Marriage a la Garage by John Atkins
An ancient car was steaming down a motorway. It was literally steaming, for the radiator was boiling furiously. Shedrin, who was driving, bit his lip with anxiety. A breakdown on the motorway was the last thing he wanted.
A lorry started to overtake. The driver's mate leant out of the cab and shouted, "Take that bloody thing off the road." Shedrin scowled. There wasn't much else he could do. But then, thinking this insufficient, he shouted back, "Sod off !" The lorry driver and his mate appeared to be enjoying the encounter, for they continued to run alongside, making no effort to pass.
"Don't you know you're forbidden to make a fog on the motorway ?" shouted the mate.
Now we've got a comic, thought Shedrin. To his relief the lorry accelerated and left him behind. And then he saw the road sign indicating the turn-off to Learton. Thank God for that, he thought, turning off in a cloud of steam.
Shedrin was about to stop when he saw what appeared to be some kind of a workshop. It was a tumbledown affair, half obscured from the road by a large tree in full leaf. There was a board with this announcement:
MOTOR MEHCANIC &
Shedrin stopped, and for a moment was enveloped in steam. Tom Lemy, a boy of sixteen, wearing very ancient dungarees and holding a spanner in his hand, ran out to see what was happening. Shedrin's engine went on chugging and Tom heard a voice behind him say, "Tappets!" Shedrin jumped out of the car and the engine kept on running. "For God's sake, it won't stop!" he shouted. "Do something, somebody, before it explodes!"
Noah Inge poked his head out of the workshop. A man in his late fifties, with a grizzled, close-cropped head, he surveyed the scene with a jaundiced expression. Shedrin was dancing up and down in his anxiety. "I say, can you help me, it won't stop!" he cried.
Noah ambled wearily to the car and gave it a tremendous thump on the bonnet. The engine surrendered. Shedrin wiped his face with a dirty handkerchief, which he had previously used to clean the dipstick. "Thank God for that. It was boiling", he said. Tom came over to have a look and stood silently beside Noah. Then he nodded and said, "Yeah, boiling." The steam was still coming out in a steady stream from underneath the bonnet. To clinch matters Tom said, "Still is."
"Pre-ignition" said Noah.
"What? That's steam, isn't it?" said Shedrin and then could have kicked himself.
Noah put the bonnet up and told Tom to get a rag. This was to protect his hand while he unscrewed the radiator cap. The steam was so fierce, however, he decided to leave it for a while. "What's wrong with it?" asked Shedrin. "Do you know?"
Noah peered into the front of the engine and his voice issued from its innards. "Broken fan-belt", he said. He straightened up. "Didn't you see the red light?"
"Red light? What red light?"
"On the dashboard."
"I haven't got a red light."
"You got a red light all right. What you mean is, it don't work."
"I shouldn't wonder. Nothing much works on this machine. Except she goes." Then he sighed and smiled happily. "Well, it's not serious, is it? Have you time to fix a new belt?"
"Won't take a minute", said Noah and disappeared into the hut. Tom went back to the bench where he appeared to be clearing a space between a jumble of tools, spare parts and cans of various colours and sizes.
Mary Golding came in, singing out "Morning, Mr Inge".
She was wearing an old sweater and jeans and carried an empty oil can. She had a knapsack on her back. Seeing Tom she said, "Hallo, Tom. Can I have some paraffin?" Tom took the can and moved to the rear of the shop. Mary looked at Shedrin's car, now steaming less furiously. "You got trouble, eh?"
"Nothing much. Only a broken fan-belt", said Shedrin.
"That won't take long then. Have you come far?"
"Quite a way. I'm a stranger in these parts."
"Like me", said Mary.
"Are you camping then?"
"Maybe" said Mary.
Shedrin looked puzzled. People usually know whether they're camping or not.
Noah returned with the new fan-belt, which he had fished out of a confused mass in the corner. He unscrewed the radiator cap and waited while the steam died away. Then he started fitting the belt.
Mary asked Shedrin if he'd like some coffee. He said he'd love some. "Let's go over here then, shall we?" she said, and led the way to a pile of old tyres. Mary flopped down, Shedrin placed his backside with great caution, and she took off her knapsack and took out a thermos, cups and a box of biscuits and small cakes. "Good Lord, we're going to do it in style", said Shedrin.
"Well, you never know how long you'll be here".
"But you only came for paraffin".
