FTMT's Favourite Five Top Tenets

Monday, May 16, 2005

Petrolhead: FTMT Short Story No 8




Mike’s nickname was “the mechanic” though he wasn’t at all a trained mechanic; he just loved cars of all sorts. He even loved silly uncool cars like family saloon creampuffs, minivans and MPVs, Landrovers, travelling shops and ambulances as well as sports and racing cars; they all belonged to a huge exotic motoring family to him. It was the smell, the petrol fumes, the metal, the heat and noise and just how they rolled across tarmac, any tarmac. Mike could watch cars all day stopping and starting, parking, doors clunking shut, electric windows zedding down, it was all so pleasing. He watched them from office windows, at supermarket car parks, outside car dealerships, by car washes and petrol stations, slip roads and junctions. Cars and the compulsive magnetism they generated filled all of his thoughts and spare time and fascinated him.

He loved looking at those wheels turning, devouring even a small distance, circumference after circumference unwinding it’s rubber track over the road surface, overcoming forces and friction to pull or push a load along. He loved the thought that under each bonnet a hot, oily engine raced and burned in a metal container with carbs and injectors spitting petrol and air mixes, hot ramming pistons turning camshafts and crankshafts, valves popping up and down like excited prairie dogs, boiling water circulating and cooling the internal inferno, fans and belts and cables and connectors. Then there were gear boxes, all those silver cogs engaging so surely and faithfully time after time to turn drive shafts and differentials delivering that all important power down through clutches and friction pads to the wheels and tyres. “A work of art” he thought when he saw one of his particular favourites.

Of course Mike had one real petrol passion in his life, a dark blue 1998 Renault Clio 16v Sports model. Three doors, big tyres and alloys, front and rear spoiler, sports lights, chrome and custom extras everywhere and an all leather interior and a beefy stereo. The stereo was seldom used properly as Mike liked to listen to his engine’s chatter rather than listen to any music. He’d done most of the work himself and so earned his nickname from his less enthusiastic friends. Most of them had cars and liked them a lot but none of them languished the time and pride and money on theirs that Mike did on his. The funny thing was that despite Mike’s love of cars he didn’t really like to hang with the other petrolhead guys who cruised and raced and doughnuted round the burger bars and mall car parks each evening, he thought they were somehow less than pure compared to him and he dislike the way they cowboyed and to him abused their cars by showing off. He didn’t like the baseball cap and Ned culture either which he some how incorrectly pinned on that particular group of people.

When Mike made his mind up on something, so it remained, so despite his passion and taste in cars he remained a private person, even amongst his non-car best friends and hostile towards those with whom, it would seem he had most in common.

No one was quite sure how Mike had missed the boat and not become a mechanic, even a bad one. He had drifted after leaving school, done a plumbing course for a year then flipped burgers for a while before picking up a clerical job with the insurance firm and had had two small promotions that had taken him away from constant telephone working. He remained in the insurance office 9 to 5 and occasionally did extra evening shifts in their call centre but, so his friends thought, he must find it all so frustrating loving cars as he did and not being somewhere in the motor industry. He had thought about retraining, but right now at the ripe old age of 24 he needed constant cash to keep his Renault happy and couldn’t afford to stop work and retrain. He had a plan for his car, a bigger engine was going in, new suspension and shocks and a new exhaust system that would make it sound as sweet as any 16-valve symphony orchestra leaving the traffic lights.

At the weekend Mike suffered “black fingernail syndrome”, Friday night to Sunday night he was working on his car or a friends in his parent’s lock up garage. Mike had never in all his 24 years had a girlfriend; he looked upon passing his driving test and getting on the open road as some would look on losing their virginity and his current blue Renault consumed him, in mind and body as any woman would. He liked girls but remained a little afraid and kept them at a safe distance, the girls at work teased him a bit and his friends wives and partners saw him as a bit of an oddity and misfit who needed some match making. A few feeble tries had been made at pairing Mike of with some girl or other on the periphery of their social scene, and whilst the sport was fun for all the observers Mike’s first love, the overcoming of friction by petrol power always won out. Most Friday nights he got home from work and started on the car that was this weekend’s project, if he was happy with his work maybe by Saturday night he’d venture down to the pub for a gentle ribbing and few free pints from the owner of the car he’d serviced and that was his weekend.

