I’ve started keeping a log of where I’ve hidden things that might be useful, personally and politically, but then I had to hide the log, so I’m not sure how I’ve helped myself.
Monday, 15 December 2014
Included in MY SWIMMING DAYS and Twelve Other Stories
It was, I thought at the time, one of my better ideas to hide the relevant paperwork in the door panel of my girlfriend’s Peugeot 205. By relevant, I mean incriminating, and by girlfriend I mean my ex-girlfriend, one of many, but I would have to say the pick of the bunch. The 205 is the white one with red trim that she keeps in a garage underneath her parents’ holiday home in south-eastern France, an hour or so’s drive from the Spanish border.
Her being the sort of girl whose parents have a second home in the south of France - not to mention that she has another 205, this one an unpleasant pastel green, in a lock-up in north-west London, that she uses for ‘jaunts south of the river’ - is one of the reasons that she is my ex-girlfriend. Not that I object to it personally, but I’m sad to say that it doesn’t do to be seen cavorting in public with someone... who cavorts - it’s the best way to describe her, as a woman who cavorts. It’s what attracted me to her in the first place, that and the face and the body, and the laugh, definitely the laugh - everything about her, to be frank. She has lovely feet, I remember: must have worn sensible shoes when she was a kid.
I, a man of the people, can be seen knocking pints back with frivolous men “in a pub-stroke-betting-shop scenario” as one of my resident Martians calls it. In fact it is necessary that I do so, given that I don’t smoke and there’s no way I’m giving up running, even though I get papped every time I venture off the treadmill and out into what we laughably call the real world. I am allowed a sex life, preferably one which could be represented graphically by a flock of geese in flight, or perhaps cyclists in the Tour De France - lots of varied people in the past, narrowing down to a few impressive recent conquests who are much like each other, and then a front runner, out on her own. That will be my present partner, who I didn’t meet until shortly after this story takes place. If numbers count for anything, they point to the fact that I am attractive to women - on a rather superficial level, I think. You might say that over the years I’ve been a dab hand at pulling the birds. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to talk like that, but the Martians tell me that my admirers do - apparently with an unstable measure of years-out-of-date laddish irony. But I cannot be seen arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand, tongue-in-mouth, penis-in-vagina with someone who makes your wife, your girlfriend, look like a dishrag. Sorry to be so blunt; I’m sure your wife is delightful.
Sorry as well for assuming that you are a man. Seventy-four percent of my supporters are, according to a recent poll. So ladies, you are delightful, but for the moment you only merit twenty-six per cent of my attention.
So I had to ditch her for professional reasons, but I dragged my heels, obviously because she was better-looking and more fun than anyone has any right to be, certainly more than anyone I have any right to be with. She was - is - so far out of my league that I knew for certain I would never cop off with her like again. On the other hand, giving a girl her marching orders was going to be a new experience for me, so part of me was looking forward to it - not a part of me that I like, I must say. Anyway, I dragged my heels too long because just as I was building up to the “it’s not you, it’s me” performance of a lifetime, she dumped me first. Within a few weeks - it had probably been going on before - she took up with a journalist, ‘Reg’ (né Alan) Russell, a tall, skinny man of limited but focused talent and a socialist bent, who always manages to shoehorn the fact that he grew up in a council flat, the son of a dinner lady, into any article he writes, on any subject. Presumably we’re supposed to admire him for having come as far as he has despite the odds, and all that jazz.
I was a trifle bitter, I will confess. Red Reg made no attempt to modify his rhetoric, despite who he was cavorting with. Everything he wrote, whether he was banging on about re-nationalising the railways or rhapsodising the working-class delights of eating multicultural takeaways, still mentioned the dump he grew up in and the doubtless impressive woman who raised him to be a professionally opinionated bastard, but all the while he was carrying on with someone who has a second home in the south of France and a second - left-hand drive, I should add - self-consciously quirky near-vintage runaround with which to whizz past the plane trees and vineyards to a selection of shingly Mediterranean beaches.
