Auberge La Petit Pussy
We drive through France in a 1972 Mercedes bus at 80 km an hour in the bitter cold. We started near Spain and are close to Belgium now. You can tell from the houses, suddenly everything has gotten slightly more uptight, a little more quaint and stuffy. The French landscape is more savage, more free.
Every part of the three day journey back to the land of neatness and bridges has its own strangeness. Yesterday we parked for petrol and all the nice people looked at us as if we had just arrived from the gates of hell. Between our outlaw vehicle and Frank’s vagabond clothes we look like members of a cult who set fire to things. Little children chewing milk buns stare at us, mesmerised by our oddness. Husbands in beige chino’s herd wives and children into their Audis and nervously drive away. I’m the front man, the one most acceptable to society’s standards of exterior decency. One glance at Frank’s unkempt silver afro gives me away though. I come from that Baader-Meinhof-style mess and can’t shake off the smell of anarchy. All my trouble is due to this. I’m an apple lying under a tree wondering how much further she could have fallen if only there had been a very minor gust of wind at the right time.
I try so very hard not to think of you as we drive through darkness. He cannot stop talking and I’m sick of hearing about political history. While the droning voice goes on about feudalism I have images of our Friday afternoons in my mind. I hear the way you sound in my head, helpless for a few seconds before you shower and rush back into your clothes. I squash the thought of you with the weight of my soul and everything it carries. I sit on the stubborn desire to be near you. As I do this a large truck approaches. It has to stop, I cannot keep thinking of you, it’s too sexy, too intimate sitting here next to smelly Frank. I berate myself and command myself to stop. A few seconds later your name passes by spelled out in bright lights. I see your name on the highway in front of me with all God’s irony. “David”. It’s written boldly in the lights on the front of a truck. I am doomed to think of you, even the truckers want me to. You are everywhere: behind my eyelids, inside my ears. I can even feel your hands holding my body upright.
If only I could be an American seeing these places as the miniature history theme parks they really are. Looking with those big fresh eyes and feeling my sporty shoes squeak in my step. I will go back to England where there is not even embarrassment over it. The hearts there swell with pride over old pubs and brown buildings, actually proud to be half dead. If I were a big American with white teeth, no past and a fast future I would not be breathing the stifling dust of Europe so deep into my lungs. If I could be a bit more like you David with your New World grin, just dipping in for fun, no awareness at all of the crumbling bridges under your feet.
We drive on and on and are overtaken by an incredible cold. The heating is broken so we drive until we are shaking so much it that we can’t continue without a hot drink and blankets. We have some old horse blankets but need to stop to find them. The first place we stop is some kind of trucker restaurant. Frank gets a phone call from his girlfriend and I go in. I’m not sure I understand their relationship but he is happy with her so I try not to question it. I only see him once a year, so I don’t feel it’s really my business.
The atmosphere in the trucker restaurant is very strange, there is a scary distorted hillbilly thing going on. I ask myself if I will get raped in this place but my bladder wins the argument. I go in and make sure to lock the door and keep my foot pushed against it while I pee. It’s really dirty and there are black lights to prevent people from shooting up. Unlike the French toilets from my childhood there is a real toilet, no squatting. When I come out the barmaid is no longer behind the bar. Three members of staff are singing karaoke while lorry drivers with fat faces and Christmas jumpers bang their forks on the little tables they are sitting at. Some have their napkins are folded into their jumpers like bibs. It’s jolly in an ominous way. They are like giant hungry toddlers, unaware of even the concept of decorum. I notice one trucker with an elongated face standing by the bar wearing a long string of pearls, what is this place?! I wait nervously as a girl very, very slowly makes coffee. Her movements jar like an out of time dancer. Happy alcoholics smile at me as if I’m a pork chop. This place is so foreboding and cheerfully morose that whether or not I will be caught here forever in this time warp with these deranged people seems a legitimate and rational question to ask. I think of Rainer Fassbinder, he would have been proud of this setting were he still alive.
The girl behind the bar is finally finished when a group of young men dressed in leather jackets walk in. They look as if they have not been in a shop or had a haircut since the early 90s. Gypsies? Maybe. Their presence does not reassure me. I pay and everybody smiles at me with their freakshow air. When I’ve left, Frank notices it’s called “Chateaux Gaillard” and amuses himself with my story. It takes some self control not to tell him to hit the gas and rush away from there. But I know he is flammable, easily panicked, so we joke and laugh about it.
The next place we see is called “Auberge La Petit Pussy”. I feel trapped in a Freudian, Twin Peaks-style dream voyage. Escaping “Chateaux Gaillard” did nothing because it’s atmosphere has seeped into everything. I’m beginning to think that maybe I really do belong in this gutter dimension. Doomed to frighten and excite rather than to blend and be absorbed into places where pancakes are made in clean kitchens, where sheets are crisp and heatings work.
The frost is getting to me. I’m so terribly cold but it never crosses his mind to be normal and provide comfort. A night at a hotel would be a waste of money and pandering to something bourgeois. I don’t bring it up because I don’t want to know what we are not pandering to exactly. He has started talking about diesel tanks and I’m relieved. All this talk about motors and crap is incredibly boring but very welcome now, anything to not have to hear Frank say the word “pussy” again. I ask to try the heater one more time and after some fiddling it finally turns on. For the rest of the journey it blows ice cold air into our faces but refuses to be turned off. Who knew that there was a place beyond broken so much worse than just broken? We sit with our legs wrapped in the brown horse blankets like bandits in a slow-motion getaway car. We are chased by an invisible ghost that runs at whatever speed we are going.
Laurie Schram was born in The Netherlands but has spent most of her professional life living and working in London. She is a Royal College of Art graduate, works as a fine artist, and writes about about her experiences. More of her work can be found at www.laurieschram.com.