I just sold my old, unreliable car. I am elated and bereft. People who have bought old cars and then witnessed their slow decline may recognise this mixture of feelings.
You may also recognise this: the perfect last drive.
My vehicle – Dexter, because old cars have human names – was always temperamental. Dashboard lights would flick on, then off again as soon as the garage appointment was booked. He would switch into “emergency mode” at traffic lights and then hop across the junction like a donkey on hot tar. The drive belt snapped in a car park one long dark day and it tore a hole in Dexter’s belly.
We recently moved to a place where public transport is good. A train takes you to a couple of major cities within the hour; another one gets you into town in seven minutes. The last time Dexter was diagnosed with something wrong, we weren’t worried. We knew we could get by.
Months passed with Dexter parked off-road, growing moss around his gills and fins. Someone placed a flyer under his windscreen wiper. It turned to papier mache during a week of rain. Birds soiled him from above and cats sprayed him from below.
Finally, quietly, the blinking red light on the driver’s side door stopped blinking.
I knew Dexter’s final test was coming. The end of July was always time for his MOT. Last year I sat outside the garage, drinking an ice cold Fanta as the mechanic held up hands full of Dexter’s innards to the inspection light. The car failed that time, at first. He was taped together and bashed and scraped, his emissions curtailed and tested again.
There was no way I was putting him through that this time. So when the letter of reminder came I took two buckets and filled them with hot water. I lugged them down the street and sponged Dexter down, panel by panel. Off came barnacles and pigeon shit, leaf mulch and something pink that could have been milkshake. I wiped into the corners of each headlight and tail-light and grill and crevice and the run off washed away into the gutter.
A car left at the side of the road will give up and go to sleep. We connected cables to his feeble heart and defibrillated Dexter from slumber. He started up with a single turn of the key. Driver’s lore says that once the battery has been drained, you must drive the resurrected vehicle a few miles to breathe life back.
So we drove, with the July sun hiding in the grey fluff of tomorrow’s storm, over roads we both knew but had not driven for months. The lights changed to green as we approached and cars gave way at mini-roundabouts, as though they recognised our right of way in this final hour. Once in the countryside, we shifted through gears from three to five and opened up the throttle full. A field of cows mooed sharp then flat in doppler effect, grass daubed impasto behind them. Like the Enterprise going to warp, there was only the silent woosh of speed and the perspective smearing of stars.
No warning lights came on, no judder shook the engine. At junction after junction Dexter waited so quietly that I had to touch the accelerator to check he was still alive. He growled that he was.
When we finally came to a stop, an hour later, I dialled a number on my phone and sold him for a token sum. We agreed on 30 pieces of silver. No we didn’t, I’m being melodramatic. The amount doesn’t really matter – but it was less than the cost of repairs at his last MOT.
I took the key from Dexter’s ignition and the lights faded. I put the key back in and turned. The clock ticked and whirred and a sequence of random numbers played across the liquid crystal display. There was no catch or click when I turned the key further.
The battery was completely dead again. The garage I’d sold him to sent out a rescue vehicle and jump-started the engine. I turned over the ignition and the engine chicken danced, banging like pans in a sack. A light came on the dash – the control computer had failed. He wasn’t even trying this time.
Still, I was able to drive him the final few metres to the garage and leave him in their yard.
“You don’t have to leave the key in the ignition,” the mechanic said, “We’ll jump it if we need to move it.”
So, I took out the key and handed it over. We talked about what I would be getting next and joked that it would have to be a car as big as the one I was selling, so that my girlfriend wouldn’t want to drive it. And then I left, without even telling them his name.