The sign above the gate swung loosely in the breeze, rusting chains emitting a pained squeak that drifted lazily up the lane. Once-blue lettering read:
'Wilks' Auto Salvage: Have a Rummage Through Our Damage!' This had to be the one: his fifth and final call of an increasingly over-cast afternoon, if he couldn't find something to turn into cash here he was in trouble. His stomach turned at the thought of a certain vicious Glaswegian knocking upon his door first thing in the morning.
Muddy water welcomed him across the threshold and not for the first time Carl regretted not wearing his boots. Formerly white trainers stuck noisily as he tried, unsuccessfully, to edge round a vast, brown puddle that reflected the sullen slate sky.
A loud bark alerted him to the fact that he had been spotted. To his left a hut of corrugated iron spilled from the yard's contents and from it sprang a large, black Doberman. Uncommonly large, in fact: and uncommonly ferocious. Carl froze.
''E's alright – 'e don't bite. Well not if I'm 'ere 'e don't!' the man chuckled, emerging from the hut. He was old – well over seventy – and wizened. 'What y'after then?' He was dressed in a filthy-blue engineer's overall and wiped his hands on an oily grey rag. Incongruously he wore a Russian-style hat complete with ear-flaps. He squinted in the daylight, face wrinkled and improbably malleable, and Carl wondered just how bad the man's eyesight was.
'Mark-two Astra: need a few electrics and cooling bits. Got 'owt?'
'Aye – down the back there,' he indicated, 'third aisle. Couple of Astras and Cavaliers; s'all parts-bin stuff, yer Vauxhalls.' Carl knew this but thought it wise to keep quiet; the last thing he wanted was to be shadowed around the yard by this old crock.
'Cheers pal,' he replied, wondering how much he could conceal in his baggy clothing. He walked past the dog, which stood growling beneath its breath. Carl grinned: he suddenly had a good feeling about this one.
The yard was huge: to the left was a large shack which contained the pick of the parts: the sought-after, valuable stuff which needed looking after. Door skins, wheels, interior trim and the like. Stacks of part-worn tyres swayed precariously, exhaust systems leant like decaying tree-trunks beside a row of bonnet and boot lids propped like plates in a dishwasher. Upon their faded colours chalk identified the donor: Mondeo, Civic, Metro. Carl reached the turning at the end of the row when the voice called after him.
'Careful how you go now, there's some vicious sharp edges back there!' Carl turned and raised an appreciative hand in reply.
'Silly old git,' he murmured. The old man grinned back, and for a second Carl thought he saw something unpleasant, something malevolent. 'Silly old git,' he repeated, then turned away.
The path was a twelve-foot wide river of mud whose banks were stacks of salvaged mechanicals – rusted axles, engine blocks and gearboxes. Carl gave one or two a disinterested prod. The floor was strewn with debris from their extraction – wires, pipes, spark-plugs and valves. Funny to think so much stuff was just thrown away. He imagined some sad anorak throwing his hands up in wonder at finding some long lost part in the dirt: - 'Golly! An offside-widget arm for the little-known 1953 Triumph Skegness three-litre drop-head death-trap!' Carl enjoyed making himself laugh.
He slalomed between patches of standing water, peering down aisles like some decaying mechanical supermarket. Deeper-in the cars grew closer, the stacks higher, the light dimmer. He came to a crossroads at what he guessed to be the yard's centre: a crane stood in brooding silence. Then it started to rain.
'This is pants,' he told himself, and the thought brought him to a halt. Ahead the rows continued; cars stacked four and five high amid the gloom. High enough to prevent him being able to see the perimeter of the yard: just lots of cars and lots of mud.
What the hell was he doing? Did he really need to be spending his Sunday afternoon scratching round for second hand car-parts?
'You need an alternator, Carl. And you can't afford that and pay McKenzie. So get looking if you value your…'
He winced and without realising it he began to limp.
