Car Trouble, Part 2


First Person

Blacksheep1Read part 1 here.

I owned a car that I couldn’t drive.

After the “Possession at Devil’s Bridge,” as we’d started calling it, Phil had parked the Mini alongside my cottage before roaring back to campus in her reliable yellow Renault. The following morning I went out and stood beside it, wondering what to do next. Any car’s speedometer cable could snap, but not just any car’s cable would have so profound a sense of timing as to do it at midnight, atop Devil’s Bridge, on its first outing with a new owner.

Appropriately enough, the Mini and I were in Wales: home of Arthur and Merlin, breeding ground of the fabulous. In one of the old Welsh wondertales, black sheep that cross a magical river turn white, and white sheep turn black. The Mini’s color remained mushroom grey, but something similar, if more subtle, had happened as it crossed the Mynach. On the far side of the river the Mini had been cheap, utilitarian transportation; on my side, it had already become a character in a story. In Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald says we all have a heroic period in our lives. The Mini came into mine just as one of these phases was beginning (I don’t see why we can’t have more than one), and promptly took its place in the pantheon of memory.

My next-door neighbor appeared and found me stroking my fingers through beads of dew on its roof.

“Are you going to put a little bowl of oil out for it, then, and a chew toy?” she asked in a strong, rhythmic Welsh accent.

“Very funny,” I said curtly, at the same time wondering what I was going to do. Phil had offered to teach me to drive a stick shift, and so had another postgrad named Michael. Phil was firm and decisive; with her there’d be a right way to shift and a wrong one. Michael was more philosophical: he’d want me to know why I was shifting. I opted for both.

“This is going to be fun,” said Michael, theatrically rubbing his hands together. Michael was an artist, though he didn’t look like one. He had a professorial rumple to his clothes, and a wonderful way of drawing from the inside out, as if his eye went straight to the heart of his subject, and he drew its soul before its outline. Souls, for Michael, were of dark and intricate design, with spiky edges and all the knobs and knots showing. I respected his talent and was glad he didn’t tuck in his shirt.

I got into the driver’s seat and gripped the steering wheel. The stick shift shaft was tall and spindly; it looked fragile enough to break. Because I knew nothing at all about manual shifting, the black bulb atop the shaft didn’t feel any more alien in my left hand than it would have my right.

“All right now, the choke, that’s the first thing,” said Phil, who’d taken the passenger seat.

Michael, in the back, gripped his neck with both hands and made noises as if he were being garroted.

“No,” I countered firmly, alarmed at not finding Michael where I’d expected him, and wanting to avoid the choke at all costs. “Let’s start with the rearview mirror. Where’s Michael?”

“I’m right bloody ’ere,” he said.

“But you’re behind the driver’s seat, so why am I not seeing you?”

Phil sighed. “You’re in the driver’s seat. Michael’s behind me.”

“Oh. Hmm.” This left-and-right thing was going to be trickier than I thought. Little did I realize that from this day forward, I would never again be able to blithely use the terms “left” and “right” as directional signals. My age of vocabularic innocence was over.

 “Which way?” someone asks me nowadays. And instead of answering, say, “Turn right and go up the hill,” my brain shifts into neutral and stalls. I know the answer, but I can’t convey it. I must now rely on vast motions of my upper body and arms, combined with the phrase, “That way,” to indicate what I mean. It turns out that “left” and “right”—seeming absolutes—have only contextual meanings. Growing up in the States, “right” doesn’t simply indicate a direction—it means the side of the road on which you drive; the simple turn, made without crossing traffic; the slowest lane of the highway; safety, in a sense. But from the moment I sat in the Mini with Phil and Michael, these definitions all deserted “right” in favor of “left.” The meanings blended and the words muddied in my mind.

“All right,” said Phil, taking charge. “We’ll leave off the choke for now.”

Instead she made me depress the clutch and put the stick shift through its paces: first, second, third, fourth gear. There was no fifth.

 “Well done!” Michael clapped.

“That’s not so hard,” I ventured.

I turned the engine on, but what had just been easy eluded me now. I pushed with all my might, but couldn’t get the stick to move into second. We stalled.

“It would’ve helped if you’d pressed down the clutch.” Phil noted this with mild interest, as if she were identifying a passing bird.

“Oh.” We tried again; stalled again. Like everyone who’s ever learned to drive a manual-transmission car—well, almost everyone; I’m sure there are clutch geniuses out there—I obsessed about the ménage a trois between my left foot, my right foot, and the hand that worked the shift. I’m not a multitasker by nature, so it wasn’t easy.

Finally I got up to third gear and took the Mini over a little rise in the lane. As I turned the corner—I was feeling pretty good, I was feeling a little proud, it was going all right—a low-slung, dark green Rover came barreling down the lane in my direction. I yelled something out of Phil’s deep, Anglo-Saxon past and pulled off the road into a shallow ditch. No one said anything.

“Are these people nuts? That guy was going waaay too fast!” I was steaming with righteous indignation.

 “True,” Phil agreed. “But do you realize you pulled over to the right, not the left?”

“I thought I was going to me maker.” Michael fell against the back seat and dramatically wiped his brow.

I contemplated this, and decided it was the road’s fault. It wasn’t quite a single-lane track. Wales has plenty of those: thin veins of macadam about the width of a parking space, bullied on either side by tall hedgerows. If you meet another car, one of you has to back up until you come to a passing niche, which is a little aneurysm in the road surface. The track I was on was slightly wider. Nonetheless, because of the low frequency of cars, most people tended to drive in the middle, encouraging the illusion of a one-way track. This false confidence, coupled with an utter lack of road signs, had stripped me of any clues whatsoever that I should stay on the left.

“Never mind!” Phil spoke with finality. “Let’s try it again, from the top.”

The hours dragged on. After about the fourth or fifth time the car stalled I decided to name it Gimli, after the irritable dwarf in The Lord of the Rings. That seemed about right.

I’d like to say that once named, Gimli and I were able to communicate perfectly, and I eased him into gear and we drove westward to the sea for sunset. That didn’t quite happen. It took days for me to stop shifting with my brain and let my hand and feet do the work. Once that happened, I did become worthy of Gimli’s steering wheel, and learned to hug the lefthand side of the road. I began to enjoy myself. And that’s when the trouble started.

There is a visceral sexiness to driving in a place like Wales that’s all but lost in America. Our big open spaces and razor-straight roads don’t generate the kind of rhythmic togetherness you develop with a car on switchback lanes. Someone once said that if you ironed the hills out of Wales it would be the size of Texas. That may be true, but as far as I know there’s no iron big enough, and so Wales remains a corrugated land filled with green inclines and angles, precipitating down into valleys and up slopes into the sky. Roads rise, fall, and, more than anything else, curl.

Driving a car, you curl with them. You lean into an upward bend, down-shift, work the wheel as you and the car pull together into the curve, straining as one in an economic arc, only to whip round and do the same thing in reverse as the road ahead spins in the opposite direction. It’s a tight, sensuous pact between you and the machine; the car hugs the road and you hug its wheel in the daily, muscular feat of getting from point A to point B.

Driving Gimli made me feel as if I were a kid back at the go-kart track in Harwichport, on Cape Cod. Which isn’t surprising: he wasn’t much bigger than a go-kart, and his wheels were similarly positioned, flung conspicuously to the extreme corners of his body. They gripped the macadam like claws. Actually, it was no fluke that Gimli evoked go-kart memories. I’ve since discovered that Minis were famous for their go-kart–like feel. Sir Alec Issigonis, the Greek-British engineer who created the Mini for the British Motors Corporation in 1957, designed a radically new kind of suspension made of rubber cones instead of springs. These original Minis, produced from 1959–64, were stiff and gave a bumpy ride, but the combination of rigidity and a wide wheel base made for sporty, ground-hugging handling that earned the Mini dear the hearts of many. After 1964, a new suspension was introduced to create a softer ride; die-hards were devastated. Gimli was built in 1967, but still felt like a derby winner to me.

The drawback of driving a go-kart with a roof and windows is that the whole point of go-karts is to go-fast. (Before speed, a word first about the windows: Issigonis opted to install windows that slid back and forth, as opposed to rolling up and down, in order to create storage pockets in the Mini’s door panels. Had the windows functioned vertically like those in other cars, the window-winding mechanism would have taken up the space of Issigonis’ storage area. The story goes—perhaps apocryphally, perhaps not—that the pockets were carefully measured to fit the width of a bottle of Gordon’s gin.)

I didn’t just want to drive from point A to point B in Wales: I wanted to drive there fast. Being unburdened by a speedometer, I never knew precisely how fast Gimli and I were actually going. From the testimony of others, I can say with confidence that we were not moving slowly. My friends prayed I’d get a ticket and learn my lesson before I crashed. Neither came to pass, though I was stopped by a cop once alongside a sheep pasture for driving with a rusted headlight rim. He demanded to know the registration number. I told him it was “SUK-something,” and watched him flush with anger, content and protected in the knowledge that thanks to Gimli, I’d simply told the truth.

That was the thing about Gimli: he and I were a team. I brought him youth, speed, and sunglasses, and he, through his rust, wonky petrol pump, and retread tires (Phil was right: they were retreads), showed me that real glamour has nothing to do with sports cars. Had I been driving a Porsche, I’d have confidently expected to make it up the big hill at Llandewi Brefi—the one that miraculously sprouted beneath St. David, so they say, the better for the assembled throng to hear his sermon. I expected to climb the hill in Gimli, too; I shouldn’t have—not with four passengers, three of whom had to get out and push. But it never occurred to me that Gimli couldn’t do anything a Porsche could do. So we tried everything.

If glamour means “the attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing or special,” then the thrill of being young in a beautiful new place lent Gimli all the associative glamour I ever craved. He was my key in the lock of the Welsh landscape. With every turn I learned something, went somewhere new—even if his own lock was stuck fast with rust.

Pamela Petro is the author of Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World in Welsh.