CRASH (Chapter 23)
GLASS aeroplanes climbed into the sky above the airport. Through the brittle air I watched the traffic move along the motorway. The memories of the beautiful vehicles I had seen soaring down the concrete lanes transformed these once-oppressive jams and tail-backs into an endless illuminated queue, patiently waiting for some invisible slip road into the sky. From the balcony of my apartment I gazed across the landscape below, trying to find this paradisial incline, a mile-wide gradient supported on the shoulders of two archangelic figures, on to which all the traffic in the world might flow.
In these strange days, as I recovered from my acid trip and my near-death afterwards, I remained at home with Catherine. Sitting here, my hands in a familiar grip on the arms of the chair, I watched the metallized plain below for any sip of Vaughan. The traffic moved sluggishly along the crowded concrete lanes, the roofs of the vehicles forming a continuous carapace of polished cellulose. The after-effects of the LSD had left me in a state of almost disturbing calm. I felt detached from my own body, as if my musculature were suspended a few millimetres from the armature of bones, the two joined together only by the few wound points which had been alerted when I flexed my legs and arms during the acid trip. For days afterwards segments of the experience returned intact, and I would see the cars on the motorway wearing their coronation armour, soaring along the causeways on wings of fire. The pedestrians in the streets below wore their suits of lights, as if I were a solitary visitor in a city of matadors. Catherine would move behind me like some electric nymph, a devotional creature guarding my gestures of excitement with her calm presence.
At less happy moments the sluggish delirium and queasy perspectives of the grey overpass would return, the damp hypogeum at whose mouth I had seen the thousands of flies festering on the instrument panel of the car, on Vaughan's buttocks as he lay back watching me with his trousers around his knees. Terrified by these brief re-enactments, I held Catherine's hands as she pressed my shoulders, trying to convince myself that I was sitting with her by a sealed window in my own apartment. Often I asked her what period of the year it was. The light changes within my retina moved the seasons without warning.
One morning, when Catherine had left me alone to take her last flying lesson, I saw her aircraft above the motorway, a glass dragonfly carried by the sun. It seemed to hang motionlessly over my head, the propellor rotating slowly like a toy aircraft's. The light poured from its wings in a ceaseless fountain.
Below her, the cars soaring along the motorway marked on the plain of the landscape all the possible trajectories of her flight, laying down the blueprints of our coming passage through heaven, the transits of a technology with wings. I thought of Vaughan, covered with flies like a resurrected corpse, watching me with a mixture of irony and affection. I knew that Vaughan could never really die in a car-crash, but would in some way be re-born through those twisted radiator grilles and cascading windshield glass. I thought of the scarred white skin over his abdomen, the heavy pubic hair that started on the upper slopes of his thighs, his tacky navel and unsavoury armpits, his crude handling of women and automobiles, and his submissive tenderness towards myself. Even as I had placed my penis in his rectum Vaughan had known he would try to kill me, in a final display of his casual love for me.
Catherine's car sat in the drive below the bedroom window. The paintwork along the left-hand side had been marked in some minor collision.
'Your car - ?' I held her shoulders. 'Are you all right?'
She leaned against me, as if memorializing the image of this collision into our body pressures. She took off her flying jacket. Both of us had now made our separate love to Vaughan.
'I wasn't driving - I'd left the car in the parking lot at the airport.' She reached out and held my elbows in her hands. 'Could it have been deliberate?'
'One of your suitors?'
'One of my suitors.'
She must have been frightened by this meaningless assault on the car, but she watched me examine it with a calm gaze. I felt the abrasions on the left-hand door and body panels, and explored with my hand the deep trench that ran the full length of the car from the crushed taillight to the front headlamp. The imprint of the other car's heavy front bumper was clearly marked on the rear wheel guard, the unmistakable signature of Vaughan's Lincoln. I felt the curved groove, as clear as the rounded cleft between Vaughan's hard buttocks, as well-formed as the tight annulus of his anus which I could still feel on my penis during my erections.
Had Vaughan deliberately followed Catherine, striking her parked car in a first gesture of courtship? I looked at her pale skin and firm body, thinking of Vaughan's car hurtling towards me among the concrete pillars of the overpass. Like Seagrave, I would have died in an acid death-out.
I opened the passenger door, beckoning Catherine into the seat.
'Let me drive - the light is clear now.'
'Your hands. Are you ready yet?'
'Catherine - ' I took her arm. 'I need to drive again before it all goes.'
She held her bare arms across her breasts, and peered into the interior of her car, as if searching for the flies which I had described to her.
I wanted to show her to Vaughan.
I started the engine and turned out of the courtyard. As I accelerated, the perspectives of the street swerved around me, leaning away from me as if streamlining themselves. Near the supermarket, a young woman in a plastic coat glowed with cerise light as she crossed the road. The motion of the car, its attitude and geometry, had undergone a marked transformation, as if they had been purged of all accretions of the familiar and sentimental. The surrounding street furniture, the shop-fronts and passers-by were illuminated by the motion of the car, the intensity of the light they emitted regulated by the passage of the vehicle I was driving. At the traffic lights I looked across the seat at Catherine. She sat with one hand on the window-sill. The colours of her face and arms revealed themselves in their clearest and richest forms, as if each blood cell and pigment granule, the cartileges of her face, were real for the first time, assembled by the movement of this car. The skin of her cheeks, the indicator signs guiding us on to the motorway, the cars parked on the roof of the supermarket, were clarified and defined, as if some immense deluge had at last receded, leaving everything isolated for the first time, like the features of a lunar landscape, a still-life arranged by a demolition squad.
We drove southwards along the motorway.
'The traffic - where is everyone?' I realized that the three lanes were almost deserted. 'They've all gone away.'
'I'd like to go back - James!'
'Not yet - it's only beginning…'
I thought of this image of an empty city, with an abandoned technology left to its own devices, as we drove down the access road where Vaughan had tried to kill me a few days earlier. In the waste lot beyond the damaged palisade the group of abandoned cars lay in the blanched light. I drove past the scarred concrete abutment towards the dark cavern of the overpass, where Vaughan and I had embraced each other among the concrete pillars, listening to the traffic drumming overhead. Catherine gazed up at the cathedral-like vaults of the overpass, like a succession of empty submarine pens. I stopped the car and turned towards her. Without thinking, I took up the posture in which I had sodomized Vaughan. I looked down at my own thighs and abdomen, visualizing Vaughan's buttocks lifted high against my hips, remembering the tacky texture of his anus. By some paradox, this sex act between us had been devoid of all sexuality.
All that afternoon we drove along the expressways. The endless highway systems along which we moved contained the formulas for an infinity of sexual bliss. I watched the cars leaving the flyover. Each of them carried on its roof a piece of the sun.
'Are you looking for Vaughan?' Catherine asked.
'In a manner of speaking.'
'You're no longer frightened of him.'
'He's going to kill himself.'
'I knew that after Seagrave died.'
I watched her staring at the traffic sweeping down the flyover towards us as we waited on a slip road below Western Avenue. I wanted Vaughan to see her. Thinking of the long dents that scarred the side of Catherine's car, I wanted to expose them to Vaughan, encouraging him to take Catherine again.
At a concourse filling station we saw Vera Seagrave talking to a girl at the pumps. I turned into the forecourt. Vera's strong-hipped body, with its hard-working breasts and buttocks, was dressed in a heavy leather jacket, as if she were about to leave on an Antarctic expedition.
At first she failed to recognize me. Her firm eyes cut across me to Catherine's elegant figure, as if suspicious of her cross-legged posture in the open cockpit of the sports car with its lacerated bodywork.
'Are you leaving?' I pointed to the suitcases in the rear seat of Vera's car. 'I'm trying to find Vaughan.'
Vera finished her questioning of the girl attendant, completing some arrangement for the boarding of her small son. Still staring at Catherine, she stepped into her car.
