A Night in Dieppe
(Or Molly Ringwald & the Onions)
A MADE UP TRUE SHORT STORY
A Night in Dieppe
In the late spring of 1991, I spent a weeks holiday down in Martel, a tiny village in southwest France, before travelling up to Paris for a few days to visit my Aunty Lollipop and hang out at the bars with my cousin Olivier. The plan was to get the Sunday night ferry from Dieppe and arrive back in London for college on Monday morning and the small matter of my final exams. The night ferry departed from Dieppe at 11 pm, but alas, I arrived at the terminal at 11:01 pm to watch it leave without me. The cruel fog horn, like a giant raspberry to my ears.
I stood there in shock and surveyed my surroundings, realising that this was a disaster—a deserted ferry terminal. Any staff had vanished with the ferry except for a big burly sailor wrapping a rope around a bollard. He had the full Popeye credentials – thick leathery skin, stubble, tattoos and a Gitane cigarette wobbling from his mouth. Luckily I spoke fluent French, so I asked him an important question.
“Excuse moi, quand est ce le next ferry?”
“English?” he replied.
How on earth did he know that? I answered with a “Oui.”
“The next ferry is at eight tomorrow morning, monsieur.”
This was terrible news.
“Merd,” said I.
He finished tying up his rope and, before leaving, wished me good luck.
I would need it. I had nine hours to kill. The place was deserted, and I only had a few francs to my name. Hardly enough for a croissant. Plus, there was a nip in the air. I made my way over to an outdoor waiting area that looked like a dirty English bus shelter with orange plastic moulded seats under a corrugated roof. I sat down and stared ahead at the view of the now-empty docks considering my options. I knew one thing for sure; it was going to be a long night.
I decided to walk into Dieppe town centre and followed signs that took me along the Quai de l’avenir and then the Quaide la Marne, but everywhere was a complete ghost town. Even if I had had money, nothing was open – no hotels, no shops, no bars, no nightclubs. A light rain had started to fall, and I was wearing my thin Jim Morrison leather jacket, which looked super-cool on a sunny day in Camden Market, but I was now cursing its inability to keep me dry or warm.
I returned to the waiting area at the ferry port, which at least provided some shelter and tried to get some sleep. But this task was made impossible by the contours of the orange plastic moulded seating, designed for a specific sized posterior and certainly not made for rest. A bed of nails would be more comfortable. If only I had some paper and a pen, I could write some song lyrics or start a novel. I sat there feeling sorry for myself when I heard footsteps and saw the silhouette of someone approaching. It was a smartly dressed man in a suit carrying a briefcase heading towards me.
I acknowledged him with a lifting of the eyebrows and a sympathetic smile, but he did not return my greeting. He was a large imposing man, and his suit was well cut like he had stepped out of Saville Row tailors. But he was somewhat distracted. He inspected the row of orange plastic mounded seating, deciding which seat to sit on, grimacing, shaking his head and muttering to himself.
After some deliberation, he produced a large white handkerchief and started to rub vigorously on his chosen seat. It was a thorough cleaning operation, but his next dilemma was how to dispose of his now soiled handkerchief. He looked around for a bin that didn’t exist. And even if it did, he would need another hanky to open the bin. Here was a man who had clearly never been to the outdoor toilets at Glastonbury Festival. Everything felt clean after that.
Initially, I had tried not to watch his endeavours, give the man some privacy, but he was so oblivious to my presence that by the end of his ablutions which lasted a long time, I noticed my mouth was half-open agog like I had front row seats at the theatre. The lack of anything else to look at had made his arrival proper entertainment. And the vigour to which he had attempted to clean his seat had become quite amusing. I got the sense he might be a germaphobe.
Eventually, his labours came to an end, and he deemed the seat clean and perched on it, assuming a royal pose like he was riding side-saddle on a horse, the minimum amount of buttock to seat ratio. We sat in awkward silence for a while. It was hard to catch his eye as he stared straight ahead into the middle distance focusing on nothing as if trying to remove himself from his situation. Occasionally his eyes would close as if he was trying to imagine he was elsewhere. But then it seemed the internal rotations of his mind would be too much, and he would start muttering to himself angrily.
