I want to share with you an extract from my new novel: Out by Ten by Anne E. Thompson
As I explained yesterday, it’s listed at the reduced price of £6.99 for just this week so that my friends and neighbours can buy a copy. I will put the Amazon link at the end (it’s available as both Kindle and paperback books).
I shared the bus ride back to Blakeney with a gaggle of teenaged girls, who looked as if they might be bunking off school. As I sat, staring at their snagged tights and improbable shoes, I heard their intense voices, and I remembered being that age, and the glorious excitement of new situations. It was only a few short years ago – and a whole lifetime. I immersed my thoughts in the sound of their whispers, looked at their carefully arranged hair, their casual closeness as they touched an arm, a knee rested against a thigh, feet slid near each other. They didn’t bother with personal space, the flicked hair of one girl brushed the cheek of another, their perfume spilled towards me with their whispered giggles. I remembered the intoxication of friendships, the undiluted energy; I remembered when I first saw Timothy. . .
I am sixteen, my school bag is bouncing on my shoulder, I glide into the classroom and slump into the chair next to Carol. I am looking for Nigel, searching the room for his blond hair whilst pretending to look for my homework book. Perhaps I should be worrying about my father, and his recently diagnosed cancer, but I’m not, I am absorbed by Nigel, hunting for his gangly legs stretching out from his desk, and the slant of his shoulder when he reaches for his bag. Carol digs me in the ribs and jerks her head forwards. I look up. I see Timothy.
He is standing at the front, his stance casual, his eyes watchful. I notice his eyes first, set below straight brows, that dark brown that seems to glow; even from my seat at the back I can tell he is noticing, watching us, in control. He wears a faded jacket, with patches on the elbows, and a white shirt, with the tie knotted to a perfect neat nobble, giving his appearance a tidy, meticulous look. His hair is brown. He has good hair, thick and wavy, cut to just above his ears but not so short that he looks like my dad. He doesn’t look like anyone’s dad, though I suppose, given his age, he might be. He smiles, I forget all about Nigel, forget he exists, forget that he has until now been the focus of every maths lesson I have attended this year.
Timothy is speaking. I notice his voice is deep, and posh, and it makes my stomach tingle. He is telling us his name is Timothy Oakfield and I want to write it in my book, and scribble variations of it. Mr. Oakfield. I realise that maths lessons will never be dull again. He is telling us that he’s our new teacher, that he’s pleased to meet us, let’s begin with an evaluation of what we have studied so far with Mr. Corbin. Mr. Corbin has had to leave, we don’t need to know why; I don’t want to know why, I don’t care. All is absorbed by the deep, posh, voice, and the brown, almost black eyes, and the apparent youth of our new mathematics teacher. He is asking for someone to raise their hand, someone who can give him a quick synopsis of work already covered by the unfortunate Mr. Corbin. Not me, I can’t breathe, let alone speak. I feel Carol stir beside me, she is raising her hand, introducing herself, telling him, Mr. Timothy Oakfield, that we have covered up to page 52 in the text book, and we all completed the questions at the back for homework. He smiles at her. I hate her.
He speaks, telling us about simplified equations, and exponential data, and I am barely listening. His words wash over me as I feel the tingle his voice stimulates, and I imagine how he would look in casual clothes, and wonder if he is married. He issues instructions, and everyone turns to a page in their text books, and I have to stop hating Carol long enough to ask her what the page number is. She slides a piece of paper towards me:
Dreamy is not a word I have ever used before, but it fits, I nod. I glance up.
Mr. Timothy Oakfield is walking round the classroom, peering at books. He pauses by John Simpkins and points at something. John Simpkins looks up, his face is very red, he hunches his shoulders and begins to frantically rub at his exercise book with an eraser. I wonder what he has written.
I glance across to my friend Charlie, she is frowning. I’m not sure if this is because she always finds maths difficult, or because her hair has recently been plaited again and I know that it pulls at her scalp and hurts. Her hair is a constant source of trouble for her, teachers repeatedly tell her it’s untidy and she should cut it. But it grows fast and surrounds her face with frizz, and there is nothing she can do but endure small tight plaits that hurt. Her mother shaves her head and wears a wig, I wonder if Charlie will when she’s older, if she will hide her hair in shame and try to look more ‘white.’ I hope not, I think her hair suits her face, and should be allowed to grow naturally. I wonder if my father will wear a wig too, when he loses more of his hair to the poison of chemotherapy, but this is too horrible to think about, so I spin my thoughts back to Charlie, and I wish she would look up so I can grimace to her in sympathy.
Mr. Timothy Oakfield is on the prowl again, I stare down at my book. We are all quiet, I don’t think this class has ever been silent before, there is something about him, an irresistible authority that has cast a spell on us. I try to see if he is wearing a wedding ring. He sees me raise my head, and approaches. I can feel my heart pounding behind my worn-out-doesn’t-fit-properly bra, the blood has rushed to flood my face and neck, so not-cool. I feel him approach. I have written nothing. I glance sideways, Carol’s book is neatly numbered 1 to 12, I begin to write the numbers in a long line down the margin, as if preparing my page for the answers that will surely follow; I haven’t even read the questions yet. He is here, I have only written up to number 7, and there are no words. He is leaning down, I can smell aftershave, he places a hand on my desk, it is his left hand, it is naked. I glance up, and drown in brown eyes.
“Are you okay? Do you understand what you need to do?”
I nod, my face a furnace. I do not have the first idea what I am supposed to be writing. He moves away. I breathe again, force myself to read the questions. They make no sense, words bouncing on a white page. I sneak a look at Carol’s book. I hate her, but I need her. I begin to copy her answers.
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.
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. . .”
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.
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.
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.
Toby found Clarissa and persuaded her that they should both visit Percy. Clarissa had been angry, and then upset, and finally simply quietly sad – which Toby thought was perhaps the worst – but she agreed to go with him and listen. Toby had his own questions for his mentor, and he wanted to know why Gerald had been taken to the real track when he clearly had not been ready, and whether Toby would see him again when he reached the real track himself. They found Percy, as ever, in the refreshment tent.
Percy was standing as they approached, reaching for his coat, obviously about to leave. Toby hurried over.
“Percy, hello, please can we talk?”
Percy stopped, and smiled a greeting.
“Hello Toby, Clarissa, I wasn’t expecting to see you today. How are you? Everything going okay?”
“No!” said Toby, pulling out a chair and sitting down. He gestured for Clarissa to join him and looked up at Percy. “We need to talk. It’s serious.”
“Our friend Gerald has gone,” added Clarissa. “And we miss him.” She flopped down into the chair next to Toby, all the energy gone out of her.
Percy nodded, but did not sit.
“Ah yes, I had heard about that.”
Toby wondered how Percy could possibly have heard so quickly, and was about to ask, but Percy was still speaking.
“There are many things which are hard to understand, lots to cope with while you train, so many distractions and difficult situations. . .” Percy was staring at the ceiling of the refreshment tent, and Toby wondered if he had forgotten what they had told him. Was his mentor senile? Percy gave himself a small shake, and looked back at Toby, as if it was an effort and he preferred to be lost in whatever thoughts were dancing round his head.
“Now then Toby, I do not have time, right at this very moment, to explain things properly. In fact, even if I did, I doubt if I could make you understand. No, what you and Clarissa should do I think. . .” he paused as if considering, then nodded his head, the grey hair bobbing up and down, his long turkey-like neck bending and folding. “Yes, what I believe you should do, right now, is go to the cinema in the special features area.
“You know where it is?”
Clarissa nodded, looking as confused as Toby felt.
“Yes, that is what you must do,” continued Percy. He reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a fat round watch on a long gold chain, squinting as he consulted the face. “Ah yes, as I thought, there is a film showing in just a few minutes, you have time, if you are quick.” He folded the watch back into his pocket and smiled at Toby, showing long yellow teeth. “You will feel better after watching the film, I guarantee it, and it will make it so much easier to explain things to you afterwards.
“Yes, you watch the film, I will meet you here afterwards. Then we will talk.”
Without waiting for an answer, Percy pushed his arms into the sleeves of his long brown coat, and waked from the tent, leaning heavily on his stick. Toby watched him leave, wondering how someone could possibly bear to move so slowly. He turned to Clarissa.
“Not quite what I was hoping for,” he said.
Clarissa was looking cross, her face folded into a frown, her lips pursed.
“I don’t think your mentor is much of a mentor at all,” she said. “I wonder why they gave you one.”
Toby sat up a little straighter, thinking that is sounded – although she hadn’t actually said it – that Clarissa thought Toby must be a very poor driver indeed in order to need a mentor who was clearly substandard.
“I don’t know,” he said, his voice tight. “Shall we go to this film? Do you know where the cinema is?”
Clarissa nodded. “Might as well,” she said sounding dismissive. “At least it’s in the special features area. I might decide to stay there afterwards, I’m beginning to wish that I’d never left.” She stood up, and without so much as glancing at Toby, led the way from the tent. He followed, a whole muddle of confusion and anger and defensiveness buzzing in his stomach, so that he was feeling rather like he might be sick. This was turning out to be a completely terrible day, and he wished he had stayed in bed.
The cinema was right in the centre of the special features area. Toby followed Clarissa through wide golden gates, along smooth roads, to a car park. The roads were lined with trees and flowers, and birds were flying overhead.
Parking was easy, as there were sensors to help guide the car into a space. When Toby opened his door, the air was filled with perfume, and mingled with the sound of birds there was music, and very far away, he could hear someone laughing. A man walked past, and he smiled at Toby, congratulating him on his parking.
“Well done, well done, you managed to park in a single manoeuvre,” he said as he walked away. It was, Toby thought, a complete opposite to everything he had experienced in the brown training area.
