Samir was a regular at the bar, and I was warned about him on my first night working there.
“Who’s this?” he said, pointing at me and when I popped up behind the bar. He was about thirty-five, short and stocky, with a face like a grinning theatre mask. I could see at once that he was going to be a nuisance.
“This is a young Englishman who’s going to be working here,” said César, the manager. “So behave yourself.”
“What do you call yourself?” he said to me.
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Thierry. This is Pierre.” He pointed to his friend, another Algerian with a long-suffering look about him.
I shook his hand, and César laughed. “Jack, don’t listen to this man. He’s the devil. Behave yourself, Samir.”
And he did behave himself that night. The worst he did was cackle at me whenever I pulled a bad pint or forgot someone’s change, which happened a lot. All in all, though, it wasn’t a bad start to a new job. People were kind to me because they realised I was struggling with the language as much as anything else, and they made me feel welcome. It encouraged me to work all the hours I could. I needed the extra money anyway, so I could afford somewhere better than the flat I’d moved into.
To this day, that flat remains the most depressing place of residence I have ever seen. Two tiny, filthy rooms above a halal butcher’s shop in a dog-rough part of town. None of the walls were at right angles with the floor, so I had to jam folded pieces of cardboard under the front of the wardrobe to get it to stand up straight. There was no door on the toilet (which was in the kitchen) and the living room was always full of flies. My window overlooked the back yard, and I’d often see the owner of the shop slaughtering animals out there while his shirts and underpants dried on the washing line behind him. Every time I stepped out of the front door, the local kids would try to sell me hash. Sometimes they tried to mug me. Small wonder I preferred to be at work whenever I could.
I used to open up the bar most days at ten in the morning and then work alone until one of my co-workers came in to help me with the evening shift. It was heaven. There were few customers in the daytime, so I usually sat out on the terrace reading a book and listening to whatever music I liked, with all the free beer I could manage while maintaining a reasonable level of sobriety. Some days I would sit out there for hours without being disturbed. Until Samir disturbed me, that is.
Most of the locals got my name wrong and called me ‘English Jacques’, to distinguish me from the Jacques who cleaned the place on weekends. I didn’t mind. But even that was too much effort for Samir, who mostly just called me ‘English’.
“Hey English,” he would say. “A coffee please.”
He didn’t have a job, so he would drift in and out of the bar all afternoon practically every day. I never once saw him pay for a drink. He was César’s friend, and César’s friends drank for free.
“Hey,” he said, beckoning to me when I gave him his coffee. “You remember my friend Khaled?”
“You mean Pierre.”
“Ha! Yes, Pierre, the big Arab. It’s Khaled’s birthday, so when he comes in you have to say ‘happy birthday’ to him in Arabic. OK? So when he comes in you say ‘joyeux bougnoule’. Can you do that for me?”
“What’s that word again?”
“Boon-yule? Am I saying it right?” He started laughing, and I felt myself blush. I took a pen and pad out of the drawer behind the bar. “Write it down.”
“No, no,” he said, pushing the pen back towards me.
“It’s evidence! I’ll see you later, English.”
At about six o’clock, Jean-Paul came in to give me a hand. He was a nice guy; a little older than I was, and so relaxed that he always seemed half asleep. I told him what Samir had tried to get me to say, and he burst out laughing.
“You can’t say that word,” he said. “It’s very bad. It’s like saying ‘nigger’, but for Arabs. You can’t listen to anything Samir tells you.”
I’d already worked out that much. Some days Samir would come in drunk, and then his mockery would be more aggressive. I was determined not to take the bait.
“Hey poof,” he’d say. “Make me a coffee.” I gave him a coffee and waved away the two euros he’d put down on the bar. “Bastard.”
“How’s it going?”
“Well. Hey, English—when you Christians go for a shit, do you clean your arsehole with toilet paper and water, or just toilet paper?”
“I’m not a Christian.”
“Whites, then. The English. Do you clean your arsehole with—”
“Just toilet roll.”
“That’s disgusting!” He downed his coffee and clambered off the bar stool. “Disgusting!” With that he stormed out.
Some days he would walk in, shout an insult at me, and then walk out. Some days he would come in, order his coffee politely, and then just sit at the bar watching me and quietly laughing. That was the worst. I was trying my best not to let him get to me, but it got more and more difficult as time went on.
“Hey mate,” I said to César in English one night after closing time, when we were clearing up. “Can I pick your brain on a language thing?” He had spent half of his childhood in London, so he spoke English as well as I did.
“Is there a good French phrase to make it clear to someone that if they don’t stop winding you up, you’re going to break their nose?”
He nodded. “Samir, right?”
“He doesn’t mean it. To him it’s all a big joke, and he doesn’t get that other people don’t find it funny. You know Albert?” Albert was Jean-Paul’s little brother. “Albert can’t stand him. We’ve had to pull them apart a few times. But there’s no harm in him.”
“Why does he do it?”
César shrugged. “He’s had a horrible life. Really horrible.”
A few weeks later we had a busy night, and it was just me and Jean-Paul working, so we were rushed off our feet. Martin and Claudine were sitting at the bar. They were a nice married couple who usually came in two or three times a week, and they were always good company on slow nights. But tonight Martin had ‘taken the knock’, as we said back home. He was slumped on his bar stool, slack-faced and glassy-eyed, so drunk he could barely speak. Claudine wasn’t in quite so bad a state, but she had attracted the unwanted attentions of a man who had just sat down next to her.
I’d never seen him before that night. He was an Algerian, dapper and prematurely grey-haired. He’d made some friendly conversation with me and Jean-Paul earlier on. But now he was drunk. Now he was leaning across to Claudine, and I could hear him talking over the music.
“Look at the state of your man,” he said. “He’s wasted. Why don’t you come home with me, instead. I’ll show you a better time than he can…”
Claudine was looking away, trying to ignore him. Martin didn’t seem to have any idea what was happening.
“Come on, don’t be a tease,” the drunk said, and he leaned in for a kiss.
“That’s enough!” I shouted, and he turned and looked at me.
“That’s enough,” he repeated with an odd resignation in his eyes. Then he turned to Claudine and screamed in her face. “Make a fool of me, will you? Fuck you! Fuck all women! Fuck all of you white bastards!” One of the drunk’s friends was dragging him to the door now. “No! Take your hands off me! I fucking hate them all!”
Jean-Paul went round to the other side of the bar, as calm as he always was, and stood there with his arms folded until the drunk was gone. Claudine shrugged and took another sip of her wine. The rest of the customers carried on as if nothing had happened.
“You know who that was?” said Jean-Paul when he rejoined me behind the bar.
“That’s Samir’s brother. He’s crazy.”
“Has he been here before?”
“Lots of times.”
“Why do you let him in?”
Jean-Paul shrugged, and we said no more about it.
The next day Samir came in, and I felt my neck tense up. I’d had a bellyful. But he didn’t have his usual theatre mask grin, and he looked tired and distracted when he sat down at the bar, rubbing his hands together.
“Hello, English,” he said. “Make me a coffee, please.”
I put the coffee down in front of him.
“Thank you.” He took a sip. “How are you today?”
I couldn’t help looking at him suspiciously, and he laughed.
“Not bad,” I said. “You?”
“Well, well. How often do you go back to England?”
“I haven’t been back since I first got here.”
“You’ve got family there? Are your parents alive?”
“Just my dad.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “That’s life. Both of mine passed away, when I was a kid. That’s life. But everything’s ok with you, eh? You like it here?” Then he swatted at my arm. “Come and have a drink with me on the terrace, English.”
I made myself a coffee and followed him out to the tables we had out on the pavement in front of the bar, and we sat down.
“Look at us here, having a drink together like true friends.” He chuckled, and then he looked up the road away from me, towards the sunlight. “Or false friends. My brother… he’s an idiot. He doesn’t realise what he does. He’s had a horrible life, you understand?”
I strained to see what he was looking at. There was a woman on a bicycle coming towards us, but the sunlight was too bright to make out who it was.
“Yeah, I understand.”
“And that’s life. That’s life…” The woman on the bike went past us and on down the road. Samir turned back to me, and he was wearing his demonic grin once again. “Did you see the big fat arse on that one, English? Imagine having a crack at that!”
Almost too obvious to bother mentioning, but absolutely anything by George Orwell or Albert Camus. Those two can do no wrong in my eyes.
John Sawney was born in Merseyside and has since lived in too many places to list. He is currently working on a second novel while the first gathers dust and doubts. His hobbies include pontificating about music, panicking about money, pretending to understand art and getting lost in bookshops.