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The car sputtered to a stop, steam rising out of its hood like a geyser. It looked like nothing so much as a huge beast panting from a great exertion. It also seemed to be a little sad.
There is, dear reader, a type of way of looking at things as if they are human. It is called anthropormorphication. A big word for an obvious, a reasonable, in fact the only way we can possibly empathise with other creatures.
Yes, you say, but a car is not a creature.
Ah, I answer, but how do you know?
When does a pile of bones and blood and brain matter become a human creature? And when might a bunch of metal and gas and gears become a car creature?
Let us together examine the life, or should we say the day after day, of a particular vehicle and see if we can if-not unravel, at least glimpse the possibility of when, in-this little fantasy at least, a car just might come to inhabit a life- aware that it is alive, and also aware that it may not always be so, for we humans are not the only ones to glimpse great piles of twisted metal in salvage yards.
In so knowing it is alive now, but it’s days are finite, the aware creature of whatever ilk, chooses to take and examine each day as the treasure it is, and pull what joy it can from it.
This car was a rover P3 (60).
These were special cars in the car manufacturing industry because they had what was called a short run. Their manufacturers made their parts and rolled them out of their factories painted and bright and shiny and new for one year only, before replacing them with the Rover 73. The Rover Company then began to become entangled with corporate partners, internal politics, and take-overs which led to the end of the independent Rover Company forever. So the Rover 60 was a special car from the beginning and soon became a rare car indeed, like a hector’s dolphin or a totara tree.
A few, just a few, of these rare metal beasts were kept in garages and driven only on Sundays to go to church, and were washed and waxed and oiled and greased to a glossy perfection.
So it was for the hero of our story, a little rover who belonged to a family called Smith.
Mrs Smith was a raven-haired beauty addicted to the antics of the Royal Family and the movie magazines popular in the early 1950’s. She always looked like a movie star herself, her hair in a marcel wave, her dress of some feminine colour with petticoats underneath and little gloves with a matching hat. She would never let Mr Smith see her without being properly turned out, and as she read her magazines as gospels, she took their advice and rose ten minutes earlier than her husband to put on her make-up and do her hair. Once Mr Smith caught his wife with no make-up and thought she was ill, so pale and wan was she.
They had two children, a boy and a girl, which was just as it should be, and they were named Winston and Juliette. They were dark-haired like their mother and just as attractive and well-behaved as it was possible to be.
Mr Smith himself was a successful business man, an Irishman with flaming red hair and a wild streak running through him. Sometimes it would escape like a lightning flash in his brain and he would see things or hear things that he knew full well couldn’t be right. Mr Smith kept this from his beautiful English wife— aren’t there always little secrets we keep to ourselves?
When Mr Smith bought the Rover all shiny and new from the car dealership, he was as proud as punch to drive into his little English Village. He loved how the people turned in the street to look or gawp or point or even sometimes to blow a low whistle.
The car, being very young did not notice at all, its whole car-ish self being taken up with pistons and levers and gas gurgling around its brand new body and oil in its great engine and being told to stop and go and turn this way and that with barely a moment to think how it could do these things.
Mr Smith drove his beautiful new car to his home and parked it. The car was happy to have a moment to gather itself and have a little rest in the driveway.
The family gathered around and admired the car from all angles. The children put their hands on it and Mrs Smith shooed them away. She brought out her little lace-edged handkerchief to wipe the smudges off.
“It’s lovely darling,” she said and gave her husband a peck on the cheek with her beautiful red lipstick mouth. “Now pop it away, and come in for dinner.”
His wife spoke to him exactly as she spoke to their children when they had a brand new toy or had found a pretty stone by the river.
Mr Smith nodded, not taking his eyes off his new friend, he wiped his cheek where the wet kiss had landed and touched the car. A little red lipstick like blood smeared onto the shiny cream door. Mr Smith saw a short flash of light behind his eyes and felt a little shiver course through the car, a little tingle. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, everything was as it had been. He wiped off the smear of lipstick with his sleeve, and with a sharp intake of breath walked around to the front of the car to crank it into life so he could drive it into its little house, a brand-new garage with green folding doors.
The little Rover pottered in and fell into a welcome sleep. It would cogitate on all that had happened some other time, later, next time it was cranked up. For, already, the little car had the glimmer of a thought, and a glimmer of a feeling, but it didn’t recognise them for what they were. It only felt slightly grateful to be asleep. He didn’t know, (how could he, baby as he was?) that half our lives are spent sleeping … and dreaming…that awareness of life continues on in the electrical impulses of our brains. We are still alive when we sleep - is a machine? Today our computers and our phones are plugged in and feeding, clearly still ‘doing’ but a vehicle back in the day? Was being turned off like sleeping or like dying or somewhere in between, like being in a coma?