"Ah yes, but suppose they haven't got any."
While she spoke she poured out the coffee and offered a cake or biscuit to Shedrin. He couldn't understand her reasoning. "Surely they'd tell you, wouldn't they?" he said.
"They might - and then they might not. I've made it a rule not to be sure of anything."
"Well, I dare say you're right".
"You bet", said Mary, and that was that.
Shedrin munched happily. He lay back, feeling more relaxed, and caught her eye. They both grinned.
"Comfortable?" she asked.
Shedrin was on his fourth cake or biscuit. "Shan't be able to move after this lot", he said.
"Well, there's no need. I'm in no hurry".
"So you are on holiday then?" asked Shedrin, but she didn't answer. He thought he'd try a new tack.
"I'm collecting information", he said.
"Old stories. You know, country stories."
"For a book or something?"
"Could be", he said vaguely. "Come in useful somehow."
"What kind of story?"
"You know, capturing the past sort of."
"Ah, you mean before it disappears?"
"That's right. I came across a good one last night. I was in a pub, a village called Cornhill - ".
"I know it", she said.
"There was an old gaffer, full of yarns. There was one about a poacher, he was taking a load of pheasants to town - ." "Illegal pheasants?" she asked.
"Oh yes, very illegal. Well, he met a couple of bullocks galloping down the middle of the road, followed by the drover, yelling like mad.
Mary laughed. "A couple of bullocks - the drover! When did all this happen?"
"Oh, when he was a boy, of course. It's the past I'm interested in, you know. I told you."
At that moment Noah came up and said, "All fixed, sir. If you'd like to come and have a look."
Shedrin got up and Mary said, "When you've had a look, come back and finish the story. And there's a bit more coffee left."
Noah and Shedrin stood looking at the belt.
It was only a belt, there was really nothing to be said about it. "We've filled the radiator for you, sir", said Noah. "Now we'll just start her up and see how she goes." He got in behind the steering wheel and started the engine. He looked very grave. Shedrin was delighted to hear the old engine running again, and without steam. "That sounds all right then", he said. "No damage, eh?"
"No damage, sir", said Noah. "But your dynamo's not working."
"How do you know?" asked Shedrin, who was no mechanic.
"It's not charging. Look, the red light's showing. Thought you said you hadn't a red light?"
"Oh, that! is that the one you meant?"
"You can't go far like this, sir."
"Will it take long to fix?"
"I'll have to examine it", said Noah.
"Have you time?"
"I'll see what I can do."
"It's awfully good of you."
He returned to the tyres and slumped down beside Mary. "Something wrong with the dynamo", he said. Mary was very cheerful. "Old Noah'll fix it", she said.
"Yes, he says he'll look at it."
"Oh, he'll do it. He takes his time but he's never been known to let anyone down on a job. Here, have some more coffee. And now you can finish your story."
"Ah yes. Where was I?"
"Well, the old drover shouted out, There's two bloody p'licemen settin in a ditch up the road an they scared they bullocks. Thas somethin lucky yew were a-comin up the road. And the poacher said, Thas a bloody sight luckier you were a-comin down the road! "
There was a rather long silence as Mary thought it over. Then she said, "Is that the story?"
"Yes", said Shedrin. "I'm sorry, it didn't come off, did it? It sounded wonderful in the pub."
"I must say I didn't think it was very funny", Mary said thoughtfully. "Of course, I may have missed something. But there, I expect you've heard better ones."
"Oh, the atmosphere counts. Counts a lot. There was a very funny one about a man visiting his wife's grave in a cemetery, and the cemetery keeper trying to persuade him to book a place. Oi know you only had a grave for one, sir, but that dew settle, y'know. Thar'll be plenty o' room in there for yew if yew want tew lie along o' yer woife. Well, the old chap started to argue ....."
Shedrin stopped. He realised that the two of them had stretched out comfortably on the tyres, making a day of it. He raised himself on one elbow and looked intently at the young woman. He was about to continue his story, although he had lost all interest in it, when Noah came up.
"Done that, sir", he said, "but you got another spot o' trouble. Battery's flat. Flat as a young maid."
"Oh no!" murmured Shedrin.
"We can put it on charge if you like. And we can put another one in for you, in the meantime, so to speak." Shedrin felt relieved. "Would you", he said.
