SnapBy Steve Sparshott
December 03, 2009
“Let’s climb that hill” isn’t something that anyone ever really says – unless it’s some kind of figurative hill – but I’m pretty sure Tom said those exact words. It was that sort of day. Any sophistication we possessed had dissolved into last night’s booze and evaporated in the day’s heat. I didn’t think of it that way, because back then I was living a life, I didn’t have the time or inclination to test the safe working loads of creaking metaphors, I just, like, did stuff. We all did. It was cool.
We’d all slept strewn about the floor of someone’s flat on the Brighton seafront, slowly awakening to a picture postcard day. Rachel and I were up and about first, sipping coffee and talking quietly, as much for our own benefit as everyone else’s. Eventually the others began to move and make breakfast noises, and we staggered down to a greasy spoon up an alley somewhere, where we demolished the best full English ever. Of course every full English is the best full English ever, as you only go for a fry-up if you’re hung over, ravenous, or both. It’s functional food, where quantity matters more than quality, and I get to disgust everyone by ordering extra black pudding.
Martin, Karl and I went to get our cars out of hock, dying inside slightly as we paid the overnight fee at a carpark under one of the swish Regency squares butting up against the seafront road.
If you don’t know what a Citroën 2CV is, it’s the Tin Snail, the Upside-Down Pram, a magnificently agricultural piece of French engineering which barely changed throughout its forty-two years of production. Roger Moore had a yellow one in View to a Kill, Richard Dreyfuss drove one in American Graffiti, the same powdery grey-blue as mine. A 600cc opposed-twin engine (smaller than my first motorbike’s), comically boingy suspension with about two feet of travel at each corner, gearstick poking out of the middle of the dash operated with a slide-and twist motion like a broken trombone, air conditioning courtesy of a wide flap that hinges open below the windscreen (“Steve!” said my friend Bharat, “That’s outside, man!), a roll-back roof and heating that seems to work by diverting the exhaust into the cabin.
If you think of it as a car, it’s terrible, but if you think of it as a means of transport, untouchable.
The ignition barrel was bust on mine so I had to fiddle with the wires every time I wanted to go anywhere. I enjoyed the absurdity of rummaging under the dash and the spit of sparks as I hotwired one of the least theft-worthy cars on the planet. I never used to lock it; if I was ever stupid enough to leave something in there, I’d have preferred the tealeaf to just open the door and help himself rather than inflicting any damage. In the early days, before the barrel broke, I once left the keys in. Someone took the car, put fifty miles on the clock and brought it back, parking a few places further up the road. No thank you note though, thieving bastard.
So mine was the blue-grey one, Karl’s was a Beachcomber, white with a blue wave along the side, and Martin’s was a Charleston, a rather baroque maroon-and-black number. The three mighty engines thundered into life and we rocketed out of the carpark in tight formation. Faster than a tall building!
Back at the flat we picked up the others and with only the vaguest of shouted plans we headed inland, tackling the climbs, drops and twists of the South Downs. Local Karl lead the way with Sarah passengering, Martin, Tom and Chris followed and I had the honour of driving Rachel and Louise. We whirred along with the sardine tin roof peeled back, in the absence of a radio the girls sang, the sun shone and I felt pretty smug.
Our ultimate destination was a pub, one of those middle-of-nowhere places that’s rammed full every weekend. The garden was wide and sloped down to the base of a hill. We lolled on a verge. As a designated driver, feeling fairly compos although probably still over the legal limit, I refused the hair of the dog and had a pint of Coke. Bubbles bubbled and ice cubes rattled about, jostling a huge chunk of lemon. There was no hedge, fence, stream or any kind of boundary between the beer garden and the hill, the lawn sloped down then abruptly angled upwards, a clear run to the top. We looked at it.
“Let’s climb that hill,” said Tom, and jumped up and started running down the garden. Chris and Martin were close behind, while the rest of us continued lolling, watching as their run slowed to a hands-on-knees slog towards the peak. Greatly to their credit, when they got there they jumped up and down and waved at us. We waved back, the last pearl of an ice cube melted on my tongue, and everything stopped.
This wasn’t my usual crew, they were friends from university and friends-of-friends who all had a bit of spare time in the early summer. We had these same stupid cars but we weren’t there for any petrolhead fun, we were The Slow and the Curious. This wasn’t a Don Simpson experience, there were no helicopters and the coke didn’t come in lines served on hookers’ silicone breasts, it had a capital C and ice and a slice. We were not on a boat. Not my best friends, nothing extreme or even greatly out of the ordinary, just a sunny day, some fools leaping about on a hill and that last melt of ice. It was perfect. Just right, just then, and I knew it. How often does that happen?