He made a right at a stack of Fords. There was an inherent sadness in the face of your Mark-four Escort, he always thought. It seemed to frown unhappily as if knowing how unloved and poorly engineered it was. God it was depressing back here, he thought just as his foot disappeared into a particularly deep patch of mud.
At the bottom of the aisle, with four stacks either side, he found the Vauxhall graveyard. Twenty or thirty griffin-badged cars stacked alongside a single rogue Renault 5, against what may have been the back fence. Beyond that was undergrowth. Or rather overgrowth: how long since that lot had been trimmed? All the cars wore those particular colours of 1980s Luton: ochre yellow, drab beige, an almost olive green. There was even a metallic gold Opel Manta GTE. How lovely.
'Aha!' he murmured as a he spied an Astra of the type required: stack three, car two, sandwiched between a black Nova and a Mark-three Cavalier. 'To work,' he whispered, removing a set of spanners from his pocket.
He negotiated some random suspension entrails and four assorted wheels to stand before it, bonnet at chest-height. Finding it jammed he felt for the catch and, after scraping his knuckle, found it. The warped bonnet gave with an uncooperative groan, only for Carl to discover he'd been beaten to it: no engine, no ancillaries. Just a yawning, empty engine-bay.
'Balls!' he said and slammed it shut. A cloud of rust billowed out the front grille and up into his face. He cursed, raising a tatty sleeve to wipe his eyes. He blinked, eyes watering profusely. That was all he needed. To console himself he crawled around and inside the car, watching his step in the narrow gap between the two cars with another pair balanced overhead. Within a minute he'd liberated eight bulbs and an ashtray and stashed them in his copious pockets. Anything bigger would need to be lobbed over the fence as usual. He felt marginally better for the petty pilfering, the thief's equivalent of hair-of-the-dog.
Climbing down again he was most pleased to find the thermostat, discarded on the floor. This was one of his five rare 'hit-list' items. He gave it a rub and examined it: he'd need to throw it into the kettle to check but it looked serviceable.
'Re-sult!' he announced to the world and secreted it away on his person.
Carl moved from car to car, stack-to-stack, extracting what he could conceal in his clothes, choosing a large hose to act as the sacrificial item to be paid for.
It was just as he decided to give up for the day – light fading fast, no sign of an alternator - that he saw it. Sitting atop the fifth stack from the end, quite clearly in view and yet somehow previously unseen, sat an incongruous, exciting shape. Maybe the light had cast it in shadow for it was dark, possible green metallic in colour.
'What the hell is one of those doing here?' Carl asked out loud.
As a rule such yards cater for the every-day kind of motoring DIY-er: Ford, Vauxhall, Rover, Renault and the like. Maybe an old Bee-Em if you were lucky. Nothing higher up the motoring pile: no Mercedes or Astons or Rollers – these were the preserve of the classic-car dealer: water-tight lock-ups and glossy catalogues. So by rights the car at the top of stack five shouldn't have been there at all.
But there it was.
'1955 Jaguar Mark II…' he whispered. 'Three-point-eight litre…' he added in reverential tones. He stood and stared upwards as the sun emerged. Carl saw the proud chrome oval radiator cowl, pitted and dull. Carl saw the delicate wire wheels, familiar from countless classic-car mags. Carl saw the beautifully feline curve of the front wings sweeping up to meet the delicate A-posts, which framed the wonderfully curved windscreen.
Carl saw pound-signs.
He hurriedly began to climb. Base camp was a white car, no longer of interest. He stood on broken window frames to get a leg up, then moved up to the next car, a grey Cavalier. His fingers reached over and gripped the door-trim of the Escort above and he felt it squelch like an old rotting bath sponge.
He swore and, as a reflex, let go. He fell backwards with a sharp thump and felt a stab of pain in the small of his back. The next stack prevented him falling further but now he was wedged at an awkward angle and it took some careful wiggling to regain his footing. In the process he established that neither stack was very stable.
