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The Racing Limousine

by Jamie Guiney

There is an estate on the outskirts of town where three towers of flats watch over everything with their endless rows of eyes that glow yellow at night. People know it as the speckled estate, because of the bricks, and I’ve even heard some call it a shithole, but I am not allowed to say shit. My granda says it is like Sodom and Gomorrah. Kids wild. Running the streets to all hours. Boisterous. Practically un-parented. They sometimes come down our way to throw stones and my older brothers chase them back to the big main road, where they give each other the fingers and shout ‘Yis dickheads!’ over the traffic.

    When I ask my da why we aren’t allowed in the speckled estate, he says, ‘If ya lie down with dogs, you’ll come up with fleas.’ I have no idea what he is talking about, so ask my granda the next time I see him.

    ‘Never ya worry what it means, son.’

     ‘But what’s a flea, granda?’

     ‘A flea is nothin’ but a wee tiny fly.’

     My granda should know the most about it because he is the Tickman and goes into the estate regularly to lend money and write it all down in his wee book. I pester him one day until he takes me with him, because I want to see it for myself.

      There are bushes on the way in. Either side of the road. I see kids playing in them. Eating the purplish black leaves.

       ‘Don’t ever eat them leaves.’ Granda wags a finger. ‘You’ll end up with gout.’

       ‘What’s gout?’

       ‘A sickness.’

       Along the left side of the street are the flats. Three in a line. Across the other side are rows of bungalows where the old people all live, who don’t have enough life left in them to make it up or down stairs anymore.

       We go into the first block. It is quiet. Granda heads for the steps.

       ‘Can we not go in the lift?’ I say.

       ‘No way. They are total death-traps.’

       As we climb, my hand patters the bars of a white handrail that is flaking and scraped. Our footsteps echo. It is cooler than outside and I like it. At the third floor, I hear a tinny radio way up above somewhere.

      Granda pauses on a landing. ‘Did I ever tell ya why the bricks are speckled?’

      ‘Nope.’

     ‘Well,’ he starts slowly into the steps again. ‘The first thing to be built in this estate, oh, must’ve been back in the sixties, was this block we’re in right now. Somebody made a cock-up early on and delivered a mountain of the wrong bricks. Ya see?’

      ‘Uh-huh. What’s a cock-up?’

      ‘A mistake. But the fellas on the buildin’ site knew nothin’ about it, so just started buildin’. Then a couple of weeks in, they had already started the next block, when some big-wig came into town from the construction company. Went totally ballistic.’

      Granda taps the wall. ‘This estate was supposed to be grey, same as everywhere else across town. They had built too much to knock down and start over, so the speckled bricks had to stay.’

      We make it to the fifth floor. Stop at Number 15a. He knocks.

       ‘I like the bricks, granda.’

       ‘Me too, son.’

       The top half of the door is blurred glass. A dark shadow appears. Door opens a little. Metal chain drapes the gap. I see a woman’s eye. Part of her cheek. Short hair.

        ‘Have ya any money for me, Suzy?’

        She sniffs. Looks a bit sad. ‘I don’t. Can ya try me again next week?’

        ‘Nay bother.’ Granda takes out his book. Writes something in it.

        Suzy closes the door.

        ‘Does she not have the money, granda?’

        ‘She might or might not, son. But it’s all about knowin’ when to push. Suzy will pay eventually. And it’s in my favour to drag it out a wee bit. Let the interest build up.’

        ‘What’s interest?’

        ‘It’s the bit ya add on.’

        ‘Oh.’ I nod. Have no idea what he is talking about.

        We go right to the top floor then. Number 58. Knock a door. No answer. Granda tries again. Bends to look through the letterbox. Puts his ear to it.

        He smiles. Shouts through the gap. ‘I can hear ya breathin’ in there, Mick!’

        Granda stands up. Waits. The door opens.

        ‘Ach it’s you, Stanley. I never heard the door.’ The man has blue eyes, dark side-shade hair and is full of muscles. He smiles. Looks exactly like superman. I’ve never seen someone so handsome in real life and immediately want to be him.

        ‘Have ya any money for me? Yer nearly paid aff here.’

        Mick sighs. Scratches his smooth cheekbone. ‘I’ve not a shillin’. Would a bottle of poteen settle it?’

        ‘Depends. Does she burn blue?’

        ‘Oh she burns blue alright!’ He laughs and pats my head. I can’t believe superman lives in the speckled estate.

        ‘Ya know I’ll have to check it for myself?’

        ‘Alright. Come on in.’

        We follow Mick inside.

        ‘Have a seat.’

