Glitch in Sat Nav sends British tourists to desolate French village by accident!
Jean Marc Bulot is the Mayor of Crêpe. A deathly French village a million miles from nowhere. His only real companions: an alcoholic ex-miner, a pedantic village secretary, an idle janitor, a morose baker and his ageing ex-schoolmistress. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Only this is real. Welcome to France.
Then one day a car arrives. A family looking for a place to stay. They must be lost thinks the Mayor. Horribly lost! No one ever visits Crêpe. Why would you? You can’t even get a baguette.
Next day another car arrives. And another. Soon people are arriving from all over France. All lost. All hungry. All in need of a drink. Something very odd is going on.
But wait! Perhaps this is the moment the Mayor has been waiting for. To finally do something with his wretched life. And so begins Le Glitch. Will the Mayor of Crêpe grasp the opportunity? Or will he blow it?
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I wrote this story one evening while living in an old house in Starcross, Devon. A small village along the River Ex about 8 miles from Exeter. Read the text or listen or download the audio version below. Or both?
‘Sorry I didn’t get down sooner,’ I apologised to my Aunt Marie at Exeter station.
‘Well you’re here now,’ she said as we embraced.
Six months ago my uncle disappeared. The search party found nothing. No note, no trail, no clue. No one even remembers seeing him that morning. As though he’d walked out into the Devonshire mist and vanished forever.
‘I just don’t understand it,’ I said to her as we walked to the car. ‘I mean why?’
‘I don’t know,’ she declared. ‘I really don’t know,’ she added weakly as she unlocked the car and got in.
As we drove to the village we talked about the old days. When I used to visit them during the school holidays after my mother had died. When my uncle and I would go fishing or cycling. Eat fish and chips by the sea, play crazy golf at Torquay, or simply walk the bleak moors and threadlike lanes.
I was going to miss him for sure. But not as much as my poor aunt. Who even after six months spent every waking hour wading through endless scenarios trying to find a reason for her husband’s disappearance.
On my third day weary of playing Miss Marple, Inspector Poirot and Lieutenant Columbo all rolled into one, I took myself off on a long walk. I knew Tuesdays was her Bridge afternoon so it seemed as good a day as any.
After nearly five hours of hard walking on Dartmoor, my packed lunch and can of beer long since gone, I came across a large building about three miles out from my aunt’s village. A line of crows on the roof watched me as I approached.
I stopped and looked around the makeshift car park: A dozen cars among some old scaffolding poles and rotting timber. Above the door was a sign with the word PARTS written on it.
Weird I thought. I’d walked this route many times before with my uncle but couldn’t remember seeing such a place. Something so conspicuous and ugly. It seemed mysterious. But then again Dartmoor was mysterious. Everyone knew that – it was famous for it!
Not too worried by old legends and myths and stories Iheaded inside half hoping they might have some water or a can of coke. I was parched. Apart from my can of beer at lunchtime I hadn’t drunk anything all day.
I walked into a large rectangular room illuminated by bright fluorescent strip lights that shone down upon row after row of freezer cabinets. It reminded me of the old Kwik Save supermarket I used to shop at when I was a student in Leeds in the late 1980s: deceptively big, overlit, and completely soulless.
Except the clientele were completely different. Instead of grebby students looking for burgers and pizzas, they were academic types dressed in suits or cords. Peering into the freezer cabinets as though they contained pieces of jewellery or rare museum artefacts.
‘Hello sir, looking for anything in particular?’ A voice came from behind me giving me a start.
I whirled around to see a man dressed in a starched white coat. He wore tiny spectacles and had a large domed head. If it wasn’t for the general queerness of the place he might have looked out of place. But he fitted right in.
‘Oh hi,’ I said. ‘I was wondering if you’ve got any water?’
‘Certainly sir, follow me.’
I followed him down one of the aisles towards a door at the end. Halfway along it occurred to me that perhaps I should get something for tea. I could cook even. Give my aunt a break and me a change from the weak stew and boiled potatoes I’d been eating for the past few nights.
By her own admission she was an appalling cook, always had been. Even joking a few nights ago that it was the reason her husband left her. Then proceeded to sob into her serviette, her stew and potatoes untouched as normal.
