‘The Shed’ was one of the first short stories I ever wrote, when I was in my mid-20s and living in Stockholm, and is semi-autobiographical. My real-life brother was a lot smarter than the doltish and semi-autistic brother in the story – and I hope I was less of a smug self-satisfied jerk than the young narrator – but he would sometimes drive our back garden shed in Dagenham to the Suffolk coast and I would occasionally accompany him on these virtual journeys. It’s really a story about childhood play: both of the brothers find an escape from their environment through the exercise of their imagination, one through these pretend jaunts to the coast, the other through his comic books and TV dramas etc.
For around a quarter of a century the story lay undisturbed and forgotten in a trunk full of books and papers I’d brought back with me from Sweden and stowed in the loft of my parents’ bungalow near Lowestoft. When the time eventually came, in 2008, for my dad to move into sheltered housing and for his loft to be cleared, I rediscovered the story, liked it and entered it for a small competition with a disproportionately large (£2500) first prize. To my surprise it won and although I had to threaten legal action in order to get the cash – the cheques they sent me kept bouncing – I was eventually paid out and the piece was published in an anthology of winning stories in 2012, three years after the results were announced. There must be a moral there somewhere.
My brother Brian was the first one in our family to learn to drive, though he didn’t learn in a real car of course, being only ten years old at the time. Instead he taught himself the basics in our back-garden shed, which doubled in his imagination as a 53-seater Grey-Green coach. On Saturday mornings he’d take the shed for a spin to the Suffolk coast.
Saturday was the day of the week I looked forward to most. Not only the football results in the afternoon but the prospect of two whole days without school and the chance of staying up late to watch The Fugitive if I behaved myself.If it was fine I’d play outside in the garden, or I’d go to Billy Newton’s next door but one and we’d kick a ball around. On this particular Saturday it was drizzling and I was inside, playing patience on the living-room floor. It was then that Brian came in and announced he needed a passenger.
‘I’m busy. Take the animals.’
‘No, I want a real passenger. The animals are boring, they don’t do nothing.’
I carried on turning the cards, wondering how high a price I could reasonably put on my services.
‘Go on. There’s no point going if I ain’t got a passenger. Might as well stay at home.’
I collected the cards in silence, began reshuffling for a new game.
‘All right, you can borrow my Meccano set tonight,’ he offered.
‘It’s worth more than that. I’m not sitting out there for hours just for the use of your crummy old Meccano set. Anyway I’ve got me own Meccano set.’
‘It’s better with two.’ He stood rubbing one leg against the other, looking as if he needed to go to the toilet. ‘I s’pose you could have some of my football programmes as well,’ he added half-heartedly.
‘Four? Six at least. It’s worth at least six.’
‘All right, five. But not the Cup Final one. And not the West Ham ones.’
It seemed a fair deal. I could probably sell the programmes back to him at a later date for something better. I had my eyes on his poker dice, which he wouldn’t let me use because he said I’d wear them out.
The shed was really nothing more than a leaky wooden hut with a corrugated iron roof, erected by my dad to give himself somewhere to escape to when the pressures of family life proved too great. It housed his lawnmower and tools, a stepladder, tins of paint, buckets, odd pieces of wood, a broken chest of drawers he was always promising to mend, and a variety of other useless objects including an old Singer sewing machine.
Into this jungle of lumber Brian had somehow managed to introduce three kitchen chairs, arranged in a line. On the middle chair were the animals: Brian’s ancient one-eyed teddy known as Nelson, a hippo called Humphrey and a nameless lop-eared rabbit, all of whom, by some freak of nature peculiar to stuffed toys, managed to be roughly the same size.
‘You can sit at the front or the back. The front’s best if you want to see where we’re going. I can move the animals if you want to sit at the front.’
‘I’ll sit at the back,’ I said.
Brian pretended to collect the non-existent tickets, then seated himself in the remaining chair, facing the window at the far end of the shed. Beneath this window he’d attached his plastic steering wheel with horn, a birthday present from a couple of years back that first introduced him to the pleasures of virtual motoring. One of my mum’s small hand mirrors was propped up in the cross of the window frame.
Apparently we were five minutes early, so we had to twiddle our thumbs until Brian’s watch showed exactly 10 o’clock and we could leave. I urged him to go early – it made no difference, I said, there were no more passengers coming – but he said it was out of the question. He was no longer in our back-garden shed but in a plush 53-seater Grey-Green coach, full of paying passengers and with a timetable to keep.
The route was always the same: from the Merry Fiddlers at Becontree Heath to the coach depot in Lowestoft. It was the trip we made every summer when my dad’s factory closed down for two weeks and we went to stay with my nan at her cottage near Beccles. On those trips Brian would be unreachable, studying each passing signpost with a smile of recognition or a frown of dismay, checking the names on the signs against those on his map, noting down all the pick-up points and drop-off points and the exact time we reached them. He memorized the road down to the last level crossing and humpacked bridge and replayed it in his mind on these Saturday mornings in the shed. He relived the journey mile for mile, minute by minute. Looking through the dusty window in front of him, he saw not the cracked stone path running like a river through the weeds on either side of it to the heavy wooden gate at the end of the garden, but the broken white line of the A12 and the endless checkerboard of the East Anglian flatlands sliding past at 40 mph.
‘Are we stopping soon? I need to go to the toilet.’
‘We’ll be stopping for twenty minutes in Chelmsford, sir. In approximately’ — looking at his watch — ‘half an hour.’
‘Can’t we stop now, Brian? I really need to go to the toilet.’
‘I’m sorry, sir, you should have thought of that before you boarded.’
‘Please, sir, talking to the driver is not permitted. There is a sign to that effect if you’d taken the trouble to read it. I must insist you don’t disturb me again.’
