C H R I S P A L I N G
The Red Car
(Longlisted for Sunday Times Short story award. Published in The Sunday Times magazine, 2nd May 2010
By the time I was fifteen, for as long as I could remember, it seemed as if my father had been talking about buying a car. “I’ve got my eye on another one, son”, he’d say, wink, and draw me deeper into the conspiracy by touching his nose. We’d then cycle out to view it on the forecourt of whichever garage he’d seen it advertised – usually on a Sunday morning when the place was closed. My memory tells me that these expeditions (of which there were many) always took place in the rain but that can’t be the case. My mother wouldn’t go with us - she didn’t have a bicycle - she’d be at home, making the lunch. When we’d arrive home we’d eat the meal she’d prepared and, in the course of it, my father would deliver his verdict on the vehicle in question.
It had become a ritual, so much so that I no longer set out with any hope that the car we were going to see would meet his expectations. We’d walk round it, he’d kick the tyres, sometimes even whistle appreciatively over the condition of the bodywork. He’d then make blinkers of his hands and peer in through the side windows, trying to read the mileage and the state of the upholstery; then he’d drop to the floor as if he was readying himself for press-ups, worm his head under the chassis and probe the underseal and the exhaust with a small blue penknife he’d brought along for that purpose. He really seemed to know what he was looking for and it impressed me. Until puberty boys are easily impressed by their fathers. The odd thing was that what unified all these vehicles was not the make, model, or year, it was the colour. My father just had a thing for red motor cars.
“Is it all right?” I’d try, after the examination had taken place. I was hopeful that perhaps, finally, this would be the vehicle that would end up on the kerb outside our terraced council house. But my dad would refuse to give anything away and we’d cycle home talking about anything but what we’d gone out there to see.
I was an only child and I loved my father and it pains me to report that the object of my love was a naive man. I was, however, at 15, still young enough to be in denial of this fact. When we reached that point in the lunch when the verdict was to be delivered I’d put down my knife and fork, lean a little forward and listen – rapt. Of course! I’d find myself agreeing – Why didn’t I see that blister in the paintwork myself? The mileage was what? 12,000? Well of course that’s too low for a vehicle of that age – no question it must have been tampered with! The rear tyre? No I didn’t see the tread on the rear tyre . . . Each Sunday, therefore, our meal would be driven by a building tension. It ruined eating out for me for life.
My mother too was complicit in this. Once I’d done my bit by fulfilling the faithful Dr Watson role, she’d smile fondly at my father, ladle on some more gravy or slide another slice of overcooked meat onto his plate, and say how glad she was to be married to a man so thorough and knowledgeable. The sad truth, however, was that my father had a vested interest in finding fault with these cars. We were poor – indebted on many fronts – and I’m still unsure whether the garage visits were designed to pull the wool over my eyes or to kindle some much needed vanity in him. Perhaps, as he circled the car, he really did believe he could afford it.
The Sunday garage ritual went on for a couple of years. Then my grandfather died and my father inherited his money. It wasn’t much. We come from a long line of stoic but poor artisans. I wouldn’t say our family had more than its share of bad luck, it’s just that we’ve had less than our share of what could be described as good luck. Like most people of his generation and before my grandfather rented his house and therefore there was no property to hand down. He’d contributed to a pension for much of his life, just not enough, it seemed, to earn him a comfortable retirement. And his health was bad. When he became confused towards the end (my father blamed the paint fumes he’d inhaled in the factory for 40 years) my parents had no choice but to put him in a home, sell his belongings, and hope he didn’t last longer than the miserable pot of money this brought in. The question of him coming to live with us was never discussed. I think my mother would have strangled him within the week.
When the funeral was paid for and the final bill settled with the residential home there was a profit of £346. I was at the breakfast table when my father opened the letter from the solicitors and tugged the cheque from the staple attaching it to the creamy paper. My mother was upstairs so she didn’t see him looking at it, wiping something from his eye, then slipping it respectfully back into the envelope along with the re-folded letter. I asked him if he was all right. He didn’t seem to be able to answer; instead he picked up his Park Drive cigarettes and Swan Vestas matches and took them outside to the back yard. If he cried at his father’s funeral I wouldn’t have known – forty-five years ago children of my age weren’t included in the grief process, just as fathers were discouraged from attending births. Having now attended six or seven of the former and three of the latter I think there’s a lot to be said for the emotional restraint and gender delineations of my parent’s generation. My wife would disagree, but we disagree on virtually everything so nothing new there.
When my father returned from the back yard, having smoked his cigarette in the rain, he announced that on Saturday we were going to buy a new car.
“Saturday? Don’t you mean Sunday?”
“No. Saturday,” he said, and went off to work without even saying goodbye to my mother. He had £346 in his pocket. He was a man of means. Men of means didn’t wait for their wives to finish in the bathroom so they could kiss them on their powdered cheek before they went to work.
