An Elephant

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Chapter 2: Billy Harrison

Chapter 2: Billy Harrison

An event seen from one point of view gives one impression... Seen from another point of view it gives quite a different impression… But it’s only

when you get the whole picture, that you can fully understand what’s going on.’

- Guardian newspaper television advert 1986


“What’s happening?! Hey there USA, this is Rachel Schwartz on WKSP TV with my new cameraman, Ed. The local time is twelve noon, this is Place St George behind me, and I’m in Marseille, France at the Soccer Football World Cup: France ’98!

“France beat South Africa here on Friday and the atmosphere has been electric ever since. The sun is shining and everyone’s getting excited about the match between England and Tunisia later this afternoon. For the next month I’ll be bringing you all the on-the-scene news and views, live and direct from the streets all over France, as it happens. You may be able to hear that song in the background, I’ve just been informed that it’s called ‘Couleur Café’ by Serge Gainsbourg. So French! Doesn’t it just, like, totally set the mood?

“An hour ago we spoke to some Tunisian fans, and now it’s the turn of the English. There are quite a few passing by; back there at the Hotel de la Paix a few have settled in, and they look like they’re enjoying the afternoon. The locals are doing what they do best here in France: people-watching!

“Judging by the singing, these guys are definitely here to watch the England team… excuse me Sir, Sir! You look very happy and excited judging by the huge smile on your face, are you having a good time?”

“Er, yeah, I’m ‘avin’ a great time, yeah. How are you, Twinkle?”

“Awesome, thanks. Where are you from, Sir?”

“I’m from a place called Hoylake, it’s near Liverpool.”

“Oh wow! Liverpool! The Beatles… and I believe that you have a great soccer, or should I say football team there too, is that right?”

“We do, yeah.. Dee doo doe, don’t dee doe?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Er… Nothin’.

“What are you hoping to see while you’re here?”

“I’m lookin’ forward to a great example of our beautiful game of... er… ‘soccer’. Come on soccer! Score a goal!”

“So you’ve come all the way from Liverpool, England to see your team play. You must be football crazy! Would you like to tell me, for the benefit of our viewers, just how much you love the sport? Who’s your favourite player?”

“Actually I don’t even like football.”

“Surely you don’t mean … I’m sorry… Sir?.. Sir! Well, viewers, I don’t know what happened there but we seem to have lost that one. There’ll be another short bulletin in an hour, I’m Rachel Schwartz, now back to Kenny in the studio.”

“It’s all ’appenin’, isn’t it?” Billy Harrison gave a wry smile as he walked back toward the hotel on the Northern side of Place St George, having abandoned his first ever television interview.

“Soccer? Score a fucking goal!?” sneered Big Gary, open-mouthed. The irony was lost on him, as was generally the case. Billy joined Pickles and Gary on the hotel terrace and picked up his beer.

“Fuckin’ ’soccer’!?” Gary screamed again. As usual, Billy had been acting the clown. All three spoke with a Merseyside accent. Big Gary’s was so strong as to sound almost synthetic, even to Billy. Gary was ever the diplomat:

“What would she fuckin’ know about what’s happening? Fuckin’ clueless yank bitch, what’s she even doing ‘ere? Football hasn’t been the same since fuckin’ 1990 mate - Pavarotti’s got a lot to answer for… started off with nerds and posh scarfers that used to only follow rugby; now you’ve got fuckin’ MTV or whoever the fuck she is, tryin’ to get in on the act.

So what? thought Billy. I’m really enjoying me French jolly-up, an’ I’ve got football to thank for it.

Mercifully for Billy, who really didn’t like football much, there had been a lull in the talk of football statistics for the fifteen minutes leading up to his abandoned television interview. Billy didn’t really know the players, or who played for who, so most of the humour was lost him. He concentrated on the music coming out of the hotel’s sound system for a few seconds.

That’s Gainsbourg.

He took in the scene around him in Place St George: the journalist who had just interviewed him and her cameraman, the other football tourists, the pastel stone buildings, the evocative French music interspersed with spontaneous football songs from nearby streets. He had noticed the Old Port area they were in had plenty of satellite dishes on display, but it still had loads of old-fashioned French charm; he hadn’t seen a red brick all day. Despite his usual disinterest in football, he surprised himself at how excited he was becoming.

It’s a bit like the atmosphere at a major club or festival: everyone’s on dead good form and it rubs off.

So far there had been no sign of trouble, and no mention of it from anyone apart from Big Gary.

“Crackin’ the flags, isn’t it?” said Pickles, pulling his sweat-drenched shirt from his chest to allow some air in.

“I’m sweating like a paedophile in a prison riot” was Billy’s response. Silliness had been the order of the day, and all three had been drifting in and out of the giggles since they had left the airport. Another look at the journalist in the centre of the square led Big Gary into another rant about how much better it was in the old days, just like a seasoned raver might:

“In the days before CCTV, fuckin’ banning orders and all-seater stadiums, it was rivers of piss in the Kop. You’d get lifted off your feet as a little kid when goals got scored. Fuckin’ glory days, mate. A kid can’t ask a player for his top now, it’s already promised to a fucking sponsor.”

Pickles winked at Billy, knowing Billy would have little or no interest in this kind of nostalgia, even with an entertaining delivery, but Gary was on an all-too-familiar rant:

“In the seventies, Liverpool scallies were some of the first working class people to go abroad. They robbed a load of designer gear in Italy one year and came back wearin’ it. ‘Where d’ya get that top?’ ‘Got it in Europe, following The Reds.’”

Here we go again thought Billy the second time this week I’ve heard the same speech.

“Badge of honour.” Big Gary was in full swing, “That’s why footy lads follow designers, and it’s why I’m wearin’ Armani now.” Big Gary proudly pinched his tailored shorts. “That’s why Liverpool are the most influential team in the world, mate.

“The thing is, we only nicked from the fuckin’ Ities, but the Mancs carried on with it back in England. Not enough that they nicked our dock business with the fuckin’ canal, they robbed from English jewellers - fuckin’ robbin’ bastards! We had Italian designer gear and they had watches knocked off from hard-working English” he spat. “S’pose they were Jews… I hate Tottenham.”

Heard it all before.

Gary must have realised how disinterested Billy was.

“I’m wearing Adidas classics…” Big Gary pointed to his red Trim Trab trainers, then at Billy’s.

“…and yours are designed by fuckin’ Basil Brush.”

This was uncharacteristically witty of Gary. Pickles laughed but Billy felt his face visibly drop. He looked down.

“They’re Travel Fox, man.”

“Well they still look like fuckin’ pasties… I hate brown trainees. En-ger-land!” Gary joined in with a chant sung from a few streets away. Billy watched Gary pace purposefully back inside the Hotel towards the toilet, then looked at Pickles disapprovingly. Pickles was Billy’s best mate and very much aware of how his older step-brother Gary could be when he got drunk, to Billy, or anyone else. He had sworn to behave himself, but neither Pickles nor Billy fully trusted him on that front. Billy checked Gary was out of earshot.

“Not good is it?” said Billy, nervously threading his fingers through a lock of his curly hair. “It’s only twelve o’clock, and he’s already as pissed as his nan’s bed.”

“He’ll be alright,” said Pickles. “He promised to behave himself.”

“D’ya believe him?”

Pickles exhaled deeply as sirens rang out in the distance.

“Dunno,” he said. “I s’ppose I have to. It’s getting hotter, maybe it’ll mellow him out a bit, like.”

“Maybe,” said Billy. “But somehow I can’t see it.”

Pickles stared at his beer bottle. He seemed to be avoiding Billy’s eye. “Sorry, mate,” he said. “He wouldn’t be me first choice but what could I say? He’s me step-brother. You know how it is.”

“Yeah,” said Billy. “Don’t worry. And hey – maybe he’ll be okay.”

Gary’s type were the reason Billy had fallen out of love with football. Far from being a regular fan, Billy had no real interest in the game at all these days - a situation he had cultivated since his early teens, some ten years previously. He remembered going to the match whenever he could, up until he started secondary school. Jimbob, his best mate from over the road as a kid, was a staunch Liverpool fan, and initially they shared the passion, although Billy was never quite as keen. The two had gone to the match every chance they got, usually with Jimbob’s dad, who had a season ticket in the stands.

