This is my gift to you all for your support over the past year.
“Miss Stevens, your car is ugly.”
Renee rolled her shoulders to relax the tension sitting between them, and pretended she didn’t hear the comment. She didn’t bother looking up from her white wine. She was the only woman who frequented the bar – a known hangout for car enthusiasts – and she had earned a reputation for not taking shit from anyone. However, it had been a long day and she was bone-weary.
Alas, the man would not take the hint.
“Didn’t you hear me, girl? Your car is ugly.” He stood aggressively, with his fists on his hips and his chin thrust out, trying to look bigger than he was. Renee has seen a hundred men like him every day since she had started on her quest to build the fastest car in the world. They always managed to make the word ‘girl’ sound like a curse, rather than mere fact.
Renee suppressed a sigh. She said in a low voice, “I don’t recall being introduced, but since you know my name you must know of me and my car. I built her to be fast, not fashionable. You are not the first person to tell me that my car is not beautiful.”
The man was not the sort to be turned aside with gentle words. He snarled, “Are they the same people who tell you a girl shouldn’t build and race cars?”
“Yes, they usually are,” said Renee. She took another sip of wine and her mouth puckered; it was too dry and didn’t suit her mood. She needed a sweeter wine, something light and fruity.
“And they are right!” declared the man. “No woman has a brain that understands the mechanics.” He was short and dark, with a luxuriant moustache. No grease clogged his nails or the pores of his hands. He was too clean to be an inventor, engineer or mechanic. Most likely, he was a driver; they tended towards being highly strung.
Renee’s own hands were not as clean, even though she wore gloves when working on the Gigantron and took extra care to wash after work. She wondered if the man suffered ‘short man syndrome’ and saw the large size of her glorious Gigantron as an attack on his manhood. He seemed to be quivering with suppressed rage at her, and she couldn’t recall having any prior conversations with the chappie, so he couldn’t have a personal grudge against her. Pondering this, she said, “Really? If you are so interested in holding with traditional values, why are you picking on someone who is smaller than you?”
The quiver turned into a tremor that shook the man’s whole body. Renee concentrated on her wine. If he actually swung at her, she knew the entire bar would leap to her defence. As much as the other patrons might disapprove of a woman in their bar, they wouldn’t tolerate such ungentlemanly behaviour as a man striking a young lady, even if she was a peculiar young lady who invented and built automobiles. They weren’t to know that Renee had a spare wrench in her reticule for emergencies of all kinds.
“Your ugly car will not race,” growled the man, and he turned and stomped away. His spot was taken by a well-dressed, elderly gentleman with enormously expressive eyebrows dominating his face.
“How do you do, my dear?” said the gentleman, while a twitch of his eyebrows dismissed the rudeness of the short, dark man. “May I have a word with you?”
“You may,” said Renee. She smiled at the old gentleman. The eyebrows were clearly delighted at her welcoming response. The gentleman settled himself in the other seat at her table. Renee took the opportunity to study him. He was of average height, but was so thin he appeared to be tall and rangy; she imagined people often used the word ‘spry’ when describing him. His clothing was well made and well cared for, but fragile with age. His shoes were brand new and looked to be very expensive. Once he was comfortable, he smiled back at her.
He said, “Thank you, my dear. My name is Mister Erasmus Whittingstall. We haven’t been formally introduced, but I know your name is Miss Renee Stevens. You have a formidable reputation as an automobile inventor.” His eyebrows conveyed what an honour it was to make her acquaintance.
“How kind of you to say,” said Renee, and she meant it. People tended to use the word ‘bad’ whenever they mentioned her reputation. “How can I help you?”
“I would like to hear about your car, the Gigantron.”
“What do you want to know?” asked Renee.
“This might sound strange, but I have pretentions of poetry,” said Mr Whittingstall. He grinned and leant forward as if imparting a delicious secret. “I have seen you and your car in action. You will have the last laugh. Your car is a masterpiece. I can see how you have must have grown bones of steel and iron, and how you must sweat rust. I can see how you have rattled your teeth loose, suffered welding burns, and jarred your bones to splinters for your quest for speed. I want to capture your energy and enthusiasm in a poem; a poem to capture the zeitgeist of this new age.”
