Welcome to an interview-with-a-twist in the Barren Island Books series! The rules remain the same: guests imagine they’re being exiled to a remote island with only five books for company, selected from the categories I give them. But the twist is, these guests aren’t authors but fictional characters.
My interviewee this week is Helen Wheels, narrator of 'Audi' – one of the stories in the newly released anthology Riding in Cars with Girls by Evangeline Jennings. Helen is a sixteen-year-old Londoner who – along with her best friend/partner Wendy – makes a living by rather unorthodox means, stealing cars and driving for a ruthless crime lord. But the girls have a plan to break away from it all by putting their unique skills to the test …
Helen, thanks for joining us. First of all, we'd love to know a little more about you. I'm guessing you won't tell us your real name, but will you tell us something about your background?
I’m a South London girl – a Sarf Lunnon gel – and I’ve lived in the same flat all my life. Half the families on our estate are on housing benefit. One out of every five is unemployed. The council is determined to "regenerate" our estate but we're still here, just about, holding out. Hanging on by the skin of our teeth.
TV and film makers use our estate when they want to show how terrible the inner city is. Lousy schools. Rotten homes. Gangs. Drugs. Violence. Pissing in the lifts and rape on the stairs. You know the kind of thing. Real life isn’t always a whole lot better here.
One day the powers-that-be will get their way. Our homes will be demolished to make space for private housing and “affordable” gestures that no one here can afford. I plan to be long gone.
You and Wendy have been a team since you were eight years old. Can you explain how you met, and how the two of you became the best drivers this side of the Atlantic?
Actually, I’ve known Wendy all my life. Her family’s flat is three doors down from mine. It was inevitable we’d become good friends – we’ve both got crappy parents and for years we were the only kids on the twelfth floor.
How did we become a team? I’m not sure I remember. It was probably school. Some kids – little bastards – gave Wendy shit because she didn’t talk. I always thought she was beautiful and special, and when they picked on her, they picked a fight with me.
We spend a lot of time together not going to school. Wendy shouldn’t have been there anyway. She should have gone to a proper school for the Deaf but her parents and the council fucked her up.
The first car we stole was a bus. When they closed down our community centre, it became somewhere we could go to hide. We got in through a second floor window and built a den up on the roof. It was lush. Anyway, one day, we were messing around – playing hide and seek, I think, something like that – when we found our way down into the basement. That’s where this bus was. Parked up in a corner. Forgotten about. Left behind. It was only a little bus, seats for half a dozen, spaces for wheelchairs, and a fuck off wheelchair lift at the back. It didn’t need a key – there was a button – and it still worked, so we used to race it around down there like some overgrown go-kart until one day it ran out of the fuel. That’s where we got the driving bug.
One thing about our estate, all the cars are shit. You’re asking for trouble if you have anything else. And shit cars are easy to steal. So after the bus, that’s what we did. Until Wendy pointed out it wasn’t neighborly. Then we stole shit cars from elsewhere. Mostly.
I can’t really tell you how we graduated from joy riding to stealing professionally. Talk like that is frowned on. If you know what I mean? By the business community? But yeah, that’s what we do now. Steal high end cars to order and drive for the kinds of people who need driving done. Usually, they’re in a hurry, you know? Sometimes they just want someone the cops aren’t likely to stop. Wendy and me, we make a lot of deliveries.
And if your plan to net a cool half million pounds in the upcoming race pays off, where will you go and what will you do next?
Truth is I haven’t thought about it. Not too much. It’s not a good idea to have dreams. A long way from South London, I suppose. The coast, maybe Brighton. Somewhere safe.
Now, as you know, the idea of this interview is to choose the five books that you’d take into exile with you. To start us off, what was the first book you really loved?
This is maybe a bit embarrassing, but it was Swallows and Amazons. My mum had an old hardback copy from when she was a kid. There was something about it. I loved that book. I guess it was the way it showed me a different world, a different time, a different way of life. Maybe we won’t go to Brighton. We could go to the Lakes instead, buy a boat.
To do the kind of work you do, you must have a cool head and an iron nerve. For your second choice, is there a book that captures the thrill you get when you're behind the wheel?
No. Not even close. But Joe Quirk’s Ultimate Rush has something similar. It’s about a bike messenger in San Francisco – except he doesn’t ride a bike, he roller blades. And there’s this one scene at the start where he skates down what he calls ‘Watermelon Hill’ … it’s the closest thing I’ve ever read.
And for your third choice, what's your guilty pleasure – the book you turn to when you want to relax and switch off?
I like a good road atlas, the more detail the better. I spend a lot of time playing with Google Maps and Earth but you can’t beat a really good road atlas. The London A-Z. Michelin and Collins. Rand McNally in the US. I can lose myself for hours in a map. Imagining I’m there. Learning the roads. Calculating journey times and where we’d need to stop.
You and Wendy make the perfect team, but you don't agree on everything. So for your fourth pick, is there a book you enjoyed that Wendy couldn't stand?
Not really, no. Maybe that book Hannibal? Wendy kinda liked it, I thought it was shit. But no. This is a better example. Harry Potter. Wendy loves Hermione but I’m a massive Luna Lovegood fan. Last Halloween we dressed up. Have you heard the phrase ‘a hate fuck’?
And finally, you're pretty outspoken about what you call 'rich bastards coining it in the City' – at the expense of the rest of the population. If you could force them to read one book that might open their eyes a bit, what would it be?
I’d rather shoot them, obviously. And all the politicians at their beck and call. And even though the pen is supposed to be more powerful than the Glock, I don’t believe the book has ever been written that could sway those self-centered arseholes – they’re regulars at Les Miz, after all – so why don’t we try to frighten them instead. How about The Most Dangerous Game. It’s a groundbreaking short story by Richard Connell about a big game hunt in which man is the prey. It’s been filmed repeatedly and also inspired movies like The Running Man. Some would say it also inspired the book Battle Royale and by extension The Hunger Games. It would be good if all those bastards read it because one day, God willing, we’ll be hunting them.
Now you’ve chosen your books, we’ll also let you select one song/piece of music, one film and one other item of your choice to take to the island with you …
Song – “The Fastest Girl in Town” by Miranda Lambert
Film – “The Cannonball Run”
One other item – I know this isn’t what you meant, but I don’t go anywhere without my co-pilot. Wendy’s the Hermione to my Luna.
Many thanks for joining us, Helen. Enjoy your ‘exile’!
Riding in Cars with Girls is available at a promotional price of only 99c on Kindle this week.