That night my parents had a rare argument. I heard it but didn’t see it because I was upstairs in bed. It was, after all, a school night, and in those days 9.45 pm was the designated bed time for a fifteen-year-old – lights out at 10.20. The row was, of course, provoked by my father announcing that he was intending to spend his inheritance on a car. It wouldn’t be brand new – but that kind of money bought you something “quite special”. My mother had other ideas, all of which involved paying off various debts. It seemed we owed money for the carpet, furniture, oven, television, and even for some of the presents they’d bought at Christmas. I knew my father didn’t earn much – and my mother didn’t work so didn’t bring in anything – but it was only then that I discovered how shamefully poor we were.
Somehow I slept. I must have been secure enough under my parents’ roof to feel no threat from this outbreak of hostilities, but I fully expected to be told at the breakfast table that the car purchase was off. Strangely, no mention was made of it. Instead, the following morning, my father had a peculiar, sated look in his eye. My mother blushed when she caught his eye and saw me watching her. When he left for work he kissed her on the lips, not the cheek as he usually did, and she blushed again.
That night, when he returned home from work and I dutifully joined him at the table and my mother dutifully brought the food from the kitchen, then sat down and served, he said he had something to tell us both. We waited, but he announced he’d save it until after the meal. Needless to say I bolted down the food as fast as I could, but, because my mother was the slowest eater in the world, it was fifteen minutes before, over empty plates, he announced. “I have the prospect of a car.”
“A car?” my mother said – as if it was some infernal new invention she was expecting my father to describe to her.
“Brian in the warehouse knows of a man who’s keen to sell. He said he’d put in a good word for me.”
“I see,” my mother said – leaving us in no doubt how much disapproval she felt over this potential transaction. I think if my father had explained that Brian worked in the front office then her reaction might have been significantly different.
“What is it, dad?” I asked him.
“Well – suffice to say – the colour is red.” I nodded loyally – one important box ticked. “And it’s a Hillman.”
“A Hillman?” my mother chipped in. She’d heard of Hillmans – they were a solid brand. She could feel herself rolling Hillman round the roof of her mouth before delivering it to the woman next door.
“Yes, a Hillman Hunter.”
“Well,” my mother said. “A Hillman Hunter,” and the adoption process was complete. My father beamed at her, then towards me and we spent the rest of the evening sitting round the fire playing rummy. Although it was a Wednesday I was allowed to stay up until 10 pm.
On the Thursday evening my father and I remained at the dinner table and planned our strategy like a military campaign. Brian had been in touch with the man – whose name was Mr Cunliffe (Desmond) – and ascertained that Mr Cunliffe was looking for a quick sale as he was leaving the town and emigrating to Australia. He’d taken the car to the local garage and they had offered him £320 for it but he told Brian that he’d rather sell it privately because he didn’t like seeing ‘fat cats’ get all the profits. This was taken to be a good sign by my father – and an implicit stamp of approval for the roadworthiness of the vehicle. The car was four years old and Mr Cunliffe said he would accept £320 from my father but not a penny less. He also required cash as he was leaving the town in a week’s time to set sail for his new life in a town called Ceduna, in South Australia.
My mother suggested that Brian contact Mr Cunliffe by telephone the following day to ask if my father and I could see the vehicle on Saturday, and if it proved satisfactory, my father would then deliver the cash “by hand”. We agreed that my father would arrive at work a little early the following day and put the idea to Brian.
My dreams were fractured that night. I could see the red Hillman parked proudly at our kerb and I knew my life would be greyer and emptier if we were denied it. At breakfast on Friday my mother and father looked like they had slept little. My father even went so far as to approach my mother as she stood at the stove, encircle her waist from behind, and kiss her neck. She shrugged him away. The boiled egg that morning was hard.
On Friday night the campaign swung into action. As soon as my father arrived home on his bicycle, my mother and I dashed to meet him at the door. He removed his cap and, having put it on the peg, announced that Brian had managed to get hold of Mr Cunliffe that afternoon and a rendezvous had been arranged the following day at midday. Because Mr Cunliffe had a number of arrangements to make concerning his imminent emigration he could spare us half an hour, but would then have to go. He had made an appointment with the local garage owner for Monday afternoon to sell him the car should my father choose not to take him up on the offer.
My mother and I were delighted. She was a stickler for doing things the right way and suggested to my father that he should buy Brian a bottle or two of Bass for brokering the deal. At this my father looked a little embarrassed, and, after prompting, revealed that he’d given Brian £10 “for his trouble”.
“That seems rather a lot,” my mother said, and on any other day her mood would have remained clouded for the remainder of the evening. But that night we were on the verge of a new life with a red Hillman Hunter in the road, broader horizons, and the end of poverty. By dinner time she was smiling again.
My father put on his best suit the following day. He was already in it when I went down to the kitchen for breakfast. I asked him if I should dress smartly and he told me that I should put on my school uniform, so I did, and the morning passed slowly.
We left the house at 11.45 even though the rendezvous – the car park of a local pub – was barely a five minute cycle ride away. But this was another shrewd move by my father who suggested that he wanted to get there early to see Mr Cunliffe arrive. That way, if there was any problem at all with the car, it would immediately be evident. By 11.50 we were perched on the pub wall in a prime position watching the road.
