The letter begins: “Our records show..”
Uh-oh. I’ve never received any letter beginning with those three words that ended well. It’s never: “Our records show that you are due a Wibbly-Wobbly-Wonder and a comic.”
In this case, their records showed that my car is due for the National Car Test. The NCT is a common conversation filler these days, providing a license for exasperated sighs. “Everything perfect, brakes, lights emissions, the whole shebang and they failed it because there was a badger in the boot. I mean for feck sake like.” But there’s no avoiding it – the car will have to sit the test. The poor thing.
Wait, what am I saying? It’s just a car, a machine. It has no concept of passing or failing.
Some people do have names for their cars – it seems to be mainly girls. They momentarily cause confusion in polite company by saying: “I’m bringing Ke$ha to get her service tomorrow.” I don’t anthropomorphise the car enough to name it but as I look out the window, my 1997 Toyota Corolla seems to be looking back at me. With its roundy little headlights and wide grill, it’s quite a smiley car. Unlike a BMW, which is more stern and judgemental, like a wealthy uncle disappointed with your career choice.
If the NCT is the Leaving Cert, the pre-NCT service is a parent-teacher meeting. The mechanic and I are standing in the garage. The Corolla is progressing but could do better. The main area of concern: the emissions are “borderline”
Emissions – the coalface of sustainable living. All over the country, ordinary people who strive mightily to be ‘endvirdenmintally’ friendly, who recycle batteries and buy bags-for-life are confronted with what greener living really means. And they’re not happy. “Sure what difference will my jalopy make to global warming. It’s the Canadians you need to be going after with their oil-sands drilling. Carbon Monoxide? Carbon bolloxide more like it.”
On the day of the test, I clean the rubbish out of the car. For the average person, the inside of a car is a reminder of what our houses would be like if we didn’t have bins. On the upside I now know where the Sellotape went. With the car now weighing a few stone less, I set off for the NCT centre.
As the destination looms closer, the sense of foreboding increases, partially due to the grimness of the surroundings. NCT centres, by and large, are not built of natural stone and nestled beneath the shade of oak trees planted by Brian Boru. They are usually in an industrial estate, and in the part of the estate that’s so bleak it makes the other units look like Opera Lane.
The centre is busy this morning and there’s a queue to get into the car-park. The Polo in front appears nervous. When it’s my turn, the man at the checkpoint is perfunctory as he tells me where to “stick her”. I sit for a while with the engine running to give it a chance to cough up whatever car-phlegm it has and let the emissions emit somewhere else. (A small defeat for the planet but hopefully a victory for me). There’s silence and as I sit there, I get a little emotional. Without warning I’m overcome and give the steering wheel a little hug.
At the reception there is a queue to pay the fee. The man in front of me is back for a retest. “There was just an extra millilitre of oil” he says to the woman behind the counter. “It’s ridiculous like” She smiles with her mouth only. Remembering her training. Being polite but discouraging any further conversation on why he failed the last time. If she were to get into the-toss-arguing with every less than gruntled retest candidate, she wouldn’t get any work done.
After paying I go upstairs to the waiting room. It’s full of anxious owners leaning, pacing, sitting. The waiting area has little windows on it, overlooking the hangar where the cars are being tested so you can see yours being put through its paces. When it’s busy, like it is now, there are nine cars being examined at any one time. Men in overalls scurry about like minions in a James Bond film. I imagine their evil-genius boss in the control centre explaining his despicable project: “So you see Mr Bond, if your government does not give me what I want, I will simply reverse the polarity of the moon and destroy every major city on the planet”.
There are three rows of machine. The first is some sort of roller-system built into the floor to test the brakes, next there are nozzles and screens, presumably for emissions, and finally a Lift-Up-The-Car machine for the Having-A-Look-Underneath test.
Along the centre aisle there are a number of large potted plants. Surely that must be the worst gig in the plant kingdom – being the Fern-In-Residence inside the NCT centre. I’ve worked in some stuffy offices in my time but at least the plants usually had a relatively easy time. The only fumes came from the photocopier, the meeting-room and the occasional fart. The NCT plants are probably the only flora in the world that smoke on their break for a bit of fresh air.
My car is brought in. Up at the window I feel almost ill. This car has been with me through best and worst of times. It effortlessly negotiated the mud at Electric Picnic, brought me up and down the country for gigs and numerous dull trips to a grey building when I had a real job. It overcame black ice, white ice, dry ice, freezing fog, freezing rain, melting snow and never grumbled. But now it seems so forlorn and small being prodded and poked at by strange men. It looks like it needs me. But I’m helpless to intervene and am worried the car will do something to implicate itself. It’s like standing in a foreign railway station and watching your elderly parents being questioned by police.
As the car progresses through the various stages I try to read the reaction of the testers. Did I see that guy coughing? That’ll be the emissions failing. Now he’s talking to another mechanic. They share a joke. THIS IS NOT FUNNY I roar inside my head.
They’ve let the car down now – and it disappears out of the hangar. There’s a pause and my name is called down to the ‘Advice Desk’. It’s a long walk. I’m expecting bad news – this year two thirds of 1997 reg. cars will fail the first time. Fourteen is a difficult age.
But it’s not so bad. There is one FAIL/REFUSE for the brakes. They’re imbalanced so I’ll have to get yer man to take a look at the chakras and rebalance them. The good news is that the emissions are fine and elsewhere some strategically placed insulating tape goes unremarked upon. I go outside and see the car parked next to a Mercedes – looking a little sheepish. A little warm fuzzy feeling goes over me as I walk over for it. “We’ll get through this” I tell it.
I don’t have a name for my car but I’m still proud to call it…mine.