Peter Hully is a 32 year old writer and occasional DJ from Derby in the United Kingdom.
FIXING IT (JUNE 2015)
The car is a Morris Minor. She had liked the wooden frames around the windows and the flaking green paint which fell somewhere between olive and military. Most of all though, it had an elusive quality of character that she found to be so lacking in cars and everything else. She’d bought it from a man with long hair who’d been barefoot as she’d taken it for a gentle drive around the terraced streets where he lived. The man had looked out of the window as she’d driven, his head angled upwards as if trying to pick something out in the sky.
“I’ll take it.” She’d said, pulling to a stop outside his house. The man scratched his head and said ‘cool’, the word rising up in question.
She needed the car because she’d started to teach art at an adult college on the other side of the city. At first she’d taken the bus, but she kept on seeing her students. Most of the time they’d just nod or smile at her, but some of them - the ones who were always first to ask questions in class - had started to say hello or ask how she was. She thought it important to maintain a distance from her students, so she’d taken taxis instead. She would judge the drivers’ characters on whether they’d turned the car around before picking her up. Most mornings she’d found herself being driven to the end of the cul-de-sac and then back past her house. Those were the bad drivers, and the bad days.
Her boyfriend told her she should get a car. “You need a car.” He said, in between pulls on a cigarette. “We could go places. Do stuff and things.”
She watched as he flicked his cigarette around the neck of the bottle he was using as an ashtray, causing delicate white mounds to form on the tiled coffee table.
“A car would be cool. We could go out to pubs in the country.” He took another drag. “You wouldn’t need taxis.” He added without breathing out, so that his voice sounded as if he was dying or constipated.
She said nothing and tried to imagine herself driving. She had a licence but she had never really taken to it. When she was learning, there was always too much for her to do, and she would feel the car getting away from her, so that it was pulling her along. Every time she’d managed to regain control and start to feel as if she was actually driving the car, something would change again and everything would unravel. But she’d thought about everyone else out there, all of them driving as if it were the simplest of things to do.
That was three months ago and the car hasn’t moved in two weeks. The engine is an unreadable tangle of metal and rubber and grime. She scrapes at the blackened dirt on the largest, most visible bit of metal with the coathanger he’s straightened into a wavering line.
“That’s not going to do anything, is it?” He says from somewhere behind her.
“If it’s clean I might be able to see what the problem is.” She replies, tense mouthed.
“It needs the garage or an expert.”
“Yes, but you need to tell them what the problem is.”
His phone rings and he wanders down the street, away from her and the broken car, rocking the borrowed adjustable wrench in his free hand. He laughs and jeers in that way he does with his new friends, using too many words to describe too little . His voice retreats until she can hear it no more. She clenches her jaw and continues to scrape, until she’s removed the dirt and starts to scratch the aged metal. The wind blows a strand of pale red hair into her face. She brushes it aside with an oily hand and a slick, old blackness smears across her face. She tries to ignore it and turns her attention to a length of old pitted tubing. The tubing sags as she runs the coathanger along its length, knocking globs of oil further down into the engine, to those places she can’t see.
In the bathroom, she washes her face, rubbing at the oil with milky water until it’s gone. She clutches the sides of the sink and looks into the mirror. Without make up, there’s a delicate thinness to her features, which she sometimes thinks makes her look helpless, as if she’ll forever need other people and she’s waiting to be saved.
She’d bought the table from a new, empty shop which sold salvaged furniture. She thought it would work perfectly in a farmhouse’s terracotta kitchen, but for now it’s taking up too much room in the cramped whiteness of the not quite newly built house. Whatever stories its surface might reveal are concealed by empty bottles and unopened letters.
She picks up a bottle and holds it up to the square of light that falls between the shadows of the cabinets. Finding it still to be half full, she first sniffs it and then pours herself a glass.
“That was Steve.” He says, leaning in the doorway, swinging the wrench back and forth like a pendulum by his waist. “He’s out tonight. With his brother and that lot.”
She says nothing and picks up a letter from the table and opens it. She knows the way things will end up, but she doesn’t want to make it easy for him.
“This needs paying.” She says, pointing the red headed letter towards him.
Later that night, when she’s alone, she paces around the house in a dark silence, a glass of wine in her hand. She finds herself in the spare bedroom; the one they said they would use as a study. Her sewing machine sits on the low wooden table by the window. Its thin plastic casing reflects the soft orange fuzz of the streetlight outside. She pushes the foot pedal until metal meets metal and the needle punches at the empty air.