I was getting a bit offended that he was so oblivious and uninterested in me. Was I not another human being? Some conversation would be nice. And I had some funny stories. Especially the one about our family dog Max the golden retriever, and the time he got stung by the bee. I was beginning to feel quite insulted and angry, but eventually, his eyes darted my way. I took my opportunity and spoke.
“This. Are you waiting for the ferry?”
“Of course I am waiting for the ferry! You think I come to this godforsaken place in the middle of the night for pleasure?”
I left this hanging. He was a bit touchy, but hey, we were both in the same boat. Or not as the case seemed to be. I tried again.
“You live in England?”
“And you missed the ferry, huh?”
He didn’t respond. I ended the questions. My new arrival didn’t want to engage, but then he had a change of heart.
“I am waiting for my daughter. They wouldn’t let me board the last ferry, so she has gone back to London to fetch the papers. And then she is coming back with my papers so that I can board.”
He looked at his watch, which I noticed was quite snazzy and released another very long, very angry sigh. He clearly wasn’t going to ask me any questions about myself, so I lobed another one at him.
“Have you lived in England long?” I asked.
He had. It was quite a convoluted story. He explained he was originally from Nigeria but had moved to London and set up a series of very successful businesses. He was in the precious stone trade. He now travelled first class, had a chauffeur, and that he should be reduced to sitting in this filthy departure shelter in Dieppe on dirty plastic moulded seats disturbed him no end.
The more he spoke, the more he seemed to have to say. Britain had been very good to him. There were opportunities that you needed to seize. You work hard you can do anything. It was a great country, the greatest country in the world. I nodded along, realising he was having a conversation with himself, but then to my surprise, he asked me a question, although it was of the rhetorical sort.
“You know the best thing the UK has produced?”
Hmm, that was a good question. I was about to say pop music and was ready to argue my corner. The post-punk of the late seventies, the new romantic movement of the eighties and latterly Manchester indie scene had produced bands to rival the Beatles and the Stones, who, although another great UK export, were, in my opinion, a bit over-rated. Or maybe I had just heard them too many times. But before I could reply, he told me the answer.
My heart sunk as he began to list her achievements.
“She made the country proud again. Put the great back into Great Britain. I can’t believe she is gone.”
I didn’t want to be a nodding dog in what was becoming quite a one-sided conversation. I decided to steal something my old A-level Sociology teacher (the unfortunately named Charlie Brown) had once said about Margaret Thatcher.
“To me, her brand of authoritarian populism had its issues. And not everyone has benefitted. She has created quite a selfish society.”
I was pleased to inject this opinion into the conversation as my own. It had stopped him in his tracks.
“Exactly! this is what made her. Selfishness is a good thing!”
It was funny how Maggie inspired this evangelical love. There was no sober assessment of her policies in real terms to her devotees, the short/long term impacts, the plus and minus columns. She could do no wrong. Just by the affected way she spoke, her hairstyle and choice of clothes, let alone her politics, I wasn’t a fan. She was not someone I would want to be with if I was stuck in a lift. I was deciding how to counter his point when our conversation was interrupted by the shuffling of feet and a new arrival.
Out of the darkness, another male of the species appeared, in his late twenties, early thirties, possibly homeless with threadbare clothes, long matted hair. He wore national health specs with a broken frame secured with sellotape. He nodded hello and sat down on one of the seats opposite, but then realising they were not very comfortable, plonked himself cross-legged on the ground. He produced a tin of tobacco and some Rizla papers and started rolling a cigarette.
There were now three of us. This was turning into a scene from The Breakfast Club. We just needed Molly Ringwall to appear next, which would help the time go quicker as I had a bit of a crush on her. She would be followed by Ali Sheedy, who transformed from an emo-goth to a preppy prom queen at the end of the film. In the history of celluloid transformations, this was the reverse of Olivia Newton John’s decision to wear leathers and smoke cigarettes at the end of Grease, which had confused the nine-year-old me who saw nothing wrong with her librarian in a cardigan and pleated skirt look.
