#298 – The Great American Bookshop

I’d never been much of a reader. I found novels daunting, weighty, difficult to finish. Even the good ones with their catchy covers and gushing praise rarely kept me hooked for more than a few chapters. If that.

So when my flatmate at university insisted I read A Farewell to Arms, thrusting a copy of the tattered book into my hand like a grenade, I didn’t expect to start it. Let alone finish it.

A few days later, much to my surprise, I was in the literature department of the college library.

‘Have you got any more books like this?’ I asked the librarian, showing her my book.

‘Hemingway,’ she murmured unenthusiastically picking up a pencil and writing out a list: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Twain, Kerouac, Thoreau, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Wolfe, Faulkner, Miller, McCarthy, Pynchon, Auster.

‘And they’re just the men,’ she said as she gave me the list. ‘When you’ve read those, come back and I’ll give you the really good ones. The women.’

‘Oh yes, I will,’ I replied weakly. Then disappeared off down the dusty aisles to get my books.

The next three or four weeks were spent in my room drinking coffee, smoking and reading. Lectures and labs passed me by. Food was delivered. My favourite TV programs missed. Even the girl I was seeing on the Humanities course took a back seat.

I was obsessed with the books and yet it was only when I went back to the library to pick up my new stash that I realised all the authors were American. Explained by the fact that on my first visit I’d wandered into the American Literature department.

I said ‘Hello’ to the librarian at the desk.

‘Finished?’ she asked.

‘I’m here for my next assignment.’

She half laughed and wrote me out another list. A longer one.

‘Thanks,’ I said and floated off down the aisles again.

 A month later I decided there seemed little point in continuing my studies. So one Friday evening I packed my bags and told my flatmate I was leaving.

‘I’m going to my brother’s in London,’ I told him. ‘If my parents phone, tell them I’m on holiday.’

When I got to the capital and explained my idea to my brother, he agreed instantly, even insisting he lent me money. Since the age of 17 he’d worked as a fashion photographer and understood the importance of feeding your soul. Listening to your inner voice and ignoring the wishes and advice of other people, your friends, and especially your parents.

After a few months of searching for premises I opened a small oblong bookshop off The Edgware Road. I called it The Great American Bookshop.

I had two rules. The authors had to be American and every copy had to be great! I wanted the old, weird, limited, foreign, promo, signed editions. I wanted stuff you couldn’t buy anywhere else except at The Great American Bookshop. I wanted people to walk in and feel like they were walking back in time. Back into the dark soul of American culture.

And it worked. Business boomed.

I developed a knack for going to the right places at the right time, picking up great books for next to nothing. Charity shops, house clearances, auctions, book fairs, car boot sales. You name it, any place where people were getting rid of books, I was there.

Some days I could feel my hand quivering when I was near a first edition Steinbeck or a signed Updike or a rare promo Kerouac. My ability was uncanny and I soon made a name for myself flogging rare books I’d picked up for pennies. A remarkable turnaround for someone who was destined for a dull career as a Plant Biologist. No longer a nobody among a million other docile students. Now I was The Book Guy and everyone knew me. 

True I wasn’t cavorting around America in a station wagon with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. But I wasn’t far off. Authors, actors, musicians, journalists, directors, even politicians, all came into the shop to talk about my books, some even invited me out for dinner and drinks.

‘Having dinner with The Book Guy,’ they’d type into their phones.

I often wondered if the writing mattered anymore. It seemed to be all about the book these days – the cover, the edition, the signature. As though the words between the covers had been relegated to lengthy footnotes. The author’s name and book’s title, the only reminder of the writer’s hard won battle.

One day I put a sign up above the door. Mainly as a sales gimmick but also to emphasise my point. It read:

Never judge a book by its cover

Within weeks my sales had doubled and it dawned on me exactly what I was doing. I wasn’t in the business of selling books, I was selling history. Tiny fragments of history no one else had.

When wealthy Chinese or American students flicked through my precious first editions like they were browsing a store catalogue. I knew they weren’t checking the quality of the writing. They were simply checking it was intact to make sure they weren’t being totally ripped off.

It’s not what I had in my mind when I started out – being in effect an art dealer. But who was I to complain when I emptied my till at night.

Ten years later I was still going strong, my ability for digging out great books undimmed. I now had a wife and a small child called Ben, but the shop and its philosophy remained the same. No fancy Penguin reprints here. Everything, just as before, had been dragged out of soggy books bins in Carlisle, Comellell, Caithness or Criccieth. Then brought back to London, cleaned, ironed, pressed and enclosed in nice plastic sleeves with Welcome to The Great American Bookshop stencilled on the front. Along with a hefty price tag of course.

But despite all of this small time fame and wealth, there was one thing I wanted to do more than anything else. I too wanted to write.

But it never happened. Even on the quiet days, I was busy. Rearranging displays, checking books, cleaning books, pricing books, looking for books, collecting books, chatting to folk about books. There was simply never the time.

So when my wife suggested I took some time out to write, I nearly fainted.

‘But the books!’ I complained. ‘I’ve got to keep getting the books – it never stops.’

‘We’ve got millions of books in the cellar,’ she argued. ‘Half of them you’ve never seen, all those ones people have dropped off over the years. Why don’t you go to write somewhere and I’ll sort through them. It’ll be fun. Maybe I’ll find some real gems of my own?’

My eyes narrowed. I was unsure, I hated letting go of my books, it had been my life for ten years and I wasn’t sure how I would deal with not being involved.

But in the end she insisted: ‘If you don’t do this now. You’ll never stop going on about it.’

I decided to take three months out and leave my wife to run the shop. An actor friend suggested I use his holiday home in Devon to lay down my masterpiece in. No-one would bother me there especially as it was winter. So one bright morning in February I set off on my adventure into the realms of authordom.

From years of working in the shop I felt all my cast of characters were already in place. The hard bit was going to be the story. But what story? I mean what on earth was I going to write about. I loved reading. I loved film. I loved plot and intrigue. I loved life. But I had no real imagination of my own. Not that I thought it mattered I told myself. It was perhaps buried deep down somewhere waiting to be unleashed onto the waiting world.

When my wife came to visit me on my second weekend in Devon, I couldn’t stop talking. Asking her about the shop, what had been sold, who had been in. Even though she would visit me every two weeks to keep me sane and assess my progress, I was already feeling intensely isolated in my hidey-hole in Devon.

She filled me in with the news and gossip but I could tell she was anxious to find out about my progress with the book. And that was the bit I had been dreading. Because for two long weeks, I had done nothing. Except stare out through the window from my desk at the pie-shaped hill on the other side of the valley.

I lied and said I’d been busy making notes. She nodded understandably, but I could tell she knew I’d done bugger all.

The next two weeks were worse. I would get up early with good intentions, have a coffee, sit down at my desk, make another coffee and then look out of the window for another hour trying desperately to come up with something. Anything. A Western, a sci-fi, a crime thriller?

After my third coffee, I would make breakfast. A large breakfast that took time and effort: black pudding, poached eggs, sautéed mushrooms, bacon, sausage, fried bread, heart attack.

This I would eat while I read the paper which I had delivered each morning. Then at around 11.30 I got down to work. Real work. Now I was ready.

Only I didn’t. I ended up staring out of the window wondering how long the pie-shaped hill had been there. Had people once lived there in ancient times? Why was it there in the first place? What was it called? Maybe I should go and visit it. Get some inspiration. Anything to avoid writing this damn novel.

By the third Saturday I decided to give myself the ‘afternoon off’ and went down the pub for lunch. The two mile walk along the coast to the nearest village might jolt my mind into action.

But of course it didn’t. I became a regular and a mixed grill and three or four pints every lunchtime was as far as my novel got. I mean who was I kidding. Was I really going to write a novel. A novel as good as all The Greats I was surrounded by in London. Never in a million years. I hadn’t even written a paragraph. Yet alone a full novel. I was a charlatan. A joke. A dreamer.

On the fourth Saturday I was awoken by knocking at my door. It was my wife and I was a wreck. She asked me what was happening and I told her.

‘Look,’ I started. ‘Just because I like A Moveable Feast. Love Under The Volcano. Adore This Side of Paradise. Fawn over Cannery Row. It doesn’t mean I can write. Or even want to write. I’m a bookseller and I love it. I’m the best there is. No one has the ability I have and the thought of sitting here month after month on my own writing a book when I could be out looking for books using my God given gift is the worst thing I can imagine. My version of hell.’

As we drove back to London that night she asked me if I had actually written anything.

I said I had, ‘Four words.’

‘Four words,’ she laughed. ‘Is that all?’

‘Yes. Four weeks. Four words.’

‘What were they?’

I grinned. ‘Guess?’

‘The Great American Bookshop, perhaps?’ she ventured.

I was gutted. ‘How did you know that?’ I asked. ‘Did you see my monitor or something?’

She sighed and shrugged as best someone can while driving.

‘Because I know you. You were the dopey teenager who came into my library that morning asking for a list of books by American writers you’ve never even heard of. Who then reads them, gives up his course and comes to London to open an American bookshop and who within six months knows more about American literature than people who’ve studied it for decades. Then this man, no longer a clueless boy, rings me up on a whim asking for a date, saying he’s got some great books for me to read. You’re like Casanova or someone and I’m bowled over and make a three hour train trip for a drink with someone I’ve met twice in my life in a library. And now you are asking me how I know what you are going to call your novel? Probably the first thing that comes into your head. The place you’ve been living in for the past ten years. The Great American Bookshop.’

‘Wow!’ I swooned. ‘Am I that predictable?’

‘In a word. Yes.’

‘OK smartass,’ I replied. ‘What would have happened if on that morning I had taken a turn to the right and walked into the French Literature section instead of the American one. Then what would have happened?’

She seemed to scoff at the suggestion. ‘Well nothing. Most likely you would have ended up reading Balzac instead of Burroughs. Married someone called Florence. Ben would have been called Bernard, Beaufort or Benedict. The Great American Bookshop would have never existed because The Great French Bookshop would have sounded ridiculous. And I would have probably married some boring academic called Carl. That’s what would have happened.’

I shook my head in disbelief. ‘Now that’s a story. Why couldn’t I have thought of that?’

She patted my leg gently. ‘Because I’m the writer and you’re the bookseller. Maybe we should keep it like that.’

She winked at me before looking back out of the window into the streaming lights of London.

Copyright 2019 Philip Ogley

#297 – Larry Fabulous

How far would you go to give back something that wasn’t yours?


It’s midday. So it’s a surprise to find myself in the pub when I’m normally at work. As the landlord pours my pint I tell him I just didn’t feel like it when I woke up. So after watching TV for a few hours, I came here.

More business for him he replies as he hands me my drink. But I can tell by the way he sloshes beer everywhere that he doesn’t really give a shit. Why should he? I’m just another shadow drifting in like all the other old-timers who sit at the bar like brooms until closing time.

After paying for my drink I go through to the lounge area to be on my own. It’s a small, square room with four tables surrounded by cheaply upholstered, leatherette benches with a few stools in the middle to fill the spaces. 

I’m about to flick open my paper to read about the local crime wave when I see it. On the bench opposite me is a watch.

I stand up, walk over to the other side of the room, pick it up and return to my seat. I’ve never worn a watch in my life and realise why people do, especially one as elegant as this. The dial is big and bold and says look at me. It says quarter-past-twelve and you should be at work. I laugh.

I turn it over and see engraved on the back in smooth, swirly writing, neither too big nor too small, the name Larry Fabulous.

I look around the lounge area with its exhausted décor and faded maritime paintings screwed onto the wall. I think of all the names that must have sat in this room over the years, drinking, farting, snogging, smoking, singing. How many Joneses, Smiths, Evanses, Turners have joked, laughed, shouted and sworn between these walls. How many Davids, Edwards, Johns, Nancys, Sarahs and Louises have talked, gossiped, chatted and nattered sitting at these tables.

I look at a painting of a sailing ship moored in the docks and have a swig of my beer. Why would somebody with a name like Fabulous come into a low-life drinking pit such as this. Why would this seemingly sophisticated man lose something so dear to him without coming back to reclaim it?

As I stare at the paintings on the walls, I can only conclude that the watch in my hand is stolen – the offender leaving it behind, either too drunk to notice, or too guilty to care.

So the dilemma.

The landlord of the pub isn’t the honest chap everybody takes him for. The regulars think he’s a genuine guy, a real character who would step over hot coals to make you happy. The generous landlord who would give away his beer if he didn’t need to make a living. But I know him. I know about the missing charity boxes, the cheap imported beer, the diluted spirits. Why should I let him take it down to the pawnbroker the minute I hand it in, when I could do it myself?

Because it isn’t mine. It’s Larry’s. I could take the watch and wear it forever but it still wouldn’t be mine. I could score off the name but the outcome would be the same. It doesn’t matter if this Fabulous character is a murderer, an aid worker, a sinner or a saint. The simple fact remains, the watch isn’t mine.

So the plan.

I decide I’ll find him myself. I’ll be the one who gives it him back and then I’ll be able to judge him for who he is. Until then, he’s just a man who has lost his watch. Nothing more nothing less. If he chooses to give me a reward, a simple thank-you, or even a punch in the face, that’s his business not mine.

I leave the pub and go to work where I hand in my notice. They are shocked and ask me why and what I’m going to do. I say that I’m going away and they shouldn’t worry about me. After a few handshakes from the guys and hugs from the girls, I head home and dig out a map of the town where I live.

I’m going to knock on every door on every street and ask if Larry Fabulous lives there. If he doesn’t, then I continue to the next, and the next, for as long as it takes. Eventually, I would find him. It would become my purpose in life to find Larry Fabulous.

The next morning I get up early and start my search.

*

I’m sitting in the pub where it all began and have just bought a pint of beer with the last of my money. It’s two years since I started my quest and I’m no nearer to completing it.

After failing to find him in my own town, I decided to look in the next, until I had knocked on every door of the small island nation where I live. I’ve knocked on over half-a-million doors and asked the same question to everyone. But no-one has ever heard of Larry Fabulous. No-one.

I’ve sold my furniture, my car, my possessions and my house. And for what? Did I ever really think I would find him? Probably not. But over the past two years I’ve seen every inch of the country I was born in, met the wildest of people and had the craziest of times. That I’ve failed in my quest is not my fault, or indeed important anymore.

I finish my drink and head down the road to the jewellers. I hand the watch to the proprietor and ask him how much he’ll give me for it. He takes it and starts inspecting it with his pencil-like fingers. When he notices the name on the back he looks at me with an expression as blank as the dusty cabinets behind him.

If I had come in here two years ago, I would have felt like a common thief. But now it’s different. If Larry Fabulous was out there, I would have found him. But he isn’t, I can prove it. Half-a-million households, an entire nation can prove it.

His eyes begin searching for signs of weakness, desperation and poverty. He wants to know before he makes his first offer, what condition my clothes are in, whether I’ve been drinking, have I eaten, have I got a place to sleep. I can see by the way his eyes quickly dance over me that he’s done this a million times before. A seasoned professional who knows what price to start at and where to finish.

But I already know what I want and won’t settle for anything less. I know exactly how much it’s worth because it’s been valued more times than any other watch in history. Every person in every house, business, bar, café I visited on my travels offered me an opinion on how much it was worth. By the end of my travels I had valuations ranging from a few coppers to entire fortunes and everything in between. So when the proprietor finally gives me his offer, I laugh, shake my head and tell him my price.

I can see he’s a bit taken aback by my cocksure demand. I can tell by the way his mouth has started twitching up at the sides.

But it doesn’t matter how long the man turns the watch over in his palm with his expert fingers, twitches his mouth, or shuffles his feet, I know I’ll get my price. It’s a rare feeling to know nothing could possibly go wrong, to feel so patient and at ease. To feel so in control.

He twitches one more time, grunts and presses a button on his cash register releasing the money drawer below. I know he doesn’t need to do this but I guess it’s all part of his routine when it comes to closing a deal.

He looks into the drawer, turns the watch over in his hand once more, looks at me squarely and offers me the price I want. The deal is done. The quest is over.

He hands me the money and within a minute, I’m walking down the road to the station with a smile on my face no-one has ever seen before.  I’m not sure where I’m going or why. All I know is that I’m glad that I’ve changed my life, glad to be someone different. Glad to be Larry Fabulous.

Copyright 2019 Philip Ogley

#296 – No Need to Knead – A Short Culinary Tale

bread-1643951_640‘Of course you have to knead bread Jeff,’ shouted Sandra. ‘Don’t be stupid all your life.’

I hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversations taking place over the dinner table. Partly because they were all about food and drink, neither of which I wanted to talk about. It was the same every time I came, the same people droning on about en croûte this, au gratin that. Frothing at the mouth as they forced foie gras down their fatty gullets as though it was the only thing worth eating.

Jeff was the only one I liked and I didn’t even know him. But I knew his type. Trying to be invisible in the hope everyone would forget he was there. Forcing a smile now and then to show he was listening, only chipping into the conversation when absolutely necessary.

I knew what he was going through. I felt the same every time my sister Lilly invited me over. In the vain hope that I might hook up with her best friend, Isabel, who by her own admission was on the lookout for a husband.

‘I’m looking for man with money and taste,’ she’d declared halfway through the ensalada de gambas.

I only came along because she was my sister. Loyally supporting her quest for culinary recognition among her foodie friends. Turning up every few months with a crate of champagne and a bag of fresh prawns on the condition I could leave after the dessert.

‘But how about Isabel?’ she would then complain half drunk when I made a dash for the door after the chocolate torte. ‘She likes you so much. Why don’t you stay a bit longer, have a drink, get to know each other?’

I’d then remind her I was in fact gay. Only for her to insist it was just a phase I was going through, which I’d eventually grow out of. I’d then have to reassure her it wasn’t a phase as I was nearly 46, not 16. Then I’d say my goodbyes and walk home wondering what planet my dear little sister lived on these days.

Jeff was Sandra’s new boyfriend. That was all I knew about him. Two months ago at the last dinner party, she’d been with someone else. John, perhaps? Two months before that, another guy. Sammy, maybe? In fact, now I thought about it, she seemed to have a different man every time I saw her, as though her men were on hire from an agency.

Jeff wasn’t the agency type though. For one he looked human. And secondly he looked bored out his mind. Which was probably why he kept looking at the door, wondering how long this nightmare would go on for.

He’d been talking to Greg Peels, a graphic designer from Brighton, when the bread incident took place. Greg had been explaining to Jeff about his new fandangled bread machine he’d bought from California, which used a series of tongs and paddles to fold and knead the bread, so as to create a perfectly crafted artisan loaf.

It was at this point that Jeff made his faux pas. A misplaced sentence that shattered Greg Peels’ smug gadget-infested world into a million pieces. ‘You don’t need to knead bread at all,’ Jeff had calmly said as though asking for the salt.

It was meant to be a joke. But nobody got it. Certainly not Greg Peels, who looked like he’d been stabbed in the stomach with a fork, he looked so deflated. And certainly not Sandra, who’d attempted to defuse the situation by humiliating her boyfriend.

Jeff pretended to laugh it off and went back to his gambas. But I knew Jeff was absolutely livid. Fuming behind his ensalada like a red hot ember, and I was pretty sure he was about to walk out at any minute. Instead he did something else. Something so unexpected, I still think about it to this day.

He stood up and violently clinked his glass with his knife. Everybody stopped talking immediately. Even Sandra, who’d spent most of the evening chewing the ear off a deep sea diver, who luckily for him, was practically deaf after a diving accident.

The room went silent. Even the supermarket jazz on the stereo had gone miraculously quiet. Everybody was wide eyed in anticipation. He’s going to propose was on everybody’s lips. He’s going to pop the question in front of her friends. What a man!

Not a chance in hell, I thought. If Jeff proposes to Sandra, I’ll step in first and marry her myself. I was that confident. This wasn’t going to be a proposal, this was going to be a demolition. Something I’d been waiting for at events like these for years, and now the show was about to start. And I had a front row seat.

‘I’d just like to thank Lilly for inviting us to dinner tonight,’ Jeff began. Everybody smiled. ‘But that’s as far as the gratitude goes.’

A mild titter went round the room.

‘I can’t remember having such an awful evening. I mean really awful.’

A sharp inhalation.

‘Oh, you think I’m joking,’ he continued.

A slight murmur. Somebody let out a snigger.

‘OK, let’s get down to it,’ he said as though starting some incredibly boring seminar. ‘For starters – no pun intended – the food looked good, but tasted like wrapping paper. I mean, where did you buy it from Lilly, I mean really? Homemade food, my arse. Pre-packed from an upmarket delicatessen is my bet. You can tell by the gelatine they put in it to keep it firm. No freshness about it. It tastes OK, but it’s not real. There’s no labour, no intensity behind it. No thought or guile. Produced for presentation purposes only. Like plastic fruit in a window display.’

I looked round the room. Nobody was sure whether Jeff was being real or sarcastic. Or was just incredibly pissed.

But he continued. ‘It’s like your lives. Like Sandra here. She looks good, great presentation, nice tits, hair, makeup and so forth. But is she nice? You heard her. “Don’t be stupid all your life” she said to me. That’s nice, isn’t it? From your girlfriend as well. And I suppose you all thought I was standing up to ask her to marry me. I mean, come on. Seriously?’

This was brilliant I thought. What a guy!

Sandra’s eyes looked as though they were about to fall out of their sockets and roll under the table. ‘I clocked you all the moment I walked in,’ Jeff continued. ‘You think you’re all in control of your lives. The job, the house, the wife, the boyfriend, the car, the phone, the posh food, the nice clothes. When really, you’re just turds floating in a u-bend. And the thing is, you know it. Just like the food. It’s totally tasteless, but you go on eating it because it looks nice and you don’t want to offend anybody. I’m sorry people. Sorry Lilly. But that’s the truth.’

He paused. Everybody was waiting for more I could tell. Perhaps they were enjoying it. Like me. ‘That’s all I’ve got to say,’ Jeff finally said. ‘Now I’ll leave.’ And with that he started heading towards the door.

I felt like applauding, asking for an encore. I’d seen many people lose their temper and say the wrong things. But I’d never seen someone so calmly publicly destroy nine other people in a room before. I couldn’t imagine a dictator or a mafia boss doing something as bold as what Jeff had done. I was immensely proud of him. And I didn’t even know him.

Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. So I quickly followed Jeff out onto the street and left the rest to ponder the wreckage of their lives.

‘Wow,’ I said to him once we were outside the front door. ‘That was some performance. I’m Lilly’s brother by the way, I don’t think we were properly introduced,’ I said shaking his hand.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘I’m Jeff, Sandra’s boyfriend.’

‘I gathered that,’ I replied.

Then he corrected himself. ‘Was.’

‘I suspect so.’

‘I didn’t mean to be rude. You’re Lilly’s brother. I’m sorry. But it just came out. I’m not sure what happened. I just couldn’t stand it any longer.’

I burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry Jeff. You were brilliant, best thing I’ve seen in years. Should have recorded it, would have been priceless. A modern day antique. Worth millions.’

He smiled, but he didn’t look particularly happy. 

‘Jeff, you said it how it is. She’s my sister I know, and she’s a bit fucked up with all the cooking and foodie thing.  You told the truth and you can’t hate yourself for telling the truth.’

‘I suppose,’ he accepted. ‘Thank your sister for inviting me anyway. For what it’s worth.’

‘She’ll be OK, it might knock a bit of sense into her. You meant it though, didn’t you? What you said.’

He nodded. ‘Yeh, all of it. I fucking hate prawn cocktail.’

I laughed. ‘Me too.’

‘But I mean the bread,’ I continued. ‘That you don’t need to knead it.’

‘Oh yeah. Everybody thinks you have to knead it. But you don’t. Just mix it in a bowl and leave it. For a day, or even two, the longer the better. It’s called patience. People don’t have it these days. Especially when it comes to cooking.’

‘You’re a chef aren’t you?’ I enthused. ‘You must be.’

He looked at me funnily. His head tilted to one side. For a minute I wasn’t sure whether he was looking at me or at something behind me.

‘You OK?’ I asked.

‘Yeh,’ he said. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Sorry to pry, it’s not my business.’

Jeff shrugged. ‘It’s OK. Just one thing though. Do I look like a chef?’

I wasn’t sure what to say. What does a chef look like. Some are fat. Some are thin. Jeff wasn’t really either. He had a slight paunch, but so did I.

‘No. You don’t,’ I replied.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘Fucking hate chefs.’ And with that he walked off up the street and I never saw him again.

 

Copyright Philip Ogley 2019

 

Audio Version:

#295 – Being a Holiday Rep

I work in France near the town of Sarlat in the region known as Perigord Noir. I’m English but I don’t feel English. I don’t feel particularly French either. I’m just grateful to have a job as it isn’t easy finding work round here. I only got it because the last guy crashed the van into a barrier above the town of St. Cyprien and I was the only one who applied to take his place. The French I’ve learnt can be very superstitious. I’m not in the slightest and had no bones about stepping into a dead man’s shoes.

I move bags for a living. From hotel to hotel, hotel to hotel, hotel to hotel, every day except Sundays and Thursdays. People on high-end gastronomic walking holidays, sometimes cycling, occasionally canoeing. Outdoor enthusiasts who want to get from A to B without an engine or the inconvenience of carrying anything. Sometimes they give me a tip at the end of their holiday. More often than not, they just say goodbye.

The work is pretty boring but I don’t have a boss poking his nose in every day to see what I’m up to because my boss is in England. It’s just me and a van and as long as I deliver the bags to the correct people in the correct hotel in the correct order, no one bothers me. Plus when I do get tips, especially if the customers are American, they’re quite big. One time I was handed a 100 Euro note, which I thought was a tenner. When I got home that evening I couldn’t believe my luck.

Today is Monday and I’m on the last part of my day, carrying fourteen bags up to the village of Tamnies in the northern section of my bag run. I’m running late as I was waiting for some incredibly slow Australian to repack his bag fifteen times in order to maximise space. That’s what he said anyway. I think he was doing it to piss me off. As a result, I’m pulling the van around the tight corners of the Perigord roads like I’m racing a dodgem round a crazy golf course. Keeping to the middle of the road as much as possible to save time. My van’s big and white so most people get out of my way except English and Dutch motorhome drivers who hold their nerve until the last minute before swerving into the verge.

I rev the van hard round another tight hairpin, rolling the suitcases in the back violently over to the right. ‘Hope you don’t have a bottle of plum brandy in that carefully repacked bag of yours,’ I say looking into the windscreen mirror at the pile of luggage behind me.

Then I notice it. A small red rucksack has made its way to the top like it’s come up for air. It’s unusual because one, people don’t use rucksacks any more, and two, most luggage these days is ten times the size. Suitcases the width and height of small houses stacked up each morning outside their hotel rooms like sentinels. Packed with wine and brandy ready for the hapless porter to shift to the next hotel.

‘Thanks for that,’ I often say under my breath, my spine bent over like a crane as I drag a fifteen tonne case up five flights of stairs in a hotel built before the revolution. ‘You all enjoy your stay, yeh. Don’t forget me when I’m sitting in my wheelchair in five years time.’

The red rucksack in comparison is tiny. A 15 litre daypack with a couple of notebook-sized pockets stitched onto the outside, big enough to pack in a picnic and a bottle of wine. Just.

‘Strange,’ I mutter to myself, looking into the mirror again, narrowly missing an ancient Renault the size of an egg box chugging along in the opposite direction. ‘I don’t remember packing you, where did you come from?’

I look at the bag once more, give myself a weak Gallic shrug and continue powering towards Tamnies hoping I can do a quick unpack, an even quicker repack and set off towards Sarlat for the last drop of the day before three o’clock.

I get there at four. The result of some bloated angry man at Tamnies claiming I’d damaged his gigantic Samsonite suitcase, even though I know through experience they’re practically indestructible. His complaint centring around a tiny scratch to the huge gold embossed logo on the topside of the case. A mark so minute it was actually harder to see it than not see it. Like a bent blade of grass in an otherwise perfectly manicured lawn. Invisible to the naked eye unless you got down on your knees with a magnifying glass.

I reminded him of the reasonable wear ‘n’ tear clause written into his holiday agreement, but if he had any further grievances he could fill in the online complaint form. Failing that he could claim on his insurance. That didn’t please him one bit and he continued to make a scene in front of the four other people present in the reception: his wife, his daughter, the hotel receptionist and me.

There was nothing wrong with his bag. A monkey could figure that out. It was probably scratched before he bought it from the shit retail park near his Lego brick house. Or scuffed when he took it out of his Toyota Rav4 in front of his neighbours and plonked it onto his granite gravel driveway like an elephant unloading a gigantic turd.

He accused me of being lazy and deceitful. Then a liar and a coward. Then a man who couldn’t own up to his own mistakes. It was quite a show I have to admit, but I couldn’t understand who his intended audience was. His wife, his daughter? A tired receptionist? A bored porter? Were we the only people he dared have a pop at or show off to? Would it be the same if other guests were around, or his boss, or his colleagues? I doubt it. He’d look like a total idiot with everybody bending down on their knackered knees peering through their bifocals at some nonexistent scratches.

After thinking about it, I concluded that all the bravado was for his benefit. To pump his ego up so he could face another day. It probably happened all the time, which was why his wife and daughter looked so utterly indifferent, and simply let him get on with it.

I eventually placated him by giving him a paper copy of the complaint form in a prepaid envelope. It was either that or slamming a heavy oak coat stand into his soft flabby skull. I then bid him goodbye, threw his trunk of a suitcase violently into the back of the van and set off towards Sarlat, cursing the day people started thinking they were superior the moment they went on holiday.

Once there, I ask the Irish born French receptionist, who refuses to speak English to me on the grounds that improving my French will lead to a better future, if she knows who the red bag belongs to. She tells me she doesn’t.

‘If I’d seen it, I’d have remembered it,’ she adds in her soft French-Irish accent, which if it were a drink would be a cocktail of Baileys and Medoc.

‘It’s not labelled either. Idiots,’ I reply in my Yorkshire-French. A mixture of bitter and pastis.

She advises me to put it in the left luggage room with all the other crap customers leave behind at the end of their holiday. I nod and wonder if there’s anything in the bag worth having. It’s an unwritten rule that at the end of the season, I can take whatever is not claimed. Clothes, hats, phones, books, wine, shoes, liquors, sometimes cameras, even laptops, all find their way into my apartment come the end of September.

I’ve hardly bought clothes since I’ve been here. Which will be nearly five years in June. Luckily customers never return to do the same holiday twice, so there isn’t the fear of running into someone wearing their Ralph Lauren polo shirt from the year before. Furthermore, this access to designer yachty fashion does generate better tips. As though the outgoing customers feel the moral obligation to tip the going rate for expensively dressed porters.

So what’s in the bag? This is all I can think about as I drive home. Tomorrow is my day off as the holidaymakers are given a free day on Tuesdays and Fridays to mope around the pool at the hotel or visit the sites. I normally go to the cinema and then to a restaurant. Like most people my days off are precious and I like to put them to good use. Cinema, a good meal, sometimes a walk, or a cycle, or I just read. I rarely watch TV, occasionally football or a film.

As I plate up some spaghetti bolognaise and sprinkle some parmesan over it, I decide I have to see what’s inside the rucksack. I don’t know why, it seems ludicrous to be even contemplating it, but it’s created such a draw in me that the thought of not looking seems worse than doing it. I get like this sometimes, I suppose compulsive is the word.

I finish my dinner and drive up to the hotel. It’s eight o’clock and in the van I think of a story to tell the receptionist when I get there. ‘That red bag,’ I’ll tell her. ‘Well it belongs to the Hunt/Thornton party in Tamnies, they’ve just phoned me. It’s got their damn medication in it. I’m going to have to run it up. Have you got the key for the store room?’

The story will probably sound wooden and unconvincing as I’m a bad liar, but hopefully by this point in her shift she’ll be looking forward to going home. She looks tired most of the time and at eight o’clock on a Wednesday evening, she’ll be too exhausted to spot anything suspicious.

‘Hi,’ I say smiling broadly as I enter the hotel. ‘That bag…’

Ten minutes later, I’m in the van driving home again, the red bag sitting beside me like a child. I even strapped it in using the seatbelt in case it slid out onto the floor with my erratic driving. I don’t know why I’m doing this or what has possessed me, but I’m glad I have because I’m totally bored with this job and if I get sacked, so be it.

My friend Adam once found a camera in an old shoe box in the attic of the expensive flat he’d rented after moving down from Nottingham to London for a banking job. Three years later, he’s an award winning travel photographer who lives out of a rucksack wherever there’s a photograph worth taking. I’m hoping for something similar. There’s only so many movies at the Sarlat cinema I can watch and the food at the restaurant I go to has gone downhill recently. I’m sick of driving, sick of pasta, and fairly sick of myself to be honest. It’s time I did something else.

I get back home and place the bag on the table in the kitchen. I’d be happy with a camera. A great book by an author I’ve never heard of would also be good. Or a pair of walking boots. A block of mouldy cheese or a bottle of old wine would be a disappointment. So would a computer or clothes. Or toiletries.

I hold my breath, unfasten the two straps and open the top. Nothing. Empty save for the bag’s receipt. Walmart, Sainte-Foy, Quebec City, $34.99. The weight of the bag was deceptive I realise, its heaviness due to the thickness of the material. I check the pockets, but there’s nothing in them either except dust. It’s clearly been used and my guess is that it belongs to the Fournier/Defosse party who left two weeks ago after a week of cycling in torrential rain.

For a few seconds, I’m not sure what to do. I’d been expecting something more. Something more tangible to grab hold of. I ponder the situation for a few minutes and then I get it. Of course! This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for and I almost missed it. I give myself a great big smile in the mirror above my fireplace and start packing.

Passport, bank cards, a couple of books, laptop, two changes of clothes, notebook and pen. Everything fits into the red bag perfectly. I put on my shoes, walk out of my flat and drive to Paris. Two days later I’m in Quebec.

*

‘And that’s about it,’ I say to the bartender as he wipes the bar clean for the hundredth time. He’s bored out of his mind I can tell, but I had to tell him.

‘Is it true?’ he finally asks pretending to wring the cloth out in the sink even though it’s practically dry.

‘Of course, it’s true. Look, I’ve got the red bag to prove it,’ I say picking up the now faded rucksack from the stool beside me and showing him. ‘Been all over the world with this.’

‘What are you going to do now?’ he asks filling his own glass up from the pump. ‘Hit the road again?’

‘I’m not sure.’

He stares at me intensely as he drinks his beer. ‘Think you’ll come back?’

‘To live you mean?’ I ask looking at some old faded pictures of the Town Hall screwed onto the pub wall.

‘I could offer you a job if you want. For the time being at least, however long you want. Start tomorrow even.’

I finish my beer and put the glass firmly on the bar as though I’m putting down a mark. ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘It’s not that bad here you know.’

‘Yeah,’ is all I manage to say. ‘I’d better go, haven’t seen my folks yet, they’re waiting for me.’ I stand up and sling the red bag over my shoulder with intent. ‘It’s good to see you again, Mike. It’s been a while.’

Outside I start walking to my parents’ house a few roads up. Walking through the red brick terraced streets, the same ones I played on as a kid. Firing plastic arrows at the old people, water bombs, footballs through windows, hot summer nights riding BMXs all rush back to me. Not many of the old gang are here anymore Mike told me. ‘Most left and went away to London to find money and didn’t return,’ he’d said.

As I slowly walk up my old street, past Mr. Singh’s grocery store that still has the rusty metal sign advertising Blue Riband biscuits above the door, I feel for the first time in four years that I don’t know what to do. I feel tired. Hungry, incredibly hungry. Probably the alcohol wearing off, or the thought of Blue Riband biscuits. Do they still make them, I wonder. Or is the sign a relic of the past. Like Mike and his pub. I could take the job he’s offered me. Live at my parents and settle back down to life in Leeds.

I knock on the door and my mother answers it, tears welling up in her eyes, my father standing behind her, shorter than I remember him. Older. Frailer. My mother hugs me and I can’t help the tears either. I mutter the words, ‘Sorry’ as I press my face into the thick woollen cardigan she’s worn forever.

She lets me pass into the narrow hallway where I embrace my father who’s struggling for words because I know he’s probably missed me more than my mum. I say sorry to him as well and how well Leeds Utd are getting on even though we both know they’re crap.

I follow them into the kitchen where I can smell pork chops and sour tea. ‘We thought you weren’t coming,’ says my father drying his eyes pretending it’s just a spot of hayfever.

‘Sorry, I went to see old Mike down the pub, he offered me a job.’

My mother’s eyes widen like the shutters of a million windows opening at once, her green irises expanding like balloons, a huge smile spreading across her face. ‘Are you going to take it?’ she says a little too quickly. ‘You could have your old room back. If you want to.’

I’ve already made the decision so there’s no point in fudging it. ‘I said no to Mike, it’s a short visit I’m afraid.’

I can see their disappointment. My mother starts stirring the tea in the pot, desperately trying not to cry.

‘Oh well,’ says my father looking greyer than he did a few minutes ago. ‘As long as you’re happy, that’s the main thing.’

It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I’ve turned down good job offers and business propositions over the last four years. Friendships and relationships that might have worked out if my heart had told me otherwise. But nothing compared to this. Declining the unconditional love of your parents when they need you the most.

‘How long are you staying?’ my mother asks recovering her composure.

‘A few weeks, if that’s OK.’

My father laughs. ‘Stay as long as you want, might get a few trips in to see Leeds, depending on how long you stay that is.’

‘I’d love to,’ I say smiling. All of a sudden the thought of going to Elland Road every week with my dad makes me want to stay forever.

‘You hungry?’ my mum asks as she plates up the chops and spuds.

‘Starving,’ I exclaim with a big beefy grin on my face.

We eat, we talk, and after the mandatory ten o’clock news, which is mainly about the ongoing strikes in France, I go to bed. In the few minutes before sleep overtakes me, all I can think about is going to the football every week with my dad. Those special days when we used to wake up late on a Saturday, have a big breakfast, talk about the match. Get dressed and walk to meet our friends down the pub. Go to the match, then back to the pub, then home for tea to talk about the match some more. Reliving every moment in the kitchen drinking tea and eating iced buns. As I drift into sleep, my last thought is that despite everything I’ve ever done in my life, nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to going to the football with my dad.

*For more stories see my books page

 

 

 

#293 – Why I Canned Social Media

I joined Facebook in 2007 and for ten years used it almost every day. Ten years of logging on to a web page to ‘like’ someone else’s lunch. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I thought so. What an idiot.

It was fun for a while I admit. Hooking up with old friends, seeing what each other was up to. Conversing, joking, having a laugh. But then it got too serious and too silly. Too many photos of people’s dogs and children, too many petitions, polls and posters on stuff which didn’t interest me. 

The very reason I stopped reading the news in the first place. Now it was being shoved down my throat. Suddenly Facebook had become a news channel in its own right. Personalised and branded news beamed right into my home.

I was a villain in this as much as anyone else. Posting my own self-congratulatory crap. Blog pieces like this for instance. Or links readvertising my book on France over and over again to MAKE SURE everybody saw it.

Buy A Man in France – It’s only been out for two years!

Once I was FB-free I felt lighter. The feeling was palpable, which is quite disturbing seeing as it’s just a website and proves, almost without doubt, how stupidly addictive it is.

I also realised how much time I’d been wasting. Time I could be putting to better use, like looking blankly in the sky for instance. Thinking for myself.

Someone once coined Facebook “Boast Book”. I tend to agree, although it’s not necessarily a bad thing – we all show off, it’s part of human nature. But before I deleted my account I looked back at some of my postings. It’s pretty boring. Here’s a cycle/run I did today. Here’s my lunch? This is what I’m reading.  I mean honestly, who really cares. Was I that insecure about myself that I couldn’t do anything without sharing it? When I look back now, I’m not really sure what the point of it is.

It didn’t take me long to delete my other social media sites. And last Friday I finally deleted Twitter. This was quite hard as I quite liked it even if I still don’t know how it works.

I can’t remember the number of times I’ve Googled “What is the difference between a reply and a mention.” Before concluding that it doesn’t really matter. Putting a full stop before a @ sign means more people might read that pointless fragment of information I’m posting than if I’d simply left it blank. Which I think I was craving for. A blank in my life. Just me again. And now I’ve turned it all off I feel like I’ve rejoined the real world. Even if everybody else hasn’t.

 

 

Over Christmas I worked in an Aldi warehouse as an order picker.  At break times we all piled up to the canteen for coffee and cake. There was some lively banter on the way up – slagging off our bosses, goading one another, showing off about how much stock we’d nicked – you know, usual stuff.  However as soon as we entered the cafeteria and got our coffees from the machine, everyone got out their phones. You could hear a pin drop.

I was the only one sitting there doing nothing – I haven’t got a smartphone either in case you’re wondering (perhaps that’s a boast). Simply looking out of the window drinking my coffee while everyone else was plugged in. I’m not passing judgement on my colleagues, I’m simply making a point. If I had a smartphone, I’d probably do the same. But I don’t so instead I sat there thinking of the pub I used to visit as a student in Nottingham.

It was called the Plumtree and on Thursday nights it was as raucous as hell. Juke box on full, everybody tanked up, smoking and drinking, singing and talking. Everybody paying attention to each other and nothing else. No phones, no internet, no messengers, no social media.

I use technology. I read a Kindle. I’ve published books on Amazon and I write this blog. I’m not anti-technology. I’m 43 years old so I grew up with it, and yet I’m lucky enough to have lived in an age before it. When I could go to the pub like the Plumtree without the fear of being photographed cross-eyed and blind drunk in the corner. The image of my bedraggled self appearing round the world in seconds.

In 1994 if I took a camera down the Plumtree I would be considered really weird and unless it was my birthday would have probably been kicked out:

“Got some pervert here with a camera photographing everyone – you’re barred.”

I don’t think social media is bad – for a small business it’s quite useful. But neither do I think it’s good. And I have the feeling (a strong feeling in fact) that as we creep towards the third decade of the century people will start turning off – if they haven’t already. Finding more innovative and fun ways of keeping in touch and promoting business. We might all go back to writing letters to each other. Imagine that?

“Dear Friend, since my last letter I’ve been enjoying fresh walks in the countryside, reading books and generally enjoying life…”

Maybe I’m living in the past. Or maybe social media is the past. A dangerous step back to the days of public floggings and hangings. You say something wrong, something off the cuff and you’re lynched for it. The Spanish Inquisition on hand 24/7. Terrifying eh?

Personally I feel better without it. I feel freer.

Copyright © 2018 Philip Ogley

Images Courtesy of GDJ