Ginger's First Driving Lesson
"You know," remarked Algy, blowing a smoke ring lazily at the ceiling as he slumped in the armchair beside the fireplace, "Ginger ought to learn to drive. He'll be 17 in a couple of weeks. It's high time he got a license. When are you going to give him some lessons?"
Biggles looked at his cousin askance. "You can't seriously expect me to teach him to drive, can you?" he demanded in exasperation. "I'm not a driving instructor! You should leave these things to people who're qualified. After all, Pim did the job properly when it came to teaching him to fly."
"Perhaps I'll take him out onto the airfield tomorrow and give him a go in the Bentley," suggested Algy.
"MY Bentley!" exclaimed Biggles. "Are you crazy? He'll crash it – or wreck the box, which comes to the same thing."
"Ginger's not ham-fisted, Biggles, you know that," protested Algy. "Look how well he flies."
Grudgingly Biggles acknowledged that the lad in question showed a lot of talent. "But flying and driving aren't at all the same thing," he added.
"You'd trust him with our aeroplane, why won't you trust him with your car?" pursued Algy with implacable logic. "It's not as though he's going to be doing stunts with it."
Biggles hesitated. He acknowledged that Algy had a point and Ginger did need to learn to drive.
"If you don't let him learn to drive, he may start joyriding," suggested Algy meaningfully.
Biggles looked at his cousin enquiringly, but Algy returned the stare innocently. Reluctantly Biggles gave his consent to letting Ginger drive the Bentley. "But make sure he takes care of it!" he exhorted Algy as he capitulated.
"I will," promised Algy with a smile. "I can't wait to see his face when I tell him."
Algy got his chance later that evening, when Ginger returned from the cinema, full of the adventures of his latest screen idol. Algy waited until Ginger had finished enthusing about the film and supper had been cleared away before he casually remarked, "I think Biggles wants to have a word with you."
Ginger blushed and swallowed hard. He turned enquiring eyes on his mentor. "What have I done?" he asked.
"Nothing as far as I know," countered Biggles. "I just thought, as it will be your birthday soon, it was time you got a driving licence."
Ginger let out a gasp of relief. "I've been dying to have a go," he confessed.
Algy smiled indulgently. "I know," he said tolerantly. "And tomorrow you'll get your chance. I'll take you for a spin round the airfield and you can have a go at the wheel."
Ginger beamed with delight. "Really!" he exclaimed with boyish enthusiasm. "That's great!"
"Yes, I'm sure you'll enjoy it," affirmed Algy. "Much better than some hole in the corner practice when no one's looking," he added with a sidelong glance.
Ginger had the good grace to blush. "Much," he agreed. When he met Algy's eyes, the airman's had a twinkle and he winked. Ginger looked at the floor.
"That's settled then," confirmed Biggles. "You can have a go in the Bentley with Algy to teach you the basics and I'll apply for a licence for you as a birthday present."
"Gee, thanks, boss," drawled Ginger, then seeing the look in Biggles' eye, muttered, "I mean, thank you very much, Biggles. I really appreciate that."
Biggles' lips twitched. "Just don't crash my machine!" he admonished the youngster. "She's a lady, treat her gently."
"I will!" promised Ginger fervently. "I really will!"
"Make sure you do," was Biggles last word before they retired for the night.
Ginger hardly slept that night; his mind on the morrow and the prospect of driving the Bentley with Algy in the passenger seat. It would be a weight off his mind to be able to drive openly. He thought back to the occasions when he had clandestinely borrowed the machine to practise round the airfield while Biggles and Algy were otherwise engaged and wondered how Algy had known what he'd been up to. At least, he thought, Biggles' cousin wouldn't snitch on him. Algy was much too indulgent and easy-going.
As he lay snuggled up in his bed, he thought how kind Algy had been to him. Right from the moment they had met at Cramlington, he'd been treated like a favourite kid brother, he reflected. The flying helmet, the new clothes, the flight, the suitcase, now the chance to drive Biggles' Bentley legitimately. He had Algy to thank for all of that. Ginger hugged his pillow and vowed he'd make Algy proud of him the following day. Imagining the scene at Brooklands, Ginger drifted off to sleep, to dream of doing circuits and managing to double declutch with panache.
The alarm woke him at seven o'clock. For a moment, Ginger did not know where he was, then memory came back with a rush and he leapt out of bed. Scurrying down the corridor to the bathroom, he gave his face a good scrub and cleaned his teeth. He inspected his chin for signs of a beard and pulled a face when he realised that there was nothing worth taking a razor to yet. The face that stared back at him seemed to be that of a child. Ginger regarded it solemnly. He had grown several inches, he reflected, but he still seemed very young. It was hard to be taken seriously, he brooded, when he looked such a kid. He tried out a few gestures copied from his screen idol. Sadly, he admitted to himself that they did nothing to make him look older or wiser and he abandoned the attempt.
Algy appeared at the door. "Ready?" he questioned with a smile.
"You bet!" affirmed Ginger. "I'll just go and get my coat!"
"Whoa, not so fast," Algy restrained him gently, smiling at Ginger's keenness. "Let's have breakfast first!"
Ginger sighed. Algy's smile broadened. "It'll still be there after bacon and eggs, you know."
Wryly Ginger nodded. "How did you know I'd been practising on the quiet?" he asked shyly.
Algy laughed and glanced behind before closing the door of the bathroom for privacy. "You didn't always park it in exactly the same place when you'd finished," he whispered.
Ginger bit back an expletive. "Did Biggles notice?" he asked anxiously.
Algy shrugged. "If he did, he didn't say anything," he informed Ginger with a grin. "Come on, let's go down to breakfast."
The pair entered the morning room together. Biggles barely glanced up from his newspaper as they seated themselves round the table and tucked into Mrs Symes' excellent fare.
Replete with bacon and eggs, marmalade and toast, Ginger and Algy rose from the table to set off for Brooklands. As they were about to leave, Biggles murmured, "Algy will tell you all you need to know about how to drive the Bentley properly, Ginger." He paused and took a sip of tea. "Including how to park it where you took it from," he added with a straight face, turning back to his newspaper.
Ginger flushed scarlet, mortified at being found out. Algy laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on, laddie," he urged. "Let's get going, the open road is calling."
Biggles glanced up sharply. "The open road?" he queried. "I thought you were going to Brooklands to practise."
"We are," affirmed Algy, "but to get there, we're going motoring on the open road."
Biggles glared at his cousin suspiciously. "I'm not sure I shouldn't accompany you. After all, it's my motor car!"
"Well, if you're coming, get your coat and hurry up," Algy told him briskly. "Ginger and I are keen to be off."
Biggles made up his mind and threw down his newspaper. "I think I'd better keep an eye on you," he commented as he rose and made for the hall. "Who knows what mischief you'll get up to if I let you go alone," he grumbled.
Algy grinned and they made their way to the garage where Biggles kept the gleaming 2.5 litre Bentley.
Ginger sat in the back as Biggles slid behind the wheel. Algy leapt into the passenger seat and lounged against the leather upholstery as they sped towards the airfield.
When they pulled up outside their hangar, Biggles lingered behind the wheel, reluctant to relinquish control.
Algy got out and stretched. Ginger followed his example, his eyes on Biggles. After what seemed to Ginger to be an age, Biggles got out and held out the keys.
"Here you are, Ginger," he said seriously. "You have control."
Ginger stretched out his hand and took the cold metal. "Thanks," he said, huskily. "I have control," he acknowledged with a thrill. His eyes met Algy's and he couldn't resist a shudder of delight.
Algy climbed back into the passenger seat and patted the leather of the driver's position. Grinning like a loon, Ginger slid behind the wheel and put the key in the ignition. His grin faded as Biggles climbed into the back seat.
"Don't pay any attention to me," Biggles ordered him. "Just listen to Algy and carry on."
Ginger looked at Algy apprehensively and received a reassuring smile. "Can you reach the pedals?" he asked.
