Mad Derek said he was going to do a lap. The others who worked the yard—Weaselboy, Slow Pete, Sid, The Other Paul—burst out laughing.
“Gawn with you,” they said. “Been at the antifreeze again?”
“Gonna do it,” he said.
Back in the 90s, he said, back in the 90s, around the cruises down Lakeside way, heard some City boy in a Porker did it, the entire lap—clockwise—in 48 minutes flat.
Slow Pete looked doubtful.
“Pre-average speed-check cameras,” he said.
“Course,” said Mad Derek.
“Seeing as that’s an average speed of—”
And here Weaselboy screwed his face up with the effort of cogitation, causing his inadvisable nose-to-ear chain to jangle merrily.
“—roughly 145mph and we’re not talking a dead-straight bit of road, you’d be looking at a 959 to do that. 4wd. Twin turbos. Traction control.”
There was silence.
“Did you just work that out in your head?” said Sid, sounding impressed.
“Anyway,” said Mad Derek, “Anyway—”
“I’ve heard that. Midnight Club,” said The Other Paul. “Lambos, high-end Porkers, donkeys. City boys all hopped up on real good flake and Thatcherite deregulation.”
“Anyway . . . ”
“Can see why you can’t hold a cutting torch straight, Weasel me lad, what with your brain occupied by the average speed it takes to do an M25 Dartford Tunnel lap.”
“Anyway,” said Mad Derek. “I reckon I can beat that.”
“Forty-five minutes?” said Sid. “With cameras and Correvit and RADAR and LIDAR and—”
“I can beat it,” said Mad Derek.
The Other Paul sneered.
“In what?” he said. “What motor are you gonna perform this miraculous feat in, then?”
Mad Derek grinned. He nodded over at an old Ford, parked in an unobtrusive corner of the yard. A Mk IV Cortina, just another banger preserved in the rarefied air of Faerieland: half filler, half red oxide primer. Word was The Casual had set aside this relic to sell to a collector, the sort of loon who’d spend thousands on a shitty old Ford so they could pretend it was 1976 all over again.
There was a moment’s silence.
“I’d be surprised if you can get it to start . . . ”
Mad Derek adjusted his filthy flat cap to a raffish angle. He grinned a terrible broken-toothed gleam.
Up in the top yard, further up the hillside, something dropped off the great pile of scrap near where Old Faithful sat brooding in ringing silence amidst a carnage of cubed and mashed cars; it slithered its way across rusting shells and wormed its way in and out of corroded holes in bodywork, then slipped behind the Light Iron pile.
As one, they all turned to look. Then, pennies finally dropping, they turned back to Mad Derek and his awful grin.
“Oh no,” said Sid.
“Oh no,” said The Other Paul.
“What?” said Weaselboy.
Slow Pete just frowned.
“Casual gets ’em to do it,” said Slow Pete, rolling the words around his mouth. “Easy as you like.”
“Don’t do it mate,” said Sid.
“S’not fuckin’ worth it mate,” said The Other Paul.
“What?” said Weaselboy.
“If you’re gonna do that, you’re gonna need a fuck of a lot of blood, said Slow Pete, and the others fell silent and turned to look at him.
Spider drove an off-white Ford Cargo with a HIAB on the back. He had a penchant for wifebeaters and MK II Granadas and webs tattooed down the side of his shaved skull. That scorching summer afternoon Spider tore out of the Portakabin that served as the weighbridge office with The Casual behind him, swatting and spitting fire.
Casuals have now all gone into politics, having got a taste for it in the 90s with basic Amateur Fash stuff—gatherings in flat-roofed pubs where they compared misspelt neck tattoos, heavily-policed anti-Islam marches in dreary provincial towns—a few of them now form the link between the openly racist wing of the UK’s Sensible Media and the greater global fascist movement: security for the new generation of TV-friendly wingnut Culture Warriors, secretive meetings with the Russky Obraz or The Golden Dawn, dutifully astroturfed social media campaigns.