But in the absence of Molly, Ali or Olivia, we would have to make do with our new, slightly dusty-looking arrival. He had silenced my Nigerian businessman friend, who looked at his watch, remembered he was angry and resumed his royal pose/stare into the middle distance.
Our new arrival was an altogether different proposition in the clothing and politics department as I noticed various badges adorned the lapel of his coat. My training as a student of political science recognised the logos – CND and Anarchist. He was quite a serious-looking individual, with furrowed brow which suggested deep thought into the small hours. He didn’t look like he would be a barrel of laughs at an office party – this was not a man who would photocopy his bum for a laugh. But he was another human being and might prove a better conversationalist than my current companion. I decided to introduce myself.
“Hey, alright, how’s it going?”
“Been better,’ he said, with a roll of his eyes as if to acknowledge our situation.
“Alright, mate. Ryan.”
We looked over to our Nigerian friend who seemed reluctant to reveal his name, maybe because it was Brian in a mildly amusing coincidence. ‘Ryan, Brian and Me.’ It could be the name of the stage play when I wrote it. And this situation was definitely stage-play material. Three individuals from different parts of society forced together over an evening where a dark secret is revealed, or maybe each of them learns something about themselves? I wondered what we were about to learn. Or maybe there would be a murder? I made a mental note to write this up when I got hold of a pencil.
I asked Ryan where he was headed.
“On my way back to Great Shiton.”
I was tempted to bring him into our previous conversation. “Oh, that’s interesting; Brian here was just telling me how much he loved the UK and Margaret Thatcher” But I decided against it. Instead, I asked what he did for a living.
“I’m unemployed, mate. Between jobs. Not that there is much out there. Been doing a bit of fruit picking. Heard it was decent wedge – five francs a kilo but buggers kept rejecting my punnets. My strawberries weren’t good enough, apparently. Fascists.”
“Oh dear,” I said, noticing he had yellow fingers and dirty nails and wondering if that might have had something to do with them not accepting the fruits of his labour.
“Yeah, and working in fields all day is back-breaking work. Total waste of time and energy. Corporate whores.”
“Did you not make any money?”
“A bit, but it’s all gone on a ticket getting back here. Tried hitching, but no one would stop for me. Don’t know why. Wankers.”
I had detected a certain unpleasant body odour filling our waiting area since his arrival but decided against informing him that might be the cause. It was time for Brian to contribute to the conversation.
“You do realise you must declare any income if you are claiming benefits in The United Kingdom.”
Ryan stopped rolling his cigarette.
“Who said I was claiming benefits?”
“You said you were unemployed.”
“You a copper?”
“Well. Mind you own.”
This had put a bit of a full stop to the conversation. An awkward silence hung in the air, like the pong emanating from our new arrival. Ryan returned to filling his cigarette with tobacco. Brian resumed his royal pose in a sulk. I decided to have another go at stoking some conversation and explained I was on my way back to college for my finals, but I was also in an indie-pop band, and we had some serious music industry interest. But strangely, neither of them seemed interested in hearing about some of the crazy gigs we had played or my plans for musical world domination. Ryan finished rolling his cigarette, licked the paper to seal it and then lit up. He took a drag, blew a smoke ring and then spoke.
“What are you studying?”
‘Politics and government,” I replied, slightly irked he was more interested in my degree course than my band. Ryan laughed dismissively.
“Well, if you ask me, we should fucking get rid of the lot of them and start again. The political system is corrupt. People think we live in a democracy, but we don’t. It’s a sham. Big business and elites run the show and protect their interests, while workers rights are being eroded. The rich get richer at the expense of the poor. Cunts.”
He sounded like one of my Politics lecturers. I nodded politely. Brian made an unimpressed harrumph sound to indicate he disagreed. Ryan ignored him and continued.
“There needs to be fundamental change. And I’m not talking about another pointless election; I’m talking revolution, brother.”
He was also sounding like Reg from Life Of Brian. Brian harrumphed again, this time louder. Ryan continued warming to his theme.
“All this wealth in London with increasing numbers of homeless people on the streets, in sleeping bags.’
Brian could harrumph no longer. It was time for him to interject.
“Yes, but if you look, some of these sleeping bags are brand new.”
This comment had stopped Ryan in his tracks.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Some of these people are pretending to be homeless, and they go home after a profitable day begging.”
“Are you having a laugh?”
“I would never beg. Never! It is degrading. And they take this money and what do they do with it? They drink it or stick a needle in their arms.”
“Up to them, mate. I don’t blame them need an escape when their future is so bleak.”
“The problem is these people don’t want to work. They are lazy. There are jobs.”
Ryan laughed incredulously and shook his head in disbelief.
“What jobs? There is a recession, or haven’t you noticed?”
“Recession is all in the mind.”
It was safe to say Ryan and Brian hadn’t hit it off, like two snappy alligators that didn’t like each other. I sat quietly as they travelled down a well-worn road of political arguments I had heard many times before at college.
“You have to make people strong, not reliant on handouts.”
“They wouldn’t be reliant on state handouts if there were jobs.”
“If you put more money in the pockets of the wealthy, it will trickle down to benefit the poor.”
“No wealth just get hoarded. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”
Eventually, they ran out of road and sat in mutual loathing, aggrieved at the other’s presence, nay existence, reinforcing their own feelings of isolation and alienation. This person was the reason all was wrong in the world. They were to blame for all society’s ills. If this was an ideological sandwich of political left v right, I was the liberal filling in the centre, mayonnaise maybe, or in Spinal Tap parlance the Derek Small’s warm water to their fire and ice.
Not that I wasn’t interested, I just had more important things on my mind, like when my band the pointy birds were going to make it. I could sort this shit out later when I was rich and famous. Plus, I didn’t have the answers.
Above us, the pitter-patter of rain on the corrugated roof got heavier. Out at sea, there was a distant rumble of thunder followed by a small flash of lightning that briefly illuminated the horizon, where the dark churning sea, full of mystery and menace, met the vast, unknowable sky above it. And beyond that, not viewable from here was the landmass of England. I suddenly thought of home, my flat in Golders Green and my bed. And then my duvet. What wouldn’t I give to be snuggling under my duvet in a cosy bed with my weary head resting on two soft pillows. I felt a seductive pull to sleep like gravity but was foiled by these cursed seats. Damn these stupid seats! I must not think of my bed. I must zap that thought! Zap that thought was quite a good name for something – an album or a poem, maybe? Or maybe a self-help book for pessimists? I made a mental note to make a mental note.
I needed to lighten the mood. The obvious contender was to bond and express ourselves through the medium of the spherical object.
“Hey, what football teams do you guys support? I’m a Spurs fan. I used to be Liverpool, but….”
I was met by two horrified stares. I had unintentionally united them in their dislike of football. Along with voting behaviour and white dog poo, this was another of life great mysteries. Why did some people love kicking a ball? And why did it leave others cold? What made us? The first time I saw a game on television was the 1975 FA Cup final between West Ham and Fulham. I was six and I was spellbound – the crowd, the excitement in the commentator’s voice, the spectacle, the theatre and at the centre of it all the glorious green rectangle. I didn’t just like football; I loved it. And I knew it would be with me for my whole life. But I knew immediately any talk about the genius of Paul Gascoigne or Gary Lineker’s ability as a centre forward, (okay his first touch wasn’t all that but his movement and ability to score goals were beyond doubt) would fall on deaf ears.
I had drawn the real short straw with these two: a free-market capitalist and a revolutionary communist, both who seemed to lack a sense of humour. We could be having a laugh or maybe having an adventure, telling ghost stories around a fire while we cooked a rabbit that we had caught with our bare hands in a local forest. Instead, I was sat here shivering cold, tired and worse of all, bored. Why couldn’t more fun people have turned up? And where was Molly Ringwald?
At least I had the making of a stage play that was writing itself in front of me. I would need to pad it out with some backstory. In The Breakfast Club, the student’s detention assignment was to work out who they thought they were. I began to consider my two travelling companions. I wasn’t sure I believed Brian was a successful businessman or waiting for his daughter to bring his papers. It all sounded a bit fishy. And what explained his very right-wing beliefs? Was he from a wealthy Nigerian family and never considered the struggle of those beneath him, or had he grown up in poverty in a dangerous backstreet of Lagos and managed to escape a life of crime to survive? If he could do it, then so could others!
And what about Ryan? Was he a revolutionary communist because he had seen the agony of manufacturing closed down and a family on the streets? Or was he a trust fund kid in disguise with lots of free time to ponder societies ills but no real idea how to solve them? Or maybe I was complicating things. Maybe I was sitting with a businessman and someone down on their luck in the job market. But then, who was I? Was I a student about to fail his finals or a musician on the verge of rock n roll world domination? I suddenly wasn’t sure.
The three of us sat quietly for a while churning over our own thoughts. I had no idea what the time was and dared not ask Brian to look at his snazzy watch in case it was earlier than I thought. All I knew was that it was still dark, and I was freezing, and the tiredness was starting to hurt. We still had several hours to kill. Sleep was impossible. These stupid moulded seats had been designed in the exact way to keep you awake. Was the remit to make the seats as uncomfortable as possible? Or had someone blinded the plastic seat commissioning committee with the idea of a seat moulded to the shape of a pair of buttocks, not realising that everyone’s buttocks were a different size? So many unanswered questions in life, so many un-peelable onions.
My thoughts began to swim; I imagined a row of onions that contained the answers to some of life’s biggest questions. I just needed to peel each one to get to the truth. The first onion contained the answer to how we should best organisesociety. Was free-market capitalism the most efficient distribution of money and opportunity? Or did it lead to the grotesque hoarding of wealth that didn’t trickle down to benefit the poor and society as a whole? The second onion revealed who we were and why we were who we were. Did nature or nurture explain what made us? Or was it, as I suspected, a combination of both? For every Einstein, Shakespeare or Mozart, there seemed to be an awful lot of Homer Simpsons. Were they the exceptions that proved the rule? Another onion contained the answer to whether life was ultimately a tragedy or a comedy. And maybe the most important onion of all answered the biggest question – when would I be famous? Coz it was taking a while.
I was having trouble peeling these onions, but luckily for me, Molly Ringwald had turned up and seemed to have no problem removing the various layers of skin. As she peeled, she looked at me seductively across a roaring fire as our rabbits toasted and roasted and rotated on skewers. I was going to enjoy this dream. And the meal – rabbit and onion stew perhaps?
My head dropped forward, and I nodded off, dreaming sweet dreams of Molly and the onions, which was undoubtedly the most fantastic name for a band ever. My sleep lasted possibly for five minutes or maybe an hour, it was hard to know, but when I awoke, things felt different. The rain had passed, and there was a smudge of pink on the horizon, suggesting the sun was about to make an appearance. The sky was brightening, and the shapes of our surroundings were beginning to reveal themselves. I could now see the rooftops of the Dieppe skyline, the chalky cliffs in the distance and the outline of a huge P&O ferry moored in the docks.
My crocodile-like companions were sat in a kind of zombie state. I could now see the details and contours of their faces in this new light, in the same way, people you met at a nightclub looked different once you were turfed out onto the street at 3 am. Ryan seemed younger somehow, nearer my age maybe, and Brian seemed a bit older, greying at the temples and less confident. He had a slightly frightened look in his eyes.
I suddenly became aware that I hadn’t eaten, and as this realisation grew, so did the hunger in my belly. I calculated that not a morsel had passed my lips since lunch the previous day. Ordinarily, I never skipped a meal. Ever. I ate everything on my plate, except Spam. And now, this realisation became all-consuming and needed to be expressed out loud.
“God! What wouldn’t I give for a bacon sandwich.”
My two companions said nothing – they seemed lost in their own worlds of misery. I continued.
“Or steak and chips.”
“Stop it,” snapped Brian. “You are making me more hungry than I already am.”
Brian was right, but now I realised how hungry I was, it was hard to stop thinking about how hungry I was, and the solution to that problem was food. A new mantra rotated in my head:
Mustn’t think about food.
Mustn’t think about food.
Mustn’t think about food.
But the more I tried not to think about food, the more I thought about it. The song Food Glorious Food from Oliver Twist entered into my head. Although it could be dismissed as quite a throwaway, almost silly song, I had a newfound respect for the profundity of the lyric:
Hot sausage and mustard.
I sat for a while with the chorus spinning aimlessly between my ears.
“Are you humming food glorious food?” asked Ryan.
“Oh, sorry, didn’t realise.”
Now Ryan had the song in his head. I could also see it had crept into Brians thinking. There was less muttering, and I detected him mouthing the words Peas pudding and saveloys. It felt like we were about to break into song. It would pass the time, if nothing else. And it might be a nice addition to the stage play. It could be a musical, but I would need to write some original songs. Or maybe we could license Food Glorious Food from the rights holder.
Oh, for a hot sausage and mustard now! But like snuggling under my duvet, I had to zap these thoughts of food and bed. They might consume me, and insanity could take hold. I had to stay strong. Holdfast was the Macleod family motto. I now knew what it meant. My uncle Gerard studied family trees and had worked out that we were descendants of Norwegian Viking king Og Macleod. Macleod meaning son of ugly. Something in my Viking ancestry stirred within me. It was Ugly Og’s voice I heard now in this time of need.
“Holdfast young Andrew Finlay Macleod. Do not think of hot sausage and mustard.”
It was no good. I was consumed by the fact I wasn’t consuming.
I decided to throw a question to the floor. If this didn’t bond us, nothing would.
“If you could have anything to eat, what would you chose?”
Two tired and hungry faces looked at me. It was Ryan who spoke.
“Like a Death Row meal?”
“Yeah, exactly. Your final supper.”
Ryan took a drag on his cigarette, gave it some thought, exhaled two smoke rings this time, and spoke.
“Gotta be Toast.”
“You can’t beat toast.”
There was an element of truth to this, although surely there were better options?
“And what would you have on your toast?” I asked as my mouth started to drool.
“I hate marmite,” said Brian.
I laughed. Of course, Brian and Ryan even clashed over the choice of condiments.
“Am I allowed a cup of tea?” asked Ryan.
I considered this.
Ryan seemed happy with his imaginary meal. It was Brian’s turn.
“I would have my grandmother’s beef stew. Oh my god! You will never taste anything more delicious.”
Brian’s eyes lit up, and he released a big happy laugh at the memory. “It is the taste of my childhood in Lagos. She added these secret herbs and spices….”
We all nodded and smiled as Brian described the stew in sumptuous detail. I now pictured a young Brian at his grandmother’s kitchen table. It brought back a similar memory for me, shelling peas with my grandmother. Each year we drove to her house in Edinburgh for our summer holidays, and at the end of an 8-hour journey, she would serve up haggis, suede and mash, although not sure that would be my final supper.
We sat in quiet contemplation of our various meals, happy that there had at least been a connection between us. Ryan spoke up.
“I walked past a 24-hour bakery not far from here.”
“Really?” said Brian.
“Whereabouts?” said I.
“Only about ten minutes away. Smelt delicious.”
Does anyone have any cash?” said Brian. “I, unfortunately, do not carry cash.”
“Skint,” said Ryan sadly.
They both watched as I emptied my jean pockets of a few coins. Even a croissant from this shop would be better than nothing, but I wasn’t sure I had enough for that. I then checked the pockets of my leather jacket, knowing they were empty, more in hope than expectation, but deep in the recess, I felt something and pulled out a folded fifty franc note.
I unfolded it to check it was real. It was like the famous scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Charlie Bucket discovers Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, followed by a memory that Aunty Lollipop had given me some spending money in Paris. I had completely forgotten. I now had two options. I could sneak off and spend it all on myself, pig out on pastries. But firstly, I didn’t know where this bakery was, and secondly, my travelling companions were hungry. Wouldn’t I want to eat if they had money? Plus, 50 Francs was enough to feed all of us.
“I’ve got some money,” said I triumphantly, holding up my 50 franc note like a lottery ticket. “Enough to get us all something to eat.”
“Seriously?” said Brian and Ryan together.
“You are a good man. We will send you a cheque when we get back to England. Won’t we, Ryan.”
Ryan nodded in the affirmative, although I wasn’t sure if cheque books and him were a thing.
Fortunes were changing. The top of the sun’s head had appeared on the horizon, bringing new warmth and daylight. We stood up and stretched, excited that we now had a little expedition. Not only would this kill some time, but it would also fill our bellies. I imagined a steaming cup of coffee and a pain rasion. Or maybe I would go for a good old cup of English breakfast tea and a croquet-monsieur. A salty ham and cheese toastie filled with gooey bechamel sauce. Food of the gods. The crunch to goo ratio was essential to get right, but it was something the French had mastered to a fine art – we were in safe hands.
We followed Ryan along the streets towards the town centre, a strange entourage on a pilgrimage for food. Not unlike the three wise men with all focus on getting to our destination. The conversation could flow once our bellies were full. We might bond and become life-long friends. After a few twists and turns, glowing in the distance, we could see a little corner shop bathed in golden light. Not quite a manger in Bethlehem, but not far off. It was a hive of activity, packed with all sorts of groceries, everything you might need at 5 am. Plus the smell of fresh bread and pastries being baked. What kind of heaven was this? I imagined biting into a warm pain raison or pain chocolate, and my dry mouth and empty stomach began to ache with pleasure.
“Give me the money,” said Brian. “I speak perfect French and will order us a banquet.”
I handed over the fifty franc note somewhat hesitantly. Should I not be buying the food? But in some ways, it was nice for someone else to take charge. Choosing what food to eat would be next to impossible. Plus, the shop was a bit too cramped and busy to fit all three of us. Brian disappeared inside, and we waited. Whatever he bought would hit the spot.
The sun was rising higher in the sky and with it a beautiful red dawn. I noticed a couple of seagulls circling above—the promise of a new day and the promise of hunger being satisfied. We had done the hard bit – it was all downhill now. The pleasure was in the relief—the end to pain. I suddenly felt a wave of profound happiness. I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back as the birds above made their familiar screech, the joyful sound of the seaside. I breathed in deep, taking in the salty notes of the sea and the sweet, comforting smell of fresh bread and pastry from this magical little bakery – purveyors of sugar and spice and all things nice.
Five long minutes passed. Brian was taking his time, but eventually, after what seemed a lifetime, he reappeared from the shop clutching two carrier bags packed full of goodies and started marching back to our base camp at the ferry depot.
“Can’t we eat now?” I pleaded.
“No, we are not eating in the streets like dogs.”
I didn’t mind eating in the street like a dog. I was drooling like a dog. We hurried along behind, but his long legs and large purposeful strides made it hard to keep up with him. My hunger had now taken on a new dimension. I had never experienced hunger like this – I felt light-headed and dizzy. What on earth had he bought? I was expecting three bacon sarnies and three cups of tea.
“What’s in the bags?” I asked.
“Wait till we get back.”
“Did you get pastries? Toasties? Hot sausage and mustard?”
I looked at Ryan for some moral support, but he was trailing behind and seemed less bothered about the need to get food in his gob.
Eventually, we arrived back at base camp. Brian plonked the two carrier bags down. He rummaged through his sacks like Santa Claus, and the first thing he produced was a packet of paper napkins decorated with bunnies skipping around in meadows.
I was confused. These weren’t edible.
“I had to buy some additional provisions so we can eat properly.”
Next, he produced a packet of paper plates in the same design. I started to feel something nameless bubble within me. A toxic brew of food being denied, hunger not being satisfied and money being wasted. The napkins and plates were not just a waste of money but a reduction in the quantity of potential food.
The paper plates were followed by paper cups in the same bunny design, and I released a short, hard laugh. I looked at Ryan, but he was busy rolling a cigarette. I suppose it wasn’t his money that was being spaffed up the wall. I felt a rumble of disbelief and anger inside me like lava in a volcano, and given my tummy was already rumbling, that was a lot of rumbling.
Next came a selection of plastic knives and forks. Brian said he wasn’t sure whether we needed these, but he didn’t want to use hands. We now had the makings of a mad hatters children’s tea party. We just needed party hats to finish off the look.
As Brian was busy distributing the plates and cutlery, I noticed the bags were looking less full now. A new fear gripped me that he had brought no food at all—next, Brian produced two big bottles of water for rehydration purposes.
“We must use the paper cups as we can not drink from the same bottle,” said Brian. “Nasty germs.”
Considering I was about to erupt like a volcano, the water might be a good idea. If Brian didn’t produce a freshly baked sausage roll out of the oven pretty sharpish, I knew not what I might do.
Me and food got on very well. I liked my nosh. I always ate everything on my plate. I was an advocate of the plate lick as a compliment to the chef. My uncle Jean Jacques called me the wolf because of the speed I wolfed down everything. But now, this wolf was being denied food, my inner canine was stirring, and I could feel bloodlust. This was possibly how a murderer might feel. Aha! So this was how the murder would take place! At least I had the answer to my stage play. There was going to be a murder but little did I know that I, the author/narrator/protagonist, would be the one wot did it. That was quite a neat twist. I had motive but did I have opportunity and means? Opportunity yes, but means no. I looked at Brian’s physique. His body seemed powerful and muscly. He was much bigger than I.
There was one last item in the bag.
“Unfortunately, I did not have enough left for the delicious looking and smelling pastries, so I had to make do with these.”
Brian produced a packet of Jacobs dry crackers. It seemed apt – this entire situation was crackers. At least the water made more sense because eating dry crackers with an already dry mouth was next to impossible.
Brian seemed pleased with his haul. He demonstrated by putting a napkin on his lap, filling his paper cup with water and then distributing some crackers on his paper plate. I then watched as he unsuccessfully tried to fork these crackers into his mouth using the plastic cutlery.
I was a mild-mannered kind of guy, but I had effectively been robbed and humiliated. It was time for the loud rumbling in my tummy to be released in an eruption of incredulous anger. The sheer injustice of it. And also anger at myself. Why had I let him take control? And why did I not now confront him? I didn’t fancy a life behind bars, so I had to hold on to the last thread of sanity. I spoke firmly but quietly.
“So there were no croissants?”
CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH
“No bacon sandwiches?
CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH
“No pain raison?”
CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH
“No hot sausage and mustard?”
CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH
I suddenly felt weak and light-headed. I was too hungry to be angry. Brian placed two crackers on a paper plate, filled the paper cup with water, folded a napkin around a plastic knife and fork and then offered a plate to Ryan.
“No, I’m alright, mate.”
Ryan lit his cigarette and blew three smoke rings and we sat in silence to the sound of Brian crunching and cursing the cutlery. I nibbled on a couple of crackers and sipped some water, and then closed my eyes, trying to remove myself from the situation. I could feel myself surrender to new thicker waves of tiredness. My head dropped, and for a while, I fell asleep until the sound of a new fog horn roused me. And there was our ferry arriving from England to take us home.
To my surprise, Brian’s daughter arrived lugging a gigantic suitcase. She was around my age, and we exchanged smiles, but there was no time for pleasantries as Brian immediately barked a series of orders at her in angry french. She nodded and then opened up her suitcase and pulled out a large towel which she then held up as Brian started undressing. It wasn’t long before he was completely naked. She handed him soap, and Brian began a thorough cleaning operation of himself before she passed him clean underwear and a freshly pressed new suit from the suitcase. I watched in disbelief and then looked at Ryan for a reaction, but he was miles away, past caring, sat on the filthy ground puffing away at his umpteenth cigarette. If anyone needed a wash, it was him.
My French sailor friend appeared and told us in perfect English that it was time to board the ferry. He then started unravelling ropes. At last, we could leave this godforsaken waiting area and the horrible orange plastic moulded seats. It had been an interesting night but not one I would ever want to repeat. Molly Ringwald may not have turned up, but at least I hadn’t committed murder. Plus, I had an ending for my play. I also no longer felt the need to speak to my co-passengers. Unlike in The Breakfast Club, there had been no real bonding or working out who we really were. They would go their way, and I would go mine. My focus, like theirs, was on getting home. In this respect, at least, we were very much the same.