Billy’s first visit to the Kop was a different matter altogether. A bit older, and with no adult to protect him, he became far more aware of the partisan spirit of the crowd, and how the passion was often little removed from utter hatred of the opposition.

At the end of January 1985, only four months before Heysel, Liverpool played Tottenham and beat them 1 - 0 in the fourth round of the FA Cup. After the match, just over the road from him, a minor scuffle kicked off between some young lads from both teams. Moments later some older Spurs lads and Liverpool fans got involved, then some other men in their forties. As the violence spiralled out of control and the police turned up it got seriously out of hand. Billy’s lasting memory was of a fifty year old Tottenham fan, so angry that he kicked a police horse in the legs.

Being at that formative age when most teenagers want to fit in, Billy felt he had two choices; he would either have to stop going to the match altogether, or he could continue but run the risk of involvement with one of the younger firms - the ‘Under Fives’ as they were often called. He was on the periphery of a couple of small groups of lads that he had spoken to over the years, and was still deliberating this decision when he watched a 4-3 win over Chelsea. He was walking down Anfield Road before a match, when a car pulled up and someone jumped out. He stabbed the nearest bloke in arm with what looked like a bread knife, then got back into the car and drove off.

Billy didn’t know if it was a completely random attack, or even whether it was a Chelsea fan or not, but the Heysel Stadium disaster happened three weeks later and after that point, the decision had been easy. His vicarious love of football, slightly borrowed from his childhood friend, had basically been extinguished. It might be considered cowardice, but Billy had considered the decision to be a form of humanity, plus a good way of avoiding getting stabbed. He had lost all interest in becoming one of the Under Fives that risked hospital, and worse, every time they went to watch ninety minutes of football. Always small for his age, Billy craved a world without violence.

He had used this justification for not following football once or twice, when trying to get girls into bed, and with some success. He could never have admitted to this logic with football-following men, so he gave an altogether different story to people like Big Gary. Money was a slight factor - especially the expense of away games, even in those days - but more importantly, every time he watched the England team in International tournaments, he got genuinely emotionally involved. The line he took was that he simply could not cope with going through that kind of stress every weekend during the domestic season. He still got some funny looks from die-hard Koppites and some other serious football followers, but it worked well enough, so he stuck to the story.

Big Gary arrived back from the toilet and nudged him forcibly in the back.

“Look, Billy. Leeds fans. You behave yourself.”

His keen desire to avoid violence was unsuspected by Big Gary and his trouble-loving football mates from over the Mersey. Not long after they had first met, Billy had bumped into Gary in Liverpool city centre while on his way to a Cantaloupe gig at Heebie Jeebies one Saturday night. Liverpool had suffered a rare loss at home, and there were about twenty Leeds fans in the same pub. They were obviously up for a row, giving the locals stick for losing and waving a stolen Liverpool scarf at them as a trophy. The door staff had tactically disappeared and then, from nowhere, one of the Leeds fans threatened to glass Billy.

“Want some, yer Scouse fucker?” he snarled, his features distorted with hate. “What you gonna do, eh?”

“Look, man” said Billy. “I don’t want any trouble. I didn’t watch the match. I’m not even into football, I’m just stopping here on me way to a gig.”

The Leeds fan smirked. “Maybe not, but you’re still a Scouse cunt. What if I do you anyway?”

Billy glanced around him for a possible rescuer, but none of the surrounding drinkers made eye contact. Either they hadn’t heard the threats, or they were pretending they hadn’t.Billy was unsteady on his feet from drinking for most of the afternoon, and picked up an empty glass ashtray from the table between them. His intention was only to bang it on the table with frustration but Big Gary, knowing they were on CCTV, had grabbed his hand before he had the chance to smash it. The Leeds fan retreated back to his jeering firm, thinking glass against glass was not a good idea.

Big Gary beamed his approval, seriously impressed with Billy’s perceived lunatic streak, and Billy never let on that he only wanted to bang it on the table. For Gary, Billy’s reputation as a bit of a nutter was sealed, and his clown-like behaviour and warped sense of humour over the years did nothing to dispel the image.

