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A Sad Note

A lot of my West Hamley memories start with me turning up at the empty clubroom. I don't know why. It can't often have been like that. But in this case, I remember it well, and I'm sure accurately. Everyone since then has told me the whole thing was a figment of my imagination, and still do when ever I bring it up. So this is my last chance to put the whole episode on record, exactly as I remember it.
Why no-one else turned up that night I'll never know. It wasn't a normal club night, but I'd been expecting to see a few faces enjoying an informal practice session, maybe followed by a drinking session after. I was disappointed because I had something to show off- my new Lotus 49. I'd been working on it for weeks, done the initial running-in at home, and now it was ready for a proper shakedown on the club track. I was dead proud of it. A concours paint job, the Zandvoort G.P. winner correct in every detail with dummy suspension and a passable looking Cosworth in the back, complete with polished aluminium carburetor stacks and gleaming exhausts jutting out low behind the rear wheels. Big black slicks on ali set-screw hubs, and my latest rewind shoehorned inside. I couldn't wait to thumb it round West Hamley for the first time and soak up the admiration.
Except, as I said, the place was empty. I threw the mains switch with the usual noisy clack, which echoed round the vacant room as the strip lights hummed and flickered on one by one. I sloped over to the drivers rostrum and plugged in. Maybe it was just as well, I consoled myself- I could get the car rolling properly before any of the lads showed up. Good chance to fettle it properly. Wouldn't want to slap it down on the track in front of the assembled masses and watch it go backwards, would I?
So there I was, driving smoothly, lap afer lap, finding it's limits and making mental notes of possible improvements here and there, when I became conscious of another presence in the room. I must have been concentrating hard, because I hadn't noticed the door open or close, nor the sound of any footsteps. I just felt a hand on my shoulder and a soft, burred voice in my ear.
'Is that supposed to be me then?' it said. I kept the car going, trying to look cool. I kept the car going. My lap times were falling gradually and I was reluctant to lose concentration.
'Looks good,' the voice breathed respectfully again in my ear. 'If you'd made Graham's car it would have broken down by now.'
He had me then. There was a curious logic behind what he was saying, but I couldn't quite take it on board. The voice was calm, modest, strongly accented- pleasant. Not crazy. I let the Lotus cruise to a halt in front of me and turned to look at the stranger. I dropped my hand throttle and jaw simultaneously. He was unmistakeable. Brylcreemed hair, pleasant face, intense eyes. Roll-neck sweater and a shiny Ford Motor Co. windcheater.
'Mind if I have a look?' he asked, his Scottish accent now obvious to me.
'Of-of course. Please- do. Er, did I get the helmet right?'
'Oh aye. But I wouldn't be able to see well out of those goggles!' That broke the ice, and we both laughed. I'd never been able to work out how to make them look right in 1/32n scale. I'd made do with a couple of blobs of matt black this time, and now wished I'd made a bit more effort.
'Do you mind if I have a wee go?'
'By all means- sure, go ahead. It would be a privilege.'
Well I've told this so many times before, it's getting hard to make it sound believable anymore, but he took that fragile little F1 model and made it dance round the West Hamley track better than anyone I'd ever seen. He told me it was his first go. He said he'd heard about slot racing and was intrigued by the idea, but he'd never had the chance to try it properly, apart from some staged promotional Scalextric thing. Anyway, I showed him the rudiments, but he didn't need telling. He'd seen enough already. He picked up my throttle and just drove, feeling his way for a few laps, then letting his uncanny reflexes take the car to it's limits. One lap he'd over-brake at a corner, the next time he'd leave the same corner a fraction late but bring the rear end back a milli-second before it ripped the car out of the slot. The third time he'd have the little Lotus slithering round the turn, maxed out on a power slide and pointed straight at the next corner with the revs poised exactly right. It was a fabulous sight, watching his mind and his reactions on the needle edge, calculating and feeling for the right feed of throttle through the long, tightening radius under the bridge and back up to the start line. His concentration never faltered for a second. He had that car flickering round the track, as if the guide was barely touching the sides of the slot as it whipped through the esses, as if the wheels were hovering fractionally above the sandtex, as if there were no friction involved at all, just pure momentum and speed. Then the lap counter tripped for the last time and he broke into a huge toothy grin. 'That's just great,' he said. 'How much would you charge to build me one of those?' 'Wow- no- please have this one. I couldn't drive it like that ever again. I'd love you to have it.'
