I look like a toad. I look like a sack of flour that’s been hung from a butcher’s hook and thumped until it burst. I look like an unkempt ballbag, recoiling in the sunlight for the first time after a long winter bundled up inside a pair of long johns.
Excuse me a moment, while I sit back on my haunches and howl at the moon. Ahem:
I didn’t always look like a turnip. In fact, once upon a time I used to quite like the way I looked. When I used to return home tipsy to Rue de Bitche after evenings spent sipping frothy pints in the Abbatoir Cafe, often I would brush my teeth for bed in the bathroom mirror, pausing in-between strokes to give heroic speeches to imaginary crowds, or to sling out spicy guitar solos to an enraptured assembly of lustful young people.
I may not have been particularly thrilled about my height, or my hairline, or the fact that in photographs my mouth seems to slope downward slightly to the left, but on the whole I would look at my face in the mirror and think: fair enough. On occasion, about once a year, somebody would take a photo of me, and rather than the picture turning out the way pictures of me usually do—a gurning, squinting chipmunk—it would look rather dignified and masculine, and I would be satisfied that I was not, as far as I was aware, a total munter.
Those were the days.
It all began ten days ago, when I went once more to visit my friend Seth in Avignon, in the south of France. Seth is like me in many ways: a lost Englishman who moved to France for love, who regularly struggles with self-control and over-indulgence, loves a knee-slapping story and finds flatulence of all kinds absolutely brilliant. We even look a bit like each other too, except Seth is about an inch and a half taller which of course vexes me to no end.
Seth and I drink a lot when we’re together. This is down to two factors: firstly, this is the bedrock our relationship is based on. When we met at Toku Iwi, the hostel in the Australian bush where we spent four months picking blueberries, we drank copious amounts of wine almost every day. It was a holiday environment, and the sun shone constantly, and nobody seemed to suffer the slightest ill consequence from being plastered five nights a week. When we are united again—which is once every three or four months—we simply regress to this happy, carefree, blurry period of our lives, and get hammered.
The second factor in our heavy drinking is our mutual attempts to lead wholesome lives without the presence of alcohol when we are apart. I booze a lot socially, but during periods when I don’t have much in my calendar, I try to detox and be productive and keep the silliness to a minimum. Seth is the same. When we chat on the phone once a fortnight, we describe to one another how long it’s been since we’ve sipped a beer, and how productive we are being, and how good it feels to be healthy and getting regular exercise, and how sweet the springtime air is, and how there’s no intoxicant that can substitute the endorphins one generates on a brisk walk in the park. I tell Seth how I’ve learned a new quiche recipe; he tells me of a new tool belt he fashioned from leather. I inform him of the work I’ve been doing on my novel; he reads to me several stanzas of a poem he is writing for his girlfriend. We discuss nature and health, and the goodness of being outdoors, and – gosh – isn’t life beautiful when you focus on the simple things?
All of this means, of course, that when Seth and I do finally meet up both of us are sick to death of the wholesome life, and are chomping at the bit for a big horrid blowout.
The first evening in Avignon was spent on our best behaviour, as Seth’s partner Blanche had work in the morning. On the second night however, Blanche left for Paris for the weekend. Free from noise restrictions, Seth invited Tristan over—another old friend from the blueberry farm—and the three of us sat on the little terrace outside Seth’s apartment and drank beer and rum and wine until we could not stand.
I’d not planned to be this inebriated. In many ways, I did it as an act of charity. You see, Tristan’s hair, like mine, is thinning somewhat. He has a mighty black beard and thick black eyebrows, but on top it’s starting to go a little bit wispy; a pain I know all too well.
Now, several days prior to Avignon, Jeanne shaved my head for me. This was done for no real reason other than boredom, but I quite enjoy having no hair—somehow, it feels more honest.
On Seth’s terrace, with my newly liberated scalp on show, I convinced Tristan to shave his head. After initially refusing outright, he came around to the idea – on the sole condition that I finish two large glasses of rum. I took him up on this, and my determination was unwavering. Such is my belief in the liberation that comes from shaving one’s head, in fact, that I did not falter, even as my steps grew difficult and the world began to tilt.
“You will not succeed,” said Tristan, in his southern French lilt.
“There’s something you don’t know about me,” I replied, in between wretches and gags from the foul rum flavour. “When I want something, I make it happen.”
“Never,” said Tristan.
Within ten minutes, however, both glasses of rum were gone, and I stood up with a flourish, holding the empty glass over my head.
“You will be shaved!” I cried, pointing a wobbly finger in his general direction. Then I added, “Right after I go for a wee.”
And just like that I bobbled across the rooftop, tripped on a roof tile, sailed through an open window and tumbled down a small flight of stairs.
After soaring in bewildered silence for one hyper-extended second, I hit the floor and pranged my head against a heavily-laden coffee table which upended its contents all over me. Covered in crisp dust and tobacco and with a bowl for a helmet, I gazed around me at the carnage. Seth’s radiator had been rived from the wall somehow, I noted.
With a wince I touched my fingers to my scalp and brought them back before my eyes. There was no blood. I checked my arms, shoulders and ribs, and miraculously found no damage to report whatsoever. I could still hear Seth telling a story out on the terrace, and called him weakly.
“Seth? Mate? Did you hear that almighty crash just then?”
I heard Seth pause his story and apologise to Tristan.
“What’s that mate?” came his voice.
“Did you hear that almighty crash, just then?”
“Oh… Yeah I think I heard it actually. Was that you?”
“Yeah mate. I fell down the stairs.”
“I fell down the stairs, mate. It’s pretty bad.”
“Oh. You alright?”
“I think so. The crisp bowl landed on me like a hat.”
“Alright mate, no worries.”
And then the conversation resumed outside. It seemed Tristan and Seth had bypassed the level of inebriation that would have rendered my fall distressing or even hilarious, and had now boozed themselves into a sort of blissful, indifferent Eden.
Anyway, I was fine: I dusted myself off, righted the table, and went for my wee, shaking crisps from my hair all the while. Later that night, Tristan was sheared, Seth was sheared and we swapped stories until the wee hours. I woke up the next morning to find an apartment covered in bald men and clumps of hair of various colours, and when showering I was alarmed but not surprised to find a rather large swelling and a decent amount of dried blood on my calf.
That was the first injury.
Seth and I took the next couple of nights easy after that, deciding we’d taken things a little too far and our time would be better spent cycling around in the sunshine and cooking nice meals together.
Upon my return to Strasbourg, I informed Jeanne of my tumble and showed her my injury, although that didn’t do much to stop her forgetting all about it roughly once every half hour and affectionately patting my wound as we lay on the sofa watching telly.
The next injury came only a day later. We met up with an English guy called Matt who Jeanne made friends with a few weeks ago. Since then we’ve seen one another several times for drinks and food, and so last Thursday the three of us convened again to go and absorb the last of the delightful 18C week we had in mid-Feb.
We took a couple of beers and some snacks in a backpack, and headed down to the riverside, half a kilometre from our home. The river in this part of town is broad and low, some five metres below street level. Usually, you’d wander along the street until you found a staircase down to the river, then descend to the grassy banks below; it’s a very pretty spot, and the sun hits it all day.
We couldn’t find the nearest staircase, however—there seemed to be none in any direction for hundreds of metres. Instead, Jeanne took action, swinging her leg over the fence to climb down the ancient bars placed in the wall at intervals as emergency ladders in case of flooding. A little nervous of the height, I followed her, not wanting to look shy in front of Matt. As Jeanne descended the ladder, I too went to swing my leg over the iron railing. It seems I didn’t lift my leg quite high enough, however, because I clanged my knee, at full force, right into it.
I made a noise a bit like this: HWARGH.
It was not an elegant noise; rather than a gentlemanly grunt of pain, as one might hope for in such a situation, the sound that escaped my throat was more akin to the noise a low-flying goose might make as it was accidentally clobbered, mid-honk, by a baseball fired from a batting machine. Conscious of the fact that Matt was standing behind me, and that I had only met him on two occasions previously, I hastily composed myself, and turned to look at him with tears in my eyes and a twitching smile on my lips:
“Funny bone,” I wheezed, shaking my head as if to say ‘oh, it’s fine, this happens to me all the time’.
I climbed down the ladder, bones screaming at me with every step, and we sat for beers in the sun. Matt and Jeanne spoke a lot. I did not—preoccupied as I was with my agony—contribute anything of value. When the sun had set, I groaned and gasped my way back up the ladder once more, and sure enough, found that the next morning I could walk only with a giant, lop-sided limp.
…And that’s not even the worst of it.
More to come soon. Eugh.