Thursday, August 11, 2011

Oil & Hay

Lorenzo was yawning as usual. And when he wasn't he excused himself to vomit into a white bucket that his pit crew had stuck behind the wall.

I yawned too, helplessly. Not wanting to. Not needing to.

"See? You yawna too," he said.

"It's because you make me tired, Zo."

Lorenzo smiled meekly. His damp and pallid face gave him the odious air of a stage villain.

"How many times have you done this, Zo?"

"Twenty-nine. After today, thirty. Se Dio vuole," Lorenzo said, crossing himself. Rocking foot-to-foot.

"Twenty-nine. You'd be used to it by now I should think."

"Never, Malcolm," he replied somberly, shaking his head. "Never, never, never, never get used to it."

His strangled syntax made confession sound like admonition. Or is that what he meant? I didn't get a chance to ask.

"Excuse-a me, Malcolm," he said with a yawn. "Good race for you, OK? I go now. Che Dio ti protegga."

I waved as he went off to vomit once again.

I was nervous as well. Not in the particularly expressive way Lorenzo Maldarelli was. But I must admit. I was acting calm but I was nervous.

I sat on a folding chair in the pits and gazed at the grid, aswarm with actors and mechanics, reporters, portly officials and women on the make. Lurking among them were the motor cars, arrayed in staggered pairs, a patchwork of reds, blues and greens, sun-dappled by a canopy of maritime pines.

The prince and princess peered down upon the scene from across the boulevard.

I closed my eyes and beheld my apprehension like a wearyingly familiar object. Like a pocket watch. A shoe. What did it look like today? The same.

I placed a cold-sweaty hand to my chest and felt my heart.

Melanie tried to teach me a mantra once. Om et cetera. I didn't take to it, I must confess. Fine, she said. (Just like an American girl.) Make up your own. Really? I asked. Can it be anything? It can be anything you like, she said. So I chose a verse from a popular song:

He's a real nowhere man,
Sitting in his nowhere land,
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

I thought my mantra three times through and felt a little better.

I'd soon be serene. This I knew. Once we snaked past St. Devote and were heading hopefully up the hill to Massenet I'd become exquisitely calm. Fall into that trance. Easy as pie. Hard to imagine it now, though.

In ordinary waking life my mind was perpetually cluttered by a thousand and one thoughts both frivolous and profound. I was distracted, fickle and forgetful. Inattentive. I'd read half a paragraph of an article in the morning paper only to be charmed by the next sensory event, regardless of importance: A birdsong. Burning toast. The untied laces of my shoes.

But when I raced my consciousness contracted. The world fell off the edges of the track. What remained? The tailpipes of the car ahead of me. And if by luck or merit none were present: the maddening unseen, ever vanishing around the bend or over the horizon. This is what I chased. Was it what I wanted?

Why were this and that so far apart?

Zo told me once, late one night, after we had copiously toasted one of his dominating performances in '63—was it Monza?—that the entire race, every race in fact, was for him an occasion for hysterical, shrieking panic. He was terrified to the core that he'd die and he grew more certain that he would with each passing lap. He told me he often screamed out loud into the wind whilst downshifting into a particularly devious corner. Out loud? I asked. Si, Malcolm, he replied. Come una ragazza. He was desperately eager for the race to end. Always. How many more laps? Twelve? God forbid. Five? Two? When it was over and he'd bring his machine to a stop—in the winner's circle, often—he'd experience such an elation, such a burst of pure pleasure, that in his efforts to describe it he broke into sobs. I put my hand on his shoulder.

One thing was for certain: he was quick.

I sat in my Star-Apogee and twice pumped the throttle, the motor roaring venomously at my back. I looked to my left and saw Santiago Bragato, the Argentine, adjusting his goggles in his hunter green Hewitt-Clark. Ahead of us in the first row were reigning world champion José das Chagas in his Cavallo Nero, offset to my left, and Zo at the far left in his. Zo and Zé. Teammates and tempestuous rivals. Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Beyond them Louis Chiron held his hand up: five.

I tried to contemplate the calm between my heart's concussive beats.


I stepped on the clutch and engaged first gear.

Three. Two.

I pressed the throttle to the floor. The motor noise rose to a continuous shriek of extreme urgency, all its energy lusting keenly for release.


