Thorpe’s narrator seems gently reminiscent, taking the reader into his confidence as if he and they are sitting across a kitchen or café table, having a chat. Every so often he includes conversational tags such as ‘Let me assure you of this – ’ and ‘Do I make myself clear?’ which put the reader in the position of a listener. He even edits certain parts of the family history lest ‘we… be here all night.’ It is not until some way into the story that its impending tragedy becomes clear, as the narrator nears the ‘inevitable horror’ which makes Tyres a most poignant love story.
Early Motoring Nostalgia
The early part of the story evokes the early stages of motoring, the time of carriage-built cars with spoked wheels and goggle-eyed headlamps. The narrator remembers his childish perceptions, like the tyre and inner tube being ‘the body and the soul’, an inflated tyre as ‘happy’ because it ‘bounced’ and a deflated one as ‘sad, when its chin lay flat on the ground’. The farmers’ various uses of old tyres contribute to the creation of the rural setting. Monsieur Paulhan’s insistence on ‘the highest standards’ seems to be another inclusion to depict an older way of doing things. However, the reference to a ‘frayed’ tyre which might send a ‘man to his death’ proves to be proleptic, reinforced by the later reference to Mme Renouvin, who ‘slid off the road in her little blue Peugeot in 1938’. Within the meandering and apparently relaxed narration, Thorpe has indicated that damaged tyres can cause death.
Even the Second World War and the German occupation of France is introduced casually, with the ‘first German limousine’ in 1942 – a quick reference and then the narrative moves on, belying the significance of the German presence in the story. However, the reader is informed that the narrator’s father has shaken ‘a few hands’ and ensured that his son is spared any military service as a provider of essential work at the garage. Thorpe quickly moves the focus on, with Mme Renouvin and the introduction of Cécile, so that the foreshadowing is hardly noticed. He drops in other reminders – a military vehicle which ‘swirled the dust’ of the road, momentarily endangering Cécile, then the increase in trade from the German occupiers.
Thorpe keeps the true nature of the occupation out of the story until about two thirds of the way through, with a change in the tone and pace of the narration which is prefaced by the indication that it contains ‘the inevitable horror’. Even the description of the resistance fighters’ truck sounds intimidating – ‘huge for those days, six cylinders, a twelve or thirteen tonner diesel’ – but it is followed by ‘two German armoured cars’, different vehicles from the cars and trucks previously mentioned. This is the moment that the true nature of war comes irrevocably to the village, with references to the auditory and visual details of the ‘terrible tearing sound’ of ‘some kind of machine gun’, ‘firing like mad’, ‘black smoke’ and ‘several loud bangs’.
The horror is made more explicit with the Germans’ requirement that the villagers visit the community hall to view the bodies of three killed resistance fighters. Thorpe shockingly depicts them with grotesque visual detail – ‘Their guts were literally looped and dripping almost to the floor, ripped open by that brief burst of gunfire.’ The reader can almost hear the ‘dripping’ of the blood, the desecration of the bodies apparent in the violence of ‘ripped’. The narrator also recognises ‘the son of the butcher’, making a personal connection, and the villagers ‘came out silent and pale.’ The reaction of the viewers reinforces the horror, but even worse is that ‘schoolchildren were forced to walk class by class’ by the swaying body of Petit Ours, a key figure in the resistance movement. This gruesome section is capped by the grim irony of the Mayor’s speech, ‘thanking the Boche for keeping public order’.
This violent precursor to the real climax of the story brings the secretive resistance movement into the open. Reflecting its clandestine nature, Thorpe has hitherto merely suggested its presence and activities by hints. There is the narrator’s father’s warning not to ‘get mixed up in’ the activities of the ‘maquisards’, though he quietly services their vehicles without payment – he ‘pretended that he didn’t know, but somehow those boys never paid’. There are a number of references to the ‘famous ‘Petit Ours’’, visiting the garage on his motorbike, and mentioned by Cécile as a kind of test, before his hanging at the town bridge.
The most significant reference before the display of mutilated bodies is the encounter in the café. The narrator is astute enough to recognise that the man ‘in a peasant’s overalls’ does not have ‘a peasant’s bearing’ – a maquisard in disguise. In one line of dialogue, he voices a threat which is a crucial contributor to the dénouement of the story – ‘Try a nail or two. Otherwise we’ll be thinking you are collaborators.’ The first imperative is advice on an act of sabotage. The second sentence is the threat, as the resistance would target collaborators with the Germans as much as the Germans themselves. The ‘shaking’ hands and the ‘spilt’ drink are signs of the narrator’s surprise and fear, but this encounter leads directly to the shaving of the inner tube of the German officer’s car. The two episodes are linked by the ‘shaking’ and ‘trembling’ hands. It is the tragedy of the story that this brave act leads to its awful consequences.
Cécile and her Bike
At its heart, Tyres is a love story, a moving and poignant depiction of teenage love before its tragic end. Like the other elements, Thorpe introduces this one casually, then it grows and blossoms through the story. Yet the significance of this element is signalled with ‘I was in love’ before mentioning the ‘girl who passed by on her silver bicycle every morning and every evening.’ The phrase carries a touch of amused irony at the quick passions of youth, when the ‘girl’ is merely an anonymous figure.
Thorpe creates an innocent charm in the presentation of the narrator’s shy blushing retreat and his ashamed realisation that his face and mouth ‘stayed frozen’ in response to her ‘open pout’ of ‘bonjour’. Thorpe also creates humour in the ‘two years’ shy wait before he can even wave and call out to the girl on her twice-daily ride along the road. There is also humour in the ‘breakthrough’ incident after three years, with the repetition of ‘just happened’, mocking the narrator’s studied casualness. This incident, warning her of the rapid approach of the military truck, is significant in a number of ways. Not only does it cause her to stop and thank him, beginning their relationship, but it demonstrates his desire for her, imagining her legs ‘under the pale blue dress’. It is also evidently a key moment, as the narrator says that he remembers the details ‘very clearly’ after all the years. And again Thorpe uses foreshadowing, ending the paragraph with a series of rhetorical questions about what to say to someone, ending with ‘Someone who, if suddenly no longer there, can leave a hole in your heart, and a feeling of doom’. Halfway through the story, this sounds like a hyperbolic expression of love for someone whose name he does not yet know; by the end the reader realises its tragic significance.
There is also humour in the carefully-timed filling of the holes in the road and the shared jokes at the expense of the Germans and a further indication of the narrator’s loving memory, lamenting that his verb ‘giggled’ is inadequate ‘to describe such a sprinkle of delightful, teasing merriment’, a watery metaphor of light and joy.
It is nearly two thirds into the story that Cécile is finally named, her long anonymity a sign of the gradualness of the development of the relationship, of how she and the narrator ‘slowly discovered each other’. The first date, walking in the valley, is marked by innocence – ‘we had not yet held each other’s hand!’ the narrator comments. His expression of love is tender, acknowledging his happiness with Cécile and admitting that ‘I would like to so this every Sunday, even in winter, until I’m so old I can no longer walk.’ It is a very sudden projection into the future from a teenager on his first date, and though Cécile agrees ‘Me, too’, the reader will be aware of a retrospective narration which has made no acknowledgement of a marriage, a wife or a current relationship.
It is once that tender understanding has been reached that Thorpe hurries the reader to the ‘inevitable horror’ which is the climax of the story. He does not state the pressure of the apparent ‘peasant’, nor the narrator’s understanding that Cécile is in some small way involved in the Resistance, but the reader implicitly understands that those factors are behind the decision to sabotage the German officer’s tyre inner tube ‘until it looked frayed, but still just airtight.’ The ‘just’ suggests the imminence of its failure, creating tension and the sense of tragic inevitability when Cécile arrives on her bike, struggling with the loose chain. The dialogue, looking to the future, ‘Till Sunday,’ furthers the gnawing sense of impending doom, which is confirmed when she accepts a lift from the German in his Maybach. Thorpe uses and repeats the word ‘forced’ to describe this acceptance. On the one had, he needs to excuse Cécile from any complicity with the German, and on the other, it enables him to shift, very slightly, some of the responsibility for her death from his shoulders.
The presentation of the ensuing crash is quick and understated – just ‘a distant bang and clatter’. The absence of developed description suggests the emotional pain – it is not something upon which the narrator wants to dwell – but he clearly depicts the result of the incident on the rest of his life. In a seasonal metaphor, her states that for him ‘it was the beginning of winter, not the end’, which implies a life of desolation. When the narration notes that the ‘terrible scorch marks on the trunk have been long rubbed away’ and ‘the dent has grown out’ leaving the tree… well again’, there is an implicit comparison between nature’s recovery and the narrator’s continuing emotional maiming.
The final paragraph continues to explore time. It shows how much time has passed, with the diminution of people’s memories, the elder Paulhan’s retirement, the absence of any other romantic relationship in the narrator’s life, the increase in motoring and therefore the motor trade: ‘business could not be better.’ The subtext however, is that time has not moved on for the narrator. He no longer gets joy from his job, he ties flowers to the tree as his continuing tribute to Cécile, even if one day they will be the unromantic modern ‘plastic type’.
Narrative methods to consider:
- first person narration