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I suppose it must have been building up for some time, but in the weeks after I left school I started feeling like my life was going nowhere and that I knew absolutely nothing about the world. On one level that was certainly true — who at that age does know much about anything beyond his or her own brief and necessarily sheltered existence? On another it was stupidly pessimistic: I had a place reserved at a good university and likely another sixty or more years to live, develop a career, travel, meet interesting people, write the books I wanted to, and find out who I was and what I believed in.
And to have sex with lots of women, of course. I think at least part of my ennui was based on the fact that I was still, technically, a virgin. This was nowhere near as unusual for someone of my age at that period in history, when the widely-mocked Bill Clinton Defence — that you had only had sexual relations with someone if these had consisted in full penetrative genital intercourse — was taken for granted as fact. Two years earlier I’d spent an extraordinary couple of hours with a girl called Emma, indulging a miraculously discovered mutual interest in what the porn industry calls ‘watersports’, but which we felt instinctively was more fundamental to ourselves and each other than such a trivialising nickname. And yet the fact that in the process my penis had never actually touched her vagina, or vice-versa, somehow diminished what we had experienced — for me, in retrospect, at least.
I’d also been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac, and like many young men who do so at an impressionable age, I’d formed the conviction that what I needed to do to break the imagined stalemate of my life was to travel. Specifically to hitch-hike, to throw myself into the unknown in search of what my new mentor — self declared hedonist and spiritual seeker both — defined as a combination of ‘kicks’ and ‘beatitude.’
I’ve always been bad at calculated planning. Even in my later life as a writer and critic I’ve tended to base my studies on personally-grounded enthusiasms — some might say obsessions — rather than dry notions of what is Really Important according to some grand theory of Art or anything else. In this case I gave it a month, during which time I nervously dipped into the University’s reading list for my first term, before writing to the Registry, putting off my start date for a year, and taking a job in a factory store with the intention of saving enough money to go hitch-hiking around Europe in the New Year.
My parents weren’t impressed. To me that seemed to authenticate my decision, the older generation existing for an 18-year-old principally as something to rebel against. Nevertheless, I attempted to explain myself to my dad, and when it was just the two of us together he was accepting enough of my desire to kick over the traces, temporarily at least. In fact, in those few months before I set off we developed a closer relationship than we ever had before, albeit one whose affection was largely silent, in the manner of men of that era. At weekends I’d help him with his garden, and one Sunday in September, at the end of the hot weather, he asked me to build a bonfire of the dry plant waste and branches he’d been removing and to set it burning while he caught the end of a Sunday League cricket match on TV. As well as being happy to do it for him, it gave me an idea of how to resolve a minor, but niggling problem of my own.
I’d kept a pair of Emma’s dirty knickers since she gave them to me two summers ago, soaked in her cunt smell and the memory of our one sweaty, piss-stained evening together. They’d been the focus of a great deal of masturbation in the few weeks that followed, but then, as is the nature of these things, they’d started to lose their odour. After a while they were completely inert. I took to wrapping them round my cock as I wanked, trying to recreate Emma’s feel and scent. Then I started cumming into them, soaking their silk and the lightly-stained gusset with my own bodily fluids and smell. I’d long since realised that I’d have to get rid of them, and the prospect now of leaving them behind to risk being found by my mother on one of her cleaning jags was completely beyond the pale. Yet I’d not been able to throw them away. That would have been like betraying Emma and our unique experience together.
I suppose that’s what they mean by a fetish. But now my Dad was giving me a perfect solution. Emma’s pants would have a funeral pyre.
I banked up the fire, taking care to construct it so a throughflow of air could distribute the flame from bottom to top, laying aside damper branches, leaves and roots to be slowly fed into the blaze once it was properly going. The vegetal smell, fading now from the early part of the year when the sap was alive and coursing, gave me a nostalgic sense much like that I felt about Emma. I went to fetch her similarly faded underwear from its hiding place at the back of my wardrobe.
I’d stashed the dirty white silk knickers batıkent escort in an old cardboard box file, under a bunch of papers I’d saved for various reasons in addition to their camouflage function: some early drafts of bad poetry; an attempted drawing from memory of Emma’s profile; some abstract doodling in various coloured ballpoint pens which I’d thought had an interesting abstract structure; a badly-printed paperback edition, in French, of an obscure pornographic novel ‘Memoirs of a Young Don Juan’ by the poet Apollinaire, which I’d acquired during a language-exchange visit; a slightly mocking article about Tom Waits from a music paper; and my ticket to that great man’s first British concert the previous year at the Dominion Theatre, London, which had convinced me that critics know nothing.
Riffling through these random significances it suddenly occurred to me that I should burn them all, their box file a cremation casket, like Egyptian grave goods sent to accompany Emma’s knickers to whatever afterlife awaits incinerated underwear.
A few minutes later it was done. A gap in the stacked branches was burning white hot and just big enough to insert the box into, as though it had been somehow meant for the purpose. The cardboard and the paper inside it caught instantly, first yellow, them orange, then charred red and black. I poked it with a damp branch to break up any remaining structure, and a plume of grey ash flakes was carried skyward on the upward thermal. One fluttered down at my feet and I realised, with amazement and satisfaction, that it was a small, charred cloth label: ‘St Michael. Pure silk. Size 10.’ It was Emma’s ghost. I kissed it and slipped it quickly into my wallet. It remains there to this day.
I gave my week’s notice at the factory just before Christmas. I spent the holiday drinking with old friends, most of them already one term into university. On Christmas Eve I bumped into Tom Harrison, down from Cambridge, and we found ourselves necking whisky with beer chasers in the King’s Head Hotel, one of the historic buildings in the old market square which had escaped destruction in the late modernising frenzy.
‘Remember when?’ is supposed to be a great destroyer of intelligent conversation, but we were callow enough at the time not to have much to romantically reminisce about, and besides we were drunk as skunks and feeling as confidential with each other as two young men ever are.
“Remember that Carnival night?” I said “You didn’t end up going out with Claire, did you?”
He knew that I knew, as everybody did, that he hadn’t. For the last two years Claire Jones had made a prominent item with another occasional mate of ours, Terry Keats. But he was sharp enough to answer the question I was really asking.
“I fingered her a bit and she tossed me off in the bus station bogs, but she wasn’t really my type. I take it you didn’t have any luck with her mate, Emma?”
“We went for a walk. She showed me where she used to work weekends. Had a couple of drinks.”
All technically true.
“Did you hear what happened to her? Claire told Terry, who told me, that a couple of months afterwards she suddenly moved. Cornwall or somewhere. Official version was her father found a new job, but she told Claire her folks had found her diary and didn’t like what was in it. Thought she’d gone off the rails and fallen in with bad company. Took her away to save her from herself.”
I was stunned. I could guess what was in the diary, or some of it at least.
“Did Claire say how, or who, exactly?”
“If she did, she didn’t tell Terry. My guess is drugs. Did she say anything to you that night about illicit pharmaceuticals?”
“Not a word. Like I said, we hung out, drank.”
“Whatever it was, I’m amazed. She struck me as pretty boring. No offence to you, of course.”
In the New Year I found an old canvas holdall in a charity shop which I imagined looked a little like the canvas bag that accompanied Kerouac on his journeys across America. Mindful of the mistake my hero had made wearing lightweight Mexican loafers in rain and fog during his first expedition I also bought a new pair of walking boots. And assuming that washing facilities in any cheap accommodation where I stayed along the way would probably amount to no more than a basin, I had my shoulder-length hair cut extremely short. This last measure was to prove unexpectedly useful. I threw a couple of spare shirts (plaid, of course, like Kerouac), some underwear and socks, my already dogeared paperback of ‘On the Road’ plus a French-language edition of another favourite, Albert Camus’ existentialist classic ‘The Outsider’, into my canvas bag, and I was ready.
I had about 200 UK pounds, converted into francs and US dollar traveller’s cheques, which ought to be enough to buy me food and cheap shelter for a couple of months. At Victoria Station in London I used the last of my English cash to buy a one-way boat train ticket to Dieppe beşevler escort in Normandy. I was away. I was on the road.
I’d been to France three times before, once on a family holiday to Brittany, on two other occasions on language-exchange visits organised through school. I spoke the language well. I’d chosen to arrive via Dieppe not only because it was a cheaper crossing from England but because the harbour was not that of a faceless industrial transport hub, like Calais or Boulogne, but had all the appearance of a traditional fishing port to which the arrival of a daily ferry from England was incidental to its normal business of being French. As the boat approached the shore it was greeted by a crescent of cafés, bars, small hotels, boulangeries, and all the normal business of ‘la province’ — day to day rural France.
I went into a café advertising rooms to let and booked in for the night. At the tobacconist next door I bought a road map, a postcard, and a stamp. I remembered that ‘to make a map of France’ — ‘faire une carte de France’ — was a term one of my exchange partners had taught me for having what the English rather coyly term a ‘wet dream’, presumably because an ejaculation spread out across bed sheets takes a ragged equilateral shape not unlike the ‘hexagone’ of the French Republic’s borders. I’d recalled that phrase the night after my encounter with Emma when, recently showered following our pungent and ecstatic devouring of each other, I woke in the small hours, reached under my pillow for her newly dampened and spiced knickers, and came copiously over myself and my bedding after just a couple of strokes of my penis while sniffing them.
I’d already decided to structure my perambulations around France, much as Kerouac did his around the US, by visiting people I knew and seeing what would happen as a result. I was undecided as I looked at the map whether to go see Yann first in Britanny, or Jean-Luc in the city of Blois in the Loire valley. The ‘carte de France’ told me that I didn’t need to decide immediately, since to get to either I’d need to travel first to Rouen a little way south from Dieppe. I cheerfully wrote on a postcard addressed to my best friend Charlie O’Keefe “I’m on the Road to Rouen”, assuming he’d appreciate the clunking pun, stuck on the stamp and posted it in the yellow mailbox outside the ‘tabac’. Then I ordered mussels with fries in the café, drank a couple of beers, and looked surreptitiously around me for girls. There were none, but it wasn’t a bad start.
The following day I had no trouble, as soon as I hit the Dieppe city limits, in flagging a ride to Rouen. In fact, the woman who picked me up looked slightly disappointed I wasn’t going further. She was blonde, well turned out, sunglasses on her forehead despite the fact that it was January, and no more than thirty years old. As I climbed into her convertible Peugeot I might even have imagined she had ulterior designs on me, before I realised simultaneously that there was a sleeping baby in the rear seat, a wedding ring on her finger, and a slight hesitancy in her manner once she heard my accent.
“German?” she said as I settled the canvas bag across my knees.
“English. I’m visiting friends. Thanks for the lift.”
“I’m going to Paris”
“Rouen will do. My friend’s in Britanny. Near Nantes.”
Yann it was, then.
Rouen was a medieval town, full of churches, bells and shrines. I was vaguely aware it was where Joan of Arc had been burnt at the stake. It wasn’t till I read a plaque near the site of this horrible execution that I learned she was only 19 years old at the time. Later I discovered that she had been subject to intrusive investigations by her own side as to her virginity when she’d started as a much younger teenager to claim religious inspiration, and had been raped by her captors and inquisitors among the English king’s forces before they killed her. Emma had, at least, been allowed to live despite her supposed sexual ‘deviancy’ being genuine, although those in power had uprooted her from her friends and at least one putative lover in order to preserve their own sense of rectitude. I did not like Rouen.
I got out of town as quickly as I could and was picked up almost immediately by a trucker.
“Military Service?” he asked as I clambered into his cab, at which point I realised the accidental stroke of genius that had led me to get my hair cut so short. At the time, all young Frenchmen were eligible for two years’ compulsory national military service, and army pay meant that many of them preferred to economise by hitching rides when travelling to and from their family homes. Truckers tended to be sympathetic to young blokes with buzz cuts.
“No, just travelling. I’m from England, visiting friends.”
“At least you’re not one of those long-haired anarchists. Come on.”
He took me as far as a town called Alencon. Getting out in a lorry park and service area, I beypazarı escort wondered how to execute the next stage of my journey given that it was already getting dark and the road running past seemed remarkably sparse in terms of traffic. There was another character hanging around the edges of the place, rucksack draped casually across his shoulder, hair too long to be a national serviceman, but obviously not a trucker himself.
“You hitching?” I said to him in my best slang French.
“Sure. But we ain’t gonna get a ride now. I know one of the drivers here. He’ll take us both tomorrow if you’re going west. Come on, I know somewhere warm we can sleep.”
I didn’t really have much choice but to follow him. Sure, he was smaller than me, and in a fist fight I could probably have beaten him, but who knew what weapons he might have on him or what his motivations might be to lure strangers away from lorry parks? On the other hand, what was the likelihood that any serial killer would spend his time lurking around truck stops in the hope of preying on some unidentifiable foreign Jack Kerouac-worshipping hitchhiker who might just happen to show up on the off chance?
I was pretty sure he wasn’t sexually interested in me either. His girlfriend was in Bordeaux, he said, and he was travelling to see her from Lille. He’d finished his Military Service, but the hitching bug had him, and he had no money anyway.
“There!” he declared, indicating a tall steel structure set a couple of hundred metres back from the road. It was a barn, and as we approached the warm odour of hay rolled toward us
I slept deeply. Of course, by the time I woke up there was no sign of my benefactor, and by the time I’d picked the hay stalks out of my hair and off my clothes and walked back to the truck stop there were no trucks left there either. For want of any better idea I wandered back to the road, stuck out my thumb, and was instantly picked up by a farmer in blue overalls driving a Renault 4 with two sheep in the back.
“Military Service?” he enquired.
He dropped me on the outskirts of Rennes, and it took three further lifts to make it to Yann’s village, although this was such a tiny place that my final driver acted above and beyond the call of generosity by stopping to ask a number of people, and probably taking himself way out of his normal circuit, in order to help me. As I walked up the lane to Yann’s family home I began to wonder how they’d receive me. It was four years since I’d been there. A lot had changed in my own life. What could I know about what had happened in theirs?
Yann’s father, Yvon, was a small farmer, and the first thing I noticed that had obviously changed was that there were no cows either in the field by the house or in the shed at right angles to it. In fact, the shed had been completely rebuilt and now looked like a new wing of the house, with ordinary door and glazed windows. There was no smell of cow dung and the paving of the yard was clearly visible underfoot, whereas previously it had always been covered by a layer of mud. Even the tractor looked clean.
Yann’s mother Berthe answered the door.
“Holy Mary!” she said “Joseph! All grown up!”
Yann was even more astonished to see me. We’d always got on, ever since our families had met on the beach at St-Nazaire, where I’d impressed everyone with my ability to converse in French and our respective fathers had somehow managed to communicate without language their shared fascination with growing things. Yann was a couple of years older, but our friendship was based initially on the music we liked. My little brother played football with Yann’s sister, who was actually the same age as me but not obsessed with Genesis, Gentle Giant, Alan Stivell or Malicorne. Our mothers just stared out to sea, drinking white wine and laughing occasionally in some kind of amused telepathy. We’d all been invited to the Morvans’ family home a couple of days later, and when we discovered our rented cottage was only a couple of miles away, Yann and I hung out with each other most days. He introduced me to more Celtic folk-rock; I played him some of my more obscure Progressive albums. Ever since then we’d swapped tapes by post.
He hadn’t mentioned that his dad was getting out of farming. That came up about an hour into our reunion, when everyone had been asked after and I’d been admonished several times for not giving them notice of my planned visit.
“There’s no future for the peasant farmer” Yvon said. “I’ve been totally reliant on subsidies for years. We sold the cows, and now I’ve just got maize and artichokes and a few sheep in the other field. We’re negotiating the sale of the land, and building holiday apartments on what’s left. You’ll get the idea when you sleep in the hay loft.”
“The hay loft?” said a girl’s voice from the door. A tall thin young woman with Yann and Yvon’s Celtic straight black hair and blue eyes was looking intently at me. “No one’s been in there before.”
“Alana?” It could only be Yann’s little sister. All grown up.
Her eyes were greyer, smokier than her brother’s. They carried a disconcerting combination of joy and concern, almost fear. Then she grinned deliberately and the expression went out of them, though she continued to look at me intently.
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