Merde happens, p.1
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       Merde Happens, p.1

           Stephen Clarke
 
Merde Happens


  Merde Happens

  by

  Stephen Clarke

  BLOOMSBURY New York Berlin London

  If my melodies have found a place in people's hearts, then I know I have not lived in vain.

  —Robert Stolz, Austrian composer

  1968, what a great year that was ;)

  I'm told that America has more lunatics than anywhere in the world.

  —De la Democratie en Amérique, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1840

  Acknowledgments

  I would like to thank all the Americans I met during my frequent visits to the States over the past eighteen months for being so American.

  I would also like to say an especially big thank-you to the car-rental company who let me drive their valuable vehicle away after I'd just said, "I've never driven an automatic before. How does it work?"

  I would, however, like to request that Americans turn the air-conditioning down a bit. New York sounds as if it's about to take off, and Las Vegas is basically a giant vibrator. My sincere apologies to my friend Jerry and all other Texans for leaving Texas out of the novel. Sorry, you were just too big for this book.

  And finally, a big hello to all the pelicans out there. No, you don't need a face-lift—a triple chin is what makes you a pelican.

  An Appetizer

  THE DRIVER WHO PICKED me up at JFK that February morning was a young Sikh, and as he bounced his taxi out of the airport, he started talking over his shoulder in Punjabi or some other Asian language.

  I was just about to explain that I spoke only English and beginner's French when I realized he wasn't addressing me at all. He was speaking into his phone, and kept this up for die whole journey. Maybe, I thought, he was moonlighting witJi a call center, maximizing his time spent in traffic by doing computer customer service.

  I wasn't offended, though. I didn't need conversation about the weather or why I'd come to America. I was happy to settle back in my seat and enjoy the thrill of arriving in New York.

  Even the traffic jam was exotic—squadrons of yellow taxis jostling for position with black Lincoln sedans and chrome-nosed trucks, all breathing out white clouds of exhaust into the freezing winter air. The spine-crunching bumps in the road did nothing to detract from the fun of it.

  After an hour of this, the highway suddenly rose above street level and there it was, the world's most famous skyline, a silver silhouette against the hazy blue of the sky. Through the spider's web beams of a suspension bridge, I could make out the angular spire of the Empire State Building and the rocket-cone Chrysler Building.

  I gripped the edge of my seat.

  When we'd crossed the bridge, the skyline loomed even bigger out of the left-hand side of the car, then started to recede.

  Soon Manhattan was completely out of sight behind us. Hang on, I thought, that can't be right, can it?

  Paris and London

  Do I Have a Dream?

  1

  THE SEEDS OF DISASTER HAD been sown the previous autumn, when I opened an English tearoom just off the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Almost immediately I was visited by a language inspector from the Ministry of Culture, who warned me that I could expect "the severest consequences" if I didn't translate my menu into French.

  He had been well chosen for the job, a power-mad bureaucrat who refused to believe that even the most linguistically challenged Parisian could understand SAUSAGE when the label was standing in front of a plate of long, meat-filled tubes.

  He also alleged that my customers were being traumatized by the fear that their "cheese salad" might contain a chair (chaise in French). I mean, chair salad? What brand of poisonous Gallic tobacco had he been smoking?

  I stayed calm and pointed out that plenty of English food names, like sandwich, cake, iced tea, toast, and bacon had passed directly into the French language, to which his only reply was a dismissive "pff."

  Sensing that I had him on the defensive, I followed up with the clinching argument that the English labels were educational for my customers.

  "Ha! You think all French people must be forced to learn English?" he trumpeted, and huffed out the door, leaving me—I assumed—to get on with the serious business of running a cafe.

  But no, his revenge arrived about three months later. It was a piece of sheer bureaucratic sadism—a letter saying that the tearoom had been revisited incognito, found guilty of continuing to operate with an untranslated menu, and therefore sentenced to pay an obscene amount of euros in penalties.

  "How much do we owe?" I asked.

