Sport 15: white horse black dog
For weeks after the crash there were threatening phone calls.
She’s been prepared for a scar, the voice on the phone said. There will be a scar.
It was the boyfriend’s father making the calls.
That’s terrible, I said. I’m so sorry.
She hasn’t got her mood back, he said.
You caused her to have these headaches all the time, so she’s always in a bad mood. She’s foul now.
Once she was sweet, not a temper on her. Now she’s mad with everyone. She’s mad with my son because of what you did out there on that road.
Look yourself. I know where you live.
By this time I’d usually become silent. I should have put the phone down. Yet I couldn’t hang up on the boyfriend’s father—how many people did I want to hurt.
Are you listening to me? Imagine being her. Imagine a headache which is with you all day, every minute you have a headache. Can you imagine that? Even from the outside? It gets her in the left temple. I know who you are. She has to comb her hair down because of you.
You are responsible for this and I don’t hear any contrition in your voice. Do you have a feeling of contrition somewhere?
Don’t agree so quickly. Do you think these are just words.
I listened to him on four or five occasions, then my father started taking the calls.
Are you trying to threaten my son? said my father.
I’m not trying to kill him, said the boyfriend’s father.page 29
My son’s upset enough.
I’ve been pointing out his ways to him. Are you, by any chance, religious?
No, said my father, we’re Catholics.
I was once in a creative writing workshop when the teacher, Charlie Newman, suddenly told the student whose story we were discussing to get the characters out of the car. Get these people out of the fucking car! he said. The characters were a young couple, as best I can recall, driving down to Florida on vacation. It was going to be a long drive. They’d been in their car for about seven pages already and they hadn’t made it out of their own neighbourhood. Charlie Newman was actually a subtle teacher, a funny man with many miles of sentences under his belt, though occasionally he became exasperated enough to say things. This car is driving me fucking nuts, he said.
I had my car crash after drinking perhaps in inch, no, less than that— maybe half an inch, a splash. We’d taken Michael’s mother’s car out on Saturday night against her express orders. Michael said he felt nauseous from his new prescription glasses and couldn’t drive. Ian didn’t drive and neither of the girls had licenses. I remember everyone wandered around for a while after the crash. We talked to each other with our heads close together. Claire. Bridget. The police arrived and were startlingly kind. The lovely small of the police uniforms as murky rain began to fall on us. It was very intimate in those moments, although at first we just sat there—we’d side-swiped another car which had come out of a tunnel after I’d misjudged a Give Way sign—and wondered if we were alive. I looked down at my knee which had hit something, but it was fine, a little sore. Everyone was fine but we were dreaming of the beds in our parent’s houses. We’d suddenly become a lot younger. Babies. Michael’s mother had gone away for the weekend. Don’t use Rosemary, she told him. Rosemary was their nicely maintained old Wolseley. You mean there’s a car and keys sitting in your garage and your mother is away for forty-eight hours, Ian said. How will she ever ever know? I said. Next this big guy from the other car was coming around towards us, walking in the page 30 middle of the road, shouting, pointing at me and, for a moment, I thought I would have to run him over. They say I actually tried to start the engine again. You, he was saying. You.
Oh, no, said one of the girls in the backseat. Oh, go away.
You. With his finger. Then the guy must have heard something from his own car—his girlfriend moaning—because suddenly he hit his forehead with his hand and said: Oh, my God. He was running back to his car. I thought I’d killed his girlfriend with Michael’s mother’s car because of a pair of glasses and an inch or less. Michael has never got on with his mother. His mother’s sister, Aunt Betty, once said, on meeting me for the first time, Well, they both have nice faces.
My son has admitted fault, my father said. (I was listening in on the extension.) What’s the point in making him feel worse with these calls?
What’s the point? What’s the point of any pain?
The boyfriend’s father was beginning almost to enjoy these discussions with my father. Now, when I happened to answer the phone, he asked for my father.
Pain teaches you, he said. Pain instructs.
I agree with you, said my father.
It tests you, It’s put there for a reason.
You find out about people when real pain happens.
What they’re made of.
What’s behind them, said the boyfriend’s father.
I’m talking about faith. The strength of faith.
How’s the girl? said my father.
The girl in the accident.
Oh, said the boyfriend’s father. Devastated.
She’s being tested, said my father. Instructed.
Don’t use my own words against me, Ken.
