Most cars are just cars. Four wheels. An engine. Some
seats. They take you to work. Or to school. They bring
you home again. But some cars – just a few – are more
Some cars are different.
Some cars are amazing.
And the Tooting family's car was absolutely definitely not one of those.
It was so undifferent and so unamazing, in fact, that
on the last day of the summer term when Lucy and Jem
strolled out of the school gates and into the holidays,
they walked straight past it. They didn't even notice it
was there until their father popped his head out of the
window and shouted, 'Lucy! Jem! Jump in! I'm giving
you a lift!'
'I don't need a lift,' said Lucy, who was fifteen years old.
'I need to be alone.' Lucy always dressed completely
in black, ever since last Christmas.
'Why aren't you at work?' asked Jem.
'Special occasion,' said Dad. 'I have Big News.'
'Good Big News? Or Bad Big News?' said Jem, who was
a bit of a worrier.
'All Big News is tragic,' said Lucy sadly. 'Nothing good
is ever news.'
'Wait and see,' said Dad. 'First we'll collect Little Harry
from the childminder.'
Little Harry hated being strapped into his car seat. As he
struggled to get free, Jem said, 'You have to be clipped in,
in case we crash.'
'I lost my dinosaur,' said Little Harry.
'Are you going to tell us the Big Bad News now?' asked
'It's not bad news. First we'll collect Mum from the
'You don't usually collect me from the shop,' said Mum,
as she climbed into the front seat. 'Has something terrible happened?'
'Tragic news,' said Lucy.
'What tragic news?'
'Not tragic news,' said Dad. 'Big News. Excellent Big News.'
'Well, what is it?'
'I lost my dinosaur,' said Little Harry.
'Oh no,' said Mum. 'Not the lovely red remote-control one that Santa brought you?'
'Can we stop talking about the dinosaur and talk about my news, please?' said Dad.
'Well . . .' said Dad, '. . . I think we're going to need a takeaway to help us celebrate.'
They got the Celebration Banquet for Four with an extra portion of Chicken in Black Bean Sauce for Lucy – who
liked to eat black food whenever she could. When it was
all set out on the table, the lovely spicy smells curling
into the air around them, Dad
finally told them the excellent
'Children,' he said, 'and
wife – my Excellent Big News
is that –' he looked around
the table, enjoying their
expectant faces – 'I never
have to work again! What
do you think of that!?'
'Wow!' said Little Harry.
'Brilliant!' said Jem.
'That was unexpected,' said Lucy.
'How come?' said Mum.
'Because,' said Dad, 'I have been sacked! Hooray!'
'Hooray!' yelled Little Harry.
'Hooray!' re-yelled Dad.'I'm pleased that you're
pleased,' said Mum, 'but
are you sure it's entirely
'If you have no
job,' said Jem, 'doesn't
that mean we'll be
really poor and starve
'No,' said Dad. 'It
means we'll be able
to do whatever we
want and go wherever
we like. The word today,' he said, 'is opportunity
'I want my dinosaur back!' yelled Little Harry.
Dad explained the details. 'Since the day I left school,'
he said, 'I have worked in a factory making tiny, tiny
parts for really big machines. But now the company has
a new contract making even tinier parts for even bigger
machines. My fingers are just too big for the job. So they
said they had to let me go.'
'Go where?' said Jem.
'Go anywhere we like,' said Dad.
'When you say anywhere,' said Jem, 'does that include
abroad?' No one in the Tooting family had ever been
'Anywhere,' said Dad, 'means anywhere in the world.'
He smiled at Mum. 'And, dearest, you get first pick.'
Mum blushed a little and said, 'Well
you always promised to take me to
'Paris,' he said, 'is yours. The
moment we are packed.
'Me?' said Lucy. 'I don't
want to go anywhere. I
want to spend my days in
my room, now that I've
finally got it the way I
like it.' Lucy had got rid
of all the ornaments and
dancing certificates from her room, painted the walls and
her bookcase black. Dyed her duvet. And her pillowslip.
'You must want to go somewhere?'
'I suppose I wouldn't mind seeing the pyramids. I
could sit in the desert looking at the Sphinx and think
about dead pharaohs, with their gold and jewels, lying
there in the desert night. Dead, dead, dead.'
'I can see we're going to need to plan our route,'
said Dad. 'Go and get that map of the world from your
'The map of the world isn't on my bedroom wall any
more,' said Lucy. 'The colours were too bright – yellow
and blue and pink. Pastel colours depress me.'
'But I've had that map since I was a little boy. I won it
for being punctual. It says so on the back. What have you
done with it?'
'I stuck it up on Jem's wall.'
'It was completely out of date. There were countries on
there that were shut down years ago and new countries
that weren't even mentioned. Instead of France it had
something called Gaul.'
'It was supposed to be a historical map.'
'That's what I said, out of date. I put it in recycling.'
? Do you know how often I had to be punctual
to win that prize?'
'Why would you want an out-of-date map when
there's really good satnav in the car? A map like that
could be dangerous.'
'If you tried to use it you would get lost. People get lost
all the time. Cities get lost, even.'
'What cities get lost?' said Lucy.
'El Dorado. Camelot. Troy. Xanadu. Atlantis. They
were all big cities once and now no
one knows where they are. They
got lost. I bet it was because of
'Maps go out of date,' said
Dad, 'because countries change.
And people can go out of date
too big for the machines. That doesn't mean they should be put in a
bin. Just because something's out of date doesn't mean
it's no use.'
'Dad, I was talking about maps, not fingers,' said Jem.
'I didn't mean—'
'And it's all fine anyway,' said Mum, 'because I took
the map out of recycling again. Here it is . . .' She spread
it out on the table and touched the back of Dad's hand.
'I've always been very proud of your father's punctuality,'
she said. 'It's one of his most attractive qualities, along
with his boyish smile.' Dad smiled his boyish smile.
'Now, Jem, you said you wanted to go to El Dorado. Show
your dad where it is on the map.'
'I don't know where it is on the map. That's the point.
It's lost. I was making a point about how easy it is to get
lost. If a big city can get lost, a small person can get lost.'
'It's somewhere around here,' said Dad, pointing to
'Well then,' said Mum, 'we'll stop and ask when we
get to the general area. The locals are
bound to know. Little Harry, what about you?'
'We'll try our best,'
said Dad. 'So . . . what
have we got? Paris for
Mum, Cairo for Lucy,
El Dorado for Jem—'
'I really don't want to go to El Dorado,' said Jem.
'. . . and last of all, the North Pole for me.'
'That's the South Pole,' said Jem. 'You've got the map
upside down. See what I mean about how easy it is to get
'Can you really drive to the North Pole in a car?' said
Lucy. 'Wouldn't you be overwhelmed by blizzards and
buried in avalanches and left untouched and frozen in
the snow for hundreds of years, like fish fingers? Dead,
'No,' said Jem. 'Because our car's got four-wheel drive
and a super de-icer. And satnav. It can go anywhere in
the whole world and never get stuck and never get lost.'
That's when the doorbell rang.
At the door was a nice young man in a blazer with a
plastic identity card clipped to his lapel. 'Hello,' said Dad,
reading the badge, 'Bernard.'
'Good evening, Mr Tooting.' Bernard smiled. 'I work
for Very Small Parts For Very Big Machines.'
'Oh!' said Dad. 'So do I!'
'Not any more you don't.' Bernard smiled again.
'Oh yes, I forgot.'
'Perhaps you also forgot that this car – with its satnav,
four-wheel drive and super de-icer – belongs to the
'Oh,' said Dad. 'I did forget that. Yes.'
'Keys, please.' Still smiling, Bernard put his hand out
and Dad gave him the car keys. Bernard drove away in the car. Mum put her hand gently on Dad's shoulder.
'Never mind,' she said.
'I've got no job.'
'We'll manage,' said Mum.
'I've got big fingers.'
'I like your fingers.'
'I've got no car,' said Dad.
'We'll walk,' said Mum.
'Not to Paris.'
'Not to Cairo.'
'Not to El Dorado, or the North Pole. We'll never go to
any of those places. We'll never go anywhere.'
He stood and watched until the car had disappeared
around the corner.
'The word today,' he said, 'is stuck
Mum went back to the supper table.
'When your father comes back,' she said, 'he may well
be very unhappy.'
'Why?' said Jem.
'Because he's got no job, no car and no prospects,' said
'I wouldn't say no prospects,' said Mum.
'He's much too old to get another job.'
'I lost my dinosaur,' said Little Harry.
But when Dad came back to the table, he said, 'Pass
me a prawn cracker, Jem,' and leaned back in his chair with a big smile on his face. 'I am so glad,' he said, 'that
that car has finally gone. I never wanted to travel the
world. Now I'll be able to concentrate on my plans for
'You've got plans for the house?' asked Mum. 'What
sort of plans?'
'The word today,' said Dad, 'is home improvement
There was a terrible, blood-curdling scream, a scream
that rattled windows seven streets away.
When Lucy woke up on that first day of the summer
holidays, she was confronted with her worst nightmare.
While she was sleeping, someone had somehow covered
her black walls with jolly blue wallpaper with daisies on
'My eyes!' shrieked Lucy. 'The wallpaper is blinding
me!' She covered her face with her hands and, peeping
out through her fingers, saw Dad up a ladder hanging a
strip of the blue daisy wallpaper.
'What do you think?' he asked. 'Thought I'd brighten
the place up a bit. Your room was so gloomy.'
'I like gloomy,' said Lucy. 'Gloomy is the point. I
worked hard on gloomy. I painted it with three coats of
gloomy paint. And what is that terrible smell?'
A little cloud of thick black smoke was curling from a
hot, bubbling hole in the top of her skull-shaped reading
lamp. 'My skull,' she shrieked. 'My skull is melting!' The
lamp was charred and twisted and slumped to one side.
'The light seemed a bit dim so I put a more powerful bulb in it. Maybe a bit too powerful.'
'I'm being poisoned by my own bedside lamp!'
From the next room came a cry of, 'Help! Help! Help
'Oh,' said Dad. 'Sounds like Jem's awake.'
'It sounds like Jem's in mortal danger.'
'I think he's just really surprised at what I've done to
Jem had been woken up by a strange, electric whining.
When he opened his eyes, a small blue object whizzed
right past his face. He barely had a chance to blink when
a small red object rattled past even closer. He just had
time to see that the objects were car-shaped. Tiny cars
were flying round his room, skimming by his face, like
'Help!' he yelled, sliding under the duvet. 'Help!' He
didn't shout anything more specific because he couldn't
figure out what kind of help a person should ask for if
attacked by tiny cars – presumably driven by tiny men.
The explanation was simple enough. When Dad was
ten years old, he had woken up on his birthday to find
that his dad had assembled an amazing Scalextric track
in the bedroom he shared with his brother. It was one of
the happiest memories of his life – a plastic racetrack, two
racing cars – one blue and one red – and a little man with
a chequered flag, all set up and ready to go. They spent
the whole day racing each other round and round that
track. For years afterwards they used pocket money to get extra track and the round circuit grew into a spaghetti
of twists, turns, chicanes and flyovers. They grew out of
it but Dad could never bear to give it away or throw it
out so it had ended up in the loft. He always meant to
get it down and fix it up so that Jem could play with
it. Now that he'd been sacked he finally had the time
to get the pieces down, make sure the wheels were oiled
and the wires were snug, sneak into Jem's room and snap
together a race course that whirled around the table legs,
soared over his bed, swung in and out of the windowsill
and filled the room with speed and the smell of hot
'What do you think?' said Dad, sticking his head
round the door.
'What's it for?'
'We can race against each other.'
'Haven't you heard of computers? We can race against
each other on a range of platforms in any format we
like. We can race as elephants, rockets, chariots – not
red and blue plastic cars. And you don't have to tidy up
afterwards and it's not dangerous. That's why people like
to play on their computers and why they put this stuff in
'How is this dangerous?'
'Electric wires, bits of plastic flying around the room
at speed. Of course it's dangerous . . .' Just as he said that,
the blue car missed the turn, shot off the end of the track,
tumbled through the air and whacked Dad in the middle
of his forehead. For a second it looked like he was going to fall over. Then, 'That's
all part of the fun of it!'
He smiled and wiped the
blood away. 'The word
today is fun
Little Harry had a dream about dinosaurs. It wasn't a
nightmare. He loved dinosaurs and in the dream they were
picking him up and throwing him to each other, slapping
him into the air with their tails and bouncing him off their
horns, and all the time he was laughing and gurgling.
When he woke up, Dad was sitting on the end of his
'I know what you're going to say, Little Harry,' he said.
'You say the same thing every morning. Every morning
you say, "Play with me". Every morning I say I can't
because I'm going to work. But this morning is different.
Go on, say, "Play with me".'
'Dinosaur!' said Little Harry.
'No, like this . . . Play with me.'
'Play. With. Me . . .' The moment Dad said this, there
was a strange whirring from the toy box at the end of Little
Harry's bed. The whirring was followed by a clicking.
'You're always asking people to play with you,' Dad
explained, 'when they're too busy. So I've used some of
the skills and expertise I learned in the twenty years I
worked without complaint and never once being late
at Very Small Parts For Very Big Machines. I have used
those skills so that instead of playing with toys like other
children, you will have toys that play with you!'
Little Harry was staring at the toy box. His eyes were
growing wider and wider.
'Voice-activated,' said Dad. 'From now on, whenever
you say "Play with me", your toys will just get up and
play with you . . .'
Harry's eyes were now so round they looked as though
they were going to fall out of his face. A dozen Playmobil
men clambered out of the box and marched towards
his bed, their plastic arms held out in front of them like
tiny primary-colour zombies. They were followed by
some wooden knights brandishing sharp little wooden
lances, and a family of grinning yellow ducks that rocked
themselves bit by bit across the carpet. Toy cars whizzed
towards him from every dusty corner of the room.
Little Harry saw this brightly coloured army of toys
coming towards him and he cried like a baby.
He was a baby.
A large snake made of red and blue felt reared up from
behind the washing basket and flung itself on to the bed. A massive fuzzy blue giraffe stood up, steadied itself and
began to goose-step jerkily towards him.
'They all want to play,' said Dad. 'You want to play
and they want to play. It's the ideal arrangement.'
The pterodactyl mobile that hung from Little
Harry's lampshade spun faster and faster until the tiny
pterodactyls broke free and came buzzing round his head
like Jurassic fighter planes. Desperately Little Harry tried
to bat them away.
'Don't worry, they won't hurt you.' Dad smiled. 'I
fitted little sensors to the front so that they don't bump
into you. I'm particularly proud of those. Well, you have
fun. I'm going to go and make some tea.'
Dad strolled out of the room, but when Little Harry
tried to follow him the big blue-and-red snake wrapped its
fluffy coils around his middle and began to squeeze. Little
Harry screamed louder than ever, though his screams were
muffled slightly by the massive giraffe which was now
headbutting him, softly and repeatedly. He was still there
being cuddled by the snake and headbutted by the giraffe
when Lucy came into his room to look for a paintbrush.
'Jem! Quick!' she yelled. 'Little Harry's toys have gone
They peeled the snake off Little Harry and forced
the giraffe back into the corner. They locked the little
wooden knights away and tied the pterodactyls down.
'What happened?' said Jem once Little Harry had been
rescued from his toys.
'Isn't it obvious?' said Lucy.
'Home Improvements,' said Jem.
'Dad has got to be stopped,' said both of them.
Truly Jem and Lucy thought that as soon as Mum found
out about the headbutting giraffes and melting skulls
she would put an end to home improvements. But that
afternoon, as she trudged up the garden path after a
hard day's work at Unbeatable Motoring Bargains, a very
refreshing thing happened. The front door opened all
by itself and a bright little voice said, 'Do come in. The
kettle is on.'
'What a lovely homecoming,' said Mum, strolling into
the kitchen just as the kettle came to the boil.
'I installed an automatic self-opening on the front
door,' explained Dad, 'and hooked it up to the kettle.'
'My genius.' Mum smiled.
'The word today,' said Dad, 'is welcome home
'That's two words,' said Lucy.
'Dad made a robot snake that tried to strangle Little
Harry,' said Jem.
'It was a cuddly snake. It was just cuddling him,'
explained Dad. 'From now on, whenever you come
home, the kettle will always be boiling.'
'Also, Jem's bedroom is now a death trap,' said Lucy.
'A work in progress,' said Mum, sipping her tea. 'Be
patient. Your father can't improve every aspect of our
lives in one day.'
'He made my skull melt,' said Lucy.
'Teething problems,' said Mum. 'Any man who can get a door to make a lovely cup of tea like this can do
anything. Give him time.'
As far as Mum was concerned, a self-opening front door
that made tea was a magnificent home improvement.
The only problem was, it was magnificent for anyone
who happened to be passing. When Mum came down
next morning, the milkman and the paper boy were
already in the kitchen guzzling tea and Krispies. The
paper boy looked hard at Mum and said, 'I know you
'I live here,' said Mum. 'Those are my Krispies.'
'Thanks for sharing,' said the paper boy.
There was a sudden draught of cold air as the front
door opened itself and invited a passing jogger in.
'I,' said Mum, 'have to go to work.'
Off she went.
The postman, the milkman and the paper boy all left to
resume their work quite soon after Mum, but the jogger was
not in any hurry. He was still there when Lucy and Jem
came down to breakfast. Still there when Dad came in to
cook lunch. Every now and then he did stand up as if about
to leave, but each time he did the front door would ask
another jogger in and the joggers always seemed to know
each other and have plenty to talk about. Slowly the kitchen
filled up so that by four o'clock it was an impenetrable mass
of joggers. If Jem or Lucy looked in, someone would push a
mug at them and say, 'More tea, please,' or, 'We've run out of milk.' The children parked themselves miserably on the
bottom stair, waiting for the day to end.
'I'm hungry,' said Little Harry.
'We have been excluded from our own kitchen,' said
'I'm hungry,' said Little Harry.
'So am I, but there's nothing we can do about it just
'I'm hungry,' said Little Harry.
'Yes. You've mentioned this. Why can't we just be an
ordinary family like we used to be?'
'You were ordinary,' said Lucy. 'I never was.'
Outside the house someone was happily honking a car
'It doesn't matter who it is,' said Lucy. 'It doesn't
matter if it's Lord Voldemort and his wicked stepmother,
the front door will still open and ask them in for tea.'
The front door did open and did ask them in for tea,
and when it did they saw, standing in the road, a dirty
blue-and-cream camper van with rusty bumpers and one
'Mummy!' yelled Little Harry. For there, behind the
wheel, waving and honking the horn, was Mum.
'What,' said Jem, 'is that
They all hurried outside.
'That,' said Dad, 'is a 1966 camper van – a twenty-three window
Samba Bus – the kind enjoyed by adventurous
families for over half a century now. Am I right?'
'Exactly right,' smiled Mum climbing down from the
driver's seat. 'Twenty-three windows. Counted them
myself. Bargain of the week at Unbeatable Motoring
'Half a century?' said Jem. 'Are you sure? It looks a lot
older than that. It looks medieval.'
Dad peered inside. 'Look at this gorgeous old steering
wheel,' he said, 'and the old-fashioned gauges. I bet the horn
sounds like a choir.' He honked the horn, and the front
bumper fell off and broke into pieces on the pavement.
'That kind of thing does happen with old cars,' said
Dad, 'but it's nothing that can't be fixed. Look, it's got
the classic split windscreen. It looks like two big eyes.
When you see it from a distance it's like a big smiley face.
Go on. Take a look.'
'If you look at it too hard,' said Jem, 'it will fall
completely to pieces.'
Dad ignored him. 'It's got a pop-up roof compartment
for extra sleeping space and a pull-out awning. Ideal for
picnics on rainy days. That's the handle just over the
door. All you have to do is give it a hearty tug.' He gave
the handle a hearty tug. The door fell off.
'Oh,' said Mum. 'Oh dear.'
'Oh dear,' said Dad.
'I knew it,' said Mum. 'I've bought a wreck. It's just
that when you talked about us all going round the world
together in a car, it sounded so exciting. I thought, if we
had a car . . .'
'But that's not a car,' said Jem. 'Cars have four-wheel drive, satnav and super de-icers. This has . . .'
'Charm,' said Mum.
'Exactly,' agreed Dad, looking at it sideways. 'It has
charm. And character. Also the classic split windscreen.'
'What is charming,' asked Jem, 'about a bucket of rust
in the shape of a van?'
'I've been so silly,' said Mum. 'I thought that you might
be able to improve it – the way you've been improving
the house. I thought you might be able to fix it, but I can
see now that this is beyond even your talents.'
'Well,' said Dad, walking round the van and looking at
it a little bit harder, 'I'm not sure about it being completely
beyond my talents.'
'Oh it is,' said Mum, 'completely beyond. It would take
someone much cleverer than you to fix a van like this.'
'Well, you know, I am pretty clever.'
'Not that clever.'
'Let's see.' He walked round the van again, the opposite way this time. 'You know,' he said, 'this car does need
work. But a car like this is not just a heap of components.
A car like this is more than the sum of its parts. Bits can
fall off. You can put new bits on. The car – the heart of
the car – will stay the same.'
'Cars don't actually have hearts, Dad,' said Jem.
'They do have history. A car like this, it has meant
something to someone.'
'Great,' said Jem, 'so you're going to put it in a museum?'
'The word today is give it a go
'Which is four words,' said Lucy. 'Not meaning to be
Dad was already busy poking about in the engine.
Mum looked at Lucy and Jem and winked. Then she
chased all the joggers out of the kitchen, and Little Harry
cheered as they ran into the road, as though it was the
start of an Olympic event.
In bed that night Jem was lying awake listening to his
dad still working on the engine outside when Lucy slid
around the door with an armful of Little Harry's soft toys.
'He's scared that they're going to try and cuddle him to
death again. You'll have to keep them in your room.'
'Can't you keep them in your room?'
'Their faces are too smiley,' she said. 'Happy faces
'You don't think they're really going to make us go round
the world in that old van, do you?' said Jem. 'I mean, even
if he fixes it, it will still be an old van. No interior climate
control, no airbags. It doesn't even have central locking.'
'Of course not.' Lucy was laughing. 'Who'd steal it
anyway? Don't you get it? Listen, Mum is worried about
Dad. He's lost his job. He's lost his car. But he hasn't lost
his cleverness. He's got to find something to do with it. So
he's been going round ruining my bedroom and turning
Little Harry's toys against him. He's got to be stopped.
You said so yourself. And that's what the camper van's
for. It's a total wreck. He'll never be able to fix it really.
But it'll keep him busy, keep him out of trouble, keep him
happy and stop him doing his home improvements.'
'But he's working really hard on it. He's still out there
'So Mum's idea is working, isn't it? You see, Jem, Dad
is very clever, but Mum is cleverer.'
If Lucy had put all her thoughts into an essay and a
teacher had marked this essay she would have got eight out
of ten. And the marks would have broken down like this: