Fiction | Scene by Declan O’Driscoll


Declan O’Driscoll


There’s one scene in particular that I recall. A woman who looks to be in her 30s gets into a car. She has long auburn hair that would, if the car was moving at a reasonable speed, blow out of an open window. Or would it? Maybe I’m thinking of a convertible, with the hair blowing out behind her and, assuming the day was sunny, she would have sunglasses on. Perhaps that would be too much of a cliché. But that doesn’t seem to bother most film directors unless it’s someone like Godard. But this wasn’t one of his films and anyway, he might accentuate the cliché. This one worked in a sequential way that would be of no interest to him. One thing following on another. Who was the director? I’m mumbling through the alphabet but no, I can’t remember. Anyhow, she has a very nice house, this woman. Not very big, but with a lovely asymmetrical coherence to the shape of the house. Mustard yellow paint on the outside walls, duck-egg blue on the shutters. There is a yard in front with a tree and a small area of lawn with perennials around the edge. The car is not parked in the yard because there isn’t enough room. To facilitate the car she would have to get the tree cut down because it’s a weeping ash with branches dangling down towards the ground and taking up a width of about four meters. The tree is too old for this woman to have planted it so the decision to position it there must have been taken by some previous owner of the house – deceased now perhaps – who may not have considered the eventual height of the tree when they planted it there. But it looks very graceful and this woman who, we have established from earlier scenes in the film, considers everything with seriousness and sensitivity would not want to cut down the tree solely for the sake of a parking space. Thus, the car is on the street outside the house.

Once the woman is sitting in the car she turns the key, thinking nothing of the motion, assuming that the car will simply shudder into life. But it doesn’t. So, with a slightly puzzled look on her face, she turns the key again. Not a kick. Now she starts to look a little annoyed and tries again. Nothing. She gives the gearstick a jiggle, shifts her position in the seat and looks in the rearview mirror. It is no surprise to anyone, including I presume the woman herself, that these movements achieve no positive result. None of this would be important if we the viewers did not know, based on information gleaned from an earlier scene in which the woman spoke to a female friend on the phone – a conversation which had to be terminated when the woman we are watching now looked at her watch – that the reason for the woman being in the car and the cause of her now increasing exasperation, is that she has to collect her daughter from the school she attends.

Not much time has elapsed since the first attempt to get the car to start, a result the woman had every reason to expect. Cars are bought on the reasonable assumption that they will perform in the way required of them which is that they will allow one or more people to traverse a distance in far less time and with far less effort than would be the case if the person or persons had to make the journey on foot. Violette is probably unconcerned. Oh yes, that’s her daughter’s name and the woman is called Joelle, so perhaps I should use it from now on. Anyhow, Violette would, we must surmise, not even register a slight delay if only the car would start now. But it obviously isn’t about to start and so Joelle begins to display greater concern about her position. She is now out of the car, looking at it. I imagine myself in the same position and know how useless I would feel, knowing nothing of the workings of a combustion engine. The street is quiet. It would appear that she lives in a residential area with little in the way of passing traffic. A dog barks in the distance, as they always do. The street is in a suburb inhabited by reasonably well-off people who take two-week holidays each year and enjoy eating out. There is a cafe somewhere nearby, at the corner of an intersection, tables and chairs outside and two low steps up to the small premises. Inside a man of late middle-age reads a book because, in between the three busy periods of the day, his cafe is often empty. Looking at him now you would never guess that in his youth he had spent many hours in Moineau’s on Rue de Four drinking and arguing with Jean-Michel Mension, Michele Bernstein, Guy Debord and the rest of that tribe. Such stories he could tell, if only you would ask. If only you knew. But for now, all is quiet. Of course in the film, we never see this man or his cafe.

What we do see is Joelle’s car parked behind another car and several metres further along, a pile of sand and a cement mixer. There is no sound coming from the cement mixer – no whistling or singing or talking or laughing – so it is not clear whether any builders are at work nearby. They must have been hired by one of Joelle’s neighbours to undertake some repair work or perhaps, to build an extension at the rear of their house. It is clear to the viewers now that the woman is becoming anxious and is looking around in an agitated manner for anyone who might be of help. She glances again at her watch. She could go back inside and phone for a taxi or perhaps there is a friend who would be both willing and able to collect Violette. Perhaps the woman to whom she spoke earlier. But does she live nearby or in another city? In the countryside perhaps? In a beautiful house in the somnolent quiet of a remote region of France, married to a man who hunts for truffles among the majestic old oak trees of the nearby forest. She has written a series of history books about the aftermath of the French revolution. For research – when beginning one of her books – she must spend long periods of time in Paris, requesting books at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris and hoping to find details that have gone unnoticed by previous historians for her books which have proven to be controversial to those who hold to the view that, for all the violence and death that the revolution brought, it was a necessary break with the most oppressive and undemocratic era of the countries long history. If this is so, then, unless she is in Paris now, she can be of no help and even if she is in Paris, she may not have a car. Is there then some other friend or, perhaps, a relative that might help. Does she have a partner? So far, we have only seen mother and daughter together with no reference to any other occupant of the house. Perhaps Joelle is a single mother with few friends. What then are her options?

A question comes to mind. Is the school a long distance from the house? Might it be within reasonable walking distance? Might this unfortunate occurrence result in a complete reconsideration of the daily routine so that henceforth Joelle and Violette would walk to and from school – weather permitting – resulting in both mother and daughter being both fitter and healthier and a saving on money that would otherwise have been spent on petrol? Perhaps they could have a coffee and pastry – just once a week – at that cafe, knowing that they deserved it because of the benefits that accrue from this new routine.

We never find out about the distance because journeys in films are always truncated. All we ever see is a car leaving one location, then a flurry of in-car conversation leading to the car being parked in another location with no clear idea of how long it took to make the journey. Mind you, it’s even worse when a long scene is set inside a car. It is always so unconvincing with the driver moving the steering wheel so much that they would appear to be avoiding a series of small animals strewn along the imaginary road; not to mention the amount of time they spend looking at the person beside them or, in old films, the ridiculous back-projection of a passing scene. It is in any case rare for such a scene to last for the full duration of a journey – even in a so-called ‘road movie’ – given that any truly necessary journey must surely last at least fifteen minutes.

At a certain moment, as Joelle considers her options, we suddenly hear children’s excited voices. We don’t ever see the children, but we assume that they belong to children who are now safely home from school. Perhaps they have returned from a nearby playschool, not a distant, second-level school. If the school was very close, Joelle would surely have taken the decision to walk there, instead of which we find her still looking about in a manner which now seems increasingly frustrated. A quick despairing look to left and right, then into the car for one last try. The car has not changed its mind. Cars, I know, do not have minds, but at times like this, it is difficult to avoid giving them human characteristics. If, for example, you have ever had a car for ten years or more it is quite a wrench to part with it and leave it behind in a garage while you drive off with a younger model. Yes. it’s difficult to avoid the human parallels. Silly no doubt, but you’ve done a lot together, been to many places, endured many kilometres in each other’s company and yes – while you never found out about the internal workings – it did seem like a faithful old friend, always agreeably ready for another trek along the road.

Joelle’s car doesn’t look new and perhaps she feels some affection for it. Or at least she used to because, at this moment, having tried and failed again to combust the engine (is that what happens?) she feels that the human trait most evident in this car is indifference. There’s stubbornness there too. It is deliberately defying her by refusing to start.

She stands outside the car again and gives one more look along the street only to find that it is still unpeopled. It is, in fact, enveloped in a lovely mid-afternoon stillness now which, on any other day, she would appreciate and enjoy. On a less stressful day, she might pause before sitting into the car to let the sun heat the skin on her face and bare arms. She would pause to luxuriate in the scent of her warmed skin and to notice, as she would, the way that the only sounds to be heard arrive from a distance and that she is enveloped in a corona of stillness. Today, unfortunately, she has to concentrate on her dilemma. She is about to re-enter her home when a man in overalls walks into the frame. His overalls are blue, but a blue that has been covered with a great deal of cement dust, so we assume that he is working in the neighbour’s house and that he has come out with the intention of starting up the cement mixer, thus bringing the enveloping silence to an end. He notices the woman’s exasperated expression and, because she is quite attractive, he is pleased to have a reason to speak with her. He asks if something is amiss. Joelle’s face relaxes. She is relieved to be able to relate the details of her difficulty. Now we learn a little more about Violette as Joelle tells the man a story that seems designed to ensure that he will not hesitate to help her to start the car. Always assuming, of course, that the problem can be easily fixed and will not require the aid of a mechanic and a rescue truck. That eventuality would give the children further down the street a little spectacle: a car being towed at a peculiar angle with only its rear wheels on the road as it is brought to a garage in which there hangs, on a rusting nail, a calendar on which, for this month, there is a photo of a woman wearing only the lower half of a bikini, emerging from the sea and holding, for some inexplicable reason, a steering wheel.

The building worker will surely help, having heard that not only will Violette be worried at the failure of her mother to arrive at the school, but that she will also be unable to walk very far after an incident on a basketball court which led to her twisting her ankle, resulting in much pain, the use of crutches etc. He seems to be a man who lives with no major concerns, free of the angst so common among those who live in his country. With an expression of regret that he is no mechanic he assures Joelle that he will have a look under the bonnet if she will release the catch. She does so and then jumps out of the car again to emphasise the urgency of the situation. He checks leads, the spark plug etc. and eventually finds one lead that has become disconnected. (Is this convincing? I’ve no idea.) After replacing it he asks Joelle to turn the key again. This she does and this time, to her immense relief, the car starts without hesitation. It’s a well-behaved car again. She is so pleased that when the man puts his head through the window to smile and assure her that he was happy to be of help, she gives his rough, several-days-unshaven face a kiss. She moves away from the parked position, understandably keen to get to the school as quickly as possible, waves at the man who now stands – a broad smile on his face – beside the cement mixer. A quick edit brings us to a location outside the school where Violette – one arm resting on a crutch and her schoolbag positioned at her feet – is waiting.


Declan O’Driscoll regularly reviews translated fiction for The Irish Times. He has also written reviews for the TLS, Dublin Review of Books and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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