Louis steps aside and waves the Monégasque red-and-white with an extravagant flourish. I release the clutch and my rear wheels spin madly for the merest moment; soon they find purchase and I shoot forward, ducking under Zé. Up to second gear. To third.

How to overtake a car? Pretend it isn't there. View its claim to existence with scorn. Occupy the space that it would occupy. Ignore the laws of nature and they'll concede something to you. Not much. An inch or two. Enough to get by.

Ignore the laws of man as well. You've got to be ruthless in racing. Criminal-minded, really. Every time I overtake someone I feel as though I've picked his pocket. Though he must howl with indignation, I don't care. So what's in my spirit? An airy elation where shame's supposed to be. To race and to win is to be rewarded for sin.

As we approach St. Devote I push Zé out, brazenly insisting on my line. There's Zo ahead of me on the outside. He started like a rocket. I'll slip in behind him like that's the way it's meant to be.

I hold my breath and make it stick. That's one thing I do whilst overtaking: I hold my breath.

I make the rear of my car wide in my imagination. That way none shall pass. I follow Zo up the squiggle of Beau Rivage and left around Massenet. We emerge into Casino Square, the grandstand a jubilant burst of orange, white and red. Over the bump we go, airily down the hill, past the manhole cover, toe the brake, declutch, neutral, clutch, heel the throttle, declutch, second gear, clutch, throttle, right around Mirabeau, close up to the curb but not too close, and down again to the Station Hairpin, slow, slow, slow, turning the wheel all the way, my God it takes forever and there goes Maldarelli.

I can't stand to be left behind.

I grow more comfortable now, sinking into the peculiar rhythm of the course. There is no respite. There cannot be a breach in concentration, yet there is no time to think. You're always braking, shifting, turning, shifting, turning, braking. The only way to do it is to give yourself completely. To just let go. At other races it's useful to conceive of the car as an extension of your body; here you must think of the entire track that way. Be a blood cell coursing through your veins.

I feel the unexpected cool of a drip of drool emerge out the corner of my mouth.

I remain fixated on the back of Zo's car but find that I can observe certain incidental environmental details with naive fascination—amusement, even—like a child. There's the big Marlboro sign on the footbridge past start/finish. The Campari sign on the bridge after Casino. The banners that festoon the barriers and walls: Martini, Elf, BP, Esso, Total. Cigarettes, booze and petrol. What men buy.

I also discern the spectral figures of photographers, walking blithely along the narrow sidewalks, sometimes turning into a crouch to face us.

Zo's pulling away. Each time I see him in the tighter corners I'm tempted to believe the narrowing gap is meaningful but again he speeds off—down into the tunnel, out of the chicane, out of the Gasworks hairpin and up the front straight. I wish he'd make a mistake. Anything. Anything is possible. I look for his tail to fly out of his perfect drift. It never does.

My pit board says:


Eighty-two laps to go.

There's hay strewn about the track on the descent to Portier, the tight right-hander before the tunnel. Debris, too, but not much: Bits of suspension. The solitary silver cone of a rear-view mirror. Marshals scramble for their flags. I step on the brakes, skid into the corner and take it wide, gingerly. To my left there's a hideous gap in the guardrail where the third of four Total banners used to be. Total, Total, nothing, Total. Nothing but the deep blue sea.

As I pick up speed into the tunnel I wonder what happened, who that was. A backmarker? Lorenzo? I don't see him up ahead at the chicane but he did have quite a lead. Maybe he's alright.

When I come round again my pit board says P1. Maldarelli must have flown into the void.

I parked my car before the royal box, as is the custom, and stepped out of the cockpit in a daze. As I slowly removed my goggles, helmet and fireproof gauze, Tex, the Star team boss, ran over from the pits. When one of his cars won he usually cheered it at the checkered, leaping and tossing his Stetson in the air. Today he hadn't.

"Malcolm. Good race, pal," he said, panting.


"And Lorenzo Maldarelli's dead."

I sighed. "Just like that?" I asked. I can only think of stupid questions about death.

"Just like that? I dunno what you mean by just like that. He exited the track."

"Into the sea?"

Tex nodded. "Musta slammed into somethin' first."

"He crashed the wall?"

"He crashed the wall."

"Rolled over? Caught fire?"

"You know how the story goes."

"Then he plunged into the Mediterranean Sea?"

"Frogmen retrieved his corpse."

"What killed him? The fire or the water?"

"Jesus, Mary'n Joseph, Malcolm."

