Chapter Eleven


Percy Explains and Toby Visits the ‘Broken’ Cars

Percy was sitting beside three mugs of hot chocolate when they arrived. Toby slid into a spare seat and wrapped both hands around the mug, feeling the heat seep into his blood. He took a sip, the rich taste filling his mouth, the cup burning his lip.

“How was the film?” asked Percy.

“It was good,” said Clarissa, her voice cagey.

Toby glanced at her, noted her eyes were watchful again. She clearly did not trust Percy, and he wondered why.

Percy was turning to Toby, leaning forwards, his voice conspiratorial. “And tell me, Toby, what did Clarissa do when the mentor in the film produced the wings?”

Toby frowned. He could remember Clarissa giggling at the mistake the protégé made, and he knew – at least he thought he knew – that she had enjoyed the film. But her reaction at that specific point in the film? Was she leaning back in her seat or sitting forward? Smiling or frowning? He had no idea.

“Um, I’m not sure. I mean, I know she was there, I think I’d have noticed if she had left, but I wasn’t really concentrating on Clarissa, I was absorbed in the film. It was really exciting. . .” he stopped, feeling slightly foolish.

But Percy beamed at him.

“Exactly!”

Toby was confused.

“Exactly,” repeated Percy. “You were so absorbed in the action, that you were aware of Clarissa, but only vaguely. She was not the focus of your attention because something more exciting was grabbing it.”

Toby was aware Clarissa was scowling, obviously not enjoying the explanation. But he had to agree with Percy, so he nodded.

“And that,” continued Percy, “is what I think it will be like at the real circuit. You asked if you would see your friend Gerald again, and I don’t know the answer if I am honest. But I suspect that it will be like at the film. I suspect that you will be so absorbed by what is there, by the realness of it, that you will only dimly notice other drivers. We’ll know they are there, but there will be something better to absorb us.”

“This is real too,” said Clarissa, sounding cross. “You said we’ll be absorbed by the realness of the real track. But this training ground is real too. We are here you know, this isn’t just a rehearsal.”

“Ah,” said Percy. He sat back and folded his arms. Toby didn’t think he looked annoyed by Clarissa’s interruption, more thoughtful. His old eyes crinkled at the edges, and he stared very hard into the depths of his mug.

“Perhaps,” he said finally, “perhaps I mean that we don’t see the realness of the real track yet. Perhaps I mean that our images are very hazy, like looking at shadows and when we’re there, all will be clear. Sometimes the real track seems like a dream, something not at all real. Which is somewhat ironic, don’t you think, given the name?” He chuckled to himself, pleased with the irony.

“Doesn’t anyone know?” asked Toby. “What about drivers who have arrived there, hasn’t one of them ever come back, or sent a message of something?”

“Exactly,” said Clarissa, sitting up straighter. “How can we even be sure the real track is real? Could it be that it doesn’t even exist?”

Percy shook his head and had a sip of his drink.

“No Toby, no driver has ever come back. I don’t expect they would want to, not once they’ve arrived at the real track. But once, long ago, the Engineer himself came. He visited the training ground, and gave lots of advice about how to train, and showed the drivers there the best way to improve.”

“And the real track?” asked Toby, eager to learn new information. “What did he say about the real track?”

“Very little, actually,” said Percy, shaking his head. “Perhaps it is too real, too beyond our experience for us to understand properly, I don’t know.” He turned to Clarissa, his voice very solemn. “But Clarissa, the real track does exist, and we are not here by accident, we are here to learn the skills we need, ready for when we arrive at the real track. So be sure to train properly.”

“Well,” said Clarissa, shaking her head so that her curls bounced, “I intend to return to the special features training ground. It might not be the very best for teaching me to drive, but it’s fun.” She turned to Toby and touched his hand.

“You should come with me. You need something nice after –” she glanced at Percy and her voice became very deliberate, “after those horrid brown car drivers.”

To Toby’s surprise, Percy nodded. “Yes Clarissa, you might be right. But first, you must visit the broken cars Toby. You cannot stay there. But you must go, you should both go I think. Then you will understand a little more.”

Clarissa opened her mouth, and Toby felt sure she was about to object. But instead she said: “Okay,” very lightly, as if humouring someone rather senile. Then she finished her hot chocolate and rose to her feet.

“Come on then Toby, let’s get this over with.”

Toby watched as she shook her curls again, turned smartly on her heel and strode from the tent. He nodded at Percy in apology and hurried after her.

***

The broken cars training ground was tucked away behind the brown cars training ground. You reached it via a long driveway lined with thick fir hedges. Toby felt there was something rather comforting about the hedge, even though it was very high and cut out lots of light, because the branches were soft. If he over-steered to avoid an oncoming car, the branches would brush against the side of the car, almost as if stroking it, but would leave no scratches.