You know, you’ve never said your name. Who am I speaking to? Andrew, said the boyfriend’s father. Andy.page 31
Walking home at night from parties or from friend’s places, I went through a period when I couldn’t resist trying the doors of cars parked on the empty streets. I was sick with car door handles, the interiors of other people’s cars. My cousin in Auckland was a great stealer of cars and pleasure craft. His father had died under anaesthetic while in hospital for a routine operation. My father was vastly alive a few streets away and I had no intention of stealing the cars I felt my way inside. I climbed into a Jaguar once. The smell of leather, that smell which seems almost like a taste, as if you’re sucking the seats. O Jaguar. The seats were like beds, the headrests pillows. The instruments on the dash set into the walnut like they were miniature trophies. I was inside a mobile hunting lodge— smouldering logs, heavy rugs. In the glovebox, which was as deep as a filing cabinet, silent as a cave, I found a big wad of keys. There were perhaps twenty-five keys, of all sizes, buttoned up in a leather pouch with a brass clip. I kept that pouch of Jaguar keys for years, until the leather grew chalky with mould. I must have had in that one wad the keys to several homes and several holiday homes and to businesses and lock-ups and private areas—drawers, secret chests. I was always keeping keys. They were the coins of my adolescence—great rings of hope.
For some time after the crash, as a passenger in cars, I carried around with me a stupid and self-regarding fatalism. I was satisfied not to be driving. I had an awful and false smugness. Let this other person have the accident. At least it won’t be me that kills us or someone else. I’m in the clear.
Priests drive smallish cars, never saloons or wagons. Non-family cars. I could never imagine trying the handle of a priest’s car if I came across one at night. They drive automatics mostly—widower’s cars—because the gear lever is a business. Priest’s cars are garaged cars—not because they believe in caring for the cars but because church properties have large garages. They can’t hear engines, priests. They’d go up hills in fourth and never know. They forget about the petrol. They can’t read temperatures, and dials. They can’t read smoke. They don’t know where the full-beam switch is kept. Priests are hopeless parkers. They’ll drive around for ages, page 32 unmindful of the petrol, looking for a park they can drive straight into. A priest will hit you three times, front and rear, trying to get out of a straight park. They have no vision. They’re talking drivers, busy, late-planners, last-minute deciders. I’ve seen priests pull out into a line of traffic without looking—they think the traffic will part for them. At the time of the crash I had a little job servicing the parish car fleet—three widower’s cars. I didn’t know anything about cars except oil and water. My father got me the job. I checked the oil and water every third day. I drove the cars to the garage to fill them with petrol. I had the windscreens cleaned while I waited. I took the cars to get the dings hammered out, the paintwork retouched. And I drove the old priest, Father Liddell, who was suffering from, among other things, glaucoma, to and from his weekend appointments. He wasn’t kindly. He was taciturn and testy and old and he forgot things. He ached—not just in his eyes. Father Liddell winced with every movement he made. He was a pained shadow of something once formidable. I drove him to doctors. Sometimes he was rude to me. He found out I didn’t attend a Catholic school. My father didn’t trust the Brothers. Father Liddell often mistook me for other people.
Wild, wild boy, he said to me from the back of the car. Wild, ungrateful Archie.
In cars, despite the appearance of speed, life tends to stop. Children know this. No child enjoys a trip of longer than two hours. They know the true motion of their lives has been arrested. The enclosure which has trapped them grows hateful. Its stillness makes them enraged. Here, outside the moving car, thinks the child, is another view which I can do nothing in. This is the real nature of car-sickness. It’s also of course what Charlie Newman was saying about the car-story. He wanted the windows down, the doors open, air, escape. Some natural velocity. Or incident, happening. Crash this fucking car, he said. I don’t care how you do it. Just get them out of there.
Ken, said the boyfriend’s father, I want to ask your advice.
Very well, Andy, said my father.
Wait. Is there someone else on the line?page 33
Is there? said my father.
Yes, I said.
It’s my son, Andy.
The one I threatened?
Yes, I said.
How long ago was that accident? Four, five weeks?
Eight and a half, I said.
Really? said Andy.
Yes, I said.
Time heals, said my father.
She left him, said Andy. The girl in the car that night. The one who got hurt. She’s gone.
Oh, no, I said.
Packed her bags.
Oh, I said.
But you didn’t cause it, said Andy. Ken, your son didn’t cause that to happen.
No, said my father.
They were on the rocks. You were just the last big wave that came along.
I’m glad, I said.
She had nothing behind her. Nothing to draw from.
She was revealed then, said my father. Your son found out about her.
He didn’t find out a thing. He’s never found out anything in his life. Andy cleared his throat. Did I really threaten your son, Ken?
A little, Andy. Yes.
Boy. Thing is that scar wasn’t even a scar in the end. One day it just dropped off.
We’re relieved, said my father.
Andy’s throat made the noise again. Sorry, he coughed.
What’s that? said my father.
I was just apologising to your son, Ken.
We appreciate it, Andy.
