- The Transition of Johnny Swift
"An injured man battles for his sanity on the borders between life and death."
Frank Brazier is a racing driver, and a good one. He has the perfect life--a contract to drive for a Formula 1 team, a supportive family, and a stunning new girlfriend.
On the surface, everything is great, but Frank is hiding a secret. He suffers visions, hallucinations. On race days, the Shadow-man visits. It waves at him, taunts him, distracts him. The Shadow-man eats away at his concentration. Then, disaster strikes. Frank is partially blinded in accident that also involves his sister, Paula.
Recuperating in his hospital bed, Frank starts hearing voices. Strange voices. Impossible voices. Frank fears he is losing his grip on reality.
When the doctors tell him Paula is brain dead and they want to pull the plug on her life-support machines, Frank knows they are wrong. He knows Paula is still alive, still responsive, searching for a way home. Paula's voice is one of the ones Frank hears in his nightmares!
Then, the Shadow-man speaks!
Race Day - Beginnings
I love the adrenaline-fuelled kick of anticipation at the start of a race. The twin dance of fear and excitement speeds my heart and tightens my gut, but I can’t stand the waiting.
Traction control on.
A quick glance in the mirror reveals my only serious rival, Enrique La Tiempo, in the blood-red Ferrari. He hates it when I take pole. Hates it more when I win and I’ve been winning a lot this season.
Sharp sunlight glints off my car’s bright yellow paintjob and emphasises the bonnet’s black logo, TBR—Team Brazier Racing. As the only TBR in the world, she’s unmistakable. This new baby is the Mark IV, and she’s perfect.
Her engine growls with restrained ferocity as I feather the throttle, keeping the engine note a smidge below the rev limiter. I dab the throttle again, and my powerful little car, Baby, vibrates around and through me, as visceral as a punch to the gut. Baby, named after a character in my sister’s favourite film, Dirty Dancing, is as desperate to start racing as I am.
My fingers play an impatient drumbeat on the steering wheel. The heat built up in the tyres over the three warm-up laps is dissipating—less heat means less traction. Why is it taking so long? I glare across at the first row of three red lights over the starter’s box, daring the next bank to flick on. Once the third row lights up, there’ll be yet another bloody delay before they turn green.
Come on. Come on.
A blink to moisten dry eyes and clear my vision, and I’m ready for battle. But … fuck … he’s back. Sitting cross-legged on Baby’s nose cone. Facing me. Haunting and silent.
Oh, fuck no. Why now?
I guess shadow is the wrong name because he’s dark grey, not black. His narrow shoulders are hunched, and he doesn’t have a face. He’s like those wire frame animations they use to create the skeletons of movie avatars, before they add skin and clothing.
Semi-transparent arms reach toward me. A hole where the mouth should be moves in silent speech.
Jesus! Not again. Not today. Please, not today.
I close my eyes. He can’t exist. He’s never existed. What the hell is he?
“Get the fuck away from me!”
My helmet radio crackles. “What was that, Frank?” Pete’s voice cuts through the background noise.
Pete Brazier, TBR’s owner, chief designer, my adoptive father—and my best friend.
I open my eyes. The thing is gone. I breathe again. “Huh? What?”
“You said something. Sounded like ‘get away’,” Pete says through the noise-cancelling speakers in my race helmet.
Jesus, I said that aloud?
“Er, no, Pete. Want to get away quick. Hate this fuck- … er, bloody waiting.”
“Uh, right. Three minutes. Everything looks good this end. How’d she handle during warm up?”
“Perfect, as always. Baby’s a peach.”
“Sure is. Best we’ve ever built. Good luck, son. Bring her home for us.”
The race commentator, Chas Cottam, starts introducing the drivers, his PA voice loud over the noise of eighteen race-ready engines. He starts with the back markers and I use the time to drop myself into the zone. Clear my mind. Focus on Baby and the track.
I check my periphery. It’s clear. Only the other cars, the drivers, and the spectators.
What does Shadow-man want? Why today?
I try to stop. Need to clear my head and this isn’t doing it.
He … it, can’t do anything. It’s only light and shade. Must concentrate. There’s a race to win.
I suck air through clenched teeth. The unwanted vision won’t fade from my memory, but it must. Today is for Pete and the rest of the team, but mainly Pete. I mustn’t let anything mess with my head.
Filter out the noise. Concentrate on the prime driving position running into the first turn. It’s the second ‘l’ on the ‘Pirelli’ hoarding. That’s the line I need to make the first corner on cool tyres.
“…at number three, and in the second Force Austria, Gerhardt Schmeikel,” Cottam yells. He’s reached 9.5 on his personal Richter scale and there’s still two more names to announce. I worry the poor old sod’s going to burst a blood vessel before he reaches me.