I really don’t know dear reader, I can only suggest that we follow this story a little longer and see what we shall see.
So the days passed in a comfortable sameness, the children grew bigger and the parents grew older and they hardly noticed at all. They followed their comfortable routines and added in the car like any new member of a family, and soon it felt as if it had always been so.
The children went to school, Mr Smith went to work and Mrs Smith went to her coffee klatches and volunteered at the school library, but now every Wednesday Mr Smith drove around the block to keep the car ‘ticking over’ and every Sunday the whole family piled in to go for a drive. They went somewhere different each Sunday and sometimes they had ice cream.
Everything appeared to be the same, except the car grew more and more beautiful—more shiny, more gleaming, and it’s horn sounded more throaty and fulsome, its engine more powerful and its tyres just flew over the road.
Why might this be?
Well, every night after their evening meal, Mr Smith went out into the garage and pottered about with his car. He blackened its tyres, he polished its metal skin, he dusted the dashboard, and washed its windows, and as he did so, he muttered and murmured and let go of the thoughts in his head.
He found to his great relief, that he didn’t have to pretend at all.
With Mrs Smith, he tried to be strong and manly and in charge of every detail; for his children, he tried to be strong and fatherly, able to right every wrong. There was no doubt he was these things, but he was something else, too. Something that left little thoughts and feelings skittering about in his head with nowhere to go. There were thoughts of uncertainty and feelings of woe, there were frustrations and fears and a few secret tears, and these he shared with the car as he polished the rover’s doors.
And so he came to look at his car as his friend and his ally when he felt beset. At times he would whisper about how they would make a great escape, they’d get on a ship and sail away, perhaps they’d get to the Promised Land.
The where of that place changed for Mr Smith, according to the day, the angle he wore his hat, or what he read in the paper.
Sometimes it was Ireland and home, sometimes across the Atlantic to America (Boston of course) once to the faraway Commonwealth country, New Zealand.
Now Mr Smith was, as we know, an Irishman, his name was Liam. His heart was as big as a paddock and his mind as sharp as a needle, but what he didn’t know, (for he was an orphan adopted by a lovely English couple from the Church.)
What he didn’t know, what his wife didn’t know, what his son didn’t know, and what his daughter only imagined, was that he was a child of the old ways.
What did that even mean in a little English Village with cottages as old as the hills and rolling green meadows with sheep on them? What did that even mean to Mrs Smith at the hairdressers getting her hair set for the week and thumbing through movie magazines and reading about Doris Day? What did that even mean to Mr Smiths son changing into his rugby gear in the school gym locker room? What did that even mean to Mr Smiths daughter?
Well… here we are...... this is how we know the story ; Mr Smiths daughter sat in her room, pen poised, head cocked, listening to…words. The words would come and fill her mind until they just had to burst out and be captured by her pen. They emerged, wriggling around as though to get free and she would have to stab them with her pen and write them down where they were meant to be.
The words told her, before the little car even knew, that the mutterings and murmurings of a great heart and a sharp mind had stirred a little spirit in the car, and answering feelings blossomed on the metal skin, in the foghorn, in the pistons and the gears and the levers.
They told her there was a strength to Mr Smith that he did not need to feign, a strength of spirit and a strange inherent knowledge from the old ways that people thought of as magic.
We can pass our hand under a motion sensor solar light and it shines— magic.
We can talk to people face to face on a screen half a world away—magic.
Mr Smith was a conduit for a life force, he could rouse a deeply dormant spirit, and through that greatest magic of all, through love, he woke a mind, although a metal one fuelled by gas, a heart that pumped the gas around the body and felt things like love and kindness, and a little soul that awoke with hope.
But all of this went on in silence and in secret, and nobody at the time (except Mr Smith’s daughter, who thought it was just a story she had captured) not even Mr Smith or his beloved car, had any idea of it.
On Friday nights, it was the village custom for the men to gather in the local pub for a couple of hours where they could gab and gossip and grumble and guffaw (An awful lot like a coffee klatsch with beer.)
Now, much time had passed, but the family’s routines remained basically the same.
Mr Smith, a little grey around the temples was attending his Friday village beer klatsch, his wife was preparing dinner, reading a magazine, and helping herself to a sip of cooking sherry she kept in the top cupboard, his son was getting ready to go out on a date, and his daughter was curled up on her bed reading a book. The sherry glass slipped out of Mrs Smith’s hand as she dozed, the son was changing his clothes for the second time, and the daughter was biting her nails at a scary bit in the book.
