Monday, February 21, 2011

Oil & Hay - 16

I'm following Sutcliffe during Friday morning practice, a mist hanging in the Ardennes. It could rain any minute, or it could not, as is always the case at Spa. I measure my progress in telephone poles, in people crowded on the hills, in the groves, the grandstands, in houses and in fields dotted with their cones of hay. My task–my obligation–is to make them disappear, again and again and again.

This track is skittish, temperamental. Deeply unnerving to drive. You're a pest on the body of a beast, vexing its rest; at any moment it might shudder and shake you off.

The rain starts falling in earnest now. Great plumes of spray rise from each of Rodney's rear wheels. He was never too fond of the wet. He enters the corners timidly, erratically, not quite sure when to brake. He overcompensates on the way out, accelerating too soon, letting the rear twitch and go squirrely. He's driving scared and angry, a toxic combination. I know how he feels.

Something terrible happens at the Masta Kink. Rodney's carrying far too much speed into the chicane; he navigates the left sweeper wide but can't turn back into the right. He loses it just before the house on the corner, hits the little concrete lip at the edge of the asphalt and flies off in a shower of mud, grass and debris.

I pulled over on the Holowell straight, got out of the cockpit and ran back to the scene of the shunt. I recognised from a hundred feet away the characteristic aura of the motorsport catastrophe. In the immediate aftermath the atmosphere grows eerie and unstable, as though breached by a precipitate void to which serene, surrounding nature must suddenly conform.

Where was his car?

This phenomenon, this nauseating mood–it occurs no matter what, I realised. Whether the driver's dead or halfway 'round the track on his merry way back to the pits. Is it in my head?

I followed the tracks in the grass past a row of bushes, down a little gulley and back up towards a farmhouse lined with pines. A haze of smoke, faintly discernible in the rain, emanated from a maw in its stone façade. Oil smoke—at least for now.

I scrambled up to the house, climbed through the shattered wall and entered a peaceful living space, a peasant's home adorned with tasteful, bourgeois furnishings and details: a side table with a lace cloth and a vase, a scroll-armed burgundy settee, sepia-toned ancestral portraits on the walls, a crucifix, a cuckoo clock. An antique globe had been devastated, with planet earth torn from its axis to roam around the hardwood floor like a marble. A wrought-iron chandelier swayed creakily overhead.

The gleaming green chassis of the Hewitt-Apogee lay sideways between the salon and kitchen, twisted and bent, hissing malevolently in a deepening pool of its precious fluids. I was struck by the absurdity of its black, diagonal number, on a circle on the bonnet. A scene of such violent incongruity, one world intruding upon another, and here was the only symbol I could see, the only code: 12. I thought again about what Melanie had said. I was frightened. Three wheels were missing but the fourth still spun.

Where was Rodney?

I examined the floor around the car. Nothing. He must have been ejected–mercifully–onto the soft, wet grass outside. I was about to climb back out the wall to look for him when I heard murmurs from down the corridor. I followed them to a partly open door. Pushing on it, I found Sutcliffe lying on a bed, bleeding from the forehead. He was soaked in petrol–its venomous stench filled the room. Two nuns ministered to him on either side, gently fiddling open his fire-retardant suit, dabbing his wounds with a towel.

"Rodney!" I exclaimed. "You're looking a bit second-hand."

"Malcolm, my friend," he answered airily. "My old, dear friend."

"Who are the nuns?" I asked.

"Aren't they lovely?"

The one to my right, the older one, turned to me with a stiff little smile and a bow.

"Monsieur," she said. "Nous étions de passage." We were passing through. Rodney gazed up at the other like a hungry babe.

"Ou sont les... habitants?" I asked in my heavily accented French.

She shrugged. "Ben, ils sont à la course, monsieur. Au Grand Prix. La d'ou vous venez, donc." They're at the race. Of course.

"C'est pas la course aujourd'hui, ma Mère," the younger nun corrected, her eyes fixed on her patient. "C'est les essais." It's not the race today. It's practice.

The other gave the faintest little shrug: Race, practice. What do I care what these men do? What do I know of these things?

It occurred to me that we must leave with the utmost urgency.

"Faut partir! Faut partir tout de suite!" I yelled.

The younger nun and I each took one of Rodney's arms over our shoulders and the three of us staggered back out the bedroom, Mother Superior in tow. Down the corridor we went, past the wreckage, out the kitchen and down a little path to the dirt lane that led back to the track. There we found a gendarme who advised us that an ambulance was just now on its way. We waited there, Rodney splayed out on the grass, the nun pressing the bloodied towel against his brow as the Mother knelt piously nearby. Arms crossed, the cop beheld our little scene impassively. Then we heard a hollow boom.We looked up to see a fireball engulf the farmhouse, black smoke and sparks beating up against the rain. From far away we heard a siren's dreary melody grow louder.