Chapter Twelve


The Special Features Training Area

Toby and Clarissa left the track for broken, sorry, different, cars, and walked back to their cars. Toby felt a great weight of disappointment inside, as if he had finally found something special, and it had been cruelly taken away from him before he could enjoy it.

“I don’t think we’ll ever find the right place to train,” he said, his voice defeated. “The brown cars were too austere, the shiny cars didn’t train at all, you said the special features cars hardly bothered to drive, and now we’ve found the area for ‘different’ cars, we’re not allowed to train there. It feels hopeless.” Toby reached his car and slumped against the side.

“Any clever suggestions?”

Clarissa came near, and lightly punched his arm.

“Don’t be so gloomy! I agree, that looked like a good place to train, but like your mentor said, we can choose where to train, which must mean that it’s possible to train anywhere, otherwise we would all be told exactly where and how we should practise. I think you should come back to the special features training area. True, it doesn’t have the best training track in the world, and some drivers are only focussed on having a good time. But there is a track if you want to practise, and I think we’re allowed a little fun, otherwise we wouldn’t have been given the special features in the first place, would we? The Engineer must have put them there for a reason, and every car has one, something fun for the driver to enjoy. You might as well make the most of it. I don’t think your mentor would mind. . .”

“Oh him, Percy,” said Toby, his voice still gloomy. “I’m not sure he’s much good as a mentor. If he was such a good driver, why is he still here? Why hasn’t the Engineer called him to the real track? If he’s not ready after all this time, then he can’t be much of a driver at all, can he?”

Clarissa was still smiling, but her eye-brows were raised in an exasperated expression, and she was shaking her head from side to side. “Oh Toby! Stop being so melodramatic! And you’re wrong – about Percy, I mean. Sometimes the Engineer leaves a driver here, long after they’re good enough for the real track. He leaves them because they know things that can help other drivers. That’s why he’s a mentor, you numpty! I don’t especially. . .” she paused and looked at the sky. Sounds of crashes, very faint now, drifted over the walls to where they stood. “I don’t especially like Percy,” said Clarissa, her voice determined. “But I do think he’s probably a good driver. And I do think that perhaps he gives good advice.

“Anyway, will you come? Shall we go back to the special features area? I think you’ll like it.”

She stood, looking up into Toby’s eyes, her expression hopeful. He looked back at her, thinking that she was very pretty, and there was something about her that made him want to smile. Training with Clarissa would be fun, wherever they trained, and if she enjoyed the special features area, then perhaps he should just follow her and stop worrying about whether or not it would prepare him for the real track. After all, he had been supplied with the bubble button for a purpose, he may as well as enjoy it.

“Okay then,” said Toby, his voice resigned. “I’ll follow you.”

Clarissa reached up, and very lightly kissed his cheek. “Good decision,” she smiled, and skipped back to her own car.

***

They heard the special features area long before they reached it. As Toby drove along the road, which had become very wide and smooth, with a camber that helped to steer the car as he negotiated corners, sounds floated through his window. There were bells, and melody, and as he drove nearer, he could hear laughter and squeals of delight.

The special features area was entered through a large arch, and Toby drove under it, looking at the rainbow of colours that flashed over his car, changing the blue paintwork to purple, and brown and orange, before it emerged into the area looking plain blue again. He glanced down, and realised the paint was now clean – the arch must have incorporated a washing feature too, and his car gleamed. When he opened his door, the smell of blueberry pie wafted up, and he remembered Gerald and his strawberry scent, and realised that part of the car wash had included a colour-related scent. He sighed. Blueberry pie was not quite how he hoped his car would smell.

Toby had parked in the special features parking area. Each space was wide, and low walls separated each car. The walls had speakers, which spoke loudly, guiding the driver into the space, and then congratulating them loudly when the car was parked.

“Well done, Blueberry Driver!” Toby heard, as he opened his door. “That was excellent parking. Welcome to the special features area.”

He walked over to meet Clarissa, who was just opening her door.

