A short read … for those quiet few minutes that occur every Christmas.
A Short Story
I walked into a bar. Well, I couldn’t very well ride my bike through the door.
In truth, it was a café; my summer holiday, a cycle tour of the South of France had degenerated into a café-crawl. The intense heat, that arrived with the rising sun and lasted until well after it had set, meant my original fifty-k-a-day plan was in ruins. I knew that five minutes after leaving this place, I’d be looking forward to my next drink break.
Inside it was dark, cool and pretty quiet. A small group sat around a table, not watching the pop music videos playing on the television, passing the odd comments to and fro. There was a solitary man, propping up the bar, a half-finished beer in front of him.
“Bonjour!” I greeted him, while I waited to be served.
“Nothing bon about today mate!” He continued to stare at his beer.
The Proprietor arrived, I looked at the clock, nearly midday. Lunchtime; I allow myself a longer break for lunch and it would be too late by the time I’d climbed the hill to the next village.
“A large bottle of cold water and a beer, please. What is the plat du jour?”
“Confit de canard, avec frites et salade.” He put the beer down in front of me.
“His duck and chips are good.” The eyes were still on his beer, condensation running down the glass.
“Can I buy you another?” I point at his glass. One of the problems with cycle touring solo, it is a bit lonely. A conversation with an English speaker over lunch would be pleasant.
“Yeah, why not. Thanks.”
“Seeing as you know about the food here, I guess you live locally.”
“Lived. Sold up and I leave this evening, going back to Kent. My wife has found a houseboat on the Medway that we can afford to rent while we search for a house we can afford.”
“Oh, didn’t you enjoy ‘la vie française,’ I have always quite fancied the laid-back way of life here.”
“I used to really enjoy it, but it has all gone wrong.”
I sense a story worth listening to, so I offer to buy him lunch and a pitcher of wine. He readily accepted.
“So, what has gone wrong?” I ask, as we move to a table ready to get our starters.
“I cocked up. I mean I made a disastrous mess of things.” I pour us both a glass of water, we were nearing the end of the beers, and encourage him to continue.
“We moved here two and a half years ago; I was going to write my great novel. Ha!” He drained his beer glass. “I’d spent the last few years of my working life writing bids for government funds, I was good at it. Bids I wrote often attracted the funds they were supposed to. The sad thing from my point of view was that most of them were totally fictitious, I assembled a set of stock phrases and buzz words and used to arrange them into a coherent story. I thought if I can do this, I can do the great book too. We sold up and moved to this beautiful place.”
Our starters arrived, along with the wine. He poured a glass of the rich, red, liquid and held it to the light. He took a sip and sighed. We sat in silence for a while, eating our melon with ham.
“The move here was an interesting experience. We met some of the locals and eventually we hooked up with an ex-pat group. We started going out to lunch with the local British group almost at once. Over lunch, we would all exchange anecdotes and war stories about the idiosyncrasies of French administration, laws and drivers. Imagine, thirty boozy Brits sat around a table, the banter, witticisms, laughter and gossip. It was an incredible source of material. I started plotting my version of ‘A Year in Provence,’ based on what we were hearing at these lunches. Ah, the duck!”
Our main course had arrived. He had been right when he said it was good, the confit de cerise tasted just like a genuine home-made cherry jam.
“You were telling me about your idea for Not A Year in Provence,” I prompted my companion.
“Ah, yes. I had all these snippets and anecdotes but no real theme to hang them all from. With that in mind, I invented a couple, retiring to France and wrote it so that almost everything happened to them. It wasn’t autobiographical, apart from a chapter about the useless estate agent, that was based entirely on our Immobilier. No problem. I wrote the whole thing, both my wife and I proofread the manuscript, several times. We corrected the spelling and changed the point of view of some scenes. Once we were happy, I posted it to Amazon as a Kindle book. Then I made the mistake of turning it into a Print-on-Demand paperback.”
“Doing a paperback was a mistake?” I asked, as I used a piece of crusty bread to wipe up the last of the tasty sauce on my plate.
“Hindsight is wonderful; if only you could have it before you make the mistake.” He took a sip from his glass. “I was excited about having my first book published and I wanted to share it. I ordered several copies of the paperback and sent them to the family. Hoping they would write nice reviews. Some did, some didn’t.
“The Kindle sales were steady, low, but steady at two, maybe three, copies a week. I got on with writing my great novel. It was tough work, each sentence made up of the very best handcrafted words. Arranged and rearranged until they were all in a perfect sequence, leading smoothly from the preceding sentence to the succeeding one. Paragraphs that took what the last one had said, and building on it, passed the narrative forward. Or some such bollocks!” He paused to pour the last of the wine into his glass.