Clarissa joined him, her eyes hooded. Toby realised that she was there under protest, she did not seem to trust Percy but a loyalty to Toby was prompting her to stay with him. He was grateful, and squeezed her arm.
“Thanks for coming,” he whispered.
Clarissa nodded, but didn’t reply.
They walked together, along a pathway lined with flowers and trees, following flashing signs that directed them to the cinema. The cinema was set in a small hollow, a low round building that resembled a spaceship, a silvery domed roof and curved doors that opened as they approached. Inside, the air was cool and perfumed with cinnamon. Their footsteps were muffled by a thick green carpet, and they followed a line of drivers into the auditorium and took seats near the back. Some drivers were carrying tubs of popcorn, fat beakers of drink, long bars of chocolate. Toby considered asking Clarissa if she would like something to eat, but a glance at her stony face reminded him that she wasn’t here for pleasure, she was prepared to endure the experience, but nothing else.
The lights dimmed, and the curtains across the screen folded back. Toby was aware of Clarissa relaxing slightly, comfortable in the dark, and he felt her move slightly lower in her seat. He wondered if he might hold her hand, but worried she might snatch it away, so he folded his arms and stared at the screen.
The film began by showing the relationship develop between a mentor and a new driver. The new driver reminded Toby of himself, the way his car lurched when he started, the apparent difficulty he had turning corners and the impossibility of parking in a marked space. Toby chuckled, and beside him he heard Clarissa giggle too, which made him smile. The mentor in the film was younger than Percy, with long hair tied back in a pony-tail, and a tight tee-shirt. He clearly cared for his protégé, and offered several driving tips, which Toby took note of, thinking he might apply them in real life.
The film then changed pace. The protégé managed to get entangled in the car crusher when it came to dispose of a redundant training car, and was carried away. The action switched to the mentor, who was told what had happened and decided to rush to the rescue. Toby watched as the mentor ran to his car, the soundtrack to the film had changed, the music fast and tense. The mentor drove towards where the crusher went, his wheels spinning on corners, fingers tight on the steering wheel, expression anxious. The mentor reached down to a button on the dashboard, and Toby saw wings stretch out on either side of the car, there was a spurt of pink exhaust smoke, and the car rose into the air.
Toby watched the screen, entranced. The car was flying, over the road, through the clouds, then above them, the camera showing a clear blue sky and sun glinting on fluffy white mountains of cloud that appeared solid. The car continued to rise, higher and higher, until it was bursting through the earth’s atmosphere and spinning into space. Round and round the car spun, higher and higher. It orbited planets, avoided meteorites, chased shooting stars. The soundtrack had changed to something melodic, beautiful tunes filling the cinema, while on the screen the mentor floated through space. Toby was sitting up straight, his mouth open, wondering whether what he was seeing was possible, whether there were cars and drivers in real life capable of such feats.
The film changed again, the tense music returned, heavy beats and loud drums while the mentor located his protégé and extracted him from the jaws of the crusher. Softer music filled the room while the mentor led his protégé back to earth, showed him how to use the flying mechanism of his car to navigate space, slowed when he seemed in danger of crashing, led him home. The film ended with them both landing back on earth, the pale protégé thanking his mentor, the sun shining from behind a cloud, the wings folded back inside the cars.
Toby sat back in his seat and exhaled.
“Wow!” he said, turning to Clarissa, “Do you think any of that is even slightly possible? The flying bit I mean, the whizzing through space. Are there cars that can do that?”
Clarissa looked at him, and Toby saw her face had relaxed into a smile and she was sitting back in her chair, eyes shining.
“I hope so.”
They left the cinema, not speaking but walking close together, letting their eyes adjust to daylight as they left the domed building, feeling the fresh air cold on their cheeks. Walking back to their cars, Toby felt he wanted to say something, to ask whether Clarissa felt better, whether going to see the film had been a good idea. But he said nothing. He wanted her to confirm that Percy had given wise advice, needed to know that he could trust his mentor, learn from him. But he knew that if he asked Clarissa her opinion, she might not say what he wanted to hear, so it was safest not to ask. He wondered again about taking her hand, but that felt risky too, so Toby shoved his fists deep into his pockets and walked back to his car in silence.
Toby and Clarissa set off towards the base of the pit, hoping to meet Gerald on his way up. Clarissa was talking very fast, reciting the parts of the race that were most scary, telling Toby how she couldn’t bear to watch, wondering how badly damaged Gerald’s car was and whether it would ever look pretty and shiny again. Toby was barely listening. He was wondering how Gerald felt, and whether he would listen as Toby tried to persuade him away from the brown area.
“I’m not sure that I want to leave on my own,” he thought, thinking about the last few days, and the fun they had had together despite the oppressive atmosphere of the brown area. “It has been fun to have someone to laugh with, to share opinion and ideas, to drive around the course with. And Gerald is like me, he knows that it’s all about the real track, but also that it’s okay to enjoy our cars, to have a laugh, while we’re training. He isn’t like the brown drivers, with their denial of everything fun about training. I don’t want to leave him here. . . but I really don’t think I can stay any longer. I don’t like what this area is doing to my car. . .”
