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WET CONCRETE

Complete Short Story

By Murray Tonkin

FOUR pairs of field glasses watched the long black racing car as it lurched round the bend into the far straight. It seemed to leap almost its own length, as the driver opened the throttle. It

"like

snarled in. a black blur to the turn into the near straight, and howled past the pits like a lost soul

READING from left to right, as they say, they were Robert Manning, well-known motor man* ufacturer, and his fiance, Miss Mardi Wolfe; Arnold Clavering, portrait painter, and A Friend. Elizabeth Waterhouse was the Friend. It was nearly always Hizabeth, because the four went everywhere togther, but she, being by profession a journalist, was not admitted to the ranks of those whose names are News. Manning clicked the top of a ■top watch. Clavering lowered his glasses to yawn, and re marked lazily, "Home car, Rob ert!" Manning nodded without ■peaking. He was absorbed in the action of . the low-slung charts en the corners. If he wasn't Mis taken, this next would be a lap record. It was, bat he said ao thlag about it. It didn't do for these things to get out premat •rely. Hm hlffh speed note died to a low Moan as the racer slowed and turned towards the pits where they were standing. The man in the ear lifted Us visor. "Timing a little out, sir. Otherwise OJC." Manning nodded. "I thought that wee H. How does she handle?" lite driver was enthusiastic. "like aettml" Mantt was pleased. Bhe gave Man ning's arm a little squeeze. "You ought to pull it off, Robert, with a ear like that!" Manning nodded, and patted her hand with an absent gesture. MOome on," he said to the others, "I want my lunch." Together they made their way back to Manning's big Bentley. With Its owner at the wheel it got away smoothly, gear-changes like clockwork. ll«^«in g drove as only a race-driver can drive. It was a pleasure to watch him. Clavering did so professionally, studying his intent side face- as he watched the road. He would, he de eftded, paint him exactly like that, In feehnet and goggles—Frankenstein pro duct of the machine age. Mardi was watching him too. He was, she was thinking undoubtedly, a eaten. Millionaire motor manufactur ers don't grow on every tree. It was a ■tty she nadnt more enthusiasm about the fact that he belonged to her—or would within two months, anyhow. And he was undeniably handsome. One stole a look at Clavering, and felt a sudden impulse to straighten his tie, which was in its usual position under his left ear. He wore a floppy Mack felt hat, a nondescript coat, and flannel bags. He looked as if he had somehow strayed out of a novel about Montmartre, and failed to find his way They were in traffic now. Elizabeth, the Friend, admired the way in which Harming swung the heavy sports tourer In and out of the swarm of vehicles that grew denser as they progressed uptown. "Nothing wrong with his nerves!" she assured herself. But, nevertheless she had been the only one to see that quick flash of fear to his eyes aa they had turned away from fee black racer, in the pits. A **-LL right. You can rest." Manning stretched himself and sighed gratefully. Clavering, when he Became absorbed, was- a hard master. Mardi crossed the room to the can vas and surveyed it critically. "Not bad, Clawy." She lit a cigarette, put It hi his mouth, and lit another. Man- Bins; was left to H£?i his own. Manning's face, wearing that set, tense expression it had worn the pre vious day. looked from the canvas towards the far corner of the room. Be eUmbaa down from bio poca on

the model throne and took a look at the masterpiece. **Qood Lord! Do I look like that?" "You do, my son." Mardi blew a puff of smoke in his direction. "I wonder you don't frighten everything else off the track." "Thanks." That'll do for to-day," said Clsver ing. **X can do without you for a day or two." Thank heavens. 11l do a bit of work for a change*" "Work?" Mardi raiaed her eyebrows. Tea, my dear. I know the word sounds strange to your ears. Can I drop you anywhere?" "No thanks. 11l stop and talk to Clawy for a while. He soothes me." stood at the window of his sitting room, gaaing through the drawn-back curtains at the dark pavement, which gleamed wetly back at him in the bright light of the street lamps. It was raining. It had been raining all day. Not the steady beat of a real old-fashioned downpour, but the soft drift of fine mist that covered every thing with a grey blanket of misery. He twitched savagely at the curtains and flung them .back across the de pressing night-scape. He crossed to the sideboard and fiddled with the stopper of the whisky decanter, then shook his head. No, not even a little one. With sudden decision he picked up the telephone and dialled. Miss Mardi was out. She had not left any mes sage. He paused, then rang Blsa~ beth. Bhe was home. He could come round If he liked.

Sbe was in black. Black suited EUsa beth's figure, made it less noticeable that she was beginning to run de cidedly to curves. Elisabeth's figure gave her not a little anxiety, but it had no such effect on m?""'"| After the slim, energetic nymphs that made up the greater part of the female population he found her very restful, but Elisabeth could hardly be expected to know that. He Mt his fourteenth cigarette since dinner, and paced the hearthrug moodily. He smoked for a few minutes, then threw it viciously into the fire. "Hang it all." he bunt out irritably. -There's no hiding the fact that I'm in a rotten, knock-kneed palpitating funk! Then scratch," she said placidly. "Scratch? You know I can't. If for no other reason—look at the weather. They'd say I was scared to race on wet concrete! 1* i "Aren't you?" "Of course I am—but I wouldn't admit it to any one else. My nerve's gone. I only.keep going to prove to myself I'm not a coward—not that it Is any good—" She took a cigarette from a silver box at her elbow. "Does. Mardi know how do you feel about it?" she asked curiously. "No." Then why don't you tell her, and drop it for good? Say she wont let you race, or something?" -I can't." •Why?" "For the same reason that I don't walk into the Motor dub and shout it out in the smoking room." -Ohr She raised her eyebrows, but said nothing. She thought a lot,

though. She thought, among other things, of the fate of a marriage in which the husband could not tell the wife of the things that were in his heart, but had to keep the same front before her as that which he kept to-, wards the outside world. But because she herself happened to be interested —to herself she candidly admitted it —she could not tell him what was in her mind, being cursed with that in cubus known as a sense of honour. And because she loved him she even smiled when, as he was leaving, he paid her one of the most backhanded compliments a man might pay a wosaan— MTbank goodness for you Bet! you're so . . . ,so homely I" *Ttu still drizzling next w—ilrg when his manservant threw back the curtains on a new day. Man ning looked at the cup of tea at his bedside, and reached for a cigarette. "Bring me a whiskey, he said. "And throw that stuff out of the window!" The man's eyebrows rose, but he offered no comment. "And," proceeded

Manning as he reached the door, "go easy with the soda. By lunehtime he was "tight." With other habitual drivers Man ning shared an aversion to being driven. A mechanic from the near by garage brought the Benttey round pre cisely at two. He tipped the lad and slid behind the wheel. The mechanic looked at him admiringly. "Gosh, Mr. Manning," he burst out, "but I'd .like to change places with you!" Manning gave him a twisted grin." •Not half as much, sonny, as Td like to change places with you!" The car slid off into the traffic. "He almost sounded," a puuled youth told his workmates later, "as if he meant it!"

Driving was quite a business that afternoon. The roads to the -track were crowded. Big cars and little ears spurted and crawled and tooted. Man-' ning drove through it more or leas cheerfully, finger on the horn-button. His mind functioned through a pleasant whiskey fog. The spirits that he'd been soaking all the morning were having their effect. He was on his way. he felt quite safe, to something rather unpleasant, but for the life of him he couldn't feel that it mattered. He came to a patch of comparatively free road .and down came his loot upon the accelerator- At the same time, almost, he took his hands from the wheel to light a cigarette A big car flashed o«t •* ?

tide lane Just as he took his hands from his face. His car, with a shriek of tyres, lurched sideways, missed a truck by a coat of paint, climbed a hedge, and came to rest in a ploughed field. They got him back on the road hair an hour later. He way late, his hands were trembling, and he was cold sober. T THE first car on handi-   cap had already left the line when he shrugged himself into his overalls. Williams, his head mechanic from the works, looked at him reproachfully from beneath the bonnet. "Had a smash," Manning explained briefly. Williams noted the colour of his face, and his trembling hands. "Better pull out sir. You can't drive like that." Manning shook his head. Williams, noting the signs, held his tongue. Manning throttled her down and listened. "Like a two bob watch, sir." Manning nodded. He picked his casque from the seat and fumbled at the chin-straps with shaking fingers. He looked towards the crowded stands. Mardi, he supposed, was up there waiting to see him win. Or to see him crash! In his present state the latter was far more likely. He looked at his watch. Two minutes to go.

With the adjusting of the casque the roar of the engines had died to a dull snarl. The first man away slewed sickening]? around the near corner by the first stand and screamed down the straight towards the begin ning of the second lap. Gosh! But that track was greasy! His stomach fell into his boots, and stayed there- He drew his goggles down, then pushed them up again. They were misty with fine rain. Suicide to me them on a day like this. Then swinging through the crowd he ■aw Bet She flicked her press ticket at a mechanic who tried to stop her, and grinned. She always said that she'd get past St. Peter himself with a press UcET She heM out a fist and grinned agasn. He grinned back and took it Bter lips formed the woroV"Oood lacki" "Thanks, m need it* Twenty strands to go. ICechantaaUy

he reached over and switched off his engine. He nicked his helmet to her with a floved finger, and ..they pushed him out on to the line. She watched him go-with an anxious face. O God! Don't let him crash) Three seconds . . . two seconds . . . one second ... his number went up. They threw their weight on his ear's tail, their feet sliding on the slippery track. Bbc began to roll. He took a deep breath and slammed her Into gear. It coughed once . . . twice . .'. l?d atart, . . plugs damp ... it snarled; and leaped forward half a length. He was off. The first bend screamed to wards him like hell's mouth. c V*/ LAYERING came out of the swing doors of a shipping office and entered a telephone booth. From under the skirts of a pert French lady a telephone rang shrilly in an uptown flat. Mardi threw down the novel she

had been pretending to read and picked It up quickly. "Yes? .... Yes, my dear ..... Clawy Z can't ..... it's impossible* I told you fio yesterday ..... Of course I love you. you ass, but how can If ~. . . You're mad, my dear, but I love you for it ...... Come quickly lor me before I change my mind." She rang otf and ran Into her room. Quickly she commenced to pack. T •*• ENTH Hp. Brewer, in the black, was out with a smashed con. rod. Five left in the race. Lester's green flashed across the line into his eleventh lap five seconds ahead of the field. Then came McOrath, his supercharger howling the last ounce out of nine hone-power. Three seconds .. . . the silver Comet .... half a minute . . . . Stroud and Miller fighting wheel to wheel. Twelfth lap .... The Comet crept yard by yard to the tall of the red car. He was still lying third. The near side wheel of the Comet crept to the off side back of the other car, and stayedl there. Together they screamed into the straight past the stands. The < Comet drew level with the cockpit. Manning was driving like a devil pos sessed. The roar ot the crowd beat faintly in his ears above the engines as. he slid round the high banked turn out of the straight. Three laps to go. The timekeVKrs were on their toes. 7

On the far straight the Comet flashed past the lied with a shrill howl and challenged the green. They slithered round the corner by the air* craft sheds wheel to wheeL when they screamed past the stands the Comet's nose was an inch In front . , . half a length. ... The corner came swiftly. Be couldn't take it! He couldn't take-—- The Comet spun like a silver top. The back wheels left the ground I* the space of a split second, while shfe stood on her nose. She flipped three quick ' •omersaulte and lay still. A little tongue of yellow flame flickered fflom beneath the twisted chassis* L IYA.ARIH dosed the door of the flat behind her and ran swiftly downstairs. Five minutes passed. The little flat was very still- The pert French lady almost jumped — •*— telephone beneath her skirts •hrllled loudly. The letter propped against her slipped to, the floor. The telephone went on ringing,

i?VJLanhino came round t* hospital. The firs* person that" die saw was Elisabeth. At first he «v content to lie still and watch her. It seemed a singularly satisfying thirtf to do. ■ ; "Bet!" At the sound of his voice she turned/, quickly, and smiled. "Be quiet, dear, or 111 get thrown out." The endear ment slipped out naturally. Neither noticed it. "Quiet be bio wed! There's nothing the matter with me.** : "Oh no! You only crashed at eighty* fire, and bounced three times before you stopped!" "Did I?" The idea was vaguely amusing. "Where's Mardi?" Bet looked out of the window. *? expect shell be along any minute now,* she said. The silence that followed was son**

what awkward. It was broken by whispers and scufflings in the corri dor outside. Bet went to the door and threw it open. Mardi came in first, dragging a re luctant and pinkly sheepish Clavering. "I left a letter for you," she said. "As Clavvy told me to, but I don't think it was the right thing. 80 I made him come with me while I told you what we've done." •Manning looked bewildered. "What have you done?" "We've Just been married." The defiant words fell somehow flatly in the quiet of the hospital room. There was a long silence which Mardi endured with her head up, while Clavering shuffled his feet like an ear ring schoolboy and looked more sheep ish than ever. At last Manning smiled. "Do you love him more than my money, Mardi?" She took that with her head up, too, though not as many women would have done, as an insult. "Yes I do. I never did love you, Robert. You never gave me a chance. You were always too self-sufficient. All you wanted was a doll to play with. I had nothing to give you in return. Because every woman is 99 per cent mother I wanted to mother you, and you never gave me the chance. * "You ought to be glad I'm not going to marry you, because sooner or later I'd leave you for some one who really needed me. If you needed me I'd have stuck to you, but you don't. That's all, Robert." Manning looked at them amusedly. "By Jove, I know who'll wear the pants in that house!" he thought. He grinned. "Bless you, my children," he said. "And now get out of my sight." Elisabeth looked at the closed door, "dads!" she said, and Manning taw

that there were tears In her eyes, "Bob, dear, I'm so sorry!" Manning looked at her through half shut lids. "Elizabeth—you're a liar." She flushed. "What do you mean by that, Bob Manning!" "That," he said deliberately, "you'rt no more sorry—than I am. Com* here." She came and knelt beside him. "Bet, my dear," he said, "I seem to have made a pretty fair mess of things all round. It looks to me as if I need a keeper. Will you accept the job?" She accepted, in a manner entirely satisfactory to both. !►▼ *« ANNINO slid the biff sports tourer into its berth, ignored ■the "No Smoking" notice, and lit a cigarette. His own special mechanic -came forward at the double.' As a -race driver Bert Harris worshipped the ground that Manning walked on. • Manning smiled at him cheerfully. "Yes, Bert. I came specially to sea you to-day." . Bert was bewildered. "To see me, sir?" "Yes, Bert. Do you remember ray ing you'd like to change places with me?" . "Yes. Mr. Manning"—sturdily—"and so I would, too!" "That's tlje stuff. Then what do you say to a job in my works? Learn ing my cars inside out, so that^pu can 'win races on them for meWa year or two?" There was a long pause while the enchanting news sank in. "Would a duck swim!—Ah, then, but what about you, Mr. Manning? A bloke wouldn't stand a chance while you're about." "Well, you see, Bert, I've personally given up racing." Bert was frankly incredulous. Man ning shook . his head. "It's quit? right. You see, my wife doesn't like it.*: . And neither, of course, she did.

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