Unfortunately we never did find Sir Henry and the boy who had turned yellow, in spite of valuable daylight hours spent foraging around bus and railway stations, main and sub-post offices and peering under many a dilapidated bridge. It was quite as if it had never existed, or more likely it had just blown away. In the end we settled for the more salubrious Grand Cafe de .. ? The Opera I think it was, settled down comfortably to grand cremes and puff pastries, and began to brew fresh plans.
Now I have long had the fancy to head out west towards Nimes and beyond, to seek out and enjoy the company of a fellow expatriated and reclusive sharp-witted sort of chap, none other than the Seminal artist, writer and musician Robert Crumb. It was widely known that he and his little family had taken up residence somewhere in the Vidourle valley which they had asked not be named, “fearful of attracting streams of fans.” Ha! Ha! To boldly go where no fanboi has gone before shouldn’t be much of a problem once we find a decent Wifi Hotspot, and the three of us, well we could hardly be mistaken for fanboys.
Eric who had clearly never heard of the man and – What sort of a name is Crumb anyway? – Deemed that it would be a pity to be so close and then completely miss the Luberon National Park. Steve? Well I knew fine well which particular barren wind swept summit was top of his wish list, more about that later… Eric of course had it his way; his arse had been so buttered and lavishly re-buttered of late with all his bacon saving exploits that he was now sliding on gilded splinters, we simply had to give in.
“Come on lads, everybody in the whole world knows at least one person with a holiday home in the bloody Luberon, let’s be three of those unexpected, uninvited and thoroughly unwanted house guests.”
He had a point; my old chum and former drinking companion Cameron ‘Stick’ Mcghee, the persuasively dyslectical Notaire who had sold me that ‘highly despicable toun howse with burundles of lewd potentiality’ in Collobrieres had upped sticks as it were, and planted himself in Lacoste, of all places. Old Stickybeak, he certainly owes me one!
Steve was certain that Rigoberto Baresa lived in a mansion in the outskirts of Apt with a bevy of young and attractive bicycles. “Perhaps he would lend us a couple or three and we could have a bit of a race up Mount Ventoux?” At least his sense of humour was intact. Eric, predictably had ‘a mate’ in a town which I am pretty sure he just made up on the spot: Oppede Le Vieux?
So this year, in Provence of the calciferous sort, our very particular lunch began in L’isle sur la Sorgue and as ever in one of those supermarche places that Eric has warned me quite firmly not to mention again by name. We have always found that New year’s Eve with its eleventh hour excesses and doomed resolutions is a dismal occasion for all the forced jollity and midnight toasts and kisses, so how rude would it be if we unexpectedly turned up two days later without our own bottles?
Canadian, Kentucky and Clan McBolloch’, I had noticed them all on my previous forays into this retail paradise; tons of it at a fraction under ten Euros the bottle. With a goodly stock of this stuff we would be a little more welcome at the Luberon cheapskate’s ball. This place isn’t exactly Le Lavandou now is it? Knock me down with a feather, no sooner had we been graciously allowed inside, I couldn’t help spotting a very large sign announcing that they were offering a whopping, no massive twenty-five percent reduction across the board on all their beers and Fink Brau. Those Krauts were just not going to let the French Government or anybody else distract them from their mission to transform the populace into a bunch of useless fat-assed drunks. Bravo! To avoid the habitual tut-tutting and any Gallic malicious implications from ugly bifocals at the checkout, we chucked in some bratwurst, a bicycle repair kit and thermal underwear, to make it look like we having a birthday party at Le Gour de Glastre rather than just getting pissed in the car park.
Prophetic! cupidity is its own reward. A van load of dusty road menders and their indispensable and versatile colleagues, the hole diggers in a multitude nationalities, had set up an improvised luncheon parlour right next to my Renault, under an adventurous early blossoming almond. Eyes glowering on the alluring contents of our trolley, they beckoned us over:
“Mangie con ni? trinki con vi?” You eat with us, we’ll drink with you? Just guessing.
The charcoal blazing sadly in the brightening sun would not be ready for cooking purposes for over an hour but their little microwave oven plugged into a portable pneumatic drill generator was already churning out piping hot soupe de poissons for all the family.
I have always found that the best use for generic Cola is for de-coking moped exhausts or thoroughly cleaning out petrol tanks, but today it went down pretty neatly with big dose of Joey Barton. Croutons a l’ail Captain? Aye! Aye! Sir. The bonnet of an R4l, is as near as dammit flat, and makes an agreeable dining table for six, but it’s not an extender and was a bit of a squeeze for the nine of us, but what a damned good lunch it was anyway. All the better when Birkov, the foreman pulled out a devilish little violin and another produced a banjo, the one bowing his heartstrings tender. Tuneless to my ears yet drawing us in unwillingly, the other plonking taut and metallic but with a po and steady rhythm. Not wishing to mention by the by, Irish Greg on the stringless bass. Then to my delighted stupefaction, Alberto began to croon:
“Mwen renmen ou Lidl Oh wi pou mwen fè.”
Alberto y los trios piranhas . Encore! Encore!
When the back to work whistle finally blew, somewhere between two and three-thirty we left at my insistence in pursuit of Stick Mcghee and the Marquis de Sade’s partially restored pearler of a château that dominated the already precariously perched village of Lacoste. We poked around some of the drab vernacular real estate for a while, adroitly sidestepping luckless pedestrians of the mollydooking tourist variety or the even less fortunate Siberian clad residents, all with crusty baguettes underarm and handfuls of well packed pharmacy bags. I’m kidding, the place was picturesque, full of character, well heeled but so desperately dull, that it begged the question, what do people do all day around here? A pleasant place for a beer it certainly was though, three stars.
I don’t know why we do it, but occasionally in bars we let Steve do the ordering , it makes life more interesting. We invariably get twar glasses, but their contents are often a surprise. This time we were served with slightly cloudy lager, spiked with some kind of fruit syrup. “What exactly did you ask for Steve? If you don’t mind us asking.
” “Kiwi ales”, he replied cheerfully, fair enough.
“Well come on Rod” . Said Eric at last.
“Come on what?”
“You have a call to make.”
“Yes, old Stickybeak McGhee, where we will be dossing tonight.”
“Ok, right, I thought you knew I’d just dreamed that one up, what about your mate Baranaby Nightlite, the peeping tom, you call him why don’t you?”
Eric reluctantly picked up and speed dialled the horloge parlant, and after a few pointless gestures, head shaking and shoulder shrugs came clean:
“all right! I don’t know a single solitary sausage out here, or anywhere else. Call Baresa Stevie and I’ll race you up the Ventoux and win, you old fart.”
“Rigoberto’s dead! Dead to me, moved to Switzerland last I heard, just to be closer to Phil Collins.”
“Well at least he really existed for you Steve, you had a friend at least….”
We had no other choice but to have another round before engaging in the grizzly task of finding a solid roof over our heads for the night. Eric ordered three more Kirs Royales. Our world was in tatters but his vowels were perfect.
Hotel rooms are not really the thing in Lacoste, but according to our benevolent and intuitive barman, bed and breakfast establishments abound in the plain below. Eric duly made a proper phone call and reserved us rooms in one of the said chambre dhots, but where to grab a spot of dinner? I dont think there was any ill intent in Hobsons choice to recommend The Loofoc It was, as my expression suggests, the only one open.
I would delight in reporting that the place was the worst restaurant or even the most repugnant eating experience I have ever enjoyed, but part of my second mind says quite the opposite, due for the most part to their wicked and quite exquisite sense of humour. Not the strange jeu de mot of a name, I do not find puns to be at all funny, just cold comfort to the slow witted. Loofoc sounds as though it may be pidgin Provençal for the seal: le phoque in French, I know this for sure as there happened to be a rather large sculpted seal right next to the entrance, but loufoque, again in French, can be loosely translated as bonkers. So these guys, even if they were not clinically insane, and I have no proof of that either way, were extremely well versed in the art of looking stark and raving.
The badness of the place was clearly deliberate and contrived, a strictly commercial practical joke. The service was casual, intermittent and superbly rude and most of the items on the menu were off. When some fodder was finally was delivered to our table, I do not wish to describe it, I will just mention that severely overcooked then microwaved pasta in the most disgusting of pink sauces is not a dish to be eaten cold, with or without a spriggle of soft green herbs.
Even the wine with a snazzy bouquet did little to brighten the atmosphere of gloom and self destruction, so bad it was that Eric requested an argument,
“Rodney” he said looking nastily across the table,
“I’ve been reading your blogs, and theyre shit.”
“Thanks for the tip Eric, Ill bear that in mind”
“No but seriously, eating drinking and stealing things? Do you think people want to read about that?”
“Well they would if they cared about lifes deeper meaning” I replied tartly.
”No Rodney, fresh breezes and vast expanses are what they are looking for in a French travelogue, bright sunlight, and impressive solitude are a must and never ever forget the oceans of lavender. People too, nice interesting people; teachers, communists, stock solid characters with a hint of a beloved forefather in ze resistance, not to mention a sincere love of the simple life and rich food. Less of your Lidl too, and while Im on the subject, if you intend to mention this horrible place by name youre going to have to lawyer up my friend!”
“Now thats a strange expression Bruce.”
I said assuming the poor maternally abused little bugger would get the reference.
“Rule one. No Copyright infringement! Rule two. Vast expanses. Rule three, There is no rule three. Rule four. Never shop at Lidl, when there is anybody watching. Rule five,” In a joyous boorish chorus. “No pooftahs!”
“Its January and cold as a witchs teat” Whimpered Steve prissily, more confused than ever “And I want to go home.
” Well what kind of a wake up call was that? We had been on the road for just three days and already we had got to this?
“Look.” Steve implored,
“We dont know where we are going or why, and this country is just fucking boring, eat, drink and steal things, Rodney is spot on. Its not a blog Eric its a scorcher! Here we are in deep mid-winter heading north to shit creek without a compass, just the beer lights to guide us, whats the bloody point of it all? Lets head way down back Mexico way!”
“He is not entirely without reason Eric” I said calmly.
“Our goal was to keep on driving until we hit a place called Nazareth, for the hell of it, and there to sing a song, but you simply can’t do that kind of thing these days you must have a plan, an itinerary, stuffed with pleasant places to see: churches chapels and chateaux. Then you’re supposed to have a camera, take pictures of everything, so you dont need to use your brain or memory any more and you look at the snaps later and say look I’m in Provence and that’s my wife with a melon on her head making a purchase.”
Still want to argue Eric?”
“Not really Rod”
“Yes you do, you started it.”
“No I did not.” “Yes you bloody well did…”
“All right, planning your life in advance then taking pictures of it is every bit as pointless as trying to find a place that may or may not exist.”
“Thats what I just said.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.”
“Shut up Rodney.”
Eric was battle bruised, “shut up” to my knowledge is not in the professional arguers vocabulary.
“We really are completely deboussole.”
Eric said glum once more, neatly summing up poor Steve’s implorings. Who said the French dont have a word for everything? Deboussole? Me I believe.
“But guess who managed to find where your hero Crumb hangs his creepy ménage a trois?”
Eric bounced back with a grin.
“Daft bugger signs his blogs with the date and the place where he wrote it, a la Tangiers 1959. So lets set off in the morning, due West. Duck duck go! ”
I had sort of changed my mind about the whole Crumb and his cheap suit serenading thing, “De poor man got he head screwed on wrong.” To which I added mysteriously,
“ I have reason to believe we will not be well received in Crumbland.”
Eric was unsettled
.“OK then what do we do?”
“We get another drink, thats what we do.”
Steve was in control now,
“and we dont just wave our hands and snap our fingers limply and we do not look for eye contact either, because there is none.”
He marched straight into the kitchen and returned clutching a fat bottle of single malt and a bloody, cleanly severed hand. I have to say, I was impressed. We drank slowly in smug silence, all of us wondering how the night would end, after we left without paying, as we surely would; just joshing with you about the bleeding member by the way.
“I’ve got a mate in Chateauneuf-du Pape.” Eric said at last.
“Of course you have,” I humoured him, “and as we all know, I’ve got an uncle in a one bedroom apartment in Rome who is the bleedin Pape.”
“Why did you take so long to remember you actually did have a friend then?” Steve asked most reasonably.
”You are going to find out.”
“Call him then Eric.” I goaded, intrigued by that last remark but still incredulous.
He called and got a surprisingly unlikely quick response:
“Hi Matt, its me, Eric.”
“Fine, and you.“
“Great, now look, Im with a couple of buddies in the Luberon and weve got ourselves a bit of a situation, would it be OK if we all dropped in at your place for a couple of days?”
“Well if youre sure, thats bloody fantastic, oh and try not to mention Cambridge, know what Im saying?” “Cheers, see ya tomorrow then!”
I had to say it:
“Since when have we three been buddies?”
Eric didn’t answer that one, just looked at us as if he wanted to be all greased up again. It was half-past ten and I was thinking, one of these days Im going to get an early night and we all agreed it should be today, because it had as you may recall been one hell of a day. We left as planned completely unnoticed without even asking for the bill, scot free, five stars!
We checked in at La Ferme Joyeuse and were quite rightly I suppose, asked to pay in advance. Our rooms were nice and tidy, very tidy and very very nice.. I hoped that Steve could manage to leave his that way, lift the seat at the very least.
Alone in my room I shuddered. Normally I pack a rod; in pyjamas I carry nothing but scars from Normandy Beach…..But Im your brother and I’m wearing pyjamas! The poor little boy in the stripy ones. Yes, the nicely brought up person that lurks inside me felt awkward, yes yes! we have no pyjamas! I felt so strangely guilty about it, too guilty to sleep in my boots, a tad too cold to strip right down, the place was just so damned clean and homely.”Whisky-wow-wow”, I breathed, a mini-bar, problem solved. The following morning, freshly hungover but with something positive to look forward to at least, our day began with cleanliness, coffee and confiture maison. One more of lifes little mysteries neatly resolved, soundly thrashed and locked in the coal shed: what do people around here do all day? What is it that really makes the world go round? Cleaning things and making jam, thats what.