The middle of a hot endless summer, driving on the A39 through an as always empty central France, which exudes as always a certain Seventies timelessness. The anxiety of being in a Ballard novel, the feeling of a certain narrative disconnectedness, that anything could happen or not, at the stroke of a pen. And that whether something happens or not is somehow equally as disastrous an outcome. But not knowing who or what the subject of this disaster would be, if anyone or anything.
This is what shrinks call free floating anxiety, I guess.
Poulet De Bresse…
Passing unseen towns, picnic areas, petrol stations and auto-grills, crawling along at 100 miles an hour, the faster you go the slower it all gets, chastened by the knowledge that a slight jerk to the right or left would speed everything up again and end your life in a chaos of twisted steel, spilled petrol and screaming children. The promise of an almost sci-fi shift in motion, a quantum leap, an ion drive surge tugs at the edges of this mundane driving reality. Wildly fraying threads spastically unspooling at the edges of perception.
The death defying habits of the open road…
Hands alternately sweating, slipping on the wheel, followed by air-con clamminess, never finding the right balance of temperature to stop this yawing between discomforts; eyes lingering too long on the climate controls, fiddling with them, changing the flow, exasperated turning the A/C off and cracking the window open. Sweating feet in Birkenstocks; damn their eyes a more prosaic way to die I couldn’t think of than this continual loss on concentration on the road due to adjusting dials and vents. More dialling through French radio stations, one French song one American song, the bipolarity of taste and rhythm leaving you in the purgatory of always changing stations:Melodie, Nostalgie, Virgin, Classique, Energie.
Pulling in to a Croq’Malin forecourt concession for lunch, leaving the car behind, clicking to itself in the heat. Feet squelching towards the services, as we swamp the self service restaurant, devouring the ersatz gastronomy from whatever region we are currently in. A vague notion of identity predicated on cuisine, memories of cherished recipes and hand-crafted artisan foods. All of these re-represented along the self-service counters, dispelling any fear of the land of hunger.
And don’t forget the tokens for the coffee machine, or you will have to rejoin the queue or brave the displeasure of your fellow diners by hovering by the check-out, apologetically alternating gestures between the coffee machine, the check-out person and the till, where you imagine the tokens are dispensed from.
Phew. Back on the road…
Lorries and caravans slide by through the treacle on your right hand side, a few feet yet thankfully a parallel universe away. A hand-turn away, a jerk on the wheel to the right, the everyday power that’s in your hands: ‘the hand that signed the paper fell’d the city’ type of power. What I’m getting at I suppose is a heightened sense of contingency, that one thing depends on another, and that certain things have to be just so for other things to be as they are. And that everything can change just like that, or that you think you can make things stay as they are by an effort of will.
Hot gusts of wind, blustery siroccos channelled by miles of super-heated tarmac and concrete; heat secreted by everything, amplified, bounced between structures, surfaces distorting the flow of air, sculpting vortices and random spikes of temperature, tunnels of hot air magnified, concentrated by bridges and autoroutes, fly-overs, bypasses and industrial suburbias, advertising hoardings and signage, neon, paint, metallic surfaces and deserted forecourts populated by ranks of as yet unsold shiny new cars and vans.
Heat and air shaped as if on a potter’s wheel.
A woman stands on the outside of the railings on a bridge over the motorway. She is barefoot, her shoes and trainers sit side by side next to her. The hot wind buffets her, her red hair flies in front of her face and her hand comes up to tuck the loose strands back behind her ear. She leans into the wind over the tarmac below, scanning the road for an oncoming lorry. I see all this as I pass under the bridge at ninety miles per hour; I register it in less than three seconds. Seventy-five frames of information, of story, recorded on a French motorway at the end of our summer holidays.
My wife saw the same thing, the kids saw nothing. I started to say ‘did you see that..’ but got as far as ‘did you’ when my wife’s shaking head cut me off. We didn’t talk about it properly until late the same night back in London: an unsatisfactory conversation, a strange end of holiday conversation, awkwardly passing over in silence what should be talked about.
A pair of trainers, Adidas laces flickering in the wind.
Three stripes and the candle goes out…
The next day I googled ‘suicide autoroute France’ and found nothing.
If she took a dive off the bridge, which would in reality not be a dive as such, but just a drop, much faster, over and done, some ‘beautiful dive into eternity’ or whatever, timed right to fall under the wheels of an oncoming lorry, what the fuck would have happened next? Would the driver just plough on? Or screech to a halt, parallel black wobbly rubber smears veering off the road like a lazy eye, adrenalin-jump down from his cab into the searing heat and look back to see precisely what? Cars swerving to avoid what was left of the girl, swerving onto the hard shoulder and into the driver, crushing him in his moment of surprise or grief, and on and on, until – at what point would everything set in motion by this dive, this falling, come to a rest? When would it all stop and what would it look like?
The last frame of this sequence. Paint it for me. What would it look like?
Could this chain of events really be endless, achieve an endlessness of motion, a pile up of the whole of humanity, at least the part of it that throws itself down autoroutes every summer? We seem to be back in a Ballard story.
I have a fantasy or a memory of 9/11, of a guy standing with his back to a blazing room high up in one of the towers, taking a laconic last drag on his cigarette before flicking it nonchalantly, fuck you nonchalantly, into the abyss, before following it with nothing more than a simple foot forward. I think I made this up. Or was told it was footage from a Mexican news crew that was banned so no-one saw it. Go on and YouTube ‘man cigarette 9/11’, or ‘cool guy 9/11 cigarette’, or ‘Mexican news footage, guy 9/1, cigarette, last drag, flicked stub’, whatever. I will, to see whether I did make it up or discover that I share this fantasy with somebody else, in the community of narrative fantasy that populates the internet.
Maybe a Platonic web search using the words ‘last cigarette’ would immediately hit this lost and imaginary footage, link us to this ‘Bonny and Clyde’ moment, the greatest cigarette commercial ever, featuring the Marlboro man and his nonchalant last flick.
But my girl was on the bridge, I did see her, but she just googled blank.
Most likely she jumped, got run over, and the lorry/car/van managed to pull up without further impact, and the cars behind just kept going, a few passenger-seat twisted heads and back-seat faces pressed up to the glass as the drivers kept going, always forward, onward into their very own next chapters and not stopping to witness somebody’s last. So cars flash past as the lorry driver stumbles about on the hard-shoulder just staring at what’s left of her, gagging, dialling the police on his mobile, cars now nimbly avoiding the mess. Perhaps somebody else does stop and asks the driver if he’s alright, a conversation screamed by the side of the road, or the driver just sits in his cab blasting air-con as everything burns outside, on the other side of the glass. His sweat drying almost as soon as it perspires, repeating the circuit between car and body, waiting for the police to turn up and sort it out, not wanting to see what had happened, horns blaring smearing up and out, back to front, in shock horror as cars go by outside accusing him in some way, so that he takes refuge behind the glass of his cab. The windshield itself could have been cracked if the girl’s timing had placed her momentarily on the windscreen of the lorry, or bouncing from the bonnet into the windscreen, a flying visit too brief to leave any other sign than that of impact, the body tossed aside in the space of a second, a rag doll discarded, the driver squeezing the wheel in automatic response not to swerve and crash, just ploughing straight on until he recovers his bearings, not swerving but losing control in an attempt to avoid something that has already happened, like so many drivers who kill themselves and their families for the sake of a rabbit or a deer.
How hair blowing in your face can be annoying; you reach up to clear it away, put it back in place, so that you can see what you are doing. A great adrenalin rush as you lean into the wind, away from the railings, anchored only by your fingertips. Hot metal sticking to pads of flesh. A sense of freedom, freedom from the heat, the stifling provincial heat, toes curl cool and dry released from their sticky trainers, hair as you know, blowing about, you do this every day wondering what the people in the cars below think you are doing and who you are, how terrible if one of them lost control of their caravan, car or lorry just because they were looking up at you wondering if you were going to throw yourself off and instead they crashed and killed themselves and their kids and you lean sharply back in, hiding from view, vault back across the railings and creep in dread to the other side of the bridge to see what you had done.
Now that was the real thrill. To find out if you had become a murderer.
‘…The so called ‘Siren of the Motorways’ is suspected of causing the deaths of 15 people across central France. Appearing to jump to her death from overpasses and bridges she draws the eye of those passing below. Sightings have been reported from across the country…’
The rush of emotion and energy that leads to the bridge, to the parapet, the edge, is the same that keeps my eye on the road and my hand on the wheel. We are all vessels for this flow and containment of feeling, urges, the fluctuating will to live or to die. Imagine a pyramid of empty champagne glasses in a ballroom or a casino. The waiter pours a magnum of champagne which cascades from the apex glass down into all the others, spilling, bubbling, vomiting over each successive glass; that’s us, we are like those glasses in a pyramid, the girl on the bridge somewhere near the top maybe, unable to contain her juices, and me, the rest of us, somewhere lower down where the flow is less intense and the containment more manageable, the spillage more pragmatic. It takes a lot of us to keep the others, the few, up. To support the apex.
Heading back into the village she doesn’t look back, the sound of cars recedes almost too quickly, depositing her back in the vast empty world of rural France. Time to pick her kid up from her grandmother’s house. Nobody ever notices me, she thinks, nobody looks up, I might as well jump for all anybody cares. A stupid way to insert yourself in the world; a clumsy intervention, but how else to enter the stream, how else? Ten minutes later the child’s hand reaches out for hers and won’t let go all the way home, and she realises that for the child she is the stream – how stupid and selfish she is – and she won’t go anywhere near that damn bridge again, but had better learn how to swim all by herself, in order someday to teach the child ways to survive in this land of endless hunger.