I was going to say something of the sort, anonymously to Private Eye, when I remembered the documents I’d hidden in the Peugeot a couple of years before. It was a bit hazy. I do hide quite a lot of things, and sometimes when I need them I can be like a squirrel in the winter who’s forgotten where he buried his nuts. These ones concerned a politician whom I knew quite well in my young days, many of whose views I still share, but who was and is deeply committed not only to his party but to the bipartisan system in which his party best flourishes - which these days rather makes us enemies. The material related to some corruption that he had been involved in during his days as a councillor - when I knew him, in fact. Nothing awful, no bodies in the canal, no kiddy-fiddling, just some mutual backscratching involving property developers, and a five-figure-sum embezzlement to do with to the planting of trees.
Thus the car needed going over, by me, post-haste. Firstly I didn’t want to lose the relevant paperwork. Even if I didn’t do it, sooner or later someone was going to have a go at Reg, given his political slant, and he had far more powerful enemies than me. If that happened, she might choose to get rid of the house and more importantly the car, at which point my toxic but useful blue plastic A4 folder would be gone for good. Secondly, I didn’t want anyone accidentally finding the folder. I wanted the material under my control but not in my house or on my hard drive, and certainly not in the public domain where it would be no use to me at all. Thirdly, my corrupt former councillor and current MP had recently developed cancer, coped with it by going public with a (genuinely, I think) brave stare and a newly-bald head, raised a shedload of charity money and a whole heap of public awareness - it was bollock cancer, and he shocked a few people by saying so - and then recovered pretty much completely to become a minor national treasure. Even I admire him, and I can’t stand the old sod. If the information came out now, and it could be traced back to me, I would be the one looking like a complete shit - to a career-ending degree - for having brought it up, not him for diddling money out of Birmingham City Council (and thus the good people of Birmingham) and taking bribes from a lot of hairy-arsed building contractors of the late-1980s.
All of which is why I found myself in early December on an internal flight from Paris to a city in the far south that I prefer not to name, intending to steal my ex-girlfriend’s car. I had chosen my time deliberately, avoiding entirely the British hordes who might recognise me. I might have been the only foreigner on the plane. My fellow-travellers were mostly retired southerners returning from the capital weighed down with presents. I’m a provincial myself, and I know the look, well-dressed but artlessly so, expensive shoes and scarf (it was December, they wear scarves all the time) worn with a comfortable old coat that doesn’t quite match, or else jeans with a jacket. I looked down at myself and realised that I too was wearing jeans with a jacket (the Martians would have approved but warned me not to overdo it) but not a scarf. Even the ones who had managed to dress like Parisians were so dark-skinned that they couldn’t possibly be from the north; in the eyes of a Parisian, or an Englishman, they would always be... I won’t use the word, but if you know what it is, you were thinking it too.
I felt at home with them, as I have from the first time that my ex took me down here. If you meet one who speaks English, you find out that they’re lovely, really straight-down-the-line people; if you don’t, then you’ll never know because you won’t understand a word even if you’ve got an A-level in the bloody language, as I have. They speak French as if they’re simultaneously playing the Jew’s harp; it’s not a nasal dialect, so much as the words come out of their mouths sideways. They’re slow to smile, but when they do it warms you. I’m sure there are places like that at home, but unsophisticated British warmth doesn’t extend to people like me. Here, they don’t know who I am, so they’re nice - there’s no other word for it.
If anyone heard me talking about the French like this, I’d be a laughing stock, so let me press on with the story of my fiendish plan and how it was most unfortunately foiled.
I hired the least ostentatious vehicle I could find, a Twingo - the stupidest-named car since the Ford Ka, but a pleasant thing to drive - and got myself a room at a horribly shabby motel situated on a roundabout on the industrial-estated edge of the small town near to where my ex’s family have their holiday home. There is a hotel just outside the village, but it’s more of a country house, offering the full French family experience - if you believe that French families spend the whole day eating and knocking back wine at three times the supermarket rate; I needed something more anonymous. Now came the difficult bit because I had no way of knowing if the family, or the ex and Reg for that matter, were there. If they were then I might as well turn round and go back to Paris, because I couldn’t see myself stealing the car from under their noses.
I thought about getting my head down for the night in preparation for a hard day’s stalking, but instead drove straight to the village. A good first step toward seeing if anyone was home was checking if there were any lights on. If they had left them on while they were out, then it meant that someone was in residence - and actually I would have to steal the car from under their noses, because if I made a trip like this over and over again, people who matter might start to notice.
