You’re all off your heads. Really. Every last Jack and Jill amongst you you’re forever doing things I cannot understand for reasons I cannot guess at. I see it all the time, and forever wonder to myself, Why did they do that?
But I donnot judge. Which is important. It’s important not to judge and it’s good not to judge. And one of the ways I have of not judging others is to observe that in myself, I too sometimes do things that seem hard to explain, things that, upon sober reflection, I am forced to admit was odd.
It was a Friday damp rush hour grind. The usual. The heavy chain of traffic on the M67 was getting wound round the cog of the Mottram roundabout; us all just choiceless parts in a pointless machine, unoiled and inefficient.
Clutches eased in and out of first. Drivers behind the wheels reduced to a few simple tasks, operating mainly on brainstem. Simply put, make sure there’s never more than two feet between you and the car in front. The field of vision reduced to a degree or two from the stop light ahead. Apart from that, keep your short-tempered rage on idle, ready to explode at an instant’s notice upon any perceived transgressions, like a cold-war bomber constantly on missions to the enemy border waiting for the order – Nuke Moscow! “Go on mate, try to cut in. Please. I dare you.” The whole metabolism eased off to within a fraction of normal operating levels. Like the boy trapped under the ice.
How else could you survive it?
I had passed three of the five markers I use to note progress along the conveyor belt: the warning sign that the three lanes are dropping to two, the point where the three lanes drop to two, and the sign that there’s a roundabout in 550 yard’s time.
I have a habit of constantly looking at the counters on the dashboard – clock, radio frequency, revs, fuel, speed and temperature gauge – just to keep my eyes feeling important, and have noticed that the temperature gauge has been creeping up. Near the red. I don’t normally worry about such things, obviously it’s because the car is inching along in first, but after it had gone even further, now into the red, I decided I would stop the car and let it cool off. I indicated left, and crept onto the hard shoulder and switched off the car.
With some relief I stepped from both the car and the grind, and stood outside. It was dark, but the drizzle had stopped. Maybe I should check the engine, I thought.
The two things I know about car engines is how to tighten a fan belt and how to fill the windscreen squirty. Perhaps one of these was the problem. I popped the bonnet catch and walked to the front to lift the hood.
It was a counterweighted type, one that when you lifted it a certain distance, it opened itself, and didn’t need a metal rod to hold it up. I tipped it upwards, and as momentum took over and the bonnet erected itself, a huge ball of flames rose from the engine and licked skywards. The engine was on fire.
“Good Holy Jesus!” I thought, the engine’s on fire. And tightening the fan belt or topping up the squirty won’t help that.
What had caused this I did not know, but this will explain the temperature incresese.
At times of utter emergency, there’s so little chance that the right thing will enter your head, that if anything enters your head at all, you should grasp it gratefully and act quick. So, while I didn’t run like hell in case the fuel tank blew, disperse the traffic for their own safety, or call for the emergency services, I did at least act quick.
I ran to the passenger door, flung it open with gusto, bouncing it off the limit of its hinges. Seeing what I needed I dived my arm strikingly into the footwell, and grasped its grey metal, fingers about the lock, like an Excalibur.
With it I Hollywooded to the helm, feet, most likely, skidding in the verge dust. To the furnace! Eyes adjusting to the blaze, I saw what I believed to be the heart of the fire. With the tool in both hands, I brought it high above my head, and stabbed it aggressively at the fire, thudding it onto the engine’s metal, like a bayonet. Again I brought it down, again and again, stabbing mercilessly at the heart of the fire. Destroying it.
A waft of heat forced me back, reeling away, twisting my face out of the inferno. In doing so, my eyes turned towards the dark world beyond, and I focussed on the creeping line of traffic just beyond. Gloomy ghostpale faces were turned in my direction, expressionless, zombie-like. Looking like jellyfish in black water. What was happening was obviously just interesting enough to cause them not to look away, like ITV Saturday night, and they were looking at me.
Their interest snapped me out of my actions for a moment, and caused my to become conscious of myself. I looked at my hands. They were holding a steering lock, shaped like two narrow ‘J’s, joined end to end and offset at ninety degrees, one J designed to hook round the accelerator pedal, one around the steering wheel. The curves of the J’s were covered in bright, soft orange plastic to protect the metalwork. The end for the steering wheel, which had been in the fire, was now ablaze, little fizzling smokedense blobs of burning plastic dripping off the end onto the ground at my feet.
My car had caught fire. I had acted quickly to grab a steering lock, and with it I had attempted to quell the fire by bludgeoning the flames with the metal bar.
That’s what I had done.
I looked now at the car. Blazes were still thrusting from somewhere within. The underside of the bonnet had an insulating layer, and this, now, was also on fire. However, I did notice that the windscreen wash tub looked pretty full.
“Oh man, my car engine is on fire,” I said aloud. I said it out loud so I would hear, and perhaps do something about it. I did.
I needed to douse it. I ran to a passing car. Their window was down, and I asked for water. They didn’t have any. What they had was a flask of tea. I snatched it, and ran to the car. Something in me said Electrical Fire, and warned me about liquids and electrocution. Oh well, I thought, if anything can dull the death-jolt it’s a cup of Friday afternoon flask-tea. I undid the top, and filled a cup with the brown liquid, and tossed it on the flames. I filled another and did the same, and with a third I threw it on the bonnet flames.
The flask was now empty, and I had to run ten yards towards Mottram to return it.
Again I asked a passer, this time getting a quarter litre of Buxton spring water. Its pathetic contents did little to calm the situation. Another gave me a near-finished can of Diet Coke. Nothing.
Smother the fire, I thought, and reached bravely for the edge of the bonnet, and pulled it down. This had the twin benefits of possibly helping put out the fire, as well as hiding the horror. Is the petrol tank going to blow, I couldn’t help wonder.
“Here mate,” called a man in a hi-viz vest from the passenger side of a transit. He held a mostly full five litre bottle of Tesco saver water. I snatched it, flung again the bonnet, gasped at the blaze, and started shaking the water on. It took a few shakes to empty the bottle, but when I did, I looked to see that the fire had been reduced to clusters of flowing orange sparks.
Steam and smokes rose from the scene, but the fire was definitely out. The bonnet was scorched. The coating had melted off many wires, revealing scarey bare copper. Plastic pipes were melted open, gaping holes revealed themselves in hoses. The metal engine parts were blackened. The headlight unit had melted and slumped. Pools of liquid sat on surfaces. The window squirty was still at a good level, but in general the engine looked like a bomb had gone off.
I sat down, exhausted emotionally, in the driver seat. The traffic crept on slowly, and I must have sat there for a time because when I looked again, it had cleared, only the odd car passing now in good time.
I went to the front of the car again. The smouldering had almost stopped. An outstretched, open palm tested the temperature, and it seemed cool enough. I pulled the bonnet down, and it clicked into place.
I sat down again in the driver seat and wondered at my situation. No police or AA had come along, amazingly. I owned no mobile phone, so couldn’t call for assistance. What a pain. What should I do?
To satisfy my curiosity, I put the key in the hole, and clicked it one click. The electrics came on. Squinting then, to protect myself in case the car exploded, I turned further. The car burst into life, albeit a funny sounding one. I looked – clock, revs, fuel, speed and temperature gauge – all looked well. I put the car into first and rolled back onto the road, and on towards the roundabout. It actually went, although I made the precaution of not putting on my seat belt lest I need to leap from the vehicle at some point.
Going round the roundabout I switched on the radio. A comedy was on with Johnny Vegas on it. I like him, he’s funny, but I’d heard the show before, so I switched over instead to Radio Two.