Virgin Trains 'Time For A Short Story' competition


Awarding-winning short story described as "Chitty-chitty Conrad"

2007

A short story I wrote was chosen as runner-up in the Virgin Trains ‘Time For A Short Story’ competition. Here it is.

He was a mechanic. Fingernails chocked with dirt, oil stains like tattoos up his arms. Except he had an excuse. Soap was scant. Swarfega had not made it to his domain. Lack made him inventive though. Necessity is the mother of etc. He could not simply look up the serial numbers of parts and order them “in two to three days”. Tights, chewing gum and bits of scrap had to do.

I met him briefly in 2001. At least I like to think it was him. In the patter between cabby and fare, I knew he was going places. Partly because he said so. He said exactly that with an accent and gusto straight from American radio shows. But there was something else. His eyes glimpsed in the rear view mirror perhaps. Or maybe just his grubby hands and good looks. When I read about it I knew it was him. What made me certain, I remember, was when I got out, slammed the door and turned to pay. He sat smiling in the cab of a 1959 Buick, its bonnet blue and faded like denim and its front doors already welded shut.

Dubbed ‘the Hippo’, it was quick and easy to convert. Having sealed up the doors, he formed a bow from steel plates. Ballast came from oil drums welded watertight. Connecting the propeller to the drive shaft was difficult, but it only took an hour. At the end of the day, he loaded the supplies. Around midnight he and twelve friends drove the Hippo down the empty beach and into the sea.

On a map Cuba and Florida seem close: a thumb of blue between the big, sleek island and the Keys stretched out like exhaust splutter from Miami. The name ‘Bahamas’ curving close by would be enough to bridge the gap. It is about 90 miles from coast to coast. And if you made it to dry land you would probably be allowed to stay.

The sky was an unsympathetic yellow. The sea was dark, frothing white around the wheels. The engine purred and cranked and bubbled. Perhaps the radio was on. Elvis broadcast clear and loud. ‘Viva Las Vegas’. Two of them sat back to back on the bonnet. The rest sat inside. The beast with two fronts (and four eyes) spotted land first and stood up and pointed at the phosphoresced smudges - islands and bridges hugging the horizon. Having made it within sight of land, they must have thought they were going to motor up the beach in time for breakfast.

The coastguard orbited them. Sirens howling. Loud hailer wheezing indecipherable demands. All on board the Hippo knew the script. Unflustered they sat ensconced in the cab with the windows firmly shut. Then they waited. At last they succumbed to the bullying and the threats. Shuffling one by one across the isthmus, they left the Hippo. The mechanic skulked at the back. The last I read the Americans had deported him back to Cuba.

You can see the other prize winners on The Guardian’s website.