Toby realised that Clarissa had stopped talking, and looked up. They were half way down the track, the walls of the pit rising up beside them, the path they were walking on was narrow, it curved away, down to the track, designed for drivers who needed to leave their cars temporarily – which was not something the brown drivers ever encouraged. They couldn’t see into the pit where the training track was, but sounds from below drifted up, and Toby heard muted voices, and the creak of a car being pushed, and the revving of an engine. There was another sound too, a sound that Toby didn’t recognise.
It began with a whoosh, like a sudden gust of wind that is swooshing through a gap, but instead of stopping, it grew steadily louder, drowning out the other sounds, turning to a roar that sort of filled the air and rushed towards them, filling the whole pit with the deep tremulous moan.
Toby and Clarissa stopped walking, and stood very still, listening as the sound grew, absorbing all their attention. Then, as suddenly as it began, it started to recede, growing quieter and quieter, until it was a gust, a hiss, a whisper, a sigh, and was gone. For a second, they stood completely still.
“What was that?” said Toby.
But Clarissa wasn’t listening, she was hurtling, full speed, along the gravel path. Stones were scattering from under her feet and dropping over the steep edge to the pit below, but she didn’t seem to care. Toby watched her speeding away, then started to chase after her.
“What is it? Why are we running?” he gasped, struggling to keep up. He was aware of the sheer drop beside them, the high walls on the pit edge on the other side, the slippery gravel underfoot. Clarissa’s feet were charging down the path, her hair flying out behind her, her jacket waving in the breeze. She was fast, and as hard as he tried, Toby couldn’t catch up, he could only follow, hoping that neither of them slipped and plummeted to the earth below. They rounded the last bend, and the pathway straightened, flattening onto the floor of the pit.
Toby could see the green car that had raced, the driver standing, open-mouthed, staring at the sky. Next to him was Gerald’s car, the wing missing in a great gouge of exposed metal, wires hanging down where they had been torn from the light casing, screws wrenched from their positions. Toby could see the dent where Gerald had hit a passing brown car the day before, and a smudge of yellow where Gerald had touched the roof with mustard on his fingers at breakfast this morning. But there was no Gerald.
In the distance, the other side of the raging river and the little bridge, Toby could see the two brown cars, meshed together in their misshapen lump. But he couldn’t see either of the drivers, only the green car driver was in the pit. Toby turned his head, first towards the path they had just run down, then back to the crashed cars, then round to where the track arched up high, level with the top of the pit. He scanned the perimeter of the pit, wondering if somehow the drivers could have left, if perhaps he and Clarissa had taken longer than he thought and the drivers had walked back the way they had come, leaving their cars in the pit below while they sought help with removal. But there was no one. He turned back to Clarissa.
Clarissa was crying. She had moved over to where Gerald’s car rested, and was standing there, rocking slightly, backwards and forwards, while tears ran down her face and plopped onto her pink jacket. Toby watched her reach out a hand, running it along the top edge of the roof, placing her palm over the blank glass of the window, her head bowed.
“He’s gone,” she said, her voice husky with tears. “Gerald has gone.”
“Gone where?” asked Toby, feeling foolish. His friend couldn’t have gone to the real track, he told himself, his car wasn’t damaged badly enough to be beyond repair, Toby had watched him complete the race, it was still drivable, Gerald had parked it himself. “Gone where?” he repeated, his voice louder, feeling angry now, cross that Clarissa seemed to know something he didn’t.
“To the real track,” said Clarissa, almost spitting the words at him. “That place that you stupid boys are so besotted with! Gerald kept talking about it, kept training, trying to be good enough. He wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t open his eyes and see what is on offer here. Oh no, all he wanted was the real track and now he’s got it, hasn’t he. Now he’s gone. And left us. And that’s it, we’ll never see him again. . .”
Toby watched as Clarissa sort of folded in half, flopping gown on the ground next to Gerald’s car, and sat hunched next to a muddy wheel, sobbing. He had absolutely no idea what to do.
It seemed like an age that they stayed there, Toby and the green driver standing helplessly, while Clarissa sobbed, filling the pit with the sound of her wails. They didn’t move, the broken cars stayed in place like ugly reminders of the drivers who had been taken. Eventually, the green driver coughed, and muttered something about being very sorry, but wasn’t it what Gerald would have wanted? Before sidling to his car and starting the engine. The motor fired, drowning the sound of Clarissa’s crying, and Toby turned and watched as the green car drove slowly away.
Several brown drivers appeared at the foot of the pathway. They frowned at Clarissa, then marched over to Toby.
“Why is she crying?” they asked, as if they thought it was Toby’s fault.
“Our friend, Gerald, has gone. . .” said Toby.
