I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

Mushrooms And Pistols !


How do you say "gun held to stomach" in French?

When I left the BBC in 1997 my concerned bosses told me they thought I was truly mad. You are going to France but don't speak French? You are giving up a decent job to do what? I tried to explain that I had left New Zealand three years earlier to learn another language and live on the continent, not speak English and settle down as an Englishman. However, after just one week on the Côte d'Azur, I almost flew straight back into their arms!

I was greeted at Nice airport by a lovely friend, a bubbly French-Spanish woman who'd tried in vain to teach me the basics of French when she lived in England the year before. I had lodgings, at least for a week; she and her boyfriend were in the process of moving to Marseille, but I had breathing space to find somewhere to live. I enrolled in a language course at Alliance Française. I soaked up the sun. I tortured impatient shopkeepers with my terrible French. Life in Nice seemed to be fun and carefree. I turned down an invitation from my friends to join them on their move to Marseille, a city they thought might suit me better. No, Nice seemed like a good, "relaxed" place to learn a language. I also wanted to be independent.

I took a room advertised on a university noticeboard; it was cheap and there was a piano. The landlady and her daughter spoke little English. Perfect for my French. After bidding farewell to my two friends, helping them load up their van for Marseille, I spent my first hour in my new room, feeling lonely, wondering how my new "family" was going to communicate with me. We just smiled and pointed at things. I thought it would be good to go out, to get away from the silence. I would go and do some shopping. It was about eight at night.
The supermarket, called Champion, was due to close, but I had time to grab a few things. Just inside the entrance, however, I was distracted by a noticeboard, where people advertised all kinds of things. Perfect, I thought, I will put up an ad for English lessons. There was a card provided to fill in. It was the start of my new life in France! I was happy. As I wrote out my advert - leçon d'anglais avec journaliste - I thought to myself that I would celebrate my first night in my new abode by later choosing a decent bottle of French wine.

As I struggled to work out how much I was going to charge for the hopeless lessons I was planning to give, I was shocked to find someone elbowing me in the side. How rude! The bloody French are so impatient! Someone waiting to use the pen? To put up their own advert? I elbowed right back! When I turned to see who was being so obnoxious, I saw someone wearing a motorcycle helmet. The person elbowed me again, only this time with more force, which caused me to stumble. I was just on the verge of thinking about pushing back, when I noticed a pistol in the man's hand. He came closer and pushed it into my stomach. I didn't understand the words at the time, but they would've been something along the lines of "get out of the f***ing way". He certainly hadn't asked for the time! I remember seeing a little bird tattooed on his hand. I also remember noticing that he wore a mask under his helmet, and all that were visible were his mean black eyes. I honestly thought I was going to be a dead man.

Needless to say I didn't fight back. I froze. My blood stopped. My whole system shut down. I didn't breathe. Yes, I kept my cowardly elbows at my side! I then realised why I had been pushed out of the way so brutally: I had been writing on the part of a counter that lifted up, which allowed access to a small office in front of us. The man went ahead and appeared to take bags of money out of a safe. I noticed there were seven other people wearing helmets, brandishing pistols and guns, cleaning out the cash registers. It was all so quiet. No one had yelled. There was no fuss. In fact, many people just carried on shopping. People queued up at the checkout, unaware that we were in the middle of an armed robbery. Some people did click and slowly moved to the back of the store. The managers, I later learned, were the first to head out the back doors. One girl at the checkout started crying because she couldn't get her till to open. The gun was quietly held to her head.

I don't know why I didn't move away from the office counter. I stayed there frozen. There were a good few minutes when the man was filling his bag with money, when I could've slowly moved off to the back of the supermarket. My legs wouldn't move though. I could still see the pistol in the man's hand, the same hand that clumsily held open what looked like an old bread bag. It then entered my head that I was a gonner. I had seen the gun. I had seen the colour of his eyes. I had heard his voice. I had seen the tiny bird on his hand. Oh my goodness, he will shoot me as he leaves. I still couldn't move though. My head told me to run, as my heart raced, but my legs just wouldn't budge. I was a gonner. My first week in France. Flown home in a box.

