Scarlett

We had a new car. Well, she was new to us anyway. We had bought a brand new model soon after the kids had moved on and the house had been paid for, but when Scarlett came to live with Helen and me, she had done eighty thousand miles on the second engine alone. Mrs Adams said she had owned Scarlett for seventeen years and didn’t want to see her go, but the time had come when driving wasn’t as much of a pleasure nowadays. She preferred to be chauffered by her grandson. Then she could nod off when she wanted to, or just watch the world go by.

Mrs Adams took us around the corner to where Scarlett was parked, and as we approached we were greeted by her warm Morris Minor smile. Mrs Adams’ black and white cat was lying in the shade under the engine. Seeing us approach, the cat slid out and stood in front of the car.

‘Billy doesn’t want her to go either,’ said Mrs Adams,’ Do you boy?’ Billy strode slowly towards her outstretched fingers and allowed himself to be stroked. He purred quietly and paced back and forth as her fingers lightly smoothed his shining coat. Billy turned to Helen and waited to be stroked. She obliged and Billy meow-ed.

‘He likes you,’ said Mrs Adams, ‘he trusts you to look after Scarlett.’ I took a closer look at the car. The odd dot of rust here and there revealed her mature years, but like delicate wrinkles on an elderly face, they gave her a look of experience rather than age. Her owner smiled to herself as she unlocked Scarlett’s driver’s door. I reached in and touched the fake leather seat. It was softened and well-worn. No, it was lived-in and loved. As I ran my hand across the seat, I could feel the back seat of my father’s old Austin Princess sticking to my short-trousered legs. I sat down in the driving seat, shifting it back six inches or so. Mrs Adams appeared at the passenger window, opening the door for Helen to climb in. She handed me the keys.

‘Take her for a quick ride around the block,’ said Mrs Adams. I’m sure you’ll get on splendidly.’ I reached into my pocket for my car keys and offered them to her as security.

‘Here,’ I said, ‘take these will we get back.’ She grinned.

‘Billy trusts you,’ she said, ‘so do I.’ She stood back from the car, Billy at her feet. I turned the key in the ignition and Scarlett chugged hello. I looked at Helen. She smiled. Scarlett had spoken to her too. I eased the car into first gear, carefully squeezing the clutch, let off the handbrake and gently persuaded Scarlett to pull away. As we drifted away from her owner and headed off on our brief trip, I turned and asked Helen’s opinion.

‘You know what I’ll say,’ she said excitedly as she produced a handbook. The original handbook in fact. The black and white picture on the cover showed a late sixties nuclear family proudly standing next to their new car. Sometime since the car’s purchase, someone had crossed out the words ‘Morris Minor’ on the cover and written the single word ‘Scarlett’ in a deliberately red pen. She put the book on her lap and continued delving. I drove on and glided Scarlett lightly to a halt at the end of the street. The indicator gently ticked ‘turning turning’ as a Ford Escort passed, the passenger looking at us as the robot-produced tin box sped along anonymously. I eased Scarlett away gently, her engine giving a low sigh each time I changed gear.

‘How does she drive,’ Helen asked.

‘Do you want a turn?’ I asked and pulled into the kerb. We swapped seats, and as Helen drove back, I closed my eyes and listened to the low hum of Scarlett’s engine. Again, my mind wandered back to sitting in my father’s Austin, legs burning on seats which had been in the sun all day. Listening to my older brothers reciting the jokes they had heard on The Goodies that week. Falling asleep still holding the spade I refused to give up as we left the beach. Helen prodded me in the ribs. We were back with Mrs Adam, Billy in her arms, eyes closed.

‘How did you get on?’ she asked, her fingers scratching Billy’s head.

‘Very well,’ said Helen. Mrs Adams nodded and smiled.

‘The brakes are virtually non-existent,’ I said, ‘the steering’s heavy, you might get nought-to-sixty by next Thursday if you’re lucky.’ The fingers stopped stroking. Billy’s eyes opened. ‘The Volvo will have to move out of the garage, Scarlett will need a lot of looking after.’

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