That Which Doesn’t Kill You, You Can Write About Afterwards
Some writers have well-behaved, inspirational muses who whisper sweet plots to them as they sleep. My muse is more pro-active. You want a story? I’ll give you a story. And then my life lurches into what the Chinese call, ‘interesting times.’
Take my move to France. Every year, thousands of Brits manage to move their families and pets to France without incident. But when we moved my muse called up storm force winds that cancelled our ferry and diverted us a hundred miles to Dover. Did I tell you we were all travelling in a horsebox? That was my muse’s idea too. It sounded such a good idea to travel with the horses and with all that extra room in the horse transporter we could take the three cats and the dog with us as well.
We crossed into France the next day and just as I was translating a road sign warning of strong cross winds, a gust of wind ripped the roof off our horsebox. Yes, we were left sitting in a convertible! And the former roof was now caught in the central barrier of the motorway, bucking and flapping and threatening to break loose again and smash into oncoming traffic. A sensible muse would then have advised caution. Stay in the lorry and phone the police. My muse demanded action – people who phone for help don’t get a book out of it later!
So, I ran out into the road – along with my wife and the driver – and grabbed hold of the bucking roof panel. We tugged. We pulled. The panel came loose. The wind caught it and … off it flew, clearing the road, the verge, the trees and headed straight for Belgium.
The horsebox was too badly damaged to continue and we couldn’t return to England as our dogs and cats would have been quarantined for six months. So … a cunning plan was hatched. The horses were put up in a local riding stables and we were found a hotel in a nearby town. And told to wait for a replacement horsebox to be sent over from England.
Twelve hours passed without a word. We phoned the transporter’s office back in England. Good news! The new horsebox was on its way. Bad news, they’d just found out the driver’s mobile didn’t work outside England. And we’re not sure if he knows where your hotel is. But he does know where the riding stables are.
More hours passed. The storm raged, rain poured, night fell. And we had to share a single room with three stir crazy cats and an incontinent puppy.
By midnight we couldn’t take it any longer. We’d go to the stables and wait for the lorry there. Out into the night we went, leaning into the wind and the rain, and dragging our puppy for a two mile walk from the town to the exposed cliff top where the stables were located.
Amazingly the horsebox arrived a few minutes before us. Our luck had to be changing. Then someone tried to open the gates to the stable yard and found they were locked. But the barking of the stable dogs woke up the entire farmhouse and – pas de probleme – they’d help load the horses for us.
If only we owned a horse that liked climbing inside a horsebox. Rhiannon hated horseboxes almost as much as she hated barking dogs, high winds and thunderstorms. Flash! Crack! Bang! Cue the lightning. We had three generations of farmers, all their dogs, our excitable puppy and two drivers running around the courtyard trying to load/grab/get-out-of-the-way-of Rhiannon as she bucked and kicked and whinnied.
Forty minutes of hell later, we had to return to the hotel to get the cats and our luggage. Of course, the hotel was locked. It was 2am and no sign of a night porter. And when there was, he couldn’t understand a word of our French. Who were we? Had we paid our bill? Why were we running back and forth carrying boxes full of cats?
No phrase book equips the foreigner with adequate words to carry off a middle of the night cat heist.
And that’s a cut down account of our three-day journey into hell. The full story takes two whole chapters!
And it didn’t end there. With me being too busy moving in to write, my muse took the word pro-active to a new level. She must have got hold of some kind of improbability generator as, suddenly, the unexpected became a daily event. Whatever we attempted lurched into the surreal. One day we came home from the shops and found both our horses in distress with what looked like colic – except it affected both horses and Rhiannon had a weird rash on her shoulder. We phoned the vet.
“It’s zer wind,” he said after examining the pair. But not wind as in colic. This was a wind, a very rare wind, that, when it blew off the Mediterranean, left horses writhing in its wake. He’d had several cases already that morning.
But what about the rash? You don’t get a rash with colic?
One of the disadvantages of being semi-fluent in a language is that occasionally you hear something only too well – like the phrase ‘ten-foot long caterpillar’ – and whatever words you pad the rest of the sentence that passed you by with, nothing can produce anything you’d like to hear.
Especially if the vet then points up at the tree you were standing under and says “Là … zer nest.”
I can move really fast when properly motivated. I can scream too. And when someone introduces a ten-foot long caterpillar into the conversation and then points at a tree above your head, what else can a man with imagination do?
When I calmed down, I discovered he wasn’t talking about a single ten-foot long caterpillar but a ten-foot long line of processionary caterpillars joined head to tail, contact with which could cause skin irritations.
And of all the places to roll when struck with colic, Rhiannon had chosen the one piece of ground currently being traversed by a ten-foot long string of orange and black hairy beasties.
Luckily it wasn’t serious. Except for the caterpillars – who suffer far more than skin irritation when brought into unexpected contact with half a ton of horse.
Life continued in this colourful vein for six months until one day in September I rang our financial adviser to enquire why he hadn’t sent us an update on our investment portfolio.
“What investments?” he replied. “You cancelled them all in April.”
I’d had my identity stolen and all our life savings, all the proceeds from our house sale that was going to fund our new life in rural France, had just disappeared into a bank account in Spain.
And that’s when my muse cranked up the improbability generator to eleven. It takes half a book to do it justice but suffice to say we were abandoned by the police forces of four countries who all insisted the crime was outside their jurisdiction. The French declared it an Irish crime as that’s where the money had been stolen from. The Irish insisted it was definitely French as that’s where all my impersonator’s correspondence came from. The English refused to get involved even though false UK passports had been used and the Spanish were on holiday, adding that it would take at least four weeks for them to even think about contacting the bank where an account had been set up in my name.
So, I had to solve the case myself. Which I did, but unlike fictional detectives I had an 80 year-old mother-in-law and an excitable puppy who insisted they came along if I was going anywhere interesting – like a stakeout. And guess what happened when I tracked down the bank in Spain. I interviewed the bank manager, made an astonishing discovery, he picked up the phone to bring in the local police and…
“Ah,” he said, apologetically. “C’est la Fete de la Gendarmes.”
Anyone guess that one? It was Gendarmes Day. The one day a year that the town celebrates their glorious police force. And there they all were, in full uniform, marching past the window on their way to the restaurant and a day of unrestrained drinking. I’d chosen to visit the bank on the one day the town was sans police force. Hordes of masked felons were probably massing on the outskirts as I spoke.
So, as you can see, ideas are out there. All around. And, for those with less pro-active muses, don’t forget the power of the ‘what if.’ Even the most mundane event can be transformed by wondering what would have happened if you’d done x instead of y.
And, to be honest, imagining the road less travelled is far safer than having to walk it.
Nous Sommes Anglais, the unfortunately true account of our first eight months in France will be published by Book View Cafe later this year.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
Recently released from Book View Press: International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!