The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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Next morning, Jimmy began to plan his campaign. Carter was due to leave for Monaco in three weeks time and a lot had to be done before then. The most urgent question concerned Jimmy's own travel arrangements. Ideally, he would have liked to join Carter on the six day tour, but it was probably much too late to get a booking on that. A brief telephone call confirmed this. The tour was full and there was a waiting list of people hoping to take up any cancellations. The distant voice was apologetic but firm. There were a few places left on air flights but there were no spare rooms in Monaco and he would have to stay in Nice.
Putting down the phone Jimmy thought hard. This was ridiculous. How could he keep an eye on Carter if he could neither travel with him nor stay in the same town? Geoff might be able to pull strings, but that would entail a risk of revealing their association and must be treated as a last resort. Meanwhile, he would let the matter rest for a few days. If the worst came to the worst, he could drive down to Monaco and sleep in his car, but in that case he must get to know Carter beforehand so that he would be able to link up with him at Monaco. The best opportunity would be at Brands Hatch on the following Sunday, when there was a meeting which would almost certainly attract Carter's attention.
Getting to the Kentish motor racing circuit is easy enough in theory, but a quick journey requires a good knowledge of the less obvious routes and an early start is desirable. Jimmy knew some useful lanes to the north of the track, but on this occasion he followed the more orthodox route through Swanley, hoping to pick up some useful information en route.
His luck was in. Just short of the place where Carter had executed his spectacular skid, an AA scout was delving into the engine compartment of a car standing on the grass verge. Jimmy pulled off the road a little further along and opened the bonnet of this own car. Considering the possibilities briefly, he decided the slacken the screw clamping the distributor and upset the ignition timing slightly. It was just as well that he had chosen to use his ordinary car for the trip. The driver of a Mini could look convincingly ignorant and helpless in the face of a subtle ignition fault, but the owner of a sports car once famous as a racer would be expected to know better.
A few minutes later the AA man duly came along and put everything back into proper working order, remarking that it was odd that so many cars broke down along that particular stretch. Looking doubtfully at a swathe of skid marks across the grass, Jimmy commented that it didn't seem the safest of places to stop and the man chuckled. 'If you'd been here the day those marks were made, you wouldn't have driven your car home. Nor would the other bloke. He'd have clouted you good and proper.'
Jimmy raised his eyebrows. 'Much damage?'
'None at all.' The man was cheerfully scornful. 'That chap was a driver, not like some who go too fast. He held it beautifully. Another chap who stopped to see if he was all right was the more shaken of the two. Nasty business, though. He reckoned something had been sprayed from a car he was passing. It was certainly pretty slippery at the point where he lost it.'
As he continued his journey, Jimmy was very thoughtful. The skid now fell into line with the other incidents. It had been induced in carefully chosen circumstances which minimised the actual risk while indicating with perfect clarity that it could have been made far more serious. There seemed to be something strangely half hearted about the whole affair, as if those who seemed to be threatening Carter were in fact quite anxious not to put him in any real danger.
Arriving at the circuit, Jimmy found that practice was still in progress. He was quite early and with any luck Carter would not have arrived yet. That was more or less essential to his plans. Obtaining a programme, he scanned through the list of Formula Three entries, noting with satisfaction that Alexander Clarewood was driving car number seven. Carter and Clarewood were known to be close friends and if Jimmy could get to know the driver it might be easier to get into touch with Carter.
Putting the programme away, Jimmy strolled past the grandstands to the paddock, where drivers and their helpers were busily preparing for the fray. Some of them appeared to have little hope of success, to judge by the frantic work being done on partially stripped engines and grotesquely twisted suspension members. Practice must have been quite eventful.
Listening absently to the harsh roar of the saloons now occupying the circuit, Jimmy made his way down the line of single seater cars in search of number seven. When he found it, there appeared to be nobody in attendance, but he saw it rock slightly and further investigation revealed a fair haired man in driving overalls crouched over one of the rear brakes. After watching for a few moments, Jimmy ventured a diffident question. 'Brake pad stuck?'
An anguished face appeared and its owner made some pungent remarks amounting to assent. Perhaps feeling that this was not the best way to talk to a complete stranger, even in the free and easy atmosphere of a motor racing paddock, the speaker got to his feet and stood looking at the car in disgust.