“Yes, of course, that’s the point, isn’t it?” snapped one of the brown drivers. “You should both be feeling pleased for him, not standing here moping around. And you should be driving anyway, neither of you will be ready when your log book runs out, not if you stand around being sad when you should be driving!”
“But Gerald wasn’t ready, can’t you see that,” said Clarissa, standing up and glaring at the brown drivers. “He was only trying to improve, and your stupid rules and your stupid training area and your stupid training track means that his car broke too early. He wasn’t ready. He had only just arrived. Are you completely stupid?”
The brown drivers looked rather shocked, and took a step backwards, as if worried that Clarissa might hit them. Toby wasn’t sure himself.
But she didn’t. She turned on her heel, spinning away from them, and started to march back up the footpath, towards the top of the pit.
“What will happen now?” Toby asked the brown drivers.
One driver was staring after Clarissa, his mouth open. The other driver shook his head and turned to Toby.
“The broken cars will be removed of course, they are no longer needed. The crusher will arrive shortly, then the cubed remains will be taken to the furnace.” He stopped, and added in a kinder voice: “Did you want to stay and watch? I know some drivers like to say a few words over the crushed car. We don’t normally do that here, we don’t think the car matters. . . but if you’re new,” he glanced at Toby’s brown overalls. “If you wanted to stay and say goodbye, I don’t expect anyone would mind, as the driver seems to be your friend. . .”
The other driver closed his mouth, and looked about to disagree, and tell Toby that it certainly would not be all right, brown drivers did not make a lot of unnecessary fuss over broken cars and departed drivers; so before he could speak, Toby said: “No, thanks, that’s okay.”
Then he turned, and ran after Clarissa. He felt that they both needed to find his mentor, Percy, and have a few things explained. He just hoped that Percy would have the answers.
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.
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.
The brown cars had a section of training ground which was slightly removed from the rest of the area. It was difficult to find, and was not signed, so Toby passed the entrance twice without realising, and had to stop and ask for directions. When he finally found it, the entrance was narrow, with metal posts either side, which Toby feared might scratch his car. He drove between the posts very slowly, peering out of the side window, carefully judging the distance. He managed to enter without mishap, and looked for somewhere to park.
The brown car area was very brown. Brown and grey. Toby had to agree with Clarissa – it certainly looked dismal. But if the training was excellent, it probably didn’t matter if the environment was plain. The car park was as challenging as the entrance, and each space was just wide enough to fit a car. Toby shuffled, backwards and forwards, several times, before he managed to get most of his car into a space. The car park was almost empty, and so even though his front wing and one wheel was not quite in the space, Toby decided that it wasn’t important. He climbed from his car, and began to walk away.
“Hey! You can’t leave your car parked like that!”
Toby stopped walking and turned. A small, fat man with long grey hair and heavy eye-brows was glaring at him. His brown overalls were splattered with oil, and his pink knees could be seen through holes in his trousers. He was glaring at Toby in fury.
“You’re not in the space,” said the man.
“I’m a new driver,” explained Toby, “I’m not very good at parking yet.” He looked at all the empty spaces in the car park.
“There’s only three other cars in here,” said Toby, “there’s plenty of room.”
“That is not the point,” said the angry little man, marching over to where Toby had left his car. “Look, the wheel is over the line. You’ll never learn to park properly if you don’t try, will you? Now get back here and park it correctly, or leave this training area.”
Toby went back to his car. The man stood next to him, and folded his arms.
Toby started the engine and lurched backwards into the space. The man shook his head.
Toby inched forwards, turning the wheel, trying to steer inside the lines but missing, so that now the other front wheel was over the line. The man shook his head.
Toby drove forwards, out of the space, then tried reversing, turning the steering wheel, peering over his shoulder, aiming for the area inside the lines. A back wheel was now touching a line. The man sighed, and frowned, and shook his head.
Toby tried again, and again, and again. Each time, a part of his car was either on the line or over the edge, and each time the little man glowered and frowned and kept his arms tightly folded across his chest. Toby felt the panic rise inside of him.
“I can’t do this,” he thought, “it’s too difficult. I’ll just leave, and train somewhere else.”
But he remembered the shiny cars, and their spooky chant, and his determination to learn how to drive properly. He shuffled into that parking space, and edged forwards and backwards and forwards and backwards, until his wheels were hot and the air smelt of burning rubber and the tears were running down his cheeks and plopping onto his damp shirt, all the while with the fat little man scowling at him.
Eventually, when Toby’s arms ached from turning the wheel, and his car was about to die because it needed recharging, he managed to get all four wheels into the space.
“I’ve done it!” he said, climbing from the car.
“Took you long enough,” muttered the man, before stomping away.
Toby stared after him. “I think,” he thought, “that Clarissa might be right. I think this might be very dismal indeed.”
However, having taken most of the morning trying to park, Toby was not going to leave now. He set off, ready to explore the training ground.