'He's following his film actress. The police are after him - an American serviceman was killed on the Northolt overpass.'
I put my hand on the windshield, but she switched on the windshield wipers, almost cutting the knuckle of my wrist.
Explaining everything, she said: 'I was with him in the car.'
Before I could stop her she had moved towards the exit and turned into the fast evening traffic.
Catherine telephoned me from her office the next morning to say that Vaughan had followed her to the airport. As she spoke in her calm tones I carried the telephone to the window. Watching the cars edge along the motorway, I felt my penis stiffening. Somewhere below me, among those thousands of vehicles, Vaughan was waiting at an intersection.
'He's probably looking for me,' I told her.
'I've seen him twice - this morning he was waiting for me in the entrance to the car-park.'
'What did you say?'
'Nothing. I'll get in touch with the police.'
Talking to her, I found myself slipping into the same erotic reverie in which I sometimes used to question Catherine about the flight instructor she lunched with, drawing one detail after another about some small amorous encounter, a brief act of intercourse. I visualized Vaughan waiting for her at quiet intersections, following her through car-washes and traffic detours, moving ever closer to an intense erotic junction. The drab streets were illuminated by the passage of their bodies during this exquisitely prolonged mating ritual.
Unable to stay any longer in the apartment while this courtship was taking place, I drove my car to the airport. From the roof of the multi-storey car-park next to the airfreight building I waited for Vaughan to appear.
As I expected, Vaughan was waiting for Catherine at the junction of Western Avenue and the flyover. He made no attempt to conceal himself from either of us, pushing his heavy car bluntly into the passing traffic stream. Apparently uninterested in Catherine or myself, Vaughan lay against his door sill, almost asleep at the wheel as he surged forward when the lights changed. His left hand drummed across the rim of the steering wheel, as if reading the road's braille in its rapid tremors. Following these rippling contours inside his head, he swerved the Lincoln to and fro across the road surface. His heavy face was fixed in a rigid mask, his scarred cheeks clamped rigidly around his mouth. He cut in and out of the traffic lanes, surging ahead in the fast lane until he was abreast of Catherine and then sliding back behind her, allowing other cars to cut between them and then taking up a watchful position in the slow lane. He began to mimic Catherine's driving, her trim shoulders and high chin, her incessant use of the brake pedal. Their harmonized brakelights moved down the expressway like the dialogue of a long-married couple.
I sped along behind them, flashing my headlamps at any cars in my way. We reached the ramp of the flyover. As Catherine climbed the ramp, forced to slow down behind a line of fuel tankers, Vaughan accelerated sharply, turning left at the junction. I raced after him, winding through the roundabouts and intersections which the flyover spanned. We jumped a set of traffic lights as the airport traffic closed towards us. Somewhere over our heads Catherine moved along the open deck of the flyover.
Vaughan cut through the afternoon traffic, throwing on his brakes at the last moment, rolling his car on to its off-side wheels as he circled the roundabouts at speed. A hundred yards behind him, I raced down the straight towards the descent ramp. Vaughan stopped at the junction, waiting as the fuel tankers thundered past. As Catherine's small sports car appeared he surged forward.
Swerving after him, I waited for Vaughan to collide with Catherine. His car moved forward across the marker lines on a collision course. But at the last moment he pulled away, fading across the traffic stream behind her. He lost himself beyond the roundabout on the northward carriageway. Watching him, as I struggled to catch up with Catherine, I had a last glimpse of a battered front fender, cracked headlamps flashing at a bullish truckdriver.
Half an hour later, in the basement garage of my apartment house, I felt with my hand the imprint of Vaughan's car in the body panels of Catherine's sports car, the rehearsal-marks of a death.
These rehearsals for a union between Vaughan and Catherine continued during the following days. Twice Vera Seagrave telephoned me to ask if I had seen Vaughan, but I insisted that I had not left the apartment. She told me that the police had removed Vaughan's photographs and equipment from the dark-room at her house. Astonishingly, they seemed unable to catch Vaughan.