It had rained biblically during the autumn, and there was debris piled up on the side of the road six weeks after a flood. It was shockingly cold - normal for December at home, but I hadn’t banked on it being close to zero Centigrade here. We’d only ever come in the summer, when you never wore more than shorts and a loose t-shirt - less than that if you were at home alone. Briefly I allowed my imagination to feast on the memory of her, flopped on a settee indoors taking a break from the sun dressed only in lacy knickers, with a bowl of grapes sitting on her stomach, sighing in a knowingly amused way as the water from a melting ice cube that she held between her lips ran down her neck, parallel to a bead of sweat. When I reached over to take a grape from the bowl, she grabbed my hand, pulled me down to her, and fed me a grape. I went for the ice cube; she parted her lips and it dropped into her mouth. I’m not sure if I even had pants on at that stage - it was bloody roasting out, and she’s the sort of girl who makes you want to be naked whenever possible.
She and Reg were probably at it, somewhere. Bastard. Not here though, unless she had taken to doing it with the lights off. I can’t see that happening for a few years yet.
The front of the house was quite dark. The neighbours weren’t in either. They were second-home types too, but French - not Parisian, but from the city nearby. The French are less embarrassed about that kind of thing: if you’ve got a bit of money, you get yourself a nice weekend place, and if the locals think you’re a wanker then that’s their problem.
The main part of the village is a single doughnut-shaped block of dwellings surrounding a church. The block is a hundred metres or so across, with alleys going through it and impasses poking into it. Surrounding this is a circular road with two squares, one containing the mairie - town hall - and the Salle des Fêtes - function room - next to a shaded gravel area for boules and outdoor drinking, the other called the Place des Jeux de Ballon - Ballgames Square, but these days a car park except for a couple of Saturdays a year, when they play a sort of hardball team-tennis that usually results in serious injury to at least one player.
Yes, I know what this sounds like, so in a moment I’ll stop with the Year In Provence crap and return the business with the car. It’s just that the layout of the village will matter later in the story.
Opposite the body of the village on the Jeux de Ballon is a bar, where I needed to go next to make absolutely sure the family weren’t about. An arterial road runs off each of the squares, one way to the next village and the other to the town. As the village has expanded, they build parallel roads running off the artery; the house is on the first and oldest of them. Three or four roads further along they are still building. From the Place des Jeux I could see the back of the house; no lights there either.
I approached the bar and pretended to read a notice someone had put up, advertising a recital by the church choir. I was looking for my ex’s father, who was the only person who could be here if the lights in the house were out, since he would have been in there since daytime. When in the village, he practically lived in the bar. His French was shocking, but by osmosis, doting locals, or the relaxative influence of being pissed all the time, he had a handle on the dialect, which made the locals dote on him even more.
He wasn’t there. I couldn’t justify putting off the break-in any longer, but I was getting nervous so I went inside for a drink. A half on tap turned into three metric pints and a belated and uncertain recognition from the barman. I don’t think the people here find me very memorable, which might be why I like them.
We did this bit in French, but I’ll translate for you:
“Ah! Mister the Englishman, husband of...”
“Friend/boyfriend (same word),” I interjected, then said her name.
“Very pretty, yes?” He grinned, then frowned. “Too personal. Excuse me sir.”
“No problems! I call myself Reg.”
“Reg! Another beer?”
“No thank you, I have to steal my friend/girlfriend (same word)’s car.”
“Of course. Good evening Reg.”
When I - we, as it turned out - was/were preparing to end our relationship, I had taken the precaution of copying a set of keys to the house. I don’t really know why, since I hadn’t remembered about the documents at that stage. It’s just the kind of thing I do. I can be horrible sometimes.
The key fitted and I went inside. I didn’t bother tiptoeing; the whole house is tiled and the quietest sound echoes through the place like the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s. I turned on a light and nothing happened - final confirmation that no one was here. I flipped the switch on the electric meter and the light came on. The car would be in the adjoining garage, but I took off my shoes and went upstairs to the living quarters. The floor was freezing, the house was dark and draughty, built for summer. This is why they all wear scarves. I turned on the living room light. Opposite the settee was an oak desk, solid, beautifully made, either exceptionally old or not particularly old, that her father either paid a fortune for or picked up for a song at auction - I can’t remember, but it meant a lot to him, and to her, to tell people about it. In the top - no, the middle drawer of the desk was a blue A4 folder of the same type that I had used to bundle together my incriminating evidence - I must have nicked one of his folders. Inside the folder was a smaller bundle of documents: insurance, the Contrôle Technique Automobile - French MOT - and the Carte Grise - Grey Card, French logbook.
Did you think I was just going to drive off with the car, rip open the side panel, fish out the documents and then maybe heave it off the side of a cliff, where it would explode photogenically at the bottom? Firstly, a car doesn’t explode when it lands at the bottom of a cliff, unless a special effects expert has doused it in petrol first. Secondly, even if it did, I have no idea where I would find a suitable cliff around here. Thirdly, that’s hardly me, really.
My plan was to take the car legally - not really legally, not in any moral sense obviously, in fact not in any legal sense - but in terms of paperwork, it was going to be all above board, apart from the lies and the fraudulent documentation. Then I would rip the panels apart, retrieve the contents, and sell the car. When the family went to the police to report it stolen, maybe weeks from now, there might be a trail leading to me, but I would just throw some money at them and then make a lot of noise about how she’d betrayed me and it was partly my car anyway - which it absolutely wasn’t, but I’ve learned that if you create enough interference and racket, people usually forget whatever dreadful thing you’ve done in order to shut you up. If they kicked off properly, so that news of the situation reached the UK, which it might with Reg on board, then I would do all of the above, double the payoff, send the same amount of money to charity, and then have a very minor public breakdown as a result of having my heart broken by a maddeningly beautiful woman. Photos of us together would play a lot better with the public if they knew that they were in the past tense. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
As I mentioned, I’d had a few in the bar, and I should probably have been more careful at this stage. Coming down the stairs in my socks, carrying the blue folder, I slipped on the bare cold stone tiles. I hit my head but was saved from proper cranial injury by hitting my elbow even harder. Blood spurted from both my elbow and my head. I worried for a moment about leaving DNA at the scene of a crime, but then I thought, I’ve been here about a dozen times in all. Some of the dust in here is my dead skin; I’ve left hairs on the pillow - some of them will have made it to the floor, not to mention belly-button fluff and perhaps a dessicated sperm or two. What’s a bit of blood between me and my old stomping ground?
I decided I’d better take the car now, just in case they arrived in the morning. I went into the garage and coughed a bit because of the dust. I reconnected the battery, dragged open a huge sliding door which dates from the garage’s days as a stable, and drove out onto the road. I parked and went back to close up the house. The car seat was set way back, as if someone with much longer legs than my ex had been driving - Reg probably, streak of piss that he is. It occurred to me to try the panel, just in case it came off easily, and I could put the car back in the garage and go home. I didn’t imagine it would be that easy, and it wasn’t. In fact I thought I remembered superglueing some of the clips so that the panel wouldn’t some off if someone picked at a clip, the way children do.
I drove back to the motel, put the blue folder in my travel bag and crawled into the lumpy bed with its squashy bolster pillow and itchy woollen blanket.
In the morning, I found that I’d leaked a fair amount of blood onto the pillow and the sheets. I didn’t relish going to the woman at the desk and asking her to change them, but I did anyway. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and do it. I walked across the roundabout, dodging half-asleep commuters driving to the city, and picked up a couple of croissants and a coffee at the supermarket opposite. If I was going to spend the morning dealing with l’administration française, I needed to keep my strength up.
The first rule of French admin (apart from the usual racist bollocks about how everything takes twice as long as you think because they’re all sitting out in the sun wearing berets and smoking Gauloises) is that you have to do everything in the mairie, the town hall, of the town or village in which you live, or in which you are pretending to live, and if that is a little village, then the bloody place is never open, because the person who runs it is a part-timer who either works the rest of the day in the local bakery and only opens it up in the late afternoon, or else does a circuit, two hours at a time, in all the village mairies nearby, and you have to catch her when it’s your turn. Fortunately I had done my internet homework, and ours was open from ten until twelve, five days a week, except Wednesday when she opened in the afternoon, four till five, and today was not a Wednesday.
Another French conversation: you might want to translate it back into French. It won’t help with the story, but it’ll give you something to do if you’re bored.
“Good day, sir.”
“Good day, madam. I would like to register a car. It is for change of ownership. I have the Grey Card.”
“You have the Grey Card? All of it.”
“Yes, unfortunately it is complicated. The car belongs to my mother-in-law, and I am buying it from her. She is in an old people’s home in the United Kingdom, and cannot use the car. I have (in English) ‘Lasting Power of Attorney’ so I can make a signature for her.”
(In heavily-accented English) “Lasting Power... what?”
“Let me show you.”
I brought out a form consisting of twelve pages of A4, scribbled on in places, stamped in others and signed by four people, my ex’s mother, my ex, myself, and Reg. The latter was me being whimsically vindictive, but it also served to muddy the waters, and I wanted the waters muddier than the mighty Mississippi. Of course the signatures were forged, the form was photocopied from a real one and the solicitors’ stamps were adapted from some that came free with a child’s magazine, the lettering from a John Bull kit I’d had since I was a child. I was banking on the fact that she would never have seen a Lasting Power of Attorney form, also that she wouldn’t know that they have no legal power outside of the UK. Incidentally, in case you were worried, my ex’s mother is not in a nursing home; she just doesn’t like France very much and is seldom there. The car however, was in her name, which will be a comforting grain of truth.
She read through some of the first page, flicked through a couple more and then gave up. You couldn’t blame her; legalistic English is no one’s first language. I pointed at some signatures.
“This is her,” I said, “and this is my wife - she keeps her name, me, and...” I thought for a second, “her half-brother.” Muddy, muddy.
“I must copy this. Do you have an identity card?”
I handed it over, and in return she gave me a form to fill in.
“Declaration of Sale,” she read, then she looked up at me. “You sign here for your mother-in-law to say that she is selling the car to you, and here for yourself to say that you are buying the car from her.”
“Thank you.” I filled in, signed twice, dated.
“Now, the Contrôle Technique.”
I handed over the MOT certificate.
“Ah, no,” she said, “you need a Contrôle Technique.”
“The date, sir. You need a new one.”
She returned the certificate. She was right, the thing had lapsed two months ago.
“You cannot apply for a Grey Card without a Contrôle Technique.”
Bloody Reg. That would never have happened if I’d still been around. Put a woman and a lefty together and organisation goes out of the window. How do they think they can run the railways when they don’t have their act together enough to keep a car on the road legally?
“Please,” I begged.
“I am sorry. You can bring it to me tomorrow?”
“Until tomorrow. Goodbye sir.”
I collected all the sheets of paper together and stuffed them in the blue folder. I said: “Goodbye madam,” because you have to, here.
I would drive the 205 to town for its MOT. I decided not to rip the panels off yet. I didn’t want it failing because of a wobbly window winder.
Inevitably no one was open at lunchtime, so I sat in a café for an hour and a half with an excellent cassoulet and a glass of the local mid-range red. The first garage I went to had a space the next morning - which I thought would put back getting the Carte Grise by another day, but at least I’d get it. Then I remembered that by a miracle the next day was Wednesday, and I could get it all done by the evening. Eat that, French admin.
To celebrate, I went back to the house to pinch a bottle of my ex’s father’s best red. On entering the hallway I saw the stains on the floor and most of the way up the stairs, and wondered how I’d survived the night, given the amount of blood I must have lost. I thought about cleaning it up, but then I thought, serve her right if she breaks my heart and has to clean up the blood afterwards. Also, it would help the breakdown story along if it was ever identified as my blood. On closer investigation anyway, the sponges and soap weren’t under the sink, and I was buggered if I was turning the house upside down looking for them when there was a bottle of something spectacular waiting for me in the pantry.
I found one and swiped it, but as was leaving I heard sleepy voices - in the house or next door? Then a light came on upstairs and I ran out of the house. Furious at my carelessness, it was hard to enjoy the wine that night. My head was hurting too. I imagined her tending to my wounds with a wet sponge and kisses, although that wasn’t really her style.
The voices were not of the family; even groggily and from a distance, I could tell they had been speaking French. Had they let the place out? That wasn’t her style either, I thought.
