Chapter Thirteen

After the Storm

Toby swallowed, and leaned forwards, peering across the parking area to where Clarissa’s car was. He could see her roof, over the low wall, pitted now with dents. Cautiously, he pushed open his door and started to stand. His foot crunched on melting hailstones, and he held the door, anxious in case he should slip. As he stood, he began to see more of Clarissa’s car. Below the dented roof, the windscreen had splintered into a spiders-web of cracks, but the shards of glass seemed to be held in place, he couldn’t see any gaps.

“Clarissa!” he called, climbing fully out of his car and testing his balance on the slippery ground. “Clarissa, are you alright?”

There was a sound from within her car, muted and distorted, so Toby couldn’t hear words. He began to walk towards her, holding onto his car for balance, his feet skidding and sliding on the ice, he reached the low wall and lurched forward, pushing his weight towards Clarissa’s car, his arms braced for a fall his eyes searching to see beyond the laced cracks of the glass. He reached the car. Inside, he could see movement, could hear Clarissa calling but all was indistinct. The glass had shattered in all the windows, so although he could discern movement, he couldn’t tell if it was an arm he was seeing or a hand. He stared at the door handle, and paused. At the moment, the glass was shattered, but still in place. If he opened the door, would the cracked shards be dislodged, and fall inside, slicing through anything they fell on? Toby considered the possibility of trying to remove the glass first, pulling away the broken pieces so they couldn’t fall. But he had no tools, nothing useful to prise the sharp pieces out of the frame.

He decided to risk opened the door and placed his hand on the handle. He looked at the window. If it should fall outwards, it would slice through the flesh of his wrist. If it fell inwards, it would cut Clarissa. He swallowed. Gradually, inch by inch, Toby depressed the handle until he heard the mechanism click open. He paused. The glass remained in place. His fingers were stiff on the handle, he daren’t let go, knew that he must softly pull the door towards him. He began to open the door. The glass shuddered, but did not fall. He inched the door towards him. He could hear Clarissa now, telling him to be careful, saying that she was okay, but please don’t let the glass fall. She had moved into the far seat, but was still in range should the glass fall. Toby could almost feel her eyes on him, he held his breath, waited a second, moved the door another inch, paused. The glass shivered, held, shivered again. Toby exhaled, sucked in his lips, edged the door further open, pulling it towards him, until at last, there was a big enough gap for Clarissa to squeeze through. She slid from the car, he took her arm, they moved to a safe place, sliding over the icy ground, then stood, staring at the little pink car with the shattered windows.

“Where did that storm come from?” said Clarissa after a while.

Toby shook his head. “I have no idea. It would make the roads treacherous though, I wonder how the cars on the training track managed.”

He looked down. Clarissa’s voice sounded hollow, as if she was making a supreme effort to sound normal, and when he looked at her, she lifted frightened eyes to stare back.

“Do you think. . .” she whispered, “do you think my car is so damaged that. . .” she stopped, and a sob escaped.

Toby moved closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “No,” he said.

“But it might be,” whispered Clarissa. “It might be so badly damaged that I am called to the real track. And I’m not ready, I haven’t really trained properly, I won’t be issued with anything decent to drive, I’m not ready. . .”

“No,” said Toby again, and pulled her closer. He looked across at her car. It appeared somehow blind, with all the windows smashed – like eyes covered with cataracts. He shook his head, convincing himself that he was right.

“Think of how damaged some of those cars were in the broken cars training area. They were in a right state some of them, and yet they had been repaired and the drivers were still training. You’ve hardly arrived Clarissa, the Engineer won’t call you to the real track yet, I’m sure he won’t.

“Your car looks a mess,” he admitted. “But I’m sure it can be repaired. It’s only surface damage really, just a bit of glass.”

He looked at her again and tried to smile.

“You wait here,” he said. “I’ll go and find a mechanic, someone who can tell you the best way to get your car repaired. It might take me a while, I expect there are loads of cars damaged by that storm, but I will come back as soon as I can. You can wait next to the beach, it’s pretty there, a nice place to sit for a while. You’ll feel better in a minute, I expect it’s just the shock.”

Clarissa nodded, and Toby felt her take a breath and straighten. He wasn’t sure if she believed him – he wasn’t sure if he believed himself – but he very much wanted it to be true. He gave her a last hug, and went back to his car.

As Toby drove from the car park, he glanced in his rear view mirror. He could see Clarissa’s car, jagged shards of glass hanging in every window, and Clarissa, walking with hunched shoulders towards the beach. There was something defeated in her stance. Then he looked forwards, and concentrated on where he was going.

Chapter Fourteen

Trying to Find Help and What Happened to Percy

Toby drove slowly, his wheels crunching over the remaining hailstones, leaning forwards in his seat so he could look for patches of ice. A couple of times he felt his back wheels spin as he turned corners, but nothing he couldn’t bring back under control. He was heading for the entrance to the Special Features training area, to where he had seen a line of mechanic stations.

It was just after a particularly sharp bend that the man stopped him. Toby had again felt his rear wheels slip, had fought to turn the steering wheel back on track and keep from sliding to the edge of the road, when he saw the man, standing right in the centre of the road, waving madly. Toby depressed the brake pedal, remembering to press it gradually, to not brake hard and go into a skid, to adjust the steering bit by bit, until he was safely at the side of the road. His car stopped, and he started to get out.

Toby was now slightly beyond the man, who had turned, and was running towards him, slipping on the icy road, his arms waving, his face red as he fought to stay upright.

