Saturday, April 30, 2011

We arrived in the morning and traipsed blearily through the airport, killing time, as our apartment wouldn't be free till mid-afternoon. Passengers passed by us in waves, coming or going, but full of purpose either way. Not us. We took an elevator to a deserted floor containing only an angled hallway and a restroom.

We bought sandwiches at a little stand. The girl behind the counter was put upon, unhappy. An older man complained about his bill, she dispassionately pointed out his error. A homeless man hovered, asking everyone in line to buy him something.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Oil & Hay - 19

I paced the strip of grass at the top of the hill beside the starting grid on the pale white afternoon of the race, the cars arrayed in threes and twos this time; there was mine in the middle of row one, between Checho's Hewitt-Clark on pole and Zé's Cavallo on the outside. Santiago Bragato sat nearby on the Armco. He gazed blankly at the pits across the track, muttering the Rosary, one hand in his pocket and the other on his knee. I knew he was done when he crossed himself.

"You are not very religious, Malcolm," he accused in his aristocratic accent, pulling taut his gloves. "You do not believe."

"I'm not superstitious. If that's what you mean."

Santiago raised an eyebrow before putting on his helmet.

"Is that what I am, Malcolm?" He chuckled. "Superstitious?"

I shrugged.

"What are you supposed to be, Malcolm? For church?"

"C. of E. That's what I was. And am supposed to be. I suppose."

"You think you fly above it all, don't you?" he said, shaking his head in disgust.

"Surely not above it all," I protested, goodnaturedly I hoped. I felt a hollowness in my chest.

He wagged a scolding finger at me. "It is better to believe a beautiful lie than to accept an ugly truth," he stated.

He seemed angry. About last night, still? Did he find me, in my apostasy, somehow responsible for Jean-Michel's death? For Lorenzo's? I felt a gnawing dread. A loneliness. A sensation–a condition–that, I now realised, had haunted me for weeks. I tried to lighten the mood.

"Argentine proverb, Santi?"

"I invent it right now. For you," he replied. He fastened his chinstrap and got up. I worried he'd take his leave without a word. Without a gesture, nor a glance.

But as he walked past he patted me twice, quickly, on the back.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Oil & Hay - 18

Rodney was patched up today, hobbling 'round the paddock on crutches, bandage on his head. It was of no concern to him to be so handicapped; like any of us, he'll race as long as he can still sit down. Keep his head up. He lurched over to my stall to say hello.

"Malcolm, dear chap," he saluted cheerily. "How will I ever thank you?"

"You'll return the favor someday."

He laughed. "Can I trouble you for a sip of water, Mal?"

I handed him my carafe and he pulled a pillbox from his pocket, placed a little white pill on his tongue. He took a swig and swallowed hard.

"Bob's your uncle," I said. "What are they?"

"Approximatol? Fixatol? Something-atol."

"Better than nothing at all."

He told me Roger, his team boss at Hewitt-Apogee, dispensed them with a gentle warning.

"And what was that?"

"He said, 'You'll feel like you had a whiskey, so–'"

"So don't drive too fast?"

"No, no. Don't drive too slow."

We laughed a tense laugh.

"Cheers then, Mal," Rodney said, taking another sip of water. He handed it back to me and shuffled away on his crutches.

It happened towards the end of the session. I was in the pits getting fresh tyres, aiming to improve my time as I battled Checho and Zé for pole. Jean-Michel Vaton, Rodney's H-A teammate, came by on a flyer, screaming across the starting line and down to the valley below. There was a slow car just ahead. I wondered absently whether Vaton would try to pass it before Eau Rouge, the tricky little twist where you feel your stomach sink into your arse. I wondered what I would do. Probably pass it.

Vaton got on the outside but ran out of space and time. He stepped hard on the brakes and tried to slip back behind the other car. Instead, his left front struck its right rear. Vaton's car flew up, perhaps twenty feet, appearing at its peak to hang in the air a moment.

Would that it could have remained there, forever coddling its occupant. Or continued to ascend, never to touch the earth again.

Instead it flipped backwards and landed upside down, hard, where the track met the grass. Its left tyres and suspension absorbed the impact and projected the chassis back up again to spin the other way, a full rotation, rightside up and upside down again, landing in the grass on the opposite tyres. The car bounded up one final time, flipped upright, and came to rest facing traffic in the middle of the track, just past the right-hand bend, at the bottom of the Raidillon. There was Jean-Michel Vaton, head slumped backwards, his left arm hanging from the cockpit so his knuckles grazed the ground. The fingers of his right hand, still guided by some primal spirit, remained hooked to a spoke of his wheel. And then the car exploded into flames.

I felt an overwhelming, familiar physical sensation take hold of me, from my shoulders to my chest and up through my throat and mouth. In my entire head. My brain. What was happening to me?

I was laughing. I had erupted into a spasm of barking, helpless laughter. Hopeless laughter. Even as I was struck with shame my mirth continued, cruelly afflicting me with tears of glee.

I took off my helmet and gloves and slapped myself across the face as hard as I could, punishing myself for my disgraceful reaction. This stilled my merriment for a few seconds. I took a deep breath and gripped the wheel, staring at my tachometer, my oil pressure gauge, all the needles reading nil. I thought my mantra one time through and looked up again. Down at Eau Rouge, marshals waved yellow flags as cars paraded past the conflagration. I noticed that Vaton's cockpit was now empty. Across the track, a group of officials, gendarmes and other drivers knelt in a circle on a hay-strewn patch of grass. I couldn't see Vaton. But I knew he was there.

I thought about his accident and laughed again, and cursed, and stilled my tongue between my teeth. Then I slugged myself as hard as I could in the jaw. And then I laughed again.

There was an exodus from the pits now, everybody drawn, the way they always are, to the catastrophic disturbance in the distance.

Tex walked out behind me and joined the gathering throng. I tried hard to force my face into an appropriately somber expression and hoped he wouldn't turn in my direction. Still the muscles in my cheeks resisted, straining upwards against my will. I covered my mouth with my hand, as though aghast, and laughed maniacally.

I heard Tex tell someone from Cavallo Nero, "It's Vaton!"

I was struck by his use of the present tense. It isn't Vaton; Vaton is dead. But here was Tex saying, "It's Vaton!" as though the Frenchman had just appeared over the horizon, walking down the middle of the track and back to us.

It's Vaton!

Hey everybody! Come and see. It's Vaton!

I imagined a scene of joy and relief, of uncomplicated love. The ending to a children's story. The people swarming their hero. Hoisting him on their shoulders. For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow. I imagined he was coming home.

I got out of the car and watched as everyone gathered at the bottom of the hill, all pretending there was something more to do than look. As though they might summon Jean-Michel back to his feet by the force of their collective will.

I found I was trembling, traumatised. Still I could not stop breaking into airy titters when I thought about the shunt. There was something emphatically comical about it. The sequence of events had the character and rhythm of a marvelous joke; each spasm was a word and each concussion, punctuation. The explosion was the punchline, exclamation-marked, delivered with exquisite timing.


A few of us gathered at the hotel bar that evening for an impromptu wake. Mercifully, my hysteria had long ago abated. When I thought of the accident now I felt a chill of dread and shame.

"I saw it happen," I volunteered to the others as I sipped my whiskey sour.

"You were behind him?" asked Danny.

"I was in the pits."

"He hit someone," Santiago noted. "Who did he hit?"

There was a pause before the Scot Rory MacDougal, Danny's teammate, shifted on his feet and cleared his throat.

"Me. He hit me."

There followed a silence as we all looked down, some nodding solemnly, in acknowledgment of the awful revelation that MacDougal had just made. We knew that he was not at fault; we knew Jean-Michel – impatient, impetuous – had brought about his own spectacular, perhaps inevitable end. I'd seen it happen.

Still, none of us wanted to set eyes on Rory now. It was as though he stood naked and trembling, defrocked by some brutish authority. He was cursed, untouchable. Of course, this made him a victim too. The shadow victim. What incomparably cruel luck it is to be the unwitting agent of another's death! To be an oblivious obstacle, rolling merrily along until he causes the furious driver behind him to vault into oblivion. Then what does he do? He pulls over, runs to the inferno, tries vainly to pull the victim out himself. The very flames guard the prone driver mockingly, as if to say: He's ours now, you fool. You're not worthy to save him.

There existed a strong–though unspoken–sentiment within our circle, and among aficionados, that death was a greater glory yet than victory. And as a corollary, there was no graver disgrace than to survive.

What's more, Jean-Michel Vaton was adored. He was strong, young, beautiful. Effortlessly charming. Had his pick of women. Never let on that he cared. A brilliant driver, fast as they come, a risk-taker in the grand tradition. Everyone knew he was going to be champion someday, and champion again for many years. People the world over bit their lips, impatient for his glorious reign to begin. And yet he was modest, even self-deprecating. I remembered seeing him in the pits at Monaco, wearing a ludicrous sombrero against the beating sun. He clowned in it, making faces. He was ridiculous and wonderful at once. Only he could get away with that, I remembered thinking to myself with envy. I, too, wanted to wear a very large Mexican hat and make everyone around me laugh. Who wouldn't? But what puzzled and disapproving smirks I'd receive if I did. Vaton was an utterly natural human being, absolutely unselfconscious, unfreighted. The sort of creature you're lucky to meet once, maybe twice in a lifetime. He was loved, loved, loved, loved, loved. And now he was dead.

I really began to feel bad for Rory.

"Something, I–" I began, hoping to change the subject. "Something funny. I had a funny reaction to the crash."

They all peered at me quizzically. It occurred to me I'd already made a hash of what I was about to say. Something funny? But there was no turning back now.

"A funny reaction, Mal?" Santiago Bragato asked me, squinting.

I sighed. And then I resumed. "I–my first reaction–I mean, I–well, this is strange. Truly hard to explain, b–"

"Spit it out, Limey!" urged Danny.

"I laughed."

"You what?" Danny asked, incredulous.

"I laughed. I'm sorry. I apologise. I laughed." I shook my head and peered into my drink, hoping this might underscore my remorse.

"You laughed?" said Checho, his temper rising. "You laughed?! I, for one, cannot understand what is so funny about the death of our friend, Jean-Michel Vaton!"

With that, he emphatically drained his Champagne, placed the empty flute on the bar, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. That was funny too. But no one smiled.

"No, Checho. I don't think it's funny, it's just that–"

"You laughed!" Danny accused.

"I laughed."

I let my admission hang in the air for a few moments. Then I tried again to make my case.

"I'm just as sick ab–"


"I laughed because there was something funny about it, Danny. Something about how the car hopped at the very end and..." I shook my head again. "It's horrible."

"Death is serious, Mal."

"I know, Danny. I know it is."

They all looked at me as though I'd grown a third eye. I redoubled my efforts to be understood.

"Gentlemen. I strive only to be candid with you. At a time like this. Think of Jean-Michel. Wouldn't he want us to be candid? I should think he'd be laughing too, actually," I ventured.

"Laughing at his own death?!" barked Danny.

I briefly closed my eyes. "Yes. Laughing at death. Isn't that what he was doing anyway?" I gulped from my glass. What on earth was I saying? What a stupid, stupid thing to say. Then I persisted, stubbornly: "Isn't that what we all do? Anyway?" I thought to myself: Stop talking. Stop. "Don't be such hypocritical cunts. The lot of you. If you didn't think death was funny, you'd never get into a race car."

A sheen of sweat had formed on my brow. I keenly wished to flee. If only I could somehow take it all back. Too late, too late, too late, too late.

Bragato dismissed me with a great wave of his hand. Slowly, the others withdrew, some giving me a wry, pitying glance as they turned their heads.

I went to the loo and splashed water onto my face. Had a good look at myself in the mirror. Who was this pathetic creature? This monster? He's a real nowhere man, I murmured to myself.

Just then the door banged open. I heard the creaks and scrapes of some stiff, unhuman figure proceeding solemnly, deliberately across the threshold. It was Rodney Sutcliffe on his crutches. I was afraid of what he might say. I was about to offer a preemptive apology when he spoke first.

"You know what, Mal?" he asked, gazing at his injured head in the mirror beside me.

"Yes?" I replied apprehensively.

"I was in the pits too. I saw it."

"Did you?"

He nodded. "And you know what?"


He shook his head and looked into the sink. "I laughed too."

"You did?"

He nodded and sighed. "I did. Why, Mal? Why?"

"You laughed because it was funny," I replied grimly, feeling better now. Not so all alone.

"What was funny about it, Mal? A man dies before our very eyes."

"A good man."

"A great man."

We stood a while longer, staring at our reflections. Finally Rodney emitted a guffaw.

"God have mercy on us, Malcolm."

"It was funny, Rodney. Because we laughed."

"Something about the way th–"

"I know. The car landed on the track and–"

"And flipped right up again. You didn't expect it to–"

"But it did," I said. "That really wasn't called for, was it?"

"Bit much!"

"Sorry, mate, look–you're not dead enough already."

"Die some more!" said Rodney, his body quaking with laughter.

"And just for good measure–"



"Boom!" Rodney spread his hands to mime a big explosion.

We laughed at the mirror for a final few seconds. Then Rodney excused himself.

"Good luck tomorrow, Mal."

"You too."

I vomited copiously into the loo, rinsed out my mouth, and went upstairs for a scant few hours of dreamless, fitful sleep.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

In the morning I stood with her and we looked at the beads of water on the window. After it rained all day we looked again. The glass was dry and overhead was the glinting sliver of the new moon.