Is It About A Bicycle?

As a man who was brought up to believe that the best and only things in life were fast girls, expensive cars, and Samuel Smith’s, it’s just too odd to think that here I am now living alone, drinking continental bottom fermented lager and driving around in a Renault 4. Bottom of the 1978 range at that,  not even a GTL. I put the car bit down to the fruit of maturity and good taste. As as for living alone, you can think what you like. A Renault 4 will always get you home by the way and no, it’s not for sale.

I’ve had a lot of calls this week, Maurin sounding improbably concerned about me, Taz, imploring me “lay offa ze Nucky Balls”, which to her of course was like having my fingers permanently in her cash register. Sometimes Steve, but all of them expressing doubts about my mental elf. (Bang your head). Was I really all-right, was I getting ready for the road trip, the adventure of a lifetime? I certainly was. I had already read Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, familiarised myself with all those losers from the beat generation, I think. Even tinkered with the incredible journey, just in case we run into a dog or a cat or something like that. As I write, I am watching Easy rider. Ooh, it makes me wonder!

This whole thing though, the road trip, it sounds a lot more like they’re coming to take me away ha-ha hee-hee, which is peculiar, because for some time now I have had that funny feeling that I was there already. All those the chirpy birds and basket weavers twiddling their thumbs and all in this village. Not to worry, not to worry at all, I will just play along with my long oared companions, just follow my horn and obey my whims. Smile at their seamless faces.

I shall of course be taking the Renault, and those two can take their pic (sic) sorry typo, from my treasured collection of some two hundred or so Peugeot mopeds. I may as well tell you straight, I don’t like Motobecanes, Puchs, Piaggios or Jap Crap, I just don’t.

If I said we left at dawn, day break or sun-up, It would be hard to believe, we left at half past eleven, headed for somewhere called Nazareth, or at least someplace twinned with it. just driving until we found one. I was surprised, at how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility. Let’s find Nazareth, because there has to be one somewhere in this darned country, and does road-trip need a hyphen or bloody not?

The sun was well up as we screamed out west from Collobrieres, through the valley of sombre green hillsides, steaming steadily in the warm morning sun after the hard rain of the night before; heading towards motorways, traffic jams and billboards. All aboard! Here comes the motorcade of common sense. Yes Taz, if you’re reading this, better put on that party dress. I’ve had my last dance with Mary-Jane and sent you what was left in one of those self addressed envelopes that you so thoughtfully sent me, keep ‘em safe my little squirrel.

Steve, the darling, was wearing that dinky little yellow outfit I had bought for him in St Tropez, finished off rather pleasingly I thought with an oversized, bulbous and somewhat bloated matching corduroy cap which could just about pass as a crash-Helmut if the police didn’t poke too closely. Maurin was online shopping from top to toe, cheap but ineffably cool and leathery as he swept passed me repeatedly, head down and tongue outstretched on the bends, one more treacherous than the next. Fool of a boy, I’m sure!

It still amazes me, even after all these years. Why are Renault 4′s are no longer allowed on motorways? Utterly ridiculous, the world has gone mad. It’s really no different from other cars, a little less streamlined perhaps, unrefined and a bit iffy on road holding and crumple zones I confess, but in the end it’s just a box with lights on, so why those orange letters again, flashing:

“No Renault 4′s Please. Merci pour votre comprehension.”

There is no hell, only France!

It’s funny how quickly one can adapt to life’s wonderful aberrations and absurdities, like driving on the right, smart phones or breakfast cereals. Nothing is real and nothing immediately springs to mind that is worth getting hung or fined for so I never make too much of a fuss about it. Raspberry Pi for ever.

We strove, as we always do to find a workaround. Speeding through Pierrefeu, down the Sauvebonne, straight through Solliès Toucas, up the Gapeau valley until we finally hit the RN98, all that might sound like utter nonsense to you, so let’s just say we were trying to get to Marseille, legally. honestly and decently. Maurin wants us to meet his parents! Esther and Chester. How nice.

Then a quick bite of lunch in Belgentier.

A Relais Routier, just the ticket. A monster platter of raw vegetables, crudites, to start, followed by a blanquette de veau, Camembert , tarte aux pommes, coffee and one last miserable carafe of the cuvee du chef, please mate, go on, just one more! Nothing doing. You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it….

Half an hour later, cruising gently along towards Signes, Steve spotted an obvious hooker by the side of the road, bold as brass, snuggled in a deck chair, shorty shorts and lots of leg, engrossed and befuddled by a word puzzle book, soduko. There she was just waiting for us to come by, sprawled and barely lifeless in a pile of Coca-Cola cans and McDonald’s wrappings. What’s wrong with fish and chips and Irn Bru Miss? Steve and Maurin pulled off the road sharpish and I slithered in sheepishly behind.

Steve unsaddled and uninhibited, demanded,

“Where ya from man? How long ya been in Mexico? How much?”

Instead of the ritual sixpence ninepence or a bob palava, I was taken aback when Stevie-Ray came hurtling towards me demanding fifty bloody Euros.

“Hand them over and if you tell Tammy, you’re dead.”

He stared me out, over lingering his welcome,  but as a Democrat and a free-thinker, I was disposed to be lenient.

With the nifty-fifty in his pocket, before me stood a man who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was finally about to dust his broom.

Unsurprisingly, five minutes later, after some entertaining cabalistic grunts from the hillock behind the lay-by, and a running commentary on his bestiality that sounded as if he had swallowed whole that most unlikely of Christmas presents, a paper copy of the Urban Dictionary, back he came, his still obvious broom done and well dusted, beaming with satisfaction as he leaped lustily back onto his two-wheeled mount, we were back on the road again.

We sped on at a stately 40kph straight into Marcel Pagnol country. Ah! the real Provence, barren chalky white, slightly fire damaged tenement hillsides. Aubagne, a leading candidate to host the forthcoming shopping Olympics, bathed in thin bright winter sunshine and home to the French Foreign Legion, now that doesn’t sound quite right does it? Home to the Foreign Legion? No. Absolutely not.

My beautiful winter sunshine suddenly and inexplicably turned into a wild and raging thunderstorm. This can only happen in Provence, or maybe Caribou County Idaho, and it happened today. I chuckled as the two in front lowered their heads to handlebar level, accelerated imperceptibly and fled, soaked immediately to the skin, towards the nearest Centre Commercial, hell bent, hell bent for Gortex.

Table tennis tables all lined up in front of the store. Arrgh! Barren and green, standard shape and size, white stripes, centre-folding all-weather and repulsive. I could see them playing, Debbie in the dinner jacket, Dave on drums, right before my eyes, Nigel you nerd, Timmy and George, a sharp faced boy with a broken voice , citron coloured hair and a stammer. Twenty-one fingered salutes to the lot of you. This is deliberate provocation. How could they know I was coming? Taunt me with ping-pong why don’t you? Hurt me!

I shall be staying in the car with these charming hitch-hikers, damn you!

The boys had somehow found another of those one-stop sporting apparel fancy dress shops and were in there for some time, but came back in the end with a chariot load of waterproof clothing, socks, sleeping bags, lanterns, shotguns, penknives, and….

“…Just look at these little tents Rodney, bloody amazing,” said Steve, “you should have seen the brilliant video, you can get the thing up in a jif jif , as soon as it’s out of its sheath.”

Ignoring the innuendo and lamenting the slackening intensity of the rain, I made a sign that we should be on our way.

“Load all that rubbish in the hatch, we’re off to see the bright lights, big city.”

To say that twenty minutes later we got utterly crapassed lost in Marseille city centre, would be vulgar as well as misleading and dishonest; we sailed through her, following the marvellous signposting and encouraged by hoards of well-wishers at every single traffic light, whoah!

“Tickets for the match tonight Sir? Clean your windscreen mate? Couscous to go monsieur? Qui c’est ce con la? Hey, shitbreeches, are you doing the hat trick?”

Steve’s choice of colour scheme was more unfortunate tonight than it would have been on any other. Tonight, Olympic de Marseille were in a semi-final cup match with FC Nantes. Yes you guessed it aka The Canaries. The mob of youth became denser and more broken-bottle waving aggressive as we approached the Stade Velodrome, which Maurin took pains to explain to Steve was just the name of the ground and football was the game. We sped on southbound towards the coast…….If their rear view mirrors were maladjusted, which I knew they were, well, lucky them. Mine were just fine and behind us I could clearly see a fierce and furious mass of sky blue and white scarves screaming murder, but we out paced them, of course we did.

Half an hour of chugging along the coast road, heading for the picturesque Norwegian blue Calanques, it was nearly dusk, and in a thick and unexpected fog we began the hors categorie climb to Maurin’s family seat. To be frank, the the three of us only just made it, the four was in first for most of the way, In fact I even thought about taking it in reverse, crank it down a notch. The mopeds struggled can’t deny it, so lucky they are pedal assisted vehicles, but crumbs, It was worth it. The property was set in landscaped gardens of over 16 hectares and consisted of a main mansion, an independent villa, a guest house and extremely luxurious staff accommodation. All of the living space had been renovated to an exceptionally high standard by the current owners and retained many original features. It was built in the Provencal style, yet incorporated all the comforts of modern living. This property included a large swimming pool, a billiard room complete with bar area, a tennis court and a private golf course. I later discovered a fully fitted family kitchen, a formal dining room with feature vaulted ceiling and a gymnasium.

Parked in the driveway was quite a fleet of unusual cars: a common or garden Nissan Entrail of course, then what looked to me in the misty failing light like a 1962 Dodge Veg-e-Matic and last but least, a horrible little Smart for two. This thing would not remain unscathed during my hopefully brief stay here. Me and my Sharpie will see to that.

To my surprise Maurin actually knocked at his own front door, I had always thought of him more as died in the wool back door man. But no, there he stood clumsily trying to place himself between us and a pretentious crappy looking brass plaque which read: ‘Doctor Chester and Diva Esther Burnett and leur fils Eric.’

The door was almost instantly opened by a very pleasant and appealing woman of a certain age, dressed in a short black dress, a dainty little white apron and a jaunty leopard-skin politburo hat. About forty she must have been. She immediately and thoroughly embraced Maurin, murmuring words of obvious idolatry.

“Your Mother I presume Maurin? “

“His mother my fulsome backside.”

Came the sweet, brittle but rather well tempered voice in C minor from a lady in white satin, skulking, glass in hand a little further back in the hallway. She was British and of course drunk, very drunk.

“That odious creature is called Millicent and she’s from Astrakhan don’t you know, she was Eric’s wet nurse for more years than I care to remember, now she attends to my husband…. Eric! Is that you Eric? Eric my darling, how lovely to see you, and who is your handsome friend?”

I could tell straight away that she had taken a strong fancy to me.

“Steve” said Maurin,

“This is Steve, my very good friend Steve O’Milliband. He’s a cyclist, you know mummy, Tour de France, professional jobby”.

So there I was flat on my ass with no certificate.

“Oh my dear fellow!”

She said outstretching the pale and plumpish hand that was not holding a drink.

“This will not be over until the fat lady has said her piece. And she will. All this doping druggy nonsense in your business, such a travesty that you always get caught and punished in the end. What ever is wrong with taking drugs? No good? No bueno? You should have been an artist you know young man. Performance enhancers are de rigueur in my line of work. And who may I ask is this bearded little pimp with his hair all gassed back, Willy Nelson”? She went on without a break, referring of course to me.

“Please mama, no need to be quite that rude.”

I was fully expecting him to say let me introduce you to Don Sugarcube Harris, the donkey whisperer, or something equally fatuous and unnecessary, but no, his little trademark niceties were evidently reserved for French people.

“Rodney Skirvishely mum, a good mate of mine, lives in the Var too.”

Mum looked at me harshly. “Skir vishe lee? An anapaest without embroidery,”

but her pitying look said so much.

At last I squeezed a word in, “Eric? What do you mean Eric? he’s called Maurin”.

“No Monsieur Skirvishely, he is Eric. Do you not read French very well? All my sons are called Eric”.

“Could you show me the way to Saint Louis too, lady?”

Eric’s father was quite another kettle of fish, scaly cold and looking about ten past dead. “Papa” said young Eric with covert enthusiasm.

“May I introduce to you my lover Stevie-Ray Milliband, two dystics!…..Ah ha! I thought you’d be surprised!”

In the few months that I had known him, Eric had always had a rather special way of introducing me: Houston Boines, the fourth tenor, Alphonse, the Pope’s favourite nephew, or as I will always be known to his cronies in the St Tropez whisky bars, both Justerini and Brooks. Tonight though he really excelled himself.

“Dad, meet Rodney Carrington, former prime minister of Ruritania.”

A light suddenly flashed in dada’s fishy glass eyes and as he approached he suddenly grabbed my hand.

“Rodney? Rodney of the bloodless coup fame, is it really you?”

“Yes yes, the bloody bloodless coup that’s right.”

I was inured. Then he sort of clutched mine with both his hands and looked me square in the eye.

“You are so right! A bloody coup it would have surely been.”

He managed to say it slowly and distinctly, yet somehow to wink furiously at the same time.

“If it had not been for the Corps Diplomatique Francais….”

“Yes sir a little French duplicity cleans a big, big carpet”, I replied honestly.

“Had it not been for your timely intervention, I think I really would have married that darned pick-up truck.”

“Ah Rodney”, he gazed at me with that loving feeling. “By golly mon cher ami. If there is anything, anything at all I can do for you just let me know………”

“Well sir,” despicable opportunist passer by that I sometimes am.

“There are in fact one or two things you could do for me if you feel that way inclined, you could ask your mate the Minister of culture to nominate a few tribute, celebration days, Wild man Fischer day would be a corker, Trout Mask Replica day perhaps. Are you familiar with the works of the good Captain Beefheart sir? Well, no matter, let’s try Blue Cheer or why not free beer? Something to mollify the unemployed, if you pursue the target of my observations?”

“I do I do good Sir Rodney and I will I will! Why not Howlin’ Wolf day too, twice a year?”

“And now gentlemen — I trust there are no transvestites present – let’s discuss all this over dinner.”

Chester wrapped one arm warmly on my shoulders. The Astrakhani nanny announced on cue that dinner was indeed served but it was promptly postponed by Esther:

“What about some more bleedin’ aperitifs?” She demanded.

“No, dinner it is.” said Mr Burnett softly but bitterly.

“The lady of the house has tippled, one whisky, one Bourbon and one beer too many and now she must have her fishy on her little dishy, but don’t worry boys, you shall have free rein on my exceptional wine cellar”.

Well, Brad, what was for supper?

It was interesting, but I won’t disturb you with details, just small and rather elegant portions, one tiny spoonful of stuff after another, stuff that I guessed had been picked up on the beach the day before or found in a rock pool in the early hours of this morning. Cripes but what a garnish! Men long for beans. He wasn’t joking about the wine either. From Mali to Monaco, then Fulham, Bordeaux, court case and obscurity. Château Jean Tigana lives on, red, white and pink from just down the road in Cassis. The three of us were offered half a litre each of what Michel Platini drinks and slaked our thirsts with horrible gulpings.

Dinner conversation turned out to be much easier than I had expected. We spoke at length about Esther’s nose job, the conversation then drifted quite pleasantly into nude disintegrating parachutists, those frightful floods in Texas and of course in this type of company, the Taxman. Stevie-Ray was inexplicably polite, he hoped that they were all enjoying their holiday and made quite a point of saying how nice he was finding Juarez at this time of year.

Although I definitely I prefer him in ‘did you know?’ mode, after a drink and exclusively for our amusement he expanded on his ever growing list of things that he just didn’t understand: thunderstorms, the offside rule in soccer, who invited Sha Na Na to play Woodstock? Incroyable. Then Opera, In what I took to be an altogether belligerent and nasty dig at Eric’s fatty or a mother. I abruptly halted her heaving ire by protesting that the Opera was he was alluding to was just a harmless web browser and I could not make head nor tail of it either.

“What would you do with a dot torrent file in Opera madam?”

That shut her up. The bird that can sing but won’t.

“A thunderstorm, my friend,”

said the wise and wonderful Chetser Burnett, as if anyone cared.

“Is a form of turbulent weather, characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the earth’s atmosphere is known as thunder. The meteorologically assigned cloud type associated with the thunderstorm is the cumulonimbus……”

Steve too had obviously taken a dislike to these people, less immediate than my own, but that’s Steve for you. He had decided now to play a distinctly out of character Mister Rude.

“Yes, everybody knows that Doctor dork, but why and how do they actually happen?”

“Well I don’t know that, nobody does. Jeder macht eine kleine Dummheit.”

Chester, politician and diplomat had in a blink, outsmarted him.

Eric was justifiably embarrassed. Steve took umbridge at last, a huge piece of cheese, then flight. Broke like the wind.

Steve had lived, worked, trained and raced so much in this country for so long, that he had inadvertently learned the word Bonjour. How many times had I tried to tell him how much better it was to say hello when you entered the room, rather than when leaving? Bonjour remains to him good day, have a good day, or sometimes with a little intonational jiggery-pokery, did you have a good day? Tonight he just disappeared.

“Bonjour!” He lied.

“Chester”, I said as calmly I could muster, “you don’t mind if I call you Chester do you?”

Crazy Chester was still there, he had refrained from chasing after Steve in the fog and no, he didn’t mind at all.

“How can I help Rodney old chap?”

“Well, if we’re all good for those special days, I’ll fax you a full list with dates and what not in the morning, but there is just one more little thing you could do for me, it’s about this ridiculous energy saving time that you lot impose on us. Everybody knows it’s a load of crap, couldn’t you just scrap it and stay on something like Greenwich Mean Time, or Unix time all the year round?”

Chester looked at me like a Frenchman preparing a pointless lie, just a common or garden Frenchman then now I come to think about it, and said

“Now that is an original idea Rodney, and of course I will give this matter my full and due consideration.”

I think we all know what that means.

 Eric and I decided to nip out for a few beers instead, and Chester kindly offered the loan of the smallest car we could find in the car park, presumably hoping that us driving around drunk on this filthy night would kill off three birds with one stone. Asshole!

I was a bit worried about Steve though, I had a sneaking feeling that he’d be out nicking bikes, swiping them, that’s what he did when he was upset or drunk, or both. Keep stealing them, one more expensive than the next, until he got a Phanuel Krencker de Luxe Bicyclette or better still a Trek Yoshitomo Nara Speed Concept, something in the 200,000 Euro bracket at least. We didn’t find Steve, nowhere to be seen thank God, just found The Maureva, the village cocktail bar and lingerie fashion showroom, trendy like you could never imagine, trussed up like a luxury yacht, all Armani, Armagnac and beers you could stake your life on.

A few beers turned into quite a few more after Eric had the brilliant idea of telling everyone in the bar that behind my beard and effete southern accent, lay in fact a hero. Tonight I was Chris Waddle!

“Go on mate tell them about that about that brilliant goal you scored against those food poisoned Poles in 1990.”

“Why man, I just kicked the ball, like, you know, with me foot like, and blimey, there it were in the back of the net!”

Somehow we did manage to get back safely. The four of us here in reception one, I took the picture, but didn’t realize until later, after looking at it more carefully that someone had picked up what looked to me like Bob Wilson and Jacqui Oatley. It can’t possibly have been me and Eric in the Smart for two, could it?

Then Steve, looking sober as a goat lying in wait. I was rather pleased to see him, relieved really as you might imagine. He seemed quite clean, but bottled up with anger, a controlled rage that I had never seen before. He was horribly calm as he grabbed Eric, pinned the poor drunken sot down with one hand and confronted him with first his fist and then his fucking problem.

“In my absence someone has used my scissors!”

All this was forgotten the next morning though as Steve found himself covered almost from head to toe, as far as I could make out as a casual observer, in vile bluish green and purple boils with some nasty throbbing succulence of quite another kind. Was it the sea food or the cuisse de pute a l’orange he had taken by the wayside? Nobody will ever know. Not Even the doctor of the house.

“Tell me Steve, does it hurt when you pee?”

Chester was rebuffed.

“Fuck off! I don’t want no doctor sticking needles in me.”

“Well, A raw onion last thing at night would certainly be of great benefit your complexion. Barang!”

We were getting our things together when the front doorbell rang Steve raced off to answer it just to see what effect his new look would have on a stranger. He had plenty of time to savour the words, make a witty remark as the two estrangers, dressed in blue, the municipal police just stood there staring blankly at him.

Steve stared back at them, puss dripping down wherever they dared to look, and with a few less teeth than I remembered, he asked them sweetly:

“Is it about a bicycle?”