'Even if I get the damn thing out, I won't have a chance to bed in a new pad, but anything would be better than the way this one locks up.
Jimmy examined the offending brake and its companion on the other side of the car. Then, still diffidently, he asked whether it might be worth bleeding the brake lines. 'This disc is still a lot cooler than the one that locks. If it isn't doing its fair share of the work, that might be the cause of the trouble.'
Three minutes later, he was sitting in the cockpit of the car pumping the brake pedal while the driver bent over the rear brakes uttering noises that suggested his idea might be bearing fruit. They were still occupied in this manner when another grimy figure returned from a quest for a replacement brake pad. All three were satisfied that the problem had been cured, if only temporarily. Jimmy warned that there might be a small crack in one of the brake pipes which ought to be found and mended, but the driver, now completely recovered from the earlier disgust said that would have to wait.
'There are still a few odd things to be done and I want some grub before the race. Sandy Clarewood, at your service and in your debt. This is Jock, who makes the engine go. His bit's usually all right.'
By the time Simon Carter showed up half an hour later, Jimmy was virtually a member of the team and was introduced to the newcomer without hesitation. Carter shook hands and immediately announced he was hungry. 'Let's go and have a nosh in the Clubhouse. You'll need to digest your food before the start, Sandy.'
This move meant that Carter would be doubling back on his tracks and Jimmy kept his eyes open for a bodyguard caught on the hop by the switch. A moment later, he saw a man stumble over a wheel in his effort to change direction quickly and indulged in a quiet chuckle. The chuckle died away abruptly, however, when Jimmy saw that someone else was making the same manoeuvre - the honey blonde who had followed Geoff from Richmond.
The others were too busy talking to notice Jimmy's preoccupation, which was fortunate. He had a lot to think about. The girl had followed Geoff and now she seemed to be following Simon Carter. Since she was, presumably, on the 'other side', it suggested that Carter wasn't. Unless, of course, there were more than two sides. Or perhaps the girl was following Jimmy. He rather doubted that. She would have had to trail him all the way from his flat and she would have had to locate the flat first. It was all very confusing.
During the meal, Jimmy had an excellent chance to study Carter at close quarters and he was fascinated by what he saw. Superficially, the young scientist was fairly typical of his generation, his hair cut to precisely the fashionable length, his clothes neat but supremely casual. Jimmy, who took no particular interest in clothes and wore his hair fairly short because it was more comfortable like that, felt he must look shabby by comparison.
If the scientist's manner was very slightly sophisticated and his gestures occasionally a little too expansive, an inner tension might have been the reason. Jimmy was sure that the tension must exist and marvelled that Carter could conceal it so effectively. He also marvelled at the man's easy flow of conversation, which ranged over a wide range of subjects, showing sound knowledge rather than erudition, interest rather than a desire to show off. Sandy and Jock listened with awe for a large part of the time, their admiration showing clearly, but it was equally obvious that Carter had as much admiration for their own specialist abilities. On that basis, the otherwise improbable friendship between them was understandable.
After the meal the party split up. Sandy and Jock went back to the paddock to make last minute preparations for the big race and it was only natural for Jimmy and Carter to stroll along together to the grandstand. As this was a comparatively small meeting, with only ten thousand or so spectators occupying an area that sometimes held four or five times as many, they were able to pick a good position in the stand between the start line and Paddock Bend.
When they had settled down, Carter made a rapid but comprehensive study of the programme, remarking that the smaller meetings were sometimes the most interesting and deserved to be promoted more effectively. They talked about this for a time and them moved on to discuss the bigger meetings and more expensive kinds of motor racing. Jimmy had steered the conversation in this direction, hoping it would lead to Monaco being mentioned, although he was reluctant to mention that venue himself. Carter might well be a trifle touchy about that particular event.
Perhaps for that reason, Carter never mentioned Monaco either. As all the other classic circuits were discussed in turn the omission of the most famous circuit of all became embarrassingly obvious. Jimmy made up his mind to mention it casually, but no suitable opportunity arose and it was a relief when the appearance of the cars for the first race led to a change of subject.