Noah ambled away. Mary lay with her eyes closed, smiling. Shedrin looked down at her, finding her attractive and yet distant. "One place I was at", he said, "they reckoned there was a local madman - or something - who was building his own space-ship. He said he was going to the moon without any of this scientific palaver the Americans go in for. Hey, are you listening?" She opened her eyes, smiled and took his hand.
"Of course I am. The space-ship. Go on."
"Well, he went on boasting about when he was going and then one of these old gaffers - ."
"All your stories are about old gaffers - ."
"One of these old gaffers said, Will that be full moon or first quarter when we git there?
"Is that the end?" asked Mary.
"He kept repeating it over and over again, and every time he said it they all started laughing again. Will that be full moon or first quarter when we git there ? - again and again, they kept on repeating it and absolutely choking with laughter."
"He'd be a successful comedian. You know the idea - you say Sausages or Bananas and look blank - and everyone roars with laughter."
"And perhaps that's the secret", said Shedrin.
"I dunno. Just the secret." He wanted to tell her she was beautiful but was scared.
Noah came up. "Do you know one of your front tyres is flat, sir?"
"Oh no,is it really?"
"We can mend it if you like."
"Well, I would be obliged".
Noah seemed to dissolve and Mary sighed, "I feel so happy." Shedrin bent down to kiss her. Slowly she put her arms up and embraced him. Almost immediately Noah returned, surveyed them, deadpan. "Tyre's ready, sir, but I think your starter needs attention. Engine's very slow turning over. It's not the battery cos that's fully charged."
Very reluctantly Shedrin raised his head. "See to it, please". Noah nodded and went away. Shedrin returned to his interrupted kiss.
* * * *
And time passed and the large tree whose leaves had once sheltered the workshop now stood bare. A high wind began to whip its branches and a last leaf fluttered to the ground. Shedrin's car had not moved. Its bonnet reared into the air and Noah's bottom stuck out from the engine. Shedrin and Mary were now sitting up, their arms round each other.
"It really was love at first sight", said Shedrin. "Something I had never believed in."
"Me too. The sort of thing you read about in sloppy yarns and yet it's true."
"We're not sloppy".
"And then your ridiculous stories. They're so awful they made you seem lovable."
"Do you really think they're no good?"
"They're not very good but I think they're marvellous, if you see what I mean. They're probably better on the ground, so to speak."
"Not in a book?"
"God, no". She sprang up, superbly athletic.
"Darling, I'll get lunch." She nipped into the shed and returned with an assortment of pots and pans. In the corner was an old oil stove. Tins and packets of food lay scattered around. She shook a can. "Blast! Out of paraffin again. Tom!" she called, and then changed her mind. "All right, dear, you get on with your work. I'll see to this."
Shedrin took out a notebook and pencil. "Perhaps they'd go better on radio".
"Yes, why not?"
Tom appeared round the corner. "Oh Tom", she said," be a sport and bring some more paraffin."
How efficient she is, thought Shedrin. What luck to meet someone like that. He scribbled in the book. "Hey, what about this? It's a flood story. The water was flooding the high Street. A woman came along and couldn't believe her eyes. She said to a man, What's all this? And he said, Well, ma'am, if you think it's ginger beer, help yourself."
"Wow", said Mary. "That's terrific. Yes, that'll really get em. They'll be rocking in the aisles."
Shedrin looked at her doubtfully. "You like it, eh?"
"Cut some bread, will you, dear?" she said sweetly.
"Might as well make yourself useful."
Noah came to them, looking mournful, Mary cut in quickly. "Oh, it's all right, Mr Inge. I can see it's bad news. Whatever it is, you do it."
"Yes, Miss Golding", said Noah.
"Oh Noah, you keep forgetting. Mrs Shedrin."
"I'm sorry, Mrs Shedrin".
As Noah walked away Shedrin dropped the bread knife and leant across to nuzzle Mary's neck. She gave a little scream of pleasure. "Ow ! That tickles."
"I'm thinking of the little Shedrin on the way", he said.
"I do hope he has a sense of humour", said Mary.
