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