The evening before that most dreaded of parties I dropped by at Maurin’s with the pretence of needing to finalize some important paperwork for his admission to our club. I had to add just kidding mate, pretty damned quick, or I think he really would have shot me.
I was, how can I put it? Mildly surprised to see Taz in the distance wielding a large orange axe with seldom seen dexterity, chopping a little wood for the fire. I said “Hi Taz”, she replied “Hi dad”, further embarrassment was delayed by the timely arrival of Steve on the kind of vintage racing bike that can be picked up by any dumpster, flying down the rough stone drive, both arms aloft, dressed only in a long flowing yellow dressing-gown and plastic sandals. He gracefully dismounted and insisted that the long suffering Maurin interviewed him, again!
“The great Steve Milliband has finally made it home and if I’m lucky, I might get some sense out of him.
“Great ride today Steve!”
“Oui, oui! bon ride aujourd’hwee, trez bon.” Feigning a little breathlessness.
“The peloton was extremely vigilant though Steve.”
“Oui, oui, extremement vigilant n’est pas Nelson?”
“But you held on for quite a few hectometres didn’t you? “
“Oui, bien sur j’ai tenoo quelques petits ‘ectos Nelson”
“But in the end Lance was too strong for you.”
“Oui, a la fin, Lance etait trop fort pour moi.”
“To sum up then Steve, would it be fair to say Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 3 or 4. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor?”
“Oui, tout a fait Nelson, oui, oui, exactement….”
“Steve, can you confirm the rumours that the boys in town call you mellow Jell-o?”
” Oui, oui and quite rightly.”
“Before you go could you tell us a little about your famous tactics of starting every race like a bat out of hell, only to always finish last?”
“Oui, oui There are deux choses which I ne comprend pas dans this world, first le income tax and then pourquoi le cycling est un team sport?”
“Always a pleasure to talk to one of cycling’s true greats, better get back to the team bus now Steve, smoke a little something to enhance those language skills…”
My real reason for coming here of course was to try to find out a bit more about this Maurin bloke, he had joined our club, but any time soon he could join the family or at worst become the good friend of a best friend. I really had no idea of what was going on here and it did worry me a little, only friend Beery Bravura would even think of telling you otherwise and he would, daft bugger. I had been wondering for a couple of days just how I was going to broach the subject: “Tell me a little something about yourself old chap” or “Good morning, I’d like to talk to you about browsers.” Nothing I could think of sounded quite right and if I practised aloud, quite wrong. I would have to watch and wait. Maurin treated us all to another taste of his home-grown cuisine, Taz and Steve had a blistering attack of the munchies, while the host and I sedately enjoyed a bottle of Aigo Ardento as a perfect complement to an excellent lamb tajine with dried figs and apricots accompanied by an original but quite delicious sweet chestnut cousicous, or something lie that.
Steve began a jam-fisted attempt at clearing the table, the genial one produced a little something he had prepared earlier, a gently smouldering hookah for two, announcing that:
“the gentlemen would be indulging in a little Nucky Delight, and no, I don’t include you Steve, I have a funny feeling that Mr Rodders here has something he would like to discuss with me.”
“Too polite to be honest” I was thinking darkly, and also rather hoping that Taz would not offer to do the dishes. She didn’t.
My moment had come, we were alone at opposing ends of Steve’s unfinished table, resin rings floating delightfully all around us we sat in silence, when suddenly without really thinking about it, the right words just came to me:
“Who the fuck are you?”
As if I had taken those words straight from his mouth he laughed back,
“Rod, if I may call you that you will know who I am, and I will tell you everything, but first my friend, you are in my house so who the fuck are you?”
I murmured crossly, but it was only a scratch. All right, if this was how he wanted it, fine.
“I’m Rodney. Skirvishely by name and nature, heir abhorrent, and it would be me that asks the questions…..Dillo.”
Sensing my reluctance and dedication to the absurd he asked only that I tell him why I was here, in France, with my lovely daughter and the wackjob? I could see no real reason to deny myself the pleasure of telling a unreasonable story and as he was visibly sitting very comfortably, I began:
“Not long ago, somewhere in Valencia county, New Mexico I was trying to score a ten bob deal when I came across a sickening one-armed, half blind amputee deep in righteous contemplation, but I asked him anyway. ‘Where can I get some weed in this no horse town?’ He looked me up and down, or at least that was the way I figured it, then he looked me up and down again and said “Don’t look for Mary Janes or sticky greenies in this county as the quality of our law enforcement prohibits the use of them, head east over yonder to Collobrières, France, for there you will find what you are searching for son, the hillsides are full of it. C. Sativa Linn. Those Frenchies say the darnedest things. Lookee lookee yonder!”
“That’s not quite the same story Miss Pinky your daughter told me the other night”. The chump was smiling at me,”Quite chatty she is after a few puffs, oh yes, speaking of which, Steve told me he met you last week for the first time in that restaurant……”
Infidels! But my lips were sealed, he would not get another word out of me until I had enjoyed his riposte. How dare he call her miss Pinky anyway?
“OK Rodney, here goes, I was born into a rather well to do family in Marseille…….”
I looked at him askance hoping to convey the message that I was surprised to hear that there were any such families in that dog end of a town, but he chose to ignore me and went on.
“My father is French and had been a heart surgeon at the Hôpital La Timone and later a deputé……No not a Bo Diddely deputy sheriff…” He responded to another of my famous rummy looks, “A member of parliament if you will, and leaning quite heavily to the right I’m afraid to say. As for my mother, well she is definitely English, but I have never been quite sure if she was an actress, an opera singer or just an over dramatic hooker with an annoying singing voice.”
“Well that was a pretty good start”, I was thinking, “go on Maurin, please…”
“I did try school for quite a number of years” he continued, lost in thought, as if he were reliving those presumably dreadful moments,” I really tried, but learning endless lists of words, subjected to three or more tortuous dictations a day, being frequently reminded of how important it was to vote, not to mention the enforcement of that strictest of republican certitudes; that we were all the same, made me a very unhappy boy. I who was so different from all those imbecile French kids, me whose mother tongue was God’s own and of course the little lad who knew only too well of the vital necessity not to vote, particularly in the eighth arrondissement of Marseille.”
“All three of you then Maurin? Encore encore!”
“School became ever more tiresome as I began to realise that I was learning nothing at all, apart from a language that I dislike and had very little use for. All subjects you see are just thinly veiled French language lessons, even in history or biology tests, all the answers are already on the paper in the form of pretty pictures, graphs and extracts of text. All you have to do is to re-write or paraphrase or do a cute précis in your best French and you’re done….You must have wondered Rodney why French people appear to be so stupid? No? Well they aren’t strictly speaking any stupider than anybody else, they just don’t actually know anything. Nothing at all, apart from how to re-phrase something they have seen or heard before, usually from a man called Patrick who lives in a great big screen in their lurid sitting rooms.”
“This can’t be true!” I belched incredulous, “what about all this we hear about their system being the best in the world and the famous bacca something or other Eh?”
“I’m afraid it is true Rod, and for them it is the best mass educational system in the whole wide. Why? Because by basing the entire thing on the ability or not to master an impossible language, they neatly divide the populace into three disproportionate categories: the few that can spell really, really well go on to be senior administrators and captains of industry. Those who can write a sentence with only a few grammatical errors can become lowlier public servants and live in complete security on a very meagre salary, and the rest, the soft underbelly of society, just know their place and are happy to be looked after and bullied by their undoubted betters. There is a hidden fourth group, who are referred to as ‘Beurs’, but they don’t count, they’re put away, out of sight in special places.”
Not often do I learn anything from a fellow man,they don’t teach this in the national schools and even Google himself would be hard pushed to impart this kind of life-changing information, of course it had to be true, like British table manners, the French spout utter bullshit, but do so beautifully. This was priceless; to know that policemen, schoolteachers, mayors of small towns had risen to the summit their noble occupations solely on the merit of being able to read write and speak an almost obsolete language but had no other knowledge or understanding? This I could, and surely would, use to my advantage.
“I finally walked out of school the day my maths teacher said ‘Les mathématiques, c’est aussi la redaction’. I went home without even bothering to tell him to sodomize himself with a retractable baton, and informed my mother that she was morally and duty bound to teach me how to be a Brit. Enough of indefinite relative pronouns, genders, conjugation and having my maths papers mutilated for a spelling mistake, enough, being British was my birthright.”
I am not easily impressed, in fact he hadn’t really told me very much at all, but walking out of school without a final gratuitous insult to your maths teacher was a phenomenal achievement in itself. I was warming to the boy and was impatient to find out how his mother had managed to turn an effete little French robot into what he undoubtedly appeared to be today, a proud and loathsome Brit. According to Maurin she had accepted his demand with relish but first she had to make sure he could read and understand English. She began her very first lesson by asking him to read a random paragraph from a paperback she happened to have with her at the time Maurin recited it for me, it was something he was never likely to forget:
“Ever see a hot shot hit, kid? I saw the Gimp catch one in Philly. We rigged his room with a one-way whorehouse mirror and charged a sawski to watch it. He never got the needle out of his arm. They don’t if the shot is right. That’s the way they find them, dropper full of clotted blood hanging out of a blue arm. The look in his eyes when it hit — Kid, it was tasty….
Once this formality was over she had outlined what she considered to be a distinctly cunning plan: he was to major in pop music, from Abba to Zappa with a good deal of abba zabba, beatle bones and smoking stones in between. He would study the beautiful game in all its infinite statistical glory, and finally he would be fed on a diet of British sit-coms and soaps and would be expected to re-enact Monty Python sketches, verbatim, every morning at breakfast. As for the minor subjects, he chose suburban property prices, Mediterranean holidays and an option to speak knowledgeably on all things related to cars, paying particular attention to lying about great deals on air conditioning and heated leather upholstery. He voluntarily passed on reading the tabloid newspapers and eating baked beans and spam for breakfast, dinner or tea.
“So what exactly are you doing here and now in this place? Why did you never go to England, you would have blended in so easily?”
I asked him without really expecting or caring about the reply, the Nucky Balls had left me happy and smug but almost inanimate. He told me that in the end being half French, he actually didn’t give a crap about cars, house prices, holidays, pop music or even that much about football! He just enjoyed the quiet life with all the good things thrown in for free. He loved his freedom and would specifically recommend an ASP219 retractable baton to anybody who tried to tell him how to live his life.
He did have one last thing to ask me, and as the night was getting on and we had a big day ahead of us.”Just tell me, please Rodney”. As I was slipping out of the smoky heavens of Erewhon into the enticing land of nod I’m quite sure I heard him say, “The one thing I really don’t understand after all those years of studying sport, pop music and and television, I still don’t get it…….Bob Wilson, anchorman?”