Toby walked around the brown area, wondering where all the drivers were. There was a repair station, and a recharging dock, and a cafe – all were empty. He could hear the roar of tyres, and headed towards them, along a narrow pathway lined with trees that had blown by the wind and were now like twisted old men keeping watch. The ground beneath the trees was bare and hard, not even weeds grew there, and certainly no one had planted flowers. The pathway was concrete, cracked in places. There were no lamps or lights, and Toby realised that if he had visited after dark, it would be difficult to find his way.
When Toby found the drivers, they were all huddled around a training track. Toby peered past the drivers, who all seemed to be reading thick brown books, and stared at the training track, which was set in what looked like a disused quarry, a great hollow in the ground, lower than where he stood. The drivers behind him began to speak with raised voices:
“That’s not what it says, you are misinterpreting it.”
“The words are clearly written, are you choosing to ignore them?”
Angry words floated towards Toby’s back, but all his attention was focussed on the track in front of him. He could see the track as it stretched before him, almost like a track for toy cars. He gasped.
The start-line was situated immediately before a steep corner, with a great brick wall in front, so drivers would set off cautiously, not sure what they were about to meet. There was then a hill, winding sharply downwards, and Toby could see water from a stream oozing over the tarmac, making a skidding hazard. There was a narrow bridge at the bottom of the hill, followed immediately by another hill, rising steeply upwards, almost to the level that Toby was standing, before plummeting back down to the floor of the crater.. The track then disappeared around another bend, and there was an area that Toby couldn’t see. It came back into view just before the finish line, where there was a ford sloshing over the track.
As he stared at the tarmac, Toby realised it was pitted with potholes and small stones were scattered across it, and the edges had worn away. A car rounded the bend, skidded on some gravel, a wheel bumped into a pothole and there was the sound of metal cluttering on tarmac as something fell to the floor. The car stopped. It was overtaken by a long low car, that swerved to avoid the broken car, spun too near to the edge of the track, two wheels went over the edge, there was a horrible scraping noise, a shower of stars, as the car grounded. Toby screwed up his face, and drew his shoulders up to his ears, flinching, not really wanting to watch but unable to look away. Another car limped round the corner, swerved to avoid the pothole car, managed to not follow the grounded car over the edge, continued on, slowing in the ford as it struggled to maintain momentum, finally managing to drive over the finish line. Nobody cheered. The drivers behind Toby were all still arguing, none of them had even watched the race.
“I think just driving along that track without damaging my car would be hard enough, never mind about racing,” thought Toby.
He was aware that someone was standing next to him, and turned to see a small driver dressed in red. He had a round face, and tufts of black hair stood up on top of his head, so he resembled a sort of over-ripe vegetable. He had a large nose, and tiny eyes that twinkled. There was something about the mismatched face that made him look friendly, and Toby smiled a greeting.
“That looks grim,” said the driver. He turned to Toby. “I’m Gerald. Are you new?”
Toby nodded. “Yes, I’ve just arrived, I’m hoping they’ll let me join them. But to be honest, it took me so long to find the brown area, and then ages to park, so I’m not sure whether they’ll let me join.”
“Only one way to find out,” said Gerald with a grin. He pointed at a tent, the other side of the drivers. “Come on, let’s go over to the umpire’s tent, someone there will know what we should do.”
Gerald led the way through the brown drivers, who seemed to be arguing over something in the thick brown book, and over to a tall tent – brown of course – which had ‘Umpires Only’ written in square black letters over the entrance. A man with long grey hair and very dirty finger nails was sitting inside. He stood when Toby and Gerald approached, and Toby saw that his back was hunched in a permanent stoop.
“Hello,” said Gerald. “We’re new, we would like to train here, who do we need to ask?”
“If you need to ask, I doubt you’ll fit in,” replied the bent man. He nodded at them, and walked out.
“Oh!” said Gerald, “That wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. Now what?”
“Well, he didn’t say we couldn’t join,” said Toby. “Maybe it’s a sort of test, like finding the entrance was. Maybe the rules are written somewhere.” He gazed outside, at all the brown drivers, who were still poring over their book, some of them shouting, raising their fists to emphasize their point. “Maybe we should try to get a copy of that book,” said Toby. “That might have some clues.”
They walked back towards the drivers, and Gerald went right up to a group who were all shouting at one driver who was holding his book high over his head and shouting: “It says it here, very clearly, on page 792!”
Gerald tugged the sleeve of one of the drivers, and said – loudly so he would be heard – “Where can we get a copy of your book?”
The driver stopped shouting and turned to look at Toby and Gerald. He frowned, then thrust his copy of the fat brown book at Gerald’s chest. “Here, have this one,” he said, before stalking away. Gerald clutched the book, only just catching it before it slipped to the floor. He glanced at Toby, raised his eye-brows, and led him away from the arguing drivers and to a small hill, where he sat and opened the book.
The hill was dried mud, no grass grew there, and it wasn’t very comfortable. Toby looked to see if there was anywhere better to sit, but there seemed to be no refreshment tent nearby, no spectator’s pavilion, no seats. He sat next to Gerald and peered over his shoulder.
The pages of the book were old and worn, in places the print had faded, and they had to peer closely to see the words.
“I know what this is,” Toby said, “It’s a manual, it has instructions for maintaining a car, and tips for getting good speeds and how to drive. But it’s old, very old. It refers to a car that was made years ago, I’m not sure that type of car will even exist today. I have a manual just like it, but written for modern cars, like we drive. I’m not sure this one will even be relevant any more. Look,” Toby pointed to a diagram of how to change a tyre. It suggested using a ramp, and the tyre was solid, not inflated with air like the tyres on their own cars.
“What about the chapter on training,” said Gerald, heaving the weight of the book onto his other hand and turning the greasy pages. “Look, here it is: How to Train. A Driver’s Guide.”
Toby peered over his shoulder. He noticed that Gerald smelt of strawberries, and he wrinkled his nose. “Funny smell for a driver,” thought Toby.
The manual had very clear instructions, though some of them seemed to not make sense, and Toby wasn’t sure how they would improve his driving. The manual stipulated that all drivers should dress appropriately, and avoid distracting colours.
“That explains the brown,” said Gerald, pointing to the words. “Perhaps we should get some brown overalls.”
There was a short list of other instructions. They were very specific:
Drivers should book the training track for at least 6 hours every day.
After each training session, drivers should ask other drivers for feedback, and point out any mistakes they have noticed in their fellow drivers while on the track. These should be recorded in the book marked ‘things to improve’. They should only be deleted from the ‘things to improve’ book when improvement has been verified by an umpire.
Drivers should read the training manual for at least 4 hours every day.
Drivers should discuss the training manual at the driver’s forum for at least 2 hours every day.
“Goodness!” said Gerald, “when do they eat or sleep or maintain their cars? It’s certainly not like the special features training ground. There we were surrounded by colours, and perfumes, and beauty. Some of it was a bit too much, if I’m honest.” He leant towards Toby. “Can you smell strawberries?”
“Yes!” said Toby, smiling, “I was wondering what that was all about.”
“It’s the perfume shower,” said Gerald with a sigh. “When I left, I drove too close, and because my clothes are red, they showered my car with strawberry scent. I did hose it down, but I can’t get rid of the smell. How embarrassing.”
“Not very ‘brown car’” said Toby, grinning.
“Ugh, I dread to think what they must smell like!” said Toby with a shudder. “But I think they’ll know how to drive, I’m sure all this seriousness must pay off, this training must improve their driving – doesn’t it?”
“I hope so,” said Toby.
“I’ve decided that I will spend two days with each training group,” Gerald was saying while still looking at the book. “That way, I can see which group are the best trainers, then I’ll go back and train with them until my log book runs out. The special features group was. . .” he paused, and looked up from the book, searching for the correct word. “Well, it was sort of okay. It was lots of fun, everyone used the special feature attached to their car, and they did have a training track, though it was quite a simple one, nothing like the one down there,” he glanced back towards the track in the quarry. “But I’m not sure how good it was, at training drivers I mean. It was a fun place to be, and drivers were improving, but I’m not sure how much. . .”
“Yes,” agreed Toby. “I want to be ready for the real track.”
“Yeah,” said Gerald, his voice distracted as he continued to flick through the contents of the manual. “Funny, it doesn’t say anything about the real track in here. . .” he turned to the index at the back, and ran his finger down the list of words. “No, nothing at all that I can see. That’s odd.”
“Maybe it’s mentioned throughout the book, rather than just having a single section about it,” suggested Toby. “The brown drivers are certainly serious about improving their driving skills, I’m just hoping I can keep up.
“Now, shall we go and try to find some brown overalls. At least we’ll look the part.”
The two young drivers stood up, and walked back towards the drivers. The cars that had been racing had followed the narrow road up from the racing pit, and were being rolled towards a repair point. One of the cars was being pushed by the driver, and the car that had grounded had two flat tyres and a piece of metal was dragging along the ground. The other drivers moved apart, making room for them to pass, but no one helped. Toby saw that the car with the flat tyres was veering off to the side, and the driver was struggling to push it.
“Shall we help?” he called to the driver.
The driver stopped, surprised.
Toby and Gerald went over, and placed their hands on the back of the car. “You steer, we’ll push,” suggested Toby.
The driver nodded, and climbed into the car. Toby and Gerald pushed, the car rolled forwards, and they made their way across the training ground, round to where the repair centre was. As he pushed, Toby was aware of the other drivers watching, and he saw a couple lean together, whispering. Their faces were grim, and Toby wondered what they were cross about.
“You should be training, not helping cars who have got it wrong,” someone called out.
“Yes, you’re not even wearing the correct clothes,” said another driver, scowling at them.
Toby glanced at Gerald, who shrugged, and they continued pushing the broken car.
When they reached the garage, a mechanic came to greet them.
“What happened here then? How did you damage this?” he asked.