“You’re Toby, right?—One of Percy’s trainees?—You have to come.—Right now—Toby?—You’re Toby?”

His shouts came between breaths, forced through the wintry air, clipped and urgent.

Toby frowned. He really did not have time for this. Whatever Percy wanted to say could wait until he had sent a mechanic to help Clarissa.

“I can’t come right now,” Toby shouted back, turning back to his car. “I have to find a mechanic first.”

The man had reached Toby. Toby realised he was from the brown training area, his brown overalls were as tatty as his car, and were blotched with patches of oil. The pocket was ragged where it had torn, and the knees were worn thin. The man was shaking his head.

“No, you should come now, really you should. There are things you need to know —important things. Honestly, come now. It will help your friend more later if you come now. Trust me. . .”

Toby was not sure that he did trust the man. He was, after all, from the brown area. But there was something urgent about his red face, and his eyes were kind as well as determined, and Toby realised that the man had risked skidding and crashing in order to find him, and so maybe, maybe, Toby should trust him and go to find Percy. He stood still, thinking about Clarissa, and whether her car could be mended, and how she was waiting for him; weighing it in his mind with the urgency of the brown driver, and the suggestion that he would help Clarissa more if he found Percy first.

“Okay,” he said at last, his heart unwilling, “I’ll come.”

Toby followed the battered brown car along the wide roads of the Special Features training area, and out into the narrower link roads. They drove as fast as the conditions would allow, their wheels skidding over icy patches, the windscreens misting with their breath, the wet roads hissing beneath them. The roads became narrower, and they turned sharply into the brown training area. Toby parked in one of the narrow spaces, barely registering that he could now manage to park in a single move, and hurried to follow the brown driver. They walked under the deformed trunks of leafless trees to a wide area of mud and sparse tufts of grass. Percy was standing next to his car, and looked up as Toby approached.

“Ah, Toby! Just in time I think.”

Toby looked at Percy’s car. Each window had shattered, and a wheel had fallen from the front, the wing crumpled. It looked as if he had driven hard into something solid, and the old car looked beyond repair.

“Why are you here?” said Toby, wanting to know before Percy left why he had chosen to train with the brown drivers. “Do you think this is the best training area? Even with all the restrictions and nastiness?”

Percy shook his head. “As I told you before Toby, you can choose where to train, it is possible in any area, you simply need to find the best place for you. I came here long ago, because I realised that these drivers needed a little help, they were all trying so hard, and yet they still missed the point. I felt I could help them.”

“But you stayed so long!” said Toby, the words escaping before he could adjust them to something less blunt. “Don’t you think a different area might have got you good enough for the real track sooner?”

“Ah. No Toby. It’s not about being ‘good enough.’ We’re never good enough, we simply have to do our very best to improve. I realised that I needed to stay here, to be a mentor. I had an understanding you see, with the Engineer. I had something to offer, I could help the other drivers, and so I stayed. But I think I can go now. . .”

His voice trailed off, and he looked, past Toby, and smiled.

Toby spun round. There was a line of men standing, smiling at Percy. Their long grey hair was moving in the breeze, their eyes shone with welcome, and one of them stepped forwards, as if he was going to speak to Percy. Toby turned back, to ask Percy who they were—

Percy had gone. The place he had stood was empty, only his car remained. When Toby looked back, the line of men had gone too.

“Who were they?”

Toby was joined by another driver, his overalls were purple, and he had black curly hair. “Who were those men?”

Toby shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Am I too late?” said the purple driver, looking around. “Percy was my mentor, I came to say goodbye. Did I miss him?”

Toby nodded. “Yes, I think so. I think he has gone.”

He turned to the purple driver.

“I was never sure why he was still here anyway, why his driving wasn’t good enough for the real track. I did wonder whether perhaps he’d never be good enough, never get there.”

The purple driver was shaking his head, his eyes worried.

“But it’s not about being good enough,” he said, repeating what Percy had said a few minutes ago. “We don’t have to train to be good enough to enter, the entry fee has already been sorted, by the Engineer. That’s why we’re here, at the training ground—because we’ve been chosen. No no, we’ll all get there eventually, but it’s up to us how ready we are, that’s the point of why we train. That’s what we’re here for.” His face creased into a frown. “But didn’t you know that already? Didn’t Percy explain that when you arrived?”

“Not really,” said Toby, trying to remember. “At least, I don’t think he did.”

“Are you going to stay?” asked the purple driver, nodding towards Percy’s broken car, which stood abandoned next to them. “I know that Percy wouldn’t care, he doesn’t need it anymore. But I think I might stay until it’s taken by the crusher. It feels, I don’t know, sort of respectful. Will you stay too?”

“Yes,” said Toby, hoping that it would be quick. He really needed to get back to Clarissa, but he felt it would be wrong to simply leave Percy’s car in the middle of the mud.

As they stood there, waiting for the crusher to arrive, the wind gradually dropped, and the sun slid from the clouds. Sunbeams danced on the broken glass, and a warmth spread over the muddy field. Other drivers arrived, their clothes showing they were from various training areas. Some wore brown overalls, some were dressed in colours, some were older drivers, some looked as new as Toby; all said that Percy had been their mentor, they were coming to say goodbye.

Eventually the crusher arrived, engine roaring, wheels dwarfing the abandoned brown car. The drivers began to whisper, quietly, as if not sure that the words mattered, but wanting to say something, wanting to mark the occasion somehow: “From metal you came, from metal you return. . .”

Anne E. Thompson
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