So when it came to the Easter weekend, Mike had lots of plans, the extra long holiday time off meant he could undertake some bigger jobs, and this time it would be the new exhaust system and suspension. He had most of the parts ordered weeks before and happily checked them in as they arrived from the various suppliers he’d chosen. As the parts for the planned modifications came he unwrapped them, checked and cleaned them and laid each one out neatly, like a formula one pit crew setting up for a race. He considered the tools he’d need, the fasteners, the timing and the best way of approaching the job. It was at this point he realised that the axle stands he would need were gone, a vital part of the operation. His brother, Fraser had taken them about a month ago (without asking) after a call for help from a friend of his who was restoring an old MGB. Mike had been annoyed at the time because even though the stands actually belonged to the brother’s father, he considered any tools or equipment in the garage were firstly at his disposal, certainly not Fraser’s.

Mike new that the chances of getting the stands back were small, Fraser’s pal would be in the middle of something on his car and their return would be impossible. He phoned to check however but his feeling was right, the car was up on the stands stripped and ready for an Easter weekend’s work out also. Mike had spent most of his ready cash on the parts he needed for this job so the only alternative now was to borrow or buy cheaply second hand from somewhere. So on the Friday night, at home, as his mum was clearing away the tea dishes he picked up the local free paper and running his fingernail (not yet black) down the under £50 ads saw: “Axle stands (pair) 2 ton capacity, good condition £10.” “Perfect!” said Mike and phoned the number. They were still unsold, the address was only a few miles away and the man who had answered told Mike to pop around any time that evening.

Mike jumped into the Renault, turned the key and enjoyed the first blast of the engine, he felt good as he stabbed the accelerator and the rev counter needle blipped up 90°. Mike was a quick but careful driver but he felt every machine move in the car’s metabolism as he drove it up through the gears. So it was that though watching the road and driving well he could still see in his mind’s eye the effect his pushing in the clutch or moving the gear stick had on the hidden linkages under the trim and skin of the car. It was like an x-ray vision experience, his hands and feet tuned for any different response from the car, his ears for any unusual engine sound or note. He liked to be in control and feel the car was responding to his driving as well as it possibly could and that he was respecting it and putting none of it’s parts under unnecessary stress. All journeys were like this, a focused experience honed in on the car’s behaviour and his handling of it, the destination and arrival was seldom as important. He loved it and felt so very alive.

The address was in a council house estate, Mike had an idea where the house was and quickly found it. The first thing that caught his eye were the two orange Ford Escort Mexicos parked in the drive nose to tail, neither were taxed or looked like they’d not run in a while,” Unfinished projects” thought Mike, ”bitten off a bit much with those two”. He started to walk up the path, headed for the doorbell he could see nestling on the flaky paint on the door standard, but as he looked up the path a movement in the garage beyond caught his eye. Somebody in overalls was up to their elbows in the front end of an F plate Mini. Mike’s curiosity and the attraction of the faint smells of petrol and Swarfega got the better of him and he headed round the side of the house to see what was what. The mix of slabs and broken tarmac that made up the latter part of the driveway were stained black with oil, old cans and gaskets were strewn here and there, tyre lay lazily against walls and fences, and bits of auto jumble were piled against the side of the garage.

“Hello!” began Mike addressing the work-in-progress mini. “Hello” returned a voice from the under the bonnet of the Mini. It was a woman’s voice and Mike was a little taken aback. “Nothing wrong with a woman fixing a car”, he though, “Kylie did it in Neighbours and so did someone else, eh who was it again?” His reminiscing of Neighbours plots faltered as the overalls emerged from the mini, looked round and gave Mike a big welcoming smile. “I’m Ada, you’ll be here about the stands, my dad said so, I’ll just get them, you wait a sec..” Mike did as he was told, stood embarrassingly still and watched Ada head to the rear of the garage and begin moving things, sending out clunks and little bangs as she did. A moment later she was back with a rather rusty looking stand in each hand. She put them down on a slab and stepped back to allow Mike to inspect. “Not bad for a tenner!” she said “ maybe a little oil to ease the pins but their fine”.