“Pardon?” Renee was taken back.
With a sympathetic swoop of his eyebrows, Mr Whittingstall explained, “I think your car is a great beauty, in the true meaning of the word ‘great’. Some automobiles seem to be airy-fairy filigrees of wire and chains. Your car is a warrior princess, a Valkyrie, big and powerful with sleek lines, breathing out smoke and steam and speed in return for your care. She looks like a rocket.”
“Like a bullet,” said Renee. “She is meant to look like a bullet.”
“Ah-ha. A bullet is another metaphor for speed,” said the Mr Whittingstall. He folded his hands across his chest and beamed.
“So how can my Gigantron and I help you with your poem?”
“I would like to pay you for a ride in your car.”
Renee relaxed. There was room for two in her vehicle. She could tuck the elderly gent behind her in the seat behind her driving console and chair. If she took it easy, he shouldn’t take any harm. She nodded and said, “You need not pay for a ride. I can take you with me on one of her test runs.”
The eyebrows jumped so high that they nearly disappeared into his mop of unruly white hair. “Oh no. You misunderstand me, though I appreciate the kind offer. I want to ride with you when you attempt to break the land speed record, and I am prepared to fully sponsor your attempt.” Mr Whittingstall nodded and continued, while his eyebrows dropped lower and lower, “I am quite wealthy. And I know how your expenses must be piling up. With my help, you can afford to best of everything.”
“And now I appreciate your very kind to offer, but it is much too dangerous,” said Renee.
“Now look here, Miss Stevens. I am an old man, but I still have a sound mind and a sound body. I promise not to be a distraction. One of the reasons I approached you is that I thought you might understand how it is to be constantly warned not to take risks. I am quite aware of the risks, and I have not discounted them.”
Renee couldn’t argue with his logic. He was certainly old enough to know his own mind. On top of that, she could use those extra funds. She made her decision.
“You will have to train with me. I must know I’m not endangering you, Mr Whittingstall. And some of your money will go to increasing safety measures on your behalf.”
The eyebrows danced with delight. “Excellent,” exclaimed Mr Whittingstall. “Come to my office tomorrow and we can make the arrangements. I’ll have my lawyer there so that no one can blame you for any mishaps. Though I’ve seen you drive, and I am sure I will as safe as in my own armchair. Then we can go visit my bank and arrange for the start of your funding.”
“Oh my,” said Renee, her voice rather faint.
“Let’s shake on it, shall we?” said Mr Whittingstall.
Two months later, Renee was polishing away the grease and grime that had condensed on the Gigantron overnight, and the car gleaming like the bullet she resembled. She whistled as she rubbed a shine onto every available surface. Some people might call the Gigantron ugly, but Renee knew beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Mr Whittingstall had taught her that.
If only those naysayers knew Gigantron better. Her chassis was similar in shape to a rocket, a long cone that curved to a point at the front, was finned at rear, and with six massive wheels supporting her weight. She was powered by a variety of methods, rather than just by coal or kerosene. She had two radial aero engines, the same sort of engines found in an airplane, air-cooled with propellers and gel-cooled with a refrigeration unit. In conjunction with these, Renee had added a magnetically-propelled motor, which could only work when the other engines are running at full bore. When she reached her maximum speed, she was as mighty as an avalanche or a tidal wave.
Stopping and turning when at full speed, on the other hand, was something of an issue. Newton’s Law of Motion and all that…inertia could be a killer when your car massed as much as the Gigantron. She wasn’t just a lady made of iron, she had an iron will. The lady’s not for turning. She could be the fastest car on the planet, but she wasn’t manoeuvrable.
Because of her lack of a turning circle, the Gigantron couldn’t race on a circuit. She needed a straight road, as smooth as you could make it. Renee had considered giving her a track like a locomotive, but a derailment at high speed would mean certain death. With Mr Whittingstall riding with her, certain death was not an option.
Today was going to be his first ride.
Renee was hoping for an uneventful day.
Mr Whittingstall turned up just as Renee was going over her checklist.
“How are you today, my dear girl?” called out the elderly gentleman.
“Are you talking to me or to the Gigantron,” said Renee, turning to meet him. It was quite the sight that met her gaze. Mr Whittingstall was dressed in the driving clothes of an earlier era, with a woollen coat, gaiters, heavy driving gloves, goggles and a leather aviation-style helmet. It was all Renee could do to suppress a laugh, but she felt safe enough with a smile.
“I think your outfit is quite wonderful, Mr Whittingstall,” she said. “Did you buy it especially for this occasion?”
“Well, no,” said Mr Whittingstall. “I own quite a collection of automobiles. This is just one of my driving outfits, one of my favourites, to be truthful. I think it looks dashing.”
“I’m glad to see you have dressed with safety in mind,” said Renee, and meant it. She was dressed in a padded leather boiler suit, and also sported gloves, a helmet and goggles. Even though the canopy of the Gigantron was designed to protect them from the wind, a stray draft would be dangerous at high speeds, driving dust into their eyes. To be driving blind would be fatal. Goggles were an important part of any driving outfit.
A couple of assistant mechanics came over to help load the two of them into the Gigantron. The car was too tall to get into without a stepladder. Mr Whittingstall had to go first, as his seat could only be reached while the driver wasn’t occupying her seat.
The old man gamely climbed into the car without too much trouble. He really was a spry old duck. The assistants carefully strapped him into his seat, a seat designed with a superior suspension to minimise any rattles or sudden jerks. As well, Renee has added padding to any hard surface around Mr Whittingstall’s seat, in case of a sharp stops or turns. Old bones were brittle.
It wasn’t just because he was her sponsor that she was taking such care. You had grown quite fond of him. He was a cheerful and undemanding mentor, asking intelligent questions. Renee had been expecting the poet to be much less sensible and more of a nuisance. Indeed, Renee found his enthusiasm for her Gigantron refreshing and inspiring. She had even stopped frequenting the bar, as she no longer needed to drown her money worries over a drink or two. Mr Whittingstall had been true to his word, and signed cheques without a peep of protest. It had made her life so much easier, being able to afford the proper equipment and staff to do things right. One of those things she made sure was right was Mr Whittingstall’s comfort and safety.
Renee climbed up the ladder and into her own seat. Her assistants buckled her in, making sure she was almost part of her console. Her back was immovable; only her arms, feet and head were unrestrained. Both her and her sponsor’s chairs were custom-made to their physical specification, to minimise jolting and bruising. The canopy was lowered and bolted down.
The Gigantron surrounded them like a fortress.
“Now remember your training, Mr Whittingstall,” said Renee. “You can halt this test at any point right up until I start our final acceleration. Once we are at top speed, we can’t stop quickly.”
“I understand. Mainly because you’ve told me this about a hundred times, Miss Renee.”
“And I will probably tell you a hundred times more,” said Renee, but the poet could hear the smile in her voice. “If you are all settled and ready, I’m starting her up.”
Renee flicked several switches, and with each switch a different part of the Gigantron roared into life. Other men spoke of growl or purr of engines, using the imagery of lions and tigers to symbolise the power of their motors. To Mr Whittingstall, it sounded like a hundred different drums beating their own individual rhythms and yet all coordinated into creating a heartbeat; this was mechanical teamwork at its very best.
The poet Whittingstall could hear the patterns within the engine noise, like when a child is learning to speak, and it repeats the same word over and over. The language spoke of cog and gears, of forces harnessed, of woman and machine working together to make a dream come true. Humanity has always pined for wings, and speed gave the illusion of breaking the bonds of gravity. Had speed become a metaphor for flight? The poet believed the urge to fly was really a search for higher things … like truth and beauty. The thought pleased him immensely. He knew that Renee was a pragmatic and sensible woman. It enchanted him that she might be secretly as big a dreamer as he was; so secretly she herself didn’t know it.
Unaware of Mr Whittingstall’s train of thought, Renee was carefully driving the Gigantron out to the especially prepared track. It was two hundred kilometres of perfectly straight roadway constructed to support the weight of the Gigantron without buckling. Today was a test of the track more than it a test of the Gigantron. Either side of the track was lined with bales of hay and bags of wool, for a softer ‘landing’ in case of a spinout. Renee was taking no risks with her car or her mentor.