'No, no. Please, not again. That's just my problem these days.' I thought I'd blown it then. Typical me. Just trying to be friendly. But I guess he saw the expression on my face. 'Sorry. It's not your fault. Things have been building up on me lately. People keep giving me things. Money, cars, clothes- and worse. I've got enough money to buy anything, but people keep giving me things anyway. I've got enough. I'm rich- let me pay my way. Give your things to people who aren't. The world's upside down. Myself, I just like driving, but it's even driven me out of the country now. I'm supposed to be living in Bermuda. I'm not allowed to spend more than a coupla weeks each year in Berwick on my own farm- my accountant won't let me. Says I'll have to pay too much tax. And things are getting a wee bit frightening. I've lost a lot of friends now, and still the pressure's on to go faster. I just got back from Indy this morning- testing a new car. I'll tell you now it's going to win this year, take it from me. It's fitted with a blooming jet engine for heaven's sake! But it's a scary place to make a mistake, Indianapolis. You know, I really think I'd be happier back on the farm, and let the tax man take all the money he wants. A quiet life will do me, and I'll just have fun again, running beautiful models like this.'
I could see he was getting a bit maudlin. 'Let me make you some coffee' I said. Then immediately felt stupid as I tried to imagine leading the great man into our squalid little club kitchen. 'Aye, that'd be great. Thanks a lot. I've got to drive up to Colins' place tonight. A coffee will come in handy.' So I did take him into the kitchen, pull out a rattling tin stool for him to sit on, and wipe the plastic table clean with my forearm. I lit the gas stove, found the cleanest looking mug I could, gave it a rinse under the gurgling, rusty tap while the saucepan boiled, and poured in a teaspoon of Maxwell House. 'Sorry, the milk looks a bit rancid'. 'Och, that's alright. Any sugar?' Not only sugar, but some stale biscuits turned up deep inside the cupboard. We settled down for a conversation that I'll never forget. We were like old mates. ' I read about this club a while ago'he said. 'Then I found myself driving past on the way up from the airport today. Just thought I'd take a break and have a wee look. I was lucky you were in. That's a beautiful model you've made there. There's a lot of engineering goes on in those wee cars. And the driving of them needs a lot of skill too. You wouldn't think it just to watch. Racing the big cars is great, but there's too much, y'know, business that goes with it, if you see what I mean.' I nodded, smiled, sipped at my coffee and enjoyed his company. 'I really think I'd rather do this. D'you think I could join in the next meeting?' 'Blimey- of course you could. You already drive better than anyone in the club. Let me build another 49- I'll do Graham, er, Mr. Hill's one this time, and we can race as a team.' 'Och, That'd be fantastic. Try a bit of silver paint on his goggles though! Brilliant! When should I get here? I do have to sort a few things out before I can free up my timetable a bit. Contractual obligations, ye ken.' 'Well let me see.' I got out my tatty copy of the club diary. 'There's the Phostrogen Cup meeting next month.' 'Well, I should be able to make that. As far as I know I've got to do a Formula 2 event at Hockenheim, but after that I could be here.' ' Wow. That would be wonderful. I can't wait to tell the others.' 'Oh well, I wouldn't do that just yet. I should talk to Colin and the Ford guys to clear things first. And the accountant.' He looked at he massive swiss chronometer on his wrist and stood up. 'I've got to be off now though. Thanks for the coffee. Promised to be in Norfolk tonight. Cheerio. I'll be back though.' But of course he wasn't. He walked out of the door and drove away. I never saw him again. And still no-one believes me.
 

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...why not - sometimes strange things happen! Jaques Villeneuve raced together with Nico in Salzburg on their slottrack, I've been training with my kart some years ago when Bernd Schneider ( FIA-GT worl champion, couple of times DTM-champion, kart worl champion ) and Bernd Mayländer ( driving F1 safety car, DTM-cars...) showed up and we had 3h of excellent racing together. I had the luck of witnesses - otherwise no one would believe!
 
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