“All the ex-pat group knew I had retired here to write; they would ask time after time about how things were going, blah, blah, blah. Slowly, I’d reply and leave it like that. The conversation would move on to a new topic and my writing would be forgotten about.” He raised his hand to attract the Patron. “Dessert? Tarte Tatin avec crème anglaise s’il-vous plait.”
That sounded like a good idea, “Apple pie for me too, but with vanilla ice-cream instead of custard, please.” I placed my order.
“As I was saying, the Great Novel was slow work. Writing a serious book was nothing like as much fun as that first book. Then, just for a giggle and to make the sales look better, I bought a copy of my own story for my Kindle. Then one wet and windy autumn evening, some months later I started to read it. I was surprised to find myself laughing at some of the tales. That was when I found the error.”
“You found the error? Why was it such a disaster then?”
“I’m coming to that. I needed someone, a character that would know everyone, to let a semi-secret about a couple, who were only part of the group during the summer months, out of the bag. Someone in a position like the organiser of our little lunch group. I changed his whole personality, writing him as a short, posturing, bombast, a cross between Colonel Blimp and Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army fame. Nothing like Jerry, who is the group organiser. I needed a name for this character so I used Jerry as a placeholder and had never got around to changing it.”
Our desserts arrived and we ordered coffees to follow.
“So, you found your mistake, what happened next?”
“Ah! That was easy. One of the joys of ebooks and Print-on-Demand is you can make almost instant changes to the manuscript, repost it to the website and within hours the new version takes over. I went through the file on the computer, I took out all the references to ‘Jerry’ and replaced them with ‘Charles’, reposted and went to bed. The next morning, I had emails telling me the ebook was updated and later, that my paperback had been too. Job jobbed.” He scraped the last of his custard up onto a spoon and popped into his mouth. “That is my last taste of real French food. I don’t think I’ll ever persuade my wife to come back to France.”
I raised an eye at that.
“She couldn’t stand it any longer, she went back to England to sort out somewhere for us to live. I had to stay while I dealt with winding-up everything down here.”
“What happened? It sounded like you had a pretty good life here.”
“We were ostracised, dropped from society. People stopped inviting us to dinner, to barbeques, even the emails telling us where the next ex-pat lunch was stopped coming. My wife told me she was ignored and even snubbed by our former friends in the supermarket. She is a far more sociable person than me so it was very hard on her.”
Our coffee arrived, he paused while I paid the bill. “This is on me, call it a leaving present. Did you find out what had caused your fall from favour?”
“Yes, my wife eventually trapped one of the other women and forced it out of her.”
“And?” We were both toying with our spoons in the coffee saucers.
“It was the book. My wife had tired of me evading questions about my writing. She had passed a copy of my book onto one of the other women at the lunch club. They had read it a few weeks after that, then passed it on, in anger. My wife, unaware of that grievous error, had introduced a ‘first edition’ copy of my book into circulation. Eventually, they all agreed that what I had written, was if slanderous, not only about Jerry, but the characters that they imagined were other people in the group. Mind you, I think that it says more about how they see each other than anything I would have put on paper. In the end, the book got to Jerry and the rest is, as they say, history.”
We both picked up our cups and toasted each other with the bitter taste of coffee. We both stood up, I went to buy another bottle of water for my onward journey. The writer headed for the door. By the time I’d paid and stepped out into the solar furnace, he had gone. I strapped the bottle of water to my luggage pannier. A quick check of the tyres and brakes and I was ready to go. I clipped my helmet straps together, then looked up at the road that lay ahead as the Proprietor emerged from the kitchen door carrying a bundle of ready meal cartons to the bin.
“Au revoir, Monsiuer.” he called as he stuffed the frozen chip and heat and serve Confit de Canard packages into the overflowing trash receptacle.
“C’est triste!” I gestured towards the bin with the bike wheel. I was bitterly disappointed to see another bit of French culture going down the chute.
“Oui, Puis, il raconte la même histoire tous les midis!” With a gallic shrug he turns back to the kitchen. I point the bike up the road and start to peddle in the blistering heat.
I’d gone about a kilometre up the road when I started to unravel that parting comment from the Proprietor. I’d caught the bit about the same story every lunchtime and accepted that. ‘Puis, il raconte …’
Finally, I got it. “Then, he tells the same story every lunchtime.” The cunning old scroat!