England chants drifted across Place St George from nearby and snapped Billy out of his recollections, and he nervously leaned over and stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. He thought about how he just wanted to get through the day without serious incident, and with a few laughs on the way. He had been secretly very happy with his choice as a twelve-year old - of peace over football and its related violence - but he couldn’t conceive of telling Big Gary. He had been troubled from the moment Gary had invited himself to Marseille.

Today Billy wondered if he would be exposed to serious violence: was Gary likely to find trouble? Fighting fraud that Billy was, might he get stabbed and beaten or kicked to death in a gutter? Would the fuelled atmosphere of being an English fan abroad - the mob culture’s mass hysteria, drunk with bravado and Stella Artois - result in him getting involved for the first time? What if the opposite happened and he found himself joining Big Gary in beating and kicking someone else to death in a gutter? He shuddered at the thought.

He plucked his pouch of tobacco from his back pocket, opened it, and took out a packet of cigarette papers. He held a paper and stuffed it with a pinch of tobacco, hoping that the sweat of his fingers wouldn’t dampen the paper too much to light.

“Wahey!” Gary strode onto the hotel terrace from the bar, with three large measures of a dangerous-looking brown liquid.

Local hooch, probably dead potent. This won’t help Billy thought, putting his tobacco pouch back in his pocket and adjusting his underwear through his shorts.

“Down in one lads. The fella says it’s made from walnuts. Quite good English for a surrender-monkey.” They all drank immediately and then winced in unison.

“Fuckin’ hell!” said Gary, “This tastes worse than the shit we used to make on radiators in prison outta Marmite and orange juice.” Gary clumsily put his shot glass down on the table and gulped the last dregs of his bottle of Stella Artois. “I need more beer to get rid o’ the taste.” He went straight back inside the hotel.

Billy looked at Pickles with a furrowed brow. Pickles simply shrugged.

Billy looked inside at Gary who was already back at the bar, ordering in a needlessly loud voice. Anyone else would normally be served by the waiter, but the three were drinking so quickly that they had been asked to leave a card behind the till for a tab, and then fetch it themselves.

Gary was ranting even before he came back out onto the terrace.

“Did you see the Brazil – Scotland game? Scotland scored an own goal and still nearly got a fucking draw. If it wasn’t for Gordon Durie missing a good chance near the end, they woulda got one.”

“Jukebox Durie” said Pickles, for Billy’s benefit. “Couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.”

It had been a minute or so since the stereotypical French music had stopped, and the sound of synthetic heavy breathing came out of the hotel’s sound system. Billy smiled broadly and said: “Rude tune.”

“Is this your mixtape?” asked Pickles.

“Oh Yiiiis!” said Billy, waving a friendly ‘thank you’ at the barman within. The first tune on his specially-prepared compilation had seemed an obvious choice: it was Kraftwerk’s ‘Tour de France’.

Billy watched Big Gary nod his approval before sneering across the terrace at one of the locals at the next table.

No need thought Billy, struggling not to shake his head.

Big Gary was a known face at the football, and deservedly so. Often involved in violence, he had somehow managed to evade serious police attention at football games for years. In 1990 he had been charged with fencing stolen antiques, and had gone to prison as a stocky seventeen-year old, preceded by his reputation.

In Strangeways, he met one of Liverpool’s top boys: an armed robber and real Toxteth personality, with connections to firms – football and otherwise – from all over Europe. Gary was a Liverpool fan and there were mainly Manchester lads inside, so they had gelled immediately. Gary enjoyed the automatic status-by-association of one to be left alone. The two got out at a similar time - Gary was a lot bigger after nine months of weight training, and much of his newfound mate’s anecdotes and career-criminal swagger had worn off on him. Despite his past as a small-time Wirral woollieback, Gary started hanging around with some heavy Toxteth faces, drinking upstairs in Kirklands and having his run of The Quad.

Like many people on the scene, he always dressed the part: Armani, Stone Island and high end sportswear; at home he still had an original Fila BJ in the rarer green, but he’d been too fat to wear it for years. He went to all the away games, was always up for a row, and had the telephone numbers of other top boys in all the major rival firms from around the country, even before the days of the mobile phone. He was in on the Urchin’s coded messages in the Liverpool Echo, and more importantly, when it went down, people had his back.

“Hello!” said Pickles, out of earshot of an approaching girl, as she entered the square to their left with what looked like her dad. To a handsome, sharply dressed and silver-tongued pro like Pickles, she was fresh meat, father or not; Pickles could charm the birds from the trees. Once, in one of the few areas of Liverpool’s Cream nightclub where voices could be heard, he had sauntered up to a very beautiful, very well-spoken girl, who later turned out was from Kensington and studying to be a barrister. He had said:

“Can I smell your fanny?”

Absolutely horrified, she had shouted:

“No!”

“Well, it must be your feet, then.”

Her hysterics had led to a two-month relationship, which was a long one for the roving Pickles.

Billy swigged from his bottle of Stella and tapped ash from his roll-up. Gary tilted his head and stuck his chest out as he watched a couple of innocent-looking locals walk past, one of whom was black. Billy shook his head. He and Gary were such a mismatch in almost every way but Gary thought him a like-minded part of the lunatic fringe.

Christ you can be an arsehole thought Billy.

A big smoker and heavily into his music, Billy held hippy values. He was able to admit that a bit of a scuffle with some consenting adults is one thing - he knew that Pickles had been drawn into it on more than one occasion - but kicking off with innocent bystanders is another. Gary had often told stories on all-night sessions in Hoylake, trying - and failing - to impress his listeners with stories of blades, suffering scarfers and kickings that just made him sound a hate-filled low-life in Billy’s eyes.

We’re not even in England Billy thought. You doesn’t like black or Asian people - any foreigners really… He took another mouthful of beer. You don’t like Germans, the French, people from London, Birmingham, Chester…

It irked Billy that he held Gary in such low esteem, but that Gary thought that if anyone was from elsewhere, or different in some way, it must be them who was fundamentally inferior, somehow.

You don’t complain about people from two miles away in West Kirby, you don’t even like people who drink in The Lake lounge sometimes, you only like people in The Lake bar… as long as they’re not ‘blue-nose’ Everton fans.

He focused on the rhythmic beauty of Kraftwerk, who were still playing.

I wish I was at home listening to a new stereo.

Billy had never even been to an away game before, never mind travelled abroad to watch football. The three of them were only in France because Billy had won a competition with Radio City: JVC, an official sponsor of France ’98 had run a phone-in competition with a first prize of three tickets to see England at the World Cup, one night’s accommodation and flights included. The second prize was a state-of-the-art JVC sound system, and it was the second prize that Billy had hoped to win. He had won first place and as the official competition winner, his ticket was non-transferable so it became merely a question of who he would take with him to the watch the match.

None of his other football-following mates could be contacted or make it at such short notice, and Gary happened to be there, just as Billy found this out while on the phone at Pickles’s house. Gary was so heavily into football that he pounced on the opportunity with a two-footed tackle and Billy couldn’t refuse. Disaster he had thought. His best mate’s step-brother would be coming to France with them.

“The French have got fuckin’ no chance in this competition. What do they know about football?” Gary had been making a nuisance of himself all day, causing friction and generally ranting about all that was wrong with the place.

It looks dead nice,” Billy was thinking, a hell of a lot nicer than that day trip to Calais - his only other time in France. The buildings are dead nice and I haven’t seen a Hypermarket all day. People said Marseille was dodgy, but so far it’s alright.

He looked around the square and watched as the people passed by the terrace of the hotel where they stood. Along with the searing heat, the collective excitement seemed to be mounting and Billy felt his heart racing. The three of them stood next to their table, unable to sit down, and clinked their bottles of beer together, yet again.

Wow! Look at her! he thought. Billy spotted another girl, sat in the far corner of the square, that he found so attractive he almost felt winded when he saw her.

“Lads, ’ave yer seen that girl over there?” He signalled towards the beautiful girl facing toward them from the corner. She wore a pink vest top, and khaki shorts. Blond and deeply tanned, somehow she didn’t quite look French, and the scruffy lad with her, with his back to the square, revealing a red neck in a yellow T-shirt and jeans, looked to be unprepared for the Marseille heat. Neither of them looked like football tourists either.

