I had already spent more than two months looking for a job and didn't seem any closer to finding one. None of the small ads in the newspaper or the offers at the job centre fitted my peculiar professional profile. If I had been a plasterer or a bricklayer I could have found some work, but I wasn't so I didn't.
"Your main advantage is your languages," said the counsellor at the job centre with a smile as she fluttered her eyelashes at me. "I mean not many people in this part of France are so talented to speak English and French and Dutch. The thing you have to understand though is that there's a reason for that. There's absolutely no need for languages here. Maybe Spanish a bit, but not really. Some people speak Basque, but that won't help you find a job. You really should think about expanding the geographical scope of your search. I think you'd have much more luck on the coast."
The French Basque coast stretches from the Spanish border at Hendaye to Bayonne and has a thriving tourist trade. I was disinclined to return to the hotel and catering industry with its unsociable hours, poor benefits and low pay. My flirtatious job counsellor suggested I approach companies involved in import-export. I sent CVs out to producers of the famed Bayonne Ham, but they all wanted me to speak Basque. I wasn't willing to put in the time and effort required to learn Europe's oldest tongue. In fact Basque might be the most ancient spoken language on the planet. Its origins are lost in pre-history and still baffle ethno-linguists to this day.
As well as Bayonne Ham the Basque coast is famous for its waves. Huge Atlantic rollers wash in with dramatic crashing grace. In the past I had often sat on the dunes and watched the aquatic acrobatics of the wet-suited surfers, or seen them bobbing like seals beyond the wave-break waiting for The Big One to come along. These waves drew surfers from around the world and the exceptional quality of life in this corner of the South West of France tempted many of them to stay. The big brand surf companies all had their European bases here. I sent them my CV.
I made it to interview stage with Quiksilver. They had a big bright open-plan work space that faced out to those iconic Atlantic waves. There was a barefoot work-ethic that appealed to me straight away. The brash confident staff looked as if they had just stepped out of a catalogue, wearing clothes of their own company’s brand. They had sun-bleached hair and salt-cured skin, broad shoulders and slim waists. Like the army, there seemed to be a minimum height requirement of over six feet. That was both the men and women.
I didn't match any of these criteria, but my paperwork looked good.
"Well, we like what we see?" said the personnel manager, a whiny voiced Australian whose voice went up at the end of each sentence? As if everything was a question? "But just one important thing we need to know? I don't see it mentioned on your CV? Do you surf?"
A few years earlier, in Oxnard California, I had tried to learn to surf. I struggled to move from kneeling to standing on an enormous unsinkable long-board, that was really more like a smalll raft. A massive wave caught me by surprise and for endless seconds I was on spin-cycle in the ocean's laundromat. I surface just in time to see the surfboard pop up out of the water like a giant high-velocity slice of toast, narrowly avoiding decapitating two paddling children, who screamed out in fright. Back on the beach their furious father roared angry saliva into my face. I was still shaken and breathless from my tumble-wash in the waves. The whole incident marked me strongly and left me with a sour and salty taste in my mouth. Though I still swam regularly, I never tried to surf again.
I didn't bore the personnel manager with the details. But when I announced that I was not a true member of the tribe, his facial tics were enough to tell me all I needed to know.
"We'll be in touch with you? Thanks for taking the time to stop by today?"
In fairness they did write back, to say they'd keep my application on file. It could be there still for all I know.
But while Billabong, RipCurl and Quiksilver might have been the big boys on the block they weren't the only surf companies based on the Basque Coast. I got a call from one of the smaller operators. I'll give it a fake name. Let's call it Crusty.
There were no sprawling open-plan beach-front views here. Instead Crusty's European headquarters were hidden in a small industrial zone in an area behind the local prison in one of the Basque Country's larger towns.
The interview went better than I expected. In fact they offered me a job straight away. I sat opposite the managing director, who kept his hand on his financial manager's shapely knee throughout most of the interview. The director was a short, stocky Californian almost as wide as he was high. In every sense of the word.
He asked me to call him 'Brando' . His brothers had given him the nickname. He assured me that he deeply loved his brothers, who it seemed, ran the Californian side of things.
"Man, it's great that you speakee English dude, ya hear me? Mean I'm half goin' half out my head lisnen to these Frenchies speak that shit. Youn me talk the same thing. We unnerstan mano to mano, right?"
"Sure," I said.
"But man what rilly blew me way is that you can speak Dutch. That's kinda skill we need in an operation like this."