Straight above him the door of the Jag was ajar. Carl had one foot on the open window frame of the Cavalier and the unidentified car he had fallen against. Bracing himself he stepped under the door and hauled himself up so his head was just above the bonnet of the Jag. He peered inside.
It was incredible – the interior looked pretty much intact! The black leather was old and cracked: it had - what was that word? – a 'patina'. It was amazingly complete, no tears. And the smell! There was no way the old guy could know how much one of these things was worth otherwise he wouldn't have left it out here. But how else had it got there?
Carl looked around the cabin, at the chrome stalks, the switches and dials, and the radio. The original radio! It was all still here! Even Carl knew there was no way he could get the entire car out for a song – even the squinty eyed crone would smell a rat if he wanted to buy it. But why buy when you could try first? He quickly emptied his many pockets of small-time Vauxhall bounty, and commenced re-filling them with as much classic Jaguar as he could manage.
He worked fast, removing a few under-bonnet and boot items such as the toolkit. Most of this would have to go over the fence – and he started looking round for some plastic sheeting. He didn't know exactly what everything was worth but he was fairly sure he'd amassed a substantial haul – hundreds, possibly thousands. Certainly he had more than enough to pay off McKenzie. He grinned and stood upright, breathing in the air: sometimes, just sometimes, the Gods were very kind.
Rain fell lightly on his face as he looked out across the yard. He could see over the stacks, could see the jib of the crane and the entrance. The hut was hidden from view, but a tell-tale wisp of smoke from some sort of fire betrayed its location. Beyond this a car accelerated along the lane and Carl was suddenly struck at how distant it sounded. He saw rooftops and factories and chimneys: and suddenly he felt cut off and remote in the middle of a large city, barely five miles from where he lived.
Carl's concentration was limited at the best of times, but was it the combination of heavy metal spare parts, or a sudden gust of wind channelled up between the stacks of wrecked cars – or possibly the cars themselves – that turned events against him?
One moment he was king of all he surveyed, the next he was slipping across the bonnet of a 1983 Vauxhall Cavalier Commander, scrabbling desperately for a handhold to avoid a twenty-foot drop. He found it at the second attempt by grabbing a windscreen wiper, but only after his first grasp had torn a six-inch gash down the outside of his left hand on a broken aerial. Pain flared up his arm and blood started turning the bonnet crimson. Carl screamed, as much in frustration as in pain. He'd had a few accidents so he knew it would heal with stitches but in the meantime by God did it hurt!
Dangling, his feet kicked wildly at thin-air, searching for the bonnet of the car below. Finding it after a few goes he was relieved to take the weight off his right hand, which now stung like anything and took a look at his left. The gash was deep, blood filling a puddle on the lower car, rivulets running through panel-gaps into the engine. He opened his mouth to call for help when a noise came from beneath him. A faint sizzle, which could have been water on hot metal; then a metallic sound which was probably just one of the cars settling after the disturbance. Finally came a low grinding which was strangely alien, yet oddly familiar.
'Help!' Carl shouted, still staring at the wound. Stem the flow – he needed to stem the flow. 'Oi! Help!' he tried again, frantically looking down to figure out where the best tourniquet would come from. He was struggling – no belt or t-shirt, just a jumper, jeans and his old brown bomber jacket. His vision was beginning to blur – was he about to faint? Surely not, not here. Not now. He shook his head to clear it, breathed deeply. The air was an odd mix of grease and oil and…something else he couldn't quite place…
A groan rose from the stack of cars, then as if in answer another followed from along the row; then another, further off. Carl was only partly aware, his eyes firmly fixed on the pool of blood accumulating beneath his immobile hand. It felt huge. With some effort he brought it closer to wrap it in his jumper but the blood seemed only to flow faster. Instead he kept it half-outstretched, like one of the beggars on Stockport Road.
No one answered, not even the dog. He tried again but still nothing. Surely they could hear him? Again, that feeling of distance…
Silly old – probably deaf, probably watching 'Deal-or-No-bloody-Deal'. He'd give him a sodding offer he couldn't refuse if he got out…when, when he got out.
