“This place, this glorified shed on an industrial estate in the arse-end of Warrington, it was everything to me.”
I crawled up the driveway, worn tyres intruding upon a practical marriage of concrete and moss. As I came to a halt, the burnt glare of headlights, filtered through thick yellowed plastic, illuminated the formerly-white workshop door. In the thick dust that clung to it, I could still make out the path Jimmy's finger had followed four weeks earlier, ‘Clean me’.
Silence suffocated the car, sinking into tan leather seats and brown carpets, threatening to stop my breathing dead, holding me in place. I reached down for the silver handle and turned it until the silence finally seeped out, displaced by the real, the tangible — wind delivering the smell of rain drying on warm tarmac. As I thought about getting out, the up-and-over door slowly rose before me, revealing white Reebok trainers and stonewashed 501s.
"You coming in Dave, or you gonna sit there playing with yourself all night?"
I appreciated the effort.
With his milk bottle glasses and twelve hour shadow framed by the same long greasy hair he'd had since we were at school, Roger looked ten years older than his 45 years. Sandra was always on at me, desperate to give him a makeover and get him online. It didn't matter how many times I tried to say, "He just doesn't give a fuck, Sand."
I wound the window a bit further. "When are you gonna get a haircut, Rog?"
"Fuuuck off," he said, a grin breaking out over his face as he turned and walked back inside, only to look round and cast his eyes over the old Ford Cortina, my pride and joy held together with spit and polish. "When you get a new car, mate."
"It's a classic," I muttered under my breath for the hundredth time.
I stepped inside, pulling the door down behind me. The dull thud sparking neurons that didn't fire like they used to. I wouldn't ever admit it, but this place, this glorified shed on an industrial estate in the arse-end of Warrington, it was everything to me. As much as Sandra. As much as the kids. It all brought comfort, I knew as much as that.
In the middle of the floor sat a large wooden work bench lit from above by two rows of fluorescent strip lights, and surrounded by a hodge-podge of stools, salvaged from skips and charity shops and from our own homes as they'd fallen out of step with progress. The three walls were lined with wooden cabinets and steel tool holders and pigeon holes, above them sitting proudly but without fanfare, on reinforced shelves, were the miniature steam engines.
Emily. Oliver. Spirit. Lucerne. Deacon. Tilly. Guinevere.
I pulled a stool out over the polished concrete. Roger was bent over in the corner, working on something held in the vice. Next to him was an iPad propped up against a book, zoomed in on a schematic. I stared over at it. It had been my idea, but now I saw only unwelcome evidence that new gods had replaced the old.
"You gonna make a brew or what?" Roger said, without looking up. "I'm parched."
We stood together silently, lost in the steam, until I cast the spell away with the stiff zip that groaned down my leather jacket. The one Sandra told me I was too old for, despite my protestations that it still fit just fine.
Roger looked me up and down.
"For old time's sake," I said, running my hand over the embroidered name badge on my navy blue overalls that said, simply and truthfully, David Holt Chief Engineer.
"You remember when Sandra made me these?"
"Yeah," Roger said with a wry smile, "Jimmy never let you live it down."
"Did you sort the paint in the end?" I said, remembering suddenly why we were here.
"It's so old I had to get it colour-matched. Bloke in B&Q called it Persian Indigo, like he was mixing for Picasso or something. Dickhead."
I laughed, for the first time in six days, as together we eased Guinevere down from the shelf and set about her with screw drivers and masking tape and dirty cloths soaked in white spirit.
"Remember when Mr Deacon first brought Jimmy in?" Roger said, looking up. "He was fuming, thought we were all total saddos for building her. Took him what, three months to get sucked in?"
"Jimmy'll be made up when he sees her," I said quietly, trailing off as my phone buzzed against the table. It was Sandra.
"What's up, love?"
"Are you with Roger?"
"Dave. I've just had Sheila on the phone. They've found someone. On the marshes by the estuary."
"Is it Jimmy?" I said, without skipping a beat.
"They don't know, Dave."
"It's Jimmy," I said, my free hand suddenly not knowing what to do with itself.
"I'll be home soon, love," I said, barely whispering now, "I love you."
"I know, love. Drive safe, OK."
I put the phone down on the table and looked up to see Roger's eyes asking all the questions I couldn't answer. We embraced for the first time in 28 years. Awkwardly. With meaning.
"Fucking hell, Dave."
I pulled the door down on cold Sunday afternoons giving rides to kids, long nights wrestling with difficult builds, coal dust that got in every nook and cranny imaginable. Both of us stood for a moment, wondering, I think, if maybe this was the last time we'd be here. The last time we'd really be here.
"We need to clean this door," he said, squeezing my shoulder.
“Not yet,” I said.
AN Grace is a writer from Liverpool, England.