“…number two on the grid in the Ferrari …” Cottam pauses to allow time for the booing to die, “…and currently lying second in the overall Championship, give a big hand to everybody’s favourite, Mr … Enrique … La … Tiempo.”
The booing rises in volume, a legacy from last year’s race when the Spaniard ran me off the road and ended my chances of winning the Championship. The aggressive fucker won’t do the same this year. He’s not getting close enough.
La Tiempo annoys the crowd by raising his arm and rolling his hand at them.
Finally, Cottam goes for the big wind up, and the crowd’s boos turn to cheers.
“And finally, in pole position,” he roars. “The runaway Championship leader, I give you our very own home grown hero, Mr … ‘Fiery’ … Frank … Brazier!”
The crowd is sparse; they never turn out in droves for Formula 2500, as it’s only a feeder series for the F1 circus. The spectators barely fill the bottom ten rows of the grandstand, but what they lack in numbers, they make up for in enthusiasm. A squadron of spectators, mainly young women, each wearing bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Fiery’ Frank 4 Ever, wave and scream my name. Mobile phones and cameras flash. They yell louder. I wave and their excitement raises the decibel level to rival the roar of the engines.
Now we can get down to business.
At long last.
I flex my fingers to relax my grip on the steering wheel, which pulses with red, green, and blue lights, and digital numbers in orange. The wheel’s individual heartbeat keeps time with my own. It’s an extension of me.
With right heel jammed hard on the brake pedal, and left foot on the clutch, my toes tickle the accelerator pedal. Petrol spits into the injectors and mixes with air. I inhale the nose-twitching, sweet ammonia smell of high octane vapour before detonation. Vapour hits the spark plugs and explodes in controlled fury as eight pistons pump, and the crank rotates at twenty thousand revolutions per minute—full throttle.
Seventeen other drivers do the same. Despite the padding in my crash helmet, the roar from the pack of race-built engines is both deafening and intoxicating. The exhaust fumes smell better than perfume on a fashion model’s neck.
Feather back on the gas, ten thousand revs, half way to idling, and rotate my head to stretch neck and shoulder muscles. Tension here is a killer. No matter how hard I wriggle against the five-point safety harness, I can’t shift an annoying crease in the back of my fire-retardant jumpsuit.
Red lights on—set one.
My heart skips and the heartrate spikes, but it’s nowhere near max. I’m ready. And have been for six years.
Breathe, Frank. Remember to bloody breathe.
Red lights on—set two.
Red lights on—set three.
Ready. Deep breath.
Come on, come on.
Right heel snaps off the brake pedal, throttle to the floor. The wild squeal of thirty-six drive tyres drowns out the engine notes for a beat, before rubber finds traction. A piledriver punches my back as Baby shoots forward. My helmet slams against the headrest, and we’re away. The engine snips at the rev limiter. I’m slammed deeper into the thin padding on the seat as the g-force doubles, triples.
The stands roll and blur as I concentrate on the first turn.
Nought-to-sixty in three-point-eight seconds.
Five hundred metres later, turn one is on me. Two cars, a Ferrari and a Renault, crowd my rear wheels, desperate to take my driving line, but it’s my line and I’m giving it to no one.
A shadow falls across my shoulder as I clear the grandstand and head into turn one. I shudder and narrow my focus as the corner grows in my vision.
Brake hard, cut the revs to a throaty purr, hit the apex, give it more fuel, and away. Foot down hard, I slip up through the gears into top, and watch the other cars scramble for position behind.
I race clear. The others fall back.
A flashed glance in my right wing mirror shows a black Lotus and a blood-red Ferrari touch front wheels. Tyres lock and send up a puff of blue-black smoke. They slew to the left out of sight. The Ferrari can’t be La Tiempo’s, or Pete would let me know.
The ‘coming together’ delays the other cars. I take full advantage. The track ahead is empty and I stretch the lead. But it won’t mean anything if the carnage behind is too great and the marshals send out the bloody safety car or stop the race.
Turn two, a one-hundred-and-twenty degree left-hander. Have to take this one steadily. There’s not enough heat in the tyres to attack it full-bore yet, but there’s clear track ahead and my line is perfect.
At the apex, I punch the throttle to the carbon fibre floor plate, and we scream through the corner. Flap the gearshift, up through fifth into sixth. We hit two-hundred-and-fifteen kph on the short straight. The tyres are warmer now, giving me more traction and a wonderful feel for the car. Everything’s on balance.
Six laps pass in a clear blur. I enter the ‘hot zone’, receiving subliminal signals from the seat, steering wheel, and pedals. Any changes to the car’s attitude transmit directly from Baby, through the race suit, and into my central nervous system. If Baby slides, I feel it in an instant and correct. Loss of traction in the wrong place? Tyres wearing? I respond by braking earlier and being more delicate with the throttle control.
Down five gears for the sharp turn five. Hit the entrance to the corner at ninety-eight kph in second gear, take a slice off the inside kerb, dab the throttle, and bullet out. The big spoiler on the nose cone takes effect, and the front dips, giving enough grip to set the line for the next turn.
There’s no feeling in the world like this. I am the car, and do no more than allow Baby her freedom. She wants to be out front leading, and it’s my job to let it happen.
Lap twenty-six. Half way.
The only pit stop on the schedule is coming up in three laps. I’m feathering the brakes to save the tyres. They’re bubbling now and pitting. They’re close to the nub. I need to protect them for five or six more minutes before the tricky part of the race is over.
The speakers crackle. Pete knows better than to speak unless it’s essential. Concentration is everything.
“Frank.” Pete’s voice is clear. “There’s a crash on turn six. Repeat, crash before the apex to turn six. Take the inside track. Possible debris on the racing line.”
“Got it. How’s the telemetry?”
“Front right tyre’s running a little hot. We’re monitoring it. No worries so far. Come in to plan.”
I don’t respond but drop into fourth and set the car up for the next turn. My twenty-eight second lead on La Tiempo is plenty, despite the pit stop, and he’ll have to pit at some stage too.
This race is mine. I can’t help but start whistling as I ease into the slow corner four. The tune’s a Louis Armstrong favourite, It’s a Wonderful World. Pete had it playing in the car on the way home from the orphanage. It’s been my theme song ever since that landmark day—the day my real life began.
Back through the Start/Finish line and into turn one again. No sign of Shadow-man.
“Frank? Sorry, but that tyre’s falling apart. Come in this lap. We’re ready for you.”
Shouldn’t be a problem, only one lap ahead of schedule.
Where’s that bloody debris?
Shredded rubber, pieces of carbon fibre body panel, shards of metal. They’re all over the racing line, but it’s not a worry now I’m ready for it. The carcase of the ruined car—a Lotus—is off the circuit, nestled deep and safe in the gravel run-off.
Drop from fifth through the gears and hit first in a heartbeat, nip inside the danger, rip up the box again in a flash, and I’m out of the turn onto the next short straight.
Spectators wave their arms as I roar past. And then I see him, again! Shadow-man sits on the engine cowling behind my left shoulder.
Damn it. Fuck off.
The grey figure stands, sharp and distinct. He’s holding his right arm straight out in front at shoulder level, pointing at me. He shimmers in the backlight of the sun.
What the fuck?
He drops behind as I make the turn.
Fuck’s sake, leave me alone. One more hour. That’s all I need. Please. One more hour and you can do your worst.
It’s gone. There’s no sign of Shadow-man in my mirror. The steering wheel twitches. The dodgy tyre clips the inside kerb, black and white painted stripes flicker beneath my wheels, a fluttering, mesmeric blur. Shaking my head to loosen the image, I floor the throttle.
The steering wheel bucks in my hands.
In the pit garage, Pete Brazier frowns in concentration. His eyes dart between the video feed from the trackside cameras and his telemetry screen. The data stream shows Frank easing up on the revs as he approaches turn six. The engine note drops as the lightweight sports car steps inside to avoid the bits of rubbish.
Nicely done. That’s my boy. Bring Baby home.
The telemetry shows everything Frank sees on his steering wheel and more: engine revs, oil and tyre temperature, fuel level, slew-angle, torque settings and fluctuations, and g-forces. Apart from the red hot tyre, everything’s perfect.
Frank flits smoothly down to first gear—fifty-five kph. The slowest he’s been since the race start. Pete allows his relief to show in a thin smile and slow nod. ‘Fiery’ Frank Brazier doesn’t always listen to advice, but today he is.
The TBR rockets out of the corner, but Frank clips the inside kerb and slides across the track.
“Bloody hell. His line’s too tight to the inside kerb. What’s he doing?”
Frank ramps up to fifth gear and hits one-hundred-and-fifty-three kph in a flash. There’s a fast left in a hundred yards and Frank needs to find the racing line again or he won’t make the turn.
The steering wheel snaps down hard right and flicks left again, nearly ripping from my hands. I try to compensate but there’s something badly wrong.
The suspect tyre implodes, collapses around the wheel. A noise comes next, compressing my eardrums. Baby screams. The aluminium wheel rim touches concrete. Sparks fly, and the car lurches towards the metal stanchions of a camera tower. My head slams against the cockpit side wall.
Sights and sounds fuse into a single tangled mess.
Grass, tarmac, bollards, buffers, gravel, and metal girders mix and tumble. I can do nothing but stare at the approaching metalwork, wait for the impact, and curse the fact that I’ll never get to know Jenny Barratt now.
On the nose cone, Shadow-man smiles.