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Buster & Moo
Life, in a Grain of Sand
My Father and Other Liars
Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle
This is what I blog about
Life In A Flash
June’s been wet and a bit windy but there’s been France
And there’s always the garden
There are many ways in which my wife and I are different. Fr’instance if we are driving on a road with two or more lanes and one of the lanes begins to disappear – the road narrows or there are road works or an accident so the outside lane, say, is merging into the one inside – she will signal and move into the inside lane as soon as the narrowing road becomes apparent. I, on the other hand, will continue until the last moment and merge only when I have to. I often express my frustration at people who block the narrowing lane, even though it has yet to run out as they wait to be allowed to merge. She considers it polite to move across as soon as; I believe it is a literal and metaphorical waste of space – nature abhors a vacuum and all that good stuff.
Today I was at an international cricket match – the world cup is being played in England and Wales and England played the West Indies in Southampton – with my son. We travelled there by train. The game finished early and we were shuttled back to the station to catch our next train. A lot of other people were planning on doing the same thing.
I immediately enter ‘train-strategy’ mood. The indicator sign was not yet showing our train so I had no indication of its length. Long experience of catching pubic transport after a major sporting fixture has taught me to head to one or other end of the platform, as far along as possible, if I want any chance of a seat. With the London tube the trains are a universal length – not so the overground railways where trains can be as short as two carriages and as long as twelve. Ours was likely to be between either and twelve so we headed for the front and the sign saying ‘8-10 car stop’ and watched the indicator board for our train to appear.
The platform began to fill. At our end the numbers were light and we were near the front of both train and platform crowd. Hope still reined.
Then the train came up on the board and the list of intermediate stations began scrolling through – these appears before the length of the train. Meanwhile the announcer informed us the train was approaching and it was …
Cue swearing under the breath and a jostling back along the platform to the already crowded spot under the ‘2-5 car stop’ sign.
Son is reading the indicator board as I am watching the approaching train. At the same moment I realise the train is patently longer than five cars the indicator board shows it is ten cars long. Cue more swearing and an unseemly trot back to where we were moments before, juggling back-pack, phone, waterproof and all the other paraphernalia that is needed for the cricket.
We were one of a few who made the too and fro effort and were rewarded with seats facing front and next to each other. The crowds grew and the train filled but we were smug. We had seats!
As we settled back, lightly steaming from the effort, Son remarked that his mother wouldn’t have even bothered to walk to the front and just stayed where she entered the platform. If I had persuaded her to move to the front she wouldn’t have willingly involved herself in the constant frenetic movements back and forth. And if she had followed me and then ended up back where we started the acquisition of a seat would in no way have compensated for her sense of the futility of it all.
‘I’d have got a a seat anyway.’
‘But you might not have.’
‘And neither might you. And does it really matter?’
Just asking that question tells you no explanation will satisfy. We are yin and yang, chalk and cheese, night and day. I can no more enter a station when I know where the exit is at my destination station and not move up or down the platform so I will join the train at the spot nearest to where I will be leaving at my destination station than she can give a monkeys for whether she walks the same distance as me before or after she has joined or left the train.
She will rarely bother with a rat run because often it makes no difference to the journey and she’ll not know if it would have anyway. I will delight in complex circuitous journey plans that at least give me the illusion of constant movement.
She will sit in the driver’s seat and look at me.
‘Okay, which way do you want to go?’
I will profess indifference to the route.
She will wait for the truthful answer and when she has it follow that route.
We make a pretty good team really… but I still have the sense that I am being ridiculous. Is it me? A man thing? A mental health issue? A paranoia? A commonplace? Or is her studied indifference more wilful contrariness than a well worn tranquillity? And anyway, if it makes us, me happy….?
Every morning, at 7.29 exactly John addresses his greatest fear. As the train eases to a halt and prior to the doors sliding open John smells the acidic tang of his own sweat, feels the cold finger that runs down his spine and focuses his energies on his enfeebled knees, willing them to remain strong.
Every morning at 7.30 the doors open and a wall of faces confronts John – blank, depersonalised faces, expressing both nothing and despair in their blank-eyed stares. Small movements, a twitch here, a shuffle there and a modicum of space appears.
Every morning at 7.31 John presses himself against a phalanx of coats and bags and scarves and flesh. Panic, freshly risen, repeated every day clutches his throat and snares his nostrils. His chest hardens and breathing becomes John’s new sole focus. The sweat beads his forehead and someone – it could be anyone – groans.
Every morning at 7.31 that anonymous groan transports John 167 miles and nearly 30 years back to another day, another unforgiving minute that will always stay with him. A minute when John sits, like an angel looking down on the world, atop a set of shoulders – much like his own shoulders today, strong, steadfast, secure – and watches as faces, expressing both nothing and despair – begin to turn blue. He watches as the crowd sways like a single creature – massive, monstrous and murderous – and begins to crush each cell, squeezes the breath from each component part.
Every morning, when time has ceased to have any meaning, John says goodbye once more to the man on whose shoulders he sits, as he takes his last sliver of a breath. And even in that last moment when his eyes lose their focus and he lets go of life he holds John aloft – safe and secure from the beast below and within.
Every morning, at 7.52 when once again the clocks start on their inexorably journey towards tomorrow, John stands on the platform that is journey’s end and wipes his brow. He dabs away his tears and straightens his tie. He adjusts his jacket and checks his shoes for scuffs. And he smiles. Not for surviving the crush. It is not the crush he fears. He fears the day when he no longer embraces the crush, when he cannot find it within himself to grasp that moment when he is at one, albeit just briefly, with his saviour, his love, his father.
Don’t go via Calais unless you hail from Redditch in which case the comparison will be positive
Do try and speak the language
Don’t try too hard to speak the language because you won’t understand the answer – no nation slurs its words together quite like the French
Do try all foods and drinks on offer.
Don’t ask what they are or where they came from or how they were made, unless you ask in perfect French – see above
Do escape the main cities and enjoy the fabulous countryside
Don’t try and leave Paris via the Peripherique since once on the orbital bypass you will never escape its Faustian clutches
Do expect to find yourself, at least once, confronted by one or more of: Les gillet jaunes blocking access to your hotel; signs with ‘en greve (on strike)’ in the window of the vital service you need that morning; the CRS blocking access to your hotel; students/workers/professionals/civil servants/rodent support groups blocking access to your hotel in protest at the government
Don’t think the French are any different to any other nation in the world; know they are and be grateful they are. After all, when considering who one might have as neighbours, at least we’re not Canadian…
Et encore more reminiscences of La Belle France
Work. I’ve had to visit Paris many times through my work. Conferences, partners get togethers, client meetings and marketing trips, one football tour with the office eleven and the final meeting in 1999 when we put the finishing touches to a merger with a large German law firm that made our firm truly international. I ate well, courtesy of my French colleagues choices;, I smirked at the ostentation of my French partners’ offices – all ormolu and opulence – and the need for self aggrandisement; I laughed fit to bust in the company of one wondrous German partner, when we discovered our mutual and deep endless love for Monty Python; and I vomited copiously into the Seine after I discovered my allergy to mussels and cockles extended to snails.
One evening, while staying in Montparnasse (think Croydon without the chic) we found a sea food restaurant. It was recommended by someone – a rival lawyer perhaps – for the size of the platters which came on huge circular plates that were set on a stalk, sort of looming over the table. Half way through, one British colleague disappeared for a comfort break.
Pausing momentarily, this would have been just before the Millennium as we were all carrying office supplied Blackberries – do they still exist or are they once again a delicious soft fruit? The head of admin had made it clear that the consequences for losing same would be dire.
After several minutes a waiter came to out table. ‘Messieurs,’ yep we weren’t overwhelmed with female partners, ‘your colleague needs your assistance.’
I was nearest so stood and headed for the back followed by one of my French colleagues. We found our colleague peering out of the toilet door. He looked less than excited by life.
‘Disaster!’ He wasn’t known for his moderation. ‘I’ve lost my blackberry.’
Cue sharp intake of breath from me, but my French colleague, not one to worry over much with rules or the edicts of administrators, asked, ‘how?’
A fair point given he was in the toilet.
He stood back and pointed. It was one of ‘those’ toilets. Two footprints and a yawning chasm. While it didn’t take much imagination to work out where the blackberry was now, how he had managed to ‘lose’ it there did make us wonder. Balancing over these one hole wonders is tricky enough for the non indigenous person; texting while in mid hover assumed a confidence that even a yoga guru would struggle to achieve.
The three of us looked at each other. The two Brits wondered if the other would face up to the administrator’s approbation but the French man was cut from a different cloth. Scowling he spun on his heels and headed for the maitre d’. An exchange took place that could only take place between two Frenchmen who instinctively understood the Revolution had taken place just so these sorts of exchanges could happen. A significant number of shrugs and epithets later, the two men reached an understanding, viz (1) they were both right (2) the English are useless but (3) the honour of France required the retrieval of the blackberry.
Still huffing, the maitre d’ passed the instruction down the line until a very irritated, but evidently junior waiter appeared, clutching tongs. He went fishing with an unexpectedly practiced hand. Soon enough the offending, and by now offensive, handset surfaced. A short debate followed on the merits of washing same (yes) and my colleague was handed a foil-wrapped takeaway of the sort he hoped never to receive again.
We returned to our table. Our colleagues laughed at the fix and a lot of banter ensued, but I’d lost my appetite. The reason wasn’t the smell on retrieval or where said blackberry had been. No, it was the fact that by my plate sat an identical set of tongs to those recently used and which I was expected to utilise in taking food from the platter. Surely they’d use ‘special’ tongs for bog-diving? I glanced at the waiters hovering on the edge of boredom. Were they watching us, about to share a private joke? Were any of us the proud holders of special tongs?
They were French and we were British. I held off until the creme brulee came.
More reminiscences of France…
I married in 1984, May and we decided to postpone a proper honeymoon until later because, well, we were pretty skint. But, in case that wasn’t romantic enough, we had four days in Paris.
It didn’t start well. Regular readers will know that, to let the senior Male Le Pard loose on a holiday itinerary is a guarantee to end in tears. Or a close second. Here the incompetence comprised my fallibility with the complications that are the 24 hour clock. Back then you didn’t need to check in so early that airports offered birthing services for those who hadn’t been born by the time you were required to be in a queue. Even so, some margin for error was recommended. Which meant that, by the time I had realised that a flight at 14.20 didn’t mean a flight at 4.20 pm, we had a cool 17 minutes to get from check in to the flight. I think it was only because of the confetti spilling out of our bag and our admission that this was our honeymoon that they told us to ‘just run’ and they’d call ahead. I’ve loved Gatwick ever since, though the other passengers on our flight weren’t so delighted to be held up.
That ‘phew, got away with it’ moment lasted until we landed. Back then I’d flown twice and hadn’t appreciated the trickery involved in branding airports as ‘Paris’ even though we were closer to Paris when we took off than when we landed in Beauvais. If you get the chance to visit Beauvais, don’t. If you have to, declare martial law and impose a curfew on yourself. Just. Don’t. Go. Ever.
It’s grim and no place to begin a period of isolation in a cholera outbreak let alone a romantic break in Paris.
By the time we’d reached the Peripherique, we were knackered, monosyllabic and testing most of the wedding vows to destruction.
‘I’m hungry,’ declared the newly rebranded Mrs Le Pard.
‘No problem,’ declared the far from confident Mr Le Pard. ‘All the guidebooks say Paris never sleeps.’ Well, people, that may have been true, it may be true today but on May 20th 1984 I can speak with confidence and say, ‘utter bollocks.’ Especially in the obscure part of the 17th arrondissement where out three star hotel was situated.
I did an unusual thing for a Male Le Pard. It may in fact be unique. I asked for directions from the concierge. Something that may have translated roughly as ‘My cherub person of largeness, pray deliver me of a slice of mappage for a timely repast.’ I’m guessing obviously, but going by his look when I’d finished my best attempt in French, it had to be something like this.
‘There is a Macdonalds open. They do burgers.’
Seriously? We’ve come to the bloody self declared home of haute cuisine and we are being directed to the home of the culinary equivalent of mouth washing with napalm? I tried again. Slowly and with a greater volume.
Mine host tapped his watch. It was 9pm. ‘It’s late.’ And then at last I knew I was in France and even if we had to eat something on the unspeakable spectrum in a bun and not a baguette we would be ok: it was our first Gallic, ‘fuck you, rosbif’ shrug. Bliss. Bless.
We climbed two flights of stairs. While I collapsed on the bed and tried to make sense of what passed for a pillow but could easily have been an embalmed grandmother rolled up in a body bag and placed at the head of the bed, the new Mrs Le Pard headed for the en-suite facilities. She returned to the room, laughing. Well, somewhere between laughing and psychotic hysteria. ‘Check this out.’
The bathroom was compact, in the sense that thumberlina would have felt it rather cosy, but it had a toilet, sink and shower. The thing was the shower head was right above the toilet. There was a little cardboard sign. It took me a while to translate but the gist was we were advised to remember to remove the toilet roll before using the shower, because spares cost extra.
We slept well, rose to Paris rooftops, discovered patisseries and I drank the first really delicious coffee I’d ever tasted. The Louvre, The Jeu de Paume – which then housed the Impressionists – le Tour Eiffel, the Centre Pompidou, Place d’Etoille, L’Arc de Triomphe, La Bastille, Sacre Coeur… we walked, we metroed, we ate and drank with rare gusto. It was everything I had hoped. Hell, I was in love and in the City of Love and who cared if I was hopeless at organising anything. Though I never did fathom the pillow thing…