#299 – The Mailman Milkman Affair

This is a short story about a good old fashioned punch up between a milkman and a postman on a Bristol common. While this event is fictional, it may have happened at some point in the past. Listen or download the audio version below or read the text. Or both?

I was walking across the park the other day when I saw a postman and a milkman boxing on the section of grass normally reserved for cricket.

They were still wearing their uniforms: white jacket and black trousers for the milkman. Blue trousers and red polo shirt for the postman.

A small crowd had even gathered. Passersby drawn from their daily lives to watch this strange spectacle being fought out on a damp municipal park in North Bristol. As though a page had been ripped out of a fairytale and blown on the wind to this part of town. Picked up by the protagonists and played out as best they could without props or a stage.

Whatever it was – improvised theatre or simply an ongoing feud – I was as transfixed as everyone else and it didn’t take long before people started taking sides.

‘Go on postie! Come on milkman!’ came the shouts as more and more people joined the crowd.

Whether the fighters heard any of this or were simply intent on getting the fight over, so perhaps they could go home, they both seemed to raise their game. The blows becoming faster and more direct until moments later the postman caught the milkman on the jaw with a fierce right hook. Sending him down onto the compacted earth of the cricket square with a loud thud.

But he wasn’t down for long and once they had restarted some shifty character in a flat cap and thick grey trousers started taking bets.

Most of the initial money seemed to be going on the postman, but I wasn’t convinced. While the mailman was certainly the younger and fitter of the two and had already floored the milkman once, the dairyman definitely had the weight advantage. And I was sure he needed only one good hit to finish the contest.

By now there must have been over a hundred people round the ring with money changing hands faster than a Vegas showdown. The bookmaker wasn’t stupid either and quickly realised that in order to maximise his takings he needed to prolong the fight for as long as possible.

He quickly ran into the ring to split the fighters up and announced to the excited spectators that there would be a two minute interval. Slightly bewildered, the two fighters went to opposing corners where some people who seemed to have a knowledge of boxing started relaying tactics and splashing water over their faces.

I’d never gambled before in my life, but if ever there was a time to take a punt, it was now. I waved a ten pound note in the air and immediately a small boy forced his way through the crowd towards me. The boy, no more than nine years old and who had clearly been commandeered by the bookie as  his skivvy, snatched the tenner out of my hand and asked who I was for: Postie or Milko – their official fight names.

I told him my bet and he quickly scampered back to his master to place it. Someone who’d been a boxing referee at one time or other volunteered his services and the bookmaker, who was now all-round promoter, manager and gangmaster, happily obliged him.

What was certain on that Monday morning was that no-one was going anywhere. This was high entertainment.

The fighters were greeted by a huge roar as they bounded back into the ring looking revitalised and eager to go.

‘Milko!’ screamed the fans of the dairyman against the opposing yells of ‘Postie!’ from the mailman’s followers.

Both fighters were now stripped down to their trousers making the whole scene feel like an old French short story set on the damp plains of the Solonge or the Vendee. Two  story-book characters fighting over land, a girl, money, a pig. Who knows? – I was pretty sure no one had bothered to ask them.

Despite their initial enthusiasm the opening encounters to the second round were fairly tame with neither fighter taking any unnecessary risks. This didn’t please the hyped-up crowd and a few boos rang out around the arena. The fighters took their cue and the blows started to rain in much to the delight of the braying mob.

And then Bang! Postie’s guard went down allowing Milko – just as I’d predicted – to slam a perfectly weighted left hook into his opponent’s face. Blood spurting out from a deep cut under his eye as he went down to the floor.

The referee started counting. One – Two – Three, triggering a riotous roar from Postie’s supporters urging him to get up. Four – Five – Six. Postie was hardly moving though. Seven – Eight. The roar became louder and slowly Postie began to get to his feet. Nine! Postie stood on one leg and then after what seemed like an age, finally forced the other one up, until he was standing tall and ready to fight. A giant roar went up from everybody. Nobody wanted this to finish yet.

When the battle recommenced each man was giving it his all. The punches were coming in from all sides as each fighter pushed for the final victory. The noise level increased as the supporters demanded a knockout. Especially as I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the police turned up. Some idiot jobsworth concluding enough fun had been had for one day.

After about another minute of frenetic action, the fighters started to tire. Their work rate dropped and they seemed to be content to lock arms and hug each other, occasionally delivering the odd punch to prove they were still interested.

The crowd egged them on, trying to push one of them on for a final knockout. But they were done. Who knows how long they had been fighting for. They could have been at it for hours, days, years.

So when they finally collapsed to the ground, embraced like two lovers in a tragedy, a huge roar erupted over the park.

And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived, everyone drifted away. Leaving the two fighters, the referee and the bookmaker in the ring.

At first I couldn’t understand why nobody had asked for their money back – it was clearly a draw. It was only when I saw the bookmaker take his roll of money from his pocket and stuff it in between the bloodied bodies of the fighters that I got it.

And then like everyone else I walked away leaving a postman and a milkman lying on the ground, the best of friends. Two men who’d given several hundred people a marvellous morning’s entertainment.

Copyright Philip Ogley 2019

The Mailman Milkman Affair taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd. Available here

#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

 

 

 

284 – Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 kms north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian ex-goalkeeper (and novelist) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read The Little Prince.

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: four copies in fact. I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (Montpezat being a village a few miles from here). He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman), ‘No, he’s the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

He didn’t have anything in stock so I forgot about him until nearly a year later. Christmas Day 2016, Elizabeth gives me my last present of the day. It’s a book. Paperback.

‘Guess what it is?’ she asks. I roll off a few authors. ‘Camus, Hemingway, Auster, Ballard? ‘Nope,’ she replies. ‘Delillo, Steinbeck, Exupery?’ ‘Nope. Open it.’

I open it and The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant falls out of the wrapper and onto my lap like a giant block of Emmental. Tears well up and I say a big thank you! And so begins my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of  the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his  life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882 and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage – yes overnight! – from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip – a trip I assume he made himself – but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found. Or download the complete short story collection for your Kindle, tablet or phone for free here – 800 pages of a late 19th century French writer. What else could you want for the spring?

Or you can read my own selection of  short stories, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, here

247 – The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd and Other Stories

The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is a bizarre and enjoyable journey featuring an unforgettable cast of characters in some of the strangest situations imaginable. An angry postman in Bristol. An elderly couple addicted to bad French food. A boxing match on a cricket square between two public servants. A very unhealthy freezer shop in rural Devon. A wino who lives in a bandstand with a guy called Jeff. The hapless romantic who buys a 40-tonne boulder for his wife as a birthday present. The man trapped in a bookshop over Christmas. The holidaymaker who takes sunbathing to the extreme. Plus many more, taking you on a fascinating journey through the curious imagination of me, Philip Ogley.

Nomadic, zany, poignant and funny. The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is definitely worth a read in any weather. (Just don’t leave your sunbed at home.)

Click on the sidebar or below to buy your copy.

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