The Casual, though, the—if you please—definite article, was from a time before all that; he’d not have got into social media if showed him how to use a keyboard without smashing it to flinders. You clocked him a mile away: child-molester side-parting, NHS specs, a range of shell-suits in an eye-choking array of colours— pistachio and fandango pink, chemistry-set lilac and teal, chromate yellow and Byzantine purple. He’d seen the inside of more cells than a molecular biologist and spent his time inside pumping iron and injecting various performance-enhancers. Must’ve still been on a gramme of stanozolol and test a week in his mid-fifties, and when he sweated—which he did constantly, leaky as a blown head gasket—the metabolites came off him in waves, eye-watering like rubbing alcohol and attar of roses, sharp and sweetish like long-unwashed balls liberally dosed in aftershave.
The Casual’s dogs panted on the concrete by the weighbridge shed, too tired even to menace anyone, seemingly unbothered by their master’s sudden explosion of rage and the sight of one of his best customers running for his life
Slow Pete tapped Weaselboy on the shoulder:
“Tenner on the old man.”
Weaselboy sucked at his teeth, shook his head, jingle-jangling his nose-to-ear chain.
“Gotta catch him first.”
Spider went over the back of the Cargo’s beavertail, ducked underneath the HIAB, ripping his wifebeater as he went. There was oil all over the bed; he slipped and fell down to the weighbridge, which was unfortunate because The Casual had managed to launch himself up on the deck after him. He landed on poor Spider and the lads all winced as Spider’s right arms snapped.
Spider made it out from under The Casual and back to his feet even his arm hanging smashed. He tore up the yard, heading for the slope into the car compound, probably reasoning that he could outpace The Casual’s 20-odd stone going uphill, even holding his limb on as he went. The Casual clumped after him, glasses bumping up and down his sweating snout. Spider’s voice trailed back to the lads standing around watching—several pitches higher than its normal register, lies pouring out of him in an unintelligible stream.
The lads waited. The sky above was a pitiless blue; the diesel/petrol/coolant reek of Faerieland thickened in the strong sunshine; the light-iron pile dazzled back the heat.
Half an hour later, The Casual came back down the slope, panting like a mastiff in the sunshine. He looked like someone had upended a bucket of water over him, lurid shellsuit cleaving to his ham-arms. Weaselboy’s grin went sickly and he strolled off up the yard to hit something with a hammer.
The Casual stomped back to the Portakabin and slammed the thin aluminium door so hard it flexed in the frame.
A great big dog, one no-one’d never seen before, came down the bank from the top compound, taking the dogs’ usual route through the exposed roots of an ancient sickly birch then down the scarp, loose stones and gravel following.
It was a big sable Boxer with a slash of white on its deep chest, thick with muscle around the shoulders, narrow at the hips; it limped gamely on a bad right front paw. Drool webbed the sides of its jowls. The other dogs rose and stiffened at its approach, but after a cursory amount of bum-sniffing they settled down again. It curled up next to them, great lugubrious head on its paws.
The window-hatch of the Portakabin snapped open and The Casual’s vast brick of a head filled the frame.
“The fuck you bunch of cunts lookin’ at? Get that fuckin’ wagon moved to the other side of the yard, before I come out there and beat you to death with it.”
The lads hastened to comply.
Later, in the shadow of Old Faithful, having at RSJs with the cutting torch—greasy tang of superheated metal on the tongue, acrid burn in the sinuses, holocaust of orange sparks as the surface rust ignited—Weaselboy, on bucket-duty again, said:
“This lap then? What’s the point of that, mate?”
Mad Derek straightened up and shut off the oxy. Running only on propane, the flame metastasised from a hard blue cone to a blousy orange that flapped greasy and languid. He fished in the gap between flat cap and helix until he found a rollie, lit it expertly off the billowing flame, adding another scorch-mark to his brim.
Weaselboy watched his distorted face swimming up through the oily rainbow depths of Mad Derek’s filthy cutting goggles. Mad Derek exhaled, smoke wreathing and coiling lazy around his ‘tache, cloudbanks of Old Holborn roiling under the peak of his cap.
“Yeah. You know, what’s it . . . Why would you wanna do that?”
Mad Derek sucked on his roll-up, flicked it away. Weaselboy, glad of the excuse, scampered off to stub it, lest it burn through the oxy line and relocate them both a hundred yards in the air.
“Worked this yard for forty years, mush.”
Weaselboy rattled the now half-empty bucket at the still billowing flame from the cutting torch.
“And I cannot believe you ain’t blown yourself the fuck up yet, to be honest.”
“Left school at fourteen. Came to work for The Casual.”
Weaselboy did a double-take; Mad Derek, he thought, had surely been cutting up Iguanodons for export back in the Cretaceous. How was this crabbed-over, squashed little man only in his mid-fifties?
Mad Derek said:
“What have I got to show for it? How many years I got left? Who’s gonna remember me when I’m gone? The fuck does my life amount to?”
He stayed there, torch held slack in one hand, until Weaselboy got sick of trying to outstare the blank oily glare of the cutting goggles.
“Think I might take a wander down to the Portakabin . . . ”
Mad Derek shook his head.
“Come with me.”
This is where the dead go.
Think back: you can remember a place like this, if only by association, if only in the tales handed down to you. Your old man or his old man—back then, the world was full of old men—went to a place like this once, for a carburettor, a starter motor, an alternator, a coil. You probably went with him, wandered deep into that dizzying maze of automotive carcasses stacked in haphazard, ragged rows.
Down the yard, where the Light Iron pile stood—cookers, fridges, sections of light steel monocoque chewed up and spat out by the crusher and shear— your relative would grab your arm tightly and tell you to mind yourself as the crane churned through a hellish mudscape that no matter the weather never quite achieved solidity, cruor splashing up over grinding tracks, snatching a grabful of metal here, a graspful of metal there, sorting, sorting, winnowing the immense piles to feed Old Faithful: the crusher, the throbbing monster at the centre of the yard, feed its fucking torture music of hydraulic pumps and vast diesel engines, clamour and squeal of metal, metal grinding across metal, the sound of metal dying and waiting to be reborn.
But that was all a noisy warm-up act. The Main Attraction was the cars kept for parts, stacked in ragged rows, vehicular corpses interred above ground like some ghoulish graveyard, medical specimens left with their guts hanging out to rust away slowly behind a barbed-wire fence.
Mad Derek took Weaselboy’s unresisting hand, led him into a gap between the shadowy stacks. Strange vegetation grown twisted and weirdly colourful from a myriad pollutants—flourishing in the way that cancer can be said to flourish— grew up between the rows of cars, sprouted weird and wild from under empty shells, wreathed rotting suspension sub-assemblies: stub axles and torsion bars, Panhard rods and leaf springs, trailing arms and Macpherson struts! Silent pale tendrils of creepers and vine wrapped themselves with an almost sexual avidity around door handles and chromed bumpers: empty wheelarches choked with sickly yellowish fern, agrimony and vetch hallucinogenically bright with, perhaps, a strange, rusty tinge to the petals, pushing through the rotten bodywork.
Places like this have all gone. Gone, at least from this country. De-polluted. Drained. Levelled. Concreted over. Sanitised. Relics of Another Time, a time before Health and Safety culture—before health and safety met capital letters.
Gone now, all gone, neutered into “recycling centres”, smooth pollution-free concrete patrolled and populated by hard-hat wearers, the dogs replaced by the soft click and whirr of CCTV cameras and the bright kiddy-toy plastic housings of Redcare alarm systems, the foreman a worried middle-management type in suspiciously clean overalls and brand-new rigger boots . . . Maybe that’s a better thing; perhaps the world is a cleaner, brighter place.
There remains a place, one place, one place that that somehow kept its head down, all through the terrible purge of inspections and environmental clean-ups, one place that slipped through every net, one place where the noose of paperwork and regulations didn’t tighten quite quickly enough . . .
The Land of the Dead.
The place where They reside.
Mad Derek led Weaselboy deeper into the expectant hush between the stacks. At the very centre of Faerieland, amongst the piles of cars, a mausoleum silence reigned: that perpetual peaceful hush deserted industrial areas always seem to labour under on their off-days, as if all the noise and violence and filth has cleared a space and the stuff of the world is slow to seep back in.
Weaselboy thought he’d be afraid—he’d never ventured into the stacks without one of The Casual’s dogs to guide him—yet instead he was suffused with a curious sense of peace, there amongst the weird fern-fronds and the hallucinogenic dandelions, the sapling growing up through the ruins of some ancient Datsun until he couldn’t tell which was there first, the car or the tree, it’s as likely someone might’ve somehow wrapped the remains of the car around the bole as put the shattered car in first and waited as the tree grew up through the gaps in bodywork, roof, chassis . . .
With an effort of will the other lads would be astonished to find he possessed, Weaselboy managed to shake his head, even as the Glamour of Faerieland closed over his head like a man sinking into a pond.
The sad tinkle of his nose-to-ear chain drowned in the patter of spider’s feet in the dusty, chalky residue left by decaying automotive paint and oxidising metal: a thrush perched on an open car door, thirty feet in the air, preening in a shaft of sunlight; from rotted holes in bodywork odd stunted lizards shone like jewels. From somewhere a million miles away, Weaselboy tried to pull his arm free, but it was like his limb was set in concrete. Weaselboy stumbled over half a driveshaft rod hanging askew out a half-stripped back axle, clonked his knee on the Opel Rekord underneath it, didn’t feel a fucking thing.
The light shifted, imperceptibly, falling on rust and ruin and pre-Modern chrome-effect plastique gone a weird milky colour, and the animal denizens of Faerieland froze and stiffened, for They were here again.
Of course, here in Faerieland, They never went away.
Shafts of sunlight fell slanting through the empty avenues of cars, through age-frosted glass and the rust-holes in wings. Dust and chemical particulates spun in the golden light. Mad Derek turned with a grin. Weaselboy tried to form words, staring in a kind of muted horror at the vacancy of his own expression reflected in the pitiless depths of Mad Derek’s goggles.
Behind Weaselboy and off to the right, something slipped stealthy behind the rotting remains of an E21 BMW. With an effort that felt like it tore something in the straining locked tendons of his neck, he dragged his head around, a quarter inch of agony at a time. He smelled the smell of ancient decaying petrol—that peculiar aroma it takes on when it’s halfway back to dinosaur—he smelled the smell of ancient seat vinyl, super-heated in the sun—he smelled the sickly castor-oil reek of ancient brake-fluid. The mutant vegetation sprouting from the empty wheelarch of a Datsun 260Z trembled and shivered. Something giggled like a very young child, right in his ear.
A shadow fell across him. The air went out of him; he felt his bladder release, warm and wet across his filthy jeans. Next to him, Mad Derek capered, hands clasped, kicking his feet in a crazed little jig. Then he stopped, stiffened, dropped to his knees.
Mad Derek tugged at Weaselboy’s arm.
“Kneel,” he whispered. “Kneel down. They likes it when you kneel.”
The light swirled and bled with colour, as if a very fine film of oil had somehow seeped down over Weaselboy’s eyes; viridian phantoms chased iridescent ghosts across spectral lapis lazuli landscapes.
The noise he heard next was something like . . .
At first: the high-pitched whine a dentist’s drill makes as it bites into enamel. Then, as They slipped from inside the heart of Faerieland and between the metal wrecks, their piping voices fluted around the dead wiring of sacrificed cars and were clothed in metal; the air crackled and hummed like that corner of the Big Shed where Slow Pete had replaced the fuse on the three-phase with a 19mm bolt, a bright sharp burst of ozone that faded to violets and the tang of ancient sump oil on the tongue . . .
A questing presence, extruded from Somewhere Else. Weaselboy’s knees gave way, and he stared slack at the impossible, beautiful figure leaning down from the shadows, a face too perfect in its anatomy to be sullied with anything so coarse as a gender. The metal it had stolen to make a skin stretched as if melting and it opened its terrible perfect mouth and in a voice somewhat like an angle grinder cutting through steel and somewhat like the distant carillon of a thousand bells said:
Is this the one that’s ours?
Weaselboy felt Mad Derek nodding so enthusiastically next to him that there was a danger he’d fall flat on his face. After that, Weaselboy didn’t feel anything much, at all, ever again.
When it was done—and the way all the blood seemed to flow upwards into the metal was something Mad Derek thought he’d never forget, something like the way steel heated past red hot seems to swell with its own incandescence, like there’s something inside it trying to break free—the terrible shining being turned to him. It regarded him with its beautiful metal face, held him pinned for a long time in the blank terrible void of its eternal gaze.
Mad Derek pulled himself up to his full height, roughly up to the thing’s waist. His neck craned back with an audible click. Below the brim of his cap, his eyes softened.
“I used to go out in a Cortina, a 2.3S in Apollo Green. Vinyl roof and Ross-styles! Picked Jane up nights, after she knocked off at the old sweet factory.”
Tears brimmed then fell down his cheeks, burning their way through encrusted geological strata of grease and ingrained oil; the terrible being leaned in further, as if entranced.
“You ain’t never smelled nothing sweeter than when she sat down next to me: burnt sugar and this kind of waxy white spirit smell from the food colouring! She’d close the door and it’d all come out of her–her hair, her clothes–all in a rush. I used to say to her: I’d eat you up if you let me, and she just sort of half-smiled at me and turned away . . . ”
His voice trailed off, tangled somewhere in the distant tearstained past. He hawked and choked on his own tears.
It leaned down, closed the distance between them—if it needed to breathe then by now he’d’ve felt its breath; the awful power radiating off the thing singed his beard neat and shaved a couple of layers of epithelial cells off various growths he kept meaning to get checked out on his face.
He took a deep, centring breath, and it was full of the earthy, woody smell of eglantine; the reek of woodbine, pungent and soporific. His pupils dilated and his bladder let go. He didn’t notice.
“I’d like to do a lap, M25 clockwise. The fastest fuckin’ lap they ever seen. And I’d like to do it in that Cortina The Casual’s got parked down in the corner of the bottom yard.”
Constable DF674, napping in a layby just outside the Darenth turn-off of the A282, woke with a start. Something went past so fast it rocked the patrol car on its suspension. She raised the Trucam II, but there must’ve been something up with the electrics, because you couldn’t do 274 MPH in a road car and even if you could, DF674 was pretty certain you couldn’t accelerate up to it in the mile-and-a-quarter between the Dartford Tunnel and this layby.
She thumbed the talk-button on her TETRA.
“DF674: Suspect heading south on M25, passing Dartford Bridge. Red . . . Uh, Ford? An old Ford.”
“DF674, registration please?”
“Don’t have one, guv.”
“The vehicle has no registration, over?”
“No, I mean . . . It might’ve had one. It was going too fast to see.”
“Any identifying info, DF674?”
DF674 stared into strong sunlight refracting through exhaust smog. She watched the old red car shoot across the Mar Dyke Interchange—six lanes crossing each other, three sets of traffic lights—in a blare of horns and a cacophony of shrieking rubber. Swerving to get through the early evening traffic, it bumped one front wheel up over the six inch concrete lane divider at a rate of knots that should’ve left bits of suspension liberally spattered across the carriageway, went sideways into a powerslide to get around an Audi that had decided to cut in to the nearside lane. A Transit passing through the lights from the A13 side swerved to avoid it, straight into the path of an oncoming 7.5-tonner.
“Don’t think you’re gonna have too many problems IDing this one, Control . . . ”
Two minutes and seven seconds later. Nosing down on the brakes in a manner that belied physics, the Cortina swerved out of lane at the Sevenoaks interchange to avoid the tailback leading to the A21 and went the wrong way down the up ramp of the Brook Street junction, weaving in and out of traffic like it was on rails. Metal kissed metal in a rushing liquid congress; the screams of those wounded or trapped inside wreckage bled into the shriek of pulverising concrete; a dozen sirens dopplered into the howls of rubber on Tarmac. Hopping the central reservation just where the Armco ran out, the Ford shot between an articulated lorry and a van heading back to the distribution centre at Bromley.
The artic hit the brakes at fifty; the driver flung on the opposite lock. Then the trailer got bored hanging around at the back and came around to the front of the tractor unit, possibly to see what all the fuss was about. As the trailer swung perpendicular to the direction of travel—rocking up on its nearside set of wheels—it clotheslined a baby-blue Fiat 500, shearing the roof off clean at the base of the pillars. In a testament to Fruehauf engineering the fifth wheel on the back of the tractor unit held, but this just meant the cab and trailer flipped along its long axis and went spinning across the carriageway.
The Cortina sped away, accelerating even quicker now, as if to make up for lost time.
Kent went by in a string of multiple pile-ups; Surrey a vortice of trailing exhaust smoke twisting in the breeze. Four helicopters, sixteen police vehicles and a certain amount of instant social media celebrity trailed the Cortina across Buckinghamshire. By Hertfordshire, three unmarked twin-turbo hybrid BMW M3s of the Rapid Response Force had to give up the chase after one overheated and another misjudged the camber of the Junction 19 interchange and jumped a revetment, trailing bits of its front suspension behind it before burying itself in the overpass.
Efforts were made to block off the Essex section by physical means—as by now the Integrated Response Control responsible for policing the motorway realised the driver’s intentions—but a broken-down Number 15 bus led to the blocking equipment (called up at great expense from the 124th (Essex) Transport Squadron just outside the Premier Inn at Brentwood) getting stuck in traffic on the feeder road at Junction 28.
The decision to close the last section of the London Orbital, between Junction 29 at the A127 and the South Ockenden/Tilbury interchange, had been made roughly twenty minutes earlier, after the incident with the artic. Seventy two police vehicles converged across Essex and South London in an ever-tightening spiral, like some sort of bacon magnet had been turned on in the environs of the Dartford Tunnel. The “Smart Motorway” system closed down every junction in the south-east; traffic ground to a halt across a third of England as traffic lights on every single arterial road and dual-carriageway went red and stayed there.
A line of manual tyre-killers was deployed across all four lanes and the hard shoulder, 92 feet of wicked metal spikes gleaming dully in the sun. Two hundred yards behind that, police vehicles were lined up on both sides of the carriageway en echelon, ready to pounce on whatever managed to straggle through. On second thought, the commanding officer ordered all officers up the embankment behind the Armco. A collective sigh of relief overwhelmed the static-y blur of radio chatter.
The Cortina—seemingly enjoying the open road afforded by the newly-cleared home straight—threw itself into a perfectly executed bootlegger’s turn a hundred yards clear of the spikes. As the disbelieving officers sheltering up the slope watched, it sailed harmlessly through the spikes backwards, maintaining its speed instead of slowing down. Six officers from the South-East Armed Response Vehicle unit opened up in a crossfire from the top of the embankment, but as the Ford was still travelling at over 280MPH all this achieved was several grievous injuries on police officers hit by stray carbine fire.
In sight of the Dartford Tunnel entrance—just where the old manual tollbooths used to be—the Cortina slowed. It came out of the bootlegger’s turn at the very lip of the junction, swinging the right way around and nosing into the darkness like a Sunday morning shopper easing into a parking bay.
The ARV—sweating in their Kevlar and somewhat sheepish about maiming half a dozen of their fellow officers—dived out of their armoured BMW X5s, maybe five minutes behind. They assumed a fan cordon, briefly blinded as the sunlight dropped away.
Metal clinked as it cooled in the dimness. In their report, one of the officers mentioned—beyond the reek of tortured metal, the aroma of burning rubber, the wash of superheated exhaust smoke—a sudden rush of what they described as “a sort of honeysuckle smell” as they approached the suspect’s vehicle, but this was redacted from official reports as the consequence of the mental strain brought on by accidentally shooting a fellow officer.
When no response from the ticking Cortina was received to their challenge, the order to open fire was given again, exactly thirty-five minutes after DF674’s initial report.
Ancient safety glass blew out of the windows; part of the laminated front windscreen tried to snap off and flapped feebly back and forth as bullets spat through it. 5.56 mm rounds tore into rusted panelwork: a tyre blew out with a noise that echoed back and forwards along the length of the tunnel, undercutting the staccato chatter of gunfire. The front offside wing collapsed into a puff of grey dust, being composed mostly of a significant amount of epoxy filler. Thirty-six rounds later, the order to halt was given, and two officers switched on barrel-mounted torches and moved in through the cordite smoke, the other four standing ready to fire again should anything move from the shattered interior of the Ford.
As they shined their lights inside the Cortina, one of the officers vomited into their breathing apparatus and had to be rescued by a colleague before they drowned on their own upchuck; the other stood stock-still, ignoring the increasingly frantic demands of their superior officer to report in on what they saw.
Seemingly growing straight out of the seat, the remains of poor Mad Derek—bare spine and lower half of his ribcage disappearing down into the rotted floorpan, strange ropes of rubbery pipework coiled around feebly-pulsing organs, smeared with blood and oil from shattered alloy linkages melded with flesh that disappeared down into the transmission tunnel—blinked up from beneath the brim of his unmentionable cap.
He opened his mouth to say something, there at the end, but all he managed was a sort of short croak before another officer emptied the magazine of his carbine into his twitching form and the armour-piercing rounds sawed him in half.