The fire leaped from the onions frying on the stove, up the wall, and was suddenly everywhere. Mrs Smith dozed on, the son’s head snapped up at the noise, and the daughter’s eyes grew round with fear.
The rover, on the other hand, knew just what to do, it started itself up, it cranked itself to life, it pulled its clutch in one and then another half, shifting through its gears it smashed the green folding doors of the garage and sped out onto the street doing wheelies around the corners in its haste and stopped outside the pub ‘The Pickled Pig’ where it blared its horn as loudly as it could.
The men in the pub could not believe what they saw out the windows. Mr Smith’s car, in all it’s shining glory, growling and rumbling and blaring with no driver at all! It caused much confusion and consternation, but Mr Smith could hear, quite clearly, in the hooting of the horn, “Fire, family, danger.”
He ran for the door, beer all over the floor and threw himself into the car, he was only halfway in when the car took off. Mr Smith, hanging by the backseat door yelled back at the pub, “Fire brigade! My family.”
Most of the men were too flummoxed to act, but the publican, with no beer in his veins at all, went to the telephone and did what he should.
Mr Smith and Rover arrived at the house. The fire brigade was already there, had pulled his family from the burning building, and were too busy to notice that he disembarked from the back seat of his car.
His family was fine. He ran to them, sitting together with blankets over their shoulders as the firefighters manhandled the great water hose to douse the flames.
Tears ran down his cheeks with relief and he felt a great wash of gratitude and love for his car. The little rover nearly exploded with the force of the emotion, but instead he blossomed into the truly awakened magical car that he was meant to be.
But great events sometimes cause great change, and though the villagers helped care for the Smith’s as they recovered from their ordeal, they no longer felt comfortable having a beer, or a coffee, or a date, or loaning a good book, to any of them, and they took a wide berth around the Smith’s shiny car. They had no explanation for what they had seen, so they chose to ignore it, claiming Mr Smith had driven to the pub and left his car running and wasn’t that awfully lucky in the circumstances and did you think Mr Smith somehow knew?
The unexplained, the unbelievable, make people suspicious, and they peered at Mr Smith from under their hats and spoke tersely to him and only when spoken to.
And so it is with dreams and destinies, sometimes they take a strange route to fruition.
Mr Smith and his family emigrated to New Zealand soon after, they went as far away as they could possibly go…and of course they took their car.
But, as with all things, there comes change and an ending. The family loved their time in New Zealand. The children became ‘Dollar Scholars’ and went from counting pounds and pence to dollars and cents, their TV went to colour and they watched men land on the moon.
The son, Winston, moved to Australia and played rugby. The daughter, Juliette, went to Canada, where she wrote every day of magical machines to the delight of Canadian children.
Mr Smith, now old and grey, died polishing his car, and Mrs Smith in her grief, followed soon after. The children came home and sold all their old things, including the living car, a family secret that had long ago been accepted as a family fable by all but Mr Smith.
It was an old Rover, and as Mr Smith had polished it’s ageing doors that day and whispered to it that he loved it, it had shed tears of oil on the garage floor, the air had gone out it’s tyres and it’s beautiful paint had begun to peel.
“Find someone,” Mr Smith had whispered as his heart skittered, ‘find someone who sees your magic.” And his heart had stopped and the rover longed to follow.
He was bought and sold, and then bought and sold again, what an ignominious fate for an old family retainer. Bought and sold yet again he was then left alone for a long time. His spirit had dwindled and rarely sparkled on his dull dashboard.
Suddenly there was much activity, and he was sold and bought, let us hope for the last time, and this time shipped away to another island.
Rover was uncertain of his new fate. He waited as a man walked around him, a Chinese man, which Rover found strange, having spent so long alone and unaware of the changes in the country, then the man placed his hand on the bonnet and Rover felt it, he felt a familiar tremor, a delicate thread. It was faint as though the man was only just aware of the latent magic in his veins, but Rover knew the hand was the hand of an artist, and artists are all connected to that strain of something different, that different way of seeing, of hearing the barely audible words, the lightening flash behind the eyes, that indefinable mellifluous melody of magic.
Rover relaxed and knew he had done as Mr Smith had asked of him. Here he had found someone ( or they him) who would one day truly see him.
Rover started his engine in delight. The man was surprised and stepped back. Rover coughed back into silence….
They had time.
Melissa Miles was born in the US, but resides in NZ. She has had many professional iterations, acting, teaching, film-making, but she is now focusing on her writing, and caring for her aging menagerie.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.