© Stuart Martin
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Hello there. This short story is centred on some possibly amusing events, and one possibly stomach churning event, that occurred on a short holiday in the Tarn district of France. Is this comedy? I’d love to know what you think. Thank you in advance.
The last thing I want to do is bore you with my medical history, but you need a little background to understand these events. I promise to skip to the relevant bits.
I considered Spoonerising my name to protect my identity. In the end I decided not to bother.
I was sitting in a hospital corridor, it was November 2003. My wife, Karen, squeezed my hand, and gave me a smile which I attempted to return. A nurse appeared from a doorway and postured up like a drill sergeant. “Meadows. Mark Meadows.” I stood up and pointed at myself. She opened a door. “Mr. Bradley-Hughes will see you now.” I took a deep breath and followed Karen through.
Old BH was quite a personable chap, but always started with the assumption I knew as much about human anatomy as he did. He regaled us with a stream of medical jargon before delivering the punchline, “You are going to need a total colectomy, and if all goes well I will perform an ileorectal anastomosis.” My expression must have been blank. He dropped to my level. “I’m going to cut out your colon, and stitch your bowel to your rectum. You’ll probably defecate about ten times a day, apart from that you should be fine.”
It could have been worse, a lot worse. “Thank you, thank you very much.” I was satisfied and ready to leave.
Karen put a hand on my arm and kept me in my seat. She locked eyes with BH. “You said ‘if all goes well’. What if it doesn’t go well?”
“I’ll have to fit a colostomy bag. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
He was right, it wouldn’t. But Karen gave me this look, and my heart sank. She was 41, and had had the twins six years ago. But she was gorgeous, and in the right mood her eyes were so seductive, and I didn’t want my sex life to be over. It could have been paranoia on my part, a reflection of my own fear, but that look told me a colostomy bag would be no aphrodisiac.
Three weeks later, when I woke up after the operation I grinned through the pain. It wasn’t, as the nurses thought, because of the drugs. I’d felt around my stomach area, and found no bag or attachment: relief.
By June 2004 I had recovered quite well. The combination of a powerful rectal muscle, and well-timed pre-emptive toilet visits enabled me to resume all my normal activities. All except - you know. Karen was tired from taking the load, I’d been fragile for a good while, and the occasion just hadn’t presented itself. We needed a break, and as usual Karen was there ahead of me. She pushed a brochure towards me as I sat at the kitchen table. “What do you think of that?”
Under the heading ‘Tempting Tarn’ was a picture of a chateau in extensive grounds. I scanned through the blurb. “Looks fantastic, for us.” The boys were munching cereal. I glanced in their direction and mouthed, “What about them?”
“You think it looks great, don’t you boys?” Karen had gone into determined mode.
Tim frowned. “There won’t be much to do there, and the pool looks small.”
“So does the telly,” added Sam.
Karen and I exchanged an eyebrow raise; the complaints were quite muted. “Can you manage the drive?” Karen’s tone was condescending.
I flexed up. “Of course.”
She kissed me on the cheek. “Good, I’ll book it.”
The long drive to the south of France was almost whinge free, thanks to a marvellous device which allowed the boys to play PS1 games as we travelled. There was one seminal moment – as I drove through Paris I pointed to my right in anguish. Karen furrowed her brow. “Were you supposed to take that exit?” With an inverted smile, I nodded.
Tim assessed the situation without requiring Sonic to break stride, “Dad’s lost again.”
That hurt my pride. “What do you mean - again?” Karen rolled her eyes.
After an hour of Paris backstreet frustration, I’d decided to drop my macho pathfinder stance and buy a sat-nav as soon as I got the chance.
Following an overnight in a Campanile hotel, we arrived at the chateau at four in the afternoon. It looked just as good as it had in the brochure. The building was in the classic style, with a mixture of climbing plants covering the left hand side. It was surrounded by vast lawns which were bordered by a variety of fern trees. Our adjoining rooms were huge; en-suite, with high ceilings, ornate plaster work, and period furniture. Sometimes a cliché is appropriate, and it was an idyllic setting.
We freshened up and went down for dinner, which was served at a table on the veranda. Percival, our host, had a bit of a mad scientist look going on: round, wire rimmed glasses, and a mass white hair that could only have been styled in a candy floss machine. But he was jovial and very welcoming, and once the other guests got over the shock of our limited language skills we were accepted into the clique. Tim and Sam were off with the other kids charging around the grounds, the complaints about the TV put on hold for the moment. Percival, Percy as he insisted on being called, informed us that the village was holding a special event on Thursday night. There would be a torchlight parade followed by a firework display. We would then move on to the temporary village hall for food and entertainment. The temporary village hall, he explained, was actually a barn. It being the only building large enough for the proceedings.
The woman sat next to me, Natasha, sloshed a glass of rosé as she endorsed the event, “You really must come. We went last year, it’s quite spectacular.” Her husband, a man with more facial hair than a polar explorer, pierced my skull with a stare. I wondered what his problem was.
I looked at Karen and could see she liked the idea. “Why not, it sounds nice.”
In a trice, Percy produced a ticket book and detached four slips. “That will just be a hundred euros.” He put them on the table in front of me, held down by an empty bottle. I wondered what his mark-up was, but I just tend to accept the pain when on holiday and handed over the cash; every act of geniality has a silver lining.
When we got back to our room, Karen took something out of the case and held it behind her back as she edged towards the bathroom. She stopped in the doorway. “You go and make sure the boys are settled, and I’ll slip into my ‘new nightie’.” She elongated the ‘new nightie’ in a way that made my throat dry.
Tim and Sam were on their haunches in the corner of their room. “What are you two up to, it’s time you were in bed.”
Sam waved me across. “Dad, come and see this funny spider. It’s dead fast.”
The spider had a cigar shaped body and very long legs. Tim tapped a finger on the floor close behind it. The spider darted forward a meter and stopped when it reached the wall. “Quick in’t it, Dad?” Tim moved to spur it into another sprint.
“Don’t torment the poor thing. It’s a living creature.” I took a cup and coaster, coaxed the spider inside and transported it to the safety of an open window. “Let’s put him outside.”
The boys were peering out of the window, trying to see where the spider had landed. “How did you know it was a boy, Dad?” Sam grinned as he added, “Because girls can’t run that fast?”
I narrowed one eye as I ruffled his hair. “I’m going to tell mum you said that.” I clapped my hands. “Come on, into bed.” They exchanged a whisper and giggled before diving onto their beds. “Ok.” I held the handle of the adjoining door. “Me and mum are just in this room, so if –.”
“We know,” they chorused with a hint of sarcasm: teenagers at six – mmm. “I’ll just say good night then, if you already know.”
“Good night - fuzzy nose.” Their smiles were mischievous.
Karen was still in the bathroom. With one eye on the door, I changed into my best boxer shorts and splashed on some after shave: I like to make an effort. Then it registered - fuzzy nose. I put on my glasses and went to the dressing table mirror. Oh sh…ugar. I hadn’t checked my nasal growth in a while and hairs were protruding in bunches, Karen hated that. I looked around but couldn’t find the manicure kit. It would be in the bathroom – I cursed. There was only one thing for it, I would have to pluck out the offending hairs by hand. I pinched the nails of thumb and index finger onto a tuft and gave a jerk. I had time to feel pleased that at least six hairs had been detached in one go before the pain registered in my sinus, shot into my right eye, and started it watering. The effect on the left nostril was much the same. I dabbed my eyes with a tissue, and made random attempts to dislodge the remaining stray hairs.
I turned as I heard the bathroom door open. “What are you doing?” Karen hesitated as she stepped out.
“Nothing.” I realised the fact that I had a tissue wedged between my glasses and nose made that answer sound ridiculous. I dispatched the spectacles and their adornment. My eyes refocused, and Karen looked - delicious. The nightie was black, almost sheer, with red lace trim at the hem and neckline. And to maximise the visual effect she’d applied red lipstick that matched the trim.
I tried not to make my deep swallow obvious. “Mrs Meadows, you are a very naughty girl.”
“You’re hoping I am.”
We edged closer. I was desperate to taste those lips, but didn’t want to look it. I reached a hand to her waist via my own crotch, the equipment was still in working order: more relief. “I want you, Karen Meadows.” I eased her toward me.
She gave me that seductive look. “I know you do.” Our lips were almost touching when Karen jumped back and gave a little shriek.
“What? What’s wrong?” I stood, open mouthed, the question hanging.
Karen retreated to the bed, pulled the cover tight around her legs and pointed over my shoulder. She gulped down a breath and blurted, “Spider….” I turned. At the junction of ceiling and wall was a spider, the same type as the one I evicted earlier, but much bigger. “It’s moving, don’t let it drop and get under something.”
That octoped could ruin the whole mood. I picked up a slipper. Lust had cut off access to the conservationist section of my brain; the arachnid was going down. “Don’t worry darling,” I moved under the beast to assess the distance, “I’ve got its measure.” I brought across a chair and with stealth, stepped up. I cocked the slipper, but before I could strike the spider made a dash to the left and stopped above the dressing table.
Karen squeaked through pursed lips and pulled the cover tighter. “I won’t be able to sleep if I know it’s in the room.”
Selfish, but it wasn’t sleeping I was concerned about. “Don’t worry.” I got back on the chair, but now I was leaning across the huge old dressing table. I held the slipper by the heel and took a swing. This spider was smart, before the blow landed it dropped and disappeared into the gap behind the dresser.
I looked at Karen. She was breathing in short gasps. There was only one way to improve the situation, and she would need to see the evidence to convince her now. I got on my hands and knees and scanned the floor under the dresser, no sign of the fugitive.
I pointed at the gap. “It must still be behind there.” Karen gave no reaction. I took hold of the dresser and heaved. The lump of antique wood was very heavy, and it only moved a couple of inches. I grabbed the car keys and shone the attached miniature torch into the space. I almost shouted out. Behind the dresser was a thick mesh of webs containing at least thirty spiders of varying size, each one poised, twitching, ready to run from the sudden danger. Taking each step with great care, and scrambling for a plan, I edged backwards until I reached the bed.
“Can you see it?” Karen touched me with a trembling hand.
I still had hope in my heart, and other parts of my body. I pulled a tissue from the bedside box. “Yes, I know exactly where it is.” Back at the dresser, keeping myself in Karen’s eye line, I snatched the closest spider from its web. “Got it.” I held up the tissue.
Karen craned her neck. “Let me see.”
I showed her the black smudge and collection of legs. The look of relief was instant. I kissed her on the forehead, her twinkle was almost restored. “I’ll just was my hands.”
She threw back the covers. “Don’t be too long.”
On the way to the bathroom I turned out the main light, and eased the dresser back to the wall. I had a quick wash, gargled with mouth wash, and thence to comfort the distressed maiden – twice.
The next day, while Karen and the boys were in the pool, I cornered Percy. I told him I wanted spider city gone before we got back to the room. He would have made a great poker player, old Percy, his neutral expression didn’t flicker as I made my demands. I suspect he was calculating whether complying would improve his chances of teasing more golden eggs out of me. He must have thought it would because when I checked later the leggy squatters were gone.
Later that afternoon we were still by the pool. Natasha and the Ranulph Fiennes lookalike were at the opposite side. I hadn’t noticed when we first met, but when Natasha started to walk towards us it was impossible not to see that she was ‘fit’, to use the modern vernacular. She may have been thirtyish, but in that skimpy bikini she was a real head turner. Glass in hand, she perched herself on the lounger next to me and leaned forward. Now, I’m a one woman man, but I’m fallible, and despite myself my eyes were drawn to her cleavage. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Make sure you sit with us tomorrow night. We can act as interpreters, none of the locals speak English.”
I looked across at her husband and gave a nod, I was starting to understand his demeanour. “That’s very kind of you.”
As she stood up her breasts almost brushed my nose, and they swayed as she said, “That’s settled then, see you tomorrow.”
Karen was pointedly unresponsive. Natasha meandered off, most likely in search of a refill. I looked at Karen and pressed my mouth into an apologetic smile. “That was a little embarrassing, I didn’t know where to look.”
She fanned out her magazine with a snap, and delivered her comment with unnerving menace, “You could have fooled me.”
I couldn’t think of a response, so just melted into my lounger.
The next evening, Percy, he of the white Walnut Whip hair, led our little group on the short walk to the village square to join the torchlight parade. People must have come from all the surrounding villages, the streets were packed. The smaller children were given lanterns containing candles to carry at the head of the procession. Sam and Tim were waved forward to join them. The health and safety police back home would never have allowed such reckless endangerment, but I felt they were quite safe. We kept close behind them all the same.
What sounded like good natured chatter interspersed with laughter permeated the crowd as we ambled along. The ambiance and the warm evening air seemed to lift Karen’s mood. Her hand found mine and we linked arms as we walked. Though I did notice a few dark looks cast in Natasha’s direction.
We congregated around the village pond to watch the fireworks. I had low expectations, but boy was I surprised. The display was spectacular and sustained, and the reflections off the water gave it an added aspect, even the boys were impressed. “That was cool,” was Sam’s comment.
I landed a hand on his shoulder. “Son, even I know cool’s not cool anymore.” I was thanked with a punch on the thigh, which Karen and Tim found very funny.
Karen pulled me close. “Cool is back in vogue, you’re just not down there with the kids.” She kissed me on the cheek.
The pleasant surprise was repeated when we got to the barn-cum-village-hall. The seating was basic, long tables with benches at either side. But the food was good and plentiful, and the wine was reasonably priced, compared to what Percy charged for the same stuff.
It turned out the seats were reserved, so we were forced to sit close to Natasha and her spouse. With a handshake so firm I took it as a warning, he introduced himself as Clarence. Karen made sure she positioned herself between Natasha and me, and continued the frosty looks. Natasha seemed oblivious, already having switched her focus to one of the locals who was tending the makeshift bar. He was tall, dark, and pouring wine. I couldn’t have competed with that, even if I’d wanted to. I started to feel for Clarence, he sure had his work cut out there.
Forward planning toilet visits was a way of life for me, and I’d been keeping an eye on the huge queue outside the only WC ever since we’d arrived at the barn. There’d been no immediate rush, and I was hoping it would subside. However, an hour later it was still substantial, and things were developing internally, I needed to get in line.
I indicated my intention to Karen and was about to set off when Clarence tapped me on the arm. “If I were you I would move them back a little.” He pointed at Sam and Tim who had moved up close to the stage to watch a juggler. “I remember the next act from last year - fire eaters. They have a very laissez-faire attitude to crowd safety.” I smiled with my mouth and questioned with my eyes. “They’re dangerous.”
“Thanks.” I scurried up to the boys and manoeuvred them back to Karen.
They were not pleased, and tried get me overruled. “Mum, Dad won’t let us watch the fire people,” they said in unison.
At that moment a man in leather trousers ran out onto the stage, and blew out a ribbon of flame that must have singed the eyebrows of the people at the front table. They didn’t seem to mind, and cheered him on. Karen took hold of the boy’s arms. “You can see the fire well enough from here.”
I gave Clarence a gesture of acknowledgement as I went to wait my turn for the toilet. The fire eaters were the main attraction and had drawn a few people out of the queue, there were just six before me. I was glad because I felt a build-up of pressure. In front of me was a small, stooped, bald guy, who must have been at least eighty-five. A woman, herself about sixty, was holding his arm with both hands, and had to encourage him to move forward with the queue. The old guy wore a permanent smile, and shuffled rather than walked. Though I didn’t understand what she said, the tone of the woman’s voice as she cajoled him suggested the poor old codger wasn’t the full ticket.
Along with the rest of the people in the line I watched the fiery on stage antics as I waited, and found them entertaining - for a while at least. By the time the woman guided the old guy into the toilet I was officially desperate, and no amount of human pyrotechnic interaction could distract me.
What seemed like an age later the woman was still standing, sentinel-like, in front of the door. My buttocks were clenched like a sperm whale’s at five fathoms, and my breathing was remembered from Lamaze class. She opened the door, and I was poised, thinking my time had come. When she slipped inside and locked the door my left eye developed a distinct twitch. There was the distinct possibility that I would produce my own spectacular display at any moment.
I’d started to beseech any available deity to help. Then I heard a noise from inside. The woman cracked the door open and peeped out. Only I was looking, pleading with every breath, “Please…Please…Please….” She came out backwards, holding the old guys hand, and made a point of pulling the door shut before they shuffled out of my way. I shot in, locked the door with one hand while unbuttoning my trousers with the other.
The toilet was five meters from the door, and I’d covered three of those meters before I twigged the situation. There is no way to sugar coat this, it looked as though a large turd had landed on a diarrhoea land mine. The brown stuff was everywhere, but I couldn’t stop, I was past the point of no return. An attempt had been made to clean the seat which resulted in a swirl effect, with a couple of small peaks at the back. I crouched over the pot, and experienced an exquisite release of pressure without touching down.
Still crouched, and feeling quite euphoric, I pondered how one frail old man could have produced all this. My moment of ecstasy was short; out of the corner of my eye I noticed the single sheet left attached to the toilet roll. Frantic, I looked for a spare – no luck. With my trousers bunched, I pinched my knees together to hold them in place, and set about peeling apart the central spool of the toilet roll in an attempt to produce more cleaning material. I did what I could in the circumstances, still felt a bit crusty though, and I can’t pretend there wasn’t some finger slippage. At least there was a sink with warm water, a bit high to use as a bidet though. Job done, sort of, I picked my way to the door like a deb in a muddy car park. Following the lead of my predecessor, I slid out of the door and closed it behind me.
The entertainment was over, the queue had grown again, and everyone in the line stared. Head down, I weaved my way back to the table. Karen gave me a look. “That took a while, everything alright?”
The people in the queue had gathered together and were pointing in my direction. I slouched down in my chair. “I had a bit of local difficulty.” The old guy and the woman were sitting at the table opposite. She looked down when I made eye contact. The queue bunch had started some kind of dialogue with an old woman near the kitchen door. I tilted my head toward the exit. “Shall we get going? The boys look tired.”
Karen wrinkled her nose. “No they don’t.” She was right, they were dancing around with some local children to the music that had started playing. “And I fancy another drink.” She held out her glass. “Might as well, you said it was cheaper here.”
Our drinks were being poured when I noticed Percy walking towards me. I thought he was going to speak, but, mouth agape, he wheeled around and headed off the way he had come. The reason for his retreat soon became apparent. The old woman from the kitchen, mop and bucket in hand, followed by a potential angry mob, was closing fast. I picked up Karen’s Chablis and my orange juice, and tried to give them the slip. No chance, they tracked me to the table, followed by Natasha who had latched onto the group as they passed the bar. I had my arm raised, ready to point out the real culprit. But when I looked across the old guy wasn’t smiling anymore, he seemed agitated. His companion was holding his hand and stroking his back. I lowered my arm and turned, ready to take the heat.
The old girl with the mop and bucket had an expression forged on the anvil of past conflicts. Crécy, Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, and our reluctance to fully engage in Europe were all etched in her scowl. She thrust the cleaning utensils toward me. “Nettoyez votre merde s'il vous plaît monsieur.”
Swaying like a deck hand in a storm, Natasha chose that moment to come good on her translation promise. “She says she wants you to clean up your sh-”
“I think he got the message, dear.” Clarence steadied Natasha with an arm round the waist and swept the glass out of her hand. “Let’s get you to bed.”
Natasha leaned her head on his shoulder. “What’s got into you, tiger?” We exchanged empathetic smiles as he led her away.
The mop and bucket were pushed against my chest. I took them and gave an acquiescent gesture. I started towards the toilet as Tim and Sam came bouncing up. “What has dad done? Is he in trouble?”
Karen put on her earnest voice, “Yes, he’s made a mess. And when we make a mess we help to clean it up, don’t we?” She never missed an opportunity to reinforce her moral code.
“Yes, mum,” They chorused, with a hint of glee.
When I’d completed my chore to the satisfaction of Madame Mop, I made my way to the door where Karen and the boys were waiting. I felt all eyes were on me, except the old guy and his carer who were nowhere to be seen. Tim and Sam were still excited by my predicament. Tim grinned. “That took a long time, Dad. You must have made a big mess.”
Sam rocked up on the balls of his feet. “Was it a bigger mess than we’ve ever made, Dad?”
I couldn’t muster a reply and just exhaled. Karen took my arm. “I’m sure dad will tell us all about it tomorrow.” She pulled on my arm and whispered, “I’m sure we’ll laugh about it later.”
The next day was cloudy and not so warm. Tim and Sam were throwing a ball around, and Clarence, Karen and myself, all wearing jumpers, were reading at the outside table. Natasha appeared for a moment, wearing sunglasses and shielding her eyes. Clarence just lifted his book a little higher and she went back inside.
In my peripheral vision I saw Percy’s hair approaching. “Afternoon guests, how are we all?” Not waiting for a reply, he put a box on the table and pushed it toward me. “This has been delivered, and I think it’s for you, Mr Meadows.”
“For me?” I put down my book and looked at the box. It was cardboard, and the lid was held down with tape. I used a key to rip the tape and flipped it open. Inside was a rich looking chocolate cake with ‘Merci’, written in icing on the top. Strange how something so simple cemented one of my most vivid and oft revisited memories.
I ordered a pot of coffee and two of Percy’s extortionately priced milk shakes, and we invited Clarence to join us and share the cake. Not Percy though, I decided he could afford his own cake.