The driver leaned from his window. “It was me,” he called, “they’re only helping me to push. My car grounded in the training track, and it was too hard to push on my own.” As he spoke, he passed a notepad from the window.
Toby watched as the mechanic wrote in it: “Not able to stay on the road on the racing track.”
“That must be his ‘things to improve’ notebook,” whispered Gerald.
Toby left the refreshment tent, driving towards the section of training ground reserved for the brown cars. As he drove, winding his way between a motorcycle and the length of a stretch limousine, he caught sight of something pink in the corner of his eye. He eased his car to one side, slowed down to almost stand-still, and looked to the side. Sure enough, there was a small pink car with Clarissa driving. She noticed him, and began to wave madly.
A man was crossing the road in front of Clarissa, she noticed at the last moment, swerved to avoid him, there was a squeal of brakes, and the pink car came to a screeching stop in a hedge. Toby watched in horror, his mouth open. He stopped his own car, and raced across the road.
Clarissa was sitting very still, her eyes wide. She blinked, then collapsed into giggles.
“Oh dear, oh dear, did you see?” she said, her words breathless as she fought to control her laughter. “I am such a bad driver still! I saw you, and forgot all about steering. Oh dear! What a disaster!”
Toby thought that she did not sound worried at all. The man she had avoided was glaring at them from across the road. Toby waved at him, the man pursed his lips and strode away.
“Are you all right?” said Toby, turning back to Clarissa. Her cheeks were as pink as her car and her eyes were shining. She climbed out of the car and walked to the front.
“I seem to have acquired a few extra scratches,” she said. “But to be honest, it’s hard to tell, I had so many scratches already. How is your driving coming on?” she asked, looking towards Toby’s car. “Have you raced at all?”
“No,” said Toby, shaking his head. “Not at all, but that’s about to change, I’m going to join the brown cars.”
“Oh!” said Clarissa.
There was something about the way she spoke, a sort of darkening of her mood, that made Toby wonder what was wrong. “Don’t you like the brown cars?” he said. “They seem to take training very seriously, I think they’ll be very prepared for the real track, when their log books run out. I think I will learn lots there.”
“Maybe you will,” said Clarissa, her voice light. But she had turned away, and was no longer looking at Toby.
“What aren’t you saying?” said Toby, wanting to know.
“Nothing. It’s just that. . .” Clarissa paused.
“Well,” said Clarissa at last, as if she had made up her mind and decided to be honest, “if the real track is full of drivers like the brown car drivers, then I’m not sure that I want to go there anyway.”
“You don’t want to go to the real track?” repeated Toby, shocked. “But that’s the whole point, that’s why we’re training, so that we’re ready.”
“Yes, I know that now,” said Clarissa, nodding. “And I have been training, I joined the special features drivers, and they have a training track in their area, and we race, and I’m getting better.” She glanced at the front of her car, jammed into the branches of the hedge. “I’m getting better but I still make the occasional mistake,” she continued. “But honestly Toby, if the brown car drivers are like most of the drivers at the real track, then I would rather stay here. They seem so. . . dismal.”
Toby stared at her. Clarissa shook her head, and her hair tumbled and bounced on her shoulders, and her eyes – which Toby realised were very pretty eyes – were serious and stubborn and staring straight back at him, as if challenging him to disagree.
“Well,” said Toby, thinking hard, “I think the brown cars will give me the best training, but I will think about what you have said. And I will try very hard not to become dismal.”
Clarissa flashed a smile at him, her teeth were very white and straight, and it was, thought Toby, an excellent smile. One that he would like to see more often.
“Here,” said Clarissa, opening the door to her car and delving inside. Her voice bubbled up to Toby as he waited, watching her back.“If you’re determined to go, at least take this. I bought it for myself, but I can go back and get another one, and you won’t have time if you’re training with the brown cars.” She was stooped, rummaging on the floor behind the driver’s seat, digging into a bag. “Where is it? I’m sure I put it in here somewhere. . . Ah! Got it!”
She emerged from the car, and handed Toby a heavy bag with blue and white stripes.
Toby took the package, and opened it. Inside was a book. A very large, heavy, book.
“It’s a training manual,” said Clarissa, “the latest version. We have modern cars, so we need the manual for new cars. It has hints about the sort of speeds we should be aiming for, how to take corners; as well as lots of advice about when to top up the oil, when to recharge, that sort of thing. You can have it, as a gift. A good luck, try not to become dismal gift!”
“Thank you – I think!” said Toby, grinning at her. “Listen, I’m meeting my mentor, Percy, back at the refreshment tent next week. Why don’t you come too? You can check whether I’m getting dismal or not.”
Clarissa grinned back at him. “Sure, I will.”
She climbed back into her car, and started the engine. Toby stood to one side, watching for traffic as Clarissa reversed, very slowly, out of the hedge. She waved, grinned, and drove away, stray leaves floating down behind her as she picked up speed. Toby watched her go.