* * * *
Some people today challenge our whole Western conception of Time. At college Shedrin had spent a whole term demolishing it. He was still puzzled by the subjective twists of natural processes and on the whole preferred to gaze long and hard at the big tree whose branches shifted happily in bright sunlight, throwing a shadow across the entrance to the workshop. And Tyre Corner was becoming unrecognisable. Shedrin had made a little desk by balancing a few tyres in front of him. Here he worked on his book which he was thinking of calling The Secret Life of the Eastern Counties. Mary said, as a title, it didn't grab you. Ah well, said Shedrin, it's aimed at scholars who don't have to be grabbed and don't like being grabbed anyway. Mary was fond of lying on tyres that had been arranged to serve as an armchair. She liked reading comics. Time passed, shadows came and went, six-year old twins dived through a tyre hung from a branch or burrowed into a tunnel of tyres. Mary suddenly dropped her comic and cried, "Bedtime, children!"
"Oh no, mummy ! We're having a lovely game."
But Mary said (sternly): "I said bed, and I mean bed!"
"A story ! Daddy, tell us a story!" they cried.
"Tell them a story then", says Mary.
And the little children went to Shedrin and sat down in front of him, hugging their knees. While he told his story they frequently giggled and gave each other knowing little jabs. "Well, you see", said Shedrin, "there was this country woman, a village woman she was, she went into a big store in the town and said, I want a widder's hat please, miss." "What's a widdersat?" asked the little girl.
"A special hat women wear when daddies die", Mary explained.
"Coo !" said the little girl.
"So the shop-girl said, Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, madam, and the woman said, That's all right, miss. E aint gorn yet. But e on't last mor'n a day or tew an I can only git in on a Sat'day."
"Go on, daddy", said the little girl, and "That's all", said Shedrin.
"Very good story. I liked it", said the boy.
Mary said, "Come on now, you two". She started undressing them. Noah came in, looking very old and bent. "She's running bootiful now, sir. P'raps you'd like to try er."
And so, after all these years, Shedrin got into the driver's seat. He started the engine and began to back out. Then the car stopped and the engine roared.
"It won't go! What's the matter?" cried Shedrin.
"Let me try, sir", said Noah. So Shedrin got out and Noah got in. He fiddled with the gear lever, pressed and released the clutch pedal and trod on the accelerator. Then he switched the engine off, looking very grave. "Shall I tell you what's wrong now, sir?"
"Yes, do", said Shedrin, and he looked very worried.
"It's your transmission, sir. It's packed up. It's gorn completely."
Shedrin was very disappointed. "Oh, I say, that's too bad. I really did hope to get away tomorrow. Can't you do something?"
"Certainly I can do something, sir, but it'll take time. Tom and me'll get to work on it tomorrer. A lot depends on what the exact trouble is. Now if it's the angle-jointed rib-ends it won't take so long but if it's the high ride shark-toothed coasting flange, well, that's a different matter.
"Ah well", sighed Shedrin, "it's up to you, Mr Inge. Do what you can."
He slouched back to the Tyres and sat down moodily. Mary was reading her comic again and the children were asleep on the tyre bed.
Mary didn't trouble to look up. "All right?" she said.
"No, it isn't all right. The bloody transmission's bust."
This caused Mary to put her comic down. "What?" she said.
Shedrin opened his mouth wide and let it rip.
"I said the bloody transmission's bust!"
"There's no need to shout."
"Well, you can't hear me when I speak normally."
"You can see the children are asleep."
"That doesn't help the transmission!"
"Oh, don't talk such rubbish! Ever since I've met you it's been the car before everything. Can't you think of the children now and again?"
"Well, I like that!"
"Or are you utterly selfish?"
"You're always telling me to get the car fixed so we can go for a ride or deliver my manuscript. Now you accuse me of putting the car first!"
"First? Also second, third and all the time. What's the good of a car if it won't go?"
"You're telling me! That's just what I'm saying, someone's got to get it back on the road again. Sitting here all the time, year after year, on a pile of tyres - ".
"Don't tell me you're fed up! What about me?"
"Oh, dry up!"
"Are you talking to me?"
"It would seem so, wouldn't it?"
Mary screwed her lips up and mimicked him, pitching her voice way up. "It would seem so, wouldn't it? Bad- tempered oaf! You needn't think I want you on my tyres tonight."
"I got my own, thank you", growled Shedrin.
It was their first serious row.
The great thing about rows is that they die away, like all things natural, and it wasn't long before Shedrin and Mary were standing beside the car with coats slung over their arms, the children jumping up and down excitedly and Noah and Tom standing to one side, quite expressionless.
"Wow we'll put these coats in the back, just in case it rains", said Mary.