Midday came and went. By 12.15 the early drinkers began to arrive but there was no sign of Mr Cunliffe. My father decided to nip into the public bar for a half pint of bitter and a bottle of pop and instructed me to keep look-out. He brought the beer (a pint, not the expected half), lemonade and a packet of crisps out on a circular tin tray. Still no Mr Cunliffe. By 12.30 the car park was half full. My father lit another cigarette and then went in to fetch another pint of bitter while I listened to two men talking about “the match”. It seemed the public house we had chosen was a favoured meeting place for those enjoying a few pints before the home fixtures of the local football team. As a result, by 12.45, the car park was full and the drinkers outside were cheerful and rowdy.
My father was half way through his third pint and was becoming increasingly voluble when I spotted a red car turning into the road. I slid off the wall. “He’s here!” I shouted. My father took an unsteady step towards the kerb.
“I knew he’d come,” he said and I felt a heavy hand ruffling my hair.
Dad held up his hand like a traffic policeman and Mr Cunliffe pulled up elegantly at the kerb. The purring car fell obediently silent. A tweed-suited Mr Cunliffe emerged and held out a podgy hand which, first my father, and then I, shook. My mother would have approved of Mr Cunliffe. He courted me, calling me “young man”, and he flattered my father by announcing that he could see he was a man who “knew his onions” when it came to cars.
“Have a look around her,” he suggested, “And permit me to buy you a pint of beer while you do so.”
“That’s very kind of you, Desmond,” my father said and would have tipped the brim of his cap had he been wearing it. In another life Mr Cunliffe would have been his closest friend. They would have visited the races together, perhaps he would even have been allowed to go for a pint or two on a Friday night with him. Their wives would have looked tolerantly on them when they came back flushed and over-excited after an hour or two in the local pub. As it was my father had no friends and was not allowed to visit pubs in the evening.
He opened the bonnet of the car. The warm engine ticked as it cooled. It was pristine. He dropped to the floor and looked beneath the vehicle, oblivious to the damage to his trousers. When he raised himself to his feet he had a huge smile on his face.
“Well?” I hardly dared wait for the answer.
“She’s a beaut! . . . A bloody beaut!”
We toasted the sale with beer and pop and then Mr Cunliffe and my father sat in the car and my father handed over the envelope of cash. Mr Cunliffe licked his thumb like a bookie and counted the notes before sliding the thick wad into his shiny wallet. I watched them shaking hands before my father emerged from the passenger seat.
“It’s all done,” he said. “We’ve got ourselves a real beaut.”
“How will we get it home?” I asked him.
“Desmond’s driving it round. Then he’s going to call a taxi to take him back into town. We’ll have to ask Norma if we can use her phone.”
“Yes. A taxi.”
Taxis (and, indeed telephones) were luxuries few in our street could afford. But it was the icing on the cake. Not only were we to get a new car, we were also to have had a visitor in a good suit who left our house in a taxi!
Having given Mr Cunliffe directions we mounted our bikes and sped off home, cutting through the park so we could arrive ahead of him, affording my father a small victory in the power balance between the two men. When got there my mother, having been waiting at the window, dashed out.
“I thought something terrible had happened to you!” she exclaimed. My father smiled and asked what could possibly have befallen us in the mile between home and pub. My mother asked him if he had been drinking and he told her he had had a “sociable half” with Desmond to seal the deal.
“So you bought it, then?”
“Yes, my darling, we bought it!” My father embraced my mother and attempted to plant a kiss on her cheek. She rebuffed him and smoothed down her skirt, looking behind her to check the neighbours hadn’t seen the unwelcome assault on her dignity.
“So when will it be here?” she asked.
“A matter of minutes,” my father said. “Desmond’s driving it round now.”
“He’s driving it here?”
“Yes. Where else?”
“But I haven’t dusted!”
My mother dashed inside to tidy up the pristine front room while my father and I took our bikes round the side of the house and put them in the shed. We returned to the front of the house, standing sentry and awaiting the arrival of Mr Cunliffe.
Ten minutes passed. My mother came out and told us that the room was now almost fit for visitors. My father didn’t reply. My mother looked at me, then towards my father. It began to rain.
We waited a further ten minutes in silence, which my mother broke by saying, “I suppose we should offer him a drink when you’ve given him the money. Just the one, mind you. I don’t want him here all afternoon.”
And when my father didn’t reply to that she knew – we all knew.
My mother went back inside. I asked my father what we should do but he said he really didn’t know. He had no telephone number either for Brian or Mr Cunliffe. The light the beer had lit inside him had gone out.
I saw something new on my father’s face as we waited in that dead time. His eyes seemed to be searching for something beyond the street along which Mr Cunliffe was expected. He was looking at a future in which the debts would mount and he and my mother would be alone. I wanted to reassure him that he would never be alone. That I would always love him. That I would never allow him to be consigned to a lonely death in a retirement home like his father before him. But I was fifteen, and at that age, you just don’t have the words.