The Hole In Reality

AND HOW TO COVER IT UP

Inexorable as dandruff, the Red Death had spread far and wide, a foul blot on smooth whiteness, a horror to be described only in rich Lovecraftian prose, each syllable adrip with slime....

"It is a bit rusty." Hazel understated. I poked the car's left wing and found I could push my finger through, approximately to the elbow. This explained the car's social problem; I'd noticed lately that while other vehicles occasionally left little driblets of oil when they drove away, ours was wont to deposit a sprinkling of red dust and what looked like shrapnel.

It was time for action: any further erosion and the headlights would slide forth to point introspectively at the bumpers. Thus, five weeks later, I ran to the local motor-parts shop in search of those little fibreglass repair kits. (Once I rebuilt large portions of my mother's old Morris with these materials, after the painful incident when another motorist flung his car sideways at the Morris and struck it forcibly on the front. I could have pulled my mother's leg about this for years if I hadn't been driving her car at the time.)

"Hey George, here's someone after fibreglass!" shouted the spare-parts man. There came a distant crashing in the recesses of the shop: George was stumbling towards his prey.

"You know how much those little kits cost?" said the first man meanwhile, pointing contemptuously at a shelf of small body-repair kits. It seemed a strange sales technique. I peered at the price-tags and said, "About one pound forty-five pence, I suppose."

"And what do you get? Nothing!"

"Nothing at all," confirmed George, now moving to encircle me.

"Paying for fancy packaging and such, that's what you're doing."

"Bloody waste of money," George chanted antiphonally, like a Greek chorus telling Oedipus what a sucker he was and how the heavy boys had it in for him.

"You have a cheaper kit?" I suggested.

"Well --"

"We haven't got into production yet --"

"But we could make one up for you---"

"Much better value, you get twice as much---"

"More!"

George lurched away, returning with about an acre of fibreglass mat; the other man produced and wildly waved a bottle labelled POISON. I cringed and lost my sales resistance; their eagerness made them forget the "No Cheques" sign and take two quid in exchange for yards of matting, a vast plastic bottle of resin and a tiny one of hardening catalyst (DANGER! DO NOT BREATHE FUMES! DO NOT SPILL ON SKIN! DISPOSAL: BURY BENEATH AT LEAST FOUR FEET OF EARTH!), all decanted from their Bulk Purchase carboys.

"That," said George reverently, "is the first kit we've sold." They took turns to finger the cheque. At that moment, I suppose, I should have felt a quiver of nameless dread. Instead I wandered home; while the entrepreneurs, no doubt, broke out a bottle of champagne.

Now this resin has a highly penetrating smell, more pungent yet than Brian Burgess's well-aged milk -- rather too strong to live with. It reminded me of Shakespeare: this has little connection with literary criticism ("The Olfactory School: F.R. Leavis sniffs the parts of D.H. Lawrence which other critics cannot reach"), but a great deal with the Quatercentenary Exhibition at Stratford, whose fibreglass exhibits diffused the same resinous stench -- which forms my sole memory of the celebrations. (I was a rather nauseating schoolboy at the time.) Hazel didn't like it either, and the plastic bottle was banned from the house. In keeping with my image of virile dynamism, I did nothing for another week, by which time the bottle was found to have collapsed. A limp, Daliesque "soft bottle" remained, a blobsome object resembling that gentleman of Ray Bradbury's who mislaid his skeleton and subsided into something like a cowpat. It was no longer a bottle, it was a ruddy plastic bag.

This will be fun for George & Co., I thought while decanting the resin -- whose adventures had unaccountably turned it pink -- into old coffee jars. An evil smile contorted my lips as I recalled their other bulk buy: hundreds of those resin-soluble bottles. Shelf upon shelf of sagging plastic, dripping corrosively over the customers. And what of the super-toxic, ultra-nasty, utterly obnoxious hardening substance?

-- Which was standing in its tiny plastic phial upon the fridge. A fear-crazed Langford ran to seize it ... no, nothing wrong there. I went away very thoughtfully, to brutalize the helpless car.

Heinlein's "Competent Men" no doubt have a clear notion of how to handle rusty cars; I didn't, and simply attacked all ravaged surfaces with wire brushes, chisels, fingernails and teeth. Further skirmishes with electric drill attachments removed many square feet of rust-cracked paint, many square inches of skin, and my remaining illusions of competence. Having ground away all the diseased portions of the car (and developed in the process, incredible though it may seem, a certain sympathy for dentists), I was now able to look upon an expanse of shining metal surrounding a larger expanse of hole. This was it! Any fool can destroy, but now it was time to create! Full of stern purpose, Langford the Maker strode back indoors, poured a large drink and sat quaking for half an hour.

Time passed. After much complex arithmetic, I calibrated a British Standard Yoghurt Container to measure the odorous resin. I found a syringe to dispense the 2% admixture of hardener required by the rules. I sliced up pieces of fibreglass mat to cover up the horrid truth. I reached portentously for the tiny plastic bottle, and as I picked it up, it dripped. Aagh. The vile, insidious stuff had bided its time, had somehow contrived to crack its wretched bottle -- a star of fine, radiating cracks in the base -- unleashed, it dribbled voraciously across everything to hand, removing the surface of whatever it touched. After uttering a few ritual remarks which further scorched the surfaces, I transferred the lethal toxin to a glass jar and rededicated myself to the ideals of Botch-It-Yourself....

One slaps the goo onto the metal. One adds a piece of fibreglass mat. One repeats the not really over-exciting process until: (a) the goo runs out; (b) the goo hardens in the yoghurt container and more must be brewed; (c) the goo eats through the bottom of said container and starts on some convenient pair of trousers; (d) one collapses from the fumes; (e) one is immobilized by fibreglass strands clinging tenaciously to the fingers.

This last hazard would go down a treat on Dr Who, as well as being ideally suited to the BBC budget.

"Argh! Urrgh! Nnng! Help!"

"No, Doctor! Don't go near! The Spores have got to him --see! He has the Fungoid Fingers!" Zoom in on horribly overgrown hands, skin sticky and mucous, inhuman white strands sprouting from the ravaged flesh, dramatic crescendo of 76 radiophonic workshops and fade to credits --

In the end I used a brillo pad. Ouch.

So the stuff hardens and there comes the fierce joy of grinding it all off again in an attempt to produce surface contours vaguely resembling the car's original shape. (Those who accidentally create new holes at this stage will never again complain of lacking a rich emotional life.) Mere weeks later, one can spray on paint and survey the work with honest pride. Less smooth and symmetrical than the original metal, perhaps, or than the lunar surface, but surely it is better than rust. Even the nagging suspicion that I could have done a cheaper job by gluing on pound notes does not lessen my pride. I am now collecting appropriate sedatives for the time when, all the metal around them having rotted away, my incorruptible fibreglass patches will fall off.