RF

The harbour at Quimper

'You're not planning to go there again for goodness sake, are you?'

'Brittany's a lovely place, Jen. You know how much you used to like it.'

'Used to, yes. It's not as if you can't afford to go somewhere else for a change. Dad's obsessed. He's a pain in the backside.'

'Jennifer!'

I could hear the voices of my wife and elder daughter floating up the stairs. Jen was right: I am obsessed. This is why I'm going to set it all down in this notebook. For once I'm going to tell the truth.

This all happened back in the mid-sixties. I always have to laugh to myself when I hear that decade described as the 'swinging sixties'. It swung for me all right, though not in the way these grinning presenters on the TV go on about it.

*

He could see the look of surprise in my eyes at what he was doing. This only made him exaggerate the performance. A wry smile spread across his small, neat features.

'This we learn from the cats and dogs,' he said, arching his back against the high stack of wooden palettes. 'And this we learn from the monkeys,' he added, switching to an elaborate scratching routine in the more conventional fashion.

It was the first time I'd heard him speak. I was taken aback at his Gallic accent because I'd seen him sharing a canteen table with George the Geordie and Jock. I should have been less surprised: the bottle factory was a cosmopolitan place. Turkish Cypriots and Sikhs formed the clear majority and beside this there were sizeable numbers of Urdus, Greek Cypriots, and Trinidadians.

Excluding the Greek Cypriots from our reckoning, as we always did, there was a mere handful of Caucasians. Like ethnic minorities everywhere, we were drawn into our own society, although Frenchie - everyone, as I later discovered, called him that - kept himself on the fringe of it.

His real name was Raoul. If you pressed him he would explain he wasn't a Frenchman at all, but a Breton. The only subject on which he showed any keenness to talk at length was his native Brittany, where he had worked 'on the boats' as he would always say, in his home town near to Quimper.

Little by little I found out more. His wife was somewhere outside London, studying photography. He spoke of her rarely, as if he wanted to keep her safe in a private part of his world, unsullied by the grim business of working long shifts in a bottle factory.

Frenchie's own ambitions seemed to be less specific, although he'd always insist he wanted to learn English well so he would 'never have to work in a factory again.' It seemed not all of his work in Brittany had been 'on the boats'.

His speciality on the factory-floor was to tamper in some subtle way with the capping-machine. This was used to foil-seal some of the more pretentious, expensively-designed bottles before we packed them in their cases.

The idea of meddling with the capping-machine was to give Frenchie some breathing space in the endless extra shifts he always worked. I appreciated it, too, though I didn't work nearly as much overtime as he did. But one day he went too far with his interference.

Bottles became jammed together so tightly on the conveyor belt that they were literally exploding. Hot glass was flying everywhere. The air was thick with the curses of the foreman and the machine operator, who'd come down to our end of the floor to see what was happening to his precious production bonus.

'You've done it this time,' I said to Frenchie.

'Yes, it is true. If they do not clear the line soon we too will lose bonus.' Then he laughed, displaying his small white teeth. One of these was broken, I saw.

Frenchie was like a child who'd made a joke against the adult world.

'When things have calmed down here,' he said. 'I will let you into the secret of the capping machine. But this stoppage gives me the chance to ask you something. Next Tuesday my wife is coming to cook a special meal for my birthday. She says to bring my friend from the factory. I know you also are not working on that day. Will you come?'

'I'll come'. I was surprised that he thought of me as a friend, and one he was prepared to admit to the sanctity of his domestic world.

'Good. Then it is settled.' He turned back to survey the comic opera going on around the production line. The only change to his expression was a slight raising of the eyebrows.

*

It was a day or two later when I chanced to meet Frenchie again, walking down the long drive to the factory. Because it was a Saturday night both of us had to arrive early because of the vagaries of our buses. For once, he was the talkative one.

'I have been reading The Times. Did you know there are craters on the planet Mars?'

'That's the Moon you're talking about, Frenchie.' I was hardly interested in such things, but it didn't sound right to me.

'No, I am telling you what I have read. There has been a rocket circling the planet. The scientists have had some photographs sent back to Earth. I do not know how they do this. But there are craters, exactly as there are on the Moon.'

Frenchie raised his eyebrows when he said these words, in the same way that I had seen him doing a few days previously when hot glass was exploding on the factory floor. 'This is fascinating, do you not think?'

'If you say so. Don't know what use knowing a thing like that's going to be to anyone, though.'

'Ah, this is where you are wrong. All knowledge is important to us. Now I am going to tell you something about myself. Something I am not saying to anyone else from this country.'

'Well, go on then.' I had more than my usual dose of weekend sulkiness at the prospect of having to work on this Saturday night. I didn't really want to talk at all. But Frenchie's own eyes were shining like those of an eager child. I had never before seen him so animated.

