English [Road Ballad]
The curve is dangerous. This I recall perfectly well because it was like this years ago when they constructed it over a goat track. The road sign restricting the speed limit to forty kilometres per hour is not there as decoration but the show-off who's right behind me has chosen to disregard it. I don't even have to look in the rear vision mirror to know what he's like: the self-satisfied air, gripping the steering wheel with only one hand as if he had a surplus of experience and many flight hours notched up. And he’s only had his licence for four days.
It's sufficient to see the gleam in his eye to know what he's going to do next: not with any ill intention but simply for the pleasure of expressing his joy in being alive, he sounds his horn so I'll let him overtake. I can't take the slightest bit of notice because we're right in the middle of the curve. My reasonably well-recognised modesty that has me travelling in a small sedan makes him think he's got the right to tell me to get out of his way, even though it's impossible to let him pass right here, and I ask for a little resignation. "You'll just have to wait, sonny!"
I see that they want to take this road through another zone in order to avoid the accidents that wouldn't be so serious if everyone took the precaution of observing the speed limits on the signs. This fool behind me shouldn't get steamed up about having to slow down a bit to contemplate the tones of green that keep changing with the sunbeams now that the snows are melting at the height of spring. This landscape really moves me and, even though it's not really proper to say so, I do recognise that I feel great satisfaction in a job well done.
Today has a special luminosity. It's as if everything has scrubbed its face, as if somebody knew I'd be coming through here. The wind has swept everything clean and carried off the clouds. Everything is radiant, perfect for me: divine. The mountains stand out in the distance like a sea, worthy of a photograph in relief.
The scenery would be extraordinary if it weren't for these lunatics that can't appreciate what's under their nose. What’s it to me if I step on the accelerator a bit now and show this hothead that he'll never get near me unless I decide to slow down?
It wouldn't be right to set a bad example. What he has to do is learn not to test his luck: the road is difficult and there are plenty of signs. People never learn the lesson despite the bigger penalties, both in terms of fines and confiscated licences. They don't even get alarmed about the horrific statistics of accidents that are so bad that even I, if I weren't well inured to frights, would be breaking out in goose pimples.
Look, he's crept up even closer. With one hand he’s making all sorts of crude, vulgar gestures and there's a smirk on his face of outright disrespect. For him I'm gutless, just an old fossil. He doesn't see that I'm making an effort to protect him by sticking to the rules so he can't overtake. He’s grasped the wheel with both hands and is breathing down my neck so he couldn't avoid crashing into me if I had to brake sharply for some reason: a dog crossing the road, a cow slipping down the slope, another car that has to slow down …
He's old enough to know that he's playing with his life if he crosses the centre line now that we're leaving the curve. I remember the old story about free will and move aside so he can do what he wants because I also know there's no car coming in the opposite direction. I let him have his way and remain alert and neutral. I hear how he's making his tires squeal and divine the distance between us. He shoots past. I don't want him to get rattled so leave him plenty of space to manoeuvre. They'll tweak his ears soon enough when he breaks the law again.
I lose sight of him after the curve but one kilometre on I can't help having a bit of a giggle when I catch up with him again standing stiffly on the road outside his car explaining himself to the men on motorbikes who've stopped him and are now fining him because he's broken every rule in the book.
When he sees me go by, strictly respecting the speed limit they've rightly set for this part of the road, I see he's quite riled, watching me out of the corner of his eye and, if he could, he'd give me a piece of his mind because I didn't block his way, not even thinking, of course, that it was precisely him who had to decide. I take no notice of him, not even when he curses me for his bad luck … What drawer should we stow freedom in if, on the slightest pretext, all these people only want a doting father figure to protect and shelter them? I move away and am not really bothered. I hope the fine hasn't been too tough.
Now there's a straight stretch. I concentrate on the view. The dark blotches of the trees stand out over the fields that climb right up to the rocks from where icy waters dive precipitously down to the river that gleams like the scales on the fish that leap against the current.
NO! This just can't be. I’ve intuited him before seeing him reflected in the rear vision mirror. This one's a real nut case. He's heading for an open grave, coming up on me like a bolt of lightning at three times the speed limit. He doesn't know, or doesn't want to know, that we've already gone past the sign that says that two sharp bends are coming up and they can't be taken at this speed. I'd like to know if he's capable of changing his mind, of repenting and braking in time to save himself, but his arrogance knows no bounds. There's no hope. When he comes out of the curve, I see he's heading for the first bend with a horrific screeching of tyres: the car perilously flips out its back. He’s an expert driver but if he's going to get through the second bend, which he's going to have to face right now, only a miracle can save him and everyone knows that in this century we don't hold with miracles any more.
Thanks to this witless suicide driver, the rule-observing motorist unperturbedly coming along in the other direction doesn't escape unscathed either. Seeing how the other fellow's burning up ground, he's been forced off the road to his right as a last resort. But, if he avoids a head-on collision, he isn't spared climbing up the lateral hump on the mountain side, hitting a tree with one wheel, leaving the other spinning round and round half a metre from the ground.
The firebrand, the criminal, has now gone into the second of the two bends we were warned were coming up. There's no need for me to stop and help the other driver: he got off lightly so it can’t be said that the righteous always pay for the sins of the unrighteous, and I move on to the scene of the tragedy.
The deafening crash indicates that it’s really bad. I can't stop staring over the edge of the precipice. I see the car rolling down with a tragic scattering of pieces and accessories. A huge rock breaks the horrific descent and everything bursts into flames after the final explosion. Several vehicles have stopped next to me and somebody's already on the way down to see if anything can be done. I’m not going to be the one to deter him from this admirable and fruitless gesture, which confirms that not all is lost as the sceptics would have it.
Now there's a lad I know standing at my side. It's the offender from before, the one who, after making his act or contrition and accepting the fine, has gone on his way. Now he's contemplating the highest price that has to be paid for not observing the rules of the road. He clasps his head in his hands. He's about to burst into tears, maybe because he understands that if they hadn't stopped him, he'd be the one burning like a torch. He looks at me, recognises me and can't help exclaiming, "God in Heaven!"
Even though I'm travelling incognito I never like dodging the issue. I turn to him and sweetly ask, "What can I do for you?"
On the road
Translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark ©