I work in France near the town of Sarlat. 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 and I was the only one who applied to take his place.
My job is moving bags 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.
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 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 like I’m racing a dodgem round a crazy golf course, bags flying everywhere.
Then I notice it. A small red rucksack has made its way to the top like it’s come up for air. 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?’
When I get to the final hotel in Sarlat at the end of my day, I ask the receptionist if she knows who the red bag belongs to. She tells me she doesn’t and politely advises me to put it in the left luggage room with all the other crap customers leave behind at the end of their holiday.
So what’s in the bag? This is all I can think about as I plate up spaghetti bolognaise a few hours later at home. I finish my dinner and drive back up to the hotel thinking of a story to tell the receptionist when I get there.
‘That red bag,’ I decide to 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 so I’m going to have to run it up now. Have you got the key for the storeroom?’ 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.
‘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 small child. I’ve even strapped it in using the seatbelt in case it slides 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 shoebox 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 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 claret would be a disappointment.
I hold my breath, unfasten the two straps and open the top. 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.
‘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.’
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? Or is the sign a relic of the past. Just like Mike and his pub.
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 I’m late,’ 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.
‘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.