I close my eyes and return to Paris, Easter holidays, 1961. Algérie-française, Algérie-algérienne, the car horns tweet in the street as we drive the boulevards of a city divided. This is all new to me, a seventeen year old student in Paris to learn about French culture. My friends in the car have heard the tooting before and join in the fun. Algérie-française the driver toots.
Turning a corner, flattened and blackened, still flaming against a fire-burned tree, the metal skeleton of a Deux Chevaux, a ‘tin of sardines’, bears witness to the car bomb that has laid its occupants low.
* * *
Hitching the highway, from Paris to Chartres, thumb stuck out to catch the wind, a purple Citroen stopped and offered me a lift. I trusted the car: a Citroen, like Simonet’s famous detective Maigret used to drive.
When the car stopped and the door opened, I got in and saw that the driver wore black leather gloves. His hand movements on the steering wheel were stiff and clumsy and he made exaggerated gestures when he changed gear.
“No hands,” he explained. “Lost them in Algeria. Listen: I used to be the driver for a top General. I drove him out of an ambush once. I lost my hands later, when the car exploded, caught in a crossfire. They teach you things in the Army. I can still drive.”
He accelerated and threw the car at four times the speed limit through the S bend that snaked through a small group of houses. I bounced from side to side, held back by no seat belt.
“You see,” he said. “They train you to do this before they let you drive. Ambush. The sniper at the corner. The Molotov Cocktail. You must always be prepared.”
I closed my eyes and returned to Paris.
Collateral damage: the young girl with her photo in the Figaro next day, scarred for life; her mother, legs blown off, lying in the gutter in a pool of purple blood.
“Maman, maman,” the young girl cried. But her mother was never going to reply.
The Pom-pom-pompiers arrived in their fire trucks, sirens screaming. The ambulances screeched to a halt. The young girl cried. The mother bled out her life-blood in silence. Her blood turned purple and black as it flowed through the gutter.
Parisians emerged from dark doorways and stood there, bearing silent witness. Evening draped itself over the Paris skyline. The sky darkened and became one with the purple of the car bomb’s angry flame. Purple bruises marked my arm where I had gripped myself with my own fingers. An indigo angel squatted above the faubourg street, with shadowed wings, brooding.
* * *
I opened my eyes.
We left the village in our wake, travelling five times faster than the speed limit.
“They trained me for this,” the driver said. “I am prepared for anything.”
He stopped the car by the cathedral in Chartres. I thanked him and got out. He offered me his hand and I shook it. Inside the glove, the hand was hard and metallic. Alcohol sweated out through the purple veins that stained his nose and flowed in abundance over his sun-tanned face.