Student types.

“Bathe her… and bring her to me” said Pickles in his best Ming The Merciless accent.

“Are you still seeing that slutty mate of Shabba’s from The Lake, Billy? Gary asked.

“Jane’s not a slut.”

“She’s seen more stiffies than Quincy!” Pickles had joined in the piss-take.

“Fuck off! Anyway, she hasn’t spoken to me since Wednesday.”

“What’s happened, son?”

“We were getting it on a bit in the afternoon, and she was getting so turned on she said she’d need restraining, so I got me furry handcuffs out and tied her to the bed. We were getting into it some more and I heard the ice cream van outside, so I go: ‘Fancy an ice cream?’

“She says: ‘Love one’ so I went outside and bought two 99s with all the trimmings - raspberry sauce, double flake and all that - and came back upstairs with her still tied up. I just ate ’em both in front of ‘er. You should have heard the squirmin’ and screamin’. I was, like, ‘One minute you want restraining, next minute you don’t. Make your mind up’ I hope she sees the funny side before I get home.

“Fuckin’ ell! Is right, mate, I see what you mean” said Gary, he and Pickles were still looking at the girl in the pink vest with the supermodel looks. “I’d fuckin’ marry that.”

“Go and ask her,” suggested Pickles to Gary. “Then it’s my turn.” Always the ladies’ man, Pickles would genuinely consider proposing if she was alone, but ever the professional, he was always aware of potential competition, and she had company.

Billy was in a relationship, and so would not have approached her with any serious courting in mind, but he couldn’t help but have a good look.

“I’d like to see you chat her up with a bog break every five minutes” said Gary.

“It’s the only thing stopping me” said Billy, with a cheeky smile and fake sincerity. He had been suffering with acute stomach problems all day and blamed it on the fry-up at the greasy spoon, where they had nervously eaten on the way to Speke Airport.

“Fucking diarrhoea and haemorrhoids, what a combination, man! It’s like I’ve been tryin’ to light farts, but left a pilot light on.” Years of riding his postman’s bike every morning had taken their toll on Billy’s behind. “I’ve got an arse like a fuckin’ blood orange.” Pickles and Big Gary began chuckling. Suddenly reminded, Billy fumbled a pack of Imodium out of his shorts.

“The minute we first got signed in ’ere (he pointed to the hotel above them, with a free thumb) and I went upstairs, me fucking waters broke,” the other two were sniggering louder and louder, “I thought I was gonna have to send you two for hot water and towels.” He popped a capsule into his mouth, and pointed at the Imodium. “If this stuff had already kicked in, I think I woulda needed a caesarean.”

Billy gave a wince, which slowly gave way to a relieved, broad smile.

All three were laughing, Gary and Pickles hysterically.

“I don’t mind going for a piss after I’ve eaten, but just not outta me ass.”

Gary cut his laughter short with a question about the next track on the Billy’s tape: “What the fuckin’ ’ell’s this?” Gary tilted his head and sneered “Fuckin’ opera or somethin’?”

“‘You can’t always get what you want’” said Billy.

“It’s The Stones, sof’lad” said Pickles.

“Oh aye yeah.”

Billy had always been a masterful teller of jokes and launched into one immediately:

“A bloke goes to the doctor and says: ‘Doctor… I’ve just been raped… I’ve been raped… by an elephant.’” Billy lurched forward, doubled up, and shuddered in mock pain. As he told the joke, he was clutching his behind with both hands, albeit carefully, and straining his face.

“‘O…K…’ says the doctor. ‘Do you mind if I take a look?’ The doctor makes ’im drop his keks and he ’as a look.”

Miming the doctor, Billy suddenly recoiled in mock surprise:

“…and he goes ’God! That does look serious…. That’s a truly terrible injury… Hang on a minute…’”

Billy shook his head slightly, now bolt upright.

“‘I’ve seen Discovery Channel’ says the doctor… ’that’s a huge hole, and not even an elephant’s got a dick that big.’

“‘I know…’ says the bloke.” Billy winced, his face turned red and he was breathing heavily, doubling up with mock pain again, bending over and leaning on the table. All in the delivery, the expression on Billy’s forcibly pained face was far funnier than the punchline, “The thing is…the thing about the elephant is, doctor… he [gasp]… he fisted me first!”

All three roared with laughter as Billy limped toward the Hotel bar and the toilet, both hands still clasping his arse cheeks tightly. The locals looked on in dismay and Billy could imagine Gary’s laughter turn to a scowl as he leered at them, still foaming slightly at the mouth.

The Rolling Stones were still playing when Billy returned from the toilet. Gary and Pickles were dancing on the hotel terrace watching the world go by on Place St George.

“Fucking ’ell that was another close one in the bogs” he said.

“Not the first time today you’ve nearly shat yourself is it?” said Big Gary…

It had been Billy’s responsibility to carry the ganja through French customs. Earlier that same day, Billy had found himself thinking it was a truly Midnight Express experience throughout the harrowing event.

Speke Airport passport checks were focused on football troublemakers, not drugs, so other than strict passport checking, and a few searching questions, Billy had got as far as touching down at Marseille Provence before he felt any real danger. Then the nerves kicked in.

His adrenalin levels went through the roof as the plane had come to a halt, and by the time he set foot on the French Tarmac, he could even hear his own heart beating, just like the scarily atmospheric opening scene of Alan Parker’s film. The skunk weed was wrapped very tightly in alternating cellophane and Sellotape layers and placed in his pocket - too big to fit internally. He had felt so much like shitting himself that he half-wondered whether such a big bag wouldn’t help avoiding such embarrassment, but his chronic piles had meant this was never a real option.

Along with the rest of the passengers, he had walked off the plane and across the runway, past a pair of local policemen, each with a large but slightly dopey-looking German Shepherd dog at his side. A third policeman was taking photos of everyone as they left the plane. One of the dogs had appeared to sniff in the direction of the huge lump in the left pocket of his shorts, but Billy’s terror was momentary –

They never use German Shepherds as sniffer dogs, they always use Spaniels or retrievers or something small. Alsatians are just for crowd control. It’s OK.

He did his best to try and seem relaxed. As all three of them watched the panting dogs, one of them twisted and started to lick its balls.

“I wish I could do that” said Big Gary, absent-mindedly. Billy couldn’t help himself:

“Give him a biscuit and he might let ya.”

“Wahayyyyy!” they all cheered.

“The old ones are the best.”

“You chip ’em up and I’ll nod ’em in.”

Billy could still hear and feel his heart pounding, and he wondered if it was beating so loudly that the people around him could hear it. Even his haemorrhoids seemed to have a pulse. He nervously tried to put his hands in his pockets and then realised that despite being so sweaty he couldn’t fit left his hand in, because of the ten grams of skunk weed he had in it.

They passed the dog handlers but Billy’s heart rate didn’t slow at all. He looked at Big Gary and then Pickles, who winked back at him. They were part of a long stream of England fans, three or four wide, snaking beneath the hot sun from the plane door around the side of a small airport outbuilding. The lad behind him had a sign hanging around his neck saying ‘Looking for tickets to the Tunisia game’. The two lads directly in front had dressed up like crusaders, complete with plastic swords, silver helmets and fake chain mail covered by the Cross of St George. Their smiling faces and costumes did nothing to cheer Billy up.

They had rounded the corner to see Billy’s worst nightmare. A customs officer with a small white Spaniel on a lead, energetically sniffing at someone’s feet, waist, then up and down their legs as people were filing towards the main entrance. The spaniel was thoroughly smelling everyone’s clothes.

No!

Further on, and to the right hand side - just outside a white glass-fronted building, an ashen-faced English fan stood between two policemen…

Handcuffs! He’s in fuckin’ handcuffs!

Shit-the-bed-I’m-going-to-prison! Billy’s vision tunnelled and he seemed to lose grip with his hearing, just as some England fans a few metres behind him burst into song as their feet touched terra firma…

“Keep St. George in my heart ’cos I’m English,

Keep St. George in my heart I pray…”

Also spotting the customs incident in front of them, Big Gary and Pickles both swung around to frown at Billy who tried and failed, yet again, to put his left hand into his weed-stuffed pocket.

“Keep St. George in my heart ’cos I’m English,

And I’ll be English ’till my dying day.”

Keep my heart from fuckin’ poppin’ and keep me out of fuckin’ French clink Billy thought. Did I say that out loud? That fucking spaniel’s gonna sniff this weed and I’m gonna get arrested. French fucking prison! Do not pass ‘Go’ and do not collect £200 pounds.

Ahead of them, one of the policemen had controlled and handcuffed the now-shouting man, while his colleague examined a small bag with what looked like about five grams of hash in it. He inhaled disapprovingly as the England fan shrugged and lowered his eyes to the ground.

I’m going to prison. To a fuckin’ French prison. There’s nowhere to chuck this bag of weed, and there’ll be a sniffer dog all over me in about 30 seconds. What kind of sentence will I get for ten grams? Is that Supply? Am I a smuggler? I knew this was going to happen. I don’t even like fuckin’ football. It was Big Gary’s idea to do it this way. Gary Swanson you cunt! Man, why did I listen to that prick? Fuck… Fuck!

Big Gary grimaced as Billy walked in front of him in line, and then the sniffer dog was at Billy’s leg immediately. It practically jumped on him and after two sniffs, sat down at his feet, while Gary and Pickles moved coyly to their left, giving the dog a wide berth as they shuffled away.

Billy felt like his internal organs were going to invert and turn to slush, as a policeman took him out of the queue and asked him to empty his pockets in passable English. Out came the weed immediately. There was no sense in prolonging the agony. The Frenchman opened the bag easily with a biro, and attempted to inhale deeply but recoiled slightly and screwed up his face as he sniffed it.

Pungent stuff, that AK47.

Billy was cuffed and ushered towards an outhouse away from all the arriving passengers and press.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

He entered the building, continually swallowing through the nerves, and was told to take a seat in front of a small desk with a computer on it. The air conditioning did nothing to slow his perspiration. Two policemen guarded the door, and another man - police or customs officer, he couldn’t tell which - sat down in front of him. Their small area was cordoned off by doctor’s surgery-style curtains and Billy tried and failed to ignore the implications of a cavity search.

The official silently took his passport and put his details into the computer as Billy rubbed his sweat-drenched palms together. The man asked if he had any weapons or other drugs, either in his pockets or in his hand luggage. Billy immediately took the small rucksack from his back, opened it and energetically placed it on the desk between them, next to the bag of weed.

“Nothing at all, man. Honest! Look!”

The official ignored the opened rucksack, and stared at his computer screen for a few more painful seconds.

Sweat dripped off Billy’s chin.

“Mr Harrison, do you have a ticket for the Tunisia game?” he asked without removing his eyes from the monitor.

“Yeah.” Billy swiftly unzipped a pocket in his shorts and pulled it out, placing it on the table between them. The official gave it a cursory glance.

“Mr Harrison, I would suggest very, very strongly, that you never bring drugs into France ever again…” Billy shook his head frantically. “…and that you behave yourself while you are here.”

The official removed the bag of marijuana from the table and sealed it into a labelled, plastic evidence bag. Billy dared not believe what may be happening until the official spoke in French to the two policemen at the door. He said:

“You can go.”

Billy pounced on his rucksack before the man could change his mind, and made for the door which was opened for him.

Freeeeeeeeeee!

Two minutes later, minus his bag of weed, he joined Big Gary and Pickles inside the main building to hugs and shouts of relief and elation. They had passed passport control and swiftly joined the queue for the coaches into town. Relief quickly turned to restlessness: all three were desperate to get to their hotel, unpack and then go out for the afternoon.

“I told yer it’d be OK didn’t I, mate?” said Gary, hugging him again. Despite his smile Billy was still pale with shock and just wanted to get to the hotel for a beer and a line to cheer him up. Decoy Billy had carried nearly half an ounce of extra-smelly skunk on the plane which was confiscated on arrival. Big Gary and Pickles had carried ten grams of cocaine plus twenty E’s for their 36-hour awayday, plus some Valium for the journey home, just to take the edge off. It had all gone according to plan.

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