Persistent Smith stood across the road from the home of Clive Barnett, treasurer and founder member of the Brighton and Hove branch of the Chrysler Owners Club. He had an appointment, he was three and a half minutes early.
As he stood waiting, Barnett’s front door opened and a small group of middle-aged men, their hands stuffed into the pockets of their khaki and camel-coloured coats, silently ambled away down the street. Pressure grew inside him, he forced himself to wait one more minute then crossed the road. His hand on the garden gate, Smith faltered, struggling with the need to solve the mystery of the car and the imminence of facing a stranger.
‘This is Good Adventure,’ he said out loud. ‘And adventures include Tough Stuff.’
‘We can do this,’ The Hand said.
Encouraged, Smith took a deep breath and pushed open the gate.
The front door had no bell, no knocker. Smith raised his fist ready to pound on the wood. Before he could, the door was opened by a short man with floppy black hair, a Roman nose, and thick glasses. An outsize brown-buttoned cardigan hung from his shoulders, tartan slippers were on his feet. Clive Barnett gazed frankly up at Smith through bottle-bottom lenses and spoke in a nasal twang. ‘Was that you shouting?’
Smith looked away. ‘Maybe.’
‘You’d better come in,’ Barnett said quietly.
Smith stepped into the hall. ‘I’m on a mystery car adventure.’
Barnett eased the door shut. ‘There’s not much happens round here and that’s how I like it.’
Smith looked round the living room with admiration. From the TV aligned in the corner to the perfectly positioned settee and the alphabetically arranged collection of videos and DVDs, it was superbly neat.
‘Sorry it’s a mess, we’ve just had our AGM. My wife is on a late shift.’
‘Your head looks like a number eight,’ Smith said.
‘My glasses make it look that way.’ Barnett spoke in quiet and even tones. ’I have an important eye defect. Less than 1% of the Caucasian European population who require optical correction has the same prescription as I.’
‘My eyes are perfect. And I’m quite tall.’
Barnett’s hands trembled half way to his ears. ‘Please don’t shout.’
Smith didn’t realise that he had. ‘Sorry,’ he whispered. ‘Sorry.’
‘It’s all right. Come upstairs.’
Barnett used the front bedroom as a study. Pictures of Chryslers in identical thin gold frames lined the magnolia walls at shoulder height. A row of mirror-bright hubcaps hung above them. An enormous chrome fender spanned the chimney breast.
Barnett touched one of the pictures. ‘This is mine. A 1959 New Yorker Deluxe Newport two-door convertible. I also have a 1964 300K hardtop, but it’s in storage. This summer I intend to start renovating it. As you can imagine I shall have plenty to keep me out of mischief.’ He looked away into the future and smiled to himself. ‘I estimate I will be seventy-one years old when I finish.’
Smith was barely listening, for on the table was a small stack of exercise books and a card index. One of the books was open. Between the neatly hand-ruled columns spanning the double page were row upon row of data: numbers, dates, countries and names.
‘This is interesting,’ Barnett said. ‘For the past three years and five months I’ve been cataloguing the ownership history of vintage Chryslers.’
Smith turned the pages, fascinated by the hand-written columns.
Clive Barnett gazed down at his work. ‘Once you start it’s hard to stop. I don’t like leaving things half finished. When it’s complete I might put it onto a computer but I don’t like them much because it’s annoying when they go wrong. Books don’t break down or catch colds.’
‘They can catch fire,’ Smith said.
‘451 degrees Fahrenheit,’ they said at the same time.
‘Do you have every single car?’
‘No.’ Barnett pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘So far I’ve completed Britain, Northern Europe and Scandinavia. The Mediterranean countries don’t have such good records, but ultimately I shall triumph. After that I’ll do Japan. I’m saving North America to last.’
Excitement coiled inside Smith. ‘Finland is in Scandinavia.’
‘What I want–’ Smith hesitated. Sometimes he found it very hard to say exactly what it was he wanted. Sometimes he said he wanted something he didn’t want at all, like an apple, and then he was stuck with it. ‘What I want is in Finland.’ Then he kicked himself, because it wasn’t in Finland, it was from Finland.
‘Airflow Imperial Eight.’
Barnett extracted one of the exercise books from the stack and flipped it open. ‘Year?’
‘Interesting choice.’ Barnett turned the pages of the book and ran his finger down the columns. ‘2,450 were built in 1934. According to my records at least thirty two are currently registered in Scandinavia. Six in Norway, eight in Sweden, over eighteen in Finland. Registration number?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I don’t know.’
Smith’s mouth sagged. ‘I don’t know.’
Barnett looked at Smith and blinked. ‘Interesting.’
Smith didn’t like not knowing, it made him feel useless. He already knew he was different, that was enough. ‘Ask me a question I know the answer to, or I’ll bash you flatter than a pancake.’
‘You couldn’t do that, it’s not possible. You’d need a road-roller or a giant duck-press.’
‘A– A what?’
‘And it’s for–?’ Smith couldn’t say it. Instead, he locked his thumbs together and flapped his fingers like wings.
‘Horrid and interesting.’ Barnett blinked again. ‘Colour?’
‘As you recall, there are at least eighteen of this make and model in Finland. All are black.’
Smith’s face fell. ‘Eighteen.’
‘More than eighteen. There are definitely others.’
‘That datum is not available.’
‘No!’ Smith cried in disappointment. And then the Hand was back, burrowing deep into his pocket wanting to help.
Barnett winced at Smith’s outburst. ‘Don’t give up too soon. Examine the facts as we know them.’ He put down the book and lay a ruler on the page alongside the column of current owners.
At first Smith was absorbed by Barnett’s near-perfect handwriting, the symmetry of his ‘O’s, the parallel uprights of his ‘H’s and perfectly horizontal cross-bars on his ‘T’s and ‘E’s. Then he read down the columns where the ruler lay and laughed.
‘You see what I mean,’ Barnett said.
The Hand leaped from Smith’s pocket. ‘Oh yes we do,’ it chirped. ‘We see what you mean.’
Barnett looked from Smith’s hand to the man himself and gave a curious little jerk of his head. Hair from his swept-over fringe flopped across his eye and he carefully patted it back in place. ‘I’m thirsty. Would you like some juice?’
The Hand dove back into its pocket and emerged with half a pack of chocolate cookies. ‘Swap?’
‘Let’s go downstairs.’
Down in the kitchen Barnett filled two tumblers with orange juice. Smith nodded in approval to see him leave a clear inch at the top.
Barnett drew Smith’s attention to a pair of photographs on the wall. One was a round-faced man prematurely bald, the other a young woman in college robes. ‘These are my children.’ Barnett appeared to glow. ‘My daughter has just graduated and my son is a mechanical engineer. He’s married and I’m going to become a grandfather.’
To Smith’s profound surprise he felt jealous. ‘Er, well done.’
‘Thank you. It is a source of great personal joy.’
The two men stood in silence and munched their cookies and drank juice. Barnett smacked his lips and placed the tumbler exactly in the centre of a coaster sporting a black and silver version of the Chrysler logo. Smith stacked his tumbler inside Barnett’s.
For a moment both men stared at their feet.
‘I think the set of all things not in a set excludes itself,’ Barnett said.
‘The 14:19 to Waterloo takes 1 hour 6 minutes. So does the 14:49. The 14:34 and the 15:04 take 1 hour 16 minutes,’ Smith replied.
Barnett smiled at Smith, who found he didn’t mind the pressure of his gaze. ‘All the Chrysler Imperials in Finland are owned by one man.’
To be continued…