The smaller saloons were to open the programme and when the flag fell they made a slightly desperate getaway which left two of their number piled against the barriers not far from the start line. The drivers got out and exchanged compliments - well, they spoke to each other - while the marshals tidied up the loose wreckage as best they could. The remaining cars circulated rapidly in close company, so close on occasion that two or more seemed to be trying to use the same bit of road. Carter remarked that all this bumping tended to pall, especially when there was no real racing going on.
Jimmy agreed with this sentiment. He was glad to find that he agreed with most of Carter's comments, which were usually made in somewhat dogmatic terms. It seemed possible that the man might not welcome contradiction, but that was only a tentative diagnosis. Although he seemed highly extrovert, he might really be the reverse, reluctant either to talk of himself or to admit the reluctance, the flow of talk being no more than a smoke screen. Carter was a congenial companion, but Jimmy was by no means sure that he would make a really good friend.
Looking around him, Jimmy spotted the bodyguard perched high in the back row of the stand and wondered if the girl was also keeping watch. After a while, he located her some distance away to his left. For a moment, he thought she was staring at him, but then her eyes moved to meet his and she immediately looked away. She looked rather worried.
Returning his attention to the saloon car race, Jimmy felt vaguely uneasy without knowing why. Deciding he was suffering from an over stimulated imagination, he tried to concentrate on the track, but the cars were now well strung out and he found it difficult to work up any real enthusiasm.
Another race, this time for sports cars, continued the proceedings and Jimmy was able to forget his worries for a while as three very competitive drivers fought for the leading positions. Then it was time for the Formula Three cars to appear and excitement began to rise. In horse racing, the moment of supreme climax comes when the leading horses approach the finish. In motor racing the peak of excitement centres on the start, when an array of powerful machinery is made to exert maximum effort in the attempt to pick up speed as rapidly as possible. A good start may be worth several tenths of a second a lap, so the first hundred yards are vital.
Thinking about this, Jimmy felt his uneasiness returning. He barely noticed Carter say that Sandy would have to work hard to make up for his poor grid position. Why was he uneasy? Something that he had seen or heard had given his subconscious a warning, without any impression on the shallower levels of his mind.
The cars began to take their places on the grid and Jimmy fought to bring his subconscious worry to the surface. The klaxons drew attention to the three minute board held up to warn that the start was drawing near. The worry had something to do with the girl. It had started just after Jimmy had spotted her sitting in the stand.
One minute to go. Jimmy felt an urgency that had nothing to do with the growing excitement that surrounded him on all sides. She had looked at him and then looked away. What had she been looking at before that?
Engines sprang to life, their raucous clamour filling the air. In the middle of the grid, a driver raised his hand to warn that his engine had failed to start. Those behind him, who would have to find a way past, signalled their intentions by pointing fingers to one side or the other. Sandy was back there and might get held up.
The starter was on his rostrum, slowly raising the flag.
Quite suddenly, Jimmy knew the answer. The girl had been looking at something not far behind him. As the flag dropped, he swung round in his seat and was barely able to parry a knife thrust. A vicious twist of the wrist behind the knife flung a man aside into the gangway, the knife clattering through a gap in the flooring. The man scrambled to his feet and fled up towards the exit at the rear of the stand.
Swinging back to face the track, Jimmy was amazed to see that Carter was still watching the cars stream away into Paddock Bend, quite unaware of what had been happening nearer at hand. Looking round, he realised that the brief struggle had passed unnoticed. Everyone had been watching the cars, to the exclusion of all else. Even the bodyguard's attention seemed to have been distracted.
There was one exception. The girl had seen the incident. That was to be expected. She had obviously recognised the man with the knife and had guessed that he meant trouble. She looked tense and horrified and when she realised that Jimmy was looking at her she stood up hastily and ran towards the grandstand exit.
Trying to collect his scattered thoughts, Jimmy became vaguely aware that the cars had nearly completed the first lap. The race had been in progress less than fifty seconds, which seemed incredible. Carter was thumping his knee in great excitement, saying that Sandy was making up places all the time. Jimmy was tempted to believe that he had imagined the whole episode. He even glanced over his shoulder at the empty seat behind, just for reassurance.
