Damian sat serenely in the front of the car, his left arm draped casually over the back of the passenger’s seat, whilst his right hand deftly adjusted the steering wheel in small but authoritative tugs. I pushed from the rear, sweat dripping down my forehead as a middle-age paunch quivered and danced above a straining trouser belt. Damian, clearly exasperated by his mount’s pedestrian progress, felt the need for speed.
“Put your bloody back into it! Anyone would think I still had the handbrake on. Oh, wait…”
Boosted by a sudden and unexplained easing of the load, it wasn’t long before I’d propelled Damian’s fossil-fuelled fossil to a thoroughly thoroughfare-friendly parking spot. Damian and I then stood forlornly by the car’s side, awaiting Mandy’s ever-dependable efficiency to bear fruit. Any moment now, the hire car was bound to arrive and we would be well on our way. In the meantime, it had started to rain (or, as the Guardian was now insisting, the climate tears were falling).
Damian glanced upwards but seemed unfazed. He simply stood by the kerbside, legs impressively widened, whilst he held his mobile phone to his ear in a pose designed to project an aura of calm, professional intent. I, on the other hand, having been given the important job of nursing an imposing pile of generator brochures, was his pathetic silhouette, climate tears dripping off my nose as the brochures slowly turned to papier-mâché. At long last, a car appeared at the forecourt entrance, driven in what looked suspiciously like a search pattern.
“Ah!” exclaimed the redoubtable Damian. “That’ll be for us. Come on Tim; do try to keep up!”
“Oh right then. So you do know my name at least,” I silently observed.
Damian looked at me askance.
“You’re not silently observing something, are you?”
By this stage in the proceedings sarcasm was fast becoming me.
“What, me? No, I’m just overwhelmed by the responsibility I have for this precious pile of brochures. It would be a shame if the tireless efforts of the United Nations, the BBC and the Guardian were to go to waste for the want of a well-kept collection of glossy pictures, graphically depicting the massed spectacle of drowning polar bears desperately trying to escape the disintegration of their snowy paradise.”
Damian narrowed his eyes to register his suspicions before quickly losing interest. Purposefully, he turned towards the approaching vehicle and waved at it desperately, whilst desperately trying not to appear desperate. In good time, his nonchalantly frantic arm-waving attracted the driver’s attention, and the car drew gently to a halt by Damian’s side. The driver’s window wound down half an inch and out spewed a pall of cigarette smoke that promptly billowed skywards.
“So what bloody took you?” opened Damian with all of the mannered machismo that a self-regarding generator salesman could be expected to muster. But his reproach encouraged nothing more than a smoky, billowing silence. Undeterred, Damian leant forward and tapped upon the barely open window.
“I said, where the hell have you been? Didn’t they tell you I have climate deadlines to meet?” Apparently not, if the continued, hazy blue silence were to be taken seriously.
By now, Damian’s patience was beginning to wear thin. After all, he didn’t get to be one of Luton’s leading wind-powered generator sales executives by standing in climate tears, conversing with the carcinogenic effluence of an otherwise reticent hire car assistant – but, to be fair, very few people have done. Fortunately for all concerned, the driver finally broke his silence. “You must be Damian then,” he said in a hoarse monotone.
“Yes,” confirmed Damian, “but wasn’t that obvious?”
“I suppose it was,” agreed the driver with wistful indifference, “seeing as you were the only fart wafting his arms about like an epileptic wind turbine.”
Damian had never seen himself as a fart before, let alone an epileptic wind turbine, and so he didn’t immediately recognise the driver’s description of him. “Who the fu…?” he managed, before being cut short by a car door hitting his nose with a satisfying smack.
“Ooh, I’m sorry,” the driver said, his voice dripping with insincerity, “Were you about to say something?”
Without waiting for his answer, Damian’s assailant swiftly stepped from the car, causing confused smoke eddies to scurry for cover as if in fear of what might happen next. Placing his sunglasses upon his forehead, he spat out his cigarette and looked me up and down as though he could never have guessed. Pre-empting his next sentence, I proffered my own.
“Look, let’s not fall out over a broken nose. If the scientists are right, we are all running out of time, so just toss us the keys and we will be on our way. We’ll fill out the customer satisfaction questionnaire when we get to our destination.”
With sunglasses now reinstated for heightened menace, smoky bloke stepped into my personal space. “So you must be the comedian then,” he growled, before thrusting a set of car keys into my hand. “Just don’t crash the damn thing, laughing boy.”