"Are you telling me he couldn't swim?"

"If he coulda swum, he'da swam, goddammit!"

"Did he suffer?" I hadn't meant to ask this question. But then I heard it out my mouth.

"Did he suffer. Jesus motherfuckin' Christ. He died like a man!"

I found myself pressing the point. "But Tex, it's import—"

"Of all the ghoulish goddamned questions! Did he suffer. I dunno. You ever die before?"

"Yes, but—no, but I mean—"

"Mal, he's dead. He died."

A moment passed. I hung my head.

"Thank you, Tex."

The buildings reverberated with the sonorous drone of the announcer revealing to the masses the tragic end of the great Lorenzo Maldarelli, hereafter consigned to legend. There followed a minute of silence. One could hear the rustle of the trees.

Then the speakers came to life anew. It was me they celebrated now. Malcolm Wood of Britain in his Star-Apogee. Winner of this twenty-fourth Grand Prix de Monaco. A blonde darling in a miniskirt and go-go boots approached me and placed a wreath around my neck.

I ascended the royal box's felted steps as the prince and princess stood to greet me. Grace, resplendent in blue and rose and a flowered hat, extended her hand to me and smiled.

When I got to my hotel room I took off my shoes and lay down with her messages unread in my fist. My right hand still gripped the neck of my half-drunk magnum and kept it balanced on the bed. I examined the elaborate mouldings on the ceiling: the chain of decorative beading on the periphery, the stylised leaves in the corners and around the chandelier. I thought about the breach through which Lorenzo disappeared. My racing suit was soaked through with sweat and Champagne.

I perched the bottle on my belly and leaned it to my lips. The fluid tasted alive. Electric. It spilled down my chin and neck, drenching the pillow. I just kept staring at the ceiling and drinking. Finally the bottle was empty and the telephone rang.


"Mal, it's me."


"It's me."

"Where are you?"

"I'm still in New York. I was at the studio late last night."

"You must be tired. What time is it?"

"Morning here. Evening there."

"When can you come—"

"You sound drunk. Are you alright?"

"They offer Champagne to the victors."

"I heard what happened in the race."

"Word of my glory travels fast."

"No, Mal. Yes, I know. But I heard what happened."

I kept silent for a moment or two. It annoyed me that she brought it up. I'm rather ashamed to admit.

"So terrible, Mal! I'm so, so, sorry."

"He's the one who deserves the sympathy I should think."

"You really liked him!"

I paused again, resolving to be calm. "He was very quick."

"Mal, are you crying?"

"No, Mel. No."

"But I can hear it in your voice!"

"When can you come over? I should like to see you."

"I can fly to Brussels in a week. Is Spa near Brussels?"

"It's near Liège."

"Can I fly to Liège?"

"I don't know, darling. Perhaps you could fly to Paris?"

"I'll try to fly to Paris."

"I've got to get dressed for a party on a yacht."

"Try not to get too drunk. You know what happens to your energy when you drink."

I sighed. "I'll speak with you soon, Mel."

I hung up and got back on my feet.

Our host for the evening's formal affair was Bambang Duadji, the louche and dissolute Indonesian playboy, art forger, champion water-skier, alleged arms dealer and heir to a rubber fortune known to friends and others as B.B. I adjusted my bowtie and stepped onto the gangplank to the Virgin of Bali, moored along the Quai des États-Unis, near the chicane, not half a kilometre from Lorenzo's off.

I weaved through the crowd of royalty, near-royalty and lesser nobility to find the bar at the end of the after deck. After ordering a whiskey sour, I joined a group of fellow drivers leaning glumly on the railing: Zé; the American Hasu driver Danny Youngblood; the Spaniard Sergio Martín y Bustamente-García, better known as Checho, Santiago's second at Hewitt-Clark; Rodney Sutcliffe, my former teammate at Hewitt-Apogee; and his teammate Jean-Michel Vaton, the ingenuous French heartthrob with perfect teeth and eyes the hue of the iridescent sea. Straight away Danny started in.

"What did you see, Mal? You were right behind him."

"I wasn't right behind him. I didn't see a thing."

Skeptical expressions flickered on each face.

"How could you not be right behind him?" Danny persisted. "It was lap, what?"

"Lap twenty-four," asserted Checho.

"Twenty-five!" Jean-Michel interjected.

"Twenty-five," I confirmed. "It was lap twenty-five."

