July. Our adventures on and around the Turpitude are now distant, vague, yet cherished memories; if folks like Lister and Lozzi didn’t exist, you’d have to bleedin’ well invent them, arf, arf. The unspeakably hot and to my mind wholly unacceptable Provençal summer days are nevertheless a great excuse for the respected elders of IBSA to pass their time in peaceful reflection and great thoughtfulness. In Steve’s case, I suggested that a little self-improvement might not go amiss. Toughen up that fragile eggshell mind of his.
Quite wrongly of course, he had attributed to me the coining of the crudely amusing axiom:
“If an Englishmans home is his castle, An American’s is his hassle.”
He then resolved to take immediate remedial action. It sounded much more like a half-baked fortune cookie to me and I told him so. By strange coincidence he also claimed to have partially unravelled the famous Da Selbi Code (sic). He meant of course O’Brians De Selby Codex:
“a collection of some 2000 sheets of foolscap closely handwritten on both sides, the signal distinction of the manuscript being that no one word of the writing is legible.”
“Da Selbi has some interesting things to say on the subject of houses.”
Steve told me excitably.
“A row of houses he regards as a row of necessary evils. The softening and degeneration of the human race he attributes to the progressive predilection for interiors and waning interest in the art of going out and staying there.”
With this in mind, Steve had elected his new domicile in a fallen and naturally hollowed out sweet chestnut stump in Maurin’s garden. Here he planned to sleep, smoke, drink and idle away the summer months. His cosy little chez-moi would serve too as an out sized ashtray, spittoon and I have no doubt a pissoir.
Steve himself should really be credited with the brilliant invention of the folding and portable all-weather cigarette rolling booth, as I know in his modesty he would dismiss this ingeniously designed contraption as just a flabby cardboard box with a big wide two-handed slit and a pair of eye holes. Cardboard indeed!
He was right though about remaining outdoors, one of lifes better choices; interiors seldom change and never without a coat of paint or a trip to IKEA. The outside is a forever changing conundrum, but however much you try to change it, with your diggers chain-saws or boxes of matches it will in the end revert to type, adapt to the seasons and the whims of creeping nature. But not so much if you sit and arse around the house all day, like a short-sighted gink.
Then at last it dawned on me,
Go on say it!
Tammys back! It had been so long that I had easily managed to forget all about her, but now I was taunting him, what was stopping me from doing a little dance, pointing at him, prodding nastily and making him blush some more?
That Tammy actually was back was the bad news, the really great news though, Steve told me with a lopsided grin, was that her delayed return had been due to completing a brand new and original comeback album of obscure country and western songs, in French! It had already gone platinum in Canada with a couple of singles riding high in the charts “Bras de scratch, coeur en teflon” and “Billy ma brise le coeur a Castorama puis jai pleure jusqua Leroy Merlin.”
Why the hell hadn’t she done “je me suis fait une epilation jambaire pour ceci?” I moaned bitterly. Maybe she had.
My own particular contribution to the toils of human endeavour was unsurprisingly in total opposition to Steve’s al fresco experiment, I decided to toy with one of Blaise Pascal’s more unusual and original “Pansies”: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” If he had been born three hundred or so years later, I’m sure he would have added, ”sans la television, la radio, la presse ou putain de CNN.” On the condition however that the man in question had a big pile of books and an adequate supply of chilled pilsener, I would have to agree with him that people these days really dont know shit about metaphysics.
I chose the coolness of the cellar in my home in this tiny burg that reminds me so much of Streslau, where I lived and worked for several years back in the eighties. The town is partly old and partly new, spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circle the upper classes live; in the inner, the shops, bars cafés and restaurants are situated; and behind their prosperous fronts the hidden, populous but wretched lanes and alleys filled with a poverty stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class, of which I myself am a leading light.
When I am not out and about dressed like a tramp begging shamelessly for money, or worse, badly disguised as a leper to scare the crap out of Germans, I do in fact stay at home, quietly in a room. Silently waiting for the intermittent furtive taps on my living room shutters. Three short raps and I am up on my feet, ready to serve, Staffordshire style through the four feet of thick stone windowsills that separate me from my clients, for there, outside pinned to the shutter in my own neat and attractive handwriting, a little notice which reads: “Nuckminster Listerene” (the name had stuck) “Connoisseur quality, competitive pricing. Knock three times.”
One day as I sat in my reverie, waiting for trade, I was startled and almost overcome when I was awoken, not by gentle tapping, but a single heavy knock on the front door. In all the years that I have lived here, this I can assure you has never happened before, A first! I leapt up to answer it.
Question; who would make the – let’s just call it arduous – journey from Albuquerque New Mexico to Collobrieres France just for a 24 hour stopover? Answer; the bleary eyed moustachioed dude in a Stetson that I found on my doorstep late that afternoon. Why would he do this you may well ask? As we stood, staring at each other in disbelief I had absolutely no idea. One night in Bangkok? Just maybe, at a pinch, but here?
I’m not sure if he actually did say “howdy” as he offered me his hand and said in a gruff voice “Raylan”, which I took to be his name, but I did invite him in and proffered a cold beer, which he politely refused as it didn’t feature on his list of refreshing summer drinks. Home-made lemonade on the other hand would be more than welcome. I sat him down with a bottle of Pschitt! He quenched his thirst without comment. It was hard to squeeze much conversation out of this guy without beer, but I did learn that he was Ray Lannigan, Ice-cream Baron of Wagon Wheel NM and that he was here because he smelled opportunity.
It turned out that my Dear and so recently departed friend Phyllis had in her finite wisdom written a small piece in The Curry County Tribune about her joyous holiday, also posted a couple of summer fun pictures on-line and won first prize for the wood fire pizza man at the gas station.
He explained that he had been planning to stay the night in The Expanded Backside, on Phyllis’s recommendation, but it was occupied, by Germans. Could he,
“flop the night with me?”
Well he sure didn’t seem like a bundle of laughs to me, but how often does Rodney, Duke of Yendor get to entertain visiting aristocracy? “Sure”. And I showed him and his little bag to the great guest room in the sky where he could rest shower and change.
“Thanks but I’ll pass on the shower and changing bit.”
An hour or so later came the inevitable, the part that I always dread when visiting Americans are in town. Ray announced that he was “so darned hungry” he would even consider eating cheese. I can’t remember how many times I have sworn that I will never set foot in a restaurant with an American again. Justified. He hadn’t been able to stomach the unfamiliar offerings of Air France nor had he been able to make himself understood since he set down in Paris some ten hours previously. How he got here at all with nothing but a scrap of paper with my name and address scribbled on it is more than a little worrying.
“OK Ray”, I say a little roughly,
“but first I’m going to lay down a few ground rules about dining out in this country. Firstly, things usually start out with an aperitif or two, invariably Pastis with ice and a jug of water; we don’t drink mugs of milky coffee with our meals and beer is considered uncouth, just wine or water. Got it?”
He nodded strangely, I continued.
“It is customary to use a knife and fork; with the knife in the right hand, or even a knife and a crusty piece of bread in the left hand. The meal will last several hours and of course please try to remember that in Europe a waitress is considered to be a regular member of the human race. Hands off! If you pay for the meal, I will take care of the tip, as I know from experience you will never, ever be able to get your head around French tipping. Finally, the meal will almost certainly finish with the smug and sweaty chef offering us a glass of his special reserve fire-water, reserved specially that is, for the clients he has ripped off the most that evening, and that my friend is going to be us. Still with me?” He was, but maybe it was just the long journey and lack of food that made him look so jaundiced.
I wouldn’t normally be dumb enough to eat in a restaurant that I knew was for sale, would you? The safest bet is to eat somewhere recently opened, still trying to please, bending over backwards is even better. They never put up for sale signs of course, but central scrutinizer that I am, I happen to know that The Procrastinating Provençal is on the market for a cool one and a half million dollars. What’s more, I had a plan. Happy in the knowledge that they would take any credit card Ray could throw at them, two dudes in Stetsons were out on the town.
It was apparent that Ray considered the French national aperitif to be some kind of awful patent medicine, but he swigged it willingly and it had the same effect on him as on those that actually enjoy the stuff; instant-on loud and fervent chatter, borderline obnoxious. As he outlined his great plans for a string of Raylan’s ice-cream parlours, I noted with relief that our waitress – obviously hand-picked by the proprietor’s wife – was more like Winston Churchill in drag than anything he was likely to grope – but the night was young and I remained vigilant. My reputation in this town was already at rock bottom, but with Ray around it could always take a turn for the worse.
The meal itself went surprisingly well; we had meat and potatoes, puddings and zero vegetables, washed down with bottle after bottle of Château Bastidon Rose wine that Ray was drinking as if it was Bud, no, not straight from the bottle stupid, I soon put a stop to that. After some slightly sobering strong black coffee, a greasy blob duly popped out of his kitchen brandishing an old fashioned looking bottle with a whole fat pear inside and came to our table with two tiny glasses. His trite and oft repeated speech fell on deaf ears, for Raylan was into yet another tear-jerking rendition of his favorite song, Lonesome Cowboy Bert – there’s the Zappa for those of you not expecting it – and only had eyes for the serving Wench.
I had a feeling that it was a bit too late to explain That Dr. Phyllis MacFarlane, careers adviser at Clovis Community College and Socorro Miss Personality 1975 was entirely responsible for Raylans rather pointless visit. She had noticed that Collobrieres had been dubbed the Capital des Maures, and could easily have been forgiven for assuming that the word Maures was French for ice-cream. Cold cones in your face has only recently been knocked off the top spot of popular things to do, by looking for bullet holes. It was, far too late. I don’t think we were actually thrown out of the diner or even sang any more on the way home, kicked any cats or peed through anyone’s letterbox .
My next recollection was Sunday morning.
He did say it this time of that I’m sure, also that I never seen a man so bright and so early on a Sunday. He had already been into town and bought fresh croissants and a local map, how much French did he learn last night? The coffee was percolating nicely and Ray was bubbling with excitement sticking pins into the map and sounding like he was playing solo Monopoly.
“Two motels here and here, a proper gas station here with a Toyota dealership and a car wash. A fast-food outlet here here and here. Jeez Rod, there are thousands of coneheads out there with nothing to eat but stinking ice-cream made with some kind of nut, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the last time I took a shower.”
He grinned for the first time since we’d met. He was gobbling pastries, slurping coffee looking at his watch and talking all at the same time, like a man who had left his helicopter running on the outskirts of town……?
“Look Rodney, you take care of the relocation incentives, tax breaks and recruitment subsidies – ship in some Chinks if you need to – as we agreed last night – and I’ll be back in a week, oh and you can tell grease-ball that since his place is over three hundred years old, its time for a freaking refit, one million cash, that’s my final offer.”
And he was gone… Pschitt!
Lesson learned, they’ll have to change the slogan “Collobrieres Capital des Maures” to something they might understand in Eddy or Grant County, Roxy and elsewhere; something like:
“Collobrieres, we’re growing, come join us.”
We are growing, just not what they’d think.