Guess the Song
|clue: beyond man made?
‘I’m telling you, there was someone there.’
The looks I got veered between fascination and derision. And yet I maintained that I had seen someone walking up the run-off area alongside the track. He, I was sure a ‘he’, was walking up the side of the Armco, not rushing, but not dawdling either, up towards where I was at Post Five at the turn into Druids, the hairpin bend in the trees, the highest point on the Indy circuit at Brands Hatch race track. He wore white all over, top and bottom - white overalls, and that had made him stand out. And a white cap, like a skull cap, with a smudge on the forehead that could easily have been goggles.
To be honest, I only caught a glimpse of him. I was distracted by the sound of tyres squealing, the usual herald to a collision, and when I looked back, once the danger was passed, the figure was gone.
Fed up with the snarky looks and the rising comments of seeing things, I stood and left the table and the bar, also leaving my glass of Coke behind.
We collected there again at the end of the day, tired, happy, full of tales of idiotic drivers in beaten-up cars and how they all left their brains behind in the pits when they went out to race. A full hour over schedule, we’d finished late thanks to a bunch of Minis determined to see how many would stack one on top of the other at Paddock Hill Bend. Two was in itself impressive, but too few in some opinions. Fewer cars left on track, fewer chances they could hit each other.
This time I stayed quiet. I had seen him again, my man in white, walking with some purpose up the hill, hugging the Armco and paying no heed at all to what was around him. I had said nothing then and I said nothing now. I went over the image in my head, distant from the conversation that buzzed around me, apart by dint of my orange Proban overalls, not because I was engaging with my colleagues. I lifted my head and from my seat could look through the windows and see up the hill, my post just out of sight under the canopy of trees.
I wouldn’t be missed. I got up and dragging my bag over my shoulder, left the bar. All the gates were open now, allowing great monstrous trucks to cross the track, driving the steep hill up from the pits to the outside world. My car was over there, parked just inside the perimeter fence of the paddock but I did not go that way, instead headed back into the fantasy that was the circuit itself within those gates.
Real life didn’t exist in here. This was a cauldron of dreams, aspirations, imitation, vanity, pride and a competitive spirit that was almost obscene. Even once the cars and the egos were gone, it still held an ethereal quality, the quietness of a summer evening exaggerated after the violent noise of the car races and the constant background hum of the commentator.
I followed the thick ribbon of tarmac and walked down Paddock Hill and into the dip, back up to my post, following something resembling the racing line, obvious from the tyre marks, black on black, sweeping up the smooth surface to the bend at the top.
He was there, my man in white, there, sitting on the Armco, appearing exactly as he had earlier, except his head was bare. He swung his legs but they made no sound on the metal. His hands were tucked neatly in the gap between his thighs and he seemed to be lost in his own world.
‘Hello,’ I said cheerfully. I wanted to strike up a conversation, get chatting, and then ask what he thought he had been doing walking on the wrong side of the Armco during a race. What madness was that?!
‘Oh,’ he said, looking up. He was startled as if I hadn’t been in clear view for at least ten minutes wearing bright orange. ‘Hello.’ He had something sticking out of his pocket, probably the skull cap. His face was dirty, dark with dust and oil smears, except for an area around his eyes, as if he really had been wearing goggles. His hair was blond, short around the sides, longer on top, that old fashioned style that was back in.
‘You alright?’ I said, my mind suddenly blank of anything sensible to say to the stranger.
‘Yes, fine, thank you.’ He looked away, thoughtful. ‘Actually, no. Not really. I’ve lost something and I know how this will sound, but I’ve lost my car.’ He gave a wan grin that did little to lighten his demeanour, more to accentuate the melancholy. ‘It was here,’ he went on in his cultured, public school voice. ‘I left it here, but it isn’t here anymore.’
‘It’s probably at your truck in the paddock. The pick-up crews take the cars back. They don’t stay here, and we always give them back to their owners, regardless of what condition they are in.’ How did he not know this? He was not young, around thirty perhaps, so not inexperienced, surely. ‘Have you been back to see?’
‘Back to the truck. Yes, I should do that.’ He was distracted again, not really looking at me. ‘But I can’t go back without my car. Can you help me find it?’
I blinked. Was he simple? ‘It’ll be with your team. They’ll already have it.’ I paused, caught suddenly in the realisation that maybe he’d got concussion and didn’t know where he was. If he’d left his car here, he’d have crashed it for sure, and he may have been injured and got concussion. I didn’t recall him scrambling from a battered car buried in the barriers, but maybe he had forgotten where he’d crashed. ‘Did you see a doctor? Have you been cleared?’ I asked.
‘Doctor? No,’ he said, waving the idea away as if it were as annoying as a gnat. ‘I didn’t need a doctor.’ Again, the far away gaze. ‘I think there was one here, but, you see, I’ve lost my car. Do you know where it is?’
This was getting silly. ‘Let me take you back to the paddock. Will you let me do that? Then you can tell me where your team parked and they will have your car, you’ll see.’ I reached my hand to him to help him off the barrier and he put his in mine. He hopped off and happily took a few steps with me. His hand was bare, smooth, like someone who’d never done any work, not manual work. Not a mechanic. Definitely a driver. He was smiling now, as if the defined action had settled him. He held the skull cap affair in his other hand, the goggles now dangling from his fingers.
‘Oh,’ he said, and he stopped, hesitated, and then said, ‘I have to stay here. My car, you see, I’ve lost it.’ A lop-sided grin more of embarrassment than amusement. ‘Will you help me look for it?’
This was beyond me. I had first aid training, but that didn’t extend to people who were mentally unstable. He was troubled and I could not help. But the place was still teeming with paramedics from the rescue units and the circuit doctors always enjoyed a wind-down drink in the bar. I’d fetch one of those.
‘OK,’ I said gently. ‘Stay here then, and I’ll go back to the paddock and fetch some help. Don’t worry,’ I reiterated carefully, ‘I will come back and I’ll bring help.’
The smile was bright this time, warm, and it made him look quite handsome. ‘Thank you. For helping me.’
‘You’re welcome. But I’ll need about fifteen minutes to get there and back. OK?’
I hurried away, had taken ten running paces down the hill and realised I hadn’t asked his name. I skidded to a messy halt and turned back.
‘Hey, what’s your...’ He’d gone. He’d been out of my sight for maybe six seconds, tops, and he’d vanished. I stared. ‘Hey!’ I called. Nothing. I took several steps back up the hill, as if it would make a difference. The track remained empty, silent. There was nothing on the Armco, no one behind it. I checked the other side. Nothing.
I felt the whoosh of air as something went past me very fast. I staggered back and saw the back of a car, a yellow car, cigar-shaped, a tall wing at the back, a thicker, shorter wing at the front. It hared up the hill to the bend. I could see the engine, see the puffs from the exhaust, the flares as the driver negotiated the gears in a downward shift, watched it turn into the hairpin, slow and tight. The driver was leaning into the bend, his arms clad in white, his head covered with a white skull cap, goggles concealing the face. I saw his eyes widen as the car drifted sideways, up the hill, catch, flip and roll several times before hitting the barrier. For a moment it lay there, smoking gently, then it burst into flames.
Marshals ran to it, but they weren’t wearing orange, weren’t wearing overalls of any kind; mostly they were wearing dark trousers, shirts and tank tops, flat caps. Why were they not wearing Proban? Without protective gear they couldn’t get close. And the fire burned out of control, thick black smoke rising into the tree tops. The driver didn’t stand a chance. My throat was closed over, tears blurred my vision, not all caused by the acrid stench of burning petrol, oil, car and...
I sobbed. It was the only sound I had made. It was the only sound I had heard. There had been no noise of the engine, no screech as the wheels caught, no crumpling as it rolled, no thump as it hit the barrier. No whump as the fire came to life. And as abruptly as it had appeared, the scene vanished. No car, no fire, no helpless marshals. No driver.
I wanted to run but my legs were like jelly. Collapsing seemed more likely but I couldn’t stay up there. So I walked back slowly, seeing the crash in my mind over and over. It hadn’t truly been there, but that made little difference to my reaction. For me it had been real.
On shaking legs I made my way off the circuit at Post Three where the gates to the paddock stood open. George, one of the older marshals, was there, one foot up, leaning on the gate.
‘Don’t worry, lass,’ he said as he took in my pallor, my shaking limbs. ‘He likes you. He doesn’t tell his story to just anyone.’
‘Who?’ My voice was raspy, seared by smoke. Smoke that hadn’t been there.
‘Piers Castlemaine. The driver you saw.’
George shifted his considerable bulk. ‘He drove in the 60s, not brilliant but enthusiastic. Lived for the sport. Rich, as you can imagine. Didn’t have to work, so he could drive as much as he wanted, which was never enough. He crashed up there, near your post. Died. 1965 or so. He was thirty-one. Tragic really. But he died doing what he loved.’ George heaved himself off the gate. ‘Come on, you need a drink. And I’ll tell you all about him.’
I worked Post Five again two weeks later on an overcast day that was as dull as my mood. It was noted that I was quiet but I was attentive to my job so there was no complaint as such. Formula Fords, tin tops. Some single-seaters with wings. I wasn’t paying attention to more than the movement, not the car doing it.
The sun broke through the cloud and illuminated a patch of grass just down the hill and to the right. A figure in white was wandering up by the Armco. He looked up to where I was stood, watching down the track at the approaching cars. I saw his smile, warm and friendly, and he raised his hand, waved. Four cars came towards me, blocking my view, and when I looked again once I had seen them safely round the bend, the patch of grass was empty.
Then a movement to my right caused me to turn my head. Sitting on the barrier just down from my post was a faint shadow, a gathering of mist into the loose form of a man. The gossamer-thin shape bunched, solidified slightly, leaning forwards, concentrating on the race.
‘Hello, Piers,’ I said into the wind. But there was no reply. He was busy. Later perhaps.
© Louise Adam
(Louise Adam is a pen name, the author wishes to remain mysterious)
Song: Ghosts In My Machine by Annie Lennox
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