"You're tellin' me by lap twenty-five, Zo was outta sight?" As Danny gestured towards me to make his point, gin and tonic sloshed out of his glass to rain on the tips of my shoes. He seemed intent on impugning me one way or the other, for dishonesty or lack of pace.

"I couldn't keep up with Zo. When I turned the corner at Lower Mirabeau all I saw was bits and pieces."

Danny gave me a baleful look. "You ran him off the track."

"I did nothing of the sort!"

Jean-Michel quickly changed the subject. We all need another drink, he said, and so we dutifully queued up at the bar. When we reconvened, Zé made a statement in my defense.

"Danny, I was not too far behind Mal. I do not think he was close to Maldarelli."

"You're one to talk."

"What does this mean?"

Danny slurped his drink and peered over the rim at the Brazilian.

"You hated Maldarelli."

Things happened then in quick succession.

Zé slammed his Martini onto the teak in wordless exclamation. It popped into a hundred shards, the olive rolling God-knows-where. He lunged at Danny, managing to grab him by his tuxedo lapels before anyone could intervene.

"Seu cabrão!" he shouted, slapping the American on the side of the head.

Danny, enraged, now ducked into a charge, wrapped his arms around Zé's abdomen, and heaved him overboard. We watched as he fell twenty feet and splashed arse-first into the Port of Monaco. He emerged sputtering, panting, ludicrously treading water, his jacket floating from his shoulders like a cape.

Zé's submergence broke the bitter atmosphere. Danny quickly unfastened a lifesaver and threw it to his erstwhile foe, then we all took a spot on the rope and pulled the soaking man aboard. It was enough, for now, that one of us emerge from the water alive.

I took a sip of my seventh whiskey sour, feeling uncomfortable. Out of sorts. A little cross. I took out my flattening pack of Gauloises, pulled one between my lips and flickered at it with my faltering Zippo. B.B. Douadji walked over grandly, holding out his immaculately manicured hands.

"And this is the guest of honour!" he exclaimed. "The great Malcolm! The great Wood!"

"Thank you, B.B."

"Allow me the privilege of lighting the cigarette of a winner," he said, holding up his flame.

The crowd formed a circle around us as we spoke, a pocket of deference and exaltation as might befit a warrior hero come to meet his king. B.B. slapped me on the back.

"What a race today Malcolm! What a race! And you, my friend! You are the winner of the race!"

I exhaled a plume of rich smoke from my nostrils. "It was a difficult race today. A sad day—"

"Oh! Lorenzo Maldarelli!" he interrupted, eyes wide. "Vroom! Vroom!" he went, pretending to hold a steering wheel. Then his arms shook as he pretended to brake. "Ee-ee-ee-ee-ee!" he exclaimed in staccato squeaks. "Boom! Whoosh!" Arms flailing in the air. Finally he pinched his nose, closed his eyes and descended into a crouch, his other arm above his head, a pantomime of a drowning man. After a moment in the depths he stood back up and smiled brightly.

"That's right," I said. "That's right."

"You drivers, you are not afraid to die," he stated, suddenly solemn.

"Well, I don't kn—"

"When you die, it is beautiful. When everyone else dies, it is shit."

As he cocked his head and frowned I thought I detected a flash of resentment in his face. I nodded dumbly, wondering how much more of this I was due to endure.

He's a real nowhere man.

B.B. rested his arm around my neck and paraded me along the promenade. It was dark now. Across the harbor the palace sat glowing on the rock.

"Maldarelli's death was a great death, a wonderful death," B.B. continued. "Did you see it?"

"I got there late."

"You should have seen it, Malcolm. I was standing right there on the other side of the boat," he said, pointing. "I saw the death and it was..." He shook his head. "Magnificent."

"You saw his car go in the water?"

"It exploded from the street. Spinning! Burning!"

I drank the last drops of my drink as we leaned on the rail. B.B. sighed and gazed up past the tangle of masts.

"I could have been a driver myself, you know."

"Is that so?"

"My father would not allow it," he said, and spat into the sea.

On Monday I drove the thousand kilometres to Paris in the pouring rain. My hangover didn't lift until I reached Lyon, but when it did I was plunged into a honeyed realm of ecstasy and nearly cried. Still it rained.

When I pulled up in front of 48 Rue de Grenelle I half expected to find her waiting in her soaking pea coat, blond hair matted to her brow. But she wasn't.

Upstairs I mixed a gin and tonic and leafed through my little black book to the page of her ever-changing numbers. The only one not crossed out was for the Hotel Pierre in New York City.

"I'm sorry, sir. Miss Welles has checked out," said the clerk. "She did leave a message for you in the event that you called."


"And it reads as follows: Had to fly back to Los Angeles. Publicity for the record. Will call you in Paris."

"Is that all?"



"Her salutation, sir."



I hung up, walked out on the balcony, and lit a cigarette. I gazed out at the intersection, at Boulevard Raspail divided by its treed median. I thought about Mel. Her night terrors, her love of Calder. Her advocacy on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Her past lives. She believed she'd been an emperor's taster in an ancient Chinese court.

"Which emperor?" I had asked her then, chidingly.

"Xian, the last emperor of the Han dynasty. He didn't see the writing on the wall. Also, his diet was overly rich in salt. I adored him though."

Her certitude startled me.

"Were you his concubine as well?"

"I was a male eunuch, Mal."

I remembered another thing she said that night at the party in St. Moritz.

"There's a new world coming. Don't you know that?"

"What in heaven's name do you mean?"

"It's about to be born. Can you feel it?"

"Where is this new world you speak of?" I asked, a bit pompously I fear, as if to say: This world you see is all there is, my dear.

"Not where, what. And when."

"So what? When?"

"We're evolving. We're casting off the old ideas. Sure, it might be rough at first. A bloody revolution in the streets. But the time has come. Are your chakras in order?"

"Beg pardon?"

"Seven energy centers run along your spine."

I leaned forward on the divan and felt around on my back. She laughed.

"Do you know where you are in time and space?" she queried.

"Right here. Right now," I answered. A bit defensively.

"I'm unconvinced, darling. You seem a little fuzzy."

I rattled my ice in mild irritation and smiled a tense little smile. "But I'm not driving, you see. I'm all sorted when I drive."

"You don't have to go around in circles to find yourself."

It struck me that I did. But I kept the thought to myself.

"You should meditate. You should do yoga."

"Will it help me drive faster?"

"It will help you do anything."

I had the impression of awaking psychically, a fraction of a second before the phone sounded. I knew I'd likely been roused by a phantom first ring, unconsciously perceived, but it was tempting to imagine that I hadn't. Anything was possible.


"Darling, I know it's late for you. I only have a few minutes."

"Where are you? Los Angeles?"

"Los Angeles. Hollywood."

"When on earth can you get away?"

A breeze blew the gauzy curtains from the window. The wall across the way glowed amber in the lamplight.

"I'm not sure, Mal. Life wants me tomorrow."

"What for?"

"Interview. Photo shoot. The song and dance."

"I'm testing in Rouen tomorrow," I said dully.

"Maybe I can get away next week. Will you have time?"

"I shall make the time. We'll go somewhere. Meet somewhere. We'll see each other."

"That sounds nice."

"We'll suss it out, Mel. Good luck w—"

"I have something to tell you, Mal."

A spasm of fear seized my heart. In a flash I understood it all: She no longer wanted me. She had another man.


"I'm pregnant."

I sat at the back of the pits at Les Essarts with my hand in my race suit pocket, rolling the soft ball of hashish between my fingers. Von Schlosser had given it to me before taking his turn at the wheel of our newest Star.

"Have you smoked?" he had asked me in his oddly melodic accent.

"Ever? This? Before?"

He nodded.


"Empty out your cigarette a little bit. Put the hashish inside. Smoke it."

"Thanks, Jürgen."

I decided to do as he said. I was done driving for the day, after all. There was naught to do but watch the car come in and out of the pits, to stand over the motor with an expression of thoughtful concern, to occasionally bow my head into the cockpit, pretending to understand my German teammate's breathless observations.

I took it out back, in the paddock by the lorries. Discreetly ground out some shag from a Gauloise and packed the cylinder with crumbs of the claylike material. I lit it up. The thick, sweet smoke settled into my lungs like a fog. I erupted into a fit of spasmodic coughs and as soon as it was over a curious warmth spread over my face and neck. My mouth grew dry. In the distance I heard the Apogee engine whining against the gears as Jürgen wound through the Forêt de la Londe.

It was a grey day. The cold air moved around my arms in streams as I walked back to the pits. Tex was seated at a table, ruminating.

"I been thinkin' 'bout puttin' wings on the car," he declared.

"Wings?" I exclaimed. "Good Lord. Are we now permitted to fly?"

"Upside-down wings. Think about it."

"Won't that slow us down?"


My mind was aswim. Tex bit off a new cigar and spat the tip of the butt at the cinderblock wall.

"It'll slow us down in a straight line," he said. "Ya get my drift?"

I felt my heartbeat quicken. "No."

"But speed us up around a corner."

As I pondered the implications of his remark I felt as though a new world were opening its doors.

"How'd it feel out there, Mal?" he asked after some time.

"Smashing. Bit of understeer." Why did I say that? Had I said the proper thing? It seemed like a reasonable thing to say. I was aiming for maximum plausibility.

Tex clamped down on his cigar and scrutinised me warily.

"Why, Schlossie just told me he got oversteer."

"That so?"

"Mal, I need your ass back out there."

"Beg pardon?"

"You an' the Kraut, ya gotta getcher stories straight. Car ain't that temper-mental."

I felt the cold sting of panic overwhelming my soul.

"Putcher helmet on, Limey," Tex said as he navigated his wide girth off the chair and back towards the track.

Before I did as I was told, I poured a glass of water from the little carafe on the shelf. Some of it splashed on my trembling fingers. If I can't fill a glass with water, I thought with dread, how can I drive a car at speed? I gulped it down morosely, the last sip of a condemned man.

I pull out, past the Esso sign hanging at the end of the pits, between the bales of hay that line the straight, and down the hill into the first corner, a gently sweeping righter, feeling alright so far. I contemplate the ditch along the steep bank to my left with a shudder.

And all these patches in the asphalt! Had they been laid in the few hours since I'd last been at the wheel? It alarms me that I am just now giving them a conscious thought. The chassis rattles and skids over them. I can feel every seam.

I can also feel cold sweat through the palm of my glove when I grip the gearshift. It terrifies me to be strapped to this contraption, out here alone among the fields and the trees and the silvery sky, each blade of grass oblivious to me, indifferent as to whether I miraculously navigate the course or fly into the woods. Is it at times like these that a man cries out for his mother? What a stupid thought. In a succession of stupid thoughts: This is the moment; this is it, it, it. This is what a man does. He does what he's afraid of doing. What am I doing? Here comes the hairpin. The Nouveau Monde. Downshift, downshift, downshift, and around, grind a little shifting up, get on the throttle, a bit too soon: the tail goes wavy, then I'm back in shape. I love to climb, to feel the power at my back as it wrenches the car from gravity. What was Melanie telling me? Something new is coming. But it's not lurking in these woods, unchanged for a hundred thousand years but for this sinuous band of asphalt and its rude freight. Or is it?

I'm driving now, really driving. Scared out of my wits but driving. To press the accelerator requires a tremendous exercise of will but I'm damned well doing it. This is what a man does. If I can get around this track a few good times I can step back into the pits, tell Tex what he wants to hear, find a dark corner somewhere to hang my head and cry. And be alive.

Finally they call me in.

As I decelerated and pulled into the box I began to quake with relief. They all looked at me with bewildered expressions. Was the motor on fire? The chief mechanic, Derek Owens, leaned in to me.

"What's wrong with her?"

"Nothing," I replied, taken aback. "Nothing I can tell. Why?"


I shook my head as he turned to survey the engine and exhaust.

"Are you alright?" he asked with an air of grim concern.

I felt a jolt of shame, suddenly seeing myself as he must see me: freakish, fumbling, incompetent. I decided to let my pride go. To tell the truth. A little.

"I've felt better, if I'm honest. I'm not in tip-top form."

Derek nodded slowly.

"Why do you ask?"

He showed me his stopwatch.

"You're thirty-five seconds off your pace from this morning," he declared.

After Jürgen retook the wheel I lay on a bench and slept fitfully as the sober world, full of purpose and authority, circulated about me and cast its shadow on my incoherent dreams. When I awoke the car was already loaded in the lorry.

I changed back into my civvies and was about to bid farewell to the crew when Anja, our communications director, came rushing in from the track office bearing a Telex.

"Urgent for you, Mal."

It read as follows:




It was nearly six-thirty now. I could make it to Paris in less than an hour, flying on the A13. But there would be traffic coming into the city.

I took a moment to will away the hazy torpor in my brain. Then I shouted my goodbyes, strode out to the parking lot, and got behind the wheel of my blood-red Cavallo Nero spider.

The trip to Paris was quick and uneventful. I roared down the left lane of the motorway with my headlights on and the speedometer hovering at well over 200 kilometres per hour. I reached the Porte Dauphine at a little past seven and that's when the trouble started: There was a long line inching up the exit ramp. The Avenue Foch was a little better but the Étoile was an inferno: crisscrossing rings of chaotic, clamorous traffic, scooters darting in and out, taxi drivers shouting at lorries, every horn ablare. I dared not glance at my watch as I sped down the Avenue des Champs Élysées, weaving between the other cars and burning lights. I tried to heighten my peripheral awareness, to become unconsciously aware of any looming hazard, any old lady crossing the street with her dog.

I zigzagged past the Place de la Concorde, nearly striking a cyclist, and raced along the Tuileries. When I saw that haunted-looking building to my left that signaled the beginning of the Louvre, I thought I'd make it. Honestly I did. A city bus emerged lazily from the Place du Carousel and I darted in behind it, into the square—regal, open like the sky—then under the opposite arch, up past the Opéra and finally off the boulevards and avenues and into the belly of Paris, real Paris, where the statues give way to the masses and the streets run red with wine.

It was mad: to get around a rubbish lorry I had to drive halfway on the sidewalk, past an elegantly dressed woman with her back against the wall. The workers derided me: "Sale con, eh!" "Enculé, va!" I nearly killed a man in a white suit walking across a little square who stared impassively as I swerved around him, tyres squealing.

Melanie was up there waiting for me, I thought. It gave me tremendous satisfaction to conquer each obstacle, great and small, that stood between us. My heart was aflutter now, not for the treachery of my journey but for the glory that surely awaited me at its end. What could be more romantic than to defy eternity to meet one's beloved for a quarter of an hour?

My ultimate travail arrived on the ancient cobblestones of Montmartre as the evening sun shone goldenly on the white façades. A gaggle of tourists, possibly Japanese. I waited, fuming, revving the engine in brusque bursts to vent my agony. Finally they'd all crossed the street. I drove around the basilica and screeched to a diagonal halt atop the hillock overlooking the crepuscular city. I knew she would emerge like Venus, in a diaphanous robe, radiant, her arms outstretched. Now. Now! Now?

My watch read seven thirty-two. The sun was setting and she wasn't there.

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.

On the morning of qualifying day I sat on the end of the hotel bed, joylessly chewing my toast and jam. Still the telephone was silent. I waited as long as I could before I had to dress and drive to the track.

She rang just as I tied my shoes.

"Mal darling, I only have a minute."

"Where are you? Berlin?"

"Yes. No—"

"No? Yes?"

"I'm in Berlin right now. On my way out the door to London."

"What for? A photo shoot? A premiere?"

"I'm going to see His Holiness."

"The Pope's in London?'

Melanie laughed. "Not the Pope, my poor, dear Malcolm. The Maharishi."

"Who on earth?"

"Maharishi Mahesh Yogi."

"I'm hearing gibberish right now, my love. Baby talk."

"He brings a message of unfathomable bliss to every man, woman and child on earth."

"Well then by all means."

"You should come see him with me, Mal. You of all people. His Holiness can open up your mind and see inside."

"Sounds rather dreadful, Mel."

"Are you ready to sacrifice what you are for what you may become?"

"Beg pardon?"

"That is the question."

"I saved Rodney Sutcliffe's life yesterday."

"Oh my God, Malcolm. Sweetie."

"He flew off the track and landed in a kitchen. I found him in bed with two nuns."

"Were they about to kill him?"

"He was soaking wet with petrol."

"Then what happened?"

"We lay him on the grass in the rain. The ambulance came."

"You need a new mantra. Guru can give you a mantra."

"You don't like my mantra? What's wrong with my mantra?"

"There is no right or wrong, my dear. You need new."

"I thought you were coming here, Mel."

"I am."



"In time to kiss me good luck?"

"In time to kiss you congratulations."

"I shall drive all the faster knowing such a moment is to come."

"I love you, Malcolm."

"I love you too."

I hung up and sprang to my feet, my once-heavy heart now buoyant. I sang to my reflection as I knotted my tie:

He's a real nowhere man,
Sitting in his nowhere land,
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

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.

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.

The Belgian tricolor falls. I get a jump on Checho. All I see is the bottom of the straight, Eau Rouge, the little twist lined with barriers, roiling crowds amassed against them; on the hill beyond it, a sign like a giant, squinting eye beholds the scene: Gulf.

I know Checho's there but I choose not to believe it. I sense there's nothing to my right. Zé has slotted in behind me, not taking any risks. Third gear now, the flags atop the pits now gone, and now's the dip, the nadir; I decide to get there first, to make it mine. I edge slightly to the left, almost ashamed of my audacity. And at once I perceive an awful presence: a wheel, racing madly; its trembling suspension; a green fuselage; a man inside—the entire entity consisting of an angry and indignant rebuke: Get back!

I cede the way to Checho at the corner and climb back up the hill behind him, both of us fishtailing as we hit the throttle.

I'm not losing ground. In fact I'm close enough to pressure Checho at the slower corners; not to pass—yet—but to harass, to worry him a bit.

It's a pleasure to be in this position. When cars are racing close the trailing driver has a certain power—an authority, even—over the leader, by virtue of what he might accomplish should his rival make the slightest error. The leader's naked, exposed, vulnerable. Blind. His pursuer is relaxed, happy. Hungry. What bliss it is to see up close the dark maw of the engine and the pair of pipes that frame the herky-jerky helmet of the laboring pilot. All of it inflames desire.

After a few laps I'm in his draft on the straights and I know it won't be long. I nose to either side of him going into corners, sniffing opportunity. He closes the door adroitly. Here the balance of power becomes more complex. If a quicker driver can't pass, he's a fool. I try not to become impatient, unnerved.

Then I come out of Blanchimont, a fast leftward bend, with exceptional pace. I must take advantage of it. I draw up on Checho to the left, up to his rear wheels, letting him believe I have the hubris to pass on the outside of the La Source hairpin. I wait for him to defend. I wait, and wait. And wait. Finally he drifts over a little and I duck back to the other side. As we approach the corner I have to believe the line belongs to me. I have to believe he won't turn in. I know I'll have to brake late, late, late. Keep it in shape. Most of all I must fill the track with my imagination. It's mine.

I'm a little more than halfway past the Hewitt-Clark when I get on the brakes. I feel the front end go loose right away—I'm skidding, swerving in this space I've arrogantly claimed. The wall of adverts at the end of the straight is fast approaching: Esso, Esso, Esso, Esso. Photographers. Gendarmes, staring dully at us as they do. I pump the pedal to avoid losing control completely. Little gasps of traction let me keep the line. I know I've got Checho beat as long as I can make this corner. I commit to it, a little bit too fast—too late to brake again; I'd skid into the hay. The back end loses traction now and I drift around the hairpin, giving quick bursts of throttle so I don't spin around. I don't care where Checho is; I can't care. On the other side now, I've got the front wheels in the right direction. I get back on the throttle all the way and the car shakes into shape. I fly down past the pits again, elated. P1.

About twenty laps into the race the fine mist that has lingered over the track all day grows heavy. It soon begins to rain at one extremity, the elevated, wooded section around Burnenville and Malmédy, whilst elsewhere it's dry. This phenonemon, unique to Spa, intensifies the impression one has of occupying the whimsical space of a dream.

You can't quite see where it's wet; you feel it under the car. You have to hold on tight, ride across until you hit a patch of dry on the other side. And then you're on the throttle, at the limit, angrily making up for lost time.

I come out of the sweeping right hander at Stavelot and perceive a spectral figure in my path, black robe-clad, gesticulating madly. Have we aroused some mythical being from his slumber? He bears a sign. He's not getting out of my way. I swerve a bit and he leans over; in a flash I see his contorted face leering at me as I pass. I check the rearview and see him shaking his fist at Checho.

On the following lap, though I'm petrified I'll see him again, I try hard not to lift. I come around the corner. There he is. Waving his sign. He encroaches upon my line just enough that I have to swerve again. My mouth is dry, my heart throbbing. What is that he's wearing? I know what it is. It's what a priest wears. It's a cassock. He's a priest. And his sign? I can read the first word only:


Lap after lap I brace myself for this close encounter, always missing the madman by a foot or two as he glares down at me, mouth agape. Each time I manage to read another word:







And the lap after I've read the last word, he is gone.

It's raining harder now. I chase the foggy haze around each corner, down each straight. It appears as though I soon will catch it.

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.