Toby followed Clarissa, along the wide driveway and into a parking area. Each space was separated by a barrier, and Toby parked his car and went to where Clarissa stood, hoping from foot to foot, waiting.

“This will be embarrassing,” she said.

“Why?” asked Toby, confused.

“You’ll see,” said Clarissa over her shoulder as she marched ahead.

Unlike the other training areas, there was a separate pathway for drivers to walk along, with a tall wall between them and the road. As they walked – or rather marched, because Clarissa was striding very fast – Toby strained to hear what was happening the other side of the wall. It sounded like a war zone. There were bangs, and metal scraping on metal, and a high-pitched horn beeping before an almighty crash. But instead of shouts, the voices that Toby heard were gentle, resigned – even happy. After one particularly loud crash, he heard doors being opened and then laughter – which made no sense at all.

They arrived at an area of tables, with drivers sitting around, reading manuals and eating snacks. They looked up when Toby and Clarissa arrived, and one of the drivers got up and invited them to sit. At the edge of the area were all the parked cars. Each one was dented, some had bumpers missing, one even had a door missing – a great hole in the side with shiny hinges hanging uselessly. Yet each car was producing something rather wonderful. One car was spraying bubbles over the area, and Toby thought about his own car, and how he had not yet had time to enjoy that feature. Another car was playing music. From the roof of the car with no door, there was a lights projector, and as the drivers rested they were entertained with coloured lights floating above them. It was all rather lovely, and Toby sat, staring around him.

The drivers were all studying their manuals and discussing various points, but unlike the brown cars, they were helping each other.

“I wouldn’t be able to drive on this track,” said one driver, holding up a diagram of a road full of twists and turns. “My car loses steering if I touch the wheel, no way I could make it round a corner.”

“You need to adjust the speed,” suggested a fat man with very red cheeks. “Try braking hard and leaning out the door, just as you reach the bend. That can sometimes make it spin in the right direction.”

Clarissa was talking to the driver at their table, and Toby moved his chair a little closer so he could hear them over the music.

“Can’t you just get your cars mended?” Clarissa asked. “Surely there are repair garages here?”

The driver shook his head. “Our cars aren’t exactly broken when we get them,” he explained. “They simply don’t work the same as most other cars. We don’t like to think of them as broken, just as different. They can’t do certain things, and are very hard to control, which means being on the same tracks as other cars is more difficult, because sometimes we damage them by mistake. That’s why we mostly train separately, in this training area: the different car area.”

“We thought it was called the broken car area,” said Toby, frowning. “Because all the cars are broken.”

The driver was shaking his head, but smiling. He nodded towards the cars parked at the perimeter, and pointed upwards, where coloured lights were mingling with the bubbles and wafts of smoke, a multi-coloured shifting ceiling above the rest area.

“Our cars make the most beautiful things,” he said. “I don’t think they’re broken at all. They are simply hard to control when we drive them. We have to learn different driving techniques just so we can keep on the training track, and if we get invited to race, we always end up damaging one of the other cars, from the other training grounds. But we do our best. Really, we’d rather just stay here, at our own training ground, but if we’re called for a race, there’s no choice, we have to risk it. And it all makes for good training, doesn’t it?

He paused, his face thoughtful. “Well, to be fair, a few cars are broken.”

He nodded towards a car parked to one side. The whole front was missing, the car ended at the driver’s seat; everything in front of that had been added on. There was a wooden board, with wheels on each side, and a string to pull them from side to side. It looked, thought Toby, like someone had welded the front of a go-kart onto the back of a car. On the roof, over the back seats, was a golden chimney; it sparkled when the lights skimmed over it, and Toby thought it looked rather ridiculous on such a mish-mash car.

“That car really is broken,” said the driver, his voice so low that Toby had to lean forwards to hear over the sound of the music. “It used to be in the area for shiny cars, but the driver never bothered to train, and when he was called for his first training race, he had a serious accident, and lost the whole of the front of his vehicle. We all thought he’d be called straight to the real track, but he wasn’t, so the mechanics patched him up, as you can see. But the steering was a bit unreliable, so he asked for special permission to join us. There are a few here like him – drivers who once had normal cars but then broke them. But most cars are like mine, not broken, just made to be different.”

Toby looked up as drivers at a different table snorted with laughter. One went very red when he realised Toby was watching, and buried his head back in his manual.

“Are these manuals any use?” asked Clarissa, leaning across the table and lifting the heavy book. Toby saw it was the same as his manual, with advice for repairs and ideas for training. “Surely you can’t do most of the things it suggests?”

“Some of them,” agreed the driver. “But we can try, especially the simple ones.” He stood. “Come on, you ought to see our training track while you’re here. Then you’ll understand what we’re up against.”

Toby and Clarissa followed him along the walkway. There were steps, and they climbed them, up above the road, where they could see cars below crashing into each other, or missing the road and skidding on the grass banks. The walkway ran along a river, through a wood of pine trees, then over to where the training track was. Several cars had lined up at the start line, and as they approached, the flag was dropped, and a klaxon sounded, and the cars leaped forwards. At least, most of them did. One car shot backwards, and another did a sort of leap-frog and then stopped, smoke billowing from the engine.

“Oh dear,” said Clarissa.

One car appeared to be jumping round the track as it started, stalled, started, stalled.

Around the edge of the track were fat bumpers, like Toby had seen children use at a bowling alley. They were grey and cushioned, and as cars slammed into them they absorbed the impact. There were men with long grey hair lined up at the side of the track, the far side of the bumpers. As pieces of car were snapped off – bumpers and headlights and wing-mirrors – the men would rush onto the track and sweep them to the side. One car had its horn permanently on, and an ugly noise bellowed forth as it lurched around the track. One car kept losing its steering, and it would travel forwards and then suddenly lurch to the side, sometimes pushing another driver into the barrier. One car had loose wheels, and whenever the driver reached a certain speed a wheel would come off and roll across the track, and the driver would stop, race over to retrieve the wheel, then spend time reattaching it. The cars were not attempting to race, the drivers concentrated all their energy on trying to control the cars, trying to navigate the track.

“How can they possibly train?” asked Toby, tearing his eyes from the track as he realised Clarissa and the driver were leaving. He hurried after them. “I mean, those cars are so broken, some of them don’t even go in a straight line. How can the drivers train in them?”

“Oh, that’s not a problem,” said the driver. “The training is excellent. Once we’ve learnt how to control our broken car, which sometimes takes years, but once we’ve mastered that, well, I reckon we could drive anything the real track has to offer! And you keep calling them ‘broken’. I’m not sure they are broken. The engineer made them like that, and personally, I think they are the best cars to train in. That’s what we’re all here for after all, the whole point is to train for the real track, and these cars are brilliant for that.

“No, the problem is the drivers from other training grounds. You see we get in their way, we can’t help it. Sometimes we damage their cars, we certainly mess up the races at the race circuit. Nothing we can do to avoid that, and they find us a challenge, think we’re spoiling things for them. That’s why we like it here, at our training ground. Everyone understands here, we’re all in the same boat, all struggling to control an unpredictable car.”

“Then, why race,” asked Toby, his face wrinkling into a frown as he tried to understand. “I mean, why does the Engineer ever call one of these broken. . . I mean, different, cars to race? Why not leave them here to train?”

“No idea,” called the driver over his shoulder, his voice carrying on the wind, so Toby had to hurry forward to hear him, trying to keep up as the driver marched away. The noise from the track was immense, crashing and clashing and squealing, and the words were almost drowned by the other sounds.

“Perhaps because it’s good for the other drivers to have to cope with us,” Toby heard. Or at least, he thought he heard, but there was so much noise he couldn’t be sure.

They had arrived back at the little cafe area. The music had changed now, and was coming from two different cars: one was playing the beat of a drum, the other a melody from a dance tune. Some of the drivers were dancing, swaying their hips and laughing. A large driver was stepping from side to side, clapping in time to the music. A short driver with plaits was dancing an elaborate series of steps, her hair flying out at the sides as she danced.

Clarissa rushed forwards, grabbing Toby’s hand.

“I know this song. Come on, let’s join in,” she said.

Toby allowed himself to be led into the middle of the group of dancing drivers. They began to skip and step in time to the music, clapping their hands, stamping their feet. The music was loud and wild and there was a wonderful abandonment to it, so different to the brown driving area, that it felt to Toby cathartic, as if he was being healed of something nasty. All around them, bubbles floated, reflecting rainbow colours. A car was pumping huge black clouds from its roof, and another car was projecting images onto them, of colour and life and space. It was, thought Toby, like being in a magical world of wonderful sensations.

“The special features in the cars still work then?” he called across to the driver who had shown them around. “That bit’s not broken in the cars?”

“Oh no,” said the driver, laughing. “If anything, we have better special features than most other cars. Gives us something to enjoy after a day of crashing round the training track!”

He flung his arms in the air, waving them in time to the music, and danced a little jig, spinning in circles.

“I think I might stay,” said Toby, turning to Clarissa and deciding, all at once, that this was the best place to train. He liked the friendly drivers, the mix of hard work and relaxation, the intensity of it all.

“I’ll stay too!” said Clarissa, throwing back her head and laughing as she danced. “I like it here!”

“No, no, you can’t,” said the driver next to them. He stopped dancing and faced them, his face serious.

“Only drivers with special cars can train here. The track isn’t designed for drivers with working cars, there isn’t room for you. Sorry. You can visit, but you can’t stay.”

Toby felt as if someone had thrown cold water over him. He stopped dancing and stared at Clarissa.

“Where should we train then?” he asked.

*****

Continues tomorrow. Please share.

Anne E. Thompson
Thank you for reading anneethompson.com Why not sign up to follow my blog?

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