Mike looked at the stands and looked at Ada. “What’s up with the Mini?” “Everything”, laughed Ada, “Every bloody thing, but I need it for next week so I’m sacrificing my weekend to get it going again”. Mike half listened to her as she began to list the faults and explained how she was tackling them, normally he’d have heard everything but suddenly a rather large part of his brain was focused only on how Ada looked and her words simply passed over him as if meant for someone else, perhaps in the next garden or out on the street. Ada was short about mid-twenties he thought, maybe plumpish but suffering some distortion from her overalls, big mouth and smile, freckles, some ginger hair escaping from a grimy baseball cap, eyes as blue as a dashboard main beam indicator and talking knowledgably about engines. She was girl and she knew about engines and her fingernails were chipped and black and he wasn’t sure what at all to say. Mike felt a funny dryness attack the inside of his mouth, he tried to swallow but there was nothing, he tried to lick his lips but his tongue was stuck and he seemed frozen to the spot. Now she was getting closer to the end of her sentence, describing problems with the head gasket on the Mini and Mike would have to talk. He was about to speak without knowing what when a there came a loud truck horn from the street. “That’ll be big Harry!” said Ada. “He’s parking up here for the night I hope, you’ll take the stands?” “Yes, yes!” said Mike quickly reaching into his pocket and handing her ten pounds. She looked at the note, smiled back at Mike and twisted it into her overall pocket. “Thank you very much!” Mike began to recover his powers of speech and was also thinking straighter. “Need any help or bits, I’ve some Mini odds and ends over at my place”.

Ada looked a little startled, “Well I need a fuel pump, got one?” “Shit”, thought Mike, ”I don’t”. Then bravely lying out loud, “Know where I can pick one up for nothing tomorrow though!” “Well that would be so good” said Ada “If it’s not too much trouble, tell me and I’ll go myself”. “No problem!” Mike blustered, “I’ll bring it round in the morning, I’m just over..” and he pointed across the housing estate roofs in the rough direction of his house. He could hear big Harry’s footsteps on the path and decided that now was a good time to go, he picked up the stands as big Harry (who was) came by the end of the house, nodded at Mike and made a beeline for Ada and gave her a big bear hug. Mike didn’t look around and walked away and back to his car, now parked behind a large artic tractor unit that almost blocked the street. Carefully Mike opened his car’s boot and taking care that the stands didn’t touch any of the paintwork placed them on a baker’s board he was using as a temporary boot liner. He clunked down the hatch, opened the driver’s door, sat down and exhaled long and loudly and stared into his lap.

It was about five minutes before he could turn the key and about seven before he moved of in the car, his thoughts now being sprayed around in his head like fuel from an injector and Ada was sprayed amongst each one. Mike’s experiences with girls were few and unhappy, cars were his first love, ever since an early age but now in Ada he’d seen that rare combination of a girl who seemed to share his interests who was attractive and living a few minutes away, though possibly with big Harry. That was not a happy thought and he decided to disregard it until the facts were clearer. Without really realising, and without thinking on the hard mechanical work his car had just done, Mike found himself parked in his driveway. First now was to locate a working fuel pump for the Mini, for Ada. A lot of phoning and an hour later he’d located one via his contacts, twenty-five miles away.

In another five minutes he was off in the car to collect the pump and nicely enough he would have to pass Ada’s house, with a slight detour, to pick it up. Probably making that detour there and back. He exited the main road and slowly drove past Ada’s, big Harry’s rig was still parked outside, and the light was fading fast, there was a warm glow from the lounge but in the garage only darkness. Ada was surely in the house now with big Harry, brother, uncle, husband, lover? An hour later, the fuel pump in a plastic carrier on the passenger floor mat, Mike was back, creeping past the house and peering across the gardens and stumpy hedges in the yellow streetlight. The glow in the front lounge was still there glowing antagonistically it seemed to Mike. He had been toying with the idea of dropping the pump in now, on his return leg but if Harry and Ada were comfortable and he butted in and how weird would it all look anyway? His father’s words returned to him, well it seemed like something his father may have said, to goad or encourage him, “faint heart ne’r won fair maid son!” He certainly felt faint focusing out through the gloom and through the passenger window over the greenery to the closed curtains. “This is me going bloody mad!” Mike shook his head and gripped the wheel tight. “Bugger it! I’m going in!”

He stopped just in front of big Harry’s truck and for the moment allowed himself the brief luxury of attempting to plan. “Ok, I go to the door, hope she answers and not Harry, hand her the pump, explain how I was passing and how it all fell into place easily, and then I offer to come and help her fix it tomorrow, brilliant! So what might go wrong…a lot… but I can’t plan for that”. Heart in hand, fuel pump in other hand Mike headed up the pathway and rang the bell. There was no obvious reaction from indoors and Harry realised he had the opportunity to escape, write the pump off as a loss and get on with his weekend, his plans and his life. That was all true but Ada, even the idea of Ada was so strong in him; even a punch in the mouth from Harry or a rebuke from Ada wouldn’t have been so bad. How had this all happened so quickly and why not ever before?

