Merde actually, p.1
Merde Actually, p.1Stephen Clarke
About the Book
A year after arriving in France, Englishman Paul West is still struggling with some fundamental questions:
Why are there no health warnings on French nudist beaches? Is it really polite to sleep with your boss’s mistress? And how do you cope with a plague of courgettes?
Paul opens his English tea room, mutates (temporarily) into a Parisian waiter; samples the pleasures of typically French hotel-room afternoons; and, on a return visit to the UK, sees the full horror of a British office party through Parisian eyes.
Meanwhile, he continues his search for the perfect French mademoiselle. But will Paul find l’amour éternel, or will it all end in merde?
Author’s apology: “I’d just like to say sorry to all the suppository fans out there, because in this book there are no suppositories. There are, however, lots of courgettes, and I see this as progress. Suppositories to courgettes – I think it proves that I’m developing as a writer” Stephen Clarke
About the Book
1. Sexe and the Country
2. Can You Be Arsed?
3. Don’t Get Merde, Get Even
4. Liberté, Egalité, Salon de Thé
5. That Was No Lady, That Was Your Wife
6. Ex and the City
7. Maybe It’s Because I’m Not a Londoner
8. In the Merde for Love
About the Author
Also by Stephen Clarke
‘Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’
‘Hell is other people.’
Sartre, No Exit
‘I’ll have some of that Voltaire, please.’
Paul West, Merde Actually
The Author would like to thank everyone who contributed in any way – deliberately or accidentally – to the success of the whole Merde adventure, and especially those who threatened physical violence if they didn’t get thanked.
Those people are, in no particular order of violence: E, L, S, SL, K, K, M, C, LF, SW, AB, CW, EC, B, NH, NB, PF, DL, MTL, VC, BG, IA, AS, ER, LR, CD, JL&V, JR&J, IM, BS, CW, LG, SR, G, M, P, C&P, Y, SM, CD, MB, JR, JS, AZ, S, V, V, F, C, BP, JR, SC, AB, BE, EB, SF, LB, NL, DC, MD, AP, A, EV, J-P, LM, GC, DT.
If I’ve left you out, I’m really sorry. Get in touch and I’ll send you a book and a grovelling apology.
Sexe and the Country
FLORENCE AND I were sitting forty kilometres south of Limoges, in Corrèze, almost exactly in the centre of France. If you staked a man out Da Vinci-style on a map of the country, with his right hand in Brittany, his left in Strasbourg, and his feet in Biarritz and Monaco, then Corrèze would be the small patch where he’d wet himself.
Florence’s mum had a country house in Corrèze. We’d planned to stop off there for a quick lunch and then drive on for a two-week amble around southwest France.
But things hadn’t gone exactly to plan, and we were sitting in the sun beside a recently dented car. It was after ten minutes of waiting for the police or a tow-truck to arrive that Florence laid her head on my lap and uttered the fateful words.
‘I suppose we’ll have to spend a few days with Maman.’
Of course, she didn’t know then that I was going to try and kill her mother. Neither did I. We’d only been together for about two months, and if anyone had asked my opinion, I’d have said that I didn’t think attempting to murder your new girlfriend’s mum was a good basis for a successful relationship.
It wasn’t really my fault, anyway. I blame it on the French driver.
‘Connasse!’ he shouted.
French insults are so wonderfully grammatical, I thought. Even in the heat of a verbal battle you have to remember to change the rude word for a male idiot, ‘connard’, to the feminine form.
But he was being totally unfair. I was the one who’d been driving, not Florence. He was only shouting at her because she was nearer to him than I was. And he’d just made what felt like an asteroid-sized dent in the passenger-side rear door of Florence’s dad’s brand-new car, thereby coming within a microsecond of making a similar dent in Florence herself.
‘Are you OK?’ I asked her in English.
‘Oui.’ She always answered me in French. ‘Et toi, Paul?’
‘Yes, but I’d like to go and stuff that guy’s designer sunglasses up his nose.’
‘No, you cannot do that, you are English. You must show your phlegm.’
‘My phlegm?’ I hadn’t heard this one before. Did the French think we Brits calmed down by spitting all over the place? They must have been watching too much of our football on satellite TV.
‘Yes, you are phlegmatic. You have cold blood.’
Ah, the Englishman as reptile, now we were on more familiar ground.
‘No,’ I said, ‘those sunglasses have got to go.’
I got out of her dad’s royal-blue Renault Vel Satis and gave myself a quick frisk to see if any extremities had come loose. No, both cars had been travelling pretty slowly so I was suffering from nothing more serious than a stiff neck and a vague sensation of wanting to punch someone.