"I think it will", said Shedrin, and "There's no need to look on the gloomy side", said Mary, which caused Shedrin to raise his eyebrows. But they had hardly come down again before raindrops started to fall on the corrugated iron roof of the workshop.
"There you are", said Shedrin and "All right, clever", said Mary.
"Daddy said it would rain," said the boy. "Oh yes, he's Mr Clever Sticks. He always knows. Now children, you get in the back."
They clambered in and Mary said, "So I suppose we're ready." She was trying not to show her excitement. Shedrin turned to Noah. "We'll just try her then, Mr Inge", he said.
"You just try her up the road a mile or two", said Noah, "and. see how she goes. I don't see as how there could be much wrong with her. Practically new."
Mary and Shedrin got in. He started the engine.
"A lovely sound", he said.
"Yes", said Noah. "It's got a good sound to it, that old engine has."
The car glided smoothly away. The children cheered and waved to Noah and Tom, who stood motionless, then nodded to each other and returned to their endless labours.
"My God", said Shedrin. "It's absolutely pelting down. I can hardly see to drive."
"Why don't you switch the windscreen wipers on?"
Shedrin pushed a switch.
"Hello, that's funny?"
"The wipers. They don't work!"
"Oh no! Look out! God, you'll have us in the ditch!"
There was a sharp bend in the road but the car went straight on - in fact, into the ditch. The children started to cry. Mary shouted, "You bloody fool!"
The parents got out and pulled the children from the back. Mary asked the little girl if she was all right and she said she was. Shedrin asked the boy if he was all right, calling him "son" and the boy said he was, adding, "Why did you drive in the ditch, daddy?"
"Because daddy simply has no idea of how to drive a car", snarled the boy's mother, all the family was united, huddling on the bank. The rain was still pelting down. They were soaking. It might be thought that they would have been drier if they had stayed in the car but this is doubtful. Shedrin sighed. "Please don't be silly", he said. "The brakes didn't work."
"Can't daddy drive, mummy?" asked the little girl.
"He certainly can't steer", said Mary.
She turned to Shedrin. "I've just about had enough of all this. First we live the best part of our lives on a pile of tyres, and then this ! You can't even keep on the road. To think that some people go to Bermuda practically every year and we - we - ." She started to sniff, trying hard not to sob.
"I tell you the brakes didn't work", said Shedrin.
"First it was the wipers, I couldn't see a thing, then it was the brakes."
"Always got an excuse". Sniff.
"What d'you mean, excuse? If they don't work, they don't work!"
"Well, why don't you do something? How much longer are we going to stand here? Oh, look at my cardigan, it's ruined!"
Noah came trudging down the lane. He had thrown an old coat over his head and shoulders. "Something wrong?" he said.
Mary exploded. "Wrong!"
Even Shedrin began to act stern. "Mr Inge, first of all the windscreen wipers didn't work, then the brakes failed. That car is simply not roadworthy!"
"I'll get Tom to elp me pull er out", said Noah.
"Don't you worry, Mr Shedrin."
"How you've got the nerve to stand there and tell us not to worry!" shouted Mary. "You men, you - you - come along, children".
She took them by the hand and they set off down the road together.
"Where you going?" shouted Shedrin. Mary might have been thinking of Bermuda but in fact she returned to Tyre Corner, where she controlled herself with difficulty. "Now just take your nasty wet clothes off", she said to the children, "dry yourselves and then put some dry clothes on."
"Was that one of daddy's little jokes, mummy?" asked the girl.
Mary made a despairing gesture. The boy, perhaps regarding himself as the head of the family, said, "It wasn't a joke, was it, mummy ? The brakes didn't work."
Mary felt her self-control slipping again. "Now just get your clothes off", she said, all very tense. All three started undressing. Shedrin came in, looking worried. "A good idea", he said. "I'll do the same". As he pulled off his sweater he said, "I really do think it's a bit thick." He looked at Mary, hoping to work her into a conversation, but she wouldn't respond, was entirely frigid. "I mean, when you consider the time he's had on it". It was a heavy silence. He was now down to his shirt, trousers and socks, and then stopped, wondering whether to continue the peace manoeuvre. The others were now putting on their dry clothes.
"You know, I've been patient. I like old Inge, he's always seemed a good sort, reliable - helpful - a bit slow, of course - but really, I think this is too much." He took off his shirt.
"Tom!" called Mary.
