or improving their cars. Everything around him was still, and Toby walked on, wondering what had happened. Gradually, as he walked, he became aware of another sound, a low murmur, somewhere ahead. It didn’t sound like an engine, it was less regular, more like the sound of an ocean, of waves crashing onto a beach. He walked towards the sound.
The noise grew louder and Toby realised it was actually several sounds, the sounds of voices and groans and sobs, all merging together to make one single humming noise. He walked on, the noise growing louder and louder with every step, then he rounded a corner, and there were the drivers.
Toby stopped. Ahead of him was a huddle of drivers – he thought perhaps every driver of the shiny cars was there. Their backs were towards him, and they were staring at something, and groaning, and humming and moaning. Some of them seemed to be crying, as Toby saw shoulders shaking and hands being placed on heads in a gesture of despair. Whatever could have happened?
Toby walked forwards, he reached the huddle of drivers, and pushed his way through, squeezing past shoulders and backs, edging to the front of the pack. Then he stopped, and stared, and felt something like horror rise up inside.
In front of him, squeezed and crushed into an ugly cube, was the car of the driver he had spoken to yesterday. It was barely recognisable as a car, only the glimpse of a twisted wheel on one side, the remains of the painted spots at a corner, the deformed steering wheel at the front, made it identifiable.
“What, what happened?” said Toby, his voice no more than a whisper.
“His log book ran out,” answered the driver next to him. “He’s gone, and this is all that’s left of his car.”
“Oh. . .” Toby started to say, relieved, “that’s really nice for him now his training car is such a wreck.” But before he could finish speaking, his words were drowned by the screech and growl of a motor.
The crowd parted, and a large truck roared through the mourning drivers, and stopped next to the crushed car. Toby leaped back out of the way, and watched as the metal cube was hoisted up onto the truck.
Toby wanted to comment, to say how good it was that there was something to clear away the broken training car; he wanted to ask if anyone had managed to say goodbye to the driver before he left—but he didn’t. All around him were sad faces and worried eyes. No one looked as if they wanted to chat.
A driver sobbed, another reached forwards, and gently stroked the jagged metal of the crushed car, before stepping back, out of the way, so the truck could roar away, carrying its load to – where?
“Where are they taking it?” asked Toby.
“From metal you were moulded, to metal you return,” chanted the driver next to him.
“From metal you were moulded, to metal you return,” repeated the other drivers, all speaking in unison, heads bowed, words spoken on low voices.
Toby began to back away.
“Why are they so sad?” he wondered, “Isn’t it a good thing the driver has gone to the real track? What does it matter that his car has been crushed? He doesn’t need it any more, it was only ever meant to be for the training track. . .” Toby took a deep breath. He decided that he needed to find Percy, right now. He could not wait another week, he couldn’t train with these drivers, they didn’t even seem to train, all they wanted to do was decorate their cars so they looked nice. He reached his car, jumped into the driving seat and started the engine. With a lurch forwards – he still hadn’t quite mastered that skill – Toby drove away. He desperately needed to find Percy.
Thanks for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow.