Story — From the April 2017 issue

Necessary Driving Skills

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This is the story.

Kim Le Bouedec and I run the Finchley Mint. And I’ve just kissed his wife.

We sell die-cast model cars by mail order. Don’t laugh, it’s a serious business. We always knew, Kim and I, in the years he was at Credit Suisse and I was bumping around the Home Counties in a maroon Vauxhall Insignia, urging skeptical Pakistani pharmacists to stock Dr. Schoepke’s Dynamic Night Conditioner, that we’d end up working together. Our kind of friendship, a perpetual suspension of unctuous love and vinegar, has always made for fun, and for efficiently nuanced exchanges, especially when agitated. And here we are, almost ten years out of college, just on the brink of really disliking each other, with a little business to call our own. Stock-Car Superstars at the Finchley Mint: “You can almost hear the engine rumble.”

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson

The idea is simple. Back in February, when he was still at Credit Suisse, Kim had lunch with Eric Fennema, a fellow Harrovian and colleague specializing in the pharmaceutical industry. Eric had got wind that one of his clients, a health-care multinational, had wanted to reward its 10,000 reps worldwide with a scale model of the standard fleet Mondeo, 1:18 on a lacquered plinth, with a tiny box of nonprescription drugs inside the working boot. But the die-cast factory stipulated a minimum run of 20,000, and now the surplus was going for a song. Within six weeks, Kim had worked out his notice and set up the Mint in the garage of his mews house in Finchley. Now, Kim is one of those omnivorous and preternaturally retentive sports fans whose knowledge extends not only beyond rugby and football and cricket to volleyball and real tennis and pelota and pro mah-jongg, for all I know, but also into the most abstruse and abysmal detail, the tactical peculiarities of the South Korean Olympic curling team, that sort of thing, so naturally he knew a thing or two about saloon-stock-car racing. First, that it is, in fact, arguably no longer a minority sport, with fans in this country ranging from 90,000 to 150,000, and upwards of 2 million worldwide. And second, that the world champion, the U.K.’s own Willie Webster, drives an electric-blue Mondeo Zetec, number 608, gold-roofed to crown him king.

The numbers augured well. Oval stadiums like Billericay RaceWorld, in Essex, can seat, what, eleven, twelve thousand, and when the Texaco Racewall in Canning Town is finished next spring it’ll have a paying-punter capacity of nineteen thousand, plus fifteen hundred more in the corporate boxes. Because what do people want to see, when five days a week they’re stung for tolls to crawl past speed cameras into twenty-mile-an-hour zones, ringed by the new London orbital of congestion-charge avoiders, lulled in their air-conditioned cells by the weather report or an audiobook? What’s the flip side of their tailback trance? A good burn. A crunchy pileup. The popularity of stock-car racing is the natural expression of the average driver’s unmet need for speed. I mean, I can’t say I’m a great fan, but then I’m not an average driver. These stock-car guys, they’re not interested in precision. It’s not like Formula One. They’re not interested in driving — but then neither’s the average driver. So I could understand the appeal, and that it’s an ever-expanding market to exploit.

Which Kim saw straight off, sitting at lunch talking money.

So we signed Willie Webster. At some conurbation-size factory in Kowloon, our Mondeos could be resprayed, stenciled, dented, fitted with custom bumpers, and the brass plaque saluting the Concura sales force replaced with one bearing Willie’s battle cry, “Who do you think you are, Willie Webster?” And then, two weeks later, two days after the decal designs had gone off to Chris the Printers, Webster was forced to renege by his sponsor, a well-known lubricating-oil company I’m bound by law not to name. They said it wasn’t their policy to endorse products at one remove, i.e., our replica 608s. A complete and unexpected U-turn, in other words, and if not an outright lie then at least a fuzzy area of policy, but which given their corporate muscle was just not worth getting litigious over. So we cut our losses and started looking for someone else.

An anxious flick through Oval Racer identified just two other Mondeo drivers on the saloon circuit: Mick Parrott and Jason Skoyles. Mick won the Welsh in 2012 but we opted for Jason — a red roof with flashing amber lights, two grades down from Webster — who at nineteen was already three-time holder of the Hampshire title and hotly tipped by Oval Racer to be this year’s national points champion, winner of the silver roof and a place in next year’s World Championship. Besides, Skoyles is a looker, the little bastard, six foot three, blond curls, bright tenantless smile, the sort of creamy kid to whom you’d hesitate to ascribe star quality, for fear of souring him, but who has it, helplessly, in spades. God forbid he ever meet Jill. Or Sasha, for that matter. Plus, his Mondeo is yellow, a cheaper paint than electric blue, and when his sponsor, Mr. Grippit Powertools, agreed to cover the cost of the decals, the decision was kind of made for us.

We had our stock-car superstar.

And you know, I was glad. Because things hadn’t been going so well for me. I hadn’t thought hitting thirty, a nonevent, celebrated in my friends’ cases with equal parts resolution and dread, would have any effect on me whatsoever. And yet there I was, thirty-and-a-bit, disinterestedly promiscuous, underpaid, as ever, by undynamic Dr. Schoepke, but feeling it all of a sudden, the shame of slow progress, of lagging behind. And then two things happened. One, I met Jill, who, it has to be said, did a lot to restore my confidence, if nothing else by her persistence in me, and to help me respond in the right way to the second thing, Kim calling out of the blue to offer me the job as his partner and marketing manager of the fledgling Finchley Mint. So with Jill’s encouragement I said Auf Wiedersehen to Dr. Schoepke and Oui, s’il te plaît to Kim the very next day. Not least because I could see right then that, over time and handled right, this was an idea that could make us some money, real money, different from the scraps that in my twenties had shot soaplike through my scrabbling hands, money that might sit and grow and give me the heft to contend with bigger things than rent and bills and whose round next.

And business is fine. Gli affari non vanno male. With the retail price set at £49.99 (or three monthly installments of £17.99), sales are projected to reach just under half a mill by year-end. There have been problems, with the product, and with Jason Skoyles, but things have taken a turn for the better. And besides, it’s problems — resistance, the pinpoint proximity to getting it wrong — that goad the will on to surmount them. Perhaps I mean that it’s problems that goad on the will to do anything. A sort of feedback loop driven by its own difficulty. With a bit of push, and the kind of luck we had last night, you can outmaneuver anybody. And, in any case, Kim and I have evolved a working method, based as I say on our special Anglo-French, best-enemy relationship, that allows us to share the responsibilities of, for instance, maintaining the systems for order fulfillment, Kim to take a clear strategic lead, and I to flirt as much as I like with his wife when he’s not looking.

I know what you’re thinking.

But I know what I’m doing. We won’t get caught, not if we’re precise about it. Sasha and I go back a long way, we know each other’s ins and outs. From back when everyone was . . . I mean, one night, after two E’s and a gram of coke, I almost fucked Kim. Of course things are different now. Of course now my friends are married, there are kids at stake, the borders are properly policed. Although that’s half the point. And listen. Kim’s good brain is distinguished more by its storage capacity than its processing speed. You only have to watch him talking business, with Eric, or with Nagesh at the bank, taking in their data, to see what a sponge he is. A great porous monolith of linen suit and pockmarked skin, topped by the lintel of a frown of profound interest: Kimhenge. Absorbing and storing as thoughtlessly as stone. That’s what Kim’s love for Sasha is: stored warmth, slowly released. And meanwhile, out in the quick cold, Sash and I have been having it off for years, in squirreled looks, foxy comments, swift collisions. In a hushed but persistent promise: one day.

But I have to say what happened on Friday night I was not expecting.

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is the author of Pub Walks in Underhill Country (Penguin), a novel. His article “Good Plain English” appeared in the March 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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