The intention had clearly been to create another warning incident, but the knife had been aimed at Jimmy. This fitted the pattern. Even if the wound had not been fatal, the message would have been clear. Next time, the knife might be aimed at Carter. Whoever his enemies were, they seemed very reluctant to harm him, though they were more casual regarding the well being of his companions. The girl had recognised the man with the knife. Did that means she was on his side? Jimmy hoped not. She looked a nice lass, too nice to be involved in that sort of thing.
The eight leading cars howled past, nose to tail, with Sandy in seventh place. Approaching Paddock he pulled out to pass under braking and Jimmy caught his breath. When the cars reappeared in the dip beyond, Sandy was sixth, barely staying on the outer edge of the track. Moments later he was on the inside, probing for a chance to pick up another place at Druids.
Carter chuckled. 'Sandy's got the bit between his teeth today!'
That's all very well, thought Jimmy, but you don't realise what you missed just now. If the girl hadn't looked worried, you might have found yourself sitting by a corpse and that would take some explaining...
Perhaps that had been the idea. An inquest might have kept Carter in the country at the critical time, even if he was under no direct suspicion. Perhaps...oops! Sandy nearly overdid it that time. Better drivers than he have come unstuck at Bottom Bend. Jim Clark, for instance.
The first eight cars were still nose to tail, with Sandy fifth and looking for a chance to move up. He could probably see that the first three were threatening to break away. Coming on to Top Straight, the group spread out across the width of the track, four or five abreast, as the drivers sought a way through. Disdaining the use of slipstream aid, Sandy found a gap in the middle and by Paddock was in third place. The climb to Druids left the situation unchanged, but the second man went wide into the hairpin, trying to take the leader on the outside. He got onto the slippery dust away from the normal line and his subsequent gyrations caused considerable panic, the following cars going every which way in their attempts to avoid him. Most dived towards the inside but Sandy went the other way and came down the hill in second place. The man behind him wasn't going far, as he was staggering along with three wheels left, while the others were still sorting themselves out. It had become a two man race.
Producing a neat electronic stopwatch, Carter began to time the gap between Sandy and the leader. After two more laps he announced, 'He should catch up two laps from the end, which should give him enough time to find a way past.'
Jimmy, still feeling a little shaken, was prepared to accept this estimate, though it did occur to him that Simon must be a wizard at mental arithmetic to be able to work out the relevant figures in his head. They proved correct, but when Sandy shot straight past the leader into Paddock Bend, Carter frowned disapprovingly.
'That's odd. He should have held second longer than that, so that he had a chance to slipstream past near the end.'
Sandy dropped back to second place at Kidney, but as the two cars came towards Paddock on the last lap he hardly seemed to brake at all, shooting back into the lead. Carter nearly threw his stopwatch to the ground.
'Idiot! The other man will pip him on the run in!'
The rest of the final lap was hectic. Sandy seemed to slow into Druids and the other car nearly got past on the outside, but Sandy held his line and powered away down the hill. He was on the grass again at the bottom, but recovered miraculously and pulled ahead towards the long curve leading to the finish, which he took in one almighty slide, the car continuously threatening to spin. It may not have been the classic way to take the corner, but it worked, especially as the other driver backed off in alarm at the spectacle. Straightening up as the curve unwound, Sandy put his foot down and hared for the finish. The man holding the chequered flag backed away as he dropped it, for the car had begun to squirm as he approached him, already slowing under imperfect control, the scream of the engine indicating that it was being used to aid the brakes.
That was enough to hint at the reason for all the excitement, but the full story came out later over beers in the Paddock Bar when the meeting had finished. Sandy seemed rather disgusted with his friend's critical comments.
'It's all very well to talk about tactics when you're sitting in the stand. You should have been where I was. The bloody brakes went just as I caught him up and I didn't have any choice about passing him. How I got through Paddock I'll never know. I took it as easy as I could, but he sneaked past again. The only way I could stay behind at Paddock on the last lap was by dropping right back and I didn't want to do that. The finish was the real problem because there were no brakes at all by then. All I could do was pray.'
Jimmy listened to the nonchalant account with admiration. Out of sight under the table, his hands were still tending to tremble a little from reaction after the day's excitements, yet he felt that his own experience had been mild compared with Sandy's.
This was undoubtedly a lulu of a job. By the time it was over, he would probably have earned every penny of his pay.
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|