Assorted scribblings of a dog-eared music journalist

Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail | You Are A Muzzafucker! | 2005

I didn't actually have any problem with Scabies coming with me to Lyon. I had no doubt it would make the trip more of an adventure. I also knew that Richard Bellia wouldn't mind. Bellia is one of the most laid-back, go-with-the-flow people I’ve ever met. Nothing much fazes him. In fact, he’d probably think that two English guests were twice as good as one. As for the idea of Scabies and I then hiring a car or hopping on a train and whizzing down to Rennes-le-Chateau for a few days, well, why not? What would I be rushing back to Brentford for, anyway? A bloody loft conversion?

At noon on a damp May day less than a week later, after getting lucky with a pair of last-minute rail tickets, Scabies and I boarded a train bound for Waterloo International at Brentford railway station. We had a long journey to make – Brentford to Waterloo to Lille to Lyon – and it would have been a lot easier to do the first leg by taxi, but Scabies liked the thought of what he worryingly termed 'our little Holy Grail quest' beginning at the station at the top of our road. We got off to a poor start, mind, by almost missing the Brentford-Waterloo train. If our neighbour hadn't driven us the 500 yards to the station at lunatic speed, 'our quest' would have ended there and then.

Clambering onto the train with the wheels already turning, we headed straight for a First Class compartment and commandeered a block of four seats. 'This'll do nicely,' said Scabies. His shirt was emblazoned with the name The Vandals – one of America's finest punk outfits – and his jeans had such big rips in the knees they were more hole than denim. He was also wearing his moccasin slippers.

'You've still got your slippers on,' I said, presuming he'd forgotten to put on his shoes in the fluster to catch the train. I was expecting him to look down at his feet and curse. Or at least tut. But he didn't curse, he didn't tut, he didn't anything. He didn't even look down. And he didn't take off his slippers for the entire time we were in France.

Scabies and I spent much of the journey with our heads in books. He was on Gerard De Sede's The Accursed Treasure for the third or fourth time, while I dipped into Sauniere's Model And The Secret Of Rennes-le-Chateau by Andre Douzet. It was in this book that Scabies had read about Berenger Sauniere making frequent visits to Lyon, which Douzet described as 'the esoteric capital of France' and not without good reason. Those medieval alternative types the Knights Templars maintained a strong presence in the city for some 200 years. During the 16th century, when a burgeoning printing industry gave Lyon an important role in Renaissance Europe, it was home to countless free thinkers and intellectuals. The satirical writer Francois Rabelais, for instance, whose novels were outlawed by the Catholic Church and whose old buddy Nostradamas would have disappeared up his own prophecies had it not been for a Lyonnais book publisher. By the time the Abbe Sauniere was supposedly strolling its streets, the city had close connections with Martinism, a blend of Christian and Jewish mysticism, with Masonic-like lodges and initiation rites, all rolled into one big secret society.

We finally pulled into Lyon station at around seven in the evening. Richard Bellia was there to meet us off the train. He was grinning from ear to ear. There was, however, a bit of a problem.

'There's a bit of a problem,' declared Bellia. 'I was going to hire a car from a place behind the station, but the office is closed.'

'What's up with your car?' I asked.

'I don't have a car at the moment,' he said.

'Well, we don't need a car tonight, do we? We're just going to your place, aren't we?'

'I don't have a place at the moment,' answered Bellia. 'I'm sleeping on a friend's floor.'

'What? Erm, Richard, you do realise Rat and I have come to stay with you for a while...?'

'Of course! Don't worry! I've arranged somewhere for the three of us to sleep, but it's some way out of the city. So we need a car to get there. Let's go to see Salim. We can borrow a car from him. He wants to see you tonight, anyway.'

I'd wondered how long it would be before I saw Salim. He'd stayed at my place with Bellia two or three times – and had always promised he'd take good care of me if I ever came to Lyon. Salim owns a string of burger bars in the city and also runs food stalls at music festivals throughout France. A couple of years ago, Bellia had helped him to break into the British festival circuit – Glastonbury, Reading and the like. I'd last seen Salim the previous summer, when he and Bellia brought a 10-strong team of people over to the UK to work that year's Reading bash. They'd stopped off in Brentford on the way. Bellia was driving a van full of cheese and was intending to spend five nights sleeping in it. 'It stinks, but at least getting through Customs was easy,' he'd told me. 'They put their noses near the van door and waved me on.'

I gave Scabies the scoop on Salim during the taxi ride from the station to American Sandwich, Salim's main burger bar, but there wasn't enough time to properly prepare him for what was coming. It started as soon as we stepped from the cab. Salim was out of his shop in an instant, grabbing hold of my head and planting a kiss on each of my cheeks, then pulling me towards him in a rib-buckling bearhug, before shoving me away in order to kiss me again. He is a short man, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in width and volume.

'You are a muzzafucker!' he bellowed, slapping me on the back and roaring with laughter. 'My English is good now, huh? Excuse me! Richard Bellia, he tells me very many new words. You will be my guest tonight because you are a muzzafucker! And your friend' – turning to Scabies and clamping his hand in an iron grip – 'he is a muzzafucker also!'

