"Bonjour Madame!" I greet the lady behind the desk and put on my most charming smile. It always does to treat these ladies well. Some of them have the power of a small country.
She looks up from her work, peers at me over the top of her half-moon glasses and sniffs slightly as though she can smell my Englishness. My smile falters a little. I mean, I have been in a police station in England before. Once. So although I'm not exactly a hardened criminal, I do have some idea of the form. But do they do things differently in France?
"Mon frere est ici . . ." I start haltingly in my GCSE French. The problem with GCSE French is that you have to fight a constant urge to ask people their name, how old they are and where they live before you can get down to the brass tacks of any problem. "Il est . . . er . . . em . . ." I'm trying desperately to find the word I need. I trawl through my limited vocabulary. It's no good, there's nothing that vaguely matches it. So I try the English phrase.
It doesn't seem to fool her; she looks at me blankly. I try it again, this time with a French accent.
"Il est en etat d'arrestation?" she queries.
This sounds vaguely right so I nod.
"Il s'appelle Barney Colshannon."
"Attendez lˆ bas."
She gestures to some chairs by the wall, so Sam and I duly wander over to them and sit down.
Of course, I blame my mother for all this. She had just received Morgan the Pekinese's pet passport and suggested we all nip over to France for the weekend to see if it was working. He is a rather old and smelly dog with no teeth left in the front of his mouth and will pee on anything if you leave it in the middle of the room. I'm not quite sure what he is thinking when he tries to bite other dogs, he must be under the impression he can suck them to death. Anyway, despite being adored by my mother, Morgan and I have never quite seen eye to eye, so why we couldn't have just popped him on a cross channel ferry and waited to see if he came back I simply do not know. However, the pull of some French bread and cheap booze was simply too much for us and we all readily acquiesced.
My mother always makes France sound absolutely delightful as she is a bit of a Francophile at heart, but her version is solely based on Gerard Depardieu and some adverts she did for the French tourist board back in the eighties which involved her getting pissed on Bordeaux. According to her, France is just one big bit of cheese with plenty of wine and a few ooh-la-las thrown in. Not a police station in sight. This is a clearly inaccurate opinion because here I am in a French police station with no cheese, no wine and certainly no ooh-la-las.
We had all split up this morning to go our separate ways. I wanted to look at the shops, Barney went down on the beach and as Sam has the only real job out of all of us, he had to make some work phone calls. Sam is Barney's best friend. He has been since we moved to Cornwall about fifteen years ago and hence he's always been a presence in my life. I popped back to the hotel after my little shopping sortie (didn't buy anything as I am stony broke but that is another story) and the receptionist there gave me the message about Barney. I immediately went to get Sam because he is a lawyer and I was under the misapprehension that he might be of some use, and then we headed for the police station in double quick time. So at this precise moment my parents are sitting in a little cafe somewhere in Le Touquet, expecting us to turn up any second but nonetheless having a raucous time and probably some cheese too, blissfully oblivious to the fact that their son has been arrested. Whereas I, by virtue of my French GCSE, sit here (which just goes to show that too much education can be a bad thing), with Sam who is busy smiling at some girl across the room.
Sam leans over and whispers to me, "Excellent French, by the way."
"I particularly liked the ARREST thing."
"I couldn't think of the word in French."
"Saying it with a German accent was nothing less than a stroke of genius."
"It was a French accent," I spit out between gritted teeth. God, he is maddening.
"So tell me what the lady at the hotel said again?"
"She just said that Barney had been arrested for assault. He apparently broke some poor bloke's arm. My brother wouldn't assault anyone!" Barney is quite frankly the sweetest individual alive. He wouldn't come out of his room for three days when he accidentally killed the class hamster by tripping and falling on top of the shoebox as he was carrying it home for the weekend so you can imagine the tough sort of individual we're talking about.
"It does seem a bit strange."
"A bit strange? Sam, you're the bloody lawyer. You're going to have to make them release him."
"I am not a sodding criminal lawyer."
"But Barney wouldn't hurt a fly!"
"You just said that he broke someone's arm!"
"Do you think they're mistreating him?" I ask in a whisper, with a terrible picture of Barney in shackles thrust into my mind.
"Clemmie, we're in the middle of France, not a war zone."
An officer walks out of one of the side doors and comes up to us. He looks a bit scary and stern with a dark mustache and I can feel my knees starting to go with fright. He rattles something off in very rapid French which just sounds like "Blah, blah, French blah, Barney Colshannon, acute accent, blah, blah, catch the word for arm, blah."
I glance over to Sam, who looks none the wiser either, and then ask the officer to repeat what he's just said more slowly, which he does. I throw in the occasional question and so does he. He then asks us to follow him.
"What did Inspector Clouseau say?" whispers Sam as we go through the side door.
"He asked if you were here to represent Barney. I said that you were and I was going to translate. He then said that Barney had been charged with assault. This bloke was apparently standing on the pavement, cleaning some dog poo off his shoe, when Barney came along and hit him with a chair."
"Yeah, from the cafe next door."
"Why would Barney hit him?"
"I don't know. Apparently the bloke had never laid eyes on him before."
The building reminds me a bit of a school and the officer leads us up to a door, which he opens to reveal some very tatty furniture and a very fed-up Barney.
I rush over to him. "Barney! Are you okay? Did they hurt you? Don't worry about anything, Sam will sort it out."
"Clemmie, I can only say 'two beers' in French. I don't think that's going to get us very far. Are you all right, mate?" says Sam.
"Oh, I'm fine."
"Barney, what on earth happened? Why did you hit that man?"
"I thought he was being electrocuted. He was holding on to the electricity line which went into the cafe and shaking all over."
"So you hit him with a chair?"
"A plastic chair. Yes."
"He was cleaning dog poo off his shoe."
"Was he? Well, he was doing it pretty vigorously, he was jigging his leg all over the place. It looked like he was convulsing."
"So . . ." says Sam slowly. "A man was cleaning some dog poo off his shoe and you thought he was being electrocuted and smacked him with a chair."
"That's right. And then out of nowhere this police officer swooped down and arrested me and carted me off here."
"I hope your French is up to this, Clemmie," murmurs Sam.
Christ. I haven't got a clue what the verb for being electrocuted is.
* * *
A difficult half an hour follows, where I have to act out being electrocuted, we make phone calls back and forth to the hospital and it's ascertained that the man in question was indeed holding on to something but it turns out to be the telephone line into the cafe. On occasion the police officers' faces start twitching. Luckily the man doesn't want to press charges so Barney is released. Sam and I are hustled back to the waiting room and told that Barney has to complete some paperwork but will be joining us shortly.
"Well, thank God for that," says Sam. "And thank God you speak French."
"Sam, I had to act most of it out. I'm sure they kept asking me questions so I'd have to carry on. At least they're not charging Barney."
"None of them could keep a straight face, let alone charge him with anything."
"He can be a bit loopy sometimes, can't he? Oh, that poor man. We'll have to send him some flowers."
"We'll ask which hospital he's at. Your parents must be wondering where on earth we are, they've been waiting for ages."
"I'm going to have the largest drink you've ever seen once we get to the restaurant."
We descend into silence and turn our attention to the French waiting room. The magazines are in French, the TV is in French and the posters are in French. No surprises there but still very boring. Sam must have come to the same conclusion. He leans over. "So, what are your plans?"
"To get to that bloody restaurant as fast as possible and order some booze and cheese."
"No, I mean for the future. Are you going to stay in Cornwall for a while with us?"
I have just returned in a fairly disastrous fashion from an around-the-world trip and am living with my parents at the moment until I decide what to do with my life. My parents live in an old house in a small village near the north coast of Cornwall which is a pretty nice place to live. The constant stream of tourists, or grockles as we like to call them, can become irritating in high summer but anywhere that invented clotted cream must be okay. The village itself isn't too chocolate-boxy. We have a smattering of thatched cottages which the weekenders have bought up but we're also an old-fashioned working village and lucky enough to boast a pub and a shop. We have the best of both worlds as the north coast beaches are but a short drive away, as are the moors of Bodmin in the opposite direction. All prime Daphne du Maurier country. Of course you can't mention Daphne without Sam and Barney squinting their eyes and saying Jamaica Inn in wild pirate accents with a lot of me-heartiness about it. They spent ages the other day trying to make me say it and laughing a lot.
My career is sort of on hold as it came to an abrupt and traumatic halt, hence my around-the-world odyssey, and I am currently working in a small cafe in Tintagel to tide me over until I decide what to do. And I am useless at it. Really bad. I can never remember what any of the dishes come with.Chips, baked potato, new potatoes, mash, salad or seasonal vegetables, and you'd be surprised how annoyed some people can become about it too.
"It's just the work thing."
"Yes. I can see your point." Sam leans over and pats my knee. For a second I feel almost comforted, until he follows it up with: "I mean, I didn't want mashed potato and you told me it came with chips."
He's very lucky I don't have any of the implements from said cafe with me. This is the thing about Sam. He's just like a brother but more irritating. For instance, I had been looking forward to a rhubarb yogurt all of last week. I had hidden it behind a jar of olives in the fridge, even though no one in my family likes rhubarb, but when I got home on Friday Sam had eaten it. He apparently does like rhubarb. Now, that is irritating.
We sit in silence for a second, and I'm still brooding about my rhubarb yogurt when he says, "I don't remember you being this good at French at school."
"I don't remember you speaking French this well."
"I learned most of it on my French exchange. The parents of my exchange partner were really sweet with me and sat down every day for at least an hour putting me through my paces. Of course, I didn't think they were very sweet at the time."
He frowns. "Your French exchange? When was that?"
"God, you must remember! I was sixteen! Bernadette spent most of her summer with us wrapped around Barney." And good for Bernadette as she will never find herself sitting in an English police station because she never learned a word of sodding English.
"Oh yes! I thought that was Holly's French exchange partner."
"It was probably quite difficult to tell as she never spoke to either of us."
* * *
We drive back in silence to the restaurant, manage to find a parking space and then stroll toward my parents who are sitting contentedly at a table and basking in the sunshine. My mother is wearing her Jackie Onassis black glasses, which almost cover the entirety of her face, and a large hat. A complete overreaction to a mere fifteen-degree temperature rise but she says that after being in Cornwall for the winter she often stands in front of the microwave with them on.
Family outings aren't normally so quiet but Barney and I are the only ones around at the moment. I have three brothers and a sister who was thrown in at the last minute (I think she was a bit of an accident as there are only ten months between us). My mother is a stage actress, quite a good one too. She does the odd bit of telly and a few minor film roles but generally prefers the stage. When she's in the middle of a run she tends to partially adopt the character she's playing, which makes life very challenging when you're trying to have a conversation over breakfast with Lady Macbeth without plunging her into hand-wringing hysterics.
Of course, when she's finished the run and on a well-deserved rest, her natural thirst for drama slowly asserts itself until she'll throw herself into a room with, "That was your Aunty May on the telephone," accompanied by much arm-throwing, head-tossing and gazing into the distance. My father says she's almost like that insurance company except she will always make a crisis out of a drama.
Excerpted from Society Girls by Sarah Mason. Copyright © 2005 by Sarah Mason. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.