The Wrong Bar - a Short Story set in Rural France, with Engineers, Cows and Whisky
There is nothing to be gained from reading this :)
Ken is an engineer. So is Alan. They were spending two weeks just outside Paris, guests of Dauphin Engineering, accepting new equipment for The Company. Their days were spent in pursuit of technical excellence. Their mission to determine whether the French product could meet the standards laid down in the Silver Book. The Silver Book is the Company Bible on all things technical. It was written in the halcyon days when engineers reigned supreme.
Though not identical, Ken and Alan are both about five foot nine and slightly rounded, with thick black hair and thicker black beards. Both have strangely delicate hands, protruding ingenuously from engineering tweeds, and both favour that sweetly aromatic tobacco that conjures up, to those who have been there, memories of rugby internationals at Murrayfield. How, then, to tell them apart? By voice. Ken, for all his years south of the border, still retains the vowels and inflections of the Scottish Borders. Alan, alas, is Mancunian.
This distinction, immediately obvious to any member of our island community, was nevertheless lost on their hosts who preferred instead to refer to Alan as "Monsieur le Sabot". Not that he wore clogs as such, but he was never (in those days) to be seen without knee length leather cowboy boots. During working hours, out of respect for engineering convention, these were covered up by spiky tweed trousers, but in the evening Alan gave them their heads, trousers tucked in for maximum effect, trusting them to bring him safely home.
Of course, the similarity in style was no coincidence. Ken and Alan copied each other, and had done so throughout a long working partnership. Neither knew the other was doing it. Each was only dimly aware that he was doing it himself. Each thought the other was a first rate engineer. Both were right. Engineers don't talk about such things. Such was their innocence that when, unaware of their presence, a junior colleague had passed a remark about Tweedledum and Tweedledee, its significance had completely failed to register.
For the most part, the French assignment was an uneventful turn of duty. The working days were dull enough. Alan and Ken enjoyed them, but after all, they are engineers. The evenings were handled conventionally by the host company. Duty was done, and done well. By strict rotation, a member of the Dauphin engineering team was appointed to "give our guests a good time". They did. Expense accounts and Parisian nights go well together. Scarcely worth mentioning. Not like the second Thursday, the night that went wrong.
* * *
Claude Lannier arrived, on time, at the "Chez Gautier" bar, bought himself a beer, and sat down to await his charges for the night. Chez Gautier was an establishment that Claude favoured. It was often frequented by some of his old college friends. Tonight was no exception, and he was soon happily swapping stories, as of old. From time to time he glanced towards the door expecting Alan and Ken to appear at any moment, but it must be said that he was not greatly put out by their failure to turn up. In fact, the occasional glance towards the door was the total extent of his search. Next morning, in accordance with the Unwritten International Code of Business Etiquette, he apologised for having mistaken the arrangements and gone to the wrong bar. He had of course done no such thing.
Ken and Alan went to the wrong bar, on time, bought beers, and stood around to wait for Claude. It didn't seem appropriate to sit down, it wasn't that sort of place. It was the sort of place that went quiet when invaded by rounded, bearded strangers, one in cowboy boots; the sort of place where a huge belly, ill supported by spindly legs, and only partially restrained by a tee-shirt thrust its balding head between Alan's and Ken's and got it to say, "Ha, English, Yes?"
"Pas exactement, monsieur, je suis Ecossais, et mon ami est . ."
"Ha, Ecossais, Scotland. Where find ze kilts? Haggis. Whisky. Bagpipe. Ha, l'Ecosse, Scotland. Ha."
It seemed to Ken that an answer was called for, perhaps along the lines of Scots not wearing ze kilt all ze time, but even as he was mentally piecing this together in French, the belly turned towards its compatriots and goaded its legs into a few steps of graceless but unmistakable Highland fling, the arm actions further reducing the efficacy of the tee-shirt as a covering garment.
"Natives seem friendly enough," said Alan, and as if to confirm this judgement one such "native" could be heard ordering whisky at the bar "pour les Ecossais".
Travellers abroad so often play it safe, going only to the "good" places where they can sit on dralon amid reproduction mirrors, listen to piped drivel, and be ignored by everyone, just like at home. Yet with just a few words of the language and enough gumption to beat a hasty retreat should the situation demand it, a far better time can often be had by going off the beaten track and way down market. Cheaper too.
For our intrepid warriors the night was better than cheap. It was free. Alan had the wit to realise that he couldn't do better than invent Scottish parents, and he had spent long enough in Ken's company to be able to carry it off well enough. The belly, who turned out to be called Jean-Paul decreed that "All Scotchmen drink whisky". Ken the pedant briefly considered advising him on the dangers of stereotyping, but Ken the pragmatist decided that, after all, the point was not worth contesting. Especially since Jean-Paul's friends seemed eager to put to the test our heroes' capacity for their national drink.
And by the time it became abundantly clear that they had come to the wrong bar, it didn't seem to matter any more. Somehow it began to seem like a very right bar indeed. Alan came to believe that he came from Clackmanan, (the name had always appealed), that his brother was a crofter and his uncle worked in a distillery, and he was just about to regale the company with a reminiscence about haggis shooting in the Great Glen when Ken felt obliged to tramp firmly on his cowboy booted left great toe. The fact that he landed on the right great toe instead, and that Alan didn't notice anyway, can be taken as evidence that whisky retains its normal properties even when far from home.
It was the sort of bar that opened when Jean-Paul and his friends wanted to drink, and closed when they wanted to go home, which they did around midnight, with many shouts of "Vive l'Ecosse" and much loud laughter. As the echoes died away, Ken and Alan found themselves alone in the moonlight.
* * *
Much has been written about stages of drunkenness. Ken and Alan had reached stage five. No judgement, tons of energy, the luck of the devil, and a burning urge to put it all into practice. It was a shame that their hotel overlooked a field of cows.
It was Ken's idea, and he tramped off into the field like a rambler possessed. Alan, more cautious by nature, and mindful ever of his boots, left them by the gate and ploughed in after Ken in his socks, trouser ends securely tucked in. Their intentions were entirely honourable. Cows don't become attractive until the seventh stage of drunkenness, (so I'm told). These were ideal cows. Large, warm and comfortable, placid enough to let two inebriates clamber up onto their backs, and willing to oblige by wandering around the moonlit field without rolling over. Such cows are rare indeed. Lesser cows would have broken a few of our heroes' ribs, and left them plastered head to foot in mud, and worse than mud. Stage five luck. And the whole performance went unobserved, even to the singing of Rawhide.
For the second time that evening Alan's presence of mind shone through, as he leant on the gate to remove his mud caked socks before putting his boots back on. The hapless socks which for twenty glorious minutes of freedom, had never once forgotten to protect their trouser ends from the ravages of the organic clay, no doubt pondered on the ingratitude of the human spirit as they flew twenty yards into the field they had just left. With clean boots and fairly presentable trousers, Alan looked much like any other tired and emotional engineer abroad, saying goodnight to Ken and letting himself into room 307 of the Bonne Auberge. But Ken left a rich, agricultural trail from the lift doors to room 308.
We all have moments of shocking clarity of vision. Ken's came when he crashed down on the bed to take off his shoes. Unless we walk backwards we don't see our footprints. Yet somehow Ken knew that his footprints were there, connecting his room to the lift doors. Incriminating evidence. Must be removed. Footprints in the foyer leading to the lift. Must be removed. Footprints in the lift leading to the third floor. Must be removed. Wait a minute. Footprints in the lift stay in the lift, even if the lift goes to the fifth floor. So, forget about footprints in the lift. Can't pin them on you. Or the ones in the foyer. But must get rid of the ones leading to your door. Somehow. All this without even looking.
Hotels provide what hotels provide. Kettle, tourist brochure, instant coffee, tea bags. Electric trouser press, arguably the least useful appliance for removing cow dung from a French carpet. Rarely to they offer Dry Foam Carpet Magic, or even a scrubbing brush.
Ken is a lateral thinker. The Bonne Auberge is the sort of place that has a self service minibar in the bedrooms. Ken felt he was making quite a professional job of the corridor carpet, softening the footprints with the soda siphon and scraping them up with the beer mat, when sleep finally caught up with him.
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