After stashing our luggage in a room above the shop, Bellia and Salim escorted Scabies and I to a bar around the corner, where jugs of beer and bottles of wine instantly appeared on our table. Dishes of meat, bowls of chips and baskets of bread followed a little later. Salim doesn't normally drink alcohol, but this evening he made an exception. And some. It was impossible to know how much we were drinking because our glasses were topped up as soon as they were less than two thirds full, but I lost count of the number of times Salim hollered some kind of a toast. 'Death to the ugly!' was his favourite.

'He's like a pirate,' Scabies whispered into my ear. He was dead right. Salim's jet black curls and jet black eyes, legacies of his Algerian ancestry, and his permanent five o'clock shadow were clearly important credentials. But it was his booming growl of a voice and room-shaking laugh – 'A-HA-HA-HA-HA!' – that really did it. All he needed was a parrot on his shoulder.

'I am happy for you to be my guests,' proclaimed Salim, chomping on a chicken leg. 'You can have anything that you want. It is my pleasure. What do you want? You want women? Do you like your woman like this?' Emulating a boastful fisherman, he set his hands a generous couple of feet apart. 'Or do you like your woman big?'

The evening passed in a blur of booze and shouting. At various points, other people dragged chairs up to our table and joined us for a drink. Most of them were introduced to Scabies and I as working for Salim in some capacity. A tall man with a handlebar moustache placed a set of car keys on the table in front of Bellia, stayed for more than an hour, and didn't speak a word to anyone. A guy wearing a shiny suit got into a blazing row with the bar owner which ended in a flurry of finger wagging and chest poking. Another man arrived with a red sports bag packed full of perfume.

'It is my future,' declared Salim, holding the bag aloft. 'I will take these perfumes to England. I will sell them in England.'

'Give them your sales pitch, Salim,' prompted Bellia.

'Excuse me!' yelled Salim, wobbling to his feet. 'Madame! Do you know who I really am? Let me introduce myself. Excuse me! A-HA-HA-HA-HA! Usually I work in France, but today I work in England. I like very much your country. I like very much the way of your life. But there is a thing I do not like. Your life is expensive. That is why I am here today. Madame, please give me your hand. No, it is not for a wedding. I cannot because I am married. I am sorry. A-HA-HA-HA-HA! Do you know the Hugo Boss? Do you know the Calvin Klein? You can take one for free today! F-R-E-E – free! It is not you who will pay today. It is my company who will pay. Do I have the right to make a present for you? Do I have the right to be crazy for you? A-HA-HA-HA-HA!'

We'd heard countless variations of Salim's sales pitch by the time we'd left the bar and strolled back to American Sandwich. A day of travel and a night of alcohol had tired me out, and I was hoping we could collect our luggage, hop into the car we were borrowing from Salim and be on our way. But there was no chance of that. Not with the burger bar being closed and locked. And Salim not having a key. And when we eventually located someone who did have a key, discovering that our luggage had disappeared.

All that took an eternity and it was another eternity before Bellia, who had thankfully quit drinking hours earlier, found out that the fellow with the handlebar moustache had already put our bags in the car. Salim meanwhile sat on the kerb outside his shop, singing at the top of his voice. I hadn't the faintest idea what the song was, but he bawled the same half a dozen lines over and over again, placing great emphasis on the 'Oh Marie' at the start of each couplet and only stopping when he almost got into a brawl with a passing gang of teenagers on mopeds.

'Now you can take my beautiful car,' said Salim once Bellia had solved the mystery of the lost luggage. 'Excuse me! You can take it for today and tomorrow and all of the days. This car is beautiful and free. F-R-E-E – free! Excuse me! A-HA-HA-HA-HA! You will like very much this car. It is my pleasure!'

With that, Salim shook hands, whacked backs and kissed cheeks, before staggering off into the night. The sound of 'Oh Marie' rattled in our ears as Bellia led Scabies and I down the street to where Salim's 'beautiful car' was parked. It wasn't actually a 'beautiful car', though. It wasn't a car at all. It was a van – blue and white and battered to hell. Not that we were bothered. We were happy to have some transport and also to be able to get out of what had become quite a nippy evening. Too nippy to have just spent over an hour standing about outside in T-shirts.

'Bung the heater on, Richard,' said Scabies.

With the three of us squashed onto the bench seat of the driver's compartment, we were soon racing out of Lyon. Bellia was to my left, gripping the viciously vibrating steering wheel with both hands. Scabies was to my right, examining the contents of the glove compartment. But as the heater slowly warmed the van, I became aware of another presence lurking beyond the partition behind us. Something in the back was honking and it was honking something rotten.

'Can you smell a sort of...?' I began, my question grinding to a halt as the answer hit me. 'Jesus Christ, Richard, is this van what I think it is?'

Bellia didn't respond. He just kept staring straight ahead at the road.

'I don't believe this,' muttered Scabies. 'A cheese wagon. We're searching for the Holy Grail in a fucking cheese wagon.'

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