I’m still not good at admitting my faults.page 34
Maybe if we, you and me, Andy, said my father, can now be left in peace.
I hung up the phone.
They talked about religion for almost an hour. Andy was a convert. My father got few opportunities to speak.
He said once: But we must be allowed temptation, Andy. Temptation is not the problem itself. If we’re allowed it, then we can resist it. It’s the resistance that—
Later on he got to say: That’s the Holy Ghost’s role though, isn’t it.
My father said not to tell the priests about the accident. It would only bring complications. I drove Father Liddell about as usual. I’m going to injure or probably kill you, Father, I thought. We’re going to have an accident any day. Will that meanness really be your last act? I hoped that when it happened, Father Liddell would have just done me some unexpected kindness, some surprising good. With that ancient, unforgiving spiritual head behind me, my fatalism was in full flight. I was chauffeur to a holy ghost. We drove to the orthopaedic specialist. The parking was difficult around the consulting rooms. It started to rain. A storm. There was always a painfully slow walk of several hundred metres to the specialist’s rooms. At first the weather made it more likely that we’d have our accident. Then, when we failed in that, the downpour made it more likely that Father Liddell would be very sour towards me. He hated the wet. He forgot he was a priest and he forgot who I was. Fuck it, Archie, he said as we tottered through a whipped-up puddle. He started to turn around. I had his tiny arm in my hand, all coat. This way, Father, I said, trying to ease him back on course. But he had a strength. He turned us both around and we began to move back towards the car. The specialist’s rooms were in a nice old converted villa which was set back from the road and drowned in big trees. These trees spread to the street. They arched over the footpath, making a dank canopy for us. Leaves fell with the rain. The rain was so heavy it sparked silver against the road. Father Liddell’s front foot skidded out a little and I held him more tightly. Let me be, he hissed. Let go of me! I’m older than you. He jerked his arm away and set off without me. I stood under the trees and watched page 35 him. Bent over, he moved in a shaky diagonal across the footpath, towards the wrong car. In the afternoon dark the car had its lights on, the engine was running. Father Liddell put out a hand towards it. Perhaps he just wanted to rest. I watched it all in that quick slow-motion familiar to me from the car crash I had not told the priests about. My life had become a series of partially concealed quick slow-motion episodes. I caused things to happen at a disastrous, unnatural speed. Father, I said. Father! He was turning slowly to face me, some terrible utterance on his lips. The car pulled away and Father Liddell fell. He did not fall to his knees first, then crumple neatly, then fold. He fell like a building, with the same astonishing and complete diminishment. There was suddenly less of him on the ground than had been in the air.
On the way home Father Liddell sat quietly in the back of the car. He hated me even more now. His coat, his trousers, his hair, the side of his face—all bore the imprint of the slick, treacherous footpath. He wouldn’t let me do anything to help him, clean him. He waved his hand in front of him. Drive on, drive on.
The rain was threatening to flood the road. Traffic moved along slowly through the dark water. Blocked drains spilled little rivers down the road. We cruised through a deep wash and I pulled over.
Suddenly Father Liddell spoke: What are you doing?
I’m pumping the brakes, Father, I said.
I can hear you, he said. Why? Why are we stopped here?
I pumped some more. I put the car in Drive and let it go forward a little, then I stepped hard on the brakes.
What are you doing now? said Father Liddell.
I repeated the manoeuvre.
You’re not Archie, he said.
No, Father, I said.
I put on the indicator.
What are you doing with me? he said. Father Liddell sounded frightened. All of us, I thought, are locked in our worlds. What are you going to do with me? he said.
I turned on the demister to clear the back window of Father Liddell’s rapid breath and I no longer considered the possibility of an accident. page 36 The general state of emergency around us, the caution and courtesy, seemed to be making us safe.
Bless me, Father, I began, for I have sinned.
Stop that, said Father Liddell.
It has been three months since my last—
Stop this car. Do you hear me! I want to get out now. Pull over. Let me out. I don’t feel well. Stop the car.
I pulled over.
Okay, Father, we’re stopped. I’m sorry.
We sat in silence for several moments. Father Liddell was staring straight ahead, past me and out through the windshield. Who knows what he was seeing? Was the glaucoma a little like trying to look through this windshield, through these waves of water.
Finally he said, Why aren’t we moving? Why aren’t we going somewhere? Don’t be naughty, Archie. Don’t be wicked, bubba.
I have no idea where Rosemary, the Wolseley, is, or where Claire, Bridget, Ian or Michael are now. We do not know if the boyfriend is a boyfriend still or who the father now calls for advice. The last thing I heard from the writing workshop was Charlie Newman had been unfairly removed from his teaching position, but that for breaking the conditions of his tenure, the university had to pay him off handsomely. Amen.