Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot of very profound, practical poetry. Among it is a poem called "The Sons of Martha", which includes the lines;
"It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock."
Jim Price was a son of Martha. He had the mind of an engineer and couldn't pass by a piece of malfunctioning equipment, whether car, computer or food processor, without wanting to fix it.
We might call him a 'nerd', I suppose, except that he was tall, and quite good looking; and a life of working with machinery (from an age when he could barely walk, he was already passing his father spanners) had given him a reasonable physique. Some girls just ignored him, others found him an enigma, but found no way to reach him.
For his own part, he was aware of girls; he wasn't completely oblivious, but he was so out of his depth with personal relationships that didn't involve machinery in some way he didn't know where to start with them. Machines, he understood; people he didn't, so at nineteen he'd never had a date, let alone kissed a girl.
One of the few girls who noticed him, and of the fewer who sighed over him and wanted a way to penetrate his apparent indifference, was Petra Wilson. If you saw her in the street, you'd probably say she was 'plain'; is there anything worse? Actually, of course, she wasn't but, like Jim, was not really interested enough to make an effort with her appearance; few men took the time to really look at her, to see the humour and intelligence in her eyes ... and of course, thanks to the shapeless clothes she wore, they weren't aware of her shapely figure. Now Petra was a bright girl, and she thought she had a way of getting his attention. Her secret weapon was her 1966 Morris Traveller.
The Morris Minor is a classic vehicle, last produced, I think, in 1968. Any Briton older than, say thirty, has a soft spot for the old Morris. The Traveller is what Americans would call a 'station wagon' version, I think; complete to the wood framing of the rear body from behind the driver's seat. Not fast; oh, no, not fast at all with a very simple, basic 1100 cc motor, but utterly reliable, economical and quite comfortable; and, for a small car, an amazing capacity for luggage.
Petra laid her plans carefully, and was determined to carry them through, however long it took...
Both Petra and Jim were students at Sheffield Hallam University; Jim taking an engineering degree with a sideline in computing, while Petra was studying psychology. Having watched her 'target', she'd learned his habits quite well; so she was able to follow him into the cafeteria first thing in the morning, through the servery to the till, then when he sat at a table, before he could open a book, she went up to him.
"Hi, Jim, can I sit for a minute? I need to ask you a favour?"
He looked up at her; the word we'd use in Yorkshire is 'gob-smacked'. Basically, shocked, that a girl was actually initiating a conversation with him, even if it was evident she wanted something.
"Er, sure, help yourself. Er..."
"Petra," she said brightly, "You're drinking black coffee?" she asked.
"Well, yes ... Petra; I don't much like milk anyway, and I'm drinking this for the caffeine. I've sort of got used to the taste, now, as well."
"Oh, right. But that's not what I wanted to ask. I'm told you're pretty good with computers."
"It's not my speciality, but I sort of know the basics."
"Well; in our house we've got several computers, and we want to network them, but it doesn't seem to work the way it should. We can all connect to the internet, but not print or share files ... do you think you might be able to help?"
"Er, well, I suppose I could have a look. Are you on PCs or Macs?"
"What operating system are you using?"
"Oh, Windows XP."
"Oookay ... d'you want to give me your address? I could come and have a look this evening?"
"Thanks! That'd be good." she said, pleased her plan seemed to be coming together.
When he arrived at her home that evening, she was in the drive, waxing the Morris.
"Wow! Lovely car!" he said.
"Yes," she smiled, "it was my grandfather's; he looked after it like a baby. There's hardly a trace of rust anywhere. Only problem's the engine."
"Yeah, pretty worn. Lots of miles, even though it's had regular servicing. Run the engine and you leave a blue smoke trail so bad you can't see out of the back."
"Hm. Well, what about those computers?"
They went inside. Now if you know computers, you don't need a blow-by-blow account of what he did, and if you don't, you won't follow anyway, so you're not getting one. He worked his way, systematically, through the whole system, checking everything; eventually finding some corrupted files, which were correctable and at the end of a couple of hours, Petra was able to access shared files and print a test page from each computer.
"That's marvellous! Thank you so much; I think Mum's in from work — she'd like to thank you too."
He was embarrassed, but as a well-brought-up lad, he agreed.
"Thank you very much, Jim; I'm grateful, and I know Petra's sister and my husband will be too."
"My pleasure, Ma'am,"
"It's Elaine, or if that's uncomfortable, Mrs. Wilson, OK?"
"Er, OK, Ma' ... I mean, yes, Mrs. Wilson. Erm, well, I was wondering..."
"Spit it out, Jim,"
"Petra was saying the Morris needed work ... I ... er, well, I'd love to get my hands on that motor..."
"It's Petra's, actually; her grandfather left it to her; and we'd been quoted a very high figure to have that engine repaired."
"Well, M ... Mrs. Wilson, I'm an engineer, and someone once said an engineer is someone who can do for twenty-five pence what any fool can do for a pound. And I don't want paying, I just love making things work properly. I suspect that motor doesn't need much attention. New rings, perhaps new big-end shells, maybe new valves and guides. I doubt if it really needs a re-bore..."
"Well, as I say, it's really up to Petra..."
"Mum, you know I want that car running right." She turned to Jim, "I'd be very glad to have you look at it ... with one condition."
He looked puzzled, as well he might.
"I want to help. I want to learn about engines and how they work, and how to fix them when they go wrong."
There was a long pause. A very long pause ... then;
"OK. It's a deal. Can I work in your garage?"
Petra's mother nodded.
"Could I have a look?"
Petra took him out to the double garage, smiling inwardly, and genuinely excited at the prospect of learning about looking after her car. They agreed to make a start on Saturday.
Now, Jim was not a fool. Naïve, perhaps, focussed certainly, but not a fool. Equally certainly he was a heterosexual male, even though most of his drives were sublimated into care for machinery; he'd just never had sufficient motivation to make the effort to approach any of the young women that surrounded him at Uni. So he did begin to wonder whether the car was all Petra was concerned with when he noticed her around; she'd abandoned the baggy tops and shapeless slacks she'd always affected. Wearing clothes that actually fit, she was a noticeably shapely young woman...
When Saturday came round, he talked her through the preparation for the work; they drained the oil and removed the battery, then used a proprietary de-greaser (not that there was much dirt or grease about, even in the engine compartment). He'd brought some equipment in a borrowed van, so they used a hoist hooked to a beam in the garage roof to lift the motor out and mounted it in a stand. By which time it was time for lunch.
He had been warned to expect the invitation to eat with the family and was pleasantly surprised by the welcome the family gave him.
By the end of the afternoon, the motor was in its component parts, laid out neatly on newspaper. Petra learned how to check the piston-ring gap and the piston clearance using feeler gauges — happily it was mainly the rings that were worn, one of them being broken in two accounting for all the blue smoke. Jim opined that the valves and guides were not sufficiently worn to justify replacing either, but that it would be a good idea to replace the springs. He pointed out the slight lip at the top of the cylinder bore which would have to be very carefully ground off so as not to damage the new rings. Petra was very pleased; she'd learned something and, she thought, got a little closer to Jim.
They had to order the rings and springs from a company that still makes parts for Morris Minors — think of it, a car that ceased production forty years ago (if you're interested, Google it) — and they had a lot of work to do, but at the end of a couple of months, Petra had a fully functioning, non-smoking Morris Traveller with an engine compartment that looked much as it had when the car left the production line.
In the meantime, however, both Jim and Petra had something to think on. Petra had succeeded in gaining Jim's attention. Jim had certainly noticed Petra and had begun to think of her as a friend ... BUT, had no idea of what, if anything, else he was supposed to do. Petra, poor lass, was frustrated. She was sure he was interested, she was sitting with him for coffee, and he actually joined her if he saw her, and talked to her (about the Morris), but somehow, he never seemed to move on from that point.
The situation had changed in other ways. Petra was no longer dismissed as... 'plain'. Jim was promoted from 'nerd' to 'available man'. However, Petra was still not really interested in anyone else, though she did enjoy the attention ... or some of it, anyway; Jim still had no idea how to handle the feminine attention he began to have; except ... mending things. He was still a Son of Martha. He fixed computers and networks, hair-dryers and televisions, motor-scooters and cars, telephones, clocks and satellite dishes. Invited for coffee (or something) he'd blush, and decline (usually) or wonder what he was doing if he accepted. No girl got any further than Petra, who was still in 'pole position' though uncertain what to do with it.
A week or so after completing the Morris, Petra entered it in a local Classic Car and Bike show at Renishaw just outside the city. She invited Jim, who was pleased to accept, and even let him drive. For those who don't know, it used to be part of the UK driving test to get the vehicle into first gear while moving. The reason for this was that many older cars (including the Morris) had no synchromesh on first gear, which required a technique called 'double declutching', otherwise a dreadful noise would ensue. Sheffield is hilly, and frequently requires first gear when going up hill, especially round very tight corners in a very low-powered car. Petra had never mastered the technique; Jim had.
They both enjoyed themselves, showing off the Morris and admiring the other entries; among them a rather smart Scott Squirrel, whose rider was a very attractive redhead called Alison ... Jim was fascinated by the bike ... really; he hardly noticed the rider who anyway was firmly attached to a another biker.
The Morris wasn't really in the running for a prize, it just wasn't up to the standard of the 'Concours' entries. However, it did impress the judges who gave her a certificate showing a commendation for the "best unrestored classic car in original condition". She flung her arms round Jim ... and kissed him soundly.