“Well done Rose-Blossom Driver!” he heard. “That was excellent parking. Welcome to the special features area.”

Toby glanced at Clarissa’s car. The pink paint was shiny, and now smelt of roses (which he felt rather suited her) but it was parked within the space at an angle, the left wing touching the low wall. It was not, he thought, excellent parking at all. It was, he felt, nice to be complimented, and it made him feel good about his driving, but if everyone was complimented, no matter what their skill or lack of it, then he decided it could not be trusted. He decided to ignore all future praise as irrelevant.

Clarissa beamed up at him.

They give you such a nice welcome, don’t they?” she said, closing her door and leading the way into the area. “I think this is the best place to train. Honestly, you’ll love it here.”

Toby smiled at her, because he wanted her to be happy. “I will look around, and then decide,” he told himself. “There’s no harm in just looking.”

The pathway from the car park wound through flower beds and trees. Birds were singing, and there was music drifting from far away, and the sound of waves. When they rounded a corner, Toby saw the waves – the area was on the coast, and part of the road went right next to the sea. Waves crashed up the beach, breaking on the sand and running up towards the road before they ran out of energy and were drawn back to the ocean. There were palm trees growing along the edge of the road, casting dollops of shade on the road, and as he watched, a line of pelicans flew over the water, three of them, one after the other, searching for food.

“This is the rest area,” explained Clarissa, her smile satisfied, as if certain of Toby’s approval. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? A lovely place to relax after a long day driving.”

Toby nodded. “Where do the cars train though?” he asked, thinking that the coastal road looked very straight, there wouldn’t be much skill needed to drive along it, a driver wouldn’t learn anything.

“Don’t you want to stay a little while? Enjoy the view and rest?” said Clarissa, frowning at him.

“I’d rather see the training area,” said Toby. “It’s why we’ve come.”

Clarissa gave an impatient shrug, and took him to a footbridge that cross the road and headed inland. “We have a saying here,” she called over her shoulder as she led the way: “If it feels good, it must be right! So perhaps you should focus a little less on training and think about how you feel.”

Toby followed, staring over the training ground. There were booths where cars could be fitted with virtual experiences, and Toby watched a car as it drove onto the ramps and the driver attached wires, the windscreen facing a huge screen. The wheels then turned on the treadmill, and the screen showed different courses – some of them elevated so the car looked as if it was flying, while the driver inside swept the steering wheel from side to side, the car was rocked and jolted, and the engine whirred.

“But it’s not real,” thought Toby, peering over the side of the walkway, watching the driver’s animated face. “He feels like he’s having an amazing driving experience, but really his car is just on the ramps, he isn’t going anywhere. He can’t get anything wrong and risk damaging his car, because none of it is real. . .”

“Those simulators are brilliant for training,” said Clarissa, leaning over to see where Toby was looking.

Toby said nothing.

They continued along the walkway, and came to an area full of cars. They were all parked in a circle, their special features buttons were turned on, and each car was adding something different. Some were playing music, others were creating light-shows, some were puffing clouds of perfumed air, a white car was sending snowflakes into the sky above the drivers, and another was sending waves of feathers, that floated on the air currents, up and down, spiralling above the drivers before drifting down and resting on roofs and heads and underfoot in a soft coloured carpet. Toby watched, staring at the driver’s faces. They were all smiling, but he noticed a lack of excitement, as if they had done this many times before, there was no novelty to it, nothing different. There was not, Toby felt, much joy about the scene. He compared it to the area they had recently left, where the drivers had spent all day training, enduring difficult knocks and impossible trials, and then had come together to enjoy their special features. It had all felt so much more genuine.

“But I’m not allowed to train there,” he reminded himself. “That’s only for broken cars. . .”

“Look, there’s the training circuit,” said Clarissa, interrupting his thoughts and pointing to an area beyond the circle of drivers.

Toby could see a circuit, laid out like a race track, with start and finish lines. There were large car parks at each end, all full of drivers using their special features and having what looked like a party. A ‘before party’ and an ‘after party,’ thought Toby, shaking his head. The course itself had curves and hills, but only very gentle ones, with clear visibility, and warning signs flashed before each corner, giving recommended speeds and showing the gradient of the curve. “It wouldn’t take much skill to drive round that,” thought Toby. “All the hard work has been done all ready, the driver simply has to follow what the signs say, there are no decisions to make.”

Toby sighed. He wasn’t quite sure how to explain to Clarissa that he simply couldn’t stay here. He could see that it was attractive, there were lots of fun elements, but he didn’t think after a while that they would seem fun. He thought it all looked rather mundane and boring, and his driving wouldn’t improve at all. He turned to face her, and she smiled up at him, and he opened his mouth to start explaining, then stopped. He frowned.

Beyond Clarissa, behind her bouncing curls and her eager face, Toby noticed the sky. When they arrived, the sky had been blue, tiny white clouds scudding across it, the sun shining down. But not now. With no warning, there was large black cloud, gradually filling the sky, looming nearer and nearer. It crossed the sun, and Clarissa, noticing the shadow, spun around and gasped.

The cloud loomed ever nearer. It filled more and more of the sky, heavy and silent, grey and black, blotting out the blue sunshine, and the blue sky; everything that had been calm and peaceful appeared stark and cold. The sea changed from a gentle lapping to a furious crash, the birds were gone, the flowers and trees bending as a wind crept from the sky and whooshed towards them, pushing feathers and snowflakes in its wake. It pulled at their hair, so Clarissa’s curls were a long tangle of rat’s tails, and Toby felt his own hair sweeping over his eyes.

“We need to get back to the cars,” he shouted, taking Clarissa’s hand and starting to run.

Clarissa opened her mouth, but her words were snatched away, and there was a sudden crash of thunder, deep and rumbling, that burst from the cloud and boomed over the training area.

They started to run. Below them, Toby could see all the drivers running for their cars, the music drowned by the sounds of nature, the special features scattered by the wind. Lightening shot forth, breaking the sky, scarring their eyes with bright white light that left them blind for a second, slowing them as they ran. Toby kept hold of Clarissa’s hand. He was pulling her after him, the walkway they were running over trembled beneath them, shuddering as the wind buffeted it. He tasted salt, as the sea sent waves heaving over the beach, almost reaching the road, he ran on, his hand tight on Clarissa’s, his clothes pushed against him by the wind, his hair flying into his face, pulling into the sky, streaming back over his face.

They reached their cars, and Toby released Clarissa’s hand, watched as she flew to her car, tugged open the door, slid inside, even as he wrestled with his own door, struggling to close it behind him. As the door clicked shut, enclosing him safely in his car, muting the wind, the hail started. Great icy balls of ice, white stones of destruction, fell from the sky as if emptied from a giant bucket. They plummeted to earth, hitting road and tree and cars, bouncing as they landed, stuttering away to land somewhere else. Plants were broken, snapped and covered by the heavy balls of ice, which fell, one after the other, a great torrent of them, pelting the earth as if thrown, smashing glass, denting metal, bouncing for a moment, then lying still, in a bulbous heap of glistening white.

Toby huddled down behind the steering wheel, listening as his car was pelted, watching as chips appeared on the windscreen, depressions were carved onto the bonnet. He was wondering if the glass would shatter, if the great hailstones would manage to penetrate the car, and whether he should attempt to drive somewhere more sheltered, when it stopped. As suddenly as the hail had started, it ceased.

Nothing fell from the sky. Toby peered up, the black cloud was moving, reducing, drifting further away, higher into the sky, getting smaller and lighter, until it was a small grey blob, a blot, a dot, and was gone. The sky was blue, the wind had dropped, the sun shone down. The piles of ice were already melting, shining for a moment in the sunlight, dazzling in their whiteness, silver for a moment, then transparent, then nothing but patches of wet on the road.

To be continued. . .

Anne E. Thompson
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