Nobody had a camera. Remember when cameras weren’t telephones? You held them up to your face and looked into them, and that click was the sound of real mechanical movement, as the curtains were flicked aside and a sensitive pane that had spent all its life in darkness was suddenly exposed to the outside world, and changed forever.
That was well romantic, wasn’t it? Anyway, nobody had a camera, so now I’m pressing the shutter, taking a Polaroid of a scene from fifteen years ago. Clunk, whir. Shake it, baby!
I usually write about darker matter, principally my disability and its origins, and I make an effort to keep things tight and pared down. In this case, though, I wrote it the way we lived it – casually, with no real destination in mind. So I’ve let myself ramble a bit and only made small edits, straining a few lumps out of the mixture (and, as you can see, leaving in the occasional laboured metaphor). This was fun to write. I hope it’s fun to read.
This photo from Flickr user CitroenAZU is perfect. I’ve asked if I can use it, but for now, there it is. And here’s a short video – watch it to the end.
“If you think of it as a car, it’s terrible, but if you think of it as a means of transport, untouchable.”
Great line. So true.
I’ve always said that. I mean, it’s the most Godawful “car” ever – even legends like the Trabant can’t touch it. It’s best not to think of it as a car at all.
LOVE your description of a Citroen! (Don’t know where the umlaut is on my keyboard.)
I actually copied and pasted it from somewhere, but you can install a neat selection of symbols in your (Mac) dashboard with this: http://doubleforte.net/widgets/symbol-caddy/
Makes me feel like wandering to the university today and just strolling about. I might do that. Thanks for your snapshot.
Sounds good! Don’t forget to wear clothes. My old campus was demolished a couple of years ago, not much to see now.
A nicely evocative piece.
Thank you; I tried to convey how it felt rather than particular details.
It’s funny how these little, unplanned moments of just random wandering can be some of the best of our lives. I’m with Nick; this puts me in the mood to head back to my old university and just wander about.
No one may have had a camera, but you’ve used to words to paint a damn fine portrait. Kudos to you, sir.
Thanks, Matt! Unplanned, unexpected days are always the best. I reckon the Polaroid comparison’s about right, you get that instant nostalgia effect.
You captured a moment in time with such grace.
I’ve always wondered what those cars were. They’re so cool. I am now serene and educated.
Thank you. It was strange to be aware of it as it happened.
I have always fancied having a Citroen. The closest I got was a Peugeot. Oh how I loved her.. Thanks for reminding me.
Peugeots are proper cars. They’re currently competing with Mercedes to see who can pollute Europe’s roads with the ugliest range of four-wheeled monstrosities.
Great piece, Steve…even though the time when cameras and phones were not the same seems to have faded from my memory.
Any car driven by James Bond can’t be all bad, right?
Although that phone on the cover of TK wouldn’t even have had a colour display…I really enjoyed your podcast with D.R. Haney.
I really liked how you executed this, the casual nature of it. No urgency, just the kind of story you want to share with a friend over a pint. Maybe a burger, too.
Loved your description of the Citroen. I want to drive one now. Awesome.
It’s an experience! See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MME0MGne7ng
This was great! Sounds like a perfect day, and well told.
This line made me laugh out loud: “…and we rocketed out of the carpark in tight formation. Faster than a tall building!”
Reminds me of an old ’68 VW Bug I used to drive, also heated by exhaust fumes and air conditioned by hinged window flaps.
Some of my friends had Bugs (Beetles as we call ’em); rock solid. Although when I borrowed one on a wet day I made the mistake of driving it 2CV style, foot to the floor at all times. That, and the rear engine and drive, caused loads of foolish fishtailing just driving down to the shops.
Fantastic! Oh, what a beautiful day. I knew I would like this one when I read the line “I just, like, did stuff. We all did. It was cool.” I wish everyone were always that genuine, you know? Wish we didn’t always think so hard about everything. But here I go, thinking hard. Anyway, fantastic piece.
This weekend away happened between the end of our major projects (industrial design course) and the degree show, so we were utterly carefree; just doing stuff.
Hello everyone. Thanks for all your comments; compared to any of you I’m fairly new to writing, and it’s really encouraging to get positive feedback, especially when I’m experimenting a bit as I am here.
I’ll reply to individual comments this evening but for now I have to go somewhere called “Out-side”.
Shake it like a polaroid picture!
I love that you hotwired your own car.
I always took great pleasure in it, and tried to look as shifty as possible.
Oh MAYN. Just got hospitalised again, when I’d rather be replying to comments. Well I would have gone to hospital, but the ambulance took four hours to arrive (Friday night), enough time for me to get worse, then better, so I stayed at home. Now I’m exhausted. Stomach ulcers: Not recommended.