He spoke over his shoulder, keeping his eyes on the road.
I tried to pass the time as painlessly as I could by chewing gum and reading, then rereading, the bundle of comics I’d brought with me. But it’s not easy to devote your undivided attention to the latest exploits of Roger the Dodger or Billy Whizz or, my particular favourite, the Wild Wonders – two brothers from Iceland, barefoot running sensations, who were routinely abducted, drugged and tied up before every major race but always managed somehow to escape their captors, sprint to the stadium, join the race a lap behind the other competitors and still win, albeit by the narrowest of margins – it’s not easy to do this in the near dark on a hard wooden chair whose legs are longer than your own when you want to go to the toilet and the shed smells of creosote and paint and something unpleasantly damp and decaying and the only sounds filling the silence are the persistent puttering of an engine and the occasional scrunching of gear changes emitted by your loopy brother.
We arrived in Chelmsford exactly on time. I bolted out of the shed and up to the bathroom.
‘You’ve got twenty minutes,’ Brian called out behind me. ‘If you’re not back by then I’m going without you and you don’t get the programmes.’
The prospect of losing the programmes and wasting the effort I’d already invested in acquiring them was the only thing that persuaded me to continue the journey, though by this time I was beginning to wonder whether I hadn’t seriously undersold myself. I asked my mum if she thought it was worth it, for five programmes and the use of Brian’s Meccano set for one night, and she said, well, yes, that seemed fair enough. Probably she was pleased to get us out of her hair. My mum was a small busy woman who filled the time left over between cleaning and cooking by knitting.
Brian was in the garden, checking the shed’s tyres, when I went back outside. My mum had made us both a packed lunch before we’d set off this morning and Brian was eating his now. He had a thermos cup full of orange juice in his hand, which he was pretending was tea, blowing on it and sipping it as if it was hot. He asked me if I was enjoying the trip, said we were lucky, there wasn’t much traffic today, we were making good time.
‘I think this is a daft game,’ I said. ‘I mean it might be all right for you but it’s not much fun for me, sitting back there with nothing to do except listen to you make silly engine noises that don’t even sound like a proper engine. How would you like it if it was the other way round? If I was driving and you were the passenger?’
‘But that’s silly, Roy, you can’t drive.’
The next stop after Chelmsford was Ipswich, another forty miles. I killed half an hour by firing pellets from a rubber band at a spider’s web high up in a corner of the shed, trying to dislodge the spider, but then I got pins and needles in my legs and I was worried I might be paralyzed completely if I didn’t stand up and move about.
I thought I might be able to slip away unnoticed, then slip back just before we were due to arrive in Ipswich. So when we were going up a hill and Brian’s attention was fully occupied with a complicated double declutching manoeuvre, I slid off my chair and edged towards the door. He spotted me immediately in his rear-view mirror and ordered me back to my seat. Didn’t I know it was dangerous to try and get off while the coach was moving – or hadn’t I read that sign either?
Around midday the back gate opened and my dad appeared, returning from work, trundling his old Raleigh bike with no mudguards wearily up the path. Brian swung the steering wheel violently to the left, squealing brake sounds through his teeth. He beeped the horn several times in quick succession. My dad looked over to the shed window, smiled and waved.
‘Bloody imbecile!’ Brian shouted. Then to me: ‘Some idiot pushing his bike down the wrong side of the dual carriageway!’
The longer the journey went on, the more ridiculous Brian’s game seemed and the more irritated I became. Though he was 18 months my senior, I often felt as if I were the older brother. It astonished me that he could spend his precious Saturdays in such a mindless, pointless way when he could have been going to Saturday morning pictures or playing football or doing a hundred other more interesting things.
Finally we arrived in Ipswich. Brian parked the shed in the imaginary depot and said he was going to the canteen for a shit. I took my packed lunch with me to the garden, where it had stopped raining and I could have been playing. I took one of the sandwiches out of the brown paper bag and opened it up to make sure there was no tomato inside. Then I had an idea.
I slipped back inside the shed and smeared the margarine from one of the slices of bread on the rubber suction cup holding the steering wheel in place. I smeared some more marge on the wooden boards of the shed wall, then pressed the wheel back in place and went outside again.
Brian returned from the toilet looking as if he’d failed to avert an accident, pinching the seat of his jeans away from him as he walked. He stood by the shed and took a few puffs from a sweet cigarette, then tossed it in his mouth and went inside.
Almost as soon as he rested his hands on the steering wheel, it started to slide down the shed wall. Slowly, inch by inch, leaving an oily trail behind it like a snail or a slug. He adjusted it a few times, pushed it up, pressed the suction cup harder against the wall, but after a few seconds it would start sliding inexorably down again.
‘Gonna have to stop. Something wrong with the steering wheel.’
He pulled into a lay-by and removed the wheel to examine it. He tried wiping the suction cup with his sleeve, breathing on it, wetting it with spit, fixing it to the window instead, but nothing helped.
‘I don’t understand it,’ he kept repeating. ‘It’s never done this before. Looks like axle grease.’
He asked me what I thought was wrong with it and I said I thought it was buggered. ‘No point going on now, is there? Could be dangerous. Don’t want to cause an accident.’
He contemplated the plastic toy sadly, turning it over in his hands like a magic charm that had suddenly lost its power and he couldn’t figure out why. ‘S’pose not. Think I’ll stay out here anyway. Try and fix it.’
‘I still get the programmes though, don’t I? And your Meccano set for tonight? I mean it weren’t my fault, was it?’
He sighed. ‘No, it weren’t your fault.’
I gathered up my comics and picked my way through the junk to the door, stopping to spit out my gum at the spider in the corner and scoring a direct hit, sending it tumbling to the floor and leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the web.