One of the good things about being on a house-swap is you get to drive someone else’s car. This is good for a number of reasons but especially because it reassures me. I find that despite what the present Mrs Collins says, I’m not the only one who eats food in the car and lets little bits, crumbs and broken crisps particles and the odd M and M fall down into that little gulley between the driver’s seat and the gear-stick, to lie there for months on end. I’m also not the only one who regularly cleans the outside of his windscreen but leaves the inside because it’s harder to do, until a light, scummy surface develops and you don’t notice it until you reach forward one day to give the inside of the windscreen a wipe with the back of your hand and find your knuckles come back smudged grey.
Driving my counterpart’s car has also taught me quite a bit about French drivers. Unlike the Italians who are only marginally less mad than several million bushes, French drivers are generally courteous. They don’t cut you off, they don’t tail-gate you, they don’t nip in and grab the parking space you were waiting for several minutes to occupy. They’re a decent driving people but they do have one irritating habit. They horn-fart.
It happens at traffic-lights. If you’re in front of them and you don’t get out of there quicker than a greyhond with electrodes attached to its genitals, they start horn-farting. This involves using the horn in a high-pitched, staccato way. Think of a fat man breaking wind in a I-wish-I-hadn’t-had-those-beans manner. Not so much mmmbaaaaaaaaaaaaamp or even paaarp-paaarp-paaaaaaarrrrrrp as peerrmp-peeerrmp-peerrmp-peeerrmp-peeerrmp-peeerrmp-peeerrmp-peerrrmp. If you’re not too upset and find time to glance in your rear mirror, you’ll see the horn-farter lifting both hands off the wheel to give you an Arsene-Wenger throwing-invisible-balls-in-the-air shrug before going back to his flatulent horn.
But it was yesterday afternoon that I had my most absorbing encounter with a French driver. The sun was shining with its usual four-o’clock intensity and I was sitting at the traffic lights near where we’re staying. The light was red and I was half-musing over how clever it was of the French to put a small light half-way up the traffic-light stem so you don’t have to twist your neck to peer up to see if the signal has changed, and how smooth the surface of even their minor roads are compared to ours, and how a big ice-cream cone might be nice later, maybe vanille et chocolat. Then next thing I'm aware that a car – a small black muscular-looking car – has emerged from a side-street near the lights. It is crossing the road slowly, as though the driver might be going to nudge gently into the side of my vehicle. But he doesn’t. Instead he points the nose of his car at a space I have left between me and the concrete base on which the traffic-light is planted. Having pointed, he is now driving slowly but relentlessly towards that small space.
I am frozen, speechless. He’s going to bash into my front wheel and we’ll both be immobilized and here for hours. He’s going to horribly scrape my front bumper and he won’t have insurance and it’ll cost a fortune. He’s going to…
But he doesn’t. He drives the two right-hand-side wheels of his car up onto the concrete base on which the traffic lights are mounted, so for some five seconds his car is at an angle of about 35% degrees. Then as he levels out and pauses for the next stage, I see him up-close.
If I say he looked like Theo Walcott’s very tough older brother, it’ll probably be misleading. He was tough-looking, true, but in an assured, relaxed way. As our gazes met this breacher-of-every-highway-code-ever-invented raised his eyebrows two millimeters and his chin four.
I wouldn't have thought it possible for so much non-verbal information to be conveyed with so little effort. The tiny movement of the features and head said ‘That was a particularly tight space I’ve just manoeuvred through – thanks for leaving it, friend’. At the same time, with no malice it was saying ‘Hey, you sit there like a stunned sheep staring at a red light if you want to, grandpa, but there ain’t a chance in hell I’m gonna. I’m Theo Walcott’s tough older brother and I got things to do and places to be, so screw rules and screw traffic lights and screw you too, grandpa, if you think I’m going to sit around obeying any mother-obscenitying highway code'.
And then he was gone, roaring across the space, through red lights, past other stationary drivers gawking at him, off up a hill and into the hot early evening. Seconds later the air was filled with the sound of breaking wind - peerp-peeeerp-peeerp-peeerp – as the law-abiding drivers tried to cope with the fact that a wild free spirit had just shown them how you could if you liked flaunt authority, how you could if you liked live life with a calm contempt for rules, and how you could if you were young and tough go roaring off towards pleasure, leaving horn-farters and old foreign grandpas glued to rules and regulations at a traffic intersection.
I’ve been trying to reproduce that chin-and-eyebrows movement in the mirror since, but I don’t think I’ll ever get it.