Always Crashing in the Same Car

August 27th, 10.03am

Tires were screeching around the coastal roads of Sarnia, roads that from above formed a right-angled triangle floating in the deep azure of the English Channel. Several passengers peered from the windows of an airplane descending into the island’s tiny airport and saw the husk of a car, its exhaust puffing like an aged smoker, make a sharp right turn below them before disappearing behind a swathe of trees. The old Volkswagen now heading along the longest straight on the island – the hypotenuse of the triangle – was slowly gathering speed.

The coast and its cresting waves blurred into a wash of blue as John’s foot pressed down on the accelerator. Finally, at sixty miles per hour – far too fast for the narrow street ahead of him – his hand twitched and the car squealed left across the pavement and through a wooden barrier that separated him from the water and the rocks below.

In John’s mind, he flew gloriously off the edge of the cliff, plastic, metal and flesh caught in the air simultaneously, sailing away from the ground. In reality, the VW thumped with a scrap-metal crash into a ditch, and his head thudded with a dull snap against the driver-side window.

August 10th, 12.21pm

The geometry of shadows gathered around Gillian’s feet was on the move. High above her, the noon sun cast a strange kaleidoscope of lines on the sand, and John watched as she reached the water and stepped, tentatively at first, into the English Channel. Even during the summers, the salty, thick waves were cold to the touch, and he imagined the goose bumps now peppering her arms.

She hopped forward, her body tensing into right angles. The bathing suit still fitted snugly, the same one she’d taken on their honeymoon. John smiled and leaned back onto the sand as she disappeared into the water.

Gillian waded in and, in a moment of quotidian bravura, finally dipped her shoulders under the water’s surface. The salty sting of the sea slipped past her skin as she swam further out, and eventually her body temperature equalized and she was comfortable. The goose bumps had disappeared.

She stopped and turned over onto her back, her hair, tied in a loose bun, weighing her down like an anchor. The sky wasn’t cloudless – Sarnian skies rarely were – but it was bright, with sheer spots of sunlight pounding at the sand. Leaning her head forward, she could still see John’s feet, his white chest, and his eyes, closed to the sky above them.

“Why don’t you fuck off back to England?” The voice woke John, clear above the sound of the sea brushing the sand. He propped himself up on his elbows and watched a teenage girl in ankle-high Converse shoes and a miniskirt trying her hardest to stomp across the sand and away from a boy wearing nothing but swimming trunks and a dumbfounded expression.

“What was that all about?” he asked. Gillian had returned and the goose bumps on her legs had mutated into tiny grains of sand.

“Dunno.” She lay on the towel next to him. “Not much to do on a Sunday if you’re a teenager.”

August 21st, 5.34pm

John left Town and drove toward home. The movements were familiar, the turns of the road second nature. The rocks, grass, sand, and glass houses moved past him barely noticed. It never took more than fifteen minutes to drive anywhere on the island.

Along the coastal road, he sped up and passed Fort Grey, a coastline fortification that, like all the others, stood defunct at the water’s edge. Concrete and cylindrical, atop it a flagpole flapped a Sarnian flag wildly in the breeze. Retrieving his phone from the passenger seat, he dialed home. No answer. He tried Gillan’s mobile, leaving it to ring several times before hanging up at the sound of her voicemail message.

Gillian had settled into the back of the Duke of Normandy pub. She let her phone buzz futilely against the table. A glass of beer stood waiting for her just beyond it, and she took a hearty swig. Before they were married, she only ordered wine or, in an emergency, gin and tonic. But now, beer had become a staple – cheaper and longer-lasting – and the low wooden beams and dark corners of the Duke of Normandy had become welcoming in a way that their home was not. The cold glass sides and summer skylights that John had installed two years ago were impersonal and cold to the touch.

Her phone chirped and she picked it up. A text message read: Where are you? See you at home!          John parked and went in through the conservatory door. The sun was low enough to cut diagonally across the room, leaving a slice of orange light leading from the floor up to the interior door that led to the kitchen.

Gillian arrived half an hour later, the sun setting through the trees, and the sound of waves bristling against the distant coast. Her old Volkswagen fit neatly between the garage and John’s slovenly parked Audi. John was asleep on the couch, today’s copy of the Sarnia Herald folded open and balanced on his chest.

August 27th, 7.17am

The sun climbed higher that morning as Gillian rose. John lay still, asleep between the waves of their bedsheets.

She left the note in the kitchen beneath a stone figurine that they had received as a wedding gift. The note was short, could be read as brusque, but she didn’t want to run to more than half a page.

Snores percolated like coffee as she slipped her maroon travel bag out of its usual place in their walk-in closet and grabbed handfuls of clothes from the dresser drawer. Stuffing socks, underwear, then t-shirts and pants into the bag, she paused for a moment. If she had been expecting one last roll, a twist of limbs that signaled a disturbance in John’s sleep, she would have been disappointed.

August 27th, 10.12am

Tires were screeching around the coastal roads of Sarnia, roads that were just the ragged edge to the Sarnian soil. Gillian was high above. From this distance, the island always seemed so idyllic, a misty antique, something to be preserved for the future. She lay her head against the airplane window and she sensed a gust of air colliding in a spiral with the plane’s propellers. The island shrank away from her, a patchwork of fields interrupted by the reflections of greenhouse roofs.

