A Life Less Scary
"The interesting and varied life of Scary Duck, Genius, French Cabaret Chantoose and small bets placed."
A French person, from France
Pompt-de-pompt-de-pompt-pompt! See? I speak French like a native, and it was this talent, at the age of fifteen, that got me sent on the school’s French Exchange programme. You know the deal - you get some moody French twit for a couple of weeks, then you get to stay at their place in the South of France for a couple of weeks. Did I mention I got to stay in the South of France? Heh.
The entire situation was a bit fluid. I got some branleur called Jean-Francois for a fortnight, notable only for his hairy palms, one enormous eyebrow and a complete inability to speak English. I searched his room daily for soap, but there was none. For reasons that escape me, however, I was unable to experience the privelege of staying with his family, and instead would be staying with a certain young lady called Sylvie, the mere mention of whom would turn Jean-Francois’ knees to jelly, while simultaneously expressing the universally accepted hand gestures that say “Phwoooooar!” Result.
So. Boosh! Two weeks in France! Unfortunately, to keep the costs down, this meant going by train from Paris to Toulouse as a direct flight from London would have bankrupted most parents. Fair play to Mr Towner for his valiant attempt to get thirty kids plus luggage from one side of Paris to another to reach Austerlitz station, just a shame he got us all hopelessly lost on the Metro and had to hang around for six hours before the next train to the South. Still, he employed an impressive vocabulary of swearing in many, many European languages, skills I am still using today. Who said schools don’t prepare you for life?
I had done Paris the year before, so I already knew one vital fact - the drinking age in France is a mere fourteen years old, and we exploited his fact to the hilt. By the time we had found the buffet car on the train, we were already as pissed as little beetles from the bar at the Gare d'Austerlitz, and the eight hour journey was passed in an alcoholic fug, punctuated only by bouts of rich, brown vomit. And Christ, just to really rub it in, we arrived at Toulouse in the middle of the night to find that we still had a two hour coach journey ahead of us, in a vehicle that was previously used in Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
Let’s just say that Sylvie was as pneumatic as Jean-Francois had suggested, and sadly the property of the school rugby captain. The only action I got off her was the customary kiss on the cheek as I met her off the bus. What was worse was getting the same off her mum, who tried to slip a tongue in. Her dad was built like a brick shithouse. And funnily enough, that’s where he worked, at the town’s water plant. My abiding memory of the place is of one of those hole-in-the-floor French toilets right in the middle of his workshop, with a turd the size of a small dog several inches away from the target which no bugger had bothered clearing up from the night before. No door, no partition, no cleaners. Class.
As a school trip veteran, the whole affair went more or less to plan. Brian spent all his money within two days on a series of ridiculously large presents for his family, and spent the rest of the trip begging money from anyone who would listen. We sat in lessons we could barely comprehend, and went on coach journeys to local landmarks and marvelled at the wonders of French toilet engineering, many of which still sporting the original shit.
And yes, our vindictive teachers back in England barely tolerated our leaving the country for two weeks in the middle of term and got their evil revenge with more homework you could shake a shitty stick at. I spent most of my so-called free time on the trip working on a geography project about the English Midlands, and got my own back by filling it with utter tosh and pettyregional stereotyping:
“Darling, kiss me where it smells”, she said to her boyfriend.
So he drove her to Birmingham.”
I got a grade B.
After a series of parties and doomed attempts at snoggery, the real action was reserved for the last day of the exchange - a mass bicycle ride up into the mountains and forests around Mazamet, taking in the wonderful views, and making a last attempt at copping off with one of the French girls. Failing, naturally. I’m still trying to work out the exact point of this escapade short of trying to get us all killed, leaving the few survivors as starving derelicts in the middle of nowhere. If that’s what they had in mind, it was a raging success. As far as I know, at least two teachers and six pupils are still up there, having maths lessons in a cave, feeding off wild animals, or if times are really tough, each other.
It all started well enough. The sun shone, we all had lovely borrowed, hired and stolen bikes as we met up outside the school. Pneumatic Sylvie, myself and at least four others had already come at least three miles from Pont de l’Arne, just outside of town, and that was more than enough for all of us. As we set off, at least a quarter of our number cycled off down the wrong side of the road, coming face-to-face with a bus, several cars and a truck from the local slaughterhouse, who would, by day’s end be doing an awful lot of extra business. Damn you French people for driving on the wrong side of the road!
Out of town we cruised at a steady pace, chatting loudly and happily to each other. Those who had been on the beers at the youth club disco the night before (no, really!) stayed at the back, hangovers slowly receeding, and hardly anybody was sick at all.
Cruelly, the road headed up into the mountains, and slowly but surely stragglers began to fall off the back of the pack. As we reached the top of the first rise and entered a village square with picturesque views across the entire Arne valley, human wreckage was already spread far below us. In the ten minutes afforded to us before Mr Towner arrived, a sweating mess with the word “Enough!” on his lips, some of us found a shop and stockpiled a few beers. It was going to be a long, hard day. No point letting ourselves get dehydrated.
The morning turned into afternoon, and one by one our group got smaller and smaller. There were punctures; pupils and teachers getting off for a rest and never quite getting back on again; amorous couples taking “wrong turnings” and remaining out of sight for hours at a time; Brian trying to sell his bike to a passer-by. Lunchtime was a sparse affair, attended by no more than a dozen survivors, most of whom had packed up and left while others were still arriving an hour later, begging for the Grim Reaper to come and take them.
The ordeal continued. By mid-afternoon, with the sun beating down mercilessly on the Languedoc countryside, bedraggled knots of cyclists could be observed struggling down the side of the mountain, craving for water, water, always water. Except for the lucky few, who had a plentiful supply. Water! In beer form! And that, I suspect, was probably our undoing.
In the United Kingdom, it is a little known fact that being drunk in charge of a bicycle is a crime. There’s probably a French equivalent (“pissoired avec un velo”), and by four o’clock, we were bang to rights. On a straight, flat tree-lined stretch of French road, this probably wouldn’t have been too much of a problem. However, this wasn’t a straight, flat tree-lined stretch of French road, it was a mountain track, heading very steeply in the direction of down. No brakes.
It was Ernie, pissed as the rest of us, feet off the pedals, a look of wide-eyed panic on his face. He needn’t have worried about stopping though, the bush did the job for him, and pretty efficiently too. Unfortunately for those of us following him, we were no longer in possession of our youthful reflexes, thanks to the efforts of Kronenbourg’s finest brewers, and piled into the twisted wreckage of his bike.
It was a massacre. Groaning bodies lay everywhere, scraped knees, torn clothes, and most tragically Ernie lay motionless, on his back. We crept over to him to see what we could do. It was far worse than we thought.
“I dropped my beer.”
“You... you... you... CUNT!”
We peeled ourselves up from the road, and eventually managed to return to the school, mostly thanks to an inspired piece of hitching that got all five of us on the back of a farmer’s truck all the way into town, in the company of hardly any shit-smeered pigs. We sat in the school canteen, slugging back the watered-down wine (no, really!) waiting for the rest of the group to find their way back. It was well after sunset before a dark, looming figure approached us. It was Mr Towner, barely recognisable in the sweat, dust and exhaustion. He was a broken man.
“Bad news lads”, he greeted us, “The fancy dress party’s off.”
Devastated. We went out and drunk ourselves sober instead, fearing the next day’s goodbyes where Sylvie’s boyfriend would threaten to pound me into a pulp if I dared to touch her while getting the customary kiss goodbye, while her mum would undoubtedly try to slip me the tongue again. He didn’t and she did, and I spent the eight hour train journey gargling Heineken, trying to get the taste out of my mouth.
Broke and slightly merry, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport with the distinct impression that I had forgotten something. Brian struggled across the concourse, weighed down with the scaletrix set that he had bought his brother, and the large stuffed sheep that would surprise and delight his mother. Presents! I had blown all my money on booze and forgotten to buy any of my family presents! I searched the terminal for something that would suit my family’s taste and my limited budget. They got a cheap plastic Eiffel Tower, two packets of polos and a six-pack of Hollywood chewing gum. And they were well pleased.
As school trips go, this was the one that set me up for the rest of my life. It had everything (short of explosions an’ stuff) that would become a regular part of my adolescence. Drink. Obligatory how-to-swear-in-French lessons. Drink. Irrational fear of varicose veins. More drink. French craphole target practice. And let’s not forget the drink. Educational, that’s what it was. No wonder I’m mental.
While this story is based on actual events in the life of Scaryduck, certain identities and venues may have been changed to protect the innocent.