Suddenly he could hear footsteps in the hall and a shape through the frosted glass. The door opened slowly, no Dad, no Harry, just an older, shorter man, minus his top dentures, balding and with an old pullover on, which was inside out. “Ada?” said Mike, not sure what to do next. The man didn’t speak, he just turned round and shouted into the near distance “ADA! Bloke for you!” Mike shuffled on the doorstep, feeling like a double glazing salesman about to start his sales pitch on a cold call and not confident of getting a sale. The door had closed slightly as the older man, Ada’s father he imagined had returned into the house. It was opened fully by Ada shortly after. Ada looked at Mike and smiled a genuine wide, welcoming smile, Mike said nothing just allowing his right arm to rise and offer over the gift of the fuel pump, oily and messy in an Asda carrier as if it was a bunch of red roses. He knew he was grinning stupidly but he couldn’t stop and he was sure her look was a happy one also. The sight of Ada, without overalls, just in jeans and T was no disappointment either, her red hair was down, her freckles and colours were warm, how he’d love to take her to the pub and display her, a reasonable, pretty petrol head-girl in front of his mates and their girl friends. This was a fresh and revolutionary thought, with many implications, he was dumb again. Fortunately Ada spoke first, “Ohh! Thank you so much, you shouldn’t have, I’ll get my handbag and we can settle up, you really shouldn’t have!” She spun round and disappeared back into the house, there had been no sign of any opportunity to say anything at all nor any indicator of how Ada and Harry were. One thing was clear to Mike and it was simple, when he saw Ada, he felt good, very good inside - in warm, churny unfamiliar way.

Ada returned with her purse already open, she was sorting notes within it and mouthing out a counting process. “So how much do I owe you?” “Look” began Mike, “ It’s cost me nothing, a mate had it along with a few other old bits, and he owed me a favour, I’m happy for you to have it!” Ada hesitated like someone about to break a rule or code of conduct and unhappy at the prospect. “Are you sure?” Her head was slightly cocked and for moment Mike was reminded of his mum, that passed however and he nodded like a bulldog on the parcel shelf. “Fancy a coffee with us?” said Ada becoming more conscious of Mike’s grin and apparent awkwardness. “No no yes!” Mike blurted out an over eager response and almost physically turning his own volume down followed Ada into the kitchen. He hoovered up information on the way as if memorising the strip down of an engine. Her pink slippers, the dark traffic marks on the hall carpet, the glare of the hallway light, family photographs in frames by the phone, a pile of newspapers in the hall, the smell of granddad somewhere else in the house, cigarette smoke, Fabreze and pine, some cardboard boxes left over from a removal, the movement of her bum in her jeans as he trailed her progress. Without asking him what he wanted or how he liked it Ada made the coffee and most importantly only two cups. Where was big Harry?

“Sorry I didn’t quite get your name” began Ada. “Mike” said Mike. “So” continued Ada “you do a lot of tinkering with cars I imagine?” “Oh yes” said Mike “Hardly stop, every weekend I’m either working on my own or helping out with my mates, love it, love to keep busy”. Mike wanted to know exactly what Ada’s status was, married, single, separated, big Harry’s girl and was desperately fishing inside himself for a subtle question that would clarify things. The question didn’t seem to come so he allowed himself to glow and quietly panic a little inside as Ada chattered about her Mini, a new job, her granddad, the weather, her best pal who worked on the checkout at Morrison’s and her dog Barney, named after Barney Rubble (of course). Fred and Barney’s cars were amongst her earliest memories turning her onto cars, that and her dad’s Wolseley with the leather seats and the acrid smell of the burnt out motor in a Scalextric Cooper. “Harry still has that Scaletrix up in the loft”. “Big Harry?” Mike dived in with as long a sentence as he could wedge into the conversation. “Harry’s my son!” Mike felt his eyes wander lopsidedly in his head and his eyelids stretch like a fabric sunroof pulling back. “I had him when I was very young you know, never really kept up with his dad, a kid really – perhaps I’m a little older than you imagine, Harry’s been driving trucks nearly two years now, only home at weekends…” Ada let the sentence die a natural death and waited on Mike picking up. Mike coughed dryly and took a swig of the coffee Ada had placed in front of him, them blankly stared away and said “Cool!”

