I sometimes think I could smell the petrol in your hair right from the start. Just a whiff. In the playground, round your mum’s for tea. I’m amazed you didn’t ignite on the spot. Spontaneous human combustion they call it. I’ve seen pictures in those magazines full of UFOs, faked moon landings and assassination conspiracies. They’re always called World of the Paranormal or Weird Mysteries and they’re kept in a binder. Grainy black and white photos of a living room show a pair of feet tucked inside slippers, poised as if ready to get up for a cuppa or answer the door. Except there’s no body attached. Just a pinch of ash on the armrest: nothing else is left.
Your dad used to fix up old cars in his spare time. He was a science teacher at a school just outside Bristol, but engines made his eyes spark. We’d sit on the kerb on Saturdays, watching as he steadily created something out of lots of broken things. He’d salvage scrap yards for spare parts, build up whole engines, change rust into chrome. You used to help, handing him spanners and sparkplugs like a good acolyte. That’s my girl, he’d say, we’ll make a petrol head of you yet.
Not me though, I was just along for the ride.
I was round yours when Challenger exploded. We’d been outside messing round on the bike you had for Christmas. When we trooped in and sat in front of the telly, we saw the future plough into the sky and implode. It tumbled apart and fell in the ocean leaving a grey forked tongue quivering in the air. Your mum nearly dropped our sandwiches. That poor teacher, she said. You just shrugged. That’s how I’m going, you said. Burning up. In a heap of flames.
Space Week was cancelled and it was only Tuesday. Our lessons the next morning were spent pulling down asteroids and un-tacking star systems. My favourite was Orion’s belt, the only one I could find in the night sky by myself. It was like stripping down the Christmas decorations all over again. I saw you shove a rocket in your bag. No one else noticed, but then they didn’t know what to look for.
We started to spend a lot of time in your bedroom, flicking through magazines and experimenting with shades of rouge and eyeshadow. You looked glorious with your eyes ringed by navy kohl and electric blue, just like Cyndi Lauper. I’d tease your thick hair with crimpers, rollers and irons until it spurned gravity in a fuzzy pale halo round your head.
You were the odd one out at school. You were still listening to Debbie Gibson when we’d all moved on to U2 and Transvision Vamp. I slouched in the playing field, fag hanging from my lip, unable to come over to you at break. But on Saturdays I still knocked at your door late in the morning, make-up bag, crimpers and Now 16 in my hand.
By the time Now 30 was out, we’d lost touch. It was so easy to miss your calls and forget about your letters. University was hectic with people and deadlines and you’d stayed behind. I imagined you floating in suspended animation, like a bug in amber. You were a relic from a thousand years ago and I didn’t even buy the Now albums anymore.
It was my sister who told me. I’d like to say that as soon as the phone rang I knew something was wrong, that perhaps I had a sixth sense about it, but I didn’t. Susie, she said, something’s happened. And then she told me. I closed my eyes and saw it: the moonlit road, the race to the finish, dignity to preserve, two boys, two girls. It’s an old, old story we’ll follow ‘til the film credits roll.
‘Susie? Did you hear me?’
‘Yeah…do you know what happened to the car?’
‘Christ, what the hell’s wrong with you?’
I had to put the phone down. It felt oily and kept slipping from my hand. I could already smell tarmac in the living room, hot with the impact of burning rubber.
I didn’t come to your funeral. By all accounts it was packed. People thought I couldn’t be bothered, that I was too busy with my new life in Manchester. The truth was death had made me feel awkward. It was like waiting alone in a packed pub for a friend on a Friday night or being crammed in a lift, eyes fixed straight ahead, counting down the floors.
But I can see it clearly. It was like something out of Grease. The girls wore black pencil skirts, cherry-red lipstick and their boyfriends’ leather jackets. They cried and hugged each other while the boys smoked to hide their grief, small bottles of JD stuck in the back pockets of their 501s. You were carried on a car bonnet to the graveside as a chorus of horns blasted a lament from the roadside. You were dressed to kill, your hair just like Jayne Mansfield’s. Your boyfriend touched my arm and pointed out the cars to me: ’53 Chrysler New Yorker, ’55 Buick Century, ’54 Ford Skyliner, ’52 Caddy Sedan, ’59 Dodge Coronet. Their petrol fumes hung in the air like clouds and I inhaled the acrid haze greedily. I liked the Dodge best of all with its long aching lines, the mint green and white stripes, the taillights which looked like something out of a sci-fi double feature.
I saw your dad once after the crash. I was home from my third year for the Christmas break and in town, present hunting with my mum. He was in Marks, wandering through the aisles, picking up jumpers and nutcrackers and socks. I studied his face, but no one would have been able to tell. It surprised me, I thought it would shout about his loss, but he was just a greying tired man looking for last minute Christmas gifts.
‘Susie? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ my mum said.
I imagined your dad taking those gifts home to your house, wrapping them up and placing them under the tree. Your parents would then sit down to Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, pulling crackers and toasting 1997, just the two of them. I wondered why they bothered. I pushed Mum towards the underwear to avoid your dad’s hungering, jealous eyes. I didn’t want to hear how you were gone, or how the local paper said your body was just a charcoal lump when they finally pulled you out of your boyfriend’s white Ford Fiesta.
Now, whenever I fill up, you’re with me for an instant, just as I inhale the fumes. Sometimes, when I’m a passenger, I wind down the window just to breathe you in. That’s the only time I think of you. On the forecourt. I see you, in pedal pushers and kitten heels, slinking towards that car, always slinking towards that car, a ’54 Ford custom, its blower ready to scream. You’re a drag strip queen, you’re a burning meteorite, you’re a fucking rocket.
Petrol head, baby. You’re solid chrome.
Claire Joanne Huxham was born in North Somerset, UK and still lives in the area. When she isn’t writing, she can be found obsessing over Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica. This probably makes her a bit of a nerd, but she doesn’t mind. She teaches English at a local college and has found many varied and miraculous ways to incorporate Buffy into most lessons.