'You know I have come here to learn English?'

'Yes, so you've told me.'

'And I am also here to work hard and save some money. There is a reason for this. In one month's time I will have saved enough to leave the factory. I am going to college.'

'You're a bit old to be going back to school'. The gleam went out of his eyes for a moment. He'd been expecting better of me. But Frenchie would not be put off for long. 'My family is poor and I have to leave school when I was still young. This is why I have always to work in factories.'

'You told me you worked on the boats.'

'Ah, yes. I always did when I could, during the summer. But this I did for fun. It never brought me much money. But one day, after I have been to college, I will have a boat of my own.'

We walked on, Frenchie still chattering about the bright days ahead. I couldn't help thinking that despite his twenty-eight years; despite his experience of the world; despite his keen intelligence; and despite his seemingly detached view of things; Frenchie was one of life's innocents.

Still, who was I to think such things? He seemed to know what he wanted. Perhaps I could learn something from him. It could be I already had.

Then we were joined by Geordie George and a crew-cut youth named Jinty, who normally worked on a different shift from the rest of us. Frenchie promptly lapsed into silence.

'It's too good a night to be wasting time in this dump.' This was Geordie George's greeting as he and Jinty fell into step with us. It was a fine June evening but he'd have said something like this whatever the weather.

'Jinty and me were going to call into the clubhouse for a quick one before the shift. You coming?'

'Why not?' I needed no persuasion. 'How about you, Frenchie?'

'I think no. I do not like the beer.' But he followed us in, anyway.

*

That was the only time I'd been inside the factory clubhouse. It had always seemed not far enough removed from the drudgery of work to make me want to frequent the place. Inside, it seemed to me to more like an over-plush waiting room than anything else.

Still, a few drinks and a few laughs made me see things differently. A couple of glasses was all I'd have. No harm in that, even if I was supposed to be watching the pennies.

Jennifer was four months old at this time, a squawking bundle of pinkness and Terylene. Disposables were still a fairly new thing in those days. Anyway we wouldn't have been able to afford them.

Her arrival in the depths of the cold winter previously had signalled the end of my carefree existence and the beginning of semi-responsible fatherhood. I was still poised awkwardly between the two extremes.

I was enjoying the warm yeasty feeling, and the break it gave me from my new life of the rusty second-hand pushchair, the overdue rent payments and the clattering glass of the factory.

It would have taken more self-discipline than I could muster to protest when Jinty wanted to buy another round five minutes before we were due to clock on.

*

'Let's go up West!' I was placing the tray of shorts, bought with my bus fare money for next week, on the already-littered table as Jinty spoke.

I had only a few coins in my pocket. But Jinty had a car, it was a Saturday night, and the thought of a nine-hour shift in the factory was like a clenched fist in the pit of my stomach.

We were half-way to Soho in the car before I realised Frenchie was still with us. He hadn't spoken a word in the last hour.

*

We were walking the streets of Piccadilly, wondering what to do next. We'd just drunk a few over-priced rounds of shorts in a grubby pub. Geordie George had insisted that Frenchie should have doubles and his little head had started nodding as if he were one of those toy dogs you used to see in the backs of cars.

The gloss of our tawdry adventure had worn off long since. I was fretting about losing a shift's pay next week.

'This looks good!'

Jinty's attention had been caught by the glaring lights and lurid displays of one of the cellar strip shows.

'It looks a bit pricey.' Geordie George looked doubtfully at the small pile of coins in his hand. His wife must have been more successful than usual in claiming a share from his pay packet of the day before.

'Only twenty-five shillings each, boys. Best show in town. Special. Lovely girls.' The huge West Indian gave an impromptu mime to show exactly how lovely he thought the girls were.

'I have money.' Frenchie was standing behind us, swaying a little, but otherwise looking in control. These were his first words for some time. He pulled out an expensive-looking leather wallet, embossed with the initials 'RF'

It looked to be stuffed full of notes. 'I did not have time to go to the bank yesterday,' he said, seeing us all looking amazed at what seemed to be a fortune.

Soon the four of us found ourselves in the cellar. My naïve vision of a stage surrounded by pleasantly-lit tables at which we could sip drinks brought to us by sultry temptresses was quickly shattered.

The reality was a surprisingly small, low-ceilinged room already filled with perhaps two hundred men. The air was heavy with smoke. The smell of stale alcohol mingled with that of ripe body odour and well-worn clothes.

On a wooden dais of no more than six feet square there was a drooping-titted peroxide blonde. The clichéd description 'wearing nothing but a bored expression' could have been made for her. This world-weary forty-year-old moved around in a way neither artistic, nor really suggestive. She hardly bothered to keep time with the harsh, monotonous music.

'Move down there!' The voice of the West Indian giant boomed above the sound of the recorded music. He was trying to squeeze even more of his twenty-five shilling customers into the small space.

Such was his persistence and aggression that he succeeded. The result for us was, although we were even more cramped and sweaty than before, we'd moved to a position under the stage.

The blonde finished her tired cavortions and left the stage. To leave she had to squeeze, naked, apart from a blanket draped casually around her shoulders, through the audience. It was only thanks to ferocious 'move downs' from the doorman and some vigorous elbowing on her own part that she managed to get through.

There was a pause in the on-stage action. The customers, jammed together in unwelcome male proximity, began to grow restless. From somewhere at the back of the cellar someone called out jokes. The attempt at levity was at odds with the restlessness of the crowd.

There was general grumbling and muttering from the men. It sounded like nothing so much as the muted snarl of a caged animal being teased with a piece of meat. Then, suddenly, something like an electric shock seemed to pass around the cellar. The low growl was displaced by what I couldn't help but think of as a collective intake of breath.

Voices at the back of the room rose in pitch. I attempted to turn around, trying to see what had caused of this change in mood. Others around me had the same idea. So tightly were we packed that in the general movement my face was forced into close contact with the broad shoulder of my neighbour.

Despite the warmth of the night and the humidity of the basement, this man was wearing a heavy overcoat. The material was richly seasoned with the smell of tobacco, sweat, and some ancient, sweetish odour I could not quite identify. All at once the beer and spirits I'd drunk earlier started to follow an upward route in my throat.

Somehow I controlled myself. Then saw the cause of the crowd's excitement. A young West Indian girl was penetrating its ranks and coming toward the stage.

In marked contrast to the exhausted blonde who'd gone through the motions earlier, this girl was full of fire and life. She had a sensational figure and her movements were easy and catlike, even though she had to work hard to force her way through the throng. She was revelling in the attention she was getting and was exchanging ripe remarks with the men she squeezed past.

As she approached the stage, she threw a challenging look at the front rank, causing a few to part sufficiently to make room for her. She strode forward, and was about to step up on to the stage when there was a flurry of movement among the men nearest to her. She wheeled around.

'He put his hand on my bottom!'

She searched the faces of the men in front of her. The curious primness of her words struck me as very odd, all the more so in view of her bawdy behaviour of a moment ago. Others must have thought the same; a low chuckle passed around the basement.

'He put his hand on my bottom!'

This time her voice was louder and her manner more threatening. She was focusing her attention on Frenchie, although as far as I could see he had done nothing. Frenchie started to mumble something, but the girl's stony gaze held his own, and his words faltered away. Then, without any kind of warning, she raised the lighted cigarette she was carrying and stubbed it violently into his face, high up on the cheek. Sparks flew in all directions, and the place fell into dead silence.

The girl turned haughtily, stepped quickly up onto the stage, and snapped her fingers for the music to restart. As it did, she pointed a long finger at Frenchie, looked over the heads of the still-silent crowd, and simply called 'Johnson!'

I guessed that Johnson must be the name of the West Indian doorman. This was confirmed when I saw his powerful form thrusting through the crowd. He had forced his way through in seconds and seized Frenchie, now white and shaken and leaning helplessly against the stage. One huge hand grasped my friend's frail neck from behind and the other closed tightly on his arm.

It seemed to me that Johnson could have broken Frenchie's meagre body there and then if he'd chosen with no more than a casual twist of his wrist. Instead he hustled him towards the entrance steps, scattering those who were too slow to get out of the way.

For a big man, Johnson had moved quickly. Before long it was as if there had been no disturbance. All eyes were soon back on the stage.

And no wonder. Since her fireworks display, the girl had paid no heed to Frenchie or to his fate. Indeed, she displayed a supreme indifference to everyone around her. But now that she had the attention of the men again, it was clear she took delight in what she was doing. Soon she was holding everyone in the cellar in a state of expectant delight.

She was a Queen of her Art, and every movement she made brought an excited response from the watching men. When at last she revealed her body fully, it proved to be even more magnificent than we'd thought. She, quite as much as we, took pleasure in the display. A deafening shout shook the cellar. It must have been heard on the Soho pavements above.

For one moment, she looked directly at me. The smouldering blackness of her eye and the half-smile playing across her lips brought a dryness to my throat. I swallowed hard. As I did so I caught a glimpse of Geordie George. He was mouthing something to the girl that was lost in the general din, even though he was standing no more than eight feet distant.

It was only then I thought again of Frenchie. What was I doing? It was only because of me he was here in the first place. I must do something. He'd called me his friend.

I tried to push my way to the entrance steps. I was no Johnson and it was more than ten minutes before I emerged again into the Soho night.

My thin summer shirt was drenched with sweat. Despite the closeness of the air I was shivering. The sick feeling was returning. This time it was only partly because of the alcohol.

The street, so full of life an hour before, was now ominously quiet. There was no sign of Frenchie and no sign of Johnson. A short distance from the club entrance was a narrow alley. For want of any better idea of what to do, I peered into this. It was pitch black, but I had a tiny torch attached to my key ring.

It wasn't many minutes before I found it: Frenchie's wallet, unmistakable with its 'RF' embossed on it in bold lettering. Idly, I speculated on what those initials could stand for. 'R' for 'Raoul' of course; I knew this much. Bizarrely, I thought of Republique Française.

The wallet was now empty, save for a small notebook used to keep neat records of savings. Even in the uncertainly flickering beam of the torch, I could see that the damp, sticky stain on the edge of its pages was caused by blood.

The torch also revealed a single, saucer-sized circle of blood on the broken pavement at the side of the alley. For reasons I can't explain now and doubt could have explained then, I tried to scuff this away with my shoe.

Then, a warm drop of rain fell on my nose. Others quickly followed and soon there was a torrential summer downpour in progress. Ineffectually, I pulled my already-damp shirt collar around my throat and ran off to see if I could catch the last tube home. I did not know what else to do.

*

Next day I had a high temperature and did not report for the next three shifts. Nor did Frenchie: I never saw him again.

'He's probably gone back to France,' Geordie George said. When I told him a half-truth about what I'd found he added 'the big black guy probably gave him a bloody nose. Deserved it, too, the dirty little bugger.'

There was no use in my trying to talk to him about it. Anyway, a few weeks later he and Jinty left the factory, saying they were off to find better work in Newcastle.

*

It may have been my new-found sobriety as an employee that made them promote me to shift foreman a year later. Then again, perhaps it was simply the way I sorted out all the problems they'd been having for so long with the bottle-capping machine.

After that, it was an easy step to Assistant Production Manager. I became Personnel Manager before anyone could find me out.

I took and kept three closed personnel files. There were those of Geordie George and Jinty. The past was a closed book. If anyone was going to open it, it wouldn't be them if chance and a slack personnel clerk brought them into the factory again.

The third was Frenchie's. All I found out from this was his full name: Raoul Ferrand. The London address the file also contained turned out to be false. There was no address in Brittany at all.

For my part, 'I continued to prosper', as they say. I found the language of the boardroom and the seminar came easily to me. Some dark hypocrisy at the root of my soul taught me the trick of saying the right thing at the right time.

Only a few years later I became one of the vast army of management consultants we had then. I've survived as one of their reduced number to this day, even though now I spend more time playing golf and writing articles to exhort others.

When I realised the only growth industry in this country was going to be the bullshit industry, I made the switch from my pose as a hard-bitten practitioner who had learned the ropes on the factory floor as well as from books to more erudite things.

I was one of the first in the country to get an MBA. Now I even make quite a bit on the after-dinner circuit - we've got one, exactly like the slebs, did you know that? I'm in the middle of writing my fourth book.

Does it matter that I believe not a word of it? Does it matter I ceased to believe everything on a humid June night nearly all those years ago?

No, it doesn't matter, not in the final analysis, as I might say in one of those fine management papers when I couldn't be bothered to think of something fresher. I've done my best for the squawking pink bundle who grew up to be my twice-divorced-and-living-with-her-parents in rising middle age daughter and her younger sister. I've done my best for her mother.

Sometimes I don't think Sylvia - the name of my wife for all these years - appreciates the sacrifices I've made so we can live in this over-large house.

It isn't for my sake we hold dinner parties where often you might recognise one or two of the guests from the newspapers or TV. The twin Mercedes in the drive could be a pair of rusty old Ford Escorts for all I care.

So is it really too much to ask when twice a year I insist we go to the South of Brittany? It's a kind of penance really. I've long since given up any expectation of seeing a familiar slender frame, or of hearing a voice I haven't heard since I was a teenager.

*

I can hear Sylvia's heavier-than-usual tread on the stairs. Something in the way she is dragging her steps tells me she's steeled herself to talk to me again about our holiday plans. I'll listen patiently, as I always do.

The conversation will end with me saying. 'I'll think about it'. It always does. This is true. I'm always thinking about it, though not in the way I pretend to Sylvia.

Perhaps one day I really will show Sylvia this notebook and try to explain it to her. And I'll do the same for young middle-aged Jen, and for her sister Maggie. But where do I begin?

How can I make them understand something I don't even begin to understand myself?


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