Mr Merriman is Missing
2nd Oct 2020
How did I amuse myself during COVID lockdown and self-isolation…?
Welcome to the first chapter of my second novel…
A little teaser… it can be a bugger having the same name as a Prime Minister. You could find yourself, and your wife, abducted in a foreign country and held to ransom in what could eventuate as a perfect crime…
Mr Merriman is Missing
It was an overcast July morning in London.
John and Sally Merriman were at Victoria Station, standing by their luggage, about to embark on a 10-day London to Rome Highlights tour.
The trip of a lifetime.
Ten years planning and saving for their 20th wedding anniversary and joint 50th birthday present.
But not all had gone to plan.
The plan was to leave their son, Nick, with his grandparents for two weeks.
Not a lot to ask, back in the early planning days.
But Granddad had dropped dead earlier in the year.
That’s what John would have said but Sally wasn’t prone to swearing.
That would be more like it.
Granddad would have wanted them to continue with the trip. They told themselves that many times. But Nick couldn’t stay with Grandma. Grandma had to be moved into a home because of her dementia and other health issues.
Neither use nor ornament really.
Couldn’t tell shit from apple jelly.
Didn’t even comprehend that hubby had carked it.
So, Nick joined his parents on the trip. Reluctantly. He couldn’t see why he couldn’t be Lord of the Manor for a fortnight.
Just that they didn’t trust him.
Okay, so he was a little wild. Rebellious. A bag of explosive hormones. He had an opinion on everything. With attitude. And why not? He was seventeen.
They had thought about cancelling the Europe trip and seeing some more of Australia, not because of the coronavirus thing but, at home, they were sick of explaining that they were no relation to their namesakes, the Prime Minister and his wife.
Having the same name as the Prime Minister came with interest but not privilege.
“Can I book a table please?”
“What? The John Merriman?”
And then there were all the nicknames… ‘Johnny from Marketing’… ‘Johnny-Come-Lately’… ‘Little John’… ‘Muddleman’…
Half a century of a quiet life and then, whammo! Fame and ridicule by association.
No, an Australian holiday was definitely out of the question. Better to go to some place where they could be as anonymous as they were before the accidental PM stumbled his way into The Lodge.
Besides, there were countries in Europe trying to get back on their feet again and needed financial help from tourists. And the queues would be shorter.
The EuroTour Travel Director, carrying a clipboard, approached them. He was a jaunty little chap in his mid-twenties with a spring in his step and a pencil-thin moustache. He could have been a jockey in a previous career.
“Hello folks… and who might you be then?” he asked in a thick Cockney accent.
“John Merriman. And this is Sally. And Nick, our son.”
“Ah! I told them you wouldn’t be the real one. I mean, even incognito you’d still need security. And the real one has got daughters I believe.”
“Well, this one is the only real John Merriman I’ve ever known,” Sally said. She was fed up with it, too.
“And pleased to meet you, Nick.”
“I’m Michael Watson, your Travel Director and guide. Barry is our driver and he’ll look after your luggage. This one’s a full tour, 47 pax, which is 47 max. The more the merrier, I say, eh? Did you pack face masks?”
“Yes,” said Sally. “Do you think they will be necessary?”
“Probably not, but you might want to look the part in northern Italy. Even now that the main pandemic crisis has passed, people are still taking precautions. But the upside is that the queues to the attractions are way shorter.”
He flipped his clipboard under his arm as a Regimental Sergeant Major would a baton.
“Departure should be on time at 0900, that’s nine o’clock in the a.m., lunch at Bully-les-Mines, ETA 1300, that’s one o’clock p.m., and ETA Paris 1600, that’s four in the afternoon. A couple of hours at leisure and then you have an optional experience of enjoying the colourful Can-Can at the fabulous Folies Bergère… depart accommodation at 1900 sharp, that’s seven o’clock. On the button.”
“We might give that one a miss,” said John. “Nick is still only seventeen.”