I was a bit sceptical as to the linguistic advantage that my mastery of Dutch was supposed to bring to the job. Most Dutch speakers speak perfectly coherent English, and many of them do so much more intelligibly than my future-ex-employer.
Then the interview took a strange turn. I should have realized right then that this was not the place for me. Brando lifted his hand from the financial manager's leg and placed both elbows heavily on the table.
"You know, you like dude we can pay part, or all your wages in cocaine. That would really work for us. And we're talking the pure here man. This shit uncut. Least not much. You could cut it yourself and make a lotta bucks. Like you could make way more than we gonna pay you. We pay you to make more than we pay you. You see the beauty of it? Win-win for both of us. Specially for you and for me.
I made up a story on the spot about a bank loan. "...you see, so my banker really would prefer to see a pay-cheque on my account at the end of each month."
Brando looked at the financial manager who still hadn't said a word. She shrugged and then nodded.
"But you change your mind mano let us know. We'll give you a really good deal. Be here tomorrow at nine and we'll show you the ropes. Meantime me and Francine gotta get down on some euh... financial planning, hear me."
I thanked him and got up to leave. He stood up and punched me on the shoulder so hard that it left a bruise for a week. "I like you Irish, you gonna teach me speak somma that Amsterdam." Then in mock whisper, "but right now ima gonna teach Francine some financial tricks. Later man."
I was so happy to have found a job that I didn't dwell too much on the weirdness. I had grown up knowing that even though Americans spoke more or less the same language as we did in Ireland they were essentially an alien race.
A friend had offered me the use of his holiday apartment just outside St Jean de Luz. I could stay there until the summer, which would give me time to get back on my feet financially and find a place of my own.
Basically my job at Crusty was an office job. I was given my own desk in an open office with a dozen or so other people. There were lots of complicated customs declaration details to learn. Each country had its own particular sets of rules. Europe might have been on the path of harmonization, but it wasn't quite there yet. I also had to deal with sports goods shops, agents and distributers based all over Northern Europe. I never once had to use my Dutch.
Crusty had started out with surfboards and quickly expanded into lycra rash-guard shirts and wet-suits. They later broadened their range to include a much wider range of goods, from swimwear to sunglasses, from snowboards to shirts. Backpacks and snow clothes were among the hundreds of items shipped into the warehouse downstairs. Though they were made cheaply in China they were mostly good quality. A generous staff discount and a freebie seconds-bin soon revitalized my ailing wardrobe.
My co-workers weren't surfers, or even wannabees. Most were quiet introverted folks who kept their heads down and their mouths shut. I soon found out why.
The main office was upstairs above part of the warehouse. At one end was Brando’s office, his bathroom suite, and what he called his ‘playpen’. Encouraged by my colleagues, I sneaked a look at it one day when he was out. I was surprised by what I saw. The room was quite small, perhaps four metres by four and was completely empty. That in itself wasn’t what made it strange. The floor I recognized as rice-straw tatami mats in the purest Japanese style, but it was the padded walls that gave the room its peculiar look. That, and what looked suspiciously like splattered bloodstains on the white ceiling tiles.
“Il est la? Is he there?” asked a giant of a man who had appeared at the top of the stairs dressed in an immaculate white starched judogi.
“He’ll be back in half an hour,” answered Dominique, the office supervisor.
“Okay, I’ll wait for him inside.”
Half an hour later Brando came bounding up the steps thumping a fist in an open palm.
“Did he get here yet? Did he get here yet? Did he get here yet?” he asked, bouncing up and down on the spot. Dominque nodded and Brando headed for the windowless playpen. As the door slammed shut glances were exchanged around the office, but no one said a word.
“Brando takes judo lessons?” I asked my neighbour.
“Eh...not exactly,” she replied.
Soon I heard muffled shouts emerging from the padded playpen. The wall’s themselves vibrated, as someone’s body was slammed hard against the other side.
Forty-five minutes later the judo teacher emerged from the cell. His neat white judogi was soaked in sweat. One of the trouser legs was torn and there was blood all down the front of his chest. One eye was swollen shut with a nasty blackish bruise. He limped across the room towards the stairs without looking at any of us.
“Wow, the poor guy,” I said when he was gone.
“Oh don’t worry about him. He’s not poor. That forty-five minutes just earned him more than you or I will earn here in three months. And he’ll be back again next week.”
A few days later I witnessed another demonstration of Brando’s propensity for uncontrolled violence.
“Godam mutha’ fuckin’ bullshit!” roared Brandon as he stormed into the office. His face was almost purple, his hands rapidly clenching and unclenching into fists.
“Don’t look in his eyes,” whispered the girl at the next desk.
“Fuckers!” screamed Brandon, spittle flying and foam flecks gathering at the corners of his mouth. He grabbed the edge of a desk, lifted it with ease and flung it halfway across the room where it landed with a crash. The computer and the printer that had been on the desk lay in a broken pile on the floor. He kicked the lot repeatedly, sending keyboard keys flying like a spray of broken teeth, then turned and stomped back to his lair.
Everyone just went on with their work as if nothing had happened. Francois came out from the computer room, uprighted the desk and cleared up the broken computer.
When dealing with orders from the customers I often had to make and receive phone calls. I was in constant contact with agents, distributors and shopkeepers from all across Northern Europe.
“Tell Brando I need more of the white snow-jackets. Four XL size this time.”
“I’ll let the warehouse know and they’ll ship them with the rest of your order.”
“No, no, no. You have to let Brando know. Tell him yourself. Make sure he knows that it’s a special order. Four white snow-jackets, extra-large. My customers were very happy with the last shipment and they want more of the same.”
I had many similar phone calls. “Tell Brando that demand for white snow-jackets is very high now. Let him know that I could probably sell twice as many if he can supply them at the same quality.”
Each time I knocked on Brando’s door and gave him the new ‘special order’ he punched the air with an elated “Yesss!”
I had no idea that snow-jackets were such a high-fashion item. Surely on the snow you want to wear a colour that can be seen. Why would anyone choose a jacket that would make them half invisible? I was curious about what they looked like, so I leafed through the catalogue. There were no white coloured snow-jackets. I searched the reference number and didn’t find them either. I keyed the reference number in to my computer and it came up listed as ‘in stock,’ but with no quantity mentioned, which was odd.
Every month there was an open day at Crusty, when members of the local police force were invited to bring their families into the warehouse and purchase anything at cost price. There was also wine and refreshments and finger-food provided by a local caterer. Proper finger food. Foie Gras canapés, caviar... the works. Brando himself, on his best behaviour, would serve the drinks himself, tousle kids hair and crack bad jokes in his terrible French. I had to admit that he really knew how to turn on the charm when he wanted to and could be a really likeable guy.
At this stage I had my doubts about Crusty’s activities and sources of revenue flow, but Brando was on such good terms with the police that I couldn’t possible approach them with my suspicions. I wouldn’t have anyway, because I still needed the job, which was varied enough to keep my interest up and I really liked living on the coast. I had started back some serious swimming and even if I still didn’t know how to surf, I started to get a surfer’s chest. My Irish skin was even taking on that salt-cured pickled look and I spent my days in an office full of reasonably pretty, though rather shy, young ladies.
I was leafing through the mound of paperwork that had landed in my in-box. One was a form filled in for a return of defective goods. I had come across this before, but it wasn’t really my department so I sent the paperwork down to the warehouse. But this time I noticed that under ‘description of articles’ someone had filled in ‘white snow-jackets.’
My curiosity got the better of me and I waited until most of the warehouse staff were gone off shift. Most of them started work around six so the merchandise could get out on the road early in the day. I put a wad of paperwork on a clipboard and headed downstairs trying my best to look like I knew where I was going.
It didn’t take me too long to find the shelf where the returned goods were stacked. I picked up a box cutter and slit the tape on the box that had the serial number that matched the one of the return-form. Inside, wrapped in clear plastic, lay three pure white snow-jackets.
I pulled one out to look at it, to check what the problem was. At first I didn’t notice anything amiss, until I pulled the zipper and opened it up. The lining of the jacket hat been slits open inside in long vertical cuts that looked like they were made with a box-cutter just like the one I had just put down. I slipped my hands into the sleeve and found that the lining there was all slit open too.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it man, Brando reassured me the next morning when I went reported my find to him. He seemed to be back to his ‘normal’ self, whatever that might mean.
“We’ll gettum stitched up and sendem back again. Stuff comes back all the time. No need to sweat it.”
“Maybe I can check any others and see if they are okay before we ship them out,” I suggested.
“Nah, no need dude... Just forget about it right?” He fixed me with an unreadable look, but something in the cold way he said the last phrase made me understand that it was an order, not a suggestion.
After lunch I sat back down ready to attack a whole new batch of customs declarations when Dominque, the office supervisor came over carrying a huge heavy stack of computer print-out paper and dropped it on my desk.
“You’ve got some new stuff to do today. The data-entry girls are falling behind, so you are going to have to help out.”
I’d done some data-entry in the past and found it dull, monotonous work. Dominique divided the pile of paper into three six inch high slabs. Each was a different report, with different details that all needed to be entered manually into the computer to make a new spreadsheet. Each page had seventy-five entries. There were hundreds, if not thousands of pages.
After half an hour of mind-numbing data-entry I was halfway down the first page. At this rate it was going to take me weeks, or even months to complete. I authorized myself to take a walk outside to get some fresh air.
Why had I suddenly been given the world’s dullest job to do? Was I expected to handle the orders and the customs declarations as well? Something wasn’t right.
I went back inside and sat back down and looked at the three reports. They had all been printed from the same software system. So why did I have to spend my time inputting information into the system when it was all already there?
I went to the coffee machine and got two cups, then headed into the refrigerated computer room. Francois, the resident computer-manager was seated at his desk, wearing a padded snowboarder jacket to protect him from the cold. He looked up from the comic book he was reading with a smile.
“So here’s Mister Marc come to relieve me from my boredom. You must want something or you wouldn’t be here. You know you are the first person who has come in here all week. I think sometimes they forget I’m here, until something goes wrong with the machines.” I handed him a cup of coffee which was steaming in the cold temperature. “Coffee. That’s very thoughtful. You’ve just gained some extra points. So what can I do for you?”
I explained about the three report sheets and the fields and values I was supposed to fill in for the new report.
“Surely since they all come from the same data-base it must be possible to create a new report with the information that is already there.”
“Of course. So basically you’re telling me that the bosses are wasting your time?”
“And their time too. And their money come to that.”
“Don’t worry about their money. Revenue isn’t a problem in this place. All the numbers come through these machines. I see them all. Even with negative sales this place would still turn over a huge profit. Quite miraculous really,” and he burst into a fit of laughter. “Anyway pull over a chair and we’ll work on this report.”
It took Francois ten minutes to create a new report from the data-base that would only select the chosen fields I needed. We double checked it together and then he pressed print. A big noisy printer shuddered into life regurgitating a continuous flow of paper that it swallowed from a cardboard box.
Half an hour later I dropped the printout on Dominique’s desk.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Your new report,” I answered with a cocky grin.
“But that’s not possible. It should take you weeks.”
“Well now I’ve just saved Crusty a lot of time and money and I can get back to the rest of the stuff I have to do.”
She didn’t look very happy about my incredible productivity.
“No. I think you should take a coffee break and I will check this report with Brando.”
I poured myself another cup of coffee and was halfway through it when Brando’s head appeared.
“Dude. My office.”
Used to the casual atmosphere at Crusty, I carried the mug with me.
I stepped inside and realized that there was nothing casual about the atmosphere today. Brando, Dominique and the mute financial manager sat in a row behind his massive desk.
“Sidown. You got some splainin’ to do.” He turned his desk lamp towards me, so I was half blinded and could only make out half his silhouette.
“Dominique here tells me that you disobeyed a direck order and went bothering Francois for some unauthorized report. That true?”
I explained as best I could. It made perfect sense to me.
“Why do things the hard way when you can do them the easy way?” I asked.
“Funny you say that dude, ‘cos that’s the same thing I was gonna say to you. You been disobeyin’ orders and stickin’ your head in where it don’t belong. I’m gonna show you something now. And better you watch real good.”
He turned a little monitor on his desk round to face me. Thankfully he moved the light out of my face. I blinked for a moment and the image on the little screen came into focus.
It was staggered black and white shots from a security camera with the time and date printed in a little box in the corner. I recognized the stairwell that led downstairs to the warehouse. Then I felt a sick, sour feeling spread through my body as I recognized myself from behind moving down the stairs. I was carrying a clipboard in one hand.
The next shots were in the warehouse and the clipboard had been replaced with a box cutter. I saw myself slit open a cardboard box, then pull out a white snow-jacket. Next the camera zoomed in and I saw the vertical slits in the lining of the jacket I was holding.
“Now you think hard and you think good. You know what went on down there with those jackets. I know what went on down there with those jackets. You know I know because you told me yourself. But ya gotta remember one thing man – the camera never lies. I know you’re a smart guy. Maybe little bit too smart. Or not smart enough. If you had come on board earlier and taken me up on my offer from the start, hell you’d be rollin’ in a Beemer now.”
“You can try to fight this thing if you want. But trust me - you don’t wanna fight with me.”
He slid a thick white envelope across the desk.
“You get all your back pay, your due holiday pay and a little bonus too, to give you amnesia. No hard feelings dude, but you gotta go. You’re fired.”