She picks up the dress that hangs on the back of the chair. She’d bought it because she’d liked its pattern of flamingos; block green and expressionless. It had been a bit too loose on her and she hadn’t liked the pockets, but she had thought she could fix all of this. She picks it up and throws it across the room, watching it spin and unfurl, and then sink down into the corner by the door.
The other desk is his desk, empty apart from a camera and a model of a fat-faced, green man in a black t-shirt. She picks up the camera and blows a fur of grey dust from it.
When they’d first met, he’d made films, but now he only seems to use his camera at times when she’d really prefer if he didn’t. He’d shown her one of his films the first night they’d spent together. It had been set in a pool-hall. Two men, whom she recognised as his friends, paced around a table, stopping from time to time to lean with both hands on the cushion and stare in contemplation. Their voices were deeper than normal and they spoke about ‘a job’ and a ‘rat’. A third man joined them and placed a metallic briefcase on the green baize. All three men exchanged glances and there was a pause. From somewhere off screen two bangs sounded and the first two men dropped to the ground.
“So?” He’d asked his voice hesitant. She had expected more from the film, but she thought she saw something in some of the camerawork - some talent or something that might have the potential to become talent - which made her overlook its faults.
“Good. It works.”
She closes her eyes and runs her fingers along the ridges and serrations of the camera and allows herself to be taken back.
It hadn’t taken long for things to go wrong. She’d been driving home from college. The sky had been an infantile, pastel blue and she’d worn the heavy, big sunglasses which made her look like a forgotten starlet but also rubbed red marks into her nose. The car was loud, whirring in an antiquated metallic way. There was something about the sound that was protective and shielded her from whatever was outside. The road rose up towards the housing estate and she changed into second and willed the car up the incline. As the houses were starting to come into view below her, the whirring stopped and was replaced by a shrill, screeching grinding sound that increased in pitch. She tensed her arms on the steering wheel, preparing herself for the impact or explosion that was sure to come at the end of the noise.
But the noise stopped and the car reached the top of the hill in silence. She liked the feeling of weightlessness as the car rolled down the hill, old bearings creaking as the wheels turned, assisted by nothing but their own weight. The car swept around the bends with a grace that it would never find when propelled by its engine. She was overtaken by a childish giddiness, and it was only when she walked to the house that she found herself to be shaking.
“I don’t get why you even bought that old thing.” He said standing in front of the brown plastic fireplace, as if the news was too serious to take in sitting down. She noticed with distaste how he was getting fat; a small curve showed underneath his striped t-shirt and the tattoo of the rose on his upper arm had stretched, so that the red had lightened to a dark pink.
“I don’t get it.” He said, then paused. “Why does all your stuff have to be something?”
Their seventh anniversary is in January, just after the New Year, but she has coursework to mark and he’s working at the bar, and it’s not quite Valentine’s Day when they get around to doing anything. When they first started seeing each other, they would go to a small Italian restaurant in the shadow of the multi-storey carpark. It was cramped and sometimes uncomfortably warm, and the smell of cooking would seep into their clothes. The furniture was mismatched and creaking, but the food was cheap and the pace unhurried. They had both agreed it was their favourite restaurant, but it was a time when they were always agreeing about everything. With no other ideas for what to do for their anniversary, they decide to go back.
“How long were you at Duncan’s for?” She asks. He rubs his eyes and pulls his hands away. There’s a pause in which he holds his hands still and stares. It’s not long, maybe one or two heartbeats, but his eyes glaze with a brief wonderment, as if considering his hands for the first time.
“This afternoon and that.” He says, picking up a bread stick and biting into it. There’s a cracking as it fractures in his clumsy mouth. She winces without moving.
“That’s not what I asked.”
She shifts the base of her wine glass around on the chequered table cloth, until it sits equally between the squares; half on black, half on white.
His reddened eyes stare at some point beyond her right shoulder. She thinks of turning around, to see what it is that’s caught his attention, but she keeps still.
“It doesn’t matter.”
She slips her hand around the sagging gap in her collar and rubs at her skin. He eats another breadstick; crumbs fall down into the folds and ridges of his t-shirt and stomach. She rubs at her neck some more.
“How was . . “ He asks, his voice trailing off as he picks up another bread stick.
“It was fine.” She says, her mind turning to the students in her class. It’s the older ones whom she thinks of the most. There’s something about their desire to better themselves in the threadbare and under-resourced setting of the college that can leave her overwhelmed by the urge to cry. She focuses on the sounds of the restaurant – the clank and clink of glass and metal, and the layers of chatter, words on top of words becoming noise. The sounds merge and louden, and something tightens within her, as if she’s on the verge of plummeting. She moves the glass and looks up, breaking free, then places her hand on top of his and smiles. The gesture perhaps being nothing more than an acknowledgement of their shared past.
That first time, the car had been fixed by a neighbour; a bald headed man with two Rottweilers and an old Landrover that always seemed to have a trail of mud creeping up its sides. She didn’t really like men who wore trousers with too many pockets, but she’d been thankful when he’d offered to fix the car and was able to do so quickly.
“That should keep you going a while longer, but you need new plates. They’re very worn.” He said, patting the bonnet closed with a thick, oily hand and rubbing the other clean on the bulging side of his t-shirt. She smiled and nodded, pulling her thin cardigan tight around her neck.
“Thank you so much.” She said. “Do you want any money?”
“No problems, we’re neighbours.” He smiled, his fat face creasing with sincerity. She nodded some more, in that way she might do when she can’t hear what someone’s said. She thought to herself that she might buy him some beer, maybe four different bottles with interesting labels that she’d tie together with some ribbon or twine and leave on his doorstep with a tightly worded note of gratitude.
“Be careful with it though. These old ones, they’re not great at handling, especially not in winter. Small tyres, you see?”
“I will. I mean, I am.”
She remembers this as she watches the man lean over the car, his body hidden deep within the bonnet and one foot lifting off the floor. His trousers sag and she can see the furred black of the top of his crack. The man makes pained grunts above the grinding and creaking of metal being screwed down against its will.
“Right. That should get you started, but it needs a garage.” He says, his voice more brusque than she can remember it being and she feels as if she’s being admonished for something she can’t understand. Even though it’s February, a film of sweat glistens on his forehead.
“Thank you. Which would you recommend?”
“The one on the trading estate, or any. They’re all the same.”
Her boyfriend isn’t in the house when she goes back inside. She supposes he’s at the bar or playing football, but it doesn’t matter; the house is still the house whether he’s there or not. The Saturday newspaper lies unread on the settee, she finds the smoother paper of the magazine and pulls it out. It’s the design and architecture pictures she likes the most; the restored furniture and piles of artfully stacked books; every room different and unique. Sometimes she’ll feel a bitter envy at just how easy the owners make it look; pictured in couples, maybe with a dog or a young child, but their expressions always carefree and happy, as if their lives are completely without effort.
She prepares herself for going to the garage, changing her dress for jeans and a loose, navy cable-knit jumper. She pulls her hair back into a tight ponytail, thinking it might make her look practical, like the kind of person who’s used to dealing with garages and can usually fix things. But looking in the mirror, the fragile helplessness still remains, and she feels a faint, prickling nausea in her stomach.
The garage is in a part of the city she hasn’t been to before, out beyond the worst parts. The man had given her directions and told her to look out for a red sign with a tyre on it. As she drives, the car shakes and wobbles in the throes of a mechanical fit. Even when stationary at traffic lights, it shifts around with a dying restlessness. She sees the sign and then the group of men in blue overalls, drinking tea and smoking roll-ups outside the garage’s entrance. Even though she can’t, she can still hear them, their voices cackling and booming, words cut up and bludgeoned until they become a language she can’t understand. She thinks she can see one of them pointing as the car comes closer. She imagines them laughing at the rattling and rusting car and its clueless, stubborn owner.
The road passes by the front of the garage in a laboured curve. She keeps going, turning away with an imagined shame from the workers and their cruel, muted taunts. The road straightens and becomes rough and littered with blue twine and twisted metal and other waste from the workshops and warehouses that sit sedentary at its edge. After a while, the buildings give way to an embankment covered in brown ferns and sparse, sprawling thorn bushes. She keeps going until four circular bollards and the bruised, brown shell of a burnt out estate car block the road.
With no way to keep going, she stops the car and gets out. A wind blows down along the road, bristling and hissing the ferns and passing over her in the dimming light. Beyond the bollards the road turns to a potholed track and heads towards a bank of trees. She passes through the bollards, leaving the car behind, and walks on until everything disappears from view and it’s her alone, herself in the dark.