  I was at the tearoom with Benoit, the son of a sneaky Parisian entrepreneur called Jean-Marie Martin, to whom I'd sold a 50 percent stake in the business. Jean-Marie had bought this share in a desperate attempt to get Benoit off his student backside and into the real world. It was an astute move—I'd let Benoit take over as manager, and he'd quickly blossomed from a rich-kid slacker into a skilled raker-in of euros. He was making a real go of tJhe tearoom. Or so he thought, until the fine arrived.

  Benoit read out the amount again, and I slumped forward to cool my aching forehead on the glass serving counter, right above the half-empty plate of what had to be the costliest sausages ever grilled.

  "I can solve the immediate problem," Benoit said in French. "I'll translate the labels, redo the blackboard, and I've ordered new takeaway menus. The inspector's coming back tomorrow."

  "But I haven't got that kind of money," I moaned. It was a huge sum—enough to take me around the globe in business class or buy me a midrange sports car. Tragic to think that it was probably going to finance some ministerial brochure explaining how to persecute English speakers.

  Benoit tutted sympathetically. He was thoughtful enough to hide his relief that the fine had been incurred for something that happened before his father bought into the tearoom. Legally, the money had to come out of my empty pocket. "You could—" he began, but I cut him off instantly.

  "Sell my share to Jean-Marie? No way." I knew that Benoit had plans to open another branch, and I had no intention of selling up just before the brand started to go global. If the Latin Quarter counted as global. "No, I'll get the money," I told him.

  "You have to pay within six weeks, or it increases again."

  "What?" I straightened up and looked Benoit in the eye. If it had been his dad or his sister Elodie, an ex-girlfriend of mine, some part of them would have been relishing my pain, but Benoit's expression was one of genuine concern.

  "The French legal system shows no mercy," he said. "They've stopped guillotining people, but they cannot resist the temptation to slice off a businessman's—"

  "Thanks, Benoit, I get the picture."

  I left him relabeling sausage as saucisse and salad as salade, and went off to try and save my financial bacon. Or bacon financier, as I was probably obliged to call it.

  2

  I was in shock. Not only because of my money troubles, but also because I had just heard the scariest words in the English language.

  No, not "This might hurt a little," "There's something I've been meaning to tell you, darling," or "Did you realize that your credit card number is being used simultaneously in Moscow, Shanghai, and Bogota?"

  This sentence was much, much scarier. It was "What do you want to do with your life?"

  When someone asks this, I usually feign sudden deafness or an attack of the runs. But when it's your girlfriend who says it, you can't ignore her. You have to stop watching the cliffhanger ending of the murder miniseries you've been following for weeks and answer her question.

  "Pardon?" I said, forcing myself to look away from the TV and into Alexa's (admittedly gorgeous) face.

  "What are your dreams, Paul?" She laid her head on my shoulder and put the TV on mute so that I wouldn't be distracted by the detective
explaining exactly how the murderer had bamboozled Scotland Yard's finest for the past three episodes.

  I could tell that I was in for a treat. Just like a lobster knows it's going to have fun when it feels that first gust of steam rising from the cooking pot.

  It had been eight hours since Benoit told me about the fine. Alexa and I were cocooned together under a fluffy white duvet in her enormous apartment near the Bastille.

  In one corner of this pine-floored palace was a mezzanine bedroom. We were huddled in here because the underfloor heating downstairs cost about a month's salary per day to turn on, and on top of all my other worries, I was temporarily between salaries. As was Alexa, whose only income came from the sale of her photos. She'd recently had shows at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and London's Saatchi Gallery, which had generated plenty of kudos but not much cash.

  The apartment belonged to her dad, who had gone to live with his new amour in Copenhagen. I'd moved in with Alexa just after Christmas, and this was the first time we'd watched TV in bed. I didn't see it as a sign that we were less thrilled to be there and needed entertainment outside of each other's nakedness. I just wanted to watch the last episode of the miniseries.

  But Alexa was an arty French girl, and French intellectuals regard TV miniseries the way crocodiles look at soy croquettes—not meaty enough to merit their attention. This was why she'd decided that it was perfecdy OK to talk over the ending.

  "My dreams? That's a tough one," I said. "I'd need to think about it."

  "But you must have some ambitions. That's why you started your tearoom, isn't it?" Her English was so good that you could hardly hear a French accent at all.

  "Yes, exactly," I agreed, congratulating myself for getting out of trouble so effortlessly. My finger hovered over the mute button as the detective mouthed revelations that were making all the other characters gasp in amazement. Five seconds of silence from Alexa and I'd take it as tacit agreement that I could turn the volume on again.

  "But you sold half the business, so you must have other dreams, too."

  Damn. I was going to have to buy the DVD to find out whodunit. I switched off the TV and snuggled up.

  "Oh, I have great dreams," I said. "Last night I dreamed you were lying naked in a hot tub and then I got in and—"

  "No, Paul, don't joke, please. I'm being serious. What do you want to do with your life?" Her all-seeing blue eyes drilled deep into my brain. "I dream of making a film about the French lifestyle," she went on, "of building a career in photography. What do you dream of, apart from watching the end of your murder series?" Which was one dream she'd just murdered. "It's great being in Paris with you, Paul, but right now I'm getting a bit.. ." She trailed off.

  "A bit what?"

  "Bored."

  "Bored?" There's something about being in bed with a woman who says you're boring that makes certain parts of a guy go limp.

  "Yes. It's no coincidence that this problem of the fine has hit you now. You have gone soft."

  "Soft?"

  "Yes, tu te laisses aller, you have let yourself go. For a month now, you've done nothing. You almost never go to the tearoom."

  "Benoit doesn't need me."

  "You spend most of your time watching DVDs, looking at stupid websites, or sitting in cafes."

  "Or curled up in bed with you." It sounded like the ideal lifestyle to me.

  "But that is not enough. You are a guy with energy and imagination. You can't waste it like this. You must be more creative. I am scared you will sell your other half of the tearoom to pay your debt, and then you will have even less than nothing."

  I got the message. It was caveman time. I had to go out and brain a mammoth to prove that I was a real male. Even the most feminist women get like that occasionally. They demand that a guy explores his feminine side, but now and again they need to feel the rasp of a five o'clock shadow on his chin.

  And deep down, I knew she was right.

  Sitting in a Paris cafe was still a thrill—people pretending to read books while checking out the other coffee drinkers, couples in conversations so urgent they looked as if they would change the world, teenage schoolkids chain-smoking in an attempt to belong to this adult society. It was always entertaining.

  But recently I had been feeling a slight unease as I sat over my fourth espresso of the day. I had caught myself drumming my fingers on the marble tabletop, as if I were waiting for somebody or something. And I couldn't put all my fidgetiness down to caffeine poisoning. It was a kind of dissatisfaction, lodged deep in the soul where the coffee, the champagne, and the love (and body) of a good woman couldn't reach. Part of me was looking for something else. A dream, perhaps.

  "No, I'm not going to sell my share of the tearoom," I told Alexa in my best cave-dweller voice. "I'm going to get the money. And I think I know how."

  "Yes?" She raised an eyebrow.

  "Yes. I got an e-mail a few days ago offering me a job. I dismissed the idea at the time because it sounded too wacky, but now . . ."

  "What is it?"

  "You've seen Thelma and Louise, right?"

  "Yes?"

  "And Easy Rider?"

  "Yes?" Alexa's brow was knitted. She wasn't bored any more.

  "And Alfie?

  "Original version or the remake?"

  "Does it matter?"

  "To me, yes." Parisian girls think remakes of 1960s movies are as big a blasphemy as Californian champagne.

  "OK. Original version?"

  "Yes."

  "Well, this was a job offer that would combine them all."

  "So, you will have to drive across America, talking like a Cockney, and you will get chased by the police because you have two dangerous women in your car?"