“Up to you. Yes, he will see bare titties, but very artistic titties they are. The ladies are exotic dancers not strippers. Some of them from Australia, I believe. Culture. Traditional French culture. That’s what it is.”
“Can I go if they don’t?” Nick asked.
“Of course. If your folks don’t mind. I can buddy you up with others in the group. We’ll all be one big happy family on this trip. And I’ll be there. I always go along to look up some lady friends, eh, nudge- nudge.”
“We’ll all go,” said Sally.
“Right you are. Any questions?”
“Yes,” said Nick. “Does our hotel have a gym?”
“He’s been hanging out for a work-out,” said Sally. “Adolescent endorphins.”
“Yes, it has a fitness centre and indoor pool. And, as you know, we will be there for two nights.”
“Good,” said Nick.
Michael moved to a couple guarding their luggage and raised his clipboard. “Hello folks, and who might you be then?”
Luggage stowed, the Merrimans boarded the bus. John and Sally took seats a few rows back and signaled to Nick to sit across the aisle from them.
“Nah. I’ll go down the back. Closer to the toilet.”
“Okey-doke,” Sally smiled. John didn’t smile. It was what he was anticipating.
Proximity to ablutions wasn’t the reason Nick was keen on moving away from his parents. He had already spotted the only other teenager on the tour and they had exchanged smiles. She was quite a pretty little thing who ticked boxes straight up for Nick. Age, gender and a challenge. She was sitting in the aisle seat with, he guessed, her parents across the way.
“May I sit there?” Nick asked, nodding towards the window seat.
“Sure,” replied the girl, standing. She was English.
“Bonjour. Je m’appelle Nick. Ça va?”
“Ça va bien. Je m’appelle Tiffany. Tiff.”
“Bon. Do your parents speak French?”
“Mine either. Could be handy,” Nick said, putting his rucksack under his seat. “If we ever need to speak in front of their backs.”
“I’m not totally fluent,” Tiffany said with a shrug.
“Not sure if I am either, but I keep passing exams. I’m sure we will get by. Good opportunity for me to practise. You still at school?”
“Just finished GCE. A-levels. This trip is a reward for finishing. My parents have done it before. I’ve got an older sister. You?”
“Oui. Je suis étudient. Mid-year break. It’s not a reward, they didn’t know what to do with me. I sit the HSC, final exams, in October.”
Similar ages and interests already. Nick figured he could pass for eighteen. It was only a few weeks away.
“You going to Folies Bergère tonight?” he asked.
“Don’t know.” She leant across the aisle. “Hey, Mum, are we… oh, this is Nick.”
“Hello Nick, I’m Barbara,” she said, leaning across to shake his hand.
“Are we going to the Folies Bergère tonight?” Tiffany asked.
“I don’t know. Your father has booked the activities… Richard, have you… oh…”
Richard was asleep against the window. Or pretending to be asleep.
“Is that the exotic dancing cabaret show?” Barbara asked.
“Yes,” Tiffany replied.
“Then, I’m sure he would have booked it then. Oh! Don’t take that the wrong way, Nick. We did it with Erin, so we will do it with Tiff.”
“Erin’s my sister,” said Tiffany, somewhat superfluously. “Are you going to the show?”
“Absolutely.” He mimicked their guide’s cockney accent. “Culturally significant titties I believe, eh?”
Coincidentally, the accent he was mimicking came through the overhead speakers.
“Welcome aboard folks, in case you’ve forgotten, my name is Michael and I’ll be your guide for the next ten rewarding days. I’m really just riding shotgun for our driver, Barry, who will be doing most of the heavy lifting. Today we will put quite a few miles behind us but we’ve booked in some excellent scenery to pass us by, a lovely lunch for the bunch at Bully-les-Mines and a bit of kicking up the old heels ce soir when we lob in Gay Paree.”
He referred to his clipboard.
“Ce soir’ is, of course, Froggy for ‘this evening’ and even if you don’t speak the lingo, a few pleasantries are always appreciated to show that you are making an effort. Plus, it adds to your cultural experience. Following are some rudimentary words and phrases… or as they say in French, ‘rood-ay-mont’.”
‘No, you clown,’ Nick thought, ‘rudimentary is rudimentaire’.
Michael glanced at his clipboard.
“Bonjour’ is ‘hello’… ‘ça va?’ is ‘how are you going’… and if someone asks you that, just reply the same, inflecting downwardly to say ‘I’m going good’ as in ‘ça va bien’… ‘s’il vous plaît’ is ‘please’… and ‘merci beaucoup’ is ‘thank you very much’. So, merci beaucoup for your attention.”
He ticked that note from the list on his clipboard and Barry turned the engine on. It was a well-rehearsed routine.
“We’ll be getting under way tout suite – directly – and we will motor south through the lovely county of Kent to board the ferry for the channel crossing in Dover.”
Barry pulled his microphone close to his mouth.
“Good morning all. Leaving Dover, you will have a photo opportunity as we farewell the famous chalky white cliffs,” he said.
“Now… when we are approaching Calais,” Michael continued, “please have your passports at the ready for Customs clearance because post-Brexit it’s not exactly how’s your father. Any questions?”
“Yes,” Barry said into his microphone. “Isn’t ‘how’s your father?’ a euphemism for sexual intercourse?”
“Indeed, it is, well-spotted Barry. Before Brexit, gaining entry was a damn sight quicker, but now we’re screwed.”
It was a well-rehearsed routine. No-one said it was a good one. There was a polite titter from some. Sally blushed. More for Nick than herself. Nick just smiled. He enjoyed being treated as an adult.
“A bit of housekeeping. In the event of an emergency there is an emergency exit at the rear of the coach – the window pushes out – or if you plan to use the front door, please remain seated until Barry and I have shot through. Merci beaucoup. The bathroom at the rear is clearly signposted, please observe the engaged sign. And don’t be shy because it is nature’s design that we all have to go at some point… and it’s far better to have an empty house than an unwelcome tenant, eh?”
He looked at his clipboard.
“Oh. Yes. Hand up please, Mr John Merriman…”
John tentatively raised his hand.
“I think that is by far and away the most famous name we have on board today, the Australian Prime Minister, ladies and gentlemen… unless there’s another Lisa Dunkley out there who did something amazing that went unnoticed by Yours Truly. Raise your hand please, Lisa…”
Lisa raised her hand.
“Welcome aboard, Lisa…”
Lisa returned a shy smile. She didn’t like being the centre of attention. She was a solo traveller. Early thirties. Mousey but attractive. Smartly dressed, wearing glasses, with a sadness behind her eyes.
“…We’ll all get to know each other soon enough and I encourage you all to make yourselves known to strangers over lunch.”
Michael planned to share a table with Lisa Dunkley and, if things continued to go as planned, she could well be up for a shag by Day 4 or 5 on the itinerary, which would be Lucerne or Venice. Tout sweet. He referred to his clipboard.
“Lisa brings the Australian contingent up to six. There’s quite a cosmopolitan mix aboard. There are four Kiwis, two from Hong Kong, four couples from Canada, two of them travelling together, the United Kingdom represented by Scotland, Ireland, Yorkshire, Sussex and Kent and ten from the good old U.S. of A, including six retirees from Florida.”
“Howdy, y’all,” said one of the men, waving.
“Howdy and welcome to y’all, too.” Michael continued. “And speaking of famous names, there are a lot of famous Michael’s out there… Michael Caine, Michael Parkinson, Michael Jackson, Michael Douglas and Michael J Fox to name but a few… that is just to reinforce that my name is Michael, and I don’t answer to Mike, Mick or Mate. Take it away, Barry.”
And Barry took it away. Down the M20. Onto the ferry. Off on the A26. Three hours and 36 minutes later, pulling into Bully-les-Mines.
Clockwork. Barry took pride in that.
“Welcome to Bully-les-Mines, folks,” Barry said, easing the bus to a stop in the car park adjacent to the Auberge la Grange restaurant. “We’ve scheduled for a ninety-minute sojourn but if everyone is back on the bus sooner, we’ll head off earlier. But don’t be a clock-watcher, that’s Michael’s job.”
“Thanks, Barry,” said Michael. “You’ve probably noticed the sign, ‘Auberge la Grange’. I think that translates to a ‘barn-like pub’. It is pub grub but it’s good pub grub – as the sign also says, ‘brasserie et fritterie’ which pretty much translates as ‘beer and chips’. I recommend the steak & chips and they also do excellent pizzas. You’ve paid for the meal, help yourself to the water and alcohol is at your own expense. Bon appetit.”
Barry walked around the bus and lit a cigarette. Michael would bring him a burger and chips. Unless the bus was in a secure parking area and locked, it was Barry’s duty to stay with the coach at all times.
Nick introduced Barbara, Richard and Tiffany Cooper to his parents. With a golden opportunity for teenage bonding, it was a given that they would share a table for lunch. Nick smiled. Tiffany had addressed his parents by their first names. He knew his mother was fine with that but that his father hated familiarity from younger generations. It would, however, have been churlish for him to insist on ‘Mr Merriman’.
“Shall we take a table outside on the patio?” Richard suggested. “It’s a lovely day now the sun has come out.”
They walked through the restaurant to the outside patio.
“Sal… Sal,” John whispered. “Look at that. There’s a woman with a little dog on her lap.”
“I guess that’s what they do in France, John.”
“She’s feeding it leftovers from her plate. Disgusting.”
“Dogs have to eat, too, John.”
“Vivre le difference,” Nick added.
“We place our meal orders at the bar,” Richard said from experience. “I can do that for us all.”
“Well, I think we will be three steak and chips,” said John.
“I’ll have a margherita pizza,” said Nick.
“Me too,” said Tiffany.
“That’ll be four steaks and two pizzas,” said Barbara.
“I’ll ask for them medium-well,” Richard said. “That way they’ll come medium-rare. It’s a French thing. Any drinks from the bar? I’ll have a beer and the ladies will have a white wine.”
“We like French wine,” Barbara agreed.
“No thanks, we’ll stick with the water,” said John. “Might enjoy a few drinks tonight.”
“Do you drink beer?” Richard asked.
“Bière pression they call it over here. I don’t know much French but I know what I like. Bière pression – it means from the tap… and why pay double for bottled craft beer when you can enjoy bloody good draft beer, I say.”
“Thanks for the tip,” said John.
“You sure you don’t want a beer, Nick? Wine? Coke?”
“No thanks, I’ll stick with water.” He turned to Tiffany. “Don’t they ask for ID?”
“Apparently not when kids drink with adults.”
“Cool. Vivre le difference.”
“You’re seventeen, aren’t you?”
“So, do you live in London, Barbara?” Sally asked.
“Oh no. Up north. Yorkshire. Little place called Hebden Bridge.”
“That sounds nice.”
“It is. In fact, it was voted the best place to live in the UK and in the top five places to live in the world, along with your Perth.”
“It is also known as the Lesbian Capital of the UK,” said Tiffany, “and Ed Sheeran was born there.”
“Everyone has to be born somewhere,” said Barbara, “Did you join the tour today, Sally, or begin with London? We gave the London option a miss. Sort of been there done that.”
“Oh! We thoroughly enjoyed our two days and two nights, didn’t we, John?”
“We did indeed. This is our first time overseas, so we packed in as much as we could.”
“Yes,” said Sally. “Did the Red Bus tour… Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey… then across Westminster Bridge…”
John nodded. “I must admit I really enjoyed the London Eye. So much to take in.”
“Yes, we took lots of photos,” said Sally.
“We’re going to have another week after this tour. Hire a car and do a bit of exploring,” said John. “You drive on the same side of the road as us.”
“What was your favourite bit of London, Nick?” Tiffany asked.
He thought for a few seconds.
“To be honest, watching two squirrels scamper along a wall near St James Park. Wildlife, in the middle of a big city.”
“That’s the park next to the Palace,” Sally said, “They’ve got pelicans there, too.”
“Of the tourist attractions, probably the Abbey,” Nick said, “There’s an Australian in Poet’s Corner, Adam Lindsay Gordon, he committed suicide… and I went on a hunt to find the grave inscribed ‘O Rare Ben Johnson’. Benny-boy is buried standing up because he was broke when he died. It is a very cool church.”
“And we caught a West End show,” said Sally, cutting back into the conversation.
“Which one?” Barbara asked.
“Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre. It has been running for over 60 years and no wonder. It certainly had me guessing.”
Tiffany raised an eyebrow to ask Nick what he thought.
“The cop did it,” he said.
“Oh Nick!” Sally gave him a playful slap on the arm. “They ask the audience at the end of the show not to let on whodunnit. That’s why it is so successful.”
“Serves them right for putting me to sleep.”
Richard returned with a tray of drinks.
“Lunch won’t be long. And, sorry, I took the liberty of getting beers for the boys and a wine for Sally. It just seemed, well, a convivial way to kick off the big tour.”
“Well, thank you,” said Sally.
“Yes, thanks,” said Nick.
“Yes, thank you, Richard,” said John. “My shout next time.”
John wasn’t happy with Nick drinking under-age, but there wasn’t a lot he could do without looking like a prudish idiot.
“I’m not wishing today away, but…” Sally said, opening her tour itinerary brochure. “…But I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s sightseeing. Imagine… finally seeing the Champs-Elysées, The Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower…”
“You’ll love it,” said Barbara. “Cheers.”
“Cheers.” Sally took a sip. “Oh, that is a very nice wine, Richard.”
“It’s J.P. Chenet. You can recognise it because the bottle has a curved neck.”
“Amazing.” Sally returned to the itinerary. “It says…
‘Relish the afternoon to do as you please. That could mean channelling your inner Parisienne to savour a baguette with cheese and wine in a leafy park or consider a visit to the world’s most famous art museum, the Louvre.’
“…I think we will do the Louvre. We’ve got leafy parks back home.”
“Agreed, darling. We’re only here once,” John nodded.
“Fancy seeing the real Mona Lisa, and not a just a photo of it or a print on a tea towel…”
“It’s actually quite a small painting, you know,” Barbara said.
“And if her eyes follow you around the room, her eyebrows and eyelashes won’t,” said Nick.
“What do you mean?” John asked.
“She doesn’t have any. Either Da Vinci didn’t finish it or it was the fashion at the time. Maybe that’s why she’s smiling. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing the ‘peintre copiste’.”
“Who did that one?” Sally asked.
“Copy painters,” said Tiffany. “The Louvre allows art students to copy the masters. Some are so good you can hardly tell the difference.”
“Well, what’s the point then?” John asked.
“One displays expert craft, the other is expert art,” Nick replied. “Painting with soul. Even the masters had stints at being copy painters. Dali, Degas, Picasso, Chagall… Paul Cezanne said that ‘the Louvre is the book from which we learn to read’.”
“Well, maybe those private school fees weren’t totally wasted after all,” John said.
Sally cut in quickly to head off any confrontation.
“Well. I don’t really care if the Mona Lisa is a bit small. At least we can say that we’ve seen it.” She returned to her brochure. “And the optional experience at night is a dinner cruise on the Seine. Well! That one is a must…”
“These optional experiences are going to add up,” said John.
“Oh. Lighten up.” Sally said.
Nick smiled. “It’s a good beer, Richard. Bière pression. Thank you.”
“My pleasure, Nick. Ah! Here are the meals…”
“Yes. Cheers, Nick.”
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