WILLIAM THE CONQUERESS
I didn’t much like the Norman port of Le Havre. My one visit there back in the 1990s was thick with gloom and menace. Posters for the Front Nationale adorned outside walls with alarming omnipresence, while skulking retards shuffled about like ghosts of loathing. One swore at me with cretinous viciousness and a hopeless misery so intense that I was convinced he had a knife and both the will and lack of imagination to slice a throat with it. I have seen worse places, but not many.
A while back, a young couple called Julien and Virginie ended up living there. They were a wonderful pair, tender and eccentric. They were obliged to relocate to Le Havre from a merrier part of Normandy as they were schoolteachers starting out, and that is where the authorities sent them. They had a daughter of three months, a delightful little red and round-faced ball of cheekiness. Her parents’ eccentricity had got the better of them and they had christened the child Guillaume. For those who skipped French lessons, that’s William in English.
One afternoon Virginie arrived home after teaching some sweet ten-year-olds and some monstrous fifteen-year-olds with green teeth and claws, to find Julien hanging their grizzling daughter over the top of a bannister.
“I’ve tried everything,” cried Julien over the din, his face screwed up into an exasperated triangle.
“I’ve tapped her back, I’ve been up and down, back and forth, round and around and round again, but she won’t stop crying.”
“I’ve done circles, figures of eight, pyramids, cuboids, dodecahedronoids and all manner of three dimensional polygons, but she still keeps crying.”
“I’ve had her upside down, sideways front on, sideways back against, forward-slashed, back slashed and the right way up, but she can’t stop crying.”
“I’ve said kind words, harsh words and all words in between. I’ve sung lullabies to ease her and Beatles songs to please her (all babies seem to like The Beatles), baby songs to roll it out and Fats Domino songs to bounce it out. Mon dieu! Nothing works,” he groaned, passing the child to Virginie. He subsequently covered his head with his long, bony hands and hopped around all bent up like an anguished toad.
Guillaume needed to belch. Babies always need to belch. Fathers rarely know this, imagining the infant is ill, too hot, too cold, hungry, has a tooth coming through or is just being awkward. Mothers do know of course, twice over; once by instinct and once from what they’ve been told by those with experience while Dad wasn’t listening.
“There, there,” said Virginie but surprisingly it made no difference and the 137th ‘there’ had a note of irritation in it. It got worse. Guillaume was now screaming, that stinking trapped wind crushing her delicate little windpipe. Then Virginie had a brainwave.
“How about we do nothing? We just lie her down and soon enough she’ll burp and everything will be just fine.”
“Good idea,” said Julien, “it might just work.”
Being a pessimist he didn’t really think it would work and indeed it didn’t, though it seemed like it might, for as they both tried in vain to read a book while Guillaume lay howling in her cot, the cries gradually subsided into sniffles, snuffles and sporadic grizzles. However, as Julien was trying to blot out the world by listening to obscure, unsociable and discordant music on full whack with headphones (it may have been a jazz band doing Throbbing Gristle covers), a sound penetrated his eardrum that didn’t sonically fit with the gnashing and wailing on the album.
“Oh God,” he muttered as poor Guillaume screamed, yelled and hollered every ounce of oxygen out of her dainty little lungs. Virginie was already by her daughter’s side.
“So when I count to three, you’re gonna burp. OK, One... two... three... BURP!”
She didn’t burp.
So this went on.
“Maybe after we feed her...” said Julien
“Or try to spoon her a little water,” Virginie chipped in.
They did both. Neither worked.
“WAAAAAHHHRRR” remarked Guillaume.
The next morning, following an almost totally sleepless night Julien and Virginie were awoken by some crying... followed by some wailing... a little sobbing... and a LOT of yelling.
Luckily it was Saturday. Julien headed straight to the pharmacy.
“What have you got for a baby with a blocked belch?” he enquired.
“We’ve got this for wedged wind,” said one chemist.
“And this for stuck sick,” suggested another.
“While there’s this one for trapped turd,” a third proffered.
“You’d better take all three!” said all three.
At 9.43 Guillaume ingested the medicine and stopped crying for about twelve seconds.
“That’s cured it!” Julien joyously exclaimed.
“No it hasn’t. She hasn’t burped yet,” replied Virginie.
Guillaume then made some curious faces, wiggling her chin round and squishing her neck as if a humongous belch was about to be unleashed. Julien even thought he saw an air bubble sliding and wobbling up and down her windpipe but after a quick rub of the eyes reckoned he’d seen nothing.
Guillaume started wailing again.
“Right! I’ve had just about enough of this!” shouted Julien. “Bloody well burp, or else!”
“Right! I’ve had just about enough of this!” shouted Virginie, “I’m phoning the doctor.’
It was Saturday and their médecin traitant (General Practitioner) wasn’t working, but they managed to get an appointment with a Docteur Bougon at the local clinic.
“Next!” drilled Dr Bougon some hours later.
“Blimey, that’s the noisiest baby I’ve ever heard. Thank God they’ve gone in!” whispered another waiting patient.
“Well, what brings you here?” asked Bougon.
Virginie and Julien explained.
“What, you’ve come here on a Saturday just because of some trapped wind?! You people put a strain on the health service.”
“It’s been a whole day,” said Virginie coldly.