'Shiiiiiiiii…!' hollered Carl again, channelling all his pain and frustration into that one colourful expletive before instantly regretting it as the pain in his hand began to throb incandescently. Down – he had to get down. Which way was best for a one-handed man? A sudden swaying of the stack told him he didn't have the luxury of choice. The wind had picked up and his position seemed suddenly precarious. Down down down…it's the new up, boys…
What? What the hell did that mean? Again he shook his head in an attempt to clear the fug.
The collapse caught him unawares: the noise seemed to follow later as if unconnected. His immediate thought as the Jag started to topple forwards was:
'Not good,' - a rather masterly understatement.
The beautiful, feline Mark II slid off the Cavalier, which in turn slid off the car beneath and the pair shot forwards into the aisle. Carl, still holding on with one hand was pulled down with it, luckily on top of and not beneath the front wing. He landed with a monumental 'whump' on the bonnet thanking the Lord that he had not fallen further. He felt the metal give beneath him as it was designed to do beneath careless pedestrians. It broke his fall.
Momentarily he rested. And then the rapidly descending Jaguar took his arm off. The Jag scraped down the side of the Cavalier and simply sawed it right off – clean as a whistle – coming to a noisy, crumpled halt beside the Cavalier. Carl's arm appeared to reach right inside it like some magic trick. It was an odd illusion in which Carl had little interest, for at that moment his whole world was compressed into a spiralling black-hole of pain perched massively on the end of his former arm. It had been taken off just below the elbow and the stump was re-spraying the British Racing Green door of the Jaguar a bright new shade of 'Carl-Bleeding-Scarlet'.
Carl could not believe the pain: his gashed left hand was forgotten, a self-pitying scratch by comparison. There was no rational thought, no sequence, just reflex. His body and mind were in acute shock – he twitched and shook for before lying still, blinking and trying to remember to breathe.
Seconds ebbed, possibly minutes. His body went numb. The yard was silent except for the rain, which fell steadily upon mud, metal and rhesus-positive. Opening his mouth Carl found himself unable to speak, lips mouthing soundlessly.
Legs, he thought, I have my legs. To prove it he tried to move them and found he could do so with relative ease. His thoughts caught up slowly and it took all his energy to make them stay still. Legs – he could move, propel his body. How far? Could he move far enough? Could he reach the hut?
The hut – he wasn't even sure he could turn around let alone reach the hut, which was now an eternity away.
But the pain, dear mother of Christ, the pain!
Isolate the pain – separate it. That's what it said in the SAS books. Isolate the pain somewhere that isn't here.
Jeez-us…! He had tried to move, tried to twist. His stump had dragged across the metalwork an inch, maybe two. And it had hurt like bejeezus. This was going to be tough.
He had to move – he was losing blood fast. How long did he have? He took a number of deep breaths then tried again, this time shouting as he moved. It helped – the act of letting out the pain channelled it like rain off a roof. His trainers propelled his body in a series of blindingly painful squeaks along the slippery metal until his face hung over the lip of the bonnet. The drop was seven or eight feet. He wasn't going to try head first so he took an extra three pushes to manoeuvre himself so his feet dangled over the precipice. Without waiting for doubt to put in an appearance, he pushed.
He landed on his feet but the impact shot through his weakened body and collapsed it to its knees. This time the scream came and it was pure, white-hot pain.
Still nobody came. Carl grabbed his right stump with its blood and dirt-coated counterpart in an attempt to stop the drain of life from his body; the increasing dizziness told him he didn't have long. His vision began to deteriorate into a series of flashes.
A sudden whining gave him hope. Turning expectantly, instead of the
yard-owner he saw only cars. Stacks of cars, which suddenly loomed like towering monsters to his increasingly slow senses. His breath quickened and he began to hyperventilate. The cars seemed to move, the walls closing in…he'd be crushed!
'No!' he whispered loudly, denying them. Carl turned, heard more metallic grinding and groans. Tried to run. Started to stumble. Splashed in the mud. Lost his balance due to the arm deficiency and fell once more to his knees. Behind him a crash: he turned to see a stack tumble – four cars coming nose down in the mud where he had been standing just seconds before.
'H…help!' he called, weakly, staring. He was three stacks from the end of the row – from the crossroads with the crane. He staggered, each painful step a drain. From there he'd surely be heard – just there, got to make it to…
Another stack crashed down, this time beside him but the car rammed the stack across the aisle to form a jagged bridge above his head. Not waiting to thank this change of fortune Carl staggered on, blood pouring, pain hollering.
'Aargh!' was all he could manage now with each slowing, staggering step, 'Argh!'
His vision strobed: rain came on more heavily encouraged by a lazy, numbing wind. His body shook, his face streamed.
'Nearly – nearly there…' he commentated, head upturned, breath rasping. One more stack…
The stack collapsed in slow motion faster that his injured frame, blocking his escape. Carl stopped and fell, splashing helplessly to his knees. Ignoring the pain he simply looked at this new but insurmountable obstacle; he fell to the floor and rolled onto his back. The pain had equalised across his body: a deafening, immobilising roar. His chest rose and fell: his heart thumped at his eardrums and in his head and in his hands. Hand. Carl looked down, shock returning. His body began to shake uncontrollably.
A scraping noise forewarned the next collapse, right alongside him, but he was powerless. This time it was only the top-most car that toppled. It paused for a tantalising second during which it seemed to resist gravity. But the wind caught it and a Red Escort van thumped to the ground right at his feet.
Correction – right at his knees, removing his previously operational legs in the process.
The impact stunned him, and after this Carl could no longer feel: hear yes; see just; feel no.
He hears them when they come, sees their shadows. His hearing seems more acute and each metallic click and collision he marks in the space around his body. He hears them land in the mud, splash in puddles. Sees their shadows meet and combine and merge.
Things which click and scrape and scurry. Things with thin, beak-like appendages, and blunt stubby, oily ones. And vicious sharp edges.
Oh, so sharp edges…
They pierce his flesh and he feels them get to work.
The little bell was attached to a thin wire that ran the length of the caravan and out into the yard. It rang not once but an insistent three, four times before falling silent.
'Ooop! 'ere we go Mabel, let's see what we got!' Ron wiped his oily hands on an ineffectual grey rag and sat down in his faded, yellow armchair. Beside him a broad metal tube, which looked like the flue of a coal fire rose up to the ceiling. There was a metallic 'ching-ching' sound and two objects fell down the chute into a cast-iron grate.
'Looks like They decided t' take this one, Mabes girl. Got a wrist-watch,' he picked it up and looked at it. Gave it a shake. 'Mmm. Prob'ly a seller that one, not my sort of thing. Ooo…!' and he picked up the second object 'Hip flask! I'll have that.' And he grinned some more. 'What about a wallet then?' And as if on command a brown leather wallet plopped into the small grate. Ron grinned. 'Ah!' he sighed as he opened it and leafed through its contents, 'Happy days!'
From the other corner there was a rustle as a jumbled assortment of blood-stained clothing tumbled down a laundry chute into a large box marked 'charity'. Ron looked down at Mabel, who sat expectantly, face staring intently at a smaller hole lower down the wall. Resembling a drainage gutter its open spout protruded over a wide metal bowl. A sudden gurgling and Mabel stood, tail wagging, tongue licking her lips. She whined expectantly. From the drainpipe came a number of objects: red, spongy objects, which fell with a slick, wet sound into the dog's bowl. The first few were unidentifiable – maybe organs, maybe muscle – but lastly came an eyeball and three recognisable, bloody stumps. These three sticky, severed fingers landed on the bloody mass like sausages atop mashed potato.
'Aha! Happy days indeed, Mabel,' Ron exclaimed as Mabel gleefully tucked in, 'Happy days indeed.'