Hello and how was last week? I am beginning to feel very fed up with lockdown, this one seems much harder than the previous ones. I don’t know why, but it makes it much harder to cope with disappointments. Mostly my disappointments are small, but I’m not reacting overly well. I had planned to introduce my new book, but I’m not managing to upload a perfect manuscript yet, so that will have to wait. (I made an annoying mistake and excitedly ordered a few copies, and then found several typos. Next time I will wait to check the physical proof copy before I rush to buy copies–but it is so exciting when a book finally appears in print, it’s hard to be sensible!)
The weather has been a mixed blessing. I look out of the window and the view is beautiful, as England is enjoying a rare long spell of snow and ice. I am extremely thankful that I’m not having to do a school-run every day, which was always a nightmare when it snowed. But the chickens are grumpy and mostly refusing to lay, and I have to keep lugging water up to them because everything is frozen. Water is surprisingly heavy. One of the outside cats has decided she’s going to live inside instead, and is now usually to be found asleep on the boiler.
As you read this, I will be starting my first Hebrew lecture. This is very exciting, and I’m interested to know where we’ll start and how fast we’ll go. The Greek lectures seemed to fly at a pace that was sometimes hard to keep up with — but my exam mark was surprisingly good, so perhaps I managed to learn more than I thought I did. Hebrew will be different as the alphabet looks nothing like our letters, and the words are read from right to left. I have bought some modern Hebrew language Cds, and told my Mum she can learn too. We had a very funny morning trying to copy the words and accents on the Cd. I have also started to watch a series on Netflix in Hebrew, and I can understand the odd word (thank you, hello — things like that). I love how the brain gradually assimilates language. When I first started to listen to Hebrew, I couldn’t even hear the difference between sounds. Then I began to notice certain sounds, and then words. I can now match some of the things I am hearing to the written words. Of course, as I am learning Biblical Hebrew, some of the words (computer, phone, duck) will be pretty useless unless I plan a trip to Israel. But it’s still fun. Not sure how similar modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew are. I will let you know. Yiddish sounds just like German, so that is probably easier.
Did you do anything special for Valentine’s Day? Or Chinese New Year? It is very strange not being able to go to restaurants to mark occasions. As my lectures stopped for a while after the exams, every day is the same. Except for Sundays. Sundays are a special day in the house. When I was growing up, I pretty much hated Sundays because we weren’t allowed to do anything fun (like watch television or play with friends) and instead we went to church and church groups (which were mostly boring). I fear I may have inflicted the same restrictions on my own children. But since lockdown, we have tried to make Sunday a special day. So I make pancakes — big fat American ones, stuffed with banana slices and walnuts, drizzled with maple syrup. I set the table for brunch, with pretty glasses of juice, and we have pots of coffee, and eat pancakes. Then we watch a sermon (usually one from our church when we lived in America). I try not to do any jobs, and I don’t revise/study. Dinner is something easy (frozen pizza or something). It makes the day different, if nothing else.
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 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.
As I write this, it is one more week until my Greek exam, and to be honest, I am fed-up with revision. My sons inform me that I started too early, and that the night before the exam is the optimum time to start revision. I fear they may have inherited my work ethic.
As a teenager, I never revised for exams (which is probably why I never scored very highly). For my O’level exams (GCSEs if you’re young) the school said we could choose to either revise at home or in school during the weeks of study leave. I saw this as the perfect opportunity, and told my parents I would study in school, and told the school I would study at home. No one checked. (Sorry Mum, you might not know about this.) I spent the days having fun (I remember a day trip to Cambridge). My exam results were nothing to be proud of.
I seem to remember that I did study a little better for A levels and my degree, but in a rather half-hearted unfocussed way. I am therefore determined that this time, with what might be my last attempt at academia, I am going to do it properly. But Oh! it is very boring.
There is nothing at all interesting about looking up things that I sort-of-mostly-know, and writing lists and reading pages (that I have already read) so that I know it properly. It is also not at all what we do in real life. I sort of remember lots of recipes, but when I bake something I tend to look up the finer points (like the quantities of ingredients). I never spend a week writing lists and committing the quantities to memory so that I can dispense with the cookery books, even though it might save time in the long run. People don’t do things like that. We don’t memorise our mobile phone number, or the names of all the roads to the seaside, or how many grams of flour go into the cake. We understand how things work and look up the finer details when we need them. Which makes me feel that exams are more tests of memory than ability. But perhaps that’s because I have never been very good at them.
In order to give myself some light relief, I have started to dip into the Hebrew course. I don’t actually start Hebrew until February, but the course book appeared online, so I bought a copy. It begins with the alphabet, so in-between revising Greek, I am learning the Hebrew alphabet. Learning is so much more interesting than revision. My main trouble at the moment is that I have thoroughly learnt that a ‘v’ sounds like an ‘n’ (in Greek) and I now need to unlearn this so I pronounce one of the Hebrew letters correctly (it sounds like ‘vahv’ but I keep saying ‘nahn’!)
I have also bought an English grammar book. It was recommended by Robert Plummer, who wrote one of the Greek books that I have found useful, and it explains all the English grammar that I failed to learn at school (possibly because I had skived off for the day to Cambridge) like what an indirect object is and what ‘pluperfect’ means. It arrived today, and is smaller than expected. This often happens with books—they are recommended, and look interesting, so you pay more than usual—but then what arrives is little more than a pamphlet in a glossy cover. I am hoping the value of the content makes up for the lack of pages, but I might have been scammed. I also bought a children’s book: First Hundred Words in Hebrew. It has pictures. I shall leave it in the loo and glance at it whenever I am in there, hoping to absorb the occasional word.
Another book that I started to read (you can see just how badly the revision is going—my house is very clean too!) is called: The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. It was a Christmas gift, and I haven’t read much, but it’s very interesting so far. It starts with the letters by Paul, because they were written before the Gospels (the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). I have never thought about that before—when Paul wrote his letters, the church didn’t have any of what is now the New Testament. He possibly didn’t even know some of the stories that we know today. Hays also makes the point that when Paul wrote his letters, the people were expecting that at any minute, Jesus would return and the world would end. They really were not expecting that 2,000 years later we would still be here, reading his letters and trying to figure out how to live. Paul wrote things that were imminently important rather than long-term ethics/rules to live by. I have never considered that before.
It’s always fun when a new idea is proposed and you can think about it and decide whether or not to agree. Much more interesting than revision anyway.
I think I might be slightly autistic—which I believe is a sign that I’m not—but I do have vast understanding for people who don’t like change. I don’t mind some change, but I struggle with mess, and ‘Christmas and visitors’ does result in a lot of mess, doesn’t it? The Christmas tree is beautiful, but after a while you stop being able to ignore the pine needles on the floor, and the cardboard box stuffed behind the sofa, and the chair that’s dumped on the landing because there’s no space for both it and a guest in the guestroom, and the gifts that never made it beyond the kitchen table, and the cards that drop glitter on the hall table, and so on. Therefore, as I write this, a few days after New Year’s Day, I am in my happy place. All the upheaval has finished, and although I delight in my family and love spending time with them, there is something wonderfully satisfying about putting everything back into place.
Tomorrow, the college semester recommences, and my schedule returns to the pattern of lectures and learning, intermingled with raising animals and cleaning the house, and secretly—just between you and me—I am really looking forward to it. I have an exam at the end of January, and I am even weirdly looking forward to that. I like structure and routine. Maybe it’s an age thing.
How did you find the weird story that I told you last week? I was messaged with various suggestions as to where it came from, some people thought it was a Chinese fable, others from Japan, some from the book of Genesis. It actually came from the book of Judges. I think it was about people being satisfied with the job they have been given, and that we should be wary of those who want to have power. But I’m not entirely sure. There is a lot in those Old Testament books that are weird and confusing and don’t have an obvious meaning.
I read another story this week (another one that my Sunday School teachers forgot to mention!) You might recognise the beginning: A man is travelling and stops overnight in a foreign city. A man of the city says he shouldn’t sleep in the town square because it’s not safe, and he welcomes him into his home. During the night, the men of the town bang on the door, demanding the visitor should come outside so they can gang-rape him. The owner of the house refuses, saying that they will send outside the women instead. (You might be thinking this is the story of Sodom, because it’s similar, but you would be wrong!)
The end is rather gruesome. They put the women outside, and they are abused all night and when the visitor opens the door in the morning, there is his wife, dead on the doorstep. So (brace yourself, this is horrible) he chops her into pieces and sends bits of her to all the tribes of Israel. They are astounded by this, they meet, they destroy the evil city.
It is a very similar story to the one about Sodom, though I have never heard it linked to the debate around whether homosexuality is wrong (which the Sodom story often is). Perhaps it’s because the women were also abused, and no one wants to suggest that it shows being heterosexual is wrong!
I have no idea why this story is in the Bible, or what we should learn about it. Some parts of the Bible are like that, if you read beyond what you were taught as a child, some bits are simply weird. Sometimes we have to accept that we don’t understand them. Personally, I wish that more people would admit that they don’t understand things; I think that being too certain that our theology or politics or lifestyle is right can be dangerous. It closes our ears to things that might teach us something. Not having everything in a neat tidy package—whether it’s our home or our theology—is probably good for us.
It’s nearly 2021—will you be making a new year’s resolution? Is there something that you would like to change about yourself, and how will you plan for a new improved self? I guess we all have dreams and aspirations, and some of them we pursue until we reach them, and others dwindle away into nothing. To be honest, I’m quite glad that some of my dreams evaporated into nothing—especially the ones I had as a teenager—otherwise I’d be in a right mess now!
The trouble with looking ahead and wishing for things that we don’t have, is that sometimes we stop appreciating what we have right now. Maybe, instead of planning to improve things we should sometimes stop and look around at what we already have, and be grateful.
I recently found a story, which sort of links with this idea. I have never noticed it before—add a comment if you recognise where it came from. Or simply sit back with some of your Christmas chocolate, and enjoy a story. . .
Once upon a time the trees got together to choose a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, “Be our king.”
The olive tree answered, “In order to govern you, I would have to stop producing my oil, which is used to honour gods and human beings.”
Then the trees said to the fig tree, “You come and be our king.”
But the fig tree answered, “In order to govern you, I would have to stop producing my good sweet fruit.”
So the trees then said to the grapevine, “You come and be our king.”
But the vine answered, “In order to govern you, I would have to stop producing my wine, and that makes gods and humans happy.”
So then all the trees said to the thorn bush, “You come and be our king.”
The thorn bush answered, “If you really want to make me your king, then come and take shelter in my shade. If you don’t, fire will blaze out of my thorny branches and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.”
Bit of a bizarre story, but I rather like bizarre. Not sure why I have never noticed it before—do you know where it came from?
If you make a resolution for the new year, choose carefully.
Hello, and how has your week been? It was my birthday, so we tried to celebrate whilst also keeping to the current covid restrictions. Last weekend I met some of my children for a socially-distanced walk, and then we shared slices of cake in a carpark. It was lovely, but not as comfortable as sitting on sofas in a lounge.
On my actual birthday I was treated to breakfast a’ la husband, which was smoked salmon on muffins with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, grapefruit halves, and chocolate money in gold wrappers scattered across the table. I felt very spoilt. In the afternoon I took my mum to Chiddingstone Castle, and we walked to the Chidding Stone (and got lost and ended up walking through a field of cabbages!) Then we ate the remains of the carpark cake before I went home.
We spent the evening having a family quiz on zoom, where we each had prepared 10 questions. It was very funny, especially the round where we were presented with extracts from our family chat and we had to guess who had written them.
Have you put up your Christmas decorations yet? I noticed lots of houses were decorated in November, which helped to brighten the weird winter we’re having. I suggested we could do the same. We didn’t. Instead we bought our tree today, after a trip to the dentist. I hate going to the dentist, don’t you? Of course it was even worse this time with all the fussing about with hand-sanitiser and masks and not being allowed into the waiting room but freezing outside until the nurse came to fetch us. Actually being a dentist must be even worse — staring into all those germy mouths and wondering if covid is going sneak past your visor and make you ill for Christmas. Not a job I would relish.
Husband kindly drove me to the dentist, but this meant that he was also involved in the tree-buying decision. Needless to say, we now have a tree that is much too big for the space and we will spend Christmas peering at each other through the branches. But the house smells nice.
As if covid isn’t bad enough, I now have to avoid bird flu as well. Apparently there is another outbreak this year, and we all have to keep our poultry inside until it clears (it’s carried by wild birds, and keeping the chickens in their coop is the only way to avoid contact). They are all very grumpy, and try to push their way past me when I open the door to feed them. I’m sure they produce extra levels of poop when they’re locked inside in retaliation.
My Greek lessons continue to be fun and challenging in equal measure. I recognise more and more words in my Greek New Testament, though am still at the stage of saying: “I’ve learnt that word…but I don’t remember what it means.” Not yet very useful, but I am getting better. I have an exam in January, which is terrifying because December is plenty of time to forget absolutely everything learnt so far.
Another morning in my week is taken up with a Bible Study group that I belong to: BSF. It’s all online now, but mostly I like it because I am studying the Bible with a group of women who all live in my town. We do differ in our opinions, as some people tend to take the Bible very literally, and others place it very much in the context of the time it was written and then look to see how it applies today. This week we looked at the destruction of Sodom (lots to disagree about in that particular story!) However, something struck me for the first time.
In one of the daily questions, it asked why Lot didn’t want to leave Sodom. (A quick reminder: Sodom was a city of evil people who did things like gang-rape visitors, they ignored the poor and lived self-indulgent immoral lives, and God said he was going to destroy the city. But when Lot — a man who followed God — was told to leave, he didn’t want to.) Why would Lot not want to leave when he knew there was so much evil in the city? And then I thought, it’s like Christians today who don’t want to die. We know the world has evil things, horrible, unfair things happening. And we know that God has prepared a better place for us, that he will take us safely there when it is time for us to go. And yet when we think about dying, about leaving what we know –even though it’s not perfect — we’re not so sure that we want to go! We don’t want to walk into the unknown, even when we know that God can be trusted. We are a bit like Lot.
You can mull over that idea during the week — it will help to distract you from all the political debates if nothing else!
Hope you have a good week. Thanks for reading.
Take care. Love, Anne x
In an attempt to keep warm during my morning run, I have started to wear my son’s old school rugby shirt and a bobble hat my daughter gave me. Husband informed me that I looked like a ‘Where’s Wally?’ cartoon which seemed harsh. But perhaps he has a point. . .
When I was teaching primary children, I noticed that most mothers were very good at teaching their children how to succeed. If, for example, Jimmy won a race at sport’s day, his mummy would smile and clap and tell him: “Well done! You were brilliant!” If Jimmy went on to do a victory dance in front of his class and make a ‘loser’ sign to the child who came last, his mummy would tell him no, that’s not the right way to behave, you mustn’t be a big-head.
I watched children being praised and taught not to be conceited when they passed exams, starred in performances, and painted wonderful pictures. Parents seemed to do a pretty good job of teaching their children how to succeed.
But what about when they failed? What about when Polly came last in the race? Or failed her piano exam? Or wasn’t given a part in the school play? Or painted really awful pictures? How did parents react then, and were the children taught how to fail well? Mostly not. Mostly, the parents made excuses as to why it wasn’t Polly’s fault, or why the system was unfair—or else they lied, and said that Polly was the best anyway, and that her grey/green splodged picture was beautiful.
Do you think it matters? I personally think that it’s a big problem, both for individuals and for society. For most of us, failing at things is a big part of life, and we are more likely to fail than succeed and if we know how to fail, then it doesn’t knock us on our backs, we simply accept that we have failed and carry on.
I am very aware of this as I start to learn Greek as a mature (very mature!) student. I might fail. It’s a long time since I took an exam or tried to learn a new skill, and I might not succeed. But knowing that I might fail shouldn’t stop me trying. If I fail, it will be because I am not intelligent enough. Sometimes, we are not clever enough—this is an excellent thing to learn.
Our society likes to make excuses. It seems to be an innate part of being human. Way back at the beginning of time in the book of Genesis, we read about people failing and making excuses. Whether you think Genesis is a book to take literally, and Adam was a man who physically existed, or whether you think it’s a story to show us why relationships exist as they do, the first story is very clear. Adam messed up (he ate a forbidden fruit) and when challenged he made an excuse: “The woman YOU gave me made me do it.” It wasn’t his fault. Except, it was.
If we always make excuses—the teacher was rubbish, I didn’t have time to study, I couldn’t afford the right textbooks—then things are never our fault. And when we blame others, we start to feel resentment. I think this causes all sorts of problems for society. If the bus drivers, shop assistants, manual workers all think that they are as intelligent and capable as people with more interesting jobs, then they will resent those people, and feel angry at the pay discrepancies. If people have not learnt to fail, they will avoid competition in case they don’t win. They will feel defeated when they don’t get the job or promotion they feel they deserve. They will feel angry with the world for the things they don’t achieve.
Fear of failure also makes people stop trying. They won’t sing the song they composed, they won’t audition for the fashion show, they won’t try for the promotion at work because they might fail.
I am not talking about whether society is fair. I realise that in some cases, people have underachieved due to an unfair system, but not always. Sometimes people fail at school because they don’t do their homework, or because they are not very clever. Sometimes people come last in all the races at sport’s day because they never practise, or they eat unhealthily, or they are simply born with an uncoordinated body that is rubbish at all sports. People fail music exams because they don’t practise or they have no talent.
I believe these problems start in childhood. Some parents at one school I worked in suggested that we shouldn’t have ‘winners’ at sport’s day, and everyone should receive a rosette. How does that help to prepare a person for not always winning? Some parents will buy all children a gift on a sibling’s birthday, because they don’t want the younger brother to feel left out. They always let their children win at games. Everything the child produces is praised. When the child messes up, they make excuses on their behalf. The child is not being taught how to fail. They are being taught that failing is wrong.
Parents, when you play games with your child, don’t let them win. You can play badly, so they enjoy the game, but don’t always let them win—that is not what will happen in real life and it’s sort of lying. (My own mother absolutely believed this, and would always completely annihilate us when we played cards with her!) Acknowledge that your child is not very good at sports/art/music/maths or whatever. Encourage them to still try, but let them know that not being the best is okay. If they fail at something because they didn’t study, or practise, or try, then be honest about that. Let them get used to knowing that yes, they failed the spelling test, and yes, it was their fault because they played on the computer instead of learning the words—but you love them anyway. Teach your children to say sorry. When we are adults, we will sometimes drive badly and bump a wall, or be tired and snap at someone rudely, or forget someone’s birthday. We should accept the fault and say that we are sorry. It is so much easier to accept and forgive another person’s mistakes if they acknowledge the fault and apologise, rather than making excuses.
Accepting that we fail does not stop us trying to achieve, but perhaps it helps us to aim more realistically. I have trouble learning unrelated facts and symbols. I also find abstract concepts difficult to understand and manipulate. Hence, I will never be a great physicist. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is partly the way I was made, and partly because I was lazy at school and never bothered to learn the fundamentals. You too will have things that you can’t do—and that too is possibly partly your own fault and partly not. I think we are much healthier and happier when we accept our failures, try to learn from the experience and move on, rather than perpetually making excuses and self-justifying.
This week, I challenge you to acknowledge your failures—and think about how you could possibly correct them in the future. And if you have children, please teach them how to fail well. It might make them better, happier, adults.
Thanks for reading—and do share your own views in the comments below.
Love, Anne x
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Ironically, I have just ‘failed’ when posting this blog! I always write blogs ahead of time, and this was meant to be posted mid-October. But I forgot to change the date before completion, and so it went to all my followers today. Which must feel like spam as they have already received one blog from me today! Apologies.