I was wearing a white linen skirt especially washed and ironed by Emilia. The Desmirails were standing on top of their steepish drive debating with the man who did the donkey-work what car I'd better learn on. Philippe thought La Sarah, it was small and light and easy to turn. La Sarah turned out to be the black beetle, Philippe had not made her himself, at least not originally, nor was Sarah a whimsy name but an authentic make of car long defunct, which Philippe said had been underrated --- and I guessed discontinued --- in the 1890s. It didn't have a self-starter, the cranking handle was a trifle obstinate, so I'd better begin by starting her in her accustomed way. They told me what to do. Loosen the handbrake, give her a good push, be ready to leap in as soon as she begins rolling downhill, shove into second gear, ignition on...

The donkey-man made a demonstration. It worked.

La Sarah was got back into place, engine switched off again. My turn.

What I had not minded, in my various eagernesses, was that the car had been losing oil. There was a sizeable black pool on the drive. I gave my push, gathered for the leap into the car, put a foot into the oil, slipped, fell and lay floundering on my back in a greasy pool while La Sarah was rolling down the hill. Philippe retrieved her in one bound. To get me up took more time. For one thing the three of them were standing about laughing to split their sides. "She's a clown," they cried, "un cloon" That's how the French pronounce it.

Eventually they pulled me up. I will not go into how I was cleaned and re-clothed --- one does not improvise hot water in a rented villa in the summer in the South of France, and although I was young and thin, I was not thin enough to get into anything of Oriane's.

When it was over, they decided that I had better learn on the Citroën, not the big one, Oriane's and the newest in the stable, but on the 4-Chevaux. The 4-HP was a little three-seater with a back like a canoe. It was smaller than the present and sophisticated 2-Chevaux. It had once been painted grey, boasted a strip of running-board, and again there was no self-starter. This was just as well, as, when doing your test then, you were required to be able to start your car by hand.

Well, I learned to drive on that 4-Chevaux Citroën and I still hold it in affection. I was well taught by the donkey-man --- a tough little chap by name of Baluzet, with meridional speech and gestures that came straight out of Marcel Pagnol --- passed the test, practical and oral, which was quite a stiff one, and got my permis de conduire, as Oriane had ordained, in a couple of weeks. I still have it and I still use it --- French driving licences are valid for ever --- a pink square of cardboard much the worse for wear. The photograph was last changed --- at the Préfecture du Var --- in 1949.

My mother wrote a thank-you letter to Madame Desmirail.

All the same it was not quite the introduction to Philippe and Oriane that I could have wished. Cloon is who cloon is seen. The Desmirails had a penchant for the comic contretemps; it was their addiction to Chaplin and Buster Keaton that made them turn up at that cinematograph. They are reviving my moment of floundering in motor oil dressed in white linen to this day, it stereotyped some of my subsequent relations with them.

I'm not a banana-skin type. I regard myself as fairly handy in many practical domains of living, in the context that is of other friends and places --- with the Desmirails I can't escape recess into cloondom as expected. I once fell off the quietest horse ambling quietly on a Sunday morning with Philippe in the heart of the Touraine; there was the incident of the backwards running electric meter on a journey with them in Portugal; quite recently I bumped down, a length of their staircase smashing with me a whole tray of breakfast china.

--- From Jigsaw
Sybille Bedford
©1999, Counterpoint
* * *

Go to a review of Jigsaw.

* * *

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up