Monday, 31 March 2014

People I've Met On The Road - Henri

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet many interesting people on the road. This is the second of a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals.

Several years ago I was cycling through South-west France on my way to the coast. The mountains of the Massif Central make for tough cycling and in summer the baking heat combines with the gritty dust to sting your eyes and parch your skin. Added to this personal discomfort, no amount of lubrication at the time would seem to prevent my chain from clogging and before long the grit had made a sound job of eroding the rollers. I had just climbed out of a deep valley somewhere after Millau and was finally struggling over the apex of the long hill when with a sudden release of pressure there came a crunch from below. Cursing I stopped and looked down. The chain hung there, dragging on the road.
"You bloody swine," I muttered, gasping for breath after the exertion of the long hill.
"Elle est cassee, mon ami."

I looked around, unable to see where any voice could have come from.
"Hello, who's that?" I called, rather confused.
"Allors, monsieur, your first job should be to get out of the sun! You will die, standing there."
At that point my eye caught sight of a dog, lying in the shade of a stone wall. Next to it I could see a worn out boot with no laces. It moved as it's owner began raising himself to his feet. The man emerged from the shade and put out a broad arm. I shook his hand, which was grubby and gnarled. The young man doffed his dirty sailor's cap. As he did so it revealed an untidy shock of curly blonde hair.
"Henri," he said, politely.
"Mark, enchente." I replied.
"If I am not mistaken, you need a chain tool my friend!"
Despite Henri's apparently excellent command of English, his French accent was strong and slurred. I took him for perhaps someone from the rougher side of Marseilles, although his blonde hair made this seem unlikely.
Henri crouched down to peer at the wrecked chain. His large Indian Army-style shorts had seen better days, while his loose white vest was also torn and stained. Perhaps he was a vagrant, I wondered? He got to his feet again.

Whistling to the dusty dog, Henri began wandering off. He walked in a purposeful but slovenly manner, his loose, laceless boots dragging on the melting asphalt as he headed down the hill to... I knew not where. I presumed he intended me to follow him, although he had said nothing to confirm this. Kicking up the stand on my bike, I moved quickly to catch him up.
"Any idea where I can find a bike shop?" I asked.
Henri pointed somewhere to the right. I could see no sign of a town or village. I looked at him quizzically but he continued looking straight ahead, chewing the stem of a long blade of grass. Then all of a sudden he turned off the road through a gap in the stone wall.
"Faite atencion!" he grunted, pointing at a strand of rusty barbed wire as we crossed a small ditch.
The dog jumped over the fence in a practiced manner and ran off ahead, looking back to check his master was following. Lifting the bike over first, I struggled to clamber across – surprised at Henri's reluctance to help.

After about a half a mile, walking through copses and along the edge of a ragged field of vines, we arrived at a small hamlet. An old woman seemed to be doing washing at a large stone font with constantly running water. She turned and stared, waving to Henri and saying something about the 'bicyclette'. Henri doffed his cap in a somewhat eccentric manner and boomed,
"Encore salvateur des idiot Anglais, putain!"
The woman laughed, shaking her head and continued with her laundry.
Henri shoved at a heavy old door and allowed the dog to enter a stone village house. Following Henri inside I instantly felt relief from the cool air.
Looking about me I saw a tall, ancient building that seemed to be in the process of reconstruction. At our feet was an earth floor littered with various unloved implements for construction, some mixed concrete in a small tin bath that had gone hard with a shovel stuck fast in it and a few piles of tiles. Quite a few were broken. There was a lot of other junk lying around covered in cobwebs and the remains of an old Citroen 2CV which several mangey cats seemed to have made their home. I looked up. There were no floors. Light was coming from the roof. Hardly surprising since much of it was missing. Fixed to the wall one floor up was the remains of an old kitchen, but no floor to stand on. Instead there was a builder's ladder, up which Henri was now climbing. Reaching the top he stretched one foot across to steady himself against a protruding stone and then filled a kettle from a tap on the wall. I watched, fascinated. Placing the kettle on a small makeshift shelf fixed to the stone wall he plugged it in before placing teabags into two filthy mugs with broken handles.

"Tea pour moi, conard!" (for those unfamiliar with French slang - 'conard' means asshole)
The voice had come from somewhere above. A woman's voice I thought, but gruff. She sounded annoyed. Perhaps we had interrupted her work, I wondered?
Tilting my head back I could see some kind of makeshift wooden platform. It was hanging from the rafters of the roof, attached at the corners by some rough old ropes. As I looked I saw a round face and straggly hair peering down at me.
"Bonjour monsieur," she said, embarrassed, "pardon!"
I greeted her politely and averted my stare as she sat up; more rotund than voluptuous, and naked.
"Vien Cecile!" called Henri, climbing back up the ladder to make the tea.
As I watched Henri deftly walk front-ways down the long ladder, carrying three cups of tea without spilling any, a question occurred to me. How was Cecile going to get down from that platform? Cautiously I looked up. I was just in time to catch a glimpse of a large girl in an Indian-print sarong climbing out onto the rooftop.
"Where's she going?" I said, fearful that this half asleep barefoot girl would slip and fall.
"Peuff, elles arrive toutes suite," he mumbled, slurping his tea in an exaggerated manner.

A few minutes later the front door was pushed open and in came Cecile.
"Il et un eschelle en bar." I was not sure what an eschelle was but seeing my confusion she translated into English. Her English was excellent. Better than Henri's in fact. Yes, the house was in a terrace, she explained, but by swinging a ladder down onto their neighbour's balcony they could then climb down, then down a tree, climb over nextdoor's garden wall and come around via the alley. I was astounded. Their neighbours were less than impressed, apparently.

"So you do that every night and every morning?" I asked.
"Yes, or sometimes in the afternoon too when this conard can be bothered to do the sex with me!"
What more surprises did this young woman have in store, I wondered?
"Er, I don't suppose I could use the toilet?" I asked. "You do have a toilet?"
"Mais oui, of course," said Cecile, "vien avec moi, cheri."
Cecile beckoned me over towards the back of the space, where there seemed to be a stack of old floorboards. As I passed she squeezed my bottom and giggled. On the boards I saw a bucket with a lid.
"Pull that curtain across if you like," she said. "Pour les Anglais. Henri put it up especially for visitors. There's paper on a box there if you need it."
I squirmed, wishing I had gone somewhere along the track on our way here. I didn't pull the curtain across, hoping to impress her with my laisse faire attitude. As it was I found myself unable to pee and returned looking most embarrassed, I'm sure.

Sitting on boxes and a bucket to drink our tea I learned that Henri and Cecile had lived in the house for three years, having bought it for only two thousand pounds. I was surprised to hear that they had been working on it all that time.
"We get distracted easily," sniggered Cecile, pulling her sarong up to cover more of her heavy bosom. Her skin was tanned, oily and covered in mosquito bites – or flea bites perhaps? The place and the pair of them smelled rather unsavoury, but hardly surprising given the lack of facilities.

"So where do you keep stuff – you know food, clothes, that kind of thing?" I asked, barely able to mask the amusement in my voice.

"Poeff, we only buy what we eat for one day," said Cecile. "If we have money. We have no congelateur! Clothes, we have only this what we wear now. We don't l'argent, but we like le... the minimalism, no Henri?"
"Oui, je prefer la vie simple com ca," agreed Henri. "Moins de stress."

The more Cecile and Henri told me of their life here, the more intrigued I became. They seemed to know few people in the area.
"We avoid other English," said Henri, "Conard! This is my island. Cecile is invited to my island, bien sur. You can visit too, mon ami, because you are cyclist, mais les autres, non! I prefer to look at people on the other shore, tu comprende?

I did understand, yes. But it seemed a pitiful existence. Was there no way to earn money here?

"Henri sometimes repairs the old cars to sell," but the locals don't like to give him things. They are not generous here, les conard. Except the gitanes – the gypsies who live in the woods. They make great absinthe. Fort! They like us so we buy from them and sell to bars in Montpellier and Beziers. Henri goes one time par month but the car is broken too much now."
Cecile pointed to the derelict 2CV. Surely this can't have worked for years, I thought? It was becoming clear that the two were pretty crazy. Driven mad by absinthe I guessed.

In amongst the cobweb-covered junk in Henri and Cecile's ruined abode, Henri uncovered a few antiquated bicycles and some rusty old tools. Although one bike had a corroded old chain on it, he did not manage to find a chain tool. The chain was in a far worse state than mine, but Henri insisted he could fix it. Using a file, worn smooth with age, and a large lump-hammer (almost the sum of his toolkit, it seemed) he began hammering and filing on the step outside. An elderly woman poked her head out of some shuttered windows and muttered a few disdainful words. Clearly his hammering was disturbing her afternoon sleep. He looked up, then continued.
"Putain!" he muttered.

Somehow Henri managed to spend two inefficient days butchering the chain before giving up. I could see now why they got nothing done here. During this time I had raked away the cat mess, pitched my tent on the earth floor of his house and treated them to bread, cheese, tomatoes and cheap wine from the nearby village shop. Cecile, when intoxicated, began propositioning me outrageously. I think I managed to decline without offending her.

"Don't tell her you are staying with us," Cecile had said, when I went to the shop. "She'll ask you to pay the bill before she lets you have anything."

"There's an old conard down the road who has asked me to help him lift his 2CV engine out and put in one out of his brother's old motorbike," said Henri on the third morning. "If you help me we might get paid enough to buy you a new chain in town."
"What? There's a bike shop in a town near here!" I coughed.
"Bien sur mon brave!" said Henri, theatrically."
Bending forward he picked a flea off the dog. He put it into his mouth and bit it in two. I was exasperated. All this time there was a bike shop nearby. I could have gone there by bus, or hitch-hiked rather than have got caught up in Henri and Cecile's chaotic life.

I had never lifted an engine out of a car before. In most cases, I realised, it is done with a large winch and block and tackle. Not with Henri it wasn't. First we took off the panels (fortunately on a 2CV they unbolt), then we unbolted the rusty engine mountings. Using an old jumper, Henri pulled it under the block and instructed me to get hold of one sleeve, while he took hold of the other. We heaved at it and bashed it for about fifteen minutes with a big hammer to loosen the rust. Eventually it moved. Quickly as we heaved on the jumper sleeves, the owner shoved in a lump of wood and a tiny car jack. In this manner we raised the lump until we could get hold of a cylinder head each and lift it out. It was not easy. A 600cc engine is tiny for a car but it was still heavy. My back creaked under the strain. There was a lot of swearing but we got it out. After being fed beer and saucisson by the old man's wife, we returned and lifted the adapted motorbike engine into place.

Fortunately the old man was so pleased with his newly functioning 2CV, he offered to drive me into town to buy my new bicycle chain. Desperate now to get away from the bizarre living conditions at Henri and Cecile's place, I agreed to go immediately.
It was a successful trip into town. I found a decent quality chain of the right type and the old guy took me to his favourite cafe for a beer. We met some of his cronies and there was much slapping of backs. It was around 4pm by the time we got back. I went straight around to Henri and Cecile's hoping to fit my chain and get back on the road. Arriving at the house, however, I found a fracas going on in the street. Unsure what this was about, I hung around at the corner, from where I could hear most of what was being said. Surprisingly the argument was entirely in English. A well dressed elderly man in a safari suit and a beige fedora hat seemed to be remonstrating with Henri. I could hear the dog barking inside and Cecile shouting "Taire toi," at him.

"I mean damn it all Henry, you know you were always her favourite. It's not like anybody's asking you to come back and join the family law firm or run for parliament, just to be around. We accept that you want to live your life differently, boy, of course we bloody do. There's the cottage now your aunt's gone – what's wrong with moving in there?"
"You're wasting you time Pa," said Henri, his head hanging, "I'm happy here on my island. I have all I want."
"What, Cecile? Alright for Christ's sake, you can bring Cecile! Fortunately you're mother's got over the business with uncle Timothy. Really, she can come too... I assume she does have some clothes? Come on old boy, I'll help you with your things, there's room in the Bentley."
"Will you listen for once, old man, it's not happening," exploded Henri.
"Oh bloody hell Henry, this really has to stop now, really! Do you have any idea what it's like for me? Do you have the faintest notion how it will be for me if I arrive back in Winchester without you?
Your mother's talked to a chap at that place she goes. He says he can help. Plenty of young fellas like you go through it, he says. They can treat it now. That's what he told your mother."

I wandered over to the font trying to look nonchalant.

"Listen I bloody mean it this time," I heard Henri say. "Don't make me get the gun. I have one you know. Anyway, I have to go, I've got a friend staying," said Henri, nodding towards me.

Turning his head the father looked over his shoulder at me. His disparaging look said enough. Perhaps he thought perhaps I was the cause of the problem? He walked over towards me as I put my hands under the running water and took a drink.

"Now look here old chap, it's not that I've any axe to grind with you, but my boy's sick, you see. He's a danger to himself and to others. He has a violent temper that boils over at any time without warning, do you see? Not just the normal bad temper, mind you – oh no! He was in a hospital for that kind of thing but he got out and now he's here with a gun and this bloody whore of his. The consequences don't bear thinking about. Now I don't begrudge him a good time, not me, but I need to get him back home where he can be helped, before he harms someone else. Now look, I'm a man of some means. If you could see your way to persuading him to come with me, I'd be very appreciative. Of course I would. I'm sure you could do with a leg-up. I think we understand one another, don't we?" He patted me on the shoulder.

"I'm afraid I can't help you," I said. I hardly know him. Really! I mean until just a minute ago I thought he was French."

"French!" said the man, puce in the face, "I should bloody say not!"

At the sound of Henri's door being pulled shut, the man turned and made his way up the street towards a large car, which was partly blocking the street. A rather irritated looking man was out of his van, looking around it. I went to Henri's door.

"Um, Henri, I wonder if I could get my stuff!" I called. "It's me, Mark."

Henri could be heard removing something from behind the door. I stepped aside for a moment, hoping it wasn't the gun.

"He's gone," I said, "his car was blocking the road."

"Oh he'll be back, don't you worry," said Henri, pulling open the door. "Last time dear old Lord Conard, as Cecile calls him, came every day for a week. Afraid to go home without me."

Cycling downhill on my way south a little while later, I passed the Bentley coming the other way. I was just considering whether to wave when I noticed a pair of police cars behind him. There were large men in the backs of the cars, dressed in black with rifles and helmets – they didn't look like they were out to make a social call.

"Poor Henri," I muttered to myself.

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