Ginger moved the seat forward and depressed the clutch. He nodded apprehensively.
"Just relax and take it easy," said Algy calmly. "Make sure it is in neutral and switch it on."
Ginger waggled the gear stick and turned the key. The Bentley's powerful engine roared throatily. Ginger took a deep breath and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. Algy put his hand on Ginger's. The lad's knuckles were white with tension.
"Let go," he told the lad. Ginger took his hands off the wheel as if it were red hot. "You won't make a go of it if you're so tense," he counselled. "Now, try again, gently this time."
Ginger swallowed and took another deep breath. He put his hands back on the steering wheel. This time, he did not grip so tightly.
"That's good," Algy encouraged him. "Now depress the clutch and engage first gear."
Ginger struggled to coax the gear lever through the gate. "For goodness sake, Ginger!" Biggles snarled from the back seat as the cogs grated. "Sort them out, they're all in one box!"
Ginger blushed scarlet and tried again, to the accompaniment of grating cogs. Mortified, he struggled to force the stick into position.
"Stop a minute," said Algy just as Ginger managed to get the gear engaged. Ginger took his foot off the clutch and promptly stalled the engine.
Biggles started to speak, but Algy silenced him with a look. He put his hand on Ginger's shoulder and ran through the procedure again. Ginger, by now thoroughly rattled, started the engine again with a shaking hand. This time he managed to engage first gear and pulled away. Algy encouraged him and Ginger attempted to move up a gear. Suddenly he seemed to be all fingers and thumbs as he tried to juggle gears, clutch and steering. Algy put a guiding hand on the wheel as Ginger swerved off a straight line, veering towards the hangar. Back on course, Ginger managed to double de-clutch and achieve second gear.
"Good lad!" exclaimed Algy approvingly. Ginger gulped, concentrating hard, his breath coming in harsh rasps. Briefly he thought it had never been as difficult as this when he had practised on his own. Somehow he wrestled the machine into third gear and accelerated across the airfield.
"Okay, Ginger," Algy warned him, "you need to slow down now. You don't want to end up in the sewage works," he cautioned.
Ginger took his foot off the accelerator and the torque of the engine slowed the big machine, but not enough. Ginger pressed on the brake but nothing happened. The engine raced and the car ploughed on unchecked.
With horror, Ginger saw the fence that surrounded the sewage works looming closer. Somewhere in his brain the thought dawned that his right foot was on the clutch instead of the brake. Belatedly he moved his feet over and slowed the car enough to make the turn away from the slurry pit safely. He double declutched and brought the car to a halt, the engine ticking over in a low rumble.
When he glanced across at Algy, he noticed that his companion was rather paler than usual. Biggles' hands on the back of his seat bit into the leather. The knuckles were white.
"Well done, Ginger," Algy managed through lips that were ashen with strain. For a moment, I didn't think we were going to make it."
"Nor did I," confessed Ginger breathlessly. "I had visions of sinking below the muck like the Titanic."
Now that the danger was over, Algy dissolved in laughter. "There's one thing about it, Ginger," he guffawed, "Before we'd hit that fence, I'd have baled out and you'd have been singing Abide With Me on your own! I can just see Biggles as captain of the ship saluting as she sinks beneath the mire."
Ginger looked fearfully at Biggles in the back seat, expecting a rocket. Biggles sat ominously quiet. He took a cigarette from his case and slowly lit it. Ginger swallowed nervously.
"I think that's enough excitement for one day," he observed calmly. "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing."
Ginger heaved a sigh of relief and made to start the car again. Biggles reached across and stopped him. "I think, however," he murmured quietly, "that we'll quit while we're ahead today. I've just had my suit cleaned. I'll drive back."
Ginger looked crestfallen.
"Tomorrow I engage a proper driving instructor so that we don't end up with grey hair – or brown trousers," he added wryly as he took his place at the wheel.
Ginger and Algy exchanged glances and tittered. As the Bentley made its way sedately across the airfield to their hangar, the sounds of Abide With Me in a warbling treble, punctuated with gales of laughter, wafted in the breeze.