The airplane tilted left and into the clouds. Gillian stared out, glimpsing between the white wisps a congregation of cars and people on a coastal road, blue lights and more piercing red ones flashing at the scene of some accident or crime. Who said nothing ever happened in Sarnia? she said to herself.

Her stomach lurched, the clouds enveloped the airplane, and suddenly the island disappeared.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

The Chronicles of Sarnia, № 3

~In which editor DLR recalls his youth on the island of Sarnia.~

№ 3: Shallow Waters

here is an actual shipwreck museum in Sarnia. So little is there to document and preserve that there is a museum dedicated to shipping mistakes, preserving footage and photographs of events that happened to Sarnia by accident.

The need for a shipwreck museum I found always a little perplexing. It’s true that there are few tourist attractions in the island, but those that there are – neolithic cave carvings and Nazi Occupation remnants, for example – should really be sufficient for the dwindling number of visitors from France, the UK, the Netherlands, and, of course, Germany. I had been to Fort Grey, the museum in question, a couple of times with either family or friends, though to me, it was just a roomful of seagoing paraphernalia.

I had left Sarnia for The Mainland in 2002, but on a visit back to the island the following January, we woke to very strange news: a shipwreck. The west coast of Sarnia faces roughly northwest, into the English Channel and towards the Atlantic, and apparently a ship being towed from England to Holland had broken its towing line and been left to drift into the shallow waters on the rocks north of Fort Grey.

Nearly 400 feet long, and towering above as as we neared it, the ship was one of the most incongruous things I had seen on a Sarnian beach. It was named the Vermontborg, a brand new cargo ship that was empty of fuel, passengers, or even cargo.

Image copyright Flickr user gypsy_roadhog (, used by Creative Commons.

Stranded, its full height was visible, and if you made your way any closer than 15 or 20 feet, it blotted out the sunlight above. Parents with their young children were playing in the rock pools surrounding it, and locals slowly circled the husk of a boat and hammered on its hollow sides. Eventually, I left for the capitalised Mainland once again, and a few days later, the ship was lucky enough to hit a high tide that allowed it to be towed back out to sea.

Around a year later, the song “Practically Zero” came along, with a very glancing memorial to the Vermontborg shipwreck. Click below to hear an old recording of the song.

The Chronicles of Sarnia, № 2

~In which editor DLR recalls his youth on the island of Sarnia.~

№ 2: Changes

emper Eadem
, or “always the same”, was etched on our school crest – a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I, who shared this steadfast motto when she founded the institution in 1563. Back then, it was a seminary housed in a handful of rooms. By the time I was there, it taught a rather wider range of subjects, but still admitted only boys. Like the little gentlemen we were supposed to become, we were forced to wear tweed blazers and carry our schoolbooks and pencils in briefcases.

It would be too easy to say that Sarnia was Semper Eadem. Yes, it’s true that it is a misty antique, that its inhabitants are some strange combination of middle Englanders and continental coast-dwellers, but most of the time, it potters along happily like any other small town.

During those years, I began to accumulate CDs, a now-outdated medium that only proves how much things do change.  Early purchases were haphazard, but eventually patterns emerged: classic rock artists and contemporary bands made up nearly equal parts, with the odd Miles Davis or John Coltrane record thrown in for good measure. Though at the time it was innocent musical curiosity, it now smacks of studied hipster eclecticism.

It soon became clear that I would end up purchasing a large number of Bob Dylan and David Bowie albums. One of the first Bowie albums I picked out was Hunky Dory, a then-30-year-old record that opened with the track “Changes”. This anthem didn’t seem to apply to Sarnia’s sleepy landscape, and I decided to pen the (once again) imaginatively titled “Everything Stays the Same”.

More an homage than a riposte, you can listen to a reasonably well produced version of it below.

Eventually, some things changed. Briefcases were abandoned in favour of sensible rucksacks;  Sarnia’s airport was rebuilt in glass and steel; and the island even bought a whole fleet of new buses that were just slightly too wide for the narrow country roads. And though my record collection grew, Semper Eadem remained etched on the school crest, for better or worse.

Stay tuned for more Sarnian tales.

The Chronicles of Sarnia, № 1

~In which editor DLR recalls his youth on the island of Sarnia.~

№ 1: Tides

rowing up on an island is not unlike learning the definition of a word without having the benefit of a dictionary. Sarnia, as it is still sometimes known, is small and beautiful in an unobtrusive way, but there are not many dictionaries to go around.

Summers were the worst and the best of the year. Warm and breezy, slow and tedious. We would make do with the beaches: either those in town that were dark, sand packed with rivulets of water mixing in with the sewage, or those whose light, flat dunes were altogether more pleasant.

We could have done with a dictionary before setting out on one particular project nearly a decade ago. On a wide, empty beach along the south coast of Sarnia, we scaled some sandstone rocks with a video camera in tow, intent on capturing some early-2000s quality video for later editing. Included in our filmic masterpiece were ciphers surreal enough even for an Aronofsky movie: a wooden pallet, some empty CD cases, and a plastic ruler among them. Having wrapped filming for the day, we turned our attention back to the beach and the road beyond, and realised the error of our ways.

God did smite us as he smote Noah. Waters had rushed in from the briny deep and surrounded our outcrop of rocks, and we would have to wade in one- to two-foot high depths just to get back to shore. So, trousers hitched up, socks and shoes in hand, we let the tide carry us home. Much less poetic was the barefoot walk back home.

Several years ago, I even decided that this was a suitable anecdote to base a song on. You can listen to the inventively-named “High Tide” here: