Bodywork and Soul: a tragedy

Clive was looking infuriatingly pleased with himself. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’

‘It’s a wreck,’ Helen said flatly. She surveyed the camper van in dismay. Rust-fringed panels, flaking paint, a missing window. ‘Does it even start?’

He shuffled his feet. ‘She will. Just have a little faith, Hel.’

Against her better judgement, Helen took a step closer and peered through the windscreen. The interior seemed to be in even worse condition than the outside, the upholstery cracked and faded, the curtains spotted with mould. ‘Of all the things to do with your bonus… I thought we were going to Turkey.’

‘When I’ve got this beauty up and running, we will,’ he said. ‘We’ll drive there.’

‘And when will that be, exactly?’ Helen demanded. She didn’t bother to wait for the answer.

 

Clive started with the engine. All that spring he worked on it, spending his weekends in the garage, tinkering and cursing, and his evenings scouring eBay for parts. Helen admitted, grudgingly, that he was at least putting the effort in. And when, on a cool, clear afternoon in late April, the thirsty, spluttering, sigh that she had got so used to hearing from the van was suddenly replaced by a full-throated roar, she couldn’t help running outside to hug Clive, and, feeling a little silly, pat the camper on one of its protuberant headlights.

That evening, they took their dinner out to the van, and ate with plates balanced precariously on their knees. Clive opened a bottle of Chianti, to celebrate. Helen had lit a scented candle to cover the smell of mould. The nostalgic fragrance of sandalwood filled the saloon, and the light flickered gently, disguising the signs of ageing on all three of them.

‘Do you know who it belonged to?’ Helen asked. ‘Where it’s been?’ She imagined long-haired girls wearing flowers and caftans, youths with flared trousers and beards; peace and love and all the idealism of their generation. Suddenly Turkey didn’t seem so far away. They could drive to Morocco, to India, all round the world.

Clive shook his head. ‘The bloke I bought her off rescued her from a scrapyard. Wanted to restore her but never got round to it. I don’t know who had her before.’

‘You’re already doing better than him,’ Helen said, thinking to herself that she was being dangerously optimistic. That would be the Chianti.

 

The bodywork was worse than the engine. Clive was always on the phone to panel beaters or VW specialists. Empty tins of Hammerite and primer collected in the corner of the garage. Then the top coat, shiny and flawless. Helen wondered, disloyally, if Clive was overdoing it a bit.

She bought an atlas. Perhaps India was a bit ambitious for a first trip. They could go from Land’s End to John O’Groats, something like that. Then Turkey, the next year. Laughing at herself, she lit a patchouli-scented candle for the next celebration dinner.

‘I’ve been in contact with the Owners’ Club,’ Clive said. ‘There’s a rally next month. Interested?’

‘You’re taking the camper?’ She was embarrassingly excited by the prospect of seeing the dratted thing on the road.

Clive frowned. ‘I doubt she’ll be ready for MOT by then. But I might pick up some useful tips. Next year.’

‘I thought we were going to Turkey next year,’ Helen said, lightly.

‘Yes,’ Clive said. He sounded doubtful.

 

He enlisted Helen’s help with the upholstery, ordering reproduction fabric in authentic patterns, and standing over her and the sewing machine until she shouted at him. ‘How can you possibly expect me to make a decent job of this when you’re breathing down my neck?’

He muttered an apology and stomped off to the garage. When she came out, to apologise and to show him the curtains she had just finished, he was repainting one of the panels.

‘What was wrong with it?’ she asked.

He frowned up at her. ‘I’m redoing the whole lot. This is a much better match – what she’d have looked like originally.’

Helen thought of the roads the camper had travelled, the adventures they would never know about. ‘But don’t you want her to look a little bit lived-in?’

Clive winced.

It was the end of November when Clive admitted that even he couldn’t think of anything left to do. ‘She’s finished,’ he said. ‘She’s perfect.’

Helen smiled. ‘So are you going to book an MOT?’ Even now, with darkness falling at five and the gales blowing in, she found the thought of the open road exhilarating.

Was she imagining his evasive look? ‘Not until the spring,’ he said. ‘There’s no point wasting three months when we won’t be driving.’

 

‘So,’ she said in April, ‘when are you going to take her for her MOT?’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘yes. That’s the thing. Er. That is. I’ve been thinking. After all the work I’ve put in. I don’t want to spoil it, taking it on the road. You never know what might happen… Oh, love, don’t cry. I’ll ring around the travel agents tomorrow. See about that holiday to Turkey, eh?’

 

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