"It's no good talking to Tom, he's only an underling."
He took off his trousers and stood in his underpants and socks. Tom shambled in. "Yes, ma'am", he said.
"Tom, can you lend me a bag or some kind of case?
I must have something to carry our wet clothes and toothbrushes in." "I'll ave a look", said Tom, and sloped off.
"Hey, what are you up to?" said Shedrin.
Mary didn't answer. She started collecting together all those things she had decided to take. "I say, are you going somewhere?"
"Don't forget your raincoats, children. You can wear your wellies."
Tom returned with a battered old suitcase. "I got this, ma'am. It's a bit dirty. We used to keep used filters in it, but I cleaned it up a bit. Got a few holes, but not big uns." He handed it over.
"That'll do nicely, Tom. I'll have it sent back just as soon as I've found somewhere."
She started packing.
Shedrin thought he'd play it cool. "Where are you going?"
"Come on, children, we're all ready now".
"Isn't daddy coming?" asked the boy.
"Daddy?" Mary said scornfully. "He must see to his old brakes, mustn't he?"
And off they went.
"Hey! You can't do this!" shouted Shedrin, losing his cool pretty quickly.
Mary and the children walked through the workshop. The storm was over and the sun was shining again. Shedrin followed them in his underpants.
"Mary! You can't take the children away! Where are you going?"
She threw one word back over her shoulder. "Bermuda!"
Shedrin suddenly realised he was wearing only his underpants. "I say! Come back! This is preposterous!"
Mary and the children walked away, up the road. Noah came in from the other direction. They passed with the barest of nods.
That summer didn't last long. There was a brief autumn, then snow lay banked against the wall of the workshop. The tree branches were heavy with it. Noah trudged slowly down the road, looking very old and tired. It is possible he had a home somewhere near. Tom beat his arms about his chest. Shedrin's pale, now rather lined face peered out at the sky.
"More snow coming?" he asked, or was it a statement "Shouldn't wonder", said Tom. "Looks powerful grey up there."
It was one of the most severe winters since 1660.
* * * *
One day a bird was heard singing merrily on a branch of the tree. It seemed to celebrate a new notice at the entrance to the workshop.
MOTOMECHANIC & ENGINEER
Shedrin was leaning against the doorpost, thinking about his study of local ways and beliefs. Behind him came the sound of hammering. It was Tom, working at the bench. He was now in his early thirties and had filled out physically. Shedrin came up behind him and spoke over his shoulder.
"How d'you like this one, Tom? There was an influenza epidemic, you see, and the blacksmith's wife was ill. The old doctor was very busy and by the time he got round to the blacksmith's house it was two o'clock in the morning. He knocked at the door and some minutes later the window was thrown up and the blacksmith said, Who are yew and what dew yew want? The doctor said, It's me. - Who the bloody ell is me? - It's me - the doctor. - Hev your owd hoss throwd a shoe? asked the blacksmith and the doctor answered, No, I've called to see your wife. - What! This toime o' noight? called the blacksmith. Yew goo home and look at yar own owd woman and call agin tomorrer."
As the story proceeded Tom's face softened, slowly but surely. It was like a shadow creeping over his face, and disappearing. He stopped working, turned to Shedrin and grinned delightedly.
"You like it, Tom?" asked Shedrin.
"That's a rare good un. Call agin tomorrer! That's a good un, that is."
And then a woman's voice was heard and the two men turned quickly. It was a sound that hadn't been heard for some years. "Hallo, anyone at home?" it said, and in cane Mary with the twins, now attractive youngsters of sixteen. Mary held the old suitcase. Shedrin felt as though he had been struck. "Mary, you've come back!" he said, in little more than a whisper.
"Like a bad penny", Mary said cheerfully. "Hallo, Tom."
"Hallo, Mrs Shedrin."
"And the twins! Our twins?" said Shedrin, finding it hard to believe.
"Go on, children. You remember daddy, go and say hallo."
They were very shy. Shedrin wasn't quite sure how to react, but suddenly embraced then. The situation was too much for him and he began to snuffle.
"I knew you'd come back, I always knew it." He dashed over to Mary. "Oh, Mary, thank God you're back." They kissed warmly, broke, kissed again, the children, that is the teenagers, grinned in embarrassment.
