Authors: Richard Blanchard
“You're right, we have to get up and kitted out before ski school.” Juliet helps him.
Four lime green T-shirts scream out of the window in the bar ahead. Frost bites at my extremities, but they tingle more at the comforting prospect of warmth. Le Caveau seems to sit with a great aspect on the town's activity from its five-foot high corner window; opposite the train station, Main Street and mountain range. It will have witnessed the craft of wood and leather skis fall to the mass production clatter of metal and resin. It will have witnessed an evolutionary passage of clientele, starting with the aristocratic European adventurer, regressing to the modern good-time-seeking hacker.
Inside, the bar has a comforting resonance after my weary day. Wooden floorboards worn down by ski boot plastic are covered in fresh sawdust for effect and stability.
“We are just planning some mischief.” Max brings me into his conversation with Robert and Steve. Juliet has taken my order and arrives back with my Weiss lager causing them to re-evaluate their conversation. Seven lime green T-shirts alert our potential boisterousness to the Caveau drinkers but surprisingly unite us.
“Hey lets have a toast.” Robert stands on the footrest of a high wooden bar stool. He clinks a beer glass with his Rolex to get our attention. Steve and Max hand out the champagne he has at the ready.
“A toast to the chicks of Chamonix. May you enjoy having me!” he guffaws. “Oh I suppose we should toast Dan the man as well. Another fool bites the wedding dust. Raise those glasses.” I hope this is well intentioned all the same.
“Oh and another thing, I realised before that Chamonix is an anagram for Chix Moan, which is exactly what any lady lucky enough to pull me will be doing later tonight.” He extends the warning around the room to insincere laughter. Robert is here for himself; I sense my stag weekend may get in his way.
Max feels his alpha-male status would be questioned unless he adds something: “I would like to propose a toast to Dan's boys. Let's hope we all get a 69 in Cham or should I say a Cham 69. Geddit?” Embarrassed sips are taken. Max is another problem child. Two toasts prompt the rest to think that a round robin toasting tournament is required.
“I would like to toast Dan and Sophia, who are getting married in ten days' time. They are a fantastic couple that deserve to have found each other. I wish you Sophia and Bepe every happiness.” Thank goodness Juliet is here for me. She reminds the boys why they are there.
Johnny gets to his feet. “I want to echo Juliet's kind words about this great couple. I just want Dan to have a great time with his best friends. To Dan.” A mutter of “To Dan” follows. The sincerity of the last two toasts has been an uneasy antidote to the first two.
Only Steve and Chris remain, neither of who wants to come forward.
Chris intervenes sharply to save being last, “To Bepe”. Glasses are charged for the fifth time, although some are raised empty. Chris is on my side just, although his sullen disapproval can cloud this.
“To Rubber Juliet, I hope she lasts long into the night for you Dan. Just make sure you blow into the right hole!” shouts Steve hurriedly. Steve attracts renewed enthusiasm from Robert and Max. Steve is a spiteful man, able to flick in and out of being a friend depending on the social weather.
“Speech, speech, speech. Come on Dan,” the chorus goes up giving me no option. “Dan, Dan, Dan, Danâ¦”
“Alright, alright, calm down. Thanks for your good wishes. It's great to have every one of you here for me. Thanks for coming. I can't believe anyone wants to marry me to be honest, especially after today. Anyway guys, let's just enjoy each other and this great place.” My address makes the group docile. They have been given a dose of reason and are having difficulty swallowing it. The bar re-adjusts, without our toasting distraction.
“Am I the only one here without sprogs?” enquires Robert of me.
“Yes, unless you are hiding any.” He probably has a string of them he disowns.
“Any last requests before we start the stag do in earnest?” I mumble something about an ice-skating rink, knowing full well that my request will not be catered for by the rule of the mob.
“Don't worry about what happens here, what goes on tour stays on tour. You can get up to anything you want to. Sophia doesn't need to have her pretty Italian head troubled by it all.” Robert goes to the bar with a raised eyebrow.
“Hi mate. Feel like I haven't seen you yet.” Johnny arrives at Robert's departure.
“No. It's been hectic hasn't it? We must catch up, I am getting on with that playlist, and it's great fun. I am whittling it down to a magnificent seven.”
“Wow mate, what an impossible job.” He stops in his tracks, genuinely taken aback about the difficulty of scaling an infinite choice to close to a handful of tracks.
“By the sounds of it the The Clash is in the mix.” He instantly sees through my title, and probable choice.
“Maybe the “Tracks of my Tears” by Smokey Robinson?” Johnny keeps the suggestions coming.
“No I don't think Smokey will make it, but you have given me a great idea. “The Tracks of my Years” that is what I will call the playlist. I can explain to Bepe in later life what the tracks meant to me. It will be like a musical tapestry of my life.” Some of these may also be tracks of my tears, but I prefer the pun.
“Cool idea mate, but no Smokey Robinson? Bepe will not thank you for that. Must be a Stevie Wonder track then? Talking of tracks, you had better make some!” Johnny backs away as my brother Chris approaches.
“Have you called home Dan?” Chris interrupts us without consideration of interruption. “I did, when you were taking a dump earlier.”
“No not had a chance yet. I should probably do it now while I am not too drunk.” Johnny doesn't mind the intrusion and I go toward the door.
Juliet is coming back into the bar having presumably also made her call home outside. “Of course I love you, but you will have to wait.” We catch eyes as I move past her but she quickly looks away; embarrassed at expressing these words in front of an ex-lover? Maybe it was just a subconscious old flame feeling. Or does it reveal a deeper betrayal? She does seem relaxed and happy talking to Scott. I have no concept of whether she was ever that way with me.
I walk quickly under the heated blower above the door to contact my wife-to-be. I leave Marvin Gaye's 70's soul to soothe the stags.
The mountains breathe their chill at me; I seek warmth from my distant home. I seat myself on a wooden bench bar outside, which is carved around the courtyard tree. It is designed for aprÃ¨s-skiers, who have probably been enjoying the heat wave of the past few weeks. However, the current wetness of the bench creates a big chill through my backside. I get my phone out to call home but can't help searching for another track for the playlist. I reach the letter K and abandon it for the night.
“Hi Sophia, hi there babe.” She must be able to hear guilt and fear in my stumbling voice. Guilt on not being there and fear of what the coming days bring with the largely mad crew inside.
“I'm reading to Bepe in the bedroom. We are late. It is well after his bedtime.”
“Sorry I lost track, should I call back?”
“No.” Her no means she will accept the call but I should have called at a more suitable time.
“I'm just having a beer with everyone.” I glance through the window; they seem solemn, maybe it's less fun without the prime target to aim at. Everyone is together though, a good sign I think.
“Listen I'm so sorry about earlier. I can't stop thinking about it. Is Bepe alright?”
“Yes, no thanks toâ¦” Sophia tails off from another blame game. She is so strident; she often holds an unjustified sense of injustice.
“Why don't you speak to him?” She offers to me gently.
I hear his breath down the phone first; the receiver distorts it into a bubbly rasp and other ripping noises show he is struggling to hold the phone.
“Bepe, it's Daddy! I've been on the big plane haven't I?” I try to stimulate a response by reminding him of our earlier journey, but I still hear nothing but his purest breath. Having a phone conversation with a toddler is semi-futile. You seek some recognition and dialogue but it is a random collection of thought and noise. However, this minimal response is enough to restore him to me this time. I take comfort in every crumb of his response.
“Daddy loves you and misses you so much Bepe.” Sophia is the unintended recipient of my pleading as she takes the phone from Bepe.
I hear him now off-cue: “Daddy airplane Mummy, Daddy airplane,” he says insistently, demanding the phone back.
“I know darling, Mummy needs to speak to Daddy now.” He doesn't return, accepting his lost opportunity.
“What did you get to do with your day after the airport?” I hope she has made some progress to lighten her mood.
“I tied up some loose ends. Dad has his wedding suit and we went to the club to finalise table settings and sample the food. Also you have a ring ready to pick up on Monday when you get back.”
“Fantastic babe, you have done everything.” I marvel at the synthesis of endless tasks. The event itself is taking over now, it could happen all on its own; I am sure Sophia could get us married even if I didn't turn up.
I hear Bepe bash his toy hammer on something, releasing random comic sounds from its handle.
“I have been thinking about Bepe a lot today. He really scared me.”
“What about me? I almost lose my son, my partner flies off on a holiday with his ex-girlfriend and my father's business partner is lost in L'Aquila earthquake.”
“Babe, I know. It's been hard on you darling.”
“Hard on me, hard on meâ¦” She wants to explode but doesn't have me there to hit. “I don't want argue with you Dan, you just have to wake upâ¦”
“I will, you'll see. I will be there for you both I promise babe.”
“Mmmm.” This unconvinced noise means the battle is being held for another day. A day when she can shake me, a day when she will feel vindicated.
“Listen, I have started to compile a playlist of my favourite tracks for Bepe.”
“It will be like a time capsule for him. His dad's favourite things frozen at the time his mum and dad were married. I started compiling it on my iPhone; it's called the Tracks of my Years. I want him to have something to remember the wedding by as well.” The last part is sheer lies from me, unadulterated off-the-hoof brilliance though.
“Maybe a nice idea.” Sophia softens. Maybe I have recovered a half brownie point after the 10,000-point loss that was today's accident.
“I have to go. I need to get him to bed.” Suddenly a more forgiving Mediterranean chocolate tone sends a pulse of warmth into my hands.
“I will call tomorrow night and let you know how my skiing went.”
“Look after yourself. Goodnight.” She tails off in a hushed tone. Maybe Bepe has started to drift off without the aid of his bedtime story.
“Bye babe,” I feel deep relief at restoring a little goodwill.
I can put my home life on ice for a day. I feel flushed from talking to Bepe; to think we could come so close to losing him so easily. Something so precious wiped away like a table stain.
The stags in the window look far too serious. What the hell has gone on in there? I must get back in.
OW DO BOYS GROW UP?”
Dan rushes out of the bar, as I end my call to Scott. We exchange glances but no words. Scott and I have exchanged events but no feelings. The stags are the only people on the move; everyone else frozen in their own nook for the night, drinking and watching football.
“Quick guys, while Dan is out, can we decide what we are going to do for him over the next few days!” All of his friend's sense collusion at the liberation of his absence, but Johnny is trying to guide them. I get a flash back of gangs forged in summer holidays, arguing about whether to allow Bobby from the next street to take their initiation ceremony.
“When is our big night out going to be?” Johnny starts innocuously.
“Every night,” sneers Steve.
“I mean we should have one night out in a good restaurant somewhere, where we make it special,” Johnny argues.
“I know he loves Italian food, what about going to Courmayeur in Italy, it's only thirty minutes through the tunnel,” I propose this as a distraction before more sinister suggestions can arise.
“There is a restaurant at the casino here. Some serious gambling and a black-tie dinner would do the trick.” Max foists his own agenda on us.
“Where are you going to get dinner suits from? I haven't packed a ball gown. It's probably horrendously expensive and stuffy. Courmayeur is what he would want.” I win round one.
“I will get a blow-up of the group airport photo and we can all sign it for him to take home.” Johnny makes a sweet suggestion, bringing silent ridicule.
“That's all okay but when are we going to make him run around town naked or get him a tattoo?” Max enquires anxiously.
“Bollocks to that, he would freeze his knackers off. Also there is no needle going anywhere near our kid,” argues Chris.
“We have to get him somehow.”
“Just chuck him in the snow after skiing. Anyone who wants to really hurt him will have me to answer to.” Chris wins round two through his superior physical presence.
“For fuck's sake is this a stag do we are on or a trip of the Catholic mothers to Lourdes? The guy is handing his freedom over to be pussywhipped from next weekend; he needs something to hold on to for the rest of his godforsaken married life. When are we getting him laid?” Robert has been biding his time.