Jigs and Reels/Auto-da-fe
There is something terribly primitive about the way we behave in cars. Driving, we exhibit all the behaviour patterns of pack animals: the sexual aggression; the brute triumph of strength over weakness; the eternal struggle for dominance in the automotive pecking order. Some call this road rage. Others prefer a more graphic term.
I LIKE CARS. I ALWAYS HAVE; SINCE I WAS A LITTLE LAD I WE
liked the smell of them, the sound of them, the shapes and colours and different sizes of them. That's what I played with when I was a lad: Tonka trucks, Matchbox cars, you name one, I had it, 1 had them all. And now I'm a driver, a pro, a knight of the road.
A man's car defines him, you know. A reflection of the male superego, Annie says, as she brings me my cup of tea. An extension of a latent desire to sexually dominate other males. I think it must be those classes she goes to. All Freud and sexual domination. I wouldn't mind if some of it ever came
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my way. But no. It's always Not tonight, love, I've got me monthlies. No wonder I'd rather wax the car.
Mind you, she's a beauty. Midnight-blue BMW. Alloy wheels, leather seats, walnut trim. Class. She's what I'd have myself if I could afford her. But she's not mine. She belongs to the company, and the company could take her away tomorrow. Ask yourself how that feels. On the other hand, don't. I've had enough of castration metaphors and womb-traumas from Annie. Only she understands me. She and I - a perfect unit, speeding thrice daily along the Ml between Leeds and Sheffield, bearers of the eternal flame of Matthew McArnold & Son Ltd, soft furnishers to the world.
In my business, you get to understand cars. Cars of all sorts: Corsas and Golfs for student nurses called Hayley, battered Escorts for spotty economics students at the Poly, 2CVs or reconned Beetles for cute little actressy types called Kate, a matt-silver Lexus for her banker-made-good Dad, Len, who's having an illicit affair with the tennis-club secretary, Jan, a well-preserved forty-five with a Ford Ka and a dirty mind. On my run, you get to know the regulars. That Asian bloke in the brown Nissan Sunny who always hogs the middle lane. That blonde in the turquoise Cinquecento, checking her lipstick in the rear-view mirror by the exit to Junction 37. The white van from Junction 36, with a rag dangling from the ladder sticking out from his back end. The red Probe - now there's one for Annie's psych group who zooms along the fast lane at ninety mph and honks at anything in his way. Including that unmarked white police
car - hello boys, I can^ee'you in your Rover 500 - oops, too late. You see, it pays to know your cars.
V-Man, for instance. You must have seen him: black Volvo saloon, black spoilers, tinted windscreen, Top Gun shades. V-Man really gets up my nose. He thinks he's better than the rest of us, with his limited-edition sunroof and his personalized number-plate: HE 51. Fact is, he's not. But we always have to go through it all the same, V-Man and me, nose to nose, like gladiators, every bloody morning.
Thing is, I'm a good driver. I've had the car twelve months - she was my Rep of the Year incentive - and I've never even put a scratch on her; never even got a ticket. I might bend the rules once in a while - well, speed limits aren't made to be taken literally, and I find a couple of drinks actually help my concentration - but I can drive, I know the roads and the people and I can drive. It's the ones like V-Man that are really dangerous. The ones that think they're something and want to prove it. Me, I'm just a driver; I mean it's a job. It's not like it's my life or anything. That would just be too sad. But V-Man - he drives as if it's personal; as if there was more at stake than just space; and when he dodges between two articulated lorries into the fast lane and pulls away at eighty-five, you can just see him thinking: Not so smart now, are you, in your flash Beemer with your alloy trim; take a look at what a man can do. And though I've never actually seen his face - the tinted glass gets in the way - I know he's a little balding twat with a trainee moustache who gets bullied at the office and thinks he's king of the road.
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Not that I let it get to me; not usually, anyway. But today started badly; woke up late, had to rush, there was a lane closed between Junctions 36 and 37 and Annie's started talking about taking time out to consider our options, which probably means she's seeing another fella - or worse still, she's getting broody - and all I really needed to make it a totally shitty day instead of just a crap one was for V-Man to show up, all bright and shiny in his black Volvo, and try to put one over on me on the sly.
Of course, I usually win. Nine times out of ten I win, because a BMW runs rings round a limited-edition Volvo any day of the week, but this morning I had this feeling he'd try it on, as if he sensed something was wrong and thought he'd chance it. Well, I was right. I spotted him coming off the slip-road from Junction 36 - bang on time as usual. Pulled right out into the middle lane in front of me, no indicator, no signal, no mirror. What a wanker. Of course, he does it on purpose. He thinks it winds me up. I flashed at him, speeded right up to his back bumper and flashed again. Then I overtook him, nice and smooth into the fast lane, and moved back into the middle lane in front of him, giving him the indicator signal - twice for each side, to make sure he got the message. You'd have thought that would have been it. But some people just have to keep at it, don't they, needling away, nagging at you until something in you just snaps and you give them a good thump and before you know it it's: You can't do that to me, you bastard, I'm off to me Mam's, as if they hadn't asked for it in the first place and now you're somehow to blame. Well, that's V-Man. He
overtook me a minute later - never mind he couldn't beat the red Probe just coming up behind him - just took off into the fast lane with the Probe up his arse and gave me a little wave as he passed. I couldn't see his face, what with the shades he was wearing, but I did see he was wearing driving gloves - the leather kind, with the breathable lining - and somehow that did it for me. I'd never met this bloke and suddenly I knew everything about him. Knew it, and hated his guts.
He's called Keith or maybe Ken, and he works in sales. He's forty-five and he hasn't had a shag for over a year, not since his wife (thirty-nine, ash blonde, Honda Civic) went off with some bloke she met in Hatha Yoga. He wears suits from Moss Bros and shirts from Marks & Sparks; and there's always an extra shirt on a hanger in the back of the car, just in case he gets sweaty before an important meeting. He chose a Volvo because they're safe, but he made sure it was a black sporty model because to him that says young, free, and ready for action. He wears shades even on cloudy days, and driving gloves - as if he might get blisters - even though he's got power steering, and he's listening to Radio Two right now, and they're playing Dire Straits' 'Sultans of Swing', with Terry Wogan just beginning to fade out the long guitar solo for the eight o'clock pips (I hate it when they do that, the solo's the best part), and he's singing along, or maybe trying a few rim-shots on the edge of his leather-trimmed steering wheel and thinking how he'd kill for a Strat just like Knopfler's, he's always wanted one and now he's free and single again, no kids, no alimony, he
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might be able to afford one. For a second he imagines himself going into one of those music shops off Boar Lane in Leeds and idling around the guitars hanging off the walls like trophies; perhaps turning to the grungy kid at the till and saying in his most casual voice: I'd like to have a look at that Fender Stratocaster. And the kid saying Sure, I'll get you an amp, and is that a smirk on his face as he turns away, and did he just say Grandad under his breath, so softly that only he could hear him?
I told you, in that moment I knew it all; knew his loneliness and his pathetic little fantasies and the way that when he hugged himself tightly into the leather seats of the black Volvo he could almost imagine he was someone else, that he was V-Man, Knight of the Road, tilting bravely at every challenge, leaving Mercs and Jags and Beemers standing in their tracks as he surfed ahead . . .
I couldn't let him get away with it. It's not that I'm sad or anything, but I just couldn't. It's a matter of pride. I overtook him on the inside - he was still hogging the fast lane -- at insulting speed, giving him the wanker sign all the way. He saw it all right: flipped me the finger and speeded up again, but we were reaching the lane closure and fast-lane traffic was slowing down, so I passed him again, grinning, and kissed my middle finger to his diminishing windscreen.
It should have been over then. But it wasn't my morning; as we reached the roadworks the middle lane slowed down to a sudden crawl - no-one wanted to go into the slow lane, and the fast-laners were pushing through at the last minute, even though they'd been given an 800metre
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warning. They know thefefe always some twat going to let them in, especially if it's a woman at the wheel. Me, I'd let them wait. Let India or Saffron be late for her aromatherapy class; some of us have a job to do.
But that's why V-Man overtook me again; most of the other fast-laners had already pulled in, but not him. He came nosing past me, eyes forward, hunched a little over the wheel. I noticed he had a dashboard toy shaped like Kenny out of South Park; somehow it was typical of what I knew of him, and it set my teeth even further on edge. But I might even have let that go if he hadn't done what he did next. There was a girl in a white MG at the head of the line, indicating to be let in. Red Probe was two cars ahead of me, with a white mini-van and a green Corolla next in line. I didn't see the Probe letting anyone in - he was in too much of a hurry as usual - but the mini-van honked at the girl to let her through, and she filtered into lane ahead of me. So far, so good. V-Man was stuffed. I certainly wasn't going to let him in; the green Corolla looked like a company car, not doing anyone any favours, so he could indicate all he wanted, I was going to cruise past him, wanking with both hands this time if I could manage it, and leave him in my exhaust. That was the plan.
But V-Man's one of those drivers who won't let go, careless and arrogant, but just pushy enough in some cases to get lucky. This was one of them; at a crucial moment the mini-van stalled, and seeing his chance, V-Man pushed in hard after the white MG. He missed her back bumper by an inch, almost swiped the van with the other end, but lucked
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out all the same and swung back into the traffic towards his exit. I might have left him to it even then, but for the little parpl he sent me as he speeded up ahead, and the casual wave of his hand through the tinted rear window.
That did it. Suddenly I saw red. I revved up the engine, swerved into the slow lane and began in pursuit. It wasn't my exit, and V-Man knew it, which was why he'd dared make such an open challenge. But this time, today of all days, I wasn't having it. V-Man was in the slow lane, backed up in traffic; I was five cars behind him as he entered the slip-road. I swore, nipped off the road onto the hard shoulder and caught him up that way - sod the cameras - so that when he reached the lights at the main junction roundabout I was up close and personal, jammed right up against his back bumper and glaring at him in his rearview mirror.
I could see that had rattled him. He was staring straight ahead, waiting for the lights to change. I could see him watching me in the mirror, though; every few seconds I sensed his rabbity eyes flicking to the lights, then to the mirror, where I was grinning fiercely at him and mouthing insults. I took off my seat-belt, to see what he'd do, then opened my side door a crack. By now V-Man was shitting bricks. When I put a leg out the door, he jumped a mile and hit the lock button, glancing back at me with his shades slipping off his nose. I pushed a little closer, flashing my headlamps at him, then the lights changed and I slammed the door and moved off in pursuit. It was a route I'd never taken before. Usually it's the Ml, back and forth from
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Sheffield to Leeds, but now I'd got tangled up in my quarry's trail and I knew I was pushing it to get to work on time. It didn't matter, though; I was going to show V-Man who was boss once and for all; even if it meant running the little shit off the road. We raced five or six miles along a dual carriageway heading towards Bradford, and though he tried to lose me, he had no chance. I stayed right up against his bumper, right up his arse all the way, and there were no more little parps and waves; V-Man was dead serious now, eyes fixed straight ahead, occasionally glancing back into the rear-view mirror in that nervous, hunted way. He tried speeding up, dodging between lorries to lose me, but I followed him. Then he slowed to a crawl, hoping I'd overtake him, but I slowed as well. Finally he pulled into a roadside services, dodged through the lorry park, through the petrol-station and parked in front of Burger King, engine idling, daring me to follow him there.
I parked opposite him and we stood for a moment, windshield-to-windshield, observing each other. I cracked my door open; waited. His stayed closed. I stepped out onto the tarmac and put on my sunglasses, shielding my eyes against the morning sun. He stayed, holed in like a terrified rabbit, watching me as I walked slowly up to the black Volvo.
Now I was so close I could see it wasn't quite as shiny as I'd thought; there was a little rust on the bottom of the passenger door, and there were signs of bodywork around the left headlamp. Through the smoked glass I could see
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V-Man watching me with his mobile in one hand. As I watched he held up the mobile in a weakly threatening gesture, as if he were planning to phone the police.
'Get out,' I said quietly.
Through the glass, V-Man shook his head.
I kicked the side of the Volvo's door, hard enough to dislodge rust. 'Get out,' I repeated.
The driver's side window opened a crack. 'I'm calling the police,' said V-Man in a high, wavery voice. Behind it came the faint sound of Radio Two playing 'Band of Gold' (Frieda Payne, 1970).
'Call away, you little twat,' I said, and put my fist through his window. Fake diamonds on everything. It hurt, but it felt good all the same: I could feel the ratchet of small bones in my bruised knuckles. 'Is that enough sexual domination for you, you little twat? Does that make you feel fulfilled!'
It wasn't quite what I'd been planning to say, but I saw his eyes widen with fear. 'I ... Look, I've got money,' he said. 'Take it. The phone, too.' He held out a wallet, black leather, like his driving gloves, his hand trembling so much I could barely see it clearly. Bloody hell, what did he think I wanted?
'You cut me off,' I said, ignoring the outstretched wallet. 'Nobody cuts me off.' It was what I should have said to Annie this morning, I told myself. I wished Annie could see me now. Might give her something to think about other than that poncey psychology teacher of hers.
V-Man was looking at me in fearful incomprehension. 'C-cut you off?' he stammered.
'Dead right,' I said. iTeathed through the broken window and opened the driver's door. 'And now I'm going to cut you off, you little twat.'
V-Man was still watching me, eyes glazed. 'I'm a married man,' he whispered. 'I've got children--'
'No you haven't,' I told him, knowing it was true.
'No, I haven't,' whispered V-Man.
'Is your name Keith or Ken?' I demanded.
That explained the dash toy. And looking inside the car now, I could see his life: his jacket hung up on a wire hanger, his cheap briefcase, an old picture of a blonde woman - she'd be called Penny, or Connie, or Frannie, some crap like that - Blu-Tacked to the glove compartment; a Magic Tree air-freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror; a copy of Arena - stolen from a colleague at work - lying on the back seat to give the impression he was young and fancy-free; and behind it all, behind the smell of his sweat and the reek of that air-freshener and the leather of his driving-gloves and the musty smell of car I could smell that terrible, familiar scent - like piss, like old takeaway meals, like unemptied ashtrays and stale underwear - of hopelessness, despair, and decaying illusions.
'What are you going to do?' whispered V-Man.
I'd almost forgotten him in that wave of loathsome understanding; I looked down now and saw his fat and cheesy face, his weak eyes, his receding hair, the darkly spreading stain at the crotch of his Moss Bros trousers.
My hand was throbbing fiercely where I'd broken the
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window; I massaged my knuckles - bloody stupid thing to do, punching the glass; could have broken a bone. To make matters worse, my other hand was already bruised from earlier this morning. My head, too, was sore; in spite of my Ray-Bans, the morning sun always seems to get me straight in the eyes. My mobile was ringing - I could hear it very faintly in the distance, behind the sound of the car radio ('Band of Gold' was merging into Queen's 'We Are the Champions') - probably work asking why I was late, or Annie wanting to finish that discussion we started earlier // you were a man, Benny, you wouldn't always need to prove to yourself that you're not a loser -- what does she know, silly cow! I showed her, anyway; I showed her properly this time, and never mind that she threatened to call the police, you can only drive a man so far. He knows, V-Man, sitting shivering in his mock-leather seat smelling the piss drying on his fifty-quid Moss Bros trousers. He knows who the loser is in this game, and it isn't me.
I showed them this time. I showed them both. No-one cuts me up; no-one plays me for a loser. I walked back to the car, got in, turned up the radio (Pink Floyd, 'Another Brick in the Wall, Part II'), adjusted my dashboard mascot (Bart Simpson), pulled on my gloves and revved off into the sunrise, while behind me lights flashed and sirens wailed and that phantom smell of piss, of loser, kept getting stronger and stronger, even as I drove away.