I was spending a quiet Wednesday re-shelving my collection of mid-twentieth-century boys’ annuals by colour, when my friend Janelle rang up suddenly in one of her usual pickles.
“David! David! You have to help me, I’ve done something a bit silly.”
“What is it now, Janelle? I’m really quite busy today.”
“Well, I’ve got this thing and I’m not sure what to do with it.”
“What type of thing would that be? If it’s attached to anyone, please don’t ask me.”
“No, it’s a large thing. It’s a car, actually. And a suitcase. I don’t know what to do with the car and the suitcase. I think I shouldn’t have said yes and I need you to tell me what to do now.”
I sighed theatrically, but we both know I love how she leans on me.
“Start at the beginning. Sit down, take a deep breath and confer order on your narrative.”
“I’ve taken lots of deep breaths, in fact I’m pretty much hyperventilating.”
“Slow and steady. How did you get the car and the suitcase?”
“It was this handsome stranger. He wanted me to do him a favour.”
“Okaaay…did he just come up to you at random and say ‘Take this car and this suitcase’?”
“He was attractive in a foreign sort of way. He had green eyes and a hat.”
“Green eyes and a hat. Do you mean he really did approach you at random?”
“No, he offered me a lift round the corner – I was struggling with the groceries – he gave me a ride back to my place and then he asked if I’d return the favour.”
“Didn’t your mother tell you not to get into cars with strange men?”
“He wasn’t that strange. Maybe faintly weird-looking. Anyway, he said to take this car, drive down-state, take off the licence plates and wait for him.”
“And this didn’t strike you as odd until just now? Down-state meaning what? Did he provide a screwdriver? Janelle you are a ditzy broad.”
“Don’t fire questions at me! What are you, a quiz show? No, he told me to drive thirty miles down the main road to the gas station in [name] [yes, I’m cautious] and park round the back, and I guess I didn’t think about the screwdriver thing. I was feeling fluttery, I suppose.”
“It must have been an exceptionally seductive hat.”
“He said I could keep half the money in the suitcase.”
“Now I begin to understand. You’re still a ditzy broad. Where are you? I’ll come and find you.”
Janelle is ALWAYS doing stuff like this.
So, I found her parked up in the loading area behind the supermarket, where she probably thought she was being very discreet as it wasn’t visible from the carpark, but any number of delivery men and shelf-stackers must have been wondering what the hell she was up to. The car was one of those big old classic cars that are very wide on the outside and yet strangely uncomfortable to sit in, with leather seats and no power steering. It could hardly have been more conspicuous. The suitcase sat on the back seat. It was a boxy cardboard suitcase straight from an antiques shop, clearly and only suitable for carrying bundles of banknotes.
I slid in to the passenger seat beside her and gave her my very best eye-roll.
“Janelle, this is obviously a hot car. We must get rid of it immediately. Do any of your friends own scrapyards, metal crushers, or handily deep ornamental lakes?”
“David, you know all my friends. Don’t make stupid remarks but just help me.”
“I think we drive the car around a bit and then dump it in a rough estate and let the locals take care of it. Meanwhile we can take care of the suitcase. Have you opened it? Start driving, by the way. You’ve been blocking this loading bay for long enough.”
Janelle gave me a wild look as she pulled off.
“We can’t dump it in an estate. We’d have to walk back with all the money, and anyway it’s too close. We need to get out of town, like he said.”
“I don’t think we should do what he said. Anyway, better plan – we disguise the car. It’s memorable and lots of people have seen you driving it. Let’s go to your place and you can exercise your creative streak.”
Janelle truly does have a creative streak; it’s one of the things I love in her. She designs fabrics and makes her own lampshades and paints furniture that she’s bought second-hand.
“And then we can drive it somewhere and burn it,” she replied.
“Yes, good idea. We should disguise ourselves too. Your neighbours can’t see in to your carport, can they, because of the tree?”
“No they can’t, but I’ll make extra sure and go in by the back way. David, I’m so grateful to you.”
“Don’t get too grateful yet. You don’t know, we might end up trying to murder each other for the money like in Shallow Grave.”
“Don’t joke!” said Janelle with a sob, and gave the steering wheel a worrying lurch. “Do you think the police are after me? Am I going to prison?”
“Not if I can help it,” I said as confidently as possible.
It was a nerve-wracking time with the car parked outside Janelle’s house. She’s fortunate both in the indirect route that she can use to sneak in from the drive of the house just behind her and in the tree that screens that side of her building, but it still felt very vulnerable. We had to think fast.
“Do you have paint? Can we change the colour of the car, maybe modify the letters on the licence plate a bit? There’s a C in the number we could change to an O and an 8 that could be made to look like a 9.”
“I don’t have the right kind of paint to paint a car, and even if I did it wouldn’t have time to dry. What are we going to DO?”
“Ribbons and flowers? Pretend it’s a wedding car?”
“I don’t have a dress I could wear as a wedding dress and you’re not wearing a suit.”
“No, that’s a silly plan! Weddings involve lots of extra people, anyway, it’s never only the two in the car unless it’s the ‘just married’ car, and the ‘just married’ car always has tin cans and things on the back. Think of something else.”
“I’m thinking of the suitcase. Did you bring it in?”
“No, it’s still in the car, which we need to disguise along with ourselves.”
“I’ve got it – do you have some big sheets of coloured paper? Let’s make a hippy car, but we’ll cut out the flowers and whatnot from paper and stick them on because we haven’t got the right kind of paint. It only needs to look convincing for a bit. I’m sure you have some scarves and floppy hats and things we can use to dress ourselves up to match.”
Janelle flung her arms around me. “That’s BRILLIANT and you will look ADORABLE in my sun-hat. I have some rolls of crepe paper that will be perfect.”
“I was thinking of you in the floppy hat, but I’m glad you approve of my idea.”
Janelle fetched the paper, scissors and glue and we hastily cut out large bright shapes free-hand.
“David, what is that meant to be?”
“It’s a heart. I thought we needed some hearts as well as flowers.”
“It’s all squashy and lopsided.”
“Real hearts aren’t symmetrical. They’re muscles and they’re often bigger on one side.”
“Your heart’s a mess, you just won’t admit to it. Here, give it to me.”
Janelle insisted on doing all the gluing herself after that, but it gave me a chance to tackle the suitcase. As I expected it was locked, but the flimsy old thing looked as though you could open it with a knife and fork. I settled for stabbing it with the scissors; that proved less effective than I hoped. Rather than struggle with it I decided to stash it in the house, but as soon as I lifted it I realised it wasn’t what we’d thought.
“This suitcase weighs hardly anything. I’m pretty sure it’s empty.”
“The BASTARD. He just wanted me to be his – his fall guy – patsy – whatever one of those people is.”
Janelle was quite immoderately upset at the thought that the man who had (we strongly suspected) saddled her with a car that had been recently involved in a crime had not also entrusted her with the proceeds of that crime, so we set off back up the sneaky route through the neighbours’ drive with me at the wheel. Thanks to her deft fingers the car’s new decorative scheme looked amazingly good for a product of crepe paper, glue and panic, and I told myself its exuberant irregularity would distract from the distinctive silhouette. The man had told Janelle to drive south so we were going north to some woods where we thought we could get well off the road to dump the vehicle. There was also a railway line in that direction and we reckoned we could walk to the nearest halt and catch a train back.
As we drove out of town Janelle had a wobble.
“Why don’t we just go to the police and tell them everything? Why didn’t we do that to start with? I can give them a description of the criminal and we’ll be heroes.”
“You’ll tell them we stuck flowers and hearts all over this car after you met a man with green eyes and a hat.”
“I can say more about him than that. He had dark hair and, um, eyebrows…”
I looked at her. She fell silent.
“Petrol! The tank is almost empty! And how are we going to burn the damn thing without it? We want a good explosion, we want it to go boom…”
I pulled over into a gas station – not the specified gas station – and filled up; the tank was pretty much full before I reflected that it was a bit stupid to waste this much gas on a car we were about to abandon. While I was inside paying, a police car pulled up and the patrolman went over to talk to Janelle.
Poor Janelle. Suddenly it all flashed before my eyes – Janelle in some interrogation room, for hours and hours, making pathetically little sense, being asked where she’d hidden the money. Not being believed. Would she indeed end up in prison? I noticed there was a back exit from the shop I could slip out of and I hated myself.
The patrolman left Janelle with a cheery one-stroke wave and drove off.
“He just wanted to congratulate me on the decorations and ask if we were going to the cultural festival at [name]. God, David, this is killing me. Drive a bit faster.”
We found an unmetalled track that led into the woods and bumped along it for as long as we could stand. The woods were damp, tangled and autumnal; I was glad because I didn’t want us to start a forest fire, and also because the heavy earthy feel of the place made it seem as though humans never came here, even though that was very clearly not the case. Finally we jolted to a stop in a dead-end side path that ended at an embankment.
Now we needed to set the car on fire. For this purpose we’d brought some matches and a long piece of string. We unscrewed the petrol cap and ran the string from the tank across the ground. Then with some fumbling I lit the end of the string. The flame ran a short way up the string and fizzled out in the leaf-mould. I tried again. The flame ran almost to the tank and then the string fell out into the grass. Janelle seized the matches from me, lit one and tossed it directly into the tank. I braced for the moment when we’d be blasted into the trees, but nothing happened. (I’ve since learnt that full petrol tanks generally don’t explode if you toss matches into them – half-full tanks are much better, apparently – but I must say it wasn’t something I’d ever needed to know before.)
“Dip the scarves in the petrol, bundle them up on the back seat and set them on fire there,” I said.
“You must be joking. Several of those scarves are vintage.”
“Okay, then, we’ll push the car over the embankment. Let’s go through it and wipe all the finger-prints off first, just in case.”
The car didn’t want to budge. The earth at the lip of the embankment was a soft cushion of leaf-mould in which it sank and stuck. We heaved and sweated at the bumper getting steadily muddier. I took off the idiotic faux-fur waistcoat Janelle had given me as part of my disguise and hurled it across the clearing in rage. Somehow this petulant gesture gave me an extra burst of energy and we succeeded finally in tipping the car over the edge, where it slithered down and came to a stop with its nose in a bush.
“That was horrible,” said Janelle, “and now I have to walk back in these shoes.” She’d worked hard on her outfit, but now her platform mules were in a sorry state.
“Take them off,” I said. Janelle set her lip and strode ahead of me out of the clearing, heading quite accurately in the direction of the railway line.
We hadn’t gone far when we came across another car, a nondescript Ford, parked on a parallel track.
“God, there was someone else here. Do you think they would have heard us when we were doing all that swearing pushing the car?”
“If they had, wouldn’t they have come to see what was happening? I think we’re alright. Janelle, what are you up to?” For she’d gone forward and was trying the boot. It wasn’t locked and opened smoothly, to reveal a canvas bag and a few other things.
“Look, here’s one of those wheel-nut-thingies. Should we go back and smash the car up a little? At least destroy the licence plates?”
“No!” I said. “Put it back and let’s get out of here!”
“There’s someone coming!” hissed Janelle, and bundled us both behind a thicket, the wheel brace still in her hand.
A man was approaching, walking rapidly over the twigs and leaves. As he drew near Janelle gave a tiny gasp and spoke to me under her breath.
“It’s him! He’s changed his clothes, but that’s definitely him!”
We held as still as we could, hardly daring to breathe. The man crossed the track and went to the boot of the car with his back turned towards us.
Janelle stepped out from behind the thicket and lammed him with the wheel brace. He fell full length on the ground.
“Oh God, I’ve killed him! David, come here!”
He was out cold but still breathing, and he didn’t appear to be bleeding.
“You haven’t killed him. You can rest easy on that front.” I felt in his pockets. “Here are his keys. Let’s take the Ford.”
“Look what’s in the bag – it’s his clothes from earlier. We can change him back into his criminal bastard outfit and see how he gets on.”
“You do the jacket and I’ll do the trousers.”
“I don’t trust you with the trousers,” she retorted. She was recovering from briefly thinking she was a murderer.
In fact it took both of us at both ends; undressing and dressing a completely inert grown man is not easy, even though he was a skinny sort and the criminal bastard suit was rather large on him. At one point he made a sort of moaning noise but then he relapsed again into unconsciousness. We moved him off the track so we wouldn’t reverse over him.
Before we left I ran back to the ditched car to fetch the suitcase; one of the things on the man’s key ring looked like a suitcase key. On my return I found Janelle had carefully placed his hat beside him and was staring down with an oddly sentimental expression.
“He looks like the babes in the wood, doesn’t he? I hope he doesn’t get hypothermia lying there in the leaves. I’m taking this as a memento.” She pulled the folded handkerchief (somewhat disarranged by our efforts) from his jacket pocket and stood holding it.
“Fuck him. Come on.”
We drove five miles before stopping to open the suitcase. It wasn’t empty, but all it held was a mass of shredded paper, the remains of printed sheets.
“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies,” read Janelle, squinting. “Fleetwood Mac lyrics?”
“Maybe this was all some sort of strange performance art piece and no crime ever happened at all?” I wondered.
“He must have hidden the money in the forest. Shall we go back and look for it?”
I contemplated trudging through that woodland again and the ridiculous things Janelle would want to do with the cash if we ever found it.
“There’s absolutely no money in art,” I told her. And we drove home.