Catherine never referred to Vaughan's pursuit of her. Between us we now maintained an ironic calm, the same stylized affection we showed to each other at parties whenever she or I was openly taking another lover. Did she understand Vaughan's real motives? At the time, even I failed to realize that she was merely a stand-in during an elaborate rehearsal for another and far more important death.
Day by day Vaughan followed Catherine around the expressways and airport perimeter roads, sometimes waiting for her in the damp cul-de-sac adjacent to our drive, at other times appearing like a spectre in the high-speed lane of the overpass, his battered car tilted over on its near-side springs. I watched him waiting for her at various intersections, clearly testing in his mind the possibilities of different accident modes: headon collisions, side-impacts, rear-end collisions, roll-over. During this time I felt a gathering euphoria, the surrender to an inevitable logic that I had once resisted, as if I were watching my own daughter in the early stages of a burgeoning love affair.
Often I would stand on the grass verge of the embankment by the western descent ramp of the flyover, knowing that this was Vaughan's favourite zone, and watch him lunge forward after Catherine as she swept by in the evening rush hour.
Vaughan's car was becoming increasingly battered. The right-hand fender and doors were marked with impact points scored deep into the metal, a rusting fretwork that turned more and more white, as if revealing a skeleton below. Waiting behind him in a traffic jam on the Northolt expressway, I saw that two of the rear windows had been broken.
Further damage continued. A body panel detached itself from the off-side rear wheel housing and the front bumper hung from the chassis pinion, its rusting lower curvature touching the ground as Vaughan cornered.
Hidden behind his dusty windshield, Vaughan sat hunched over his steering wheel as he travelled at speed along the motorway, unaware of his car's dents and impacts, like the self-inflicted wounds of a distressed child.
Still uncertain whether Vaughan would try to crash his car into Catherine's, I made no attempt to warn her. Her death would be a model of my care for all the victims of air-crashes and natural disasters. As I lay beside Catherine at night, my hands modelling her breasts, I visualized her body in contact with various points of the Lincoln's interior, rehearsing for Vaughan the postures she might assume. Aware of this coming collision, Catherine had entered an entranced room within her mind. Passively, she allowed me to move her limbs into the positions of unexplored sex acts.
As Catherine slept, a battered car moved below us along the deserted avenue. The total stillness of the streets below made the entire city seem deserted. In that brief lull before dawn when no aircraft took off from the airport the only sound we could hear was the kicking exhaust box of Vaughan's car. From the kitchen window I saw Vaughan's grey face, leaning against the cracked quarter window, marked by a deep weal that crossed his forehead like a bright leather band. For a moment I felt that all the aircraft he had watched rising from the airport had now left. After Catherine and I had gone he would be finally alone, marauding the empty city in his derelict car.
Uncertain whether to wake Catherine, I waited for half an hour, and then dressed and went down to the forecourt. Vaughan's car was parked under the trees in the avenue. The dawn light shone bleakly on the dusty paintwork. The seats were covered with oil and grime, and in the rear the remnants of a torn tartan blanket lay across a greasy pillow. I guessed from the broken bottles and food cans on the floor that Vaughan had been living in the car for several days. In an evident burst of anger he had slashed at the instrument panel, bludgeoning several of the dials and the upper lip of the binnacle. Torn plastic housings and chrome strips hung over the light toggles.
The ignition keys hung from the switch. I looked up and down the avenue, trying to see if Vaughan were waiting behind one of the trees. I walked around the car, and pushed the broken body panels into place with my hand. As I worked, the front off-side tyre slowly flattened itself to the ground.
Catherine came down and watched me. We walked through the clearing light to the entrance. As we crossed the gravel a car's engine roared in the garage. A polished silver car, which I recognized immediately as my own, hurtled up the ramp towards us. Catherine cried out, tripping over her feet, but before I could take her arm the car had swerved around us and plunged through the sliding gravel into the street. Through the dawn air its engine sounded a cry of pain.
excerpt from the book: CRASH by J.G. Ballard
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