“Try fizzy water. If that doesn’t work give her Coca-Cola. If that’s no good, try this,” with which he scribbled down a prescription that was more like an electrocardiogram readout than characters in the Roman alphabet.
“Two a day. That’ll be 23 euros. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got other patients to see.”
“NEXT!” Bougon stuck his bearded face out of his consulting room once more.
Virginie and Julien took the doctor’s advice. None of it had any effect and poor Guillaume wailed and groaned her way through another day of suffering.
On Sunday morning, following one more endless, sleepless night, Virginie took Guillaume for a ride in her pram. She stopped in the park, unfolded a picnic rug and rolled the troubled baby over and over, then bounced her up and down a few times, which brought out a brief smile, before lying face down in exhaustion. Guillaume was crying her eyes out. Julien tried the car; he’d heard babies liked to sleep in moving vehicles. He went out for a two-hour spin. She didn’t sleep, though. She just carried on sobbing.
Monday morning came and after about twenty seven winks Guillaume woke up worse than ever, screaming and gnashing her gums in agony and discomfort.
“What if it’s something more serious than a burp?” suggested Julien.
They decided they’d better take the day off. Their GP Dr Félix, a young and kindly lady, managed to fit them in at 11.45.
“Sometimes you’re not sure why babies cry, but first things first, you all need some sleep – so I’m going to prescribe a little something for all of you. She printed the prescription off so they could actually read it. Then she did some tests.
“Heart, lungs, ears, nose, temperature, blood pressure all absolutely fine. I concur with you that it’s almost certainly a trapped burp. It will come out, I promise you. They can last for days and you’ll be surprised how long a baby can cry. It’s nothing to worry about.”
Dr Félix was right; sometimes babies can cry for the strangest of reasons. Unbeknown to the four of them, there once was a case of a four-week-old baby in Gloucestershire, England, who cried non-stop for an entire summer – from May until August 29th to be precise. This was because this incredibly sensitive child felt his father’s pain at Gloucestershire county cricket club’s winless streak. When they finally won their first match of the season the crying ceased. In the Peruvian Andes a six-week-old girl once cried so intensely in a 24-hour period that she soaked nineteen pairs of pyjamas. This was (without her even consciously knowing, of course) due to the disappearance of a local condor which she was used to seeing every day. I don’t know what became of the condor, but strangely the girl, now 37, has never cried since, as if she’d shed a volume of tears so great that it was equivalent to an average lifetime’s worth.
However, I can tell you that in Guillaume’s case it was indeed a trapped belch and it was very, very painful indeed. Poor baby, not having a clue what was going on and seemingly nobody able to help her.
After six horrible days and six terrible nights of her parents trying everything dozens of times over, Guillaume woke up after a reasonable snooze, smiled and moved her lips in a fish like manner as if she were going to burp.
Then she didn’t. Instead, she began wailing and clutching her marble smooth little chest. Julien had a nervous breakdown on the spot.
“RIGHT!” he shouted, and wrapping Guillaume in a blanket he picked the child up and headed for the front door.
“Wait!” Virginie yelled, trying to keep up with her striding man, now half way down the street.
“THE SEA AIR! THE SEA ITSELF! THE SEA! THE SEA!” countered the madman.
Julien stormed and stomped his way to Le Havre beach with the monstrous tenacity of an utterly exhausted man. Facing the sea, he held the chubby-cheeked infant aloft. He shouted to God (he didn’t know which one but by now he was desperate) for mercy and closed his eyes, just as a blast of wind hit his face and did dramatic things to his hair. He looked like a latter day Abraham about to toss his child into the sea. A storm began brewing in cinematic sympathy. Meanwhile, the nasty simpleton I’d come across several years before was approaching them. He needed money and he was prepared to use his knife to get it, not caring that there was a baby present since he didn’t possess a conscience.
It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t.
As the simpleton honed in on his target, hand on hilt, Guillaume turned her head, saw his terrible eyes and burped. Mayhem followed. The energy of the repressed burp tore south across Normandy, destroying everything and everyone in its path. The simpleton was the first to die, tossed six hundred metres up in the air before his knife ended up piercing the roof of his mouth and slicing off his nose. Luckily for him he felt no pain as the force of the blast had already rendered him unconscious. The damage northwards was even worse as the wind favoured that direction. The lunatic sea exploded, hurling Poseidon himself into a Martian orbit as saltwater shards licked the moon. Pieces of Le Havre whizzed towards England, which was engulfed by tidal waves the size of Birmingham. Only 1079 Britons survived the deluge; a smattering of folk in the Scottish Highlands, a few birdwatchers in East Anglia, a small commune of Cornish bookbinders and a blind and deaf Rabbi who was potholing in the Cheddar Gorge and didn’t know anything had happened.
Julien, Virginie and the innocent little girl all survived of course, being in the eye of the storm, or should I say the flesh of the burp. All their friends in Normandy and Paris lay dead.
I died too – although I’d been living in Chartres in central France where I would have stood a fifty-fifty chance of surviving, I was back in London on musical business and was killed a matter of minutes after the belch. It’s strange here in the afterlife. There are loads of newly-arrived British of course and the original William the Conqueror is here too. He’s sullen and self-absorbed but I have to say he’s mellowed a lot with death. He’s probably thinking how much time and effort he could have saved himself invading Britain if he’d had such a weapon as the mighty burp.