I walked round to the red Asian 4WD that had hit us. Its front headlights were not even cracked.
The driver was a bottle-blond, forty-something fashion victim with wraparound sunglasses so dark I was surprised he could see the sky, never mind cars ahead of him.
‘You are blind, perhaps?’ I asked, nodding at his glasses. I called him vous, of course, instead of the familiar tu or toi, because we hadn’t yet been introduced.
‘Et toi?’ he shouted through the closed window. I forgave him his familiarity on the basis that he was a good twenty years older than me. ‘Don’t you know la priorité à droite?’
He huffed towards his polo-shirted wife and their two skater-boy kids. They were all glowering at me venomously. I knew
‘La priorité à droite?’ I said. This is the stupidest, most dangerous law in the Western world. It is the French law which states that a car coming from the right has right of way. You might be tooling along on what looks and feels like a major road, and if a car leaps out of a tiny hidden sidetrack without looking to see whether anything is coming, and thereby wipes out your whole family, it’s perfectly legal because it was coming from the right. ‘There is no priorité à droite on a roundabout,’ I said.
‘Roundabout?’ The driver pulled his sunglasses down his nose and looked around as if he’d only just noticed the large, grass-covered traffic island next to his car. He also took in the distinctly circular road running around it and the four or five exits leading off in different directions.
‘What a merde, these roundabouts,’ he moaned, expressing the view of a fair number of Frenchmen, who don’t seem to know what roundabouts are for. To provide work for municipal gardeners, perhaps? ‘They’re an anglais thing, aren’t they?’
‘Yes. We invented them to stop accidents. France is a technological nation, so we did not think you will have a problem with our roundabouts. After all, you can even open oysters.’ I took a chance including a joke with the horrifically difficult word ‘huîtres’, but I was on a roll and it hit home.
‘Et vous, vous êtes anglais.’ This was his butch wife, leaning over and bellowing across the steering wheel at me. At least she called me vous. ‘You English don’t know how to drive on the right.’
‘And your husband, what is his excuse?’ I asked.
The wife gripped her husband’s arm and whispered urgently to him. He nodded.
I guessed what she’d said when he started up his engine and hit reverse. The two cars wrenched apart like post-coital lovers whose skin has temporarily stuck together. Then the 4WD did a neat one-point turn and drove off the way it had come.
As the driver sped away I memorized his number and, pointlessly, the faces of the two long-haired boys who were grinning at me through the back window. Papa had just become the outlaw hero of their very own road movie. The French love road movies. They call them ‘les rod-moo-vee’.
‘What did you say to him?’ Florence asked.
‘Nothing that insulting. He probably thinks I won’t know how to report him because I’m English.’
‘Yes, and just after lunchtime his blood is probably half wine,’ she said.
I went to admire the dent on her side of the car. An ugly red-and-blue bruise that wouldn’t have been too serious except for the fact that the impact had bent the rear wheel arch and ripped the tyre, which was whistling goodbye to its short but high-pressured life.
There was no way I could get at the wheel to change it. We had to call a tow-truck.
We pushed the car over to the side of the road and went to sit in the long grass looking out over a field of sunflowers that stretched back hundreds of yards. I’d never seen so many sunflowers in one place before. In my mind they grew alone, sentries watching over suburban gardens. But here, the massed ranks of five-foot-high flowers looked like an invasion of the Earth by an army of anorexic green aliens.
‘Are you really OK?’ I asked. ‘You didn’t hit your head or anything?’
‘No. I might need you to massage my neck, though.’ Florence flashed me a smile and ran a long finger down from her ear to the smooth, bare shoulder curving up out of her T-shirt. The first time we ever went to bed together, I’d been struck by the incredible smoothness of her skin, as if she’d spent her teenage years cocooned in coconut milk. She was half-Indian – her father was a Tamil from the volcanic French island of La Réunion, near Madagascar – and she had a body that was a perfect blend of French poise and Indian litheness.
She pushed her black bra strap out of the way and pressed her fingertips into the muscle behind her collar bone. ‘You’re going to have to kiss me, just there.’ She groaned, finding a tender spot and rolling her eyes.
All of which sounded very promising.
Until, that is, she announced that we were going to stay with her mum.
The garagiste arrived half an hour later. When he heard that a Parisian car (that is, one with a number ending in 75) had caused the crash, he was more than happy to write an oil-stained statement testifying that we’d been in the right and that the other driver had left the scene illegally.
