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Authors: Fleur Beale

Speed Freak

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‘Fighting mongrel with a smart edge, that was me.’

Fifteen-year-old Archie is a top kart driver, aiming to win the Challenge series and its prize of racing in Europe.

He loves the speed, the roar of the engine, the tactics and the thrill of driving to the limits.

Craig is his main rival, and there's also Silver, who drives like she's got a demon inside. Archie knows he’ll need all his skill and focus to win. But sometimes, too, you need plain old luck. Can Archie overcome the odds and win?

IT WASN’T THE
best of beginnings for me with my Year 11 science teacher. I stalled on the starting grid, sort of thing.

Mr Taylor was new to the school. We had our first science class with him a couple of days into the year. I came in late from lunchtime.

‘Name?’ he barked while taking a swift look at my bandaged arm.

Before I could reply, my mate — my good mate — Colin piped up from the back row. ‘That’s Archie Barrington, sir. Our very own boy racer.’

Thanks, Colin.

Well, that did it for Mr T.

‘Sit there.’ He pointed at a desk set by itself at the side of the room. ‘That’s the seat reserved for anti-social louts with no concern for the rest of us.’

Colin was grinning his face in half. I just shrugged and sat down. Mr Taylor looked slightly surprised. Maybe he expected me to argue. He kept glancing at me every few minutes during the lesson. A couple of times I caught a look of complete bafflement. I was being such a good little anti-social lout.

Colin was still spitting with laughter when we left. ‘He’s going to be mad as a wasp when he finds out.’

‘You’re such a pal. He’ll hate me forever now. You too, you dumb ass.’

‘Nah, it’s all good. So how’s the arm?’

‘Fine. They took the stitches out this morning.’

‘And you’ll be racing again on Saturday.’ He shook his head as if he didn’t understand, though he was the guy who’d chopped the cast off his own wrist so he could keep on playing rugby.

The rest of the day passed without drama. Our English teacher knew me from last year, and all she said about my arm was, ‘I trust it won’t keep you from writing, Archie.’

‘Writing’s good, Ms Fielding. Mobilises the muscles.’

BACK AT HOME,
Dad had left instructions for dinner that involved more muscle mobilisation. So far, so normal.

He came in around six, gave his hands a scrub, shoved my homework further down the table and served our dinner.

‘Mmm, good!’ He prodded the chicken. ‘You cook almost as well as you drive.’

‘It must be all the practice I get.’

He started getting very interested in the food on his plate. ‘Yes. Well. We need to talk about that.’

‘Nothing to talk about. It’s sweet.’ He put so much time into me and my kart, not to mention the money, I figured it was only fair I did my share of cooking. But my radar was bleeping off the scale. I hoped he wasn’t going to say what it looked like he was psyching himself up to say.

He got over the plate-gazing stage and said it. ‘I’m going to ask Erica to move in with me. With us.’

Shit. But I’d guessed this would happen sooner or later. I’d just hoped it would be after I was off at uni. ‘Erica
and
Felix?’

‘Of course
and
Felix. She’s not going to dump a seven-year-old out with the rubbish.’

‘So when does this happen?’

‘Nothing’s settled. We’ve talked about it. That’s all. I told her I’d have to square it with you first.’

I thought about it while I finished my food, then I said, ‘Mum left because of karting.’ Among other things, but the time Dad put into karting was a big part of it. ‘I haven’t noticed Erica out there in the weekends. Isn’t this a hope-over-experience situation?’

‘She says she doesn’t mind. We’re not joined at the hip and she’s got her own interests. She works some weekends anyway.’

Erica was a doctor, and if Dad had asked me, which he hadn’t, she was about as bad a choice for him as Mum had been. ‘She gets free babysitting as part of the deal?’

Dad waved that away. ‘No. Her current arrangement stands.’

I picked up our plates and headed for the sink. ‘You know what’ll happen? You’ll start giving up weekends here and there. Or you won’t, and she’ll leave.’

‘You’re all right with her moving in, then?’

I leaned against the sink and eyed him. ‘No. But it’s your life. I’ve got nothing against her. She’s okay. Felix is so quiet you can hardly see him.’

Dad said, ‘Tell it like it is, son. You’re worried you won’t be able to keep on with the karting, aren’t you?’

I just nodded. I had such dreams. Formula 1, of
course. So many drivers had come up through karting. But more than that, I just liked the speed. And then there was that urge to win, to be the best, to do something really well.

Dad came over, gave me a one-armed shoulder hug and said, ‘I’ve spelled it out to Erica. She knows the score. Well, what do you think?’

I took a few deep breaths. ‘Just don’t go having sex where I can hear you. And keep the public displays of affection on low revs.’

And so ended the day. I was facing a de facto
stepmother
and step-brother, and tomorrow I’d be back in the desk saved for anti-social louts.

IN THE MORNING
I took the bandage off my arm. Yep, it’d be strong enough to race tomorrow week, when we were going up to the Manawatu track, just out of Palmerston North, for their club day. I was desperate to go. The club was hosting the first round of six in the Junior Challenge series the following weekend.

I wanted to get in all the practice I could, because winning the Challenge would be my chance to race at least once in Europe. It would still be expensive, but the winner got their airfares paid and they got supplied with the kart, the tyres — everything. That was my goal for the year — winning the Challenge.

I’d spent the holidays chasing sponsors. I’d put all my efforts into it, seeing as how Dad wouldn’t let me get in the kart. ‘Not till that arm’s completely healed,’ he said every time I suggested going out to the track. It was such a stupid injury — a bunch of us were at the beach, went scrambling around the rocks, I tripped on my jandal and fell. It wasn’t far — just far enough to crack a bone and rip shit out of the skin. But if I nailed the sponsorship as a result, it could be worth it, because this year was going to cost a bomb, going to all six rounds spread throughout the North Island. On Friday — tomorrow — I had to front up to the firm that was my best hope
of getting something more than just ten bucks and a pat on the back. My nerves twitched. I so didn’t need the Erica drama distracting me.

A nasty idea hit my brain. How soon would she want to move in? Dad would help her. Of course. It would have to happen on a weekend, and the weekend that started the day after tomorrow was the only one we had free for the next few weeks. Somehow I couldn’t see him waiting that long.

Bugger it all. I
knew
this was a bad idea. I parked it at the back of my mind and got myself to school.

The first bell went, and so did my phone. It was a text from Dad:
Howz arm? Practice tonight?

Dumb question but I texted back before he could change his mind.
Arm fine. C u afta schl.
Brilliant — something for an anti-social lout to think about.

We had science straight after interval. Colin and his girlfriend Ginnie headed for the back row, while I went to the lout desk. Mr T didn’t comment. He put the rolled-up chart he was carrying down on the bench in front of him and blasted off with the lesson.

‘Today will be a brief departure from yesterday’s topic. We’re going to examine the workings of the internal combustion engine.’

Interesting. Very interesting.

He unrolled the chart and stuck it to the whiteboard. I started to laugh. The rest of the class guffawed and I could hear Colin shouting, ‘Good one, sir!’

It was a diagram of a kart engine, with a panel of photos of the make of kart I drove down the side.

Mr T didn’t crack even a glimmer of a smile. He just got on with explaining the parts of the engine and how it all worked. Then he finished up by saying, ‘It takes
a great deal of skill to drive these things. Sometimes people get things wrong and get injured. I guess it’s like other people jumping to the wrong conclusion based on insufficient evidence.’ Then without even a pause, he went on, ‘Archie, you can move seats, although I’d advise you not to sit next to Colin MacPherson.’

I gave him a grin and went and sat next to Colin.

At the end of the lesson I walked past Mr T and said, ‘Smooth, sir. Very smooth.’

‘I’m pleased you approve, Archie.’

When we got outside, Ginnie said, ‘I would’ve told him yesterday, but Colin shut me up. And you! You just sit there and take it!’

‘I knew he’d find out sooner or later.’ But it was pretty much how I lived my life now — using the things Dad had bashed into my mind about karting since I was six years old, the main one being
Keep your cool and wait till the other bugger makes a mistake.

At lunchtime, Colin asked, ‘What’s up?’

I shrugged. ‘Nothing.’

‘Liar,’ said Ginnie. ‘You’ve only opened your gob to stuff food in it.’

They waited for an answer, along with the other three in our group — Nina, James and Silas.

‘Dad’s asked the girlfriend to move in.’

‘Any kids?’ Nina asked.

‘Felix. Aged seven.’

‘Could be worse,’ Silas said.

‘Easy for you to talk. You don’t have to—’

Colin jumped to his feet. ‘Come on. Let’s chuck a ball around. Good for your arm, Archie.’

So I exercised my arm and put thoughts of Erica to the back of my mind.

DAD WAS WAITING
when I got home. We lifted the kart into the trailer — it was an old garden trailer that he had converted. Craig, who was my top rival, had one that probably cost more than Dad earned in a year. But I was fine with our trailer — it had character.

I spent a few moments thinking about Craig. If I could beat him this year, there was a good chance I’d win the Challenge. The guy had his faults, but he was a top driver. Unfortunately.

‘I hope nobody else is on the track,’ I said.

‘Won’t worry us. We’ll work with whoever’s there.’

But I loved having it to myself and just driving. There was nothing like it: me, the kart, the speed and the track.

‘What’s your plan for this year, Archie?’ Dad asked. ‘Your driving style, I guess I mean.’

‘Go like shit and don’t crash,’ I said.

He laughed all the way through Upper Hutt. We were almost at the track when he said, ‘I won’t buy new tyres yet. Not till we see how it goes with the sponsors tomorrow.’

I felt that kick of nerves in my gut again. ‘I’ll do my best, Dad.’

‘I know you will.’ He held up a hand. ‘And no — I don’t want to hear your speech just one more time.’

Fair enough. He probably knew it by heart now too.

We drove up the hills to the turnoff. The side road narrowed and the surface wasn’t one I’d want to race on. We came round the final bend to see a four-wheel drive with a trailer parked sloppily by the clubhouse. The owner was driving his kart round the track.

‘Damian Church,’ Dad said. ‘Let’s hope he does the
decent thing and lets you have a go.’

‘I could get on the track too. Plenty of room for both of us.’

‘You know the rules, Archie.’

Yeah. I did. They said you couldn’t mix senior drivers in with juniors. That rule was designed specifically to stop innocent drivers like me from tangling with people like Dangerous Damian. The guy had no feel for the kart, the track or the race.

We lifted my kart out of the trailer. ‘Engine seemed okay when I tested it at home,’ Dad said. We knew that didn’t always mean it would be perfect out on the track.

I pushed the kart on to the dummy grid, then both of us stood at the side of the track in a spot where Damian couldn’t avoid seeing us.

It took him a good ten minutes before he decided to come in. Dad shook his head a few times, and as the kart cruised into the pits he said, ‘He drives like a drunk turkey. Off you go, Archie, before he can suggest a race.’

I slid into my seat and exited the grid as Damian rolled to a stop.

I took it easy for the first couple of laps, just warming up the tyres and getting the feel of the kart again after the long break.

Lap three, I got moving. Each corner, I hit my braking points spot on, nailing the apexes and exiting smoothly. The blur of the world outside, the roar of the engine, hands on the wheel — my idea of heaven.

Lap six, Damian waved at me to come into the pits. I guessed what he wanted —
a nice little race, Archie. Just the two of us.
I ignored him.

Next lap, he pulled out of the dummy grid in time to get up speed before I caught him. The prick! He’d had
his turn — he should stay off until I’d had a decent run. He’d be sorry, I’d make sure of that.

I chased him down the straight. He made it round the right-hander at the end, but I gained on him with smooth driving whereas he kicked the tail out and turned in too sharp. I followed him down the back straight. He’d be easy pickings at the sweeper, but he wasn’t messing about now. I checked the speed on the data logger: 107kph.

We arrived at the sweeper. Damian hit the brakes, turned the wheel too hard and spun.

I found myself following him. The world turned around me, once, twice, before I got control. I wasted more time by hitting the steering wheel and yelling, ‘Stupid moron blockhead!’ Me, not Damian. I should know better than to get caught up in a mangle like that. I did know better. Dad would be shaking his head — unless he was furious at me for not coming off.

I got my temper and my kart back in line. Focus. That’s what I needed to do.

Damian was very experienced at taking off after a spin and I didn’t catch him until we got to the S’s. This time, I kept hold of my wits. I watched the gap, not the kart in front of me. I overtook while he was still wallowing around trying to find a line — any old line — through the corner. He wouldn’t catch me now.

I turned my attention to driving consistent lap times. The consistent driver will often do better than one who goes hard out all the time.

After I’d done fifteen laps, Dad signalled to come in, and that’s when I stopped playing it safe. I gave it everything, pushing the limits of the kart and my skill on every corner. There’s nothing like it — the sheer joy
of speed, of responding to the kart and the track, of driving without conscious thought.

I stayed on the track, too. Always useful.

I slowed and drove into the pits. Damian kept on circling the track, making the same blunders on each corner. He was probably hoping we’d disappear before he had to come in, because he knew bloody well that Dad would give him a bollocking. Dad might give me one as well, but not for racing Damian.

But he didn’t say anything until we were about to drive away, when all he said was, ‘Well?’

‘Yeah. I know. I spun because I was looking at him instead of looking ahead.’ I felt dumb, as if Damian had rubbed my face in the dirt.

‘A useful reminder. Kart okay?’

‘Sweet.’

‘Stop kicking yourself, Archie. That turned out to be a timely lesson. Learn from it.’

‘Yeah. I sure will.’

‘Better today than on race day,’ Dad said.

I shuddered. ‘I reckon I owe old Damian a beer.’

‘How’s the arm?’

I cradled it and groaned. ‘Really sore. Much too sore to cook dinner.’

‘Never mind,’ said my heartless father. ‘Make yourself a sandwich. I’m going out with Erica.’

They’d be settling the moving-in business. I wouldn’t let my mind go to what else they might do. The thought of him and Erica round the house — my home — getting all strokey and kissy almost put me off the idea of food. But not quite.

I started cooking the minute we got back. I reckoned the smell of frying onions and sausages would be torture
to a hungry bloke who wasn’t going to be eating for a half hour or so, but I made sure the sausages were too raw for him to steal one out of the pan.

I don’t think he noticed. He bounced out, all showered and tidy, gave me a one-armed hug and disappeared to Erica’s. Out of habit, I cooked a heap of veg. That was another thing Dad hammered into my head on a monotonous basis:
Watch your diet. Keep fit, keep lean, keep strong.

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