Gerald on the Brown Training Track
The following day, Toby sat on the same wall, watching his friend as he approached the start line of the training track. The track was not, strictly speaking, supposed to be used for racing – that was reserved for the main racing track in the centre of the training ground, where drivers from all the different training areas came together and pitched their skills against each other. No, the training tracks were intended to be places where the drivers could practice their racing techniques, but without competition. However, as Toby had watched the various drivers on the brown track, he had noticed that there was a very clear element of competition, a sort of unacknowledged secondary purpose to each race. And the mere fact that circuits of the track were called races, and tended to involve at least two cars, suggested to Toby that the edge of competition was very evident.
There were four cars on the track today. Toby watched as Gerald’s red car – barely discernible as red now due to the splattering of mud that coated it – was lined up with a pale green car, and two brown cars. The brown cars must have been in the training area for some time, as Toby knew that after a couple of months, when a driver was sure that this was the area in which he intended to stay, they resprayed their cars to match their overalls. It was not, he thought, an attractive colour.
In the pit below him, the cars were ready to start on the training track. Gerald had positioned himself right at the back, and Toby decided this was a good strategy. The hardest thing about the brown training track was the track itself, not the other drivers. It would be better for Gerald to let the others go first, to watch their mistakes and avoid any broken vehicles, and to worry about being first later, when he was near the end – if at all – his chances of even completing the track were fairly slim. Toby had watched many, many cars set off from the start line but fail to cross the finish line. He hoped his friend would manage to finish, and not damage his car too badly. Most of all, Toby hoped that Gerald’s car would survive the race. The track was brutal, he and Gerald had watched several cars damaged beyond repair, meaning the driver was taken immediately to the real track whether they were ready or not.
“Be careful Gerald,” Toby whispered, a lump in his stomach.
A flag fluttered down, it was brown, and the motion was slow and depressed, more a resigned flop than an excited sweep down like the flags that started races on the other training tracks. It was, thought Toby, as if even the flag was tired. The cars set off.
A brown car took the lead, heading towards the brick wall in front, then spinning round it at the last moment. It was closely followed by the other brown car, the pale green car not far behind. They sped around the blind bend, confident that nothing would be in the way. Gerald was following more cautiously, and Toby guessed that although his friend knew the road behind the wall was empty, actually driving the route must be worrying.
“Come on Gerald!” he called, the wind snatching his words and carrying them away.
“Oh, it’s so hard!”
Toby looked around, surprised. There, behind him, a blur of pink, was Clarissa. She grinned at him.
“I came to watch,” she said, moving closer. “I met Gerald when he was at the Special Features training area, and I heard he was attempting the training track today, so I came to watch.” She sucked in her lips and looked down. “Actually, I’m late,” she said, staring hard at her feet. “I had planned to get here before the race started, to try and talk him out of it. I think he’s risking too much by entering.”
“It’s not a race!” said a passing brown driver, his face deep in his driver’s manual.
Toby and Clarissa both watched the brown driver leave, and Toby shook his head. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said, turning back to the race. Though Clarissa, with her pink clothes and smiley face was as different to the brown cars as it was possible to be. She did not, in any way, fit in, and as they watched the race, Toby could feel the disapproving glances as brown drivers passed behind them, he could sense the sucked in breath and the pursed lips, and he knew that they were all wondering why anyone would want to associate with someone who was so clearly enjoying life rather than training. Toby found that he was smiling, and he stepped slightly closer to Clarissa as they watched the race.
The cars were now on the steep hill downwards. Water was pouring over the track, and the lead car braked to avoid a pothole, the back wheels locked and began to slide on the wet surface. The car skidded sideways, across the path of the following brown car, which didn’t stop in time and ploughed into the side. Toby held his breath, waiting for the horrible crunching sound of metal crushing metal. When it reached him, the clash of melding metal was terrible. The two cars appeared fused together as they continued to slide down the hill. The green car was attempting to pass them, not wanting to brake and lose control, but aware that the gap between the brown cars and the edge was closing as they careered down the hill towards the little bridge.
The green car managed to pass the sliding cars, and Toby watched as Gerald approached. At the bottom of the hill was the narrow bridge over the river. If the crashed cars reached the bottom first, they would block the route and Gerald would be unable to reach the bridge. The space between the cars and the edge of the track was narrow, Gerald was approaching, weaving slightly as he weighed up his chances of passing them before they forced him from the track. Toby wasn’t breathing, his hands were on his cheeks as he watched his friend. He could feel the wind tousling his hair, but all his attention was on the track in the pit below. Beside him, Clarissa had caught hold of his arm, and was clutching it tightly. Gerald was now level with the crashed cars, the three vehicles moving together down the hill, Gerald accelerated, one wheel went over the line of the track, tossing up gravel and mud, the crashed cars were sliding towards him. Toby heard Clarissa gasp, and the grip on his arm became painful. Below them, Gerald held his line, managed to add one last spurt of speed, and passed the sliding cars.
Toby barely had time to exhale before he gasped again. Gerald was now too near the edge, and needed to get to the centre of the track or he would miss the narrow bridge that crossed the river. His wheels were spinning, causing a fountain of gravel and mud that shot up into the air. The river was fast, bubbling water that had started at the top of the pit and was plunging down to a great crevasse in the pit, a torrent of unstoppable water. If Gerald missed the bridge, there were no barriers to stop him sliding into the water. He would certainly be swept away, his car destroyed. Clarissa let go of Toby’s arm, both hands flew to her face and she covered her eyes.
“I can’t watch,” she whispered.
Gerald managed to slow slightly, to avoid skidding, to aim for the bridge. At the last minute, his back wheels locked and he started to skid, but he steered in the direction of the slide, bringing the car back under control, aiming for the bridge. Toby stared, not sure his friend would make it, his left wing was slightly too far over and with a great scraping of crushed metal, the little red car entered the bridge, losing the left wing on one of the posts. The car bounced over the bridge, then slowed as it began to climb the steep hill on the other side. The green car was level with the top of the pit and Toby could see the driver hunched over the wheel as he navigated the turn. The brown cars had crashed into the bridge entrance, blocking it, and the drivers were opening their doors, Their shouts of anger drifted up to where Toby was watching, and he saw one driver shake his fist.
The green car hit a pothole, the car jolted, the tyre burst, the driver continued, his car now whining as the split tyre wore away and the wheel rim squealed as it touched the ground. Gerald was gaining on him, was now level with the top of the pit, Toby could see him, his face as red as his car had been, the muscles in his arms standing out as he struggled to hold the steering wheel steady. He drove cautiously over the area of gravel, managing to control the car as it skidded back towards the bottom of the pit. There was an area of forest, the cars were lost from Toby’s sight, he could only see the tops of branches, and hear the screech of the green car’s wheel, and the roar of Gerald’s engine. They came back into sight just before the finish line: first the green car, which sped along the last stretch, then stopped as soon as he had crossed the line. Gerald was slightly behind – too far back to hope to catch him – and Toby saw that his friend was driving cautiously now, intent on avoiding the potholes and gravel, keen to end the course with his car intact. He reached the finish line and parked next to the green car. Toby saw the two drivers turn to speak to each other.
Toby realised he was still holding his breath, and let out a long sigh of relief. His friend had survived the training track, only one wing of his car was damaged. He left his vantage point, and went to join Gerald. If he had decided anything, it was that he intended to leave the brown area as soon as he could. He just needed to persuade his friend to do the same.
Can Toby persuade his friend to leave? Find out tomorrow.