From her seat, Renee could see approximately twenty-one kilometres down the track. There were no obstacles. She had already driven the entire track the previous evening to check, using a motorcycle of her own design. Twenty-one kilometres should give her plenty of time to stop at the speeds the Gigantron would be travelling today.
Renee waved to the watching staff, signalling she was ready to go. They waved back.
“Righty-o,” said Renee. “We are all set to go. Comfortable?”
“Immensely. I really should get a chair like this for my study.”
Renee grinned. “Get two. I’m certain Mrs Whittingstall would like one as well.”
“Oh my. Of course. She could use one for her knitting chair.”
“She knits?” asked Renee, while she straightened the Gigantron so that she was lined up between a series of white marks on the bitumen. Even though Renee had a steering wheel, it was safer to reduce any chance of trying to turn at high speed.
Mr Whittingstall said in reply, “She is a terrible knitter. But she likes to show willing. In fact, I believe she is knitting you a present.”
“Something to look forward to, then,” said Renee, her mouth running on automatic. She was concentrating; two hundred kilometres was a long way and even a small deviation from the straight would mean the Gigantron might end up veering off the road.
“How kind of you to say,” said the poet. He fell quiet as Renee went through her final checklist. She was letting the motors run to warm up and ensure that the lubricant was coating everything. Then she started the Gigantron down the road.
Mr Whittingstall admired how the Gigantron shone, nearly sparkled, in the sunlight. Every surface that could be polished on the car was polished. But – as much as Renee might refute it – the Gigantron was an ugly car when compared to the confections decorated with wood and brass you could see on the roads and byways. But those little toys just puttered along, thrilled to make even a hundred kilometres an hour; they were earthbound. Renee’s invention might look more like a train or a rocket than a car to the ignorant, but mere rails were not her natural environment. The Gigantron only looked clumsy because she spent most of her time out of her element, like a seal on land, and yet the seal was an athlete and an acrobat in the water, while the Gigantron’s natural element was speed.
As the car went faster and faster, Mr Whittingstall was expecting her to start rattling. After all, he had ridden in other cars and had suffered the shaking they gave his bones. The Gigantron didn’t rattle. The road was smooth, and the machinery beautifully made and balanced. It was more like riding in a sailing boat than in a car. Trains had a constant clackety-clack. Even airplanes made more noise than the Gigantron, and he knew the car had two airplane motors.
Renee broke into his thoughts. She said, “I’m about to switch on the magnetic propulsive engine, as we are now at a speed where it can be useful. This is your ten second warning.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Oh no. It is well insulated from the other motors. But we should speed up even more …now!”
A new voice was added to the chorus, and the poet felt himself gently pushed back into his chair. A glance outside confirmed the car was going faster; even middle-distance objects were quickly falling behind them.
“How are you doing back there?” asked Renee. “Are you feeling any aches or pains? Feeling breathless?”
“I’m feeling nothing but inspired, my dear,” said Mr Whittingstall.
Then I am pushing her up to 300km an hour,” said Renee. “That is just under the current land speed record, but should be well within the tolerances of the Gigantron. Then I am going to run her for five minutes at that speed, and then start the braking process.”
Everything went according to plan. The car made a smooth transition to 300km and back without the motors straining at any point. At the end of the track, Renee had invented a special rotating platform that turned the Gigantron 180 degrees, so that the car could set off on her trip back to base without the bother of trying to steer her.
They were halfway back to base when the unexpected happened. As they approached one of hummocks of sandbags and straw bales, it seemed to collapse and fall onto the road. It left an obstruction in the middle of the road. Renee’s heart stuttered as she saw the problem.
“Hold on! We’ve got a blockage on the track!” she shouted to Mr Whittingstall.
The old man peered over her shoulder, straining to see.
“Sit back and brace yourself,” ordered Renee.
This time he did as she asked.
Renee thought quickly. Should she risk trying to brake and possibly send the Gigantron into a spin? Should she try to make for a break in the barrier and risk the rough ground? The Gigantron was a heavy car, her wheels sturdy, and she was pointed at the front like a cow-catcher … it was probably best if they tried to bully their way through the barrier. And the faster she was going, the better. If the barrier was enough to stop them, they would die anyway.