        We sit on the sofa. Sink right down into it. Will be hard to get up again. There is a big picture above the fireplace of some fellow in a uniform with a tiny square moustache just under his nose.

        Mick brings in a glass bottle filled with clear liquid. Looks like water. Hands it to granda. A Spoon. A cigarette lighter. ‘It’s great stuff. From up country. Ballybogey or somewhere.’ He pulls the curtains. Half the light leaves the room.

       I watch granda unscrew the bottle and pour a little liquid onto the spoon. He holds the cigarette lighter to it. Clicks. A sideways yellow flame appears. Then the liquid catches and starts to burn blue. It is amazing. Blue and flaming and glowing liquid, moving gently in the groove of the spoon.

      ‘Good man, Mick. I’ve had some dodgy stuff over the years that would burn the insides out of ya and take yer arsehole on the way out.’

      ‘So is that me in the clear?’

      ‘Yep. All paid up.’

      In the hall I wait until the door closes.

      ‘What is that blue stuff, granda?’

      ‘Poteen, son. Somethin’ ya won’t be drinkin’ til yer at least sixteen. Granda wedges it under his armpit.

      We turn to the big window at the end of the hall.

      ‘Some views up here, son!’

      ‘You can see really far!’

      ‘Uh-huh.’

      ‘Look at them kids playin’ in the river, granda.’

      ‘Come on. And don’t ever go into that river. You’ll end up with leprosy. And before ya ask, it’s from the Bible.’

      Granda has two more calls to make. At the last one, I go to the big window at the end of the hall for a look, while Granda talks to a man with curly hair and writes in his book. There is an area of waste ground directly behind the flats. Some old tyres. Remnants of a bonfire. An old fridge. A thick hedge runs all the way around, then there’s the river. I can still see kids in the water. There are tall trees here and there, then nothing but fields. If I squint for the distance I can see football pitches and the tiny dots of kids who can afford to go to the summer camp. I look down. A flutter comes into my stomach. I imagine myself falling through the glass, but then see someone who looks like my brother Doug, jumping from a tree over near the old tyres. And there is my other brother Clive too. Our ma is forever saying, ‘Sure, ya wouldn’t miss our Clive’s ginger hair in a blackout!’ I don’t know what a blackout is, but he sure stands out. Like something on fire. I nearly interrupt Granda, but they shouldn’t be in the speckled estate and I don’t want to get them in trouble. They climb through a hedge. Then they are gone.

      ‘Right, son. Let’s go.’

      Granda drops me home in his Ford Cortina. I study Doug and Clive all the way through lunch to see if you can tell a person’s done something wrong just by the way they cut their fish fingers. When we go into the back yard afterwards, I say to them.

     ‘I seen yis in the speckled estate this mornin’.’

      ‘Ya did not.’

      ‘I flippin’ did! I was there with granda. We’re not allowed in the speckled estate.’

      Doug points in my face. ‘Don’t be tellin’ ma or da.’

      ‘What were yis doin’ up there anyway?’ I kick a ball against the fence.

      ‘Mind yer own business!’

      ‘Ma and da would soon mind if I told them!’

      ‘Right, we’ll tell ya, but ya have to keep it a secret. Right?’

      ‘Right.’

      ‘We’ve organised a race. Our estate against theirs. This Saturday. So we’ve four days to build a go-kart. It’s goin’ to be all hands on deck.’

      ‘What does that mean?’

      ‘Ya say it when ya need everyone to get stuck in.’

       An hour later, a long builder’s plank arrives in our back yard. Carried by my brothers and two of their friends. Pieces of wood start to appear. Then the hammering starts and the standing around, hands on hips. I want to help but they won’t let me, so I spend the day inside playing Lego by myself or drawing in my sketchbook. I watch Smokey and The Bandit on the telly.

      Before dinner, I go out to see their kart. It is really long, like a limousine. And narrow. No wheels on it yet. As we sit at the table, eating sausages and beans, I ask da.

     ‘Have ya seen that Smokey and The Bandit film?’

       ‘I have, son. It’s a good one.’

       ‘I’d love a black Transam someday!’

       ‘Sure they say Burt Reynolds has a holiday flat up in the speckled estate. It’s like Deliverance up there.’ He laughs. Keeps on laughing. Ma laughs too. I have no idea what they’re on about, but will look out for Burt’s black Transam if I am ever allowed into the speckled estate again.

      I mooch about afterwards, building up the courage to ask for a biscuit. There’s an art to it. You have to try and read ma and da’s face to see who looks the happiest, then that’s who you ask.

       Da is drying dishes. ‘I mean. They don’t even have carpet on their floors.’

      Ma nods. Hands him a dripping plate.

If I show an interest, maybe I can get the biscuit. ‘Who doesn’t have carpet, da?’

      ‘Them speckled estate ones.’

       ‘But sure we’ve no carpet in our livin’ room either.’

        ‘Shush you,’ says ma. ‘Yer granda is lendin’ us a few quid to sort that out next month.’

        ‘Oh.’ I nod. ‘Can I have a biscuit?’

        ‘No!’   

        Saturday arrives. Raceday. There is frantic hammering and raised voices in the yard. I leave them to it. If I’m not allowed near it, then they can stick their go-kart up their hole.

      I play out the front with a stick I snapped from a tree, then find myself scraping it along the wall until it hits the groove between bricks and I watch dust fall into a little cloud. I go back and forward. Up into the next row. Scrape, scrape. And the next. Then put my eye right up to a brick, and there in the detail, I see tiny speckles. Loads of them.

Around eleven o’clock, I sit in my room trying to draw a Man Utd badge in my sketchbook, when Doug comes in.

     ‘We need ya out the back for a minute.’

      ‘What for?’

      ‘Just come out, will ya?’

      I follow him. Their racing limousine is finished. The back third is boxed, roof has a black bin bag tacked over it and the main windscreen is made from chicken wire. The front two thirds are long and narrow, bit like a coffin, and have been spray-painted silver.

      ‘Where’d ya get the wheels?’

      ‘Old pram. We hacksawed them aff.’

       I stand nodding as though I know everything there is to know about building go-karts.

       ‘Right, listen. We’ve finished buildin’.’ We’ve really went to town making this the best go-kart anyone has ever seen. The race is at twelve, but we’ve only one problem.’

       ‘What?’

       ‘No-one can fit inside, now that we’ve nailed the roof and side on. So yer goin’ to have to drive it.’

       First, I’m not allowed to be involved. And now I’m driving it? I’ve had a wee scoot in a go-kart before, but this thing looks like the car from The Beverley Hillbillies.

       ‘Why’re yis havin’ this stupid race anyway?’

       ‘It’s not stupid. It was either a go-kart race or a brawl. Right. In ya get.’

       I am small. But still have bother squeezing through the gap they’ve left on one side.

       ‘Put yer legs down inside it. Out straight. Grab the rope for steerin’.’

       I stretch my legs. There isn’t much room. Find a loop of rope. ‘Alright. I’m in. Got the rope.’ I have to raise my chin to see through the wire window.

       ‘Right. Let’s go. Pull on the left to go left. Pull on the right to go right.’

       ‘Where’s the brake?’

       My brothers and their friends all laugh. They lift the front and swing it towards the gate. Start pushing. I steer. Try my best. It gets so far and hits the fence on the opposite side of the entry. Jams halfway

       ‘Frig sake! It’s too long to even leave the yard!’ Doug says. ‘What are we gonna do?’

       I clamber out. Stand looking at it. I start thinking we could pull a few planks off the fence…

       ‘Everybody lift it! Grab Underneath!’

       They lift the racing limousine. Right over the fence. I get back in and no sooner have my hands taken the rope, they start pushing and I steer. I get the hang of it a little, but every time I try to turn a corner, it crashes into something. A wall. Fence. I’m only seven and even I can tell that the thing is too long.

      We have to cross two main roads to reach the speckled estate and I am scared. As I drive, I listen to my brothers and their friends boast about how cool their racing limousine is and how shite the speckled one is going to be.

      ‘They’ll be lucky if theirs even has wheels!’ They laugh.

      When we reach the start line, I see the familiar purplish-black bushes and a crowd of boys waiting. I can also see my granda standing talking to them. We get closer. Their go-kart has curved wooden panels. Big number five painted inside a white circle on the front. Beautiful wheels. It looks like a proper racing car. Amazing. A fellow sits inside wearing a red motorcycle helmet.

      ‘I thought theirs was supposed to be crap?’ I shout through the wire window.

     ‘Never mind. Ours is far better. They’ve no roof or anythin’!’

      We pull up. Stop. My granda is going to be angry. We aren’t allowed in the speckled estate. I didn’t even agree to any of this. Hopefully he won’t notice me inside.

      ‘Alright, granda?’ says Clive.

      ‘Ach boys, how are yis? Are yis racin’ the day?’

      ‘Aye. We’ve been buildin’ her all week.’

      A hand taps the roof. ‘And who’s drivin’ her?’ Granda’s face appears in the chicken wire. ‘Our Jimmy? Is that you in there?’

      ‘Alright granda?’

      He smiles. ‘Keep er between the hedges, son.’

      Another tap on the roof.

      Both karts line up. Clive talks to one of the speckled ones and they shake hands. He kneels beside me. Talks quietly.

      ‘Right, we’re racin’ down this street here. First one past the white car wins.’

      ‘I don’t see a white car.’

      ‘But ya will. It’s on down a bit, round the bend. Are ya ready? All ya have to do is steer.’

      I nod. He seems very serious. I think it’s the first time in my life he’s spoken to me without calling me a name or slapping my head.

      Everyone backs off to the sides. A fellow stands between the two karts holding a branch with a white sheet tied to it. A hush falls. He raises the flag. I glance for Burt Reynold’s black Transam. No sign of it.

     ‘Ready?’

      ‘One. Two. Three. GO!’ He drops the flag and I feel the force behind me as the pushers get stuck in. The racing limousine is away like a rocket.

      I hear cheering. Clappity-clap of footsteps. I grip the steering rope tight.

      Getting faster. The wind pushes into my face.

      Even faster.

      ‘Ha ha! We’re winnin’!’ My brother shouts.

      I look right. Cannot see the other kart.

      Then faster still. The whole kart begins to shake. I cannot even run this fast.

      We approach the bend. I see the white car in the distance.

      I start pulling the rope to the right, to get around the bend. Everything wobbles. My legs bounce against the wooden floor. The limousine pulls left. I try to correct it. ‘Shit! Shit!’ There is a massive jolt. I lose control. Smash the kerb. Flutter of purplish-black bushes. Scrape. Crack. Hit a tree.

      The whole kart is sideways. I am too.

      Head is buzzing, but I feel alright. The wire window has been ripped off. Roof hangs open. There is a bush in my face.

      I hear rustling, then Doug appears. Then granda. They pull me out. I hear the other team cheer as they cross the finish line.

     ‘Jesus son! Are ya alright?’ Granda grabs my shoulders.

      I feel shaky. ‘I think so.’ I wait for my brothers to start on me.

      ‘Ya did great, Jimmy! Absolute flyin’ machine!’ says Doug.

      ‘I couldn’t hold it straight. It was goin’ too quick and –’

      My brother is laughing. ‘Ya did brilliant! The friggin wheel came aff! That’s why ya crashed!’

      The rest of the team gather around us. Stand looking at the racing limousine.

      ‘Frig it’s wrecked!’

      ‘Yer lucky ya didn’t break yer neck!’

      ‘Some drivin’ Jimmy!’

       I smile. Granda is grinning now too.

       The other team are still cheering.

       ‘I tell yis what.’ Doug lifts me up. ‘What about a cheer for our Jimmy! The wee shite done well!’

       They all start to clap and whistle. The heads of the other team turn. So they cheer louder. Lift me up. I can’t help but laugh.

      When they set me down, they drag the racing limousine from the bushes and I see how damaged it is. No wheels on the front anymore. Roof ripped right off. Chicken wire hanging. Hole in the front section. Looks like the kind of go-kart the speckled estate boys should have had.

     ‘What we gonna do with it? Says Clive. ‘The wheels are wrecked.’

      ‘Lift it. Carry it back to our yard. Everybody take a corner.’

      ‘Wait. Pull the roof aff her. And the wire. Leave them in the bushes there. Jimmy, in ya get.’

      ‘Wha?’

      ‘In ya get. The hero might as well drive her home.’

      I get in. They raise me onto their shoulders.

      Granda shakes his head. ‘Right boys. I’ve money to collect. Don’t be tellin’ yer ma and da wee Jimmy was drivin’ that contraption.’

      ‘No bother, granda. Don’t be tellin’ them we were even here.’

      He waves. Heads for the flats.

      As we go home, the racing limousine drifts and bumps through the air. I feel this beautiful tingle up the back of my neck and don’t ever want to get out.

      ‘Are yis not pissed aff yis didn’t win?’ I say, leaning over the side.

      ‘Nah. Sure it was a bit of craic and that’s the main thing.’

      I draw a breath. Exhale. To think the best day of my life happened in the speckled estate. Even though we lost, it still felt right. I grasp the limp rope. Feel its rough strands. I’ll never forget the feeling of wind rushing my face, and those few seconds, where I felt like Burt in that black Transam.

 

Jamie Guiney is a writer from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His short stories have been published internationally and he has been nominated twice for the 'The Pushcart Prize'. Jamie is a graduate of the Faber & Faber Writing Academy and has twice been a judge for short story competition 'The New Rose Prize.' His work has been backed by the Northern Ireland Arts Council through several Individual Artist Awards and he has also been chosen by Lagan Online as one of their New Original Writers.