I woke up grateful for not having finished the bottle, because I had a clear head, ready once more to do battle with la systeme. Croissants and coffee had kept me alert the previous day, so I repeated the morning routine, then drove to town. I left the car at the garage, shook the mechanic’s hand and went to get a paper. Nothing of note was happening on the British front pages, the French ones were dominated by one of their swimmers who was creaming off the medals at the World Short Course championships. Nice to see a country taking swimming seriously as a sport, at least when they’re winning. I needed to do a run, urgently, to burn off some of these croissants and the wine.
When I returned to the garage, it was just after midday and there was no one there. Nor was there for another hour, as I paced outside. The place was open, not just the door but the big garage door; keys were left hanging up everywhere. Cars sat jacked-up and vulnerable, wheels off, sometimes brakes off, and bonnets open. Anyone could have walked in and stolen anything - toolboxes, telephones, a pre-millennial computer, the 205 and my bundle of evidence. I decided it was time to act. With an array of screwdrivers, chisels and jemmies to choose from, I selected a couple and began to prise off the side panel of the car. I took my time and went carefully. I had half of it off when a voice shouted at me.
“What are you doing?” was part of what he said, the rest was probably regional expletives that you don’t learn at A-level.
“It’s my car!” I yelled back.
He paused; I’d nonplussed him. “It’s my screwdriver,” he said uncertainly.
“My incriminating evidence,” I said in English, showing him the folder I had just pulled from the space between the plastic and the door, then in French: “Thank you for the screwdriver.”
“And my chisel.”
“And your chisel,” I agreed, pleased to have learned a new French word.
“What are you doing,” he asked, more quietly.
“Nothing. I beg your pardon. Can you put this plastic back on please?”
“Of course, sir.”
“And the Contrôle Technique, soon?”
“The man is arranged at three o’clock. You need a new tyre.”
“Can I get one?”
“No, you have no car. I will get one.”
“At which hour?”
He paused, this time as a calculated part of his response. If I had known the word for ‘shrug’, I would have ordered him with every ounce of my postcolonial British arrogance and sense of entitlement not to shrug, but I didn’t, and he did. Happily/fortunately (same word) I am the sort of lunatic who sets about his own car with someone else’s chisel during its MOT, so when I stared straight at him, possibly with murder in my eyes, certainly with the chisel still in my hand, he stopped shrugging and said: “Four o’clock.” Then he shrugged once more, this time in amused acceptance of defeat. I felt something warm on my neck. My head was bleeding again.
The tyre arrived on the back of another garage’s pick-up at twenty to five. At 4.46 I had a new wheel on the car and the Contrôle Technique in the folder, a genuine document to go with all the forged and fraudulent ones. With fourteen minutes to go before the mairie closed, I drove back to the village like a Frenchman, half a car’s width behind the person in front of me, yelling constantly and not indicating once. I arrived in the village to find the car park full, overflowing in fact, almost entirely with British cars. Maybe the Guardian travel page had featured the village on Saturday, and hundreds of local government officials and English teachers had arrived, wandering like zombies in search of pottery and ethnic cheeses - possible during half term, but unlikely on a Wednesday in December. That wasthe least of my concerns, as I now had seven minutes in which to get my Carte Grise.
There were cars parked all around the little ring road, but I managed to find a space outside the mairie, and ran inside with both blue folders - no point in risking bringing the wrong one. The woman in charge laughed a little at my dishevelled state. I reached into the bag and handed her the MOT.
“Thank you. Will you pay by cheque? A hundred and sixteen euros.” I wrote a cheque from my French account. You’ll have guessed I have one or two bank accounts dotted around the place.
“The Carte Grise?” I asked as neutrally as I could.
“That will take two weeks.”
“What? I need it.”
“You will have it in two weeks, to your address.”
I looked down at the floor in defeat, and saw that I had left a trail in little droplets of my blood. I had the documents, and I was sure I could find a cliff over which to heave the car if I drove around looking long enough. I’d given of my best but French admin had won on penalties.
“You can drive, with this. It is the same as a Carte Grise. Until it comes.” She stapled an inch off of the bottom of the old Carte Grise to a copy of the Declaration of Sale. A late... extra penalty. My metaphor was shot but I’d got the logbook, or something very like it. She added: “But keep all of this together, yes? I saw you arrive, you could be stopped by the police.”