In an effort to recover from the surprise and also trying to put together how it was this fresh looking girl had given birth to a monster truck driver who looked like her older brother or boyfriend, Mike was struggling. She must have had him when she was bloody twelve or something. I was all very unsettling, he’d hoped for a car-chick as naive sexually as he was, now he was falling for Fred Flintstone’s mother who’d probably had half the class at secondary and the local rugby team. “It wasn’t easy” Mike noticed that Ada was talking again. “For a long time I’ve struggled on my own looking after granddad and Harry, it’s good that things are looking up for me right now, so thanks for the petrol pump and the advice (“What advice?” Thought Mike), I guess you’ll have things to do”.
Mike was on the edge of blurting again and did so; ”I can fit that petrol pump for you tomorrow in half an hour!” ”Nonsense, I’ll do it!” Ada was less than firm now. ”Look I want to help you, I…” Another tailing away but the bigger if slightly nervous smile from Ada was all the answer Mike needed. “I’ll be round at ten!” Ada seemed to accept the offer and Mike was now running dry and needing time to think so made his exit, quick and nervous, being careful not to trip or slip and walked briskly down the drive into the car and headed for home.

The journey home consisted of a lot of driving on autopilot and a lot of mental arithmetic as he tried to think of possibilities that would allow Ada and Harry both to be the ages that he would like them to be. It was obvious that Ada couldn’t be twenty five, thirty five was more likely, thirty five plus and that was assuming Harry was only twenty three. He thought of what his mum would say, his (so-called) mates laughing and facing up to Harry. He might be the same age as Harry. He thought of celebrities and their marriages and affairs, he thought of Sunday paper articles and photographs and walking into pubs and going shopping together. Finally as he turned into his own street and drive he thought about Ada. As he turned off the engine he felt a glow and a silly happy feeling. Thinking about Ada, not other people or numbers or images was making him happy. There was something to all this that he didn’t want to lose and it was all encapsulated in the person of Ada.

That night Mike couldn’t sleep. Rain was tapping and dripping on his window splishes, splots and puddle sounds drenched upwards to his room from the empty street as the secret hiss of the nightime rain took over his world. He felt high but flat, engaged but drained, all his future now seemed to hang upon fitting the fuel pump in the Mini and talking to Ada in imaginary conversations with the background Black Country rain adding a hopeless colourless soundtrack.

Next morning Mike’s friend Biffo (real name Brian) came round at nine. Biffo was twenty-two, short, skinny and dark and from certain angles almost good looking in a poor man’s Al Pacino way. Biffo had not quite discovered his purpose in life, he worked occasionally at a filling station, hung around with Mike and other car people, played darts at the pub, ate alone or with his parents and like Mike had never quiet managed to pull a regular girl. Biffo was at his usual perpetual loose end, nothing special to do other than hang out and Mike’s had been his first instinctive port of call that morning. Over tea and a bacon roll Mike told him he was doing a job on a Mini and tried diplomatically to get rid of Biffo, but Biffo, skinned like an elderly rhino in the African sun failed to take the hint and at nine fifty five the two of them pulled up outside Ada’s house and parked up behind Harry’s rig. Mike had decided that Biffo’s presence might make him look less eager and that playing a long game may now be the best tactic, besides Biffo had worked on a few Mini’s over the years and could perhaps add some value to the morning’s work if Mike got stuck.

Mike trotted up the path and rang the bell, a few awkward moments of silence passed before he saw Ada’s fingers curled round the frame as the door opened a few inches. “Come in!” Mike swallowed hard and crossed the threshold clutching his socket set and tool bag as if it was some desperate extra love token. Ada had stepped back into the hall and was now standing straight and motionless, completely naked, except for a pair of black pointy stilettos with slightly scuffed heels. Biffo put his head round the door alongside Mike and the two stared at Ada who stared back with a very mischievous glint in her eyes and the little pink tip of her tongue resting on the corner of her mouth, obviously enjoying the sensation of the two puzzled men looking at her. Her hands were behind her back, her red hair hung loose over her shoulders as she looked teasingly toward Mike and Biffo as if they were spying schoolboys. For Mike time had frozen, like a huge ice wall had now formed between him and Ada, cold and impenetrable only for it to be quickly shattered as a spear of hot fear and disbelief unexpectedly burned right through it, penetrating his mind and suddenly forcing him to jump back, back out of the house, down the path and into his car, all in an internalised second of Artic darkness and slow motion movement. He turned the key, revved the engine, crunched the car into gear with a roughness that appalled him and sped of down the street thoughtlessly leaving Biffo somewhere behind.

Biffo pushed the door, entered the hallway and stood still looking at Ada, studying her with widely curious and slowly glazing over eyes. Ada spoke first, “don’t you worry about him darlin’, he might be back, then again he might not and you and I have a little business to do, what’s your name?” Biffo answered, ”Biffo!” “Good boy!” said Ada. “You’ll do me nicely for this morning!”

No comments: