The Brown Cars
Three days later, Toby was driving to meet Gerald. They had arranged to meet and eat together, in a spot they had found that overlooked the brown training track. It was raining, a fine mist coating the windscreen, the wipers hissing as they wiped it away. The road ahead was shining, puddles beginning to form at the edges.
Toby frowned as he drove, concentrating on the road. There was a minimum speed limit, so Toby was driving too fast to feel comfortable. The road was pitted with large potholes, and Toby spun the wheel to avoid a particularly nasty one, with jagged edges and a deep hole. A car appeared round the corner, honking loudly to warn Toby that he was on the wrong side of the road. Toby turned the car towards the edge of the road, but it was too narrow, and the road disintegrated at the edges, so his wheels slid onto the rough dirt at the side. He juddered as the car bobbled over the ruts and gullies of the uneven ground, the other car passed, Toby steered back onto the road.
“That was close,” he thought, relaxing slightly.
Suddenly, another car came from the side, Toby glanced up, and saw they were about to collide. There had been no warning sign to alert Toby that he was approaching a junction, yet his road was joining another, and a brown car was hurtling along it, heading straight for Toby. There was no time to reverse. Toby pressed the brake, screw up his eyes, hunched his shoulders, and waited. He heard the other car as it braked, the tyres screaming as they skidded towards him, closer and closer, until after what felt like several minutes but must have been a couple of seconds, the other car slammed into his side.
There was a horrible crunch, the impact spun Toby’s car around, then silence. Toby opened his eyes.
Next to him, the brown driver was opening his door, his face glowering at Toby.
“You didn’t stop at the junction,” he said, his voice clipped.
“I’m so sorry,” Toby stammered, “I didn’t see it. . . didn’t know I was coming to a junction, there was no warning sign, nothing marking it from my road, maybe someone moved it. . .” But Toby knew that no one had moved the warning sign. The brown area did not have signposts, drivers were expected to know where all the hazards were and to be able to stop in time.
“You need to spend more time driving,” the brown driver muttered, holding out his hand.
Toby reached onto the seat beside him, and passed the driver a thick notebook. It contained lists of all the things that Toby needed to improve, and already had several pages full of notes – most of them criticisms. He watched while the brown driver wrote in it, feeling slightly sick. He wanted to check the damage to his car, to see whether it could be mended, but he knew that would earn him more comments in his notebook, because brown drivers were not meant to care about their cars, only their driving skills.
The brown driver passed the notebook back to Toby, shook his head, and stomped back to his car. Toby watched him drive away. As soon as he was out of sight, Toby started the engine. His little car spluttered into life, and he drove it slowly to the edge of the road, well away from the unmarked junction. He got out, and walked round to the side that had been hit. There was a dent in the wing, the smooth curve over the wheel was now spoilt with a jagged depression, some of the paint had scratched away and Toby could see metal strips exposed. He sighed. It wasn’t too bad, not considering how much damage might have occurred if the brown driver hadn’t stopped fast enough. He got back in, and drove to meet Gerald.
Gerald was sitting on a low wall that overlooked the training course. This was the place they had found where you could look down, into the pit that formed the brown training track, and see most of the track. The pit was deep, and there was a slight delay in the time when events happened in the pit and when the sound drifted up to where Toby and Gerald sat, so it was like watching a film with the sound and picture out of sync. Gerald was eating chips, and he offered the bag to Toby. It was damp, and not very warm.
There were no restaurants or cafes in the brown area, only places to buy food to take-away. Food that you could eat while you drove. But Toby and Gerald had wanted a break from driving, so they had arranged to meet, and share this rather sad bag of chips. As they ate, they watched other drivers navigate the track, some denting wheels in the potholes, others spinning off at the corners. The rain was cold, fine drops falling in a steady mist around them, coating their hair and dripping from their noses. The bag of chips was soggy, soaked with grease and rain, and the chips were nearly cold. Toby took a chip and stuffed it into his mouth.
“Those drivers aren’t much better than us,” he said between chewing and swallowing. He was watching a driver as he slowed before one of the bends, but not early enough, so his back wheels began to slide out of control.
“Yeah, I was thinking that,” said Gerald, wiping his hands on his trousers.
They were both wearing brown overalls, stained with grease and oil, because the brown drivers did not encourage personal hygiene. They did not actually, thought Toby, encourage anything. They were completely focussed on improving their driving skills, and that meant every moment of every day was spent either studying the manual (which was out of date and applied to old cars that no one drove today) or driving – either on the track or on the roads around the brown area.