  "Just one French woman, I hope," I said. "How dangerous can that be?"

  Alexa smiled and planted a kiss on my shoulder. If I hadn't yet brought home a mammoth, at least I'd hinted that I might know where hairy mammals hung out.

  3

  Two days later, I was in London with my best suit on my back and my whole life printed out on a sheet of paper.

  The building where a taxi had just delivered me was at least ten stories high, all blue-tinted glass except for the white marble staircase leading up to the entrance doors. At the top of the stairs, an ecosystem of exotic-looking shrubs was growing in an immense granite sarcophagus. Perhaps they'd bought an Egyptian mummy and let it germinate, I thought. Though I wondered why they hadn't planted roses and apple trees, because the building was supposed to be selling Britishness. It was the brand-new headquarters of a brand-new organization called (and I quote) Visitor Resources: Britain. These were the people who, via a headhunting company, had sent me my job offer.

  After a cursory interrogation by two bored security guys, I took the elevator to the sixth floor and went to sit in a corridor with a carpet the color of lightly grilled toast. The walls were baked-bean orange. All that was missing to complete the English-breakfast theme was a set of light fixtures in the shape of fried eggs.

  There were no signs or sounds of life anywhere.

  Until, that is, the elevator doors opened again and a female voice flooded the corridor with the soundtrack to a nervous breakdown.

  "No, I can't take your fucking dog for a haircut," she was wailing. "Well, not before six, anyway."

  She tripped out of the elevator, a gangly, curly-headed thirty-something in clothes she must have bought from a thrift shop specializing in mismatching outfits. Floppy rainbow sweater, tartan miniskirt, vertical-striped tights, and ancient suede moonboots. In one arm, she was clutching a heap of files that looked as if she'd dropped them ten times that day already.

  "No, you fuck off, George, just like you always do. Oh." She saw me and hung up.

  "Hi," she said, holding out her phone for me to shake. "Sorry about that, you're early, come in, oh shit where are the sodding keys, hold this, bugger."

  She dumped the files in my arms and suffered a second bout of Tourette's syndrome whil
e she rummaged through her suede shoulder bag. All the while she was giving me the kind of frank, top-to-bottom examination that you might give a girl in a pole-dancing club. Not that I've ever been to one. Well, not in Europe, anyway.

  "They wouldn't let me park outside, the bastards. I mean, who's got a permit on their first day, here they are, shit how do you open this fucking ... ah there we go, oh brilliant, it's been delivered, sit down, coffee, oh no I don't suppose there is any, fuck it let's just start OK?"

  She ripped the tape off a large cardboard box that was sitting below a tinted window.

  "Ah, we'll try this first, shall we?" She pulled out what looked like a legless Alsatian dog and threw it at me. When I caught it, I realized it was a busby, a guardsman's bearskin hat. Was this a culture test, I wondered—Name That British Object? Next I'd be asked to identify a deep-fried Mars Bar and a Charles and Camilla tea cozy.

  "Well?" she said. "Stand up. Put it on."

  The hat flopped down over my eyes and tickled my ears. Through a fringe of fake fur I saw her take a photo and then head for her Pandora's box again.

  "Ah, yes, what about these?"

  This time I had to fit a scratchy lace collar round my neck and grin while she snapped me in Beefeater headgear.

  "A bit young, but what the hell," she said. "Ooh, I know what we have to do with you—oh, sod it."

  She was on her hands and knees, her whole torso jammed into the box. A plastic crown flew over her shoulder, followed by what looked like a jester's codpiece with little bells on it. At least I was to be spared that indignity.

  "Oh well, nothing for it." She stood up and started to undress. "Get your trousers off," she said.

  Wow, job interviews have changed since I was last unemployed, I thought. Was I about to be asked to shag for England?

  "You're not shy, are you? Come on, we see lots of bodies in our business. I bet it's not the first time you've seen a girl in tights, either."

 
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