This is something I wrote years ago.
When I was little, my Dad got a job for a construction company working out in Saudi Arabia. He went to live there when I was five, and a few months later the rest of the family went out there to stay with him. I ended up living overseas for four years in total, and it made a big impact on my life in a lot of ways. I developed a morbid fear of flying and I developed a wider understanding of the different cultures of the world. I also did some very stupid things because there isn’t a lot to do when you’re a small child and you’re living in a country like Saudi.
We lived on a compound, which was just a village with a big concrete wall right the way around and a gate with guards at the front. Apart from visits to the shops and the odd trip out to the desert, my life was lived inside those four walls. We lived in two different compounds over the years. The first one was in the south of the country, on an airbase called Khamis Mushayt. Literally that translates as Thursday Market, so well done, you just learnt your first Arabic. Later we moved further north to Riyadh, the capital city, but most of the insane events happened in Khamis. This story happened there.
In order to give all the kids something to do with their lives apart from going to look for snakes and scorpions, the teachers at the little school in the compound started after school projects. One of these was to divide us into teams and build go karts, which we would then race.
It nearly started badly. On the way to school that morning, I found a shiny metal thing in the sandy path. I had no idea what it was, but I picked it up and liked the weight of it and the feel of machined grooves around the pointed tip. I put it in my pocket, and took it home at the end of the day. Then we went back to the school all excited to be building go karts. When we got there though, everyone was looking glum. The teacher sadly announced that we couldn’t build anything because he had lost the chuck bit for the drill and couldn’t use it. I had no idea what a chuck bit was but something sparked in my mind, so I asked him what it looked like. He described the exact thing I had found in the sand that morning. Excitedly I told him I had found it and I ran all the way home and all the way back to return the chuck to him. He was delighted and I was a miniature hero for two minutes. We could build the go karts.
We split into teams of four to build the go kart. There were maybe forty of us, so that made for 10 go karts. The teachers bought the materials. The go karts were made out of wood with old pram and bicycle wheels, and plastic school chairs for seats. Our go kart was built out of heavy sheets of plywood. It had a flat floor with a plastic seat bolted to it, and a lap seat belt. It had high wooden sides so that when you sat in it you could see nothing out either side. Sticking out the front was a plank of wood, which ended in a T shape. This was fixed with a central bolt, and rope was fixed to either side. In this way it could be steered. Two small wheels on either end of the T and two big bicycle wheels at the back completed the machine. It took a few days to build, and when it was done it looked like a wooden armoured car.
When everyone had built their karts, we wheeled them up to the top of a hill for a race. On the way we noticed the tiny flaw in the design of our go-kart. It took two of us pulling it just to move the thing. We had added so much wood to it that we had literally built a wooden tank. Needless to say, when the race started, the older, wiser children in their lightweight, flimsy designs rocketed away and our behemoth crawled along barely picking up momentum.
My dreams of piloting a mass of angry wood and rope at barely controllable speeds were shattered. I had had a vision of hurtling along with the passing world a mere blur, but instead we were humiliated. Downcast, we dragged our creation home, and it was dumped unceremoniously outside the house and left to blister away under the relentless sun.
My dreams of speed did not die though. I continued to think through where we had gone wrong. Looking back, I suppose the simple line of reasoning must have come from being a small child, but instead of going for the obvious and lightening the go-kart to make it faster, I decided what it really needed was a steeper hill to work with.
In the very centre of the compound there was a huge artificial hill. When the compound had been built, all the waste and spoil had been dumped in the middle. This formed the big hill, and right at the top they built a house, with a narrow footpath leading up to it. In a moment of inspiration, I realised that this path would be the perfect launch pad to unlock the true potential of the go kart.
With a lot of persuasion, I got my brother and sister to revive the beast and drag it to the centre of the compound. I was the most enthusiastic out of the three, because it was my idea and I was going to be the driver. It took a lot of effort to get it to the big hill, and then a lot of pain and struggle to inch it up to the top of the hill. The hill was steep – virtually a pyramid of earth and sand. It was covered in rocks and thorn bushes, broken only by the narrow path leading up to the house at the top. I don’t know who lived there; I have a feeling it might have been empty, but it was hard to tell from the outside. All the houses looked the same; single storey prefabricated structures with whitewashed walls, corrugated iron roofs and air conditioning units bolted onto the side. If anyone was there they never came out to watch the climb or the ensuing carnage.
Eventually we got the go-kart to the top, turned it around and pointed down the hill. I got in, strapped myself into the seat and looked at the long slope ahead of me. My brother and sister stood on either side at the back, ready to push me off. It was at this point that I began to have doubts about what I was about to do. At the bottom of the hill was a road running along perpendicular to the path, then a kerb, and then a brick wall surrounding the garden of the house on the opposite side of the road.
Now bear in mind that I was no more than six at the time. I didn’t know anything about potential and kinetic energy, friction, acceleration or any of the other forces I was about to experience. What I did become suddenly and acutely aware of was the major design flaw in the go kart.
It had no brakes.
My young and inexperienced mind was telling me that there was no way in the world that the go kart was going to stop before smashing straight into the brick wall at the bottom of the hill with me strapped helplessly onboard. At that moment I changed my mind. I didn’t want to drive the go kart down the hill anymore. I wanted to get out and walk home. I tried to explain this to my brother and sister. I tried to say ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’, but all I was able to get out was ‘I…’ before they gave a big heave and pushed the go kart from the top of the hill and down the slope.
I don’t remember thinking ‘Oh God, I’m going to die’. I don’t even remember swearing a lot which I’m pretty sure I would do if this happened to me now. What I did was try to think my way out of my impending death. I figured that if I could steer the go kart gently to the left, I could turn it as it went down the hill and by the time I got to the bottom I would be running along the main road, safe and sound. This decision only took a couple of seconds to make, but by this time I was halfway down the hill and hanging on for dear life as the weight of the previously unmovable go kart now helped to accelerate it like a rocket. It was now or never.
I pulled on the left hand rope and the kart turned gently to the left. So far, so good, until the left front wheel left the tarmac path and ran onto the sunbaked earth. Immediately it dug in and wrenched the whole front of the go kart to the side. The go kart jacknifed half way down the slope and veered completely out of control before starting to roll and then tumble down the hill with me inside. I still remember it now. I don’t know how many times it turned over; it felt like forever but it can only have been two or three. What I do know that as it rolled it must have hit every rock and thorn bush in the way.
I mentioned earlier that the go kart was built like a tank and that this was a problem. Well, I’m pretty sure the fact that it was so strong, the fact it was high-sided and most importantly the fact that I was wearing a seatbelt saved me from serious injury. What it didn’t prevent was me getting ripped and scratched and battered by the rocks and thorns and everything else I encountered on the way down. Eventually it reached the bottom and stopped rolling, landing back on its wheels in a cloud of dust. I immediately unbuckled the seatbelt, jumped out and ran home screaming, covered in blood. My brother and sister just stood at the top of the hill watching me run away.
The go kart was eventually wheeled home, battered but unbroken, a bit like me. It was left in the garden and eventually rotted away, never to be taken out again. It was the end of its short but illustrious career, and the beginning of my attempts to either injure of kill myself in more and more ludicrous and inventive ways.