I looked into one of the freezer cabinets thinking of perhaps toad-in-the-hole with a thick onion gravy. Followed by one of those sickly desserts full of cream and sugar.
But instead of seeing a sausage or a meringue, I saw a human body. Bent over double wrapped in clear polyethylene like a Christmas turkey.
‘Anything grab your fancy, sir?’ the man piped up. ‘Good specimen this one: a six-foot-two farmer’s son, got trapped in a combine last summer. Horrible mess it was.’
I stared at the man in disbelief.
‘Or over here.’ He pointed to an adjacent cabinet. ‘A strong fifty year old male, owned a breakers yard down in Paignton, but rather unwisely fell into his own crusher one morning. Wasn’t too badly damaged as a matter of fact. Killed him of course but he manage to keep his shape. Look, the pelvis is almost intact.’ He grabbed the body and twisted the dead man around like he was a doll.
I shifted my terrified gaze back to the cabinet and then back to the man. ‘These aren’t real, are they? I mean they’re models right, dummies, they’re not actual human bodies?’
My voice trailed away.
‘I understand your concern, sir. You’re not the first person to feel uneasy about what happens here.’
‘What does happen here?’ I cut in.
‘We sell bodies,’ said the man blankly
‘Bodies,’ I mumbled.
‘The demand is unbelievable in fact. Surgeons looking for body parts, film companies looking for props and stunt doubles, mainly horror films of course. Then there’s the scientists and not to forget the artists.’
‘I just want some water,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll go.’
‘Our main customer however,’ the man continued. ‘And this may surprise you, is actually the police.’
‘Yes. There’s a few in the Power Tools Accident section over there.’ He pointed to an aisle three rows along.
I looked over and saw three sturdy built policemen in uniform laughing and joking while yanking a large corpse from a freezer as though hauling a sack of spuds out of a cart.
‘What are they doing?’ I said feeling slightly more relaxed.
‘They are looking for murder victims,’ confirmed the man. ‘Saves them a lot of time and money if they come here first rather than scouring the landscape or diving into quarries.’
‘So hang on a minute. All these bodies are from people who have been killed, murdered?’
‘No.’ The man shook his head firmly. ‘Only a small portion. Most of our corpses are from normal deaths.’
He checked himself. ‘I say normal deaths. I mean deaths from illness, accidents, old age.’
‘Why do they end up here?’
‘They are all from families sir who don’t want to go through the painful, and sometimes expensive ritual of a traditional funeral. Instead they come to us. We simply take them away and within ten days a nice cheque falls through their door. The modern world. Everything has a price. Even dead bodies.’
‘This is absolutely crazy.’
‘Maybe sir. But you’d be surprised how many we get, it’s very popular in fact, as you can see.’ He turned his hands over gesturing to the banks of freezers in the room with wide palms.
‘You see sir. Funerals can be very expensive, can run into tens of thousands of pounds. And of course it’s never the deceased who pick up the bill. Always the relatives, who, let’s face it, have probably got better things to spend their money on than a wooden box that will only rot in the ground.’
Whether he was telling the truth or not. I wasn’t sure. Yes I was intrigued, I loved the bizarre and strange, but maybe this was a touch too far. I mean dead bodies in freezers. Even for me this was a bit too weird.
‘Well,’ I finally said. ‘It’s certainly been an experience. But I probably won’t be buying today, maybe next time.’ I smiled and turned towards the exit.
‘But what about that water sir?’
‘Oh yes.’ My mouth felt like sandpaper. ‘Anything would do, a can of coke, or perhaps something stronger.’ I half laughed.
The man half laughed back. ‘This way sir.’ Showing me to the door at the end of the aisle. ‘There’s a kitchen in there. Help yourself.’
I opened the door and walked in. It smelt horrible. I turned around but the door slammed shut. Then I heard someone locking it.
I desperately searched for a light switch but there was none. I couldn’t even see my hand.
‘Hey!’ I shouted banging on the door. ‘What’s going on? Are you there? Open the door. Help! Help! Police. Please.’
I don’t know how long I cried out for – maybe an hour maybe more. It was only when I stopped banging on the door and dropped to the floor exhausted that I felt the terrible cold.
Not particularly excited at the prospect of taking my Spring holiday this year walking in the rain in Wales, or boozing it up on the Canaries, I decided to do something totally different: a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat. A holiday inside my mind.
I walk up the road to The Vipassana Meditation Centre with a terrible fear I’m entering the unknown. I’ve done some pretty harebrained trips over the years, but walking up this lane in rural Herefordshire feels like one of the scariest. On my mind is a snippet I read somewhere describing this type of meditation: ‘Like a surgeon performs an operation on the body, here we perform an operation on your mind.’ I shudder and walk in.
It’s certainly not what I expected. During the weeks leading up to this I envisaged a damp, ramshackle farmhouse tended by a couple of shaven-headed monks preparing huge pots of porridge for their unsuspecting guests. But as I follow the signs through to the registration area, it feels more like an upmarket rehab clinic than the monastic dwelling I expected.
The dining room is airy and I count at least thirty other men waiting for their turn to register. And even more women in the adjoining, yet separate female dining room. Judging by the apprehensive faces, it’s obvious everybody is aware of the seriousness of what they are about to undertake.
I’m not sure whether to join a table and say hello, or just keep myself to myself, bearing in mind that in two hours time we’ll be sworn to silence anyway for the next ten days.
I walk across to the noticeboard on the other side of the room and pretend to read it, even though I’ve read all the information before on the website. All that grabs my attention is a sign telling us which day of the course we are on. Today simply reads ‘Day Zero’.
I decide to make a cup of tea and stand looking out of the window cursing the friend who got me into this.
‘You’ll have a wonderful, relaxing time,’ I remember him saying.
Relaxing yes, but I’m not sure about wonderful given the terrified faces gathered around me. I drain my mug and quickly make another just in case the builder’s tea is replaced by some non-caffeine herbal tea when the whistle blows. Twenty minutes later and after two more cups, I’m called to register and shown my room.
Along with the shaven-headed monks and decaying farmhouse, I also envisaged fifty men crammed into stark, high ceilinged dormitories. So it’s a surprise to discover I’m only sharing with one other, and while the room is hardly lavish, it’s certainly more luxurious than I expected.
I sit on my bed. This is going to be hard and I know it. No books, no writing, no drinking, no meat, no sweets, no cheese, no profiteroles, no coffee, no phones, no internet, no films, no photos, no sex, no smoking, no talking, no gestures, no nothing. Although I know the rules are there to maximise the students’ ability to learn, I feel nervous about whether I can cope without even a book or a notepad – or a glass of wine or a lovely cold pint of beer. Mmm…
But as my friend pointed out, it’s hard enough to meditate in the first place, imagine trying to do it with a hangover.
We have a light dinner of lentil curry at six o’clock and then are summoned to the main hall by a gong for our first meditative experience and to take the vow of silence. This is where the relative comfort of my short stay so far evaporates when I have to sit cross-legged.
I haven’t sat cross-legged since primary school and hear my knees splinter as I settle down on the thin bamboo mat. The female contingent on the other side of the hall I notice are all calmly sitting in lotus positions as though they were born that way.
Luckily, just as my knees are breaking and I’m thinking of whether there is a last train home, the course leader tells us we don’t have to torture ourselves and can use some extra cushions to prop ourselves up if we like. I kiss him – not really – and grab three cushions to make a nice comfy seat, then plonk myself on it like a gnome, ready for the course to begin.
As it turns out my Indian roommate arrives late. (“Train strike,” he tells me 10 days later.) He can’t tell me at the time because we’ve already taken our vow of silence. And as the vow also precludes any visual or bodily gestures, I have to ignore him for the next ten days. I don’t even know his name and it’s like sharing a prison cell with an inmate who hates me so much he won’t even acknowledge my existence. And vice versa. Or sharing a room with my own shadow. Say what you like, it’s never going to answer back.
That night I’m in bed by nine and asleep by five-past; a miracle for a night owl like myself, but this is my routine for the next ten days: total mental exhaustion on a scale I haven’t experienced since writing my university dissertation in a weekend.
I wake up to the sound of a gong somewhere in my unconsciousness. Even though it’s the middle of summer it’s still dark, so I assume I’m in a dream and roll over. But as the gong gets louder I realise the nightmare is real. I really am at a silent Buddhist retreat in the middle of nowhere! It’s four o’clock in the morning and it’s time for the day to begin.
Explaining meditation is like trying to explain what sex is like to a virgin. You have to experience it, and like sex, it’s a slow process. For the first three days you simply learn how to observe your own breathing. Once you have accomplished this, you can turn your attention to observing every pain, ache, itch and sensation on your whole body.
Every emotion we have – whether good or bad – creates a biochemical response in the body. If you observe this response you’re observing the emotion. The important element is to simply let the emotion rise up and pass without attaching either a negative or positive label to it.
For example, if it is an itch, you try to resist the craving to scratch it. The same idea could apply to a cigarette. Equally, should you experience a negative emotion, such as guilt, fear, jealousy, anger, or hate, then likewise, you try to observe it objectively and let it pass. The idea is that over time you gradually learn how to divorce yourselves from the past and future, and how to observe reality as it is, rather than how you want it to be.
What’s so appealing about this type of meditation to many people, is the absence of worship, blind faith, tradition or ritual. There is no scripture or commandment to obey, no god, deity or idol to worship, and no religious rite, initiation or custom to undertake. And this ‘striving for liberation’ is what I did for the next ten days: up at four for meditation, breakfast at six-thirty, more meditation until lunch at eleven, further meditation from one to five, then tea followed by more meditation until bedtime at nine.
Counting down the days is inevitable, but due to the early starts they tend to roll into one massive meditative blob. You have wild dreams and even wilder visions coupled with personal memories, good and bad, erupting out of nowhere. And this is the hard part, as without the comforts of modern life, you are forced to deal with these sometimes unpleasant memories alone as they filter up through the subconscious. Perhaps one important note is that there is no real fun. People expecting some sort of happy-clappy holiday camp will be extremely disappointed. It’s pretty damn serious, partly due to the silence but also due to these deep seated emotions rising up from the bottom of your mind.
I work in a warehouse for a large supermarket. It’s 5:45am when I arrive. The lights are already on because they are always on. The dull polished concrete floor is the colour of margarine before colour is added. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey. The sort of grey you find by a city river.
The warehouse is the size of ten football pitches with various office pods dotted around like moon bases. Inside there are no drinks, no cups, no photos, no music, no paper, no life. Everything is computerised and run from terminals. It’s like they said life would be in the future. In the sci-fi films I watched as a kid. Only worse. Those films were in colour, here everything is in black and white. Or white and white.
The only link with the real world is a scratched metal cupboard full of keys for the lockers outside. By outside I mean outside the office. Nothing here is outside. Once you’re in you’re in.
Most people have their own keys but for some reason I don’t so I have to get the master key each morning and be subjected to the magnesium grade lighting. I don’t know how anybody can work in here. It’s bad enough on the warehouse floor with a billion rows of fluorescent strips shining down. Here it’s like working in the headlights of a car.
My locker is the size of a mouse trap so I put my uniform on at home. A thick woven polyester T-shirt that has the feel of sackcloth. Black work trousers four sizes too big for me. Plus a pair of steel capped trainers which are very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next eight hours.In my locker there is a headset, a permanent marker, work gloves and a box cutter – the ‘tools’ of the trade. Plus a battery pod/wireless receiver the size of a large avocado which I plug my headset into and then attach to my belt. I switch it on and a computer generated voice asks me ‘Do I want an order?’
I say ‘Yes.’ We’re on.
‘Go to slot 1726. Picking Area 6,’ the voice says and I obey.
A slot is the space underneath the huge five storey high shelving units where the individual products are located. The picking areas are the aisles in between the shelves where we work. I once asked one the drivers of the high-reach forklifts that replenish the stock if the shelves were safe.
‘Yes. Perfectly,’ he reassured me from inside his metal cage, his eyes shining out like kiln-holes from behind a balaclava to protect him from the dry cardboard chill of the warehouse. ‘Although it depends on the driver,’ he added while grabbing a 5 tonne pallet of sugar as effortlessly as a child takes cookies from a jar.
When I get to a slot I’m required to say a verification code printed in large letters above the product line. This is to ensure I’m at the correct slot and not about to pick up dog biscuits when I should be picking up nappies. I say the code and the voice says: ‘Take 2 (or 4, or 6, or 40…).’
I take the products and stack them neatly on the back of a Chep Euro pallet. The one below is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are scarred with half hammered-in nails, burn marks and splinters the size of spears. Gloves are essential unless you want to go back home looking like you’ve been washing your hands in a meat grinder.
The pallet sits on a scissor lift order picker.
This too is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are car crashes. Scraped, banged, bashed, dented, half rusted and coated in congealed chicken sauce, jam, fruit juice and cheap amaretto.
As you might notice the forks at the back are sharp and when fully raised are the perfect height to skewer the lower abdomen. I regularly have a horrible vision of watching my intestines spool out onto the cold warehouse floor after someone’s driven into me fork first. We’re told never to drive backwards for this very reason. But it’s difficult not to.
The skill to order picking (if there is one) is the ability to stack 100 or more cases on a pallet without it collapsing. There are many ways to do this but only one right way. Unfortunately I was never taught properly so I’ve developed my own style – the Ogley Stack. Which resembles the Acropolis in Athens: Exquisitely designed, beautiful to look at but prone to collapse. The slightest bump in the warehouse floor sends my twelve case high pallet of red wine crashing to the floor.
The resulting scene is one of a massacre. Something out of a mobster movie from the 1950s. And if the sun is shining in through one of the high windows, it can look quite poetic. Until the bosses charge over from their office pods to calculate how much I’ve cost the company this time. It’s therefore no coincidence I’ve ended up on the nappie and dog food aisle – The Unbreakables.
Apart from this the job is pretty simple. It’s also phenomenally boring, repetitive and very physical. But not physical in an active manner. As in climbing a mountain or building a wall. Physical in a repetitive manner. The heart never really gets going. It simply plods along a few beats behind the body. Not exactly exercise, more strained movement.
We’re able to have a breather and a chat of course; we’re not in prison. But not for too long. We have targets, called pickrates:
300 cases an hour.
Or 5 a minute.
Or 1 every 12 seconds
Take your pick. But whichever statistic I choose, it’s hard. And after twelve weeks I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I start to get nervous. This is when one of our bosses (there’s about 6) tell us our first pickrates of the day (the other one is at 11:00). Something I really look forward to!
‘Morning, Phil,’ one will say clipboard in hand. The young bosses have big quiffs, short back and sides. The older ones slightly smaller quiffs. And like rings on a tree I can tell their age by the severity and angle of their ski-jump hairdos.
‘Morning,’ I say, my uncombed curly locks hanging out of my headset like rogue shoots escaping out of a hanging basket.
‘190 today,’ he says. There’s a pause. A dramatic pause that doesn’t need to be there because this is a shitty warehouse. We’re not at the theatre. We’re not reciting Pinter. But I know what he’s doing. He’s waiting for me to apologise and promise to work harder.
Instead I say: ‘That’s good. Better than yesterday.’
This stumps him because he doesn’t have yesterday’s figures so he can’t verify whether I’m telling the truth or not. So he says good or OK and drifts off to the next picker who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing round the place most mornings.
The only person who does have the figures is the section manager who comes once a week armed with a graph to discuss my progress. It’s a total waste of time because I don’t make any progress. The graph is flat. A solid single undulating line running Eastwards across the page.
‘You need to pick it up. Phil,’ he says. ‘It’s too low. We need to sort this out.’
I note the personal pronoun ‘We’ as though he’s going to jump up and lend a hand. In the event of this ever happening I will write a redaction and an immediate apology.
‘I’m trying my best,’ I say flatly. ‘I find it hard.’
‘All the others manage.’
‘Yes, but they’re all wired on energy drinks,’ I reply.
It’s meant as a joke, but I’m half serious because it’s true. Plus most people here are twenty years younger than me. I want to tell him this but he might advise me to find another job and at moment, if I can keep my head down, this is fine.
‘I better get on,’ I say. ‘Otherwise my pickrate is going to plummet.’
There’s nothing much he can say to this and he leaves me, screwing up his colour graph and tossing it in the bin like a teenager who’s been given a crap mark for a presentation he spent hours preparing.
I think regularly of how many people are employed in the retail-industrial complex nationwide. This bank of human bone and muscle moving boxes from one place to another. Then placed on lorries and driven to a store. Unloaded again by more muscle. Unstacked and put on shelves. The process repeated thousands and thousands of times a day. Imagine if the order pickers went on strike. Then what? Bare shelves within days most likely. Maybe even hours.
And those films I watched as a child. The ones set in the future where the work is done by machines and mankind is left to spend his time exploring space or simply doing nothing. Reading. Thinking. I believed in those films and how good it was going to be. And yet I find myself with 300 others at five o’clock on a Sunday morning (no double-time here) hauling dog food and nappies from one part of a giant warehouse to another. Where are the machines? The robots? Surely if they can build cars and go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, they can pick up a few boxes.It’s my 86th job since leaving school. In that time I’ve done some pretty soul crushing menial jobs – data entry, building site labourer, plongeur, dust-binman, salesman, teacher – to name a few. But nothing as unfulfilling as being an order picker. Maybe I’m not cut out for this work. Perhaps my body’s not connected together in the way others are. My bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles work perfectly when I’m walking. I can walk for miles and miles. Endlessly traipse round a city. Hike a hill. Walk a coastline. Or swim in the freezing cold sea in the middle of winter. No problem.
But if I’ve got to bend down and lift a heavy box in a repetitive sideways movement for hours on end, I’m pretty useless. I suppose that’s just the way it is and why tomorrow is my last day.
It’s been four years since I wrote my first post. Which started like this:
‘After a two-year break, I’ve ended up in France. I’m watching the Algerians below my window holding hands and the Senegalese watching football through the windows of a bar. I live in Guillotiere, which is part of Lyon. A heady mixture of Arabs, Africans, Vietnamese, Chinese and me, crammed into a couple of blocks south of the Rhone. It’s good to be back in France. I have fond memories of my time on a farm 20 km east of Avignon when I was nineteen.’
For those who have never read Blogley, it goes on in the same vein for the next four years. It’s all pretty self explanatory. The only thing that baffles me though about the entire blog is the very first line.
‘After a two-year break, I’ve ended up in France…’
A break from what? A break from travelling? A break from teaching? A break from working? A break from living? It’s curious, because I’ve never done anything continuously for two years, so how could I be taking a break from it. Whatever it was though must have been worth it, because the blog has grown to 150,000 words covering 237 posts.
In truth, I don’t know why I write it, or even what it’s about. I simply enjoy it. It takes time, but it’s time well spent. Sometimes it gets frustrating because I can’t get down exactly what I want. But that’s another reason to do it. After every post I’m a slightly better writer even if some of the posts are intensely boring, I say that myself. I mean who cares about pool cleaning. Remember those ones?
I could question if the time I give over to the blog is worth it. But then I would start questioning a lot of things. Like watching films, or listening to games of football on the radio. The hours spent cooking meals, worrying about work or being angry about politics. Talking to Elizabeth about story ideas for books and films that will never be made or written. Running from point A to point B for exercise. Drinking red wine in the evening because it tastes so damn good with Stilton cheese.
If I questioned all of the above, I’d have nothing left except to go to sleep every evening. And even though I enjoy sleeping, I’m not going to make it my hobby. Golf is a hobby. I like getting a bath, but it’s not my pastime. I write because I enjoy it and I think about it all the time. It’s not a hobby.
When I was at the farm in Queaux, I wrote a novel and it was the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done. Getting up at seven every day to sit in a cold room looking out over desolate French countryside writing about a character called The Mighty Quad in a book entitled The Return of the Mighty Quad. I haven’t done anything with it – it’s still in front of me here – but it was worth a year of my time. And I would do it again. The Return of the Mighty Quad II is a real possibly.
Me and Elizabeth are off back to France at the end of October. Best thing that’s happened to me in four months of being in England. Where exactly is still in the pipeline, but there are a number of options under consideration. If things had worked out differently, this would have been Blogley in Milan. But things went wrong at the last minute and so the next destination for year five of Blogley is undecided. Naturally when I know, I’ll write a blog about it.