You walk up the hill from the carpark towards the cathedral, you and all of the others emerging from all corners into the square. You’re all arriving in fits and starts, two here, three there, and you feel alone arriving by yourself until you see them in the cafe, until they see you, until she walks across to hug you. The hug last forever, because neither of you want to be the one to end it: if you end it, maybe it will be real. Maybe you will actually be here for the funeral.
It ends, because it has to, and neither of you thinks you ended it, and neither of you mentions it, because that way no one need wear the blame, because like most things after all these years it can go unsaid. And then you talk, or maybe she does, and it doesn’t matter either way because, after that heinous weekend all that matters is you’re together, you and everyone, to think and reflect and deflect all of the detritus that has fallen on your all since that day.
But you’re all early, too early, and you have to stand around and wait for the sign to turn and enter the cathedral, you have to wait for what seems like an eternity, you and everyone slathered in black under the last of the summer’s sun, absorbing the steaming heat without comment because it seems the least you can do, all things considered.
It’s not until the sun starts to drop behind the buildings encircling the cathedral that people begin to walk towards their places inside, family on that side, drivers and officials on this: you lead some of the younger ones across, the ones who were in the same racing programme and who didn’t know where to look, and you meet a few of the older ones, the ones who you used to work with, the ones who are men now but still look as stunned as the boys behind us.
Hello, you say to them, willing yourself not to say how are you, because you already know. Hello, they reply, how are… they start, choking on the words before completion, the PR training from the big paddock, and from us before that, shutting down a questionable quote regardless of the audience. You all walk around to the south entrance in silence, knowingly, until you get to the big door and there are some other drivers milling around, trying not to say the wrong thing, trying to absorb a little comfort by proximity with each other.
Misery loves company.
You walk in and find your seat, the first one in the fourth row, and the silence drops on you like a tarpaulin as everyone makes their way to their place and waits for what none of us wants to happen.
Eventually you hear a noise, a bell in one tower, then another, and another, and another. The sound peels in turn around the cathedral, sounding like it’s from another church entirely, and a lonely dog barks in the distance for comparison.
And then, nothing.
The bells stop, but nothing happens. A cough from the front row, a wordless request, but nothing more until the priest starts to speak, the cadence unchanging, and then, almost by surprise, the coffin appears, surrounded by its carriers, who bring it to the centre of the cathedral and leave it on the stand. Someone surrounds it by whatever those curtain things are called, and places four large candles around the coffin. At least it looks aerodynamic you think, and then wish that you hadn’t.
And then his helmet is placed on top of the coffin, and suddenly it’s real. The tears come before you even notice.
The priest speaks, calm and steady, and he calls the others up to talk. His father is first, a slow, deliberate cadence as he wills himself against all reality to get to the end without breaking, a challenge he could never overcome. He asks for applause, not for himself but for his beautiful son, and the cathedral almost falls over itself to comply, to give some relief from the pain from what is happening before itself.
And then his girlfriend steps up. She starts to speak but the pain is too raw, too enormous to contain within the frame of a small human, and the tears break upon the shores of her words. You were crying too, almost silently, not wanting to upset his team boss in front of you, but when the heaving sobs hit the back of your head from your friend behind you there is nothing you can do to keep it inside: full, fat tears rolling down you face as you merge with the pain flowing all around you.
Jesus, you think, imagine how much worse it would be if you could understand French.
The drivers in the front row, the famous ones who were following you to press conferences not so long ago, sit there rigid with shock. They don’t know what to do, you think, and you wish you could walk over and give them a hug to make them feel better, or feel confused, or just to make them laugh again, like the old days.
They know all too well already what cameras see. Cameras see everything. Even when they’re not pointed at you.
Julie gets an awful, well-meaning but bone-gauging round of applause too, unrequested but delivered in love, an aural hug for comfort, and she can’t go on. The speeches from here go smoother, more polished, with a sombre Prost speaking for the racing family as the real one wept in the front row, the two portraits of their lost son looming over everything.
You try not to look at the helmet, because you know it will make you cry. You fail.
The drivers carry his other helmets up to the altar, placing them in front so carefully one by one before scurrying back, happy to have played a part and not to have messed up their responsibilities, and we all wait for the priests to finish their roles, to let us approach the coffin, to let us escape.
Eventually, timelessly, you’re allowed to join the queue, one side to see the family, the other to bless the coffin. You pull to the right automatically, and before you know it you’re there, touching that drenched French flag, and you feel the electric shock of recognition of where you are, of what you’re doing. You’re moved to the right to allow the others through, and then pulled back across to the left, watching as others hug the family.
And then his brother looks at you, unseeing through sheets of tears, and thanks you for coming as the magnetic force pulls you together for a hug, your eyes unable to contain themselves once again.
The rest happens in a blur: outside, talking unhearingly to the others you hadn’t seen before, the coffin removed for burial as the media buzzes wordlessly behind the barriers, the walk to the wake, asking the drivers to write in the condolence book and explaining they should just write what they would say to him if he was here, pretending not to notice the tears as their pens hover unmoving over the page, waiting until they’re collected again before going over to make a joke, to break the ice, to bring everyone back.
Drivers write as slowly as writers drive, you offer. They laugh, mirthlessly but appreciatively, finishing their paragraphs before letting the others take over.
Eventually it’s time to go, time served, time to head to her place for the evening. Come on, she says, there’s nothing more we can do here, let’s go and have a drink. It’s another hour in the car but it’s almost unnoticed after the emotional tsunami of the day.
Her baby daughter is there, the perfect distraction asking who this stranger is invading their house, and her husband escapes unannounced before returning bearing pizzas. The bottle of wine is already opened and soon consumed, a brandy each to chase it, but both of you are already falling asleep, too tired to consume the volumes of drinks you promised each other. Within thirty seconds of getting into bed in the guest house you’re already asleep, the messages unread as your phone rises and falls on your chest with your breath.
It’s not until lunch that you can finally speak about him, in that tiny restaurant opposite the church which was open when the one she wanted you to see was closed. It’s just that he was living the way he dreamed of living since he was a kid, you start, that he found a way to do what he always wanted, despite not really having the means to do it.
But he was always the clever one, she replies, he could always see the things the others couldn’t.
He had to, you revert, he never had the resources of the others. That’s what was so impressive about what he did.
Yeah, she sighs, but we’ll never know what he could have achieved, now.
We won’t, you agree, but maybe that won’t matter, after the pain is gone. He was an example for us all: he knew what he wanted to do, and he knew how hard it was to get there, and how few people actually made it, but he was trying anyway. And all the steps he made were deliberate, were for a bigger cause, were steps on the way to his ultimate target.
I don’t want to say that he was living his perfect life, that it was alright to die in that life, because that’s bullshit: it was not alright, it will never be right. But he was doing what he had to do to achieve his ambitions, and how many of us can say that? You and I have been in this little world for a long time, we know how hard it is to get to the big paddock, and how hard it is to stay there. And maybe he wouldn’t make it, who knows, but is there anything he didn’t do towards his goal?
No, she concurs, and more than that, he was still him. All of the work he was doing this year, all of the planning he was putting in for next year, all of the people he had to see, all of the work he had to do with his team, and he was still … him.
Exactly, you blurt out a little too loud. He was living this perfect life, for him, and he refused to allow it to change him. He was still sharing all of his data with his teammate, because he wanted her to be better, because he knew it could only reflect well on him. He was living his life, and he was like a perfect beam of light, a shining example for all of the rest of us.
Because we all forget what it is we really want from our lives, we all compromise and do things we wish we didn’t have to do, because we need money to support our lives or our families, or to pay the mortgage, or any number of other grown up things we need to do.
And now he’ll never need to do these things. He’ll never need to compromise, he’ll never let us down, he’ll always be an example of how you can live the life you want, as long as you decide what it is you want to do, and then give everything you have to achieve it.
I can’t imagine not missing him, she gulps.
Me too, you sigh, avoiding her eyes, but maybe that’s the incentive we need to live a better life, a life more in line with the ambitions we always held but let go of when times get tough. Maybe his example can make all of our lives a little better.
You look at your watch and you know it’s time to go. You hug again, wanting it to never end, but you know it has to. Because the rest of your life is waiting, and you need to show him that you can live it to the full too.
Or at least try.