Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Monday morning, and La Patronne and I had a power meeting.

A week back home from the World Tour of America, fighting off the ravages of cold germs determined to take advantage of our exhaustion, shedding pounds gained by water retention and eating too much fast food, it was time to get down to serious work again.

We discussed updating our accounts, the design of the new French website, thank-you cards for everyone in the States who had been so generous with their help. We talked about the French book launch in Brive - less than three weeks away now - my promotional schedule in France, a possible strategy for the French press.

It was barely possible for me to imagine that in three hours' time I would be on a hilltop miles from anywhere pulling off the boot of a man who had nearly cut off his foot with a chainsaw.

The sequence of events which led me there began with the crunch-crunch of footsteps on the gravel in the front garden, and then the chime of the doorbell.

Standing there in a multi-coloured work jacket, and jeans and big boots, was Roger, grinning like an idiot. We shook hands. I told him to come in, but he shook his head and began speaking Quebecois French faster than a TGV. He forgets sometimes that my French splutters along about the speed of Stevenson's Rocket.

Roger comes from the Madeleine Islands off the east coast of Canada. He used to be a singer with a Quebecois band, but is now an osteopath. He and his wife, Laurène, a pshychotherapist from Paris, have bought a house in Puymule, and Roger has opened up a surgery in St. Céré.

As I fought to catch every fifth word, I gleaned that Roger had hired a lorry and was heading up to a farm in the hills near Teyssieu, where I go to get winter fuel for my wood-burning stove. Usually I go in the company of an elderly neighbour, Robert (I call him "Bob"), who has a trailer which will take two cubic metres. Bob has a heart condition, so I load and unload his wood for him, in return for which he lets me use his trailer for my wood.

So we set off in convoy. Roger and computer wizard, "Lucky", who lives in what used to be a building for drying walnuts adjacent to Roger's house, and me and Bob and his wife, Jacqui. It was too good an opportunity to miss. My stock of wood was running low from last year, and here was a chance - I thought, after hesitating briefly - to bring down a big load in a single outing. It's pretty hard work, and so my (other) work plans for the day were put on hold.

We stopped in St. Céré to pick up cash, only for Roger to discover he had left the key to his surgery at the house, and all his money and plastic were locked inside. I offered to lend him what he needed and he could repay me later, and we set off again.

Up into the hills, a winding road that climbed through autumn trees gently shedding yellow and red, until we emerged into rolling high country dotted with clusters of stone farm buildings and huddled stands of oak and chesnut.

I love it up here. The air is pure and fresh, and the land so rich and green, dipping and diving into gorgeous hollows between hills that rise out of crystal clear tumbling streams.

The farm is reached by a road that climbs steeply up one of the highest hills around. The farmhouse nestles in a cleft near the summit, and the wood is piled high to dry along a narrow track that rises almost sheer to the very top where an old stone farmhouse lies derelict.

To my eternal shame, I have to confess that I don't know the farmer's name. I have been often to fetch wood over the last three or four years, and have never once been able to decipher a word he says. Bob always phones to order the wood. He takes his meter lengths cut in half, and I take mine in thirds. Roger, who has a large, open cheminée, was happy to take uncut meter lengths. We began loading the lorry and the farmer got out his tronçonneuse (chainsaw) to begin cutting the wood for Bob and me.

He is a small man, round and jolly. He always greets us with a smile. His wife, petite and muscular, with short dark hair and a friendly grin, sometimes helps us load the rémorque. Recently she has been more pre-occupied with their young son, who has a problem with his eyes. She wasn't there today, and the old grandpa was out on the stoop with the kid. We could hear their voices rising to us on the wind, before the roar of the chainsaw drowned them out.

I didn't see what happened exactly. It was the first log. The farmer was attempting to cut it on the ground. How many times must he have done this in his life? But somehow this time the blade jumped, or slipped, and it sliced through his wellington boot and into his foot. It only takes a second. I heard him scream, and turned to see him writhing on the ground, holding his leg in the air. 'Putain! Putain!" he was yelling. The first time I've ever understood him. "Get it off!" he screamed, pulling at his boot.

Bob and I got there first and knelt down to pull off the boot. His sock was split apart. And so was his foot. A long, jagged wound had cut deep into the fleshy instep behind his big toe. Oddly there was no blood. Not at that moment. The wound, and the flesh it revealed, were strangely white. He took one look at it and rolled away screaming in pain. No doubt it was also going through his mind that his whole livelihood depended on his physical ability to get around.

We all gathered, uncertain of what to do. La Patronne should have been there. She is a trained first aider. But pure common sense dictated that we should raise his leg to stop the blood which was now starting to flow freely.

Lucky got on his mobile phone to call the emergency services. But none of us even knew the name of the farm. The farmer called it out through his pain, and Lucky relayed it across the ether. And then, in an odd moment of lucidity, the farmer gritted his teeth and stretched over to switch off the motor on his chainsaw. Suddenly all that we heard was the wind moaning up through the valleys, and then the sound of a vehicle approaching. It was the farmer's wife driving into the farmyard below, returning from the delivery of beasts to a nearby pasture. There was another young farmer with her. She came running up the hill, screaming, hysterical. "I told you to be careful! I told you!" she yelled at her husband. And then she took one look at his wound and went screaming off back down to the house. It was distressing to see such hysteria. Jacqui went down the hill after her to try to calm her, and I noticed the dogs standing at the foot of the slope staring up at their master, perplexed, knowing something was wrong, but strangely rooted to the spot.

When Jacqui and the poor man's wife returned, it was with a towel to wrap around his foot, and a pillow to place beneath his head. He was still cursing. "Putain! Putain!" His wife was still hysterical.

I felt sick, and impotent to do anything about it, and wandered back down the hill to the car, on the basis that standing around gawping would be less than helpful. I sat sideways on the front seat, with the door open, and heard the wail of a siren carried distantly on the wind. I couldn't believe how quickly the ambulance had got here. We were, after all, in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. It had taken us half-an-hour to drive up from St. Céré.

Then the ambulance turned into the farm road and I saw that it was from Latronquière, which must be the nearest town. I jumped out and waved them up the hill to where the injured man still lay.

I walked slowly back up to where the medics had established that the damage was not as bad as we all feared. The tendon had not been severed. Perhaps bone had stopped the blade in time. They gave him a pain killer and cleaned and dressed the wound, and carried him, half upright on a stretcher, into the ambulance.

His cheery grin had returned as he looked back out at the shocked white faces gathered all around. "You could cut the wood yourselves," he said. "I'll not be cutting any for a while." We were all appalled by the thought, and his wife put our thoughts into words. "Merde le bois!" she said. Which I took to mean the equivalent of "Fuck the wood!"

As the ambulance disappeared into the valley, we continued to load our logs in silence. All of them uncut. Bob speculated that maybe Georges, back at Puymule, would cut his wood into halves. I filled his trailer, and Roger and Lucky stacked six metres in the back of the truck. None of it would do for my stove.

I loaned Roger enough to pay for his wood, and we began the long, and winding journey back down to the town.

It was well past lunchtime when I got home, and I realised just how hungry I was. La Patronne heated my soup while I told her my story. With so much work to do, I had spent the morning heaving wood, none of which would be burned by us, and fretting over a horribly injured man. Whatever waste of my time it might have been was nothing compared to the awful events which had overtaken that poor farmer. Every time I shut my eyes I could see the jagged white of the wound and hear his cries of pain.

And I remembered Roger, on the hilltop, shaking his head and saying to me, "And you hesitated about coming at all." And it's true, I did. And I wonder, if I hadn't, would things have panned out differently? Fate is such a strange thing. It takes everything to happen in a specific order, and at a specific time, to bring about a single moment, for a single event to occur in a split second.

Maybe I should have stayed at home and done my accounts, and maybe none of it would have happened.


Bob and Jacqui

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Well, here we are, home again. We got back Thursday night, and this is Sunday. It feels like we've never been away - except that the bodies seem to believe we are still in some kind of daylight savings time zone in the Rocky Mountains. Can't stay awake during the day. Can't sleep at night.

T'will pass, I hope.

The journey home was quite eventful. Twenty-five hours, non-stop, from Rochester NY to Puymule, France.

It began with a laugh at airport security in Rochester. As usual they stripped me down to shirt and kilt, and asked me to step into the taped off search area, where a gentleman of dubious sexuality fumbled nervously with his wand and told me he'd forgotten how to do this.

"They showed us in training," he said. "But we don't get to do a guy in a skirt - sorry, kilt - very often."

By now, an expert in the procedure, I gave him instructions on how to proceed. One step forward.... One step back.... Careful where you put that wand!

Meantime, La Patronne was having to deal with a severe looking black guy who was staring at our boarding passes with a deep frown. He was a big, tall, muscular fella - the kind you don't argue with. But, then, La Patronne was never one to take the path of least resistance.

"What's his first name?" he said, clutching my boarding pass and nodding towards where I was dodging the wand.

"Peter," La Patronne said.

The security man's frown deepened. "It says here, MRS. Peter May." We were right back to the confusion with which the whole trip had begun. An administrative cock-up.

La Patronne took a calculated risk. After all, most security workers don't have a sense of humour. She turned and looked at me and shrugged. "Maybe it's because he's wearing a skirt," she said.

There was a long moment, when our fate hung precariously in the balance. And then the guy roared and laughed. "Man, you're BAD," he said to her. "You're BAD!" And he called to his co-security workers. "Hey, do you know what she just said?" They all gathered round, and he told them, and they all roared and laughed, too.

Watching from a distance, I thought perhaps my knees might be the object of their ribald laughter - or the fumbling of the guy with the wand.

It was only later that I discovered the truth, as we sat with two hours to wait for our plane, and the first indications reached us that not all was well. The departure board announced that our flight was delayed for fifteen minutes. Nothing much to worry about in that, we thought. We had a two hour safety margin at Newark before catching our connecting flight to Paris.

But as time wore on, that margin began shrinking at an alarming rate, and our plane got later and later. Passengers with even tighter connections than ours were getting bumped. Fog at Newark, they told us. Even when the plane finally arrived at our gate, they said air traffic wouldn't allow us to take off - because there was no guarantee we could land.

Time passed, stress mounted. Then, at the last minute, they boarded us, and the pilot said he was pleading with air traffic control to let us fly. His pleas succeeded, and fifteen minutes later we were airborn. Our two hour margin was now about forty minutes. If there were no further delays we would still make our flight.

But, then, as we approached Newark, we became aware that we were simply making circles in the sky. The captain announced we were on a holding pattern and running out of fuel. "If they don't let us land in the next ten minutes," he said, "I'm going to have to take us to Allentown, Pennsylvania."

Our hearts sank. Where the hell was Allentown, Pensylvania, and what in the name of the wee man were we going to do there, having missed our flight to Paris?

Then, suddenly, at the eleventh hour, we began our descent. We were landing at Newark after all, and embarked on a high-speed taxi chase across the apron. The captain was doing his best. But we had lost another fifteen minutes. At least the Paris flight left from the same terminal - but, of course, it was at the other end of it.

We ran through the crowded terminal, dragging heavy carry-on bags. My kilt billowed and furled in our wake. We boarded our plane with minutes to spare, but the steward told us there was no guarantee that our luggage would make the flight. We wouldn't know if it had until we reached Paris.

Fortunately we'd had the foresight to use up our airmiles to upgrade to First Class, and fell into big comfortable recliners, to have glasses of Champagne thrust in our hands, and be happily pampered for the next six hours.

And the story has a happy ending. For our luggage, after a tense wait at the carousel, finally appeared, and we were home. Intact. Absolutely exhausted, but grateful to be back in one piece.

The four hours we had to kill at the Gare d'Austerlitz passed in a trice, for Ariane and Gilbert showed up to welcome us home, and we sat and drank coffee and chatted, forced to access rusty French from tired brains. It was wonderful to be back amongst friends. We lunched in the station buffet, and A and G waved goodbye as we clambered aboard the train for our four-hour journey south.

To be met by a big, smiling Gary, in his Citroen Ami, clutching a bottle of chilled Champagne - a welcome home gift from Gary, and Roger and Laurene who had left for Paris that morning. Gary drove us back to the home I had left nearly six weeks ago. The sun was shining. The air was warm and pure, and as we sipped on the thoughtful Champagne, we reflected that, in truth, there really was no place like home.

And one final Post Script. Since arriving back, I have received an offer from a publisher for "One for Sorrow", and the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, reported that "The Firemaker" was at No. 2 in their hardback bestseller list.

So maybe it was all worth it. I certainly hope so.

Thanks to everyone who was so kind and generous to us during the tour, and a special thank you to La Patronne without whose organisation and meticulous planning it would never happened!

Home Sweet Home

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ya gotta laugh! I've travelled thousands of miles - across the Atlantic, then coast to coast, right through the midwest, way down south, into the desert, up to the Pacific north-west. I've crossed swords with John Ashcroft in DC, addressed 150 guests at private launch parties, dodged hurricanes, tornadoes and thunderstorms, visited twenty cities, done Bouchercon in Chicago, and signed more than a thousand books.

And I turn up for my final gig only to be upstaged by, of all things, a baseball match!

I should have known last night, in the restaurant in Greenwich Village, when waiters were running out to the bar next door every few minutes to catch a glimpse of "the game".

Yesterday, today and tomorrow are the final three games of the season between mortal enemies, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Today's match was critical, and being a Saturday they were playing it in the afternoon.

I should have known as we drove through the deserted streets of Boston and Cambridge to Kate's Mystery Bookshop for my four o'clock appearance, that neither the day nor the hour were auspicious.

For the first time on my tour, at my last venue, not a single soul turned up. Everyone had stayed home to watch the game. And the biggest irony? The Red Sox lost!

But I'll let you into a secret. I was really quite relieved. We had dragged ourselves out of bed at Gary and Ellen's New York apartment at six o'clock this morning. I'd had, perhaps, five hours' sleep. We drove four hours to get to Boston at the end of this long and gruelling tour, and I was - and am - frankly, exhausted. Épuisé.

So it was a relief not to have to recount my Chinese tales this one last time. And I still got to sign the books, which will still be handsold by the bookstore.

And there was a bonus. A lady who was there when I arrived, heard that I was a visiting author, spotted the kilt, and immediately bought "The Firemaker". She asked me to sign it and said, "You know, I've been happily married for twenty-three years, but I always swore that if a big Scotsman with a kilt showed up, I'd run off with him. Whatdya say?"

I told her my wife might object, and introduced her to La Patronne.

"Never mind," said the lady. She waved my book in the air. "I didn't even know about this. I work in another bookstore downtown, and I'm going to order some copies in right now."

For a moment I contemplated running off with her after all. But then I caught La Patronne's eye and thought better of it.

And baseball? Well, we used to play a street game called "Rounders" when we were kids. It's the same game. Marginally more interesting than cricket, although not much. But people here seem to love it - and to me, well, that's the real mystery!

So we headed off into the centre of old Boston to celebrate the end of the tour, only to find it full of baseball fans of both colours. Parking cost 18 dollars for two hours. Queues stood outside restaurants to eat. We finally found a table in a noisy grill house where we had pork ribs and steak tips and shouted conversations.

Tomorrow we head to Syracuse, and an overnight at the home of Le Beau Frère's son, Iain, before completing the circle by returning to Rochester for a couple of days to unwind in preparation for the journey home next Wednesday.

So, no fanfares, no marching bands, no feu d'artifice to celebrate the end of the great adventure. Just an overwhelming desire to sleep.

This is my final blog. No more tales from the World Tour of America. No more red-eye writing sessions to keep the journal up to date.

Just a big thank you to everyone who has been with me, at least in spirit, on this long and winding road. Thanks for your company and your comments. I will do one more journal at the end of next week to recount the adventures we will surely have on our return journey, La Patronne et moi.

Gilbert and Ariane phoned the other day and caught us at Ellen's apartment in New York. They plan to meet us at the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris when we arrive there to catch our train home on the final leg of the journey. Time allowing, we will eat together at the station buffet.

We look forward to once more being with our friends, to share a simple bite to eat and a glass of wine. I just hope I still remember how to speak French.

Kate's Mystery Bookstore, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Final, Lone, Signing

Saturday, October 01, 2005

As Le Beau Frère says, "If you're a pessimist, you'll never be disappointed."

Not that I was pessimistic about tonight's book event, but two days in New York had kind of ground me down. Claustrophobia. Tall buildings creating sunless canyons, with cold winds blowing through them to chill the bones.

And all that aggression and anger. It's not good for the psyche.

But the second last presentation of the tour, at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, went like a dream. Kiz, one of the partners, told me that people had been calling all week. We had a great turnout. One lady had pursued me across America, having first heard about the book at the M is for Mystery bookstore in San Mateo, California. Another, Lisa Richland, has been corresponding with me for several years. She is the librarian in Greenport, a small town at the far end of Long Island. A great fan of the China series, she bought all the books for her library, and made the trip into New York to meet me for the first time. Bobby had been chasing me all around New York, buying books as she went. At Partners & Crime, she bought another half dozen, and got me to sign them all.

Another lady, Linda Peng, was on our writing course in St. Céré at the beginning of September. Ethnic Chinese, she was raised in New York, and had a special interest in the books, as she is embarking on the writing of her Chinese family history. I wish her well.

Earlier I met with my New York literary agent, Emma Sweeney of Harold Ober Associates. I gave her a couple of manuscripts, and a pitch for "One for Sorrow". She was seriously enamoured of the idea, and is taking the manuscript home to read this weekend.

We discussed whether or not St. Martin's Press might buy the rest of the China Thrillers series. She said it was entirely down to numbers. If we sold more than two-and-a-half thousand of the hardbacks, she thought that the publisher would go for the others. She was quietly confident, since I have personally signed more than a thousand during the tour.

Afterwards, La Patronne and I had lunch with my editor at St. Martin's Press, Ruth Cavin. Ruth is the most delightful lady. She is eighty-seven years old, the doyenne of American crime editors, and still going strong. She has a sharp eye, and an unerring instinct. She, too, was optimistic about the prospects of the company buying into the rest of the series.

I told her, also, about "One for Sorrow", and she was anxious to read it. She felt that a book set in France which could be described as a "thinking man (or woman)'s thriller" would go down well in the US.

I can only hope so. I am anxious to breathe fresh life into my character, Enzo Macleod, in the second book of the series.

The one black spot of the day was Le Beau Frère's brush with the law. He turned right into Madison Avenue, when a barely visible sign forbade it. Unfortunately a police officer was there to witness it, and deduct two points from his licence. Bummer!

The bright spot was the book event itself, followed by another meal with Susie, Barbara and Mike, who insisted that since we were visitors to New York we should be their guests.

Since they are coming to spend Thanksgiving in France, at least I have the opportunity to repay their kindness.

And now to bed, for we rise early tomorrow - 6am - for the journey to Boston, and a book event in Cambridge at four o'clock. It will be my last event of the tour. I can scarcely believe it.

Like the long distance runner, I have simply put my head down and kept going. But now, daring to look up, I see the finish line ahead of me and feel my legs buckle. Must keep going. One more day.

And then it's all over.

PS: Gary and Ellen, a big thanks for the apartment. It was FANTASTIC!

Signing at Partners & Crime, New York City

Talking to Linda Peng

With Kiz of Partners & Crime