The traffic on the M3 was unusually heavy, but strangely muted. The days of fossil-fuelled transport were coming to an end, and so there was no throaty roar of a thousand climate-throttling beasts of combustion. Instead, all one could hear was the banshee wail of electrification; a plaintive, whining symphony of tinnitus. Presently, my thoughts turned towards our recent encounter.
“Did you notice anything odd about that hire car assistant? A bit brusque perhaps? For example, no effort to wish us a carbon-neutral day!”
“Yes,” whistled Damian as he readjusted his cartilage, “just a tad brusque, and I don’t mean that in a good way.”
“Mmm,” I continued, “and I’m sure that smoking is disallowed in hire cars. And no paperwork required either! You would have at least expected him to want to see our private transport licences.”
Damian offered no further opinions on the subject – his nose was clicking and I think he was just a bit pissed off.
Further down the M3, and only two re-charges later, silent bemusement once again gave way to open speculation.
“You don’t suppose he wasn’t the hire car assistant after all, do you? When all is said and done, he did seem a little lacking on the customer care front.”
Damian looked unimpressed.
“So what are you trying to suggest? That we have accidentally picked up the wrong car? That we’ve somehow got ourselves embroiled in some criminal skulduggery? A drugs deal gone wrong perhaps, where we end up being chased by police and gangsters alike and, in the meantime, comic capers and farcical merriment abounds?”
“Good grief no!” I insisted, “That would be far too clichéd. I was thinking baked beans rather than drugs. Either way, something doesn’t feel right. That gun in the glove compartment, for example. Firearms don’t normally feature in hire car agreements.”
Damian rocked his head gently from side to side as he weighed up my hypothesis.
“Admittedly so, but I think you are in danger of missing the real point here. This meeting with Jack Groper couldn’t be more critical. Impress him today, and we could be looking at clinching a ten grand deal with perhaps more to follow. We are already running late. That compelling pile of brochures has turned into an unconvincing pile of pulp. You’re an idiot and I’m undervalued. What more of a predicament do you think I need to be in?”
I’ll give you this about Damian, he could remain remarkably focused when it came to matters of self-interest. I knew the Groper contract meant a lot to him but it still never ceased to amaze me how he could dismiss peripheral detail, no matter how arresting it might be to others. So what if we had a gun in our glovebox? We had transport and that meant we could still make the meeting with Jack Groper. Damian could smell promotion – the alluring, overpowering, mind-bending stench of promotion. Nothing else mattered, least of all the fact that our wind-powered generators might just save the planet from a freaky future full of schoolgirl smart-arses shrieking ‘how dare you!’ every time a generator is powered up. I thought it high time that Damian’s self-serving attitudes were challenged.
“You do know, Damian, that we don’t do this for the money, don’t you? You are aware just what is at stake here? This is the very future of our planet we are talking about, not just your career. If we don’t sell more of our wind-powered generators, we are headed for hothouse Earth. We are hurtling towards the tipping point of no return, and now with a goddamned gun in our glovebox!”
“Yeh, that’s right,” sneered Damian. “The money has nothing to do with it. The government grants are irrelevant. There’s just no profit to be had in green energy. We just do it for the love of it – You wanker!”
I could see I was getting nowhere, so I decided to feign agreement.
“Okay, you make a fair point, but have you called Jack then? To let him know we’re running late?”
“Of course!” retorted Damian, “I phoned him half an hour ago, back at the Jolly Eater.”
I chastised myself for having asked such a stupid question. That stance he had struck, drenched in climate tears, yet still projecting an aura of calm, professional intent, was obviously aimed at Jack, even though he wouldn’t be able to see it over the telephone. Damian was something of a method actor, fully capable of immersing himself in his own fantasy world. He evidently believed that you have to convince yourself before you can convince others. Which is what made his climate change cynicism so puzzling. His job depended upon convincing everyone else that carbon-free was the way to go, and yet he didn’t seem to think that this should apply to himself. Surely this was hypocrisy. Had he not learnt anything from the seemingly endless series of international climate summits? For years, people have been jetting from all over the world to make that very point.
Anyway, with priorities now firmly established, we swooped off the motorway and negotiated several sets of lights and roundabouts before our souped-up milk-float wheezed asthmatically into the car park of Jack Groper Limited – Guildford’s leading supplier of high quality bedsprings.