Finding The Brown Cars
The brown cars had a section of training ground which was slightly removed from the rest of the area. It was difficult to find, and was not signed, so Toby passed the entrance twice without realising, and had to stop and ask for directions. When he finally found it, the entrance was narrow, with metal posts either side, which Toby feared might scratch his car. He drove between the posts very slowly, peering out of the side window, carefully judging the distance. He managed to enter without mishap, and looked for somewhere to park.
The brown car area was very brown. Brown and grey. Toby had to agree with Clarissa – it certainly looked dismal. But if the training was excellent, it probably didn’t matter if the environment was plain. The car park was as challenging as the entrance, and each space was just wide enough to fit a car. Toby shuffled, backwards and forwards, several times, before he managed to get most of his car into a space. The car park was almost empty, and so even though his front wing and one wheel was not quite in the space, Toby decided that it wasn’t important. He climbed from his car, and began to walk away.
“Hey! You can’t leave your car parked like that!”
Toby stopped walking and turned. A small, fat man with long grey hair and heavy eye-brows was glaring at him. His brown overalls were splattered with oil, and his pink knees could be seen through holes in his trousers. He was glaring at Toby in fury.
“You’re not in the space,” said the man.
“I’m a new driver,” explained Toby, “I’m not very good at parking yet.” He looked at all the empty spaces in the car park.
“There’s only three other cars in here,” said Toby, “there’s plenty of room.”
“That is not the point,” said the angry little man, marching over to where Toby had left his car. “Look, the wheel is over the line. You’ll never learn to park properly if you don’t try, will you? Now get back here and park it correctly, or leave this training area.”
Toby went back to his car. The man stood next to him, and folded his arms.
Toby started the engine and lurched backwards into the space. The man shook his head.
Toby inched forwards, turning the wheel, trying to steer inside the lines but missing, so that now the other front wheel was over the line. The man shook his head.
Toby drove forwards, out of the space, then tried reversing, turning the steering wheel, peering over his shoulder, aiming for the area inside the lines. A back wheel was now touching a line. The man sighed, and frowned, and shook his head.
Toby tried again, and again, and again. Each time, a part of his car was either on the line or over the edge, and each time the little man glowered and frowned and kept his arms tightly folded across his chest. Toby felt the panic rise inside of him.
“I can’t do this,” he thought, “it’s too difficult. I’ll just leave, and train somewhere else.”
But he remembered the shiny cars, and their spooky chant, and his determination to learn how to drive properly. He shuffled into that parking space, and edged forwards and backwards and forwards and backwards, until his wheels were hot and the air smelt of burning rubber and the tears were running down his cheeks and plopping onto his damp shirt, all the while with the fat little man scowling at him.
Eventually, when Toby’s arms ached from turning the wheel, and his car was about to die because it needed recharging, he managed to get all four wheels into the space.
“I’ve done it!” he said, climbing from the car.
“Took you long enough,” muttered the man, before stomping away.
Toby stared after him. “I think,” he thought, “that Clarissa might be right. I think this might be very dismal indeed.”
However, having taken most of the morning trying to park, Toby was not going to leave now. He set off, ready to explore the training ground.
Toby walked around the brown area, wondering where all the drivers were. There was a repair station, and a recharging dock, and a cafe – all were empty. He could hear the roar of tyres, and headed towards them, along a narrow pathway lined with trees that had blown by the wind and were now like twisted old men keeping watch. The ground beneath the trees was bare and hard, not even weeds grew there, and certainly no one had planted flowers. The pathway was concrete, cracked in places. There were no lamps or lights, and Toby realised that if he had visited after dark, it would be difficult to find his way.
When Toby found the drivers, they were all huddled around a training track. Toby peered past the drivers, who all seemed to be reading thick brown books, and stared at the training track, which was set in what looked like a disused quarry, a great hollow in the ground, lower than where he stood. The drivers behind him began to speak with raised voices:
“That’s not what it says, you are misinterpreting it.”
“The words are clearly written, are you choosing to ignore them?”
Angry words floated towards Toby’s back, but all his attention was focussed on the track in front of him. He could see the track as it stretched before him, almost like a track for toy cars. He gasped.
The start-line was situated immediately before a steep corner, with a great brick wall in front, so drivers would set off cautiously, not sure what they were about to meet. There was then a hill, winding sharply downwards, and Toby could see water from a stream oozing over the tarmac, making a skidding hazard. There was a narrow bridge at the bottom of the hill, followed immediately by another hill, rising steeply upwards, almost to the level that Toby was standing, before plummeting back down to the floor of the crater.. The track then disappeared around another bend, and there was an area that Toby couldn’t see. It came back into view just before the finish line, where there was a ford sloshing over the track.
As he stared at the tarmac, Toby realised it was pitted with potholes and small stones were scattered across it, and the edges had worn away. A car rounded the bend, skidded on some gravel, a wheel bumped into a pothole and there was the sound of metal cluttering on tarmac as something fell to the floor. The car stopped. It was overtaken by a long low car, that swerved to avoid the broken car, spun too near to the edge of the track, two wheels went over the edge, there was a horrible scraping noise, a shower of stars, as the car grounded. Toby screwed up his face, and drew his shoulders up to his ears, flinching, not really wanting to watch but unable to look away. Another car limped round the corner, swerved to avoid the pothole car, managed to not follow the grounded car over the edge, continued on, slowing in the ford as it struggled to maintain momentum, finally managing to drive over the finish line. Nobody cheered. The drivers behind Toby were all still arguing, none of them had even watched the race.
“I think just driving along that track without damaging my car would be hard enough, never mind about racing,” thought Toby.
He was aware that someone was standing next to him, and turned to see a small driver dressed in red. He had a round face, and tufts of black hair stood up on top of his head, so he resembled a sort of over-ripe vegetable. He had a large nose, and tiny eyes that twinkled. There was something about the mismatched face that made him look friendly, and Toby smiled a greeting.
“That looks grim,” said the driver. He turned to Toby. “I’m Gerald. Are you new?”
Toby nodded. “Yes, I’ve just arrived, I’m hoping they’ll let me join them. But to be honest, it took me so long to find the brown area, and then ages to park, so I’m not sure whether they’ll let me join.”
“Only one way to find out,” said Gerald with a grin. He pointed at a tent, the other side of the drivers. “Come on, let’s go over to the umpire’s tent, someone there will know what we should do.”
Gerald led the way through the brown drivers, who seemed to be arguing over something in the thick brown book, and over to a tall tent – brown of course – which had ‘Umpires Only’ written in square black letters over the entrance. A man with long grey hair and very dirty finger nails was sitting inside. He stood when Toby and Gerald approached, and Toby saw that his back was hunched in a permanent stoop.
“Hello,” said Gerald. “We’re new, we would like to train here, who do we need to ask?”
“If you need to ask, I doubt you’ll fit in,” replied the bent man. He nodded at them, and walked out.
“Oh!” said Gerald, “That wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. Now what?”
“Well, he didn’t say we couldn’t join,” said Toby. “Maybe it’s a sort of test, like finding the entrance was. Maybe the rules are written somewhere.” He gazed outside, at all the brown drivers, who were still poring over their book, some of them shouting, raising their fists to emphasize their point. “Maybe we should try to get a copy of that book,” said Toby. “That might have some clues.”
They walked back towards the drivers, and Gerald went right up to a group who were all shouting at one driver who was holding his book high over his head and shouting: “It says it here, very clearly, on page 792!”
Gerald tugged the sleeve of one of the drivers, and said – loudly so he would be heard – “Where can we get a copy of your book?”
The driver stopped shouting and turned to look at Toby and Gerald. He frowned, then thrust his copy of the fat brown book at Gerald’s chest. “Here, have this one,” he said, before stalking away. Gerald clutched the book, only just catching it before it slipped to the floor. He glanced at Toby, raised his eye-brows, and led him away from the arguing drivers and to a small hill, where he sat and opened the book.
The hill was dried mud, no grass grew there, and it wasn’t very comfortable. Toby looked to see if there was anywhere better to sit, but there seemed to be no refreshment tent nearby, no spectator’s pavilion, no seats. He sat next to Gerald and peered over his shoulder.
The pages of the book were old and worn, in places the print had faded, and they had to peer closely to see the words.
“I know what this is,” Toby said, “It’s a manual, it has instructions for maintaining a car, and tips for getting good speeds and how to drive. But it’s old, very old. It refers to a car that was made years ago, I’m not sure that type of car will even exist today. I have a manual just like it, but written for modern cars, like we drive. I’m not sure this one will even be relevant any more. Look,” Toby pointed to a diagram of how to change a tyre. It suggested using a ramp, and the tyre was solid, not inflated with air like the tyres on their own cars.
“What about the chapter on training,” said Gerald, heaving the weight of the book onto his other hand and turning the greasy pages. “Look, here it is: How to Train. A Driver’s Guide.”
Toby peered over his shoulder. He noticed that Gerald smelt of strawberries, and he wrinkled his nose. “Funny smell for a driver,” thought Toby.
The manual had very clear instructions, though some of them seemed to not make sense, and Toby wasn’t sure how they would improve his driving. The manual stipulated that all drivers should dress appropriately, and avoid distracting colours.
“That explains the brown,” said Gerald, pointing to the words. “Perhaps we should get some brown overalls.”
There was a short list of other instructions. They were very specific:
Drivers should book the training track for at least 6 hours every day.
After each training session, drivers should ask other drivers for feedback, and point out any mistakes they have noticed in their fellow drivers while on the track. These should be recorded in the book marked ‘things to improve’. They should only be deleted from the ‘things to improve’ book when improvement has been verified by an umpire.
Drivers should read the training manual for at least 4 hours every day.
Drivers should discuss the training manual at the driver’s forum for at least 2 hours every day.
“Goodness!” said Gerald, “when do they eat or sleep or maintain their cars? It’s certainly not like the special features training ground. There we were surrounded by colours, and perfumes, and beauty. Some of it was a bit too much, if I’m honest.” He leant towards Toby. “Can you smell strawberries?”
“Yes!” said Toby, smiling, “I was wondering what that was all about.”
“It’s the perfume shower,” said Gerald with a sigh. “When I left, I drove too close, and because my clothes are red, they showered my car with strawberry scent. I did hose it down, but I can’t get rid of the smell. How embarrassing.”
“Not very ‘brown car’” said Toby, grinning.
“Ugh, I dread to think what they must smell like!” said Toby with a shudder. “But I think they’ll know how to drive, I’m sure all this seriousness must pay off, this training must improve their driving – doesn’t it?”
“I hope so,” said Toby.
“I’ve decided that I will spend two days with each training group,” Gerald was saying while still looking at the book. “That way, I can see which group are the best trainers, then I’ll go back and train with them until my log book runs out. The special features group was. . .” he paused, and looked up from the book, searching for the correct word. “Well, it was sort of okay. It was lots of fun, everyone used the special feature attached to their car, and they did have a training track, though it was quite a simple one, nothing like the one down there,” he glanced back towards the track in the quarry. “But I’m not sure how good it was, at training drivers I mean. It was a fun place to be, and drivers were improving, but I’m not sure how much. . .”
“Yes,” agreed Toby. “I want to be ready for the real track.”
“Yeah,” said Gerald, his voice distracted as he continued to flick through the contents of the manual. “Funny, it doesn’t say anything about the real track in here. . .” he turned to the index at the back, and ran his finger down the list of words. “No, nothing at all that I can see. That’s odd.”
“Maybe it’s mentioned throughout the book, rather than just having a single section about it,” suggested Toby. “The brown drivers are certainly serious about improving their driving skills, I’m just hoping I can keep up.
“Now, shall we go and try to find some brown overalls. At least we’ll look the part.”
The two young drivers stood up, and walked back towards the drivers. The cars that had been racing had followed the narrow road up from the racing pit, and were being rolled towards a repair point. One of the cars was being pushed by the driver, and the car that had grounded had two flat tyres and a piece of metal was dragging along the ground. The other drivers moved apart, making room for them to pass, but no one helped. Toby saw that the car with the flat tyres was veering off to the side, and the driver was struggling to push it.
“Shall we help?” he called to the driver.
The driver stopped, surprised.
Toby and Gerald went over, and placed their hands on the back of the car. “You steer, we’ll push,” suggested Toby.
The driver nodded, and climbed into the car. Toby and Gerald pushed, the car rolled forwards, and they made their way across the training ground, round to where the repair centre was. As he pushed, Toby was aware of the other drivers watching, and he saw a couple lean together, whispering. Their faces were grim, and Toby wondered what they were cross about.
“You should be training, not helping cars who have got it wrong,” someone called out.
“Yes, you’re not even wearing the correct clothes,” said another driver, scowling at them.
Toby glanced at Gerald, who shrugged, and they continued pushing the broken car.
When they reached the garage, a mechanic came to greet them.
“What happened here then? How did you damage this?” he asked.
The driver leaned from his window. “It was me,” he called, “they’re only helping me to push. My car grounded in the training track, and it was too hard to push on my own.” As he spoke, he passed a notepad from the window.
Toby watched as the mechanic wrote in it: “Not able to stay on the road on the racing track.”
“That must be his ‘things to improve’ notebook,” whispered Gerald.
It was a very thick notebook indeed.
I will post the next chapter tomorrow.