"I thought it over", said Mary. "No good bearing a grudge all these years. And the children need a father. Someone to show Adrian how to shave. Most of the kids at school have fathers. Besides, I had to bring the suitcase back. Here you are, Tom." She handed it over. "But where's Mr Inge?"
"Oh, e give up two year back. Turned poorly."
"I am sorry. Is he better?"
"Got a turrible cough. That soaking e got never did im no good. Won't last another winter, not if it's like last one,"
"So you're in charge. Busy?"
"Can't cope, missis. I'd do ten times the work if I ad the stomach for it, but I aint. Need an assistant, could do with two, but you can't get em, not out ere. All they want is city lights and discos."
"I see. And how's the car?"
"It's all ready, miss."
"Really? No snags?"
During this conversation Shedrin had been chatting with his children. Now he came across and said, "It's really OK now, Mary. We tested it out yesterday and it was perfect."
"So we can go?"
Shedrin said, very quietly, "Well, there's just one snag." He gestured to her as if to say: now be careful, just control your tempestuous nature.
But Mary seemed in excellent mood. She was even prepared to joke. "Not the brakes, I hope", she said. She looked across the workshop and her face lit up. "Look, Tyre Corner! Oh, I must go and see my old home! Children, come along!"
All four of them approached Tyre Corner, as if visiting a shrine. "Our old home", said Mary, oozing sentimentality. "Look, children, this is where you were born and brought up." "I can't believe it", said the girl and the boy said, "A bit scruffy!"
"We were very poor then", said Mary. "But we were happy. I've never been as happy as I was lying on those old tyres. I expect there are one or two new ones here, aren't there? I mean, new old ones."
"Yes, that old Goodyear", said Shedrin, "that's pretty comfortable. The old Dunlop you used to like's just about worn out."
The girl said shyly, "You used to tell me funny stories, didn't you?"
"Yes. Do you remember them?"
"Not the stories. I just remember you telling them. "
"I'm not sure if they were any good. I used to like them."
The girl turned to Mary. "Were they funny, mummy?" "Well - your dad used to think so. And that's half the battle, isn't it?"
Tom started to laugh. "What's the joke, Tom?" asked Mary.
"I was just thinking", said Tom. "Call agin tomorrer! That was a good un, that was." He went on chuckling. Mary was puzzled. "Call agin tomorrer? What's he mean,dear?"
"It's a story I told him. He liked it. My greatest success."
"Well, tell us one now", said the boy. "Just like old times."
"You used to like them?" asked Shedrin. He sounded a bit incredulous.
"I used to treat them very seriously. They were my education".
"Well, here's one I like. An old labourer was filling in a life assurance proposal form. He filled in No to the question: Is your father living? and the agent of course wanted to know the cause of death. The labourer looked a bit doubtful, then he said, Tweren't nothin serious, bor."
Mary and the girl waited for the story to proceed but the boy howled with laughter.
"Oh, I like that, I like that!" he cried. Tweren't nothin serious! Just about sums it up, you know. Tom started to chuckle all over again. "Call agin tomorrer! Damn my eyes, I'll tell the lads that un." Shedrin became suddenly serious. "You mentioned education. I hope you both were, er - ."
"All right, dear", said Mary. "Educated. No problem."
"It's terribly important, you know. Especially these days. Can't get anywhere without it."
"Well, they've both had it. Got seven O Levels each. That's fourteen altogether."
"Oh, madly scientific, these two. Physics, Chemistry. Astronomy, Astrophysics, Biochemistry, Statistical Analysis, Computer Science - ."
"Mother! " the girl said reprovingly.
"What will you do?" asked Shedrin. "Teach?"
"God, no", said the boy. "Something, er - you know."
"Not too demanding, that's what he means", said the girl. "So we can live and enjoy ourselves."
"Talking of enjoying ourselves", said Mary, "let's go somewhere. I feel we ought to celebrate. Do you know, all these years I've never had a ride in your car - well, there was one occasion but perhaps we'd better not say any more about that." "It would be lovely to have a ride in it", said the girl. "It looks so nice."
And so it did, it had been polished until it shone like a mirror. It was not the latest model but it had an air of distinction. The family approached it slowly, with admiration and homage, as if it were a shrine. They walked round it, touching it and smoothing it. Shedrin plucked Mary's arm and drew her aside.
"There's a snag", you know.
"Oh no! Not serious I hope? Perhaps no engine under the bonnet?"
