TUESDAY: The Fort

BY DAVID MOORES

Copyright is held by the author.

THAT THURSDAY in August 1977 was beautiful, the sort of evening when public houses that have spent money on outside drinking facilities recoup their investment. The empty commercial centre of this big old city had a not unpleasant calm, with a few pecking pigeons, strolling couples and the occasional “brrp” of a sports car, top down, heading for the countryside, the river, or the coast.

By 7.30 I had phoned-in my copy on the Court of Inquiry I was covering for the paper. A day spent taking shorthand in a hot, smoky room at the City Hall had just about finished me. I was ready for fresh air, a meal, a drink and an early night. Yet somehow that didn’t seem good enough. On an evening like this, alone in an unfamiliar city, something should happen.

I left the hotel, walking through quiet streets, glass and concrete still radiating the day’s heat. A drink had become first priority by the time I came across “The Cellar” down a flight of steps beneath a travel agent’s, across from the blackened ramparts of the Victorian-era railway station. A sun-bleached blonde ignored me from a poster behind the travel agent’s plate-glass. I dived for the more accessible pleasures below.

The place smelt of cigar smoke and the lunchtime grill, but it was cool and getting on for empty. Nobody behind the bar. Three characters sitting at a nearby table, two young up-and-comers standing the boss a drink before heading home by the looks of it, glanced over when I rang the bell for service. While I waited, the journalist half of my mind listened-in to their conversation.
They were talking motor-racing. The boss was speaking, a man about my age, late 30s, overweight, with thinning black hair.

“No, it wasn’t that late in the year at all — no thanks Bob, I just put one out — that bloke who works for ESSO, uh, Cardew, he was with the team then, and he told me Jenkins had a bust-up with the chief engineer that Easter weekend at the Goodwood track. Car was shaking so much he could hardly see. Look, he told the fellow, ‘your competitors have discovered something called suspension, which allows the wheels to move relative to the chassis. Try it on one of your cars my old son,’ he told him, ‘then maybe I’ll drive for you again.’”

Memories. Goodwood 1957. Driving through the quiet suburbs of Richmond and Kingston on Easter Sunday morning, down through the Sussex lanes in my elder brother Dave’s Dormobile, his Lotus 11 on the trailer. As we neared the circuit, the sound of racing engines warming up, like the trumpeting or deep roaring of animals, a wild, glorious sound. And as we got closer, the perfume, for, to me at 17, it was perfume, of new-mown grass mixed with burnt Castrol.

Then practice, with me sliding casually to the end of the pit counter, clipboard and watches in one hand, chalk and slate in the other to let Dave know how his lap times were coming. A restless night in the Dormobile, then walking stiffly around the paddock sometime after seven, munching a bowl of cornflakes, dodging the big drops of rain that were already falling.

It was still coming down hard at noon when the sports car race began, but who cared because Dave, starting from the fourth row of the grid, his Lotus streaming through the wet like a slippery silver fish, came through to win his class, third overall behind the Astons of Hawthorne and Collins. Dave even got a swig of the victory champagne and his picture in The Express.

That night we got invited to a fantastic party in someone’s mansion near Chichester, and you could have gone swimming in champagne if you wanted, but I didn’t, because I had just met Caroline. The love of my life.

The lights in the bar came on. Two plastic miniature Scottie dogs with light-up eyes, advertising Black-and White whiskey, started winking at me from a shelf. The barman finally appeared. “So sorry gents, to keep you waiting, they should have hooked up that new barrel this morning. Now Sir?”

I ordered an IPA. One of the youngsters asked for two halves of Red Barrel and a draught Guinness.

“Here you are gents, It’s a beautiful evening, I don’t think we shall see many customers in here tonight.”

I remembered a couple of evenings like this when Carrie was in her final year at school before university. She’d sneak out, I’d pick her up on my scooter, and we’d go to a pub down by the water. We sat outside holding hands, watching the evening draw on over the wide, tranquil river, with the occasional sculler sliding past, and sometimes an eight with the cox’s commands carrying across the water as he leaned urgently forward, banging on the sides of the boat to set the cadence. The intoxicating inner joy of first love, and delighted astonishment that this delicate blue-eyed brunette with the complexion of an orchid’s petal and lips that yielded so tenderly to mine could feel the same about me. As I thought.

Memories. The same years-old train of them. Remembered always in the same sequence like a film or a story you’ve read many time before. But you can’t put the book down or walk out of the cinema before the end. Southend, Carrie with a huge wad of candy floss the same colour as her dress, getting a bit of it stuck to her hair. Another race day, at Brands Batch this time, me taking Carrie round to the paddock to meet Dave after the race. Half-serious banter with Dave the next day, telling him to watch it and look for girls his own age.

And finally and all too soon, driving over to pick up Carrie, feeling like a real sport in a borrowed red Healy 3000. “You’d best not bend it my lad,” said the owner of the garage where I worked part-time while finishing my journalism diploma.

And a cold feeling when I saw the note hanging from the letterbox. “Serve you right! You’ll have to drive faster! See you there.” Signed Dave.

A week later I applied for, and shortly afterwards got, a trainee job with the Perth Times. Perth Australia. My parents didn’t say much, they always encouraged us to be independent. Before I left I received the only letter Caroline had ever written me. I didn’t open it. I managed to avoid seeing Dave again too.

Now here I stood, a supposedly hardened newspaperman getting maudlin over a glass of beer, about a girl who’d dropped me for my elder brother years ago. I knew that things were catching up on me, that sometime I would have to face the fact of years wasted in self-pity and injured emotions. When I heard one of the three at the table mention Dave’s name, I realized that the time might be near.

“Dave Parker, he was another one who might have made it.”

“Parker? Never heard of him”

I was hardly breathing. I knew what was coming.

“David Parker,” said the older man, face a little shiny now, and speaking slowly and precisely, partly from the drink and partly from an effort at solemnity. “I saw him get killed you know. At Brand Hatch it was, in 59. He was weaving in and out of somebody’s slipstream, trying to pass, lost it, hit the verge sideways and just flipped over and over, right by the pits, right in front of his young girlfriend.

“It was obvious he’d had it and I don’t think she could bear to go and see. So she turned to the nearest bloke, which happened to be me, and asked very quietly if I could possibly take her back to London. She didn’t break down until I dropped her off and wouldn’t take her money for petrol. Then she went off crying and I didn’t know what the hell to do. But we’ve all got our own troubles and I let her go.

“Very odd thing though, you mentioning this Bob, because I saw that girl right here in this town last week. Manageress at that place, what’s it called, ‘The Fort.’ Looked a lot different but it was her. She’s had a hard life, I’d say.”

The Black-and-White dogs still blinked from the shelf. On-off, on-off. I left 10 bob on the bar, walked to the door and climbed the steps to the street. It was cooler but not yet dark. I took a deep breath and looked up into the endless blue, which edged down into golden-yellow behind the turrets of the station. The only person around was a copper on his beat, shining his torch onto a doorway. I wondered whether to ask him if he could tell me where to find a restaurant called “The Fort.”

6 comments

  1. Michael Joll

    A quite wonderful story, David, without slipping into the maudlin, which might have been tempting. I remember Goodwood, Brands Hatch (not far from where I lived at the time — late 60s) and Silverstone and avidly watching motor racing on black and white TV. Who can forget Mike Hawthorne, Sterling Moss and the rest of the great drivers of that era?

    I loved the sound and smell that you insinuated into the story without making a meal out of it. Just enough for authenticity for those who remember it. And I really hope he finds Carrie, though I’m afraid to read the disappointment in his eyes when he does. It is never the same again, is it?

    Thanks again, Dave, for a job well, and deftly, done.

  2. Lyanne

    Nicely done Dave. Your story pulled me into an unfamiliar world, made it real and then jumped lanes in an entirely different way. Very enjoyable.

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