So, Renee hit the accelerator. The Gigantron surged forward. The barrier seemed to take a leap to meet them.
Renee could hear someone roaring like a berserker, and realised she was the one making the sound. It wasn’t a scream of fear; it was a warrior shout of challenge. She kept the noise up as they hit the barrier. She forced herself not to flinch or close her eyes.
The Gigantron didn’t even slow down. She hit the barrier in a flurry of sand and straw and … blood. A splatter of it bubbled and slid across the front windscreen while Gigantron bounced like she was a plane hitting turbulence. Then they were through the barrier and on their way again.
Renee finally stopped roaring long enough to take a breath. She carefully re-started the slowing down process and made a slight adjustment to the Gigantron’s direction.
Then she gazed at the smear of blood with mounting horror.
“Are you all right back there?” she asked.
“I am fine,” said the old poet, and Renee was relieved to hear his voice was unruffled. A couple of trickles of blood were being pushed and battered by the wind along the windscreen and down the sides of the car. Mr Whittingstall could see them. He continued on, “I gather we hit a rabbit or some such?”
“No. I’m sure this was an attempt at sabotage. There was a wall of straw bales and sandbags across the road. It had to be deliberately built to damage or destroy the Gigantron,” said Renee.
“But … the blood,” he said. “Where did the blood come from?”
“I think the saboteur was standing behind the wall,” said Renee, and gulped down a sudden rising tide of nausea. “We hit at least one person. We may have killed them at this speed.” The horror overwhelmed the nausea. “Oh god! I’ve killed someone!”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t your fault,” said Mr Whittingstall. “You weren’t to know someone was hiding behind that obstacle.”
“And you don’t even know if what you hit was the saboteur. It could have been a goat or any wild animal. And you can’t know for sure what you struck is dead. Don’t borrow trouble.”
Renee took a deep breath and let it out slowly to clear her head and calm her nerves. “Thank you for your sensible advice,” she said.
“You have nothing to thank me for. I should be thanking you for saving my life by keeping a cool head. As well, you won’t get into any trouble for this even if you did kill some idiot trying to damage the Gigantron. I was a witness to the whole event. There was nothing you could have done differently. You might as well say the fool committed suicide.”
Renee still felt shaky, but her brain agreed with Mr Whittingstall’s assessment.
“I’m just so glad you are safe,” said Renee, and meant it. She returned to concentrating on her driving,
As it turned out, a man had died under the Gigantron’s six wheels. What little wasn’t laminated to the bitumen was identified as Lorenzo Wheeler, another car designer who was also trying to develop a fast car. The local authorities took the same view as Mr Whittingstall; the man had brought his fate upon himself. They were also certain that only Renee’s cool head had saved her and Mr Whittingstall.
“After all this fuss, did you get any ideas for your poem?” Renee asked Mr Whittingstall as they walked out of the hearing.
“Actually, I did,” said the elderly poet. “In fact, this unfortunate incident just adds more grist for my mill. Speed is a beautiful thing, but like fire and knives and electricity, it can kill just as easily as it can help humanity.”
“I guess this means you don’t want to take another drive with me?”
“You would then be guessing wrong, my dear. You have proved to me that you are the safest driver, with the best car. I seriously doubt that any other jealous individual is going to make another attempt to wreck your car.”
Against all propriety, Renee gave the poet a bear hug. “You are brave, Mr Whittingstall,” she declared. “I have to admit, I never thought a man of words would be so stout of heart.”
“My dear! Poets are always brave. We have to see things as they really are, and often the truth is quite ugly.”
“As ugly as the Gigantron?”
“Only a dimwit would consider your stately Gigantron as ugly. And I will make certain that the world grows eyes to see how lovely she really is.”
“Well then, we’d best go and plan our world-breaking speed attempt.”
The eyebrows of Mr Whittingstall bristled with glee. “I think that sounds like the most sensible suggestion anyone has had all day.
The Gigantron did make the world record for speed, that remained unbreakable for eleven years. And it was another woman who broke Renee and Mr Whittingstall’s record … but that is a story for another time.