“You drive too fast, you park in a bus stop.” Hence the parking space, evidently. I hesitated, trying to think whether there was anything I had forgotten, because she was preparing to shut up shop and I wanted to go home.
“Go, sir. Good rest of the day.”
As I left the mairie, I allowed myself a smile and a deep breath of the cold, dry air. There was a party of sorts going on in the function room, and people were hanging around outside, smoking. I hadn’t really noticed them on my way in - too preoccupied. My head was really hurting, and I thought I would take a quick walk through the alleys to clear the mental fog, before I drove off to a garage in the city to sell the car for peanuts on condition that they took it immediately. I headed in the direction of the bakery. Another croissant wouldn’t hurt, either. As I was approaching the church, Reg walked out of the west door, dressed in a pale blue linen suit.
“Blimey,” he said, “I didn’t know she’d invited you. Sorry, that’s rude. Hats off to you for coming. She’s classy like that.”
“Yes,” I said. Sometimes noise and interference is the best tactic, sometimes it is silence, until the other person tells you what the bloody hell is going on.
“You weren’t at the service.”
The colour of the suit meant that it wasn’t a funeral service. The white gold ring on his finger indicated that he had just got married to my ex. The fog wasn’t clearing, and the pain was becoming quite acute.
“I've just been back in for a look at the church. I didn't take it in, earlier."
"It's a nice church."
"Yeah. You weren’t at the hotel either. Everyone’s there.”
“No, I’m just here for the reception.”
“Fair dos. Are you all right? You’ve got blood on your shirt.”
“Yes, I’ve been taxing the car. Here, wedding present.” As I handed him the blue folder, his face went out of focus and suddenly shot upwards.
He rushed to my side and caught me as I fell.
I woke up in a private room in a hospital, which I would later find out was the one in the nearby city. There didn’t seem any point in flying me home unconscious. Her father was at my bedside.
“I haven’t been waiting,” he said. “I just happened to be passing.”
“She says she invited you. I don’t think she did.”
“I just happened to be passing.”
“Don’t. You and I might need each other’s goodwill one day. That’s what I’m telling myself.”
“Otherwise you stay right out of their life. I know what she does to men. You’re not the first to become obsessive about her.”
“Why did you give Reg all that blackmail stuff? He says you told him it was a wedding present. I’m sorry, I don’t find it quite as funny as you do.”
I hadn’t realised I was laughing. Shock, concussion and all that. I was being rueful about my own inability to tell apart a thick blue folder and a thin one.
“I wish them well,” I said, “and I’ll leave her alone.”
“All right, well until I hear otherwise, I’ll believe you.”
Back in London, Reg called me.
“What am I supposed to do with this material?”
“You’re the journalist, Reg.”
“Well it’s too hot to handle right now, but thanks. I know we don’t agree on much, but...”
“I don’t like what he did, and nor do you,” I said.
“Very true. Well stay lucky. How’s the head?”
About three weeks later he used it. I knew he wouldn’t have the basic anal retentive ability to wait. The old man put his hands up to it, gave a load of cash back to Birmingham and another wodge to charity. When the news came out, one of my Martians pointed to the old man on the screen - serious, penitent, dignified; his hair growing back white and thin - and said one word: “Learn.” Reg won some sort of award for the exposé, and was vilified for “self-righteous bullying tactics that no amount of protestations of working-class authenticity can legitimise.” I can’t remember who said that, but I’m glad I didn’t - talk about self-righteous. He has taken a detour to the right recently. He outed himself as having “married up” as he mockingly put it, and wrote what I have to say was a charming and moving piece about his new life with his beautiful, posh wife, with her second home and little French cars. It was in the Guardian, but he didn’t name the village, so they’re probably safe from the cheese and pottery zombies for a while yet. I decided that I had reached and unfortunately passed my peak, girlfriend-wise, so after a year of going out, I asked the present one to marry me. She is “still considering”, which means I might have aimed a bit too high again.
I’ve started keeping a log of where I’ve hidden things that might be useful, personally and politically, but then I had to hide the log, so I’m not sure how I’ve helped myself.
I’ve started keeping a log of where I’ve hidden things that might be useful, personally and politically, but then I had to hide the log, so I’m not sure how I’ve helped myself.
Time, I think, for a brisk and lengthy run, to clear my head.