Saturday, August 06, 2011

Oil & Hay - 23 and End

Oh dear. That's what my mother used to say: Oh dear. Sounds silly but she used it in circumstances both trifling and solemn. She'd say it as she inspected a stain on a shirt. She said it when my father fell sick the second time. Oh dear.

I've committed a sin.

I lose the rear turning into Les Combes. There's no correcting it. And in the cold moments before I hit the barrier two forces act upon me in equal measure yet opposite directions: Scorn—expressed by some faceless entity—encroaching from without. Shame rising from within. As though to crash at the border of my body.

When you lose control of a car at speed you also feel relief. You've been fighting it lap after lap, corner after corner; forcing it, willing it to the line. Finally it's forcing you. There's nothing you can do. Skid, slide, spin. You're a passenger now, right? You may—you must—let go. For God's sake, it's over. You're tempted to believe this was the objective all along. Was it?

Such a cold word, momentum. Ruthless. A word that peers down from above. From out of time.

The impact—rude, shockingly violent—convulses my spine. I perceive it as a reprimand. My proudest claims—to control, to speed—are vaporized with scornful fury.

I'm skidding backwards along the Armco now. Seems like I'll never stop. A plume of sparks blows over my left shoulder, embers in the rain; cars emerge from the fog on the corner, here comes one, and then another. A tall pine stands watch above it all. I see the little white pylons on the opposite edge of the track go by. One. Two. Three. In the rough, pale grass beyond them stands a man. He wears dark grey trousers, a white shirt and a red cardigan jumper; he stares at me, mouth agape. A camera dangles from his neck, bobbing on his belly. Beside him sits a woman—his wife? She's voluptuous, rosy-cheeked. Her skirt floats around her on the grass; her feet are bare. She rests a brelly on her shoulder. Bit carelessly. Don't mind if the rain gets in her face. She—unlike her man—watches me impassively, almost sleepily, as though it were the most banal thing in the world for a race car to go by on the barrier, in reverse. She squints. I think I see her big toe twitch.

Mr. Wesley with his little round glasses would race up to your desk. Command you to place your hand upon it, flat. Fingers spread.

Glory, glory hallelujah!
Teacher hit me with a ruler

I see the hay up on the hill, the misshapen little pyramids, and I look down and there's hay strewn on my lap, like some miracle. Or a joke. Hay strewn on my lap.

Scorn pressing down. Shame rising from within.

Momentum haunts each willful action. It's the cruel truth belying our fantasies of control.

The sparks are pretty. I watch them fly by and think: how pretty. Each one alight for the merest fraction of a second. I watch a thousand live and die.

Oh dear. I've done it now, I've really done it.

The man up on the hill, mouth open. His camera swinging stupidly. His woman doesn't care.

I'm still moving—I think I'm moving. Where am I supposed to go? There's smoke now, too, I think, around my head.

Oily tufts of hay cling to my arms, hands, legs, manifesting my trespass. I look stupid, laughable. A loutish and petty miscreant, tarred and feathered. Fit to be derided by the good people of the town. It's the insult I deserve.

I've always yearned for power and control. Only to lose it in the end. It's inevitable that you should lose it. The thought occurs to me: It's what I've wanted all along.

Is that what I think?

Sparks, sparks, sparks. Pretty, pretty sparks. The slack-jawed man on the hill. His smirking wife. I don't know what it means but I know what it means.

Sod it all.

Dad had an Austin Devon and I had it in Dinky Toys. Same color, black. I spent hours with it at night, tracing imaginary roads in the paisley patterns of my duvet. Sometimes by the light the moon, sometimes blind, seeing the corners in my mind, clipping all the apexes, drifting into shape and getting on the throttle. Careful not to fall off the edge of my world.

The man stares with some alarm. Why won't he take a picture? Surely I make a pretty picture.

Smoke. Tex likes to say, Where there's smoke, there's fire. Never to do with smoke or fire. He says it when something's gone wrong in the car but no one knows why. Takes the cigar out his mouth, squints at the engine or suspension: "Where there's fuckin' smoke, there's motherfuckin' fire."

I can't see any fire. I see a figure through the hazy veil, jumping like a marionette. It's a driver. With a navy-blue helmet on. It's Rodney.

"Wake up son!"

"Wot? Wot's that?"

"Hay's burnin', innit son?"

I look outside. The barn aglow below the moon, flames coming out the windows and the roof, sparks rising into night.

"Help us put it out then. Come's on. You're a big boy, aintcha?"

He puts me in the chain by Mr. Burrows, who passes me a pail. Water splashes on my feet. The pail's so heavy, its wire digs into my soft and sweaty palm. Everyone is shouting. Everyone so grave. Another pail comes. I pass it to Mr. Greene, the sweet shop man. Governor of the realm of my childish desires. Victim of my criminal compulsions. He's awaiting it, arms extended, hands open. His face is stern but he's not cross with me today. He's expecting me to pass the pail. I mirror his expression. I hand it over, arms trembling from the burden. I've never carried anything heavy before. He does not thank me but I've never been so gratified.

Rodney looks like a damn fool out there. Dancing around on his bad leg. He waves to me. OK, Rodney. I see you. He's using both hands, waving urgently, as though from across some type of divide. I see you waving, Rodney. I see you, I see you. Don't worry. I wave back slowly. It surprises me how long it takes and how hard it is to lift my arm.

I open the door. There stands Mr. Burrows, blocking out the sun.

"'ello Malcolm. Peaches for yer mum."

He presses on into the house while I inspect his fruit. There's a bad one towards the bottom. Its overripe flesh is split. A fur of dark mold has grown around the wound. I take it outside and throw it over the wall, over the trees, watching it arc across the milky sky, imagining it will land on the windscreen of a car traveling the Great South West Road. Perhaps the driver, momentarily startled, will jerk the wheel, lose control, and skid off in the grass. Tumble, tumble, tumble and explode.

I yearn for power over the world. I want to make things happen. To be the cause in a chain of events. It excites me that I might, remotely, blindly, reach into the world of rules and rigor—of Mummy and Daddy and God—to wreak havoc upon it.

I return to the kitchen to fetch more peaches, and I heave them over the wall in turn. Unsatisfied, I return for more, and more again. Finally, three peaches remain.

What a fool I am. What a fool. What am I going to tell her when she sees her peaches gone? I mutter a prayer, more sincere than any I'd made on Sundays. Don't let Mum find out.

I creep around guiltily that evening, bracing myself for the wrath to come. Yet she does not mention it, even as she urges me to eat my veg. To help my sister Julie with the washing up. Has God rewarded me for sin?

The three peaches sit at the bottom of the basket, haunting me for days. Then one morning the basket is gone. My culpability erased by some unduly compassionate hand.

"I know watcha did wit' 'em peaches Mr. Burrows gave t'Mum," Julie declares as we brush our teeth for bed.


"I saw ya throwin' 'em over the wall," she says in that hideously taunting tone.

I feel a spasm of dread. Would she tell Mum after all?

Feeling tears about to flow, I spit into the sink and say into the mirror with a quaking voice: "I prayed t'God an' 'ee don' want Mum t'know!"

Julie laughs. "God ain't got nothin' t'do wid it, Malcolm!"

"Yes 'ee do!"

"'ee don' give a toss. Mum jus' don' wanna let on 'bout Mr. Burrows is all."

I have no idea what she means.

"Wot about 'im?"

"'ee's shaggin' 'er ain't 'ee?

"He's wot?"

"Ye always s'daft, Malcolm," she replies, and screws the cap back on the tube. As though life may well continue.

I do not know what that means but I know what it means. It means there's something bigger than God.

I begin to get a sense that the world is not what it seems. Little hints crop up, like glimpses of a ghost that's ever vanishing from view. Things that appear to be one thing appear to also be another. I wonder whether the entire world is an edifice for my amusement—or some yet darker purpose. Just what exactly is happening beyond the confines of my vision? Imps are madly constructing and deconstructing the world, that's what; rearranging objects, buildings, signs and cars. If I turn my head fast enough, might I see them? How might I ever see them?

One morning I am struck by an interaction between my mother and my father.

"G'mornin' dear," says Mum, seated at the table, head turned up and tilted back. Eyes closed.

"Mornin' luv," he says, leaning over her with a smile, delivering a peck on her cheek. "'Ow are ya?"



"'n you?" she asks.

"Good," he says. "Good."

Then he turns away to toast his bread. She takes a sip of tea. I hear the clank of her cup as she returns it to its saucer. Then silence.
That was around the time I realised: Trees don't shake all by themselves. There's something unseen shaking them.

I became obsessed with paths, with roads. Nothing seemed more beautiful to me than a landscape scored by a ribbon of asphalt. It was for cars, I'd think, and my heart would lighten, quicken. Cars go on the road. There's a path you can take. You can drive a car on it: turn left, turn right. Straight ahead.

I was never happier than when I sat in the middle of the back seat, Dad at the wheel, and looked through the windscreen at an expanse of grey for the wheels to devour.

"Faster, Dad, faster!" I'd shout. "Can we pass that car?"

Sometimes he'd humour me. Other times he wouldn't.

I stole the Austin one day and drove it to the graveyard, Julie in the seat beside me. I could hardly see over the dashboard. It's a wonder we made it back alive.

Or was it just a dream?

As I'm sitting here in limbo it occurs to me suddenly how good and warm and pleasant it all is, everything: the white sky and the trees, the car, the smoke, the oil and the hay. My friend across the barrier, gesticulating wildly. The man and the woman on the hill, I love you all, I do.

Checho, Rory, Danny, Zé, Jürgen, Santiago. Tex. The lot of you. I love you too.

I feel an acute pang of sadness for Vaton, commensurate to my glee at watching his machine somersault on the track and grass, his ragdoll body trapped inside. Right now I am connected to him. I am indistinguishable from him or any other.

What's my manna, Mel? What's my... it's a thing you're meant to say again and again and again. She told me so. Helps me with my nerves.

I know she's waiting for me. At the finish. And then our child will be born. These two things are the only things left to know about the world.

Up on the hill the woman with the umbrella turns her head away. I close my eyes.

There's a new world awaiting, just around the bend.

I mean: mantra. I'm a real nowhere man. Somewhere, someone something said for nobody.

I see a new world coming. Not just for me. For everyone.

I forgive myself. I am forgiven. The tension on the surface of my body breaks and I dissolve. I feel my limbs spreading, extending, breaking into unruly, floating particles. The molecules of my body intermingle with those of the car, the track, the grass.

I feel light, so light; I can't stay tied to Earth much longer. And so I drift up, out the cockpit. There it is, my car, white with its navy stripe. My number seven on the nose. So pretty, engulfed in flames. There's the fire! There it is! And yet the black smoke rising does not hurt my eyes.

There's dear old Rodney darting about, clutching his helmet, staring helplessly at the conflagration. Poor sod.

I rise higher still, above the pine. I see the people watching the inferno. The man with the camera has it to his face now. He's zooming in. Focusing. Meanwhile, his wife remains distracted, unconcerned. She'll look at me now. And as soon as I form the thought, she slowly lifts her head and looks up, squinting at the rain. She's peering at me. Through me. For I am indistinguishable from the molecules of water and of air.

Now corner workers crouch over the cockpit. They carry my body away and lay it on the grass; they're so tender and careful with it, needlessly; it's just useless now really, ain't it? It's nothing. It's dirt. It makes me smile to watch them ministering to it so urgently, so solemnly. They are playing with a doll.

I radiate heat and light onto everything I see and everything I don't. All the people, all the signs, and every blade of hay.

Goodyear. Castrol. Total, Esso and Ferodo. Gulf, Martini. Lucas, Champion, Shell. Every word reveals itself to me, charged with meaning and poignancy. Every letter in every word and the spaces in between the letters. Especially the spaces. Within them I hear a voice commanding me—not really a voice. Just words. Not words. Letters. Not letters. But the command is given. And I understand.


I see the track in its entirety. I see the bends and straights, the spaces that were hidden by the hills and trees. There's no more corner, nor horizon. There it is: a vast, sprawling triangle traced amid the pastures and the trees. I'm shocked by its beauty. It has no end! It goes around and around forever. I always knew it. Now I see.