All the roads in the brown area were difficult to drive around, as they were narrow, with poor visibility, badly maintained and crowded. There were no helpful signs or lights, and each junction had to be approached with care. To make things even harder, there were minimum speed limits in most places, so drivers couldn’t drive slowly, they were forced to use slightly faster speeds than Toby felt was safe. He opened his mouth, about to tell Gerald about his collision, but before he could speak, Gerald stood up and made an announcement.
“Tomorrow, that will be me down there,” said Gerald, his voice determined. “I’ve had enough of all this whizzing along the brown area roads, worrying I might meet another car at a junction. At least on the training track everyone will be going the same direction. And like you said, those drivers don’t look any better than us.
“I’ve decided. I want to get in a few circuits of the brown training track, starting tomorrow. With that and the special features training, I reckon I’ll have enough experience to enter the racing track. After my first race, I’ll have more idea what training to do next, so I’m ready for the real track. I think I’ve got time for at least twenty more, before my log book runs out – even though this brown training has taken way longer than I was expecting.”
Toby nodded, unsure of what to say, and delved into the corner of the soggy bag for the last few chips. They were salty, and not too bad considering how cold they were. He knew that Gerald had planned to have left by now, had wanted to spend only two days with the brown drivers. But it had taken them a while to get their brown overalls, and no one would speak to them until they were wearing them. Then the roads had been so rough, and the days so long, that neither of them felt as if they had improved at all, they were simply struggling to not make any mistakes.
“I think I’ll just watch you,” said Toby, swallowing. He could feel the lump of chewed chips sliding down his throat, and he coughed. “Not sure I’m ready yet, for the training track. Worried I might damage my car too much, and it’s newer than yours. I had bit of a prang today, nothing serious, but, you know. . .”
Gerald opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by a brown driver who was passing.
“Why are you two sitting there? You shouldn’t be resting, you should be driving. You won’t improve unless you keep driving you know. Go on, back to your cars. . . you can eat and drive at the same time you know!”
Toby watched the brown driver hurry away, then turned back to Gerald. “Come on,” he said, “better get on with it.”
He heard Gerald groan as he stood up and went back to his car.
Toby glanced around. No other drivers were watching the training track, and Toby knew they would all be busy driving around the brown area, or reading their manuals. A couple of brown drivers walked past, manuals in hand, deep in conversation. They scowled at Toby as they passed, and he knew they were wondering why he wasn’t training. Training was the only thing the brown drivers did. Toby sighed. There was something oppressive about the brown area, something almost sad. The drivers barely slept, they ate while they drove, they only seemed to speak to each other when they were debating the manual or a training strategy. Even taking care of their cars was frowned upon as a waste of time, and although they all refuelled, there was no time allocated to servicing their cars, and only the most essential of repairs were ever done. The brown area was full of cars that limped around, with clashing gears, and threadbare tyres, many had bumpers hanging off, and all were tarnished with many dents.
Toby looked across to his own car. It was muddy, and looked somehow forlorn, parked by the side of the road. He looked again at the dent in the wing. The brown area didn’t have any repair centres, not for things like dents. The cars were viewed as fully disposable, to be used for driving practice but not to be valued in any way. The brown drivers knew they would be issued with real cars, at the real track, and therefore had no time or energy to care about their training cars. Toby felt rather sad, and he got up from the wall and walked over to his car, and placed his hand, very gently, on the roof. He rather liked his training car, and he knew that it was temporary, but he had still enjoyed the beauty of it when it was shiny. He thought about those cushions he had bought, and smiled, thinking how completely out of place they would be here, in the brown training ground.
“But I need to keep focussed on the real track,” he reminded himself. “That’s why I’m here, because I think I can improve my driving, and be the best I can be ready for when my log book runs out.”
Toby frowned, thinking about the log book. He knew very little about them, only that the Engineer issued a log book with each car. No one had access to the log book, but everyone knew that they had one. Toby wasn’t quite sure what was recorded in it, or how regularly it was written in. But he did know that when the log book ran out, the driver would be allowed to enter the real track, and his training car would become obsolete.
“I sort of hope my log book still has a long time to run,” he whispered, looking at his car. “I like my training car, and I’ll be sad to leave it behind.” He looked guiltily over his shoulder, checking that no one was listening. This was not the sort of thing that brown drivers were meant to think.
Thanks for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow.