The chalet was large and full of expensive china. Magnums of champagne were on display on a table, and I was sitting in an armchair that looked like it was from the lounge of a Greek Shipping Magnate. The head of the family had gone South on business, leaving me his three enormous sons (all in their early twenties), his wife, a couple of daughters, and his mother.
I’d been welcomed in, as usual, with warmth and old-fashioned civility. The coffee (I don’t like coffee, but didn’t dare refuse) got handed to me in a cup and saucer, with two types of raw sugar, a silver spoon, and a pair of silver sugar tongs. I drank the coffee as quickly as I could and tried in vain to refuse a sandwich.
The women effortlessly moved around the open-plan kitchen on a long-programmed autopilot, making food, cleaning, washing up. They gently bickered. The men sat around the living room. I’d put the voice recorder on the table in the middle of us all.
The site was huge. It had a shop, a private gym, and many many things I didn’t want to know about were going on outside, quietly. We’d been laughing and joking about a recent bare-knuckle fight one of the sons had taken part in – an hour and a half of bloodied violence – and heard how his head had swelled to twice its natural size. The fight had been a draw in the end, and when he got home his fiancee took a whole ten seconds to register who he was, then screamed.
He’d already offered to fight me when we had been in Belgium. In a fit of stupidity I’d turned around and replied “So, what if I could really fight, eh?! What if I was dangerous as fuck?”
He’d loved my answer – spat out with the kind of fear only someone who has spent a week wearing a concealed money belt containing his passport/cash/ferry tickets, even when they slept, could understand – and shouted back “I knew it!! I knew it!! I knew you could fight!! Didn’t I tell you all!” while patting me on the back and laughing with joy. “We’ll spar tonight, Ben.”
We didn’t. But from then on I was potentially as masculine as they were. No bad thing. It was no deterrent at all, but it did raise my status. Nobody who couldn’t actually fight would be stupid enough to say that kind of thing….there……in front of that assembled company. Not unless they were unhinged.
But today it was going well. We were laughing, enjoying ourselves. They all knew everything was being recorded – and some things were only said outside before, or after, my visits – and hammed it up accordingly. It was a fun afternoon. Right until one of the Sons put up both of his hands and hissed “Shhhhhhhhhhh!”
I immediately stopped asking the question I was halfway through.
“You hear that?” he said.
I couldn’t hear anything.
“There!” said another Son.
Yes, there it was. A high pitched beep followed by faint radio static.
“It’s under that sofa” said a Son. He rose and went over to the beige three-seater and easily lifted the front of it up with one hand. Nothing. Beep.
“There it is again!”
Granny came over, eyeballing me. She cocked an ear. “It’s here” she said, pointing at my bag by the table.
The Sons stopped searching the rest of the furniture and walked towards the bag. Oh fuck….I racked my brains. What was in my bag?? Shit, right, I knew there was a pack of spare batteries, a bottle of coke, ermm…ermm….what else? Think, brain! My phone was inside it too, but it was off.
A Son picked up my bag, and offered it to me to open. Trying to remain calm, I opened the zip. As loud as anyone needed, came the BEEP, followed by static, then “Two, two, receiving…..over”
“What is THAT?” Said a Son.
I tipped the bag upside down on the table. I was right, just some batteries, a bottle of coke, and my phone. Again……BEEP… “Come in, over”.
It came from my phone…
They were watching my reaction, carefully.
“So….what’s the score here, Ben?” I was asked.
“I have no idea! It’s my phone, but I’d turned it off.”
I tore at the phone, showed them it was off….. BEEP…..”Come in….”
Ripping the back off the phone, I removed the battery and told them I hadn’t a clue what the hell any of that was about – which was the truth. They backed off, but we cut short the interviews and I was invited outside for a tour of the gym.
It was all smiles.
We paused by the gym door, one Son in front, one behind. I felt a large hand on my shoulder. “You know, if you are snide, you are in trouble. Shotgun, boot, gone.” There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Ha,” I replied. “You couldn’t kill your way out of a paper bag.” What the hell was I gibbering about!? Fear. Fear makes you do stupid things.
He laughed. “You’re alright, Ben. You’re funny.” He patted my back. They had been in situations like this before, many times, I guessed. I hadn’t.
Inside the gym I took a couple of swings at a punch bag. It wasn’t impressive. It’s hard to hit when you are shaking.