We drove north and parked in the designated car park with a quarter of an hour to spare before the minibus was due to pick us up and take us to our holiday destination. On it would be up to six strangers with whom we were to spend a week in the confined space of a boat. Marvellous. Happy days.
There was only one slight snag. Catriona and I would be enjoying the holiday for free in exchange for my writing an article about it. And the company sponsoring us had asked me not to tell the others, who were paying a great deal of money, about this arrangement. We had chosen a spot next to a tricolour-decked modernist monument to General de Gaulle and sat with our luggage on the monument’s plinth in the sunshine and waited. And while we waited I considered what would be my strategy when the inevitable question arose, probably over the dinner table, of what it was I did for a living.
I calculated that the stark truth — that I was a sort of journalist — would immediately arouse suspicions of a travel freebie. Especially as everything about me — clothes, shoes, conversation, habits, life experience, table manners, even political opinions — would flag me up as an individual who is living from hand to mouth and would never in a million years be able to afford such a luxurious holiday. The wealthy, I’ve noticed, are very sharp-eyed about that kind of thing. So while we waited, Catriona and I debated what I would say when I was asked what I did to keep going.
I ran through a few of the occupations I’ve offered under similar circumstances, such as trainee IT technician and temporary night-shift meat packer, which act like a tranquilliser dart on all but the most dogged interrogator, stopping the conversation dead in its tracks and moving it hastily on to some completely unrelated topic. However, Catriona sensibly vetoed temporary meat packer as falling well short of the salary level required, even though going on appearance and my want of polish it would be perfectly credible.
We played around for a while with lottery winner, resting actor, mature student, inherited wealth and a rare and unusual form of dementia. These we rejected, either individually or in combination, as likely to excite prolonged and intense interest. Next we went through a few of the better-paid professions — lawyer, doctor, architect — but rejected these also as being the most implausible of any of the suggestions so far. And the bottom line is I am in any case a hopeless liar. I don’t have the composure or the wit to sustain a lie as big as that for more than five minutes.
What if I wave aside the question as being unconscionably vulgar, I said? Seriously. Anyone with any class wouldn’t dream of asking such a personal question. Take me, for example. Unless someone is gagging to tell me, and I feel sorry for them, I would never ask it. To this day I have no idea what some people I would call friends do to keep body and soul together.
A shiny black Mercedes minibus with smoked glass windows drove into the car park. We waved. It hove to and the driver hopped out and set about our luggage, which alone would have told a forensically interested observer roughly on which level of the social scale we felt most at home. Then we fixed on our best smiles and climbed aboard to meet the other guests.
There were only two, which was a surprise. Two Americans. Bert and Mary from LA. Late sixties, early seventies, open, friendly, humorous. Only two meant more room to move about on the boat, which was good, but a more intense spotlight from which to conceal my occupation, which was bad. Catriona and I told everybody where we were from. The driver said he hailed from Spain. Had anyone present been to Spain? We’d all been to Spain. Of course we had. The driver wanted to know where we’d been in Spain. I said I’d been four times to Pamplona. For the bulls, asked Bert and Mary? Yes for the bulls. And did I like bullfighting? Very much, I said. Didn’t everybody? Bert and Mary thought it barbaric. So did the driver.
During the 45-minute ride the discussion stayed on the safe and neutral ground of where else we’d been in the world. Mary asked me how many countries I had visited. I truthfully guessed around 30. She and Bert about the same.
The question I was dreading was delayed until the second course of our first meal together. Mary it was. She turned to me with an air of capitulation before an unsolvable riddle and said, ‘So what is it you do?’ ‘I?’ I said, looking at Catriona. ‘I live off immoral earnings.’