"Not mechanical, anyway. It's the bill, Mary. Look!"
He tool it out of his pocket. It was in the form of a scroll, enormously long, winding like a snake across the ground as he unrolled it.
"My God ! However much is it?"
"To tell you the truth, I haven't dared look at it."
"Well, if you can take it."
Gingerly she picked up the paper and slowly worked along it to the end. She closed her eyes then opened them to look at the final figure. The colour drained from her face and she let the paper fall.
"Is it - so much?" asked Shedrin.
"It's - astronomical!"
"Oh, Lord! What a situation!"
"Has Tom been - pressing for it?"
"No, he hasn't, but you know, I am a prisoner."
"A prisoner? How?"
"Well, he took the plugs out, and he won't put them back till the bill's paid."
"How mean of him! It's unethical!"
"I know. But he says he's devoted his life to that car."
"Devoted his life!" Mary said scornfully.
"What about us? Really, some people do - ."
"Yes, yes, dear", Shedrin cut in, "but we must keep calm."
"All right, but what good will that do us? I say, would he take the car in payment?"
"No, he wouldn't. He's got three already."
"A three-car man. You wouldn't think it, would you? Not to look at him, I mean."
"Oh, he's doing well. He'd be a rich man if he could only find the staff."
"The staff? Hey, wait a minute."
Mary went over to Tom, who was patching a pre- historic inner tube.
"Tom, I've just seen the bill", she said.
"Ah", said Tom.
"It's a lot."
"'Tis that. Nigh on seventeen years work."
"Yes, yes. A long time. Tom, we don't have that kind of money."
"What you goin to dew, then? I got the plugs."
"I've got an idea. You're short of staff, aren't you?"
"Could use two or three mechanics here but can't get em."
"How'd you like our children to work for you?"
Tom stopped working. He looked hard at Mary, then over to where the children were testing the tyres for comfort. The boy got up and went to the car. The girl followed and they ran their fingers along the chassis. Then the boy raised the bonnet and they both peered in. Only their backsides were visible.
"You mean them?" asked Tom.
"Are they mechanics?"
"Give em a chance. They're only sixteen. But they're very bright - pick things up quickly - and they simply love messing about - I mean working on machinery."
"I'll think it over". said Tom. He turned back to his inner tube.
"Can you think it over quickly?" asked Mary.
Tom worked silently for a while, then stopped. "All right. It's a deal", he said. "But for how long?"
"You can work it out", said Mary. "With them. I'll call them. Children! Here a minute."
They came over and Mary asked them how they'd like to work there.
"Here? In this workshop?" asked the boy.
"Yes. With Tom. Our old friend Tom."
"Smashing", said the boy.
"It'd be lovely", said the girl.
"Well, you can, you know", said Mary. "I've just talked it over with Tom."
"When can we start?" asked the boy.
"Right now. Just a minute", said Tom, and he walked away.
"What a great idea, mum", said the boy and the girl added, "I'd rather do this than go to a Technical College."
"I thought you'd like it", said Mary. "But remember, you've got to learn the job. No monkey-business. You'll be under Tom's direction."
"Of course", said the girl.
Tom came back, carrying some old dungarees.
"Here, you want to put these on", he said. "Don't want to get your clothes dirty."
They seized the dungarees eagerly and started putting them on. Tom went to the car and started putting the plugs back. Shedrin and Mary were already sitting in the front seats.
"Well. Time to go", said Shedrin.
"At last", said Mary. "Goodbye, everyone. Goodbye, old home." A tear trickled down her cheek.
How beautiful the car looked, reversing out of the workshop. The children walked alongside, calling out farewells and advice. Tom stood looking after them, a quiet smile forming on his face no longer young. Mary was now openly weeping.
"Goodbye!", shouted the children. Look after yourselves! Best of luck!"
The car disappeared in the distance, smoothly and gracefully. Shedrin patted Mary's knee. "My wife and my car", he said.
Tom and the youngsters turned away and retreated into the interior of the workshop.
"Back to work now", said the girl.
"Back?" queried the boy, raising his eyebrows.
"I'm dying to have a look at those sabre- toothed slap-hinges", she said.
Tom stood there, shaking his head, trying to control the laughter that bubbled up inside him. "Call agin tomorrer !" he chortled, and the boy exploded, "Tweren't nothin serius!"
The two men crowed with laughter while the girl examined the slap-hinges.
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