Coming Home for Christmasby Niall Grimes Dec/2011
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I'd spent the autumn and early winter climbing in the south of France, doing the usual thing, getting by on as little money as possible, shoplifting, doing runners from campsites, in ever decreasing living conditions with one change of clothes. The campsite had depopulated greatly since November, only a few hard cases left now. My friends had all gone ages ago, and it was only two weeks to Christmas. Nothing left for me here, I might as well head home myself.
I didn't know the Belgians at all well, and in the morning I awkwardly stopped outside their tent to confirm things. They said hello in that chirpy European way, perfect English, and for some reason, to be sure they understood, I said in my shite French that I had no money, and didn't intend helping with petrol costs. They didn't understand. I said it again in English, and they said that was fine, going in an hour, you will be ready? Yes. I finished off the last big lot of my cornflakes with hot milk and had a crisp sandwich with my tea. I packed up my tent and was ready to leave.
We left the cold Provence morning, and their big fast car and us were soon speeding up the A6 headed towards Paris. There were two of them, so I thought, great, I'll doze here in the back, get some kip or read a book or something, let the two of them get on with it in the front. But no distance up the road, when we stopped for petrol, one of them gets in the back with me and then starts on this endless spew of questions, about living in England and Ireland, the climbing there, the Troubles, where else I'd been, and I'm like, fuck, I wish he'd shut up. He was really boring, you know the Europeans. Question, question, question. I tried to make up some questions to ask him, just to make out like I was interested, keep'em sweet, in case they'd ask for money or put me out on the road. So I'm like yes, no, yes, uh-huh, yes. For an hour, more, always looking out the window and stuff. You'd think he'd get the message. The gaps between his questions finally grew, thank god, but then they stop for water, and doesn't your other man get in the back, starts all over again. The economy, tourism, they're going to build an English Channel bridge or tunnel. The Berlin Wall. I'd get these little yawns, but have to nip them off so he wouldn't see.
On and on, but at least they were doing about a hundred, and in good time, by about half two, they dropped me off at a services before their turning. I didn't say a long goodbye or ask for their addresses or that, just got straight back on the road. One of these old vans, like a Commer only some French make, soon picked me up. I didn't say much to the old French guy, nor take one of his smelly fags, but by dusk, about four, I was on the outskirts of Fontainbleau.
I was happy to be walking round the streets. The town was hopping, and I stopped off for a coffee to watch the girls. Cost a bloody bomb, nearly twenty francs. It pained me to pass so much to this snotty flitty garcon, but I made a deal out of counting the amount out exactly in change, showing he was getting no tip from me.
But time was pressing on and I was dying to get to the boulders. I'd heard so much about them in the south from the other campers in Apt, but there was no chance of getting there tonight; I'd have to find a youth hostel or something. I'd lied to the Belgian. I did have some money, not much, still a couple of hundred, I just didn't want to spend it. I decided to ask a local where the cheap hostels were. My eyes scanned the crowds for a face that looked receptive to questions. I saw this old lady, civil looking, and attracted her attention by taking half a step at her. As I said, my French is pretty shite, so I probably said something like, "Excusy me, missus. Is he in the region the hotel for not many moneys at?"
Surprisingly she bursts into English, pretty good, a really cute French accent too, asks me where I'm from, ahhhh, my son has a friend in Ireland; What are you doing here? Do you like the town and that? The upshot was that she ends up saying that if I can't find a cheap hotel, then she lives at number a hundred and thirty Route de France, and I could stay there. Really? That's brilliant, thanks a million. I'll just go and spend some time looking then, and if I don't find nowhere cheap, I might just come round, thanks, au revoir madame.
I wondered she might be into kinky sex or something, or maybe her big fat lorry driver husband was going to tie me up and all.
Brilliant. I took myself off into a bar and celebrated with a beer. Ain't life sweet! I felt good but I still didn't tip the waiter. I spent the time wondering what her game was. I wondered she might be into kinky sex or something, or maybe her big fat lorry driver husband was going to tie me up and all. Or maybe she was a rich widow trying to find some poor boy to pass her fortune onto when she pops off.
Anyway, I finished the beer, and away with me to find Route de France. This I did, easily, and soon to number a hundred and thirty. Oh Christ. A hundred and thirty was not a house, but a tenement building, and instead of a knocker or a doorbell was a block of bells, eight across the top, eight down. Had the woman told me her name? If she did, I don't remember, and anyway, most bells only had a number and no name. Damn damn, shit shit shit. So what I decided was, right, I'll just ring them all and ask them, easy. I started a routine of ringing the bell, the intercom would make some noise, I would speak into it a line of French which meant, "Hello, I met an old woman who told me I could stay here tonight, was it you?"
Little dear old sweet grannies denied all knowledge. Young boys told me to clear off and something. Charming voiced mademoiselles asserted 'non'. Big hairy men in dirty vests sounded like they were going to come down and lay one on me. And so on. Sixty four bells, no old host. I turned morosely backwards to the damp dusk and began to think about where to sleep. It would have to be in a park again. In the driveway to the road I symbolically turned back to give the fingers to number a hundred and thirty, and saw, half in joy, half in disappointment, another block of bells for the same building which I had not seen earlier. Duty pressed me back. I began my chorus again, only this time, about twenty bells into it, I heard, " Ahh. Eetz you. Cwm oop." Dzzzzzzzzz.
La Famille Allain, as they turned out to be, turned out to be a mum and dad, and two sons. They were pleased to see me, I think, and I was relieved to see they looked normal and it began to feel like less of a trap. I hadn't eaten yet, so I was pleased that a hand-sweaty introduction led its way to the dinner table. My luck was in.
I was introduced: Thomas, Simon, Jean, Lucette; Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour. Have a seat. Then of course, payback time - the questions began: Where have you...who have you...when have you....what have you....? Trying again to make myself likable. I was all over the place with answers. Short ones. The children spoke an English of sorts. What they didn't understand was my hunger. The table was spread with cold meats, sausages. Salad was in the bowl, a couple of different kinds. Bread, butter, mustard, the wine was uncorked, glasses. I thought of the crisps I had lived on for the last weeks, and then I just had to ignore the interrogation. Excusez-moi, I tucked in. I necked a load of nice wine, and when I was offered beer, I took that too.
After eating, I sensed that I was supposed to befriend the children, but by now, with all the booze, I was getting tired. Still, they showed me their pets, one of which was a snake, and I pretended to be amazed. Then they wanted to show me their 'magnetoscope.' I didn't understand what this was, I thought it was some scientific device. But no, better. It was a video machine. That meant I could settle down and pretend to be concentrating on the plot and keep myself to myself. We settled down to The Last Emperor, in French, of course, and I let my eyes glaze over. It must have been an education for the children to have some smelly foriegner (I refused the offer of a shower) come into their home and eat their food and not speak to them. I woke up as the credits were rolling, and was offered a bed. This passed without incident as I was in a room by myself, and in the morning I got up at schooltime, refreshed and ready to clear off.
They gave me breakfast, and I gave them my address; a false one of course. I always give the same one in case I'm caught out, 25 Johnston Road. I thought they might have given me a lift out to where I was going, only a few miles from town, only too far to walk, but they didn't.
Easily enough, however, I made my way to the climbing area. And truly it was fantastic. Tons of really good problems all over the forest, good landings. It was bloody cold, however, and the ice patches didn't disappear from the tops of the boulders all day. The light didn't last long either, being December, and pretty soon I had to start thinking about sleeping arrangements. I knew there was a free campsite nearby, so I headed there.
It was a square field, about a hundred yards each way, and at one edge there was one single tent. A man was cooking outside this. I sidled over, not directly to him, but into his vicinity, and threw off my heavy rucksack. It was dusk. We nodded at each other in a guarded way. I made out like I was doing something with my stuff, then approached him. I asked him some stupid questions about the climbing or where you could get food. You see, I had decided to ask him to let me stay in his tent. So I asked him, told him this Canadian climber, Mike Beck had stolen mine in Apt. He said yes. He asked me if I had any food, I said all I had was some pasta. He offered some of his, and I took it. 'What is you name?' 'Grimer."
Again we had one of those conversations where we both pretended like we gave a shit about the other person's life.
His name was Maartin, and he was from Amsterdam. Again we had one of those conversations where we both pretended like we gave a shit about the other person's life. I knew that since he was from Amsterdam I had to pretend to be really cool and interested in drugs and red light districts and that, and he had to ask me about the IRA, and how he supported their cause. I had to pretend that us Irish people are all behind the IRA too, so now me and Maartin are close. Man, the night was beginning to get cold by the time the food was cooked. And compared to the previous night's spread, it was pretty bad. Some sort of beans and cabbagy stuff with this runny fat all over it. I was hungry but couldn't eat much of this choss, thanks all the same Maartin. I had some cakes in my bag I must scoff when he's not around.
The night became iron cold, so we walked to Barbizon for a cuppa. This was expensive again, and I thought he might have paid for both of them, as he kept on about how much the Dutch pay out as dole, but he made sure only to pay for his own, so I had to fork out too. Back then to the campsite. Stepping out of the hotel, I nearly lost my breath to the cold. Christ almighty. The Dutchman had heard on the radio inside that it was going to be minus fourteen tonight. He made this hearty laugh when he told me this, as if the cold was good for you or something. Bastard, I thought. I bet his sleeping bag is better than mine.
We both squeezed into his tent. It was fairly small. On the way back to the campsite, I had gotten to thinking about how readily he had offered me a bed, and how he had been all nice and that. It wasn't very normal to be like this, and I started to get a bit worried that he might start trying it on. Well you hear all these stories, men coming into the bedroom with just a towel on and all that, eh? Well I definitely had my suspicions, and when I was getting inside, I suddenly realised something to my horror. This man was from Amsterdam! My blood nearly froze. Getting into the tent, then, I suddenly started talking about how much I missed my girlfriend, even though I didn't have one. Then I thought, shit, he'll probably start thinking I'm getting randy, shut up, shut up.
Well, I must have said the right things, because he left me alone, this Maartin. I made sure to sleep with my head at the other end from his too. I kept all my clothes on, and even put on my waterproof coat before getting into my sleeping bag. I kept my shoes on too, ready to run. My sleeping bag was really crap, and Dutchman unrolled this pretty good one. Lucky him. Then he unrolled another, and I thought he was going to give this one to me. Instead he got inside that too. I couldn't believe it. I hinted for a while, but gave up, as I didn't want him to invite me into his for warmth.
What must have happened is that I fell asleep for a little while, maybe half an hour. Then pain from my feet woke me. My legs felt like they had been in a cold river, and my face was colder than snow. I was soon fast awake, and began to flex all my muscles to try to warm them, and to shake my limbs. I hadn't much room with the Dutchman. He was snoring, and despite the cold, I preferred him unconscious. Never I have I felt a night so long. Not once did I warm up at all, and had to wait as the night crept its way along. I had a digital watch with a light. 12:55. 1:03. 1:08. 1:11. 1:12. 1:13. 1:13. My eyes hurt from trying to keep them closed to help me sleep, but it was useless. When the morning came at last, I started wriggling to try to wake the other up, but he slept heavily. It was at least an hour past dawn before he roused.
"Did you sleep well?" the bastard asked me. I should have punched him.
I cupped my cup and shivered my way through a breakfast of Maartin's eggs and coffee. He asked me if I was climbing today. I said no, I was going on to Paris. I was going climbing, but I was sick of his company already, so I asked whereabouts he was going. He said Apremont. I packed my stuff, and headed off, making for a different area, Cuvier. I climbed there for a while. The next thing was that Maartin came through the trees himself. He said he had changed his mind, and come here instead, and was surprised to see me here. 'Were you not going to Paris?' I kind of ignored him. There was something in his voice, and the fact that he didn't hang around which showed me he was insulted and hurt. Fuck him. I couldn't care less. I'll not be sleeping in his tent again. I climbed a bit longer, until it was time to start heading towards Paris for the night.
I had an address in my pocket, that of a Pole on the campsite down south, whose family lived in Paris. I had overheard him give the address to someone else with an offer of a bed when they were passing, and I had managed to pressurise him into giving it to me as well. 35b Route de Fosse, Epinay sur Seine. He had one of these east European names which kinda sounded like Marky, so that's what we called him. I have his name here in my book. Byszewsk was his surname, if you can pronounce that.
I hitched to Paris pretty easily with some I-like-to-think-I'm-a-cool-dude type in his flash sports car. He had it all: the leather trousers, cowboy boots, gold ring. He had a guitar case in the back seat and went on and on about this rock band he was in. Here I went off again on my 'Jesus, you're a really interesting person' routine at which I am pretty good. What sort of music? 'We are hard to describe,' he said in his English.('Yes. My English eat ease vere good, zank you.') 'We are vere original. We play....we play ...we play..(he waved his hand containing a fag around in the air, as if he could think.)..we play ze rock, uhhhhh, a cross of ze Dire Straits and ze Cure. You want to hear?' 'Oh yes, great'. I really wanted to hear this bonehead's crap rock band. He pulled out a tape from his pocket, stuck his fag in his mouth, and ejected a tape from the black dashboard with his thumb, all in these fast flash movements. In went the tape. 'Pussy,' he said, nodding at the cassette. 'What?' 'Pussy,' he replied. 'Ze name of ze grope.' Pussy, indeed. Right on maaan.
Why is it that every time you meet a musician, they are in bands that are original, hard to describe, yet sound like every other garbage you have ever heard in your long life and are always knobheads? Every time, I swear. He turned the music up really loud, starts headbanging, puts the window down with a button, and began shouting 'Krazy, Krazy, Krazy,' at the top of his voice. Was he taking the piss? I did my duty and followed suit. Talk about embarrassing. Anyway, he dropped me off near the Porte d'Italie, after I had told him how great his band was. 'You like, huh? You like?' 'Yeah man, brilliant.' 'Here,' he said. 'Have some Pussy.' He ejected the cassette, and gave it to me, before burning off to beat the lights. The tape I just threw away where I was standing, not even bothering to find a bin, Paris being such a dump anyway.
I bought a baguette and wandered round Paris for a while checking out the babes. I was in no hurry, as I didn't want to spend any more time with the Poles than I had to. At about six, I went and phoned and asked for Jack. Jack was Marky's younger brother, who I was told could speak some English, as Marky wouldn't be there at this time. I got through, 'Hello, my name is Grimer, I am a good friend of Mark's.' It turned out my French was even better than his English, which shows how bad that was. Anyway, arrangements were made; I was to get the train out to Epinay, he would then come to the station.
It seems that you only pay for French trains if you want to. I didn't want to. My plan, if the conductor came round, was to play the old 'I am the foreigner. I do not compronds' routine, and chuck in a bit of shouting, although I was glad I didn't have to. At Epinay station I got off and again phoned the Poles. Jack was coming, have no fear. In my meantime, I found a cake shop and bought two of those big fat brown sticky things, just called 'pudding.' They filled me up, and that was good, because I had been imagining what sort of poison East Europeans must eat.
I'd seen him coming, this Jack. I always reckon I can spot an East European a mile off. They never wear Levis or Nikes or anything like that. Always some odd make of dark blue jeans, and nylon jackets and stuff. 'You are Grimer?' he asked me. 'Yeah, you're Jack?' 'Yes, come.'
I walked along in silence, as by this stage my stock of shit conversation was just about worn out. I kept the head down. My rucksack was heavy now, biting into my raw shoulders and hips. My feet hurt, thin greasy socks were twisted inside my shoes chaffing my toes. My body was hot with sweat and dirt, though the night was cold and moist. I was sick of trying to speak French and of France. And if this overgrown fifteen year old with his turned in feet and his spots and his side parting thinks I'm going to start breaking my balls to start saying how cold it is, then he has another thing coming.
But he kept quiet all the way.
We arrived at a tenement building, much more run down than the one in Fontainebleau, and made for the wooden stairs. They were uncarpeted and dark, for even though there were bare bulbs at certain points, they only served to hurt your eyes and make the stairs seem darker. We climbed to the third floor in a slouchy foot shuffling way, and entered the unlocked wooden door. Inside was a room in the same fashion as the stairs only less spacious. Dark, dusty, old fashioned. Christ I wished I was back home. Derry was bad enough, but I shouldn't have to put up with this. They actually had those Solidarity designs on the wallpaper, but it was peeling off at the ceiling. A small old man, exactly how I would have pictured, shuffled over and shook my hand, putting on a pair of wire rimmed glasses with his left. 'My Father,' I was told. Jack-the-Lad said a load of sharp hasty words, one of which sounded like 'Greemah,' and I knew I was being introduced. 'Bonjour,' I said. He said something back in one of those whispery old man's voices. He pointed a handshake shaped hand in the direction of the table, and Jacko said 'Would you like to eat?' That depends, I thought. What have you?
When can I get to bed, if there are beds in this house? Maybe they sleep on the floor or something. Why don't these people sort themselves out, paint the house, get a job or something? I bet they don't have jobs.
I was brought in a cold collation of stale French bread, oil and four tomatoes. A cup of weak coffee, some salt. 'You shouldn't have went to all this effort,' I thought to myself, as I crunched my way through the crusts. Great. Oil for dinner. They didn't even join me, although that was probably just as well, for they went to the kitchen and left me to it. This was nearly like a joke. The big old clock was hammering out the seconds, slow as they were. Everything was exactly as it should be in a house where everything was meant to be grim, and it nearly made me shudder. When can I get to bed, if there are beds in this house. Maybe they sleep on the floor or something. Why don't these people sort themselves out, paint the house, get a job or something? I bet they don't have jobs.
I crunched on, shredding my mouth, then from the kitchen I heard this noise. I cocked the ears. Oh shit, it's crying, baby Jacky's crying for his milk, I thought, and laughed to myself. Then I listened more, and heard Jack's voice over it, and realised it was the old boy crying. What's going on here? I then felt really uncomfortable, because when you hear grown ups cry, it usually means there's something wrong with their head. Probably a bedwetter too. I sighed. All this crap was becoming too much for me; being interrogated by Europeans, subjected to dangerous reptiles, sexual harassment from Amsterdammers, and now being caught in the middle of some old man's nervous breakdown. What have I done to deserve all this? I sat there alone for long ages. I nearly thought about grabbing my rucksack and baling out, but I decided no, that no matter how bad it got, I wasn't going back out in the cold. Let them do their worst.
But time passed, and the Jack came in alone from the kitchen. You are finished? Oui, merci. And joy upon joy, he didn't start asking me about anything at all. Instead he said the magic words, 'Would you like to go to bed now?' And he said it in such a way that I knew he didn't mean with him. Oh yes. It was still early, but I was more than ready to get my head down, and he led me to a small bed sized room. The switch worked and he just said 'Goodnight, see you in the morning. Goodnight.' He paused, then, half out the door. Oh here we go, I thought. He's going to ask me for rent or something. 'I am very sorry about tonight,' he said. What, I thought. 'You see, my father's brother he has died this morning, they were very close, you understand..... See you in the morning.' I let him see me turn my eyes downwards in sadness. The door then closed. Ha ha. Tough shit, I thought, and before my head hit the pillow, I must have been out.
In the morning I awoke late, still in my clothes. After realising they weren't going to knock me up, I ventured out. Empty. A note on the table, on graph paper. 'Dear Grimer. Thank you for coming. We must go out. Have bread and coffee. Goodbye.' They'd cleared off out. Shit, my stuff, I thought. I usually try to keep it all with me, but last night I had left it out here. I went and checked if they had taken anything from it, but it seemed they hadn't. I quickly made breakfast, as I wanted to get away before they got back, so I gulped down some coffee, and gobbled some fresh bread they had. What I couldn't eat I spread with honey and took with me. Fuck them, I thought. They'll never see me again, and grabbed a big bar of chocolate from the cupboard as well.
I stood on the threshold, before pulling the door, glad to be saying goodbye to this hovel. Today I was getting the train to Le Harve, and I had a ferry ticket to Rosslaire, things were sorted. No more of this crap for a while. No more putting up with these nightmare people and their stupid questions, their shit food and fleapit bedrooms. It's back home now for the Christmas turkey and my old bed. I slammed the door over hard, and laughed out loud to myself as I emerged into the light. A low sun was out today, the streets were busy. I laughed on, louder and louder, thinking about all the stinking losers I was finally leaving behind.
Au refuckingvoir mon ami. See you never.
What can I say about Niall Grimes that haven't said already. Not much, so I won't bother. Anyway it's Christmas Eve and I really shouldn't be working. But I will say this, he follows me everywhere. I've just returned from a brief shopping trip to Barnes and Noble bookstore in upstate New York (after a snowy run in some nearby woods and venison sausages for breakfast) and there he was on the magazine rack, with a great article in Rock and Ice's latest Ascent magazine where in a 'not-so-white lie the Grimer is sweating bullets—and contemplating the wrong side of the bars—in a police station in Kathmandu.' I bought the magazine, a resurrection of Allen Steck and Steve Roper's beautiful climbing magazine from the Sixties.
Recently, Niall authored and published Boulder Britain a select guidebook to the bouldering in the UK. You can read all about it and buy a copy here: A New Guidebook: Boulder Britain . There will be a review of Boulder Britain at UKC next year.
Niall is the ghost writer of Jerry Moffat's biography Revelations, the BMC Guidebook Supremo - talk about the right person for the job -, writer of entertaining and slightly off-beat climbing essays, a stand up comedian, columnist at the USA's Rock and Ice magazine, husband, father and eternal climbing enthusiast.
Niall is one of our best climbing writers. He's unique, he's special, he's a national climbing treasure and ought to have one of those blue plaques from English Heritage attached to his forehead, except he's Irish.
Born in 1968 in Derry, Northern Ireland to Polly and Joe. His Da was a fitter at DuPont, a chemical works on the outskirts of town. Ma looked after Da, Niall and his three brothers: Brendan, Brian and Desmond. He lived in Derry until his early twenties going to St Columb's College, a boys school where he studied Latin and played with bunsen burners. He passed all his O levels but failed all his A levels.
The family was Catholic; retreats, benediction, confession, communion, guilt and saying the rosary in the evening while they continued to watch Magnum P.I. with the sound turned down.
He got into climbing via the Scouts, soloing an easy route in combat boots but that night he saw Lakeland Rock with Pete Whillance on TV. The fire was lit and by chance, Raymond, the brother of Niall's best friend Paul had started climbing with the only other climber in Derry and after loads of begging they took them out.
Niall is well traveled - especially to Banff where he has picked up several literature awards - and his climbing highlights include Primrose Dihedral on Moses Tower in the Canyonlands, Fur Tappers on The Baroness in Greenland, Flesh at Muckross Head and Main Mast on Sail Rock, Donegal.
He lives in Sheffield with his wife Helen and daughter Erin.