He also put in a good word for us with the pair of local gendarmes who came to investigate the accident. They were looking stressed in their tight trousers and old-fashioned képis. This was the first Saturday in July, when a large percentage of the French population, plus a sizeable herd of foreign tourists, was migrating southwards through the region. Boozed up, overheated, impatient, lost, and distracted by vomiting kids, loose luggage and ringing phones, the millions of drivers charging along the autoroutes would cause more accidents over the next two days than there had been in the last six months.
So when the two young gendarmes saw that we were a simple case of dent and run, they made a quick show of taking notes and drove off again in their little blue van.
Our arrival chez Maman was a bit of an anticlimax, even though her daughter had probably never turned up in a battered orange tow-truck before.
Florence opened a small white-painted gate and we walked into an empty garden. Over to our right was an overgrown lawn and a handful of mature fruit trees. I could see birds pecking busily at enormous scarlet cherries. Straight ahead was a stone barn with a moustache of moss running along the edge of its gleaming slate roof. To our left was the house, a one-storey construction made out of stone the milky-beige colour of the skin on a ripe Saint Nectaire cheese. The window shutters were painted slate-grey to go with the roof, and they were all closed, as was the front door.
‘They’re having a sieste,’ Florence whispered. ‘We’ll wait until they wake up.’
You really felt that you were in the middle of a continent here. There was the occasional breath of wind, but most of the time the air just hung there, shimmering and seething in the sun. The thick foliage and low branches of the cherry tree weren’t enough to provide comfortable shade, so we went into the barn to get a parasol.
Being suddenly hidden from view gave me an idea.
Florence read my mind.
Well, perhaps I did give her a little hint by grasping her around the waist and pressing my face to her neck.
She shook herself free. ‘No, Paul, it is not a good idea. Look. There are just piles of logs and an earth floor. Ce n’est pas pratique.’ Some girls get a damn sight too pratique as soon as they’re within range of their mothers, don’t they? ‘You get the parasol,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a beach towel that we can lay on the grass.’ She turned back towards the sunlit doorway, then stopped and swore.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘We left the luggage in the car.’
BY THE TIME we had found the garage-owner’s number, explained our problem above the noise of another accident scene, and been told that our car was safely padlocked away in his yard and that he for one wasn’t going to go and unlock the yard just to get some bags, there were signs of life from the house.
A small, chestnut-haired boy in blue swimming trunks ran out into the garden and saw us lying under our parasol.
‘Flo!’ the boy squealed.
‘My nephew,’ Florence explained. ‘My sister’s boy, Semen.’ Weird names they have out here in the country, I thought.
The boy flopped down on the grass to hug her. As he did so, he eyed me suspiciously. ‘He’s small,’ he said.
‘Semen!’ Florence hissed at him as if he’d commented on some unmentionable affliction. At the time I didn’t think any more about it. I’m six feet tall and have no hang-ups about my height. And I was wearing baggy
‘Bonjour. Je suis Paul.’ I held out my hand for the little guy to shake. His suspicion instantly doubled.
‘Doesn’t he want to kiss me?’ he asked Florence.
‘He’s English,’ she told him.
This seemed to explain away everything strange about me, and the boy – whose actual name, I had now worked out, was Simon – walked around his aunt and kissed me on the cheeks.
‘He is small, though, isn’t he?’ he whispered to Florence.
She tutted. ‘Where’s grand-mère?’
‘Is Michel here?’ Florence asked. Michel was her elder brother, whom I’d heard about but never met.
‘Oui. But he never wakes up.’
We went into the kitchen to get something to drink. Little Simon leapt around Florence like a puppy who hasn’t been for a walk for two days. But all the time he kept half an eye on me as if I was about to steal his favourite toy. There was still something about me that bothered him.
The kitchen was a cool relief after the oppressive sunlight of the garden. The large square flagstones on the floor were cold to the touch. I twisted the top off a stubby bottle of Kanterbräu beer and guzzled it down in one blissful gulp. I could feel the sweat condensing deliriously in the small of my back.
So it was something of a shock when I sat down at the long dinner table and fractured both of my knees.
‘Ah, yes, I should have told you,’ Florence said. ‘Be careful when you sit there.’
I stood up again (my knees weren’t actually broken, I discovered, only as dented as the car) and examined the table.
It was about ten feet long, made of dark wood, and seemed to be of a normal height. But below the scratched table top there were deep drawers that lowered the leg room, so that only a crouching midget could have sat comfortably down to dinner.
‘It is a traditional Corrèze table,’ Florence explained. ‘My great-grandfather made it when he built the house.’
‘Didn’t he have any legs?’
‘Yes. It’s just that we don’t have his chairs any more. They were very low too.’
Merde Actually by Stephen Clarke / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes