Tuesday 17 February 2009

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A Pamplona, San Fermín – Part One

© John Sawyer – December 2008 / February 2009

Roy Russet is standing at Victoria Station surrounded by clocks but he still lifts his left arm towards his eyes, shakes his wrist free of the sleeve of his corduroy jacket and consults the gold watch with the leather strap that his mother had given him for his 21st birthday. If no one turns up in the next 10 minutes, he’ll abandon the project and head back to his flat in Kensington. Maybe he could talk his latest girlfriend into coming over for the weekend.

It had been a spur of the moment thing really. Last Tuesday night they were drinking pints in the change room at the company sports club in the green belt near Twickenham. Nineteen of them had used the long London twilight after work and played a modified game of cricket. One over bowling, two overs batting each. It had been great fun, but that Australian chap had been a bit crass and aggressive with his running and diving everywhere and his suggestions about the parentage of the other players had been a bit off really.

The Australian had also been very loud when they’d shown the “training film” Roy’s uncle had brought back on his last trip to Denmark. It was an early porn film with an improbable plot: “Geeze mate you’d never get a film like that past the aussie customs. Get a gander at the size of that bludger’s donger will ya? You reckon he’d bloody faint if he ever got a hard on, lack o’ blood to the brain mate. The poor bastard has his work cut out though. Deliverin’ the mail in a town full of bloody nymphos. I reckon he’ll be pretty buggered by the time he gets back to the post office. Do ya reckon he’ll have enough energy left to root that blonde bloody post mistress again? Quite an eye opener mate and he’s left his postie’s hat on through the whole thing.” Yes this colonial is quite quaint really. A certain sort of naïve enthusiasm for everything he encounters.

The idea was only partially formed and it had just spurted out really: “I say; listen here chaps. I’ve got this idea. What do you think about a trip to Spain next week for the running of the bulls? We catch the train on Friday night and scoot across to Paris. On Saturday we hitch a ride south towards Spain. I’ve got this old chum from school who says it’s easy to get a lift on Route Nationale Dix all the way to Spain. We should be there on Sunday. A week of debauchery and then back to London in time for work the following Monday. It should be a grand old time, what?”

There had been general enthusiasm for the idea and five of them had agreed to meet under the main clock outside the booking office at Victoria Station at 5 o’clock.

“G’day Roy. Where’s everyone else?”

“Well they’ve all pulled out Alan; girlfriends, work, one thing and another. It looks like it’s just thee and me old son. It should be a right royal adventure. What do you say … err cobber? Err… there was no need to get dressed up Alan.”

Alan is wearing a faded denim shirt with egg stains on the front, khaki shorts, woollen socks and desert boots with big ripple soles he refers to as “me bloody faithful old brothel creepers, mate”. It’s all topped off with a canvas tennis hat and an army surplus webbing rucksack. Alan’s travelling outfit is quite a contrast to Roy’s. The corduroy jacket is worn over a casual white shirt marked off into one inch squares with narrow brown and blue stitched lines. He’s wearing a knitted green tie, brown linen trousers and very solid brown brogue shoes. With a lightly framed rambler’s rucksack, Roy is the image of the country squire he aspires to be.

When the train arrives in Paris, Roy and Alan have breakfast standing at the bar of a workmen’s café near the Gare de Nord. “You don’t pay as much if you stand at the bar, Alan.”

Alan looks at their companions. Railway workers mainly. All standing silently facing the bar, a small black coffee, a cigarette, a fresh bread roll and a shot glass of alcohol that they sip distractedly.

“It’s Absinthe Alan, but a bit early in the day for me. I keep away from the old alcohol until the sun’s well over the yard arm, what!”

The barman approaches Alan: “Oui monsieur?”

“Err… wee ya’self, mate. Err… a nice cup of milky coffee will... Err café… err lait.”

“Café au lait. Oui monsieur.”

“Yeah wee. And one of them rolls. Err pane s'il vous plate thanks mate.”

The barman is one of those chatty types. His broad welcoming face beams at Alan while he makes the coffee: “Êtes-vous Anglais?”

“Anglais? English? Geeze no mate, I’m from Australia! Err… je suis err… from Australia”

“Ost...? Ah Autriche, oui?”

“Non mate, not ostriches, bloody emus. We’ve got emus with long bloody legs that can kick shithouses over”.

“No Alan, he thinks you’re from Austria… Non monsieur, il est de l'Australie.”

“Ah Australie OH Australie” The barman nods and looks at Alan sideways, as if everything is explained. He passes across a large bowl-like handle-less creamy coloured cup with blue rings on the outside. “Bon appétit monsieur.”

“Geeze look at this will ya, Roy? Nothin’ like this at home.” Alan tears an edge off the roll and dunks it in the milky froth. “Yeah they have nice milky coffee at the railway cafeteria at Flinders Street but nothing like this. I don’t know how you and these frogs can bloody drink it black. Hey err… Pardon moi mate. I’ll have one of them Abstain things as well before I go.”

As they leave the café, Alan reaches into his rucksack, pulls out an old Australian penny and bestows it on the barman like a military honour. “It works well Roy; bloody cheap mate. I went and got 10 quid’s worth of pennies before I left home. People seem to like it. Kangaroo on one side, young Lizzie on the other.”

Roy and Alan are now standing expectantly beside the highway with a stream of traffic heading south for the weekend. Roy had led Alan from the station to a bus stop. “My chum said we should go to Sèvres and stand by the roadside there.” The bus had been a real antique that would have been old when the German’s occupied Paris twenty-five odd years before. It had a green body and cream roof and had a long tractor like nose for its engine. They’d stood on the open air back deck and took in Paris as it woke up. “Geeze, look at that will ya Roy? The bloody Eiffel Tower. Who’d have believed it, hey? And the bloody traffic around the Arc de Triumph. God, no one gives a shit about any bloody road rules mate. I can’t believe I’m here at last. It’s just like a bloody dream really.”

Cars trucks and vans continue to stream south with no one stopping. Roy looks at his companion and wonders if they’re dressed properly to hitch a ride. Just his luck to get hitched up with a still wet behind the ears antipodean.

A car skids to a halt just 30 yards down the road, the front door flies open and the driver waves at them to hurry: “Vite, et regarder le chien!” They pile aboard. Roy sits in the front with the driver and Alan’s in the back with the rucksacks and a skinny grey dog with a continuously wagging stubby tail and light brown patches across its body.

Roy and the driver conduct an animated conversation in a version of French that’s indecipherable to the schoolboy variety taught to Alan by Brother Bloody Aloysius. Alan looks at the driver. He is short and fat with a moustache, a black beret and the sort of blue overalls worn by blokes in engineering works back in Australia. He’s chain smoking a particularly foul smelling brand of cigarettes called Gaulois. Much stronger than Alan’s hand made “Old Holborn” rollups.

They both blow smoke around the cab while non-smoker Roy struggles with the sliding window and pokes his head into the breeze for air: “This is Claude.”

“What Cloud as in sky?”

“No Alan, Claude as in … Claude. He’s travelling down to a farm near Poitiers to visit his son. He’s pleased for the company and someone to look after the dog. It tends to get bored and becomes a bit of a handful as the trip goes on. I told him you used to be a cattle drover and know all about dogs. I hope you don’t mind my old … cobber. Smile and think of Mother England, what?”

Just then the car suddenly swerves off the main highway onto a side road. It stops in the next village outside a bar. Claude’s buying.

“I’ll have one of those abstain things thanks Cloud.”

“Yes and I’ll have a beer if you don’t mind. A lager at 9:45 in the morning seems rather appropriate thanks Claude. This far east, the sun hits the yard arm much earlier, what!”

They have three drinks before they get back to the car, all on Claude, although Alan does hand a kangaroo penny to the barman as a keepsake.

Alan suddenly gets his first proper look at their transportation. It looks like something his uncle might have belted out and welded together from an old car body and a couple of old bits of corrugated iron for the kids to play in. Its door handles are only on the outside, so you have to slide the widows open before you get out. It has a pretty uncomfortable unpadded bench seat in the front and a more uncomfortable home made hammock like affair in the back where the support struts poke into Alan’s upper thighs.

“It’s a 2CV Alan. Deux chevaux vapeur- literally ‘two steam horses’. Made by Citroen. It’s very popular in France. Particularly in the rural areas. They’re pretty easy on the fuel.”

As Alan opens the back door, the dog jumps out and runs at him with his tongue hanging out and tail wagging. The dog proceeds to hump Alan’s bare right leg, just above his dusty brown sock. “Shit Cloud, ya bloody dog’s tryin’ ta’ root me… err votre chien is très amorous mate. Do some bloody thing Roy.”

“Le chien est très amoureuse, Claude.” Claude and Roy are slapping each others backs and laughing uproariously. “I say don’t make a fuss Alan. There’s a good chap. We need the ride. When you’re on the continent just roll with it, old chap.”

Alan finally gets the dog in the car and tries to build a barrier between himself and the dog with the rucksacks. “Geeze, now the bloody tin-licker is givin’ me a bloody tonguie in the ear mate.”

They meander backwards and forwards over and under RN10, avoiding the speeding traffic like the plague, stopping at every little village café or bar for a quick drink. The more they drink, the more vigorous the dog’s humping. When they leave each bar they’re joined on the street by the barman, his wife and the whole clientele, expectantly watching and waiting for the Australian animal trainer to do his act with the randy dog. It’s great fun and with numerous lagers and absinthes under his belly, Alan couldn’t care less.

The pattern continues like this for about four hours. Claude picks up an old rooster for his son at one bar and it joins Alan on the back seat, crowing loudly every time the dog barks. They stop for a very pleasant, very long and very boisterous three course lunch in a café on a hill high above the Loire River, just outside Tours. When they leave, the patrons troop out to say goodbye, Alan and ‘Le Chien’ go through their performance with ‘Le Coq’ complaining loudly from the back seat. Despite the best efforts of Claude, Roy and the local mechanic, the 2CV just refuses to start and everyone marches back inside to wait for Claude’s son to tow the car the rest of the way to Poitiers. All except Alan. He falls asleep in the back seat with the dog panting happily in his lap and the rooster perched on the back of the seat.

Alan wakes a few hours later to a cacophony of sound. The 2CV is now racing through the countryside about three metres behind a very large lorry. The dog has his front paws on Alan’s forehead and is barking loudly. The old rooster is cackling away and Roy is in the driver’s seat, madly blowing the high pitched horn and shouting his version of profanity out the window: “Gosh, that’s a bit fast old son. Would you consider slowing down a bit old man?”

As they fly across a humpback bridge, Alan realises that Roy is just steering while they’re being towed by Claude’s son; and they’re in imminent danger of death: “Bloody hell. We’re all gunna bloody die ya silly bastard, retarde bloody vous ya stupide bloody prick.” Luckily the towrope breaks and they glide gently to a stop at the side of the road.

By the time they finally arrive at the farm outside Poitiers, its dark and they all go into the kitchen for a supper of a very garlicky sausage soup and crispy white bread rolls while Claude’s grandkids are presented with their bronze aussie medallions.

After a couple of hours sleep Roy and Alan push on to Biarritz in the lorry. Roy up front with Claude’s son; Alan sitting on an oily tarpaulin on the open tray wearing Roy’s corduroy jacket with collar turned up and wrapped in sleeping bag. ‘Le Chien’ runs backwards and forwards barking. Alan is too cold to bark or run.

Roy and Alan catch a couple of hours sleep in deckchairs on the sand in front of the very plush ‘L’hotel du Palais’ in Biarritz. After the attendant wakes them up, breakfast is two cold beers and a cigarette standing at the bar looking at a reflection of the sea in the mirror behind the barman. “Gee, this is the bloody life, hey Roy. Bloody good idea thanks mate.”

They finish the journey to Pamplona by train. They find the campsite. Roy makes himself comfortable sharing a two-man tent with a couple of buxom, blonde, high school teachers from Frankfurt while Alan buys a bottle of red, climbs into his sleeping bag and sleeps in the dust out in the open with his mouth wide open. It only rains on the plain in Spain.

Part two - "Festival" & Part three – "Going Home" will be completed when the author can remember most of what actually happened.

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