Since it was New Year’s Eve, Anne got back at three in the afternoon, hauling two large shopping bags. She had bought French bread, assorted cheeses, smoked salmon and marzipan cakes.
‘No use to sit here moping,’ she told me. ‘And Alec will be back by the end of the day. He deserves some nice treats, too. But why on earth has he not replied to any text messages since yesterday?’
We did not know. We checked the news on various TV channels and found out that all was well in France. No bad weather, no traffic accidents.
Shortly after six, I opened a can of Carlsberg. At a quarter to seven, I remembered the bottle of brandy. Anne was in the kitchen preparing snacks and swilling Heineken. ‘Bonne année,’ I belched to myself.
You’re stinking drunk, Durham, I told myself when I woke from a snooze to the sound of a car horn outside. The Ford. It could never be the Ford. I’d never lay eyes on the Ford again.
‘Hiya Maurice!’ Anne called from the kitchen. Then there were kissing sounds.
And there he was. He walked to the sofa and sat down next to me. He smelled of cold winter air, cigarette smoke and Eau Sauvage when he took me in his arms. ‘I’m back,’ he whispered.
He wanted to dash upstairs to get changed, but Anne stopped him.
‘I say, what the hell is Alec up to? He would not reply to my or Clive’s text messages.’
Maurice smiled and got up. ‘I’ll get a goddamned brew from the fridge first if you don’t mind…Oh well, Alec is in Slough now, waiting to get the delivery papers sorted. He told me there were rows of vans waiting to load the champagne so that every last-minute customer could get a bottle. Must be a madhouse.’
He returned from the kitchen frowning. ‘Only Heineken left…yuck! I ought to educate you on Continental beer culture, darlings.’
He flopped down on the sofa, opened his can, drank, belched loudly and lit a cigarette.
‘What are you guys staring at me for?’ he asked. ‘It’s not like I just farted.’
‘Where the hell is Risley?’ Anne snapped.
He drank again, cringed and smiled.
‘Alec returned from France without him, that’s all I know.’
Maurice was halfway down his second can of Heineken when the door was opened, bags were banged down and someone yelled: ‘Breakey breakey, Rubber Duck reporting.’
Maurice flew up from the sofa, rushed into the hallway and presently returned with Alec, who was proudly holding up two sixpacks of Jupiler. ‘Bought these in a roadside supermarket outside Calais. Belgian lager. Better than the stuff we keep here.’
We peppered him with questions. Only when he held up his hands and gave us a pleading look did we understand that he was dead tired. He had been at the wheel since six o’clock that morning.
He went upstairs to shower and get changed. When he was back in the living room, Maurice told him to sit on the sofa, covered him with a fleece blanket and brought him a plate of sandwiches.
Alec drank two cups of strong tea. The colour slowly came back to his cheeks.
We were all sitting around him, staring at him like the Three Kings at baby Jesus. And finally he decided to reveal the Miracle.
‘So here’s my story. Maurice, honey, would you get me my fags? And brace yerselves, it’s a good one.’
This is what Alec told us. I won’t spare you any details.
Alec was actually quite happy to have a companion who could keep him awake with his constant talk-talk-talking while he drove. Risley was a learned man who knew a lot of stuff. Not your average truckstop wanker who has nothing but chopper bikes and nudie tattoos on his mind.
Risley never hid his admiration. ‘You’re stunning, Alec. You have an elegance about you, even in your work clothes. Were you never scouted by a modeling agency?’
‘Thank fuck I wasn’t,’ Alec answered. ‘I’d be a real poof if I did that, wouldn’t I?’
They laughed a lot and both agreed that the radio music on any station sucked. Risley hooked his phone to the dashboard and looked up better stuff, such as Waiting for the Bus by ZZ Top and I Love Rock and Roll by Joan Jett. When they entered the Chunnel, Risley remarked that this was so Freudian, whatever that meant. Being sucked into a long hose and then being spewed out on the other side where everybody suddenly drove on the right and talked gibberish.
Risley was a godsend. He spoke French quite well and knew what to order at roadside restaurant.
If it hadn’t been for him, Alec would just have contented himself with a cheese sandwich and a can of coke, even for dinner.
And Risley was a funny one, especially after some glasses of wine. The French must have thought he was just another crazy Brit when he pranced around the Scania singing Fortunate Son outside the hotel.
TNC Logistics had booked a room at Orly Airport, and thank goodness, it had two double beds.
They both slept well and left at six the next morning. They had breakfast in a roadside café, truckers only, English muffins, scrambled eggs, rashers. Risley said that being vegan could sometimes be boring.
‘And then he heard on the radio that there had been an accident on the A16,’ Alec said to us. ‘He understood French. I decided to take the northern route. We were in Paris and had to stop because we both had to pee very urgently. We found a petrol station in Klingon Port or whatever it’s called. Sounded just fine for a Star Trek fan like me.’
‘Porte de Clignancourt!’ Anne, Maurice and I yelled. ‘Dear me, that’s stinkytown,’ Maurice grumbled. If you stop at a red light, your hubcaps will be ripped off.’
‘It was bad,’ Alec said. ‘ But, like, in a good way.’
They got into a chat with a French truck driver who was on his way down from Rotterdam to Marseilles.
‘Ask him if he’s got…you know,’ Alec said to Risley. And so Risley did and presently bought a little green bag and some papers. They had no tobacco, so they just ripped open some Marlboros.
‘Of course I didn’t smoke,’ Alec said to us. ‘I was driving. But man, Risley was talking about pink elephants and naked guys on unicorns when we got back to the motorway.’
By the time Calais came into sight, it was time for Alec’s mandatory break. He parked the Scania in a row of trucks near a service area. They got out and Risley smoked some more. ‘Very nice,’ a Dutch driver remarked. ‘I’ve got some more if you want.’
The guy had just picked up a load of meat and was due for a warehouse in Dordrecht in Holland.
He did not speak English very well, but well enough to keep up a conversation. Soon they were joined by some Romanian truckers who offered home-made cheese fritters and plum brandy.
Alec left Risley outside to doze a bit in the cabin and to report to Slough. When he opened his eyes thirty minutes later, he got out again because he had to pee.
‘Where’s my co-driver?’ he asked a Romanian who was sitting on a bench. ‘Up there in the cabin bunk of that Dutch truck,’ the friendly feller said. ‘And the driver’s in there too. I’m sorry.’
This was the moment. Alec got Risley’s bag out of the truck and put it on the bench. ‘I’m off,’ he said to the Romanian. ‘Thank you for the snacks and have a safe trip back.’
Ten seconds later, he was at the wheel of the Scania and slowly moved out into the road. He had to pee but he didn’t stop at the petrol station. He thanked his stars for never having exchanged phone numbers with Risley and that no one gave him any funny questions when he had to show his papers at the entrance of the Chunnel.
‘As soon as I left Folkestone, I got out, peed and then I phoned Maurice,’ he said. ‘I was on the other side now. I finally realized that I got rid of Risley. He’s really nice, not a bad man, but I did this for Maurice.’
Maurice snuggled up to him and kissed him. They whispered to one another, with eyes full of love.
Then Alec dozed off. We went to the dining room to let him sleep.
We woke him at half past eleven and fed him more snacks. At midnight, I kissed Anne, Maurice and Alec with all the intimacy I felt. My kingdom was restored.