There was a funny moment - I can look back now and see it as funny. An elderly woman, who was totally unaware of what was going on, came up to the counter with a bottle of sauce. I didn't understand what she was rambling on about but she obviously had some burning question about the sauce. She must've thought I was funny-looking: pale and standing as still as a statue. She banged the sauce on the counter when the young man in the office - bent down and with his back to her - didn't respond to her enquiries. I stared at her hard, with wide eyes, hoping she would understand what was going on. She eventually mumbled something and then shuffled off, back down the aisle to put the sauce back. Thank goodness! When it was all over she probably quietly walked home, clueless about what had happened, vowing never to shop there again; they were so rude and no one would answer her questions!

If you're reading this it's because the man in the helmet didn't shoot me as he left. He took his bag of money, rounded up the others - he appeared to tell off the robber who didn't get one of the tills open - and they all sped off on motorcycles. The police came after a very very long wait. The managers slinked back in and shrugged when I asked if there had been any cameras on. I was questioned at length, by a bored officer who spoke terrible English. They wanted to know why I had no shopping. What was I doing by the office? Where was my passport? What kind of bird did the man have on his hand? Yeah right, I was really focused on trying to work out what kind of bird the man had in mind when he got his cheap tattoo done. I was ordered to go to the police headquarters a few days later to speak with a translator - this never happened, by the way, I just repeated my statement in bad French to a bored inspector.

The real fun was on my return to the house I'd just moved into. It was now close to midnight and I was supposed to have popped out for "30 minutes" to do some shopping - that much we had managed to communicate earlier. My nervous landlady answered the door to see me pale, stressed and stuttering. She tried to ask what had happened. I could only say the words "champignon" (mushrooms) - this is what I thought the supermarket was called - and pistolet. Bang bang! I imitated a police siren as well. My landlady just stepped away from me, looking at me sideways. Mushrooms. Pistols. Police. She tried to quickly smile politely but couldn't hide her fear. We all awkwardly retired to our rooms.

All these years later and we are still friends. She laughs about how she thought I had been eating some funny mushrooms and got into some bother with the police. She said she'd locked her bedroom door that night and vowed that I would be asked to leave the next day. Lucikly, the day after the robbery, my teacher at the Alliance Française gave me a copy of the morning paper, which had a report on the drama I had just told the class about (in English). There were long and relieved sighs from my ladylady when I took the paper home to explain my adventure.

I did almost fly back to Britain or New Zealand; I had been left so shaken by the whole experience. My romantic vision of France and the exciting road I had taken suddenly seemed dangerous and bleak. However, I spoke to a friend in the UK about what happened and she talked me out of it. Just think of how many robberies take place in the UK, she offered. Yes, it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The week after the robbery my teacher showed me the paper again: a gang of robbers on motorcycles had shot and killed a shopkeeper in Cannes. I put my head back into my grammar books - one of the few times I ever did - and tried to blot out the information. I also promised that I would never again shop at "Champion/Champignon"! Luckily, I have never again seen a gun and my shopping trips in France nowadays tend to be uneventful.


Unknown said...

You did mention this in passing before, but this report of what happened is trul rivetting! What an experience to have with so little of the language to communicate it with - you poor wee sod you - I'd have been thinking twice about staying too, but you stuck with it, and now look at you? :))) The shameless we all know and love!

S. Kearney said...

Poor wee sod was right, Cailleach. :) I'm just glad I'm not the heroic type! It's nice to be able to look back on this now with some perspective and laugh about it. I dine out on the "champignon" bit of the story! :)

Suzan Abrams, email: suzanabrams@live.co.uk said...

Hello Shameless,
What drama! And you told it so well!
I had a knife once jabbed slightly into my waist but that was a lone robber.
In your case, it was a whole gang.
What a shock!
The attitude of the French police was something else. They didn't sound helpful at all, did they.

I'm really glad you came out of it ok although I'm about to sheepishly suggest; ever thought of turning it into a crime plot for fiction or even publishing it as non-fiction? :-)

S. Kearney said...

Hi Susan,
I certainly don't want to have too many days like that! And the police ... exactly as they're portrayed in bad movies, even smoking cigarettes while in uniform!

genevieve said...

Seamus, that was horrible, but I agree it was also riveting. Straight out of Truffaut or Techine, je le crois. Good on you for staying (Like your paintings, too - found you via a comment on Perry Middlemiss' blog today.)

Peut-etre je retournerai pour pratiquer mon francais - on the other hand, there ARE French blogs, aren't there. So I will not encroach upon your English speaking space, but I will occasionally express extreme jalousie. MMmmm, France.....sans la violence, bien sur.

Debi said...

I've had an experience that I've never written about (though I have spoken of it) where I was surrounded by 4 men pointing machine guns directly at me. (It was in Grenada after the coup and just before the US invasion.) It certainly changes your pespective on life when you feel it could end in the next milli-second!

You capture the emotions very well indeed including the feelings of unreality and even humour ...

S. Kearney said...

Hello and welcome, nice to have you stop by. :) I really must inject a bit more of the French in me into my posts, now that I'm living here and breathing Frenchness! I'm pleased you like the paintings, and I look forward to welcoming you here again. I will check out your blogs soonest! Perry's site was a real gem of a find!

Gosh, that is a tale you must share with us! You are still here, so I take it things didn't go too badly. It's true that it gives us a whole new perspective. I also get nervous now when I see someone indoors with a motorcycle helmet on. It happened the other week in a boulangerie, but the man was simply there to buy a baguette on the go! :)

Meloney Lemon said...

...and you lived to tell the tale, very well. I know someone who has based a theatre production on near death experiences - that 'what if' that we all have from time to time. I had a surreal gun experience in Eastern Turkey years ago involving a few drunken travellers, a bottle of Raki and a highly strung Kurdish landlord with a gun. And I lived to tell the tale.

S. Kearney said...

Flip! Three of us who've experienced a gun incident? Are there are any others? What does this tell us? I play that "what if" movie in my mind all the time! :)

Anonymous said...

Shameless, you have the best stories! I'm so glad this one had a happy ending, and a brilliant champion/champignon joke too.

S. Kearney said...

Thanks Litlove, :)
Yes, the champion/champignon bit is what the landlady tells with great vigour, even to this day! The supermarket, of course, will always be known as Champignon for me!

Debi said...

Not meaning to be competitive here but this was a war. The experience above was only one of very many involving guns - and tanks and choppers and ...

I still hate the sound of helicopters. One day I'll share more but last night it was hard to sleep just from the little bit I'd put into words here.

S. Kearney said...

Yes, it's funny how certain things remain with us as awful reminders of what we experience.
I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to be involved in a war situation - thank goodness, touch wood. We just hope that in the final balance we have more good memories than bad ones. :)
Thanks also for the link to Rachel; I've been totally absorbed by her writing! :)

Anonymous said...

Amazing, Shameless. Every inch of this story. It reads like a small film, almost, as if from your first words, something is just a little off kilter.

Very glad you are here to write about it.

S. Kearney said...

Thank you GT,
I've often thought this whole episode could be a short film - especially with the mushrooms/pistol confusion back at the flat after the robbery. I'll never forget the frustration of that moment, communication lost, me in shock and eager to express, but with someone looking at me as though I were completely barking.

Unknown said...

Bloody hell Seamus! I can sort of relate to the not understanding a word thing. I've been held up at gun point twice in Mexico. The first time my spanish was rubbish and I had no idea what was happening, apart from the fact that we were being robbed of course and that he had a gun. The second time was the day before I left. It seems that quite a number of us had experienced this sort of thing and I was kind of hoping this was something I had left behind!

S. Kearney said...

Hi V,
I think it makes everything much worse in these situations when we are out of the loop! Gosh, it really does sound like many of us have had some nasty gun experiences!

Kay Cooke said...

Riveting right to the end Shameless.
You tell a great story.
I have never been held up at gunpoint or had a gun pointed at me and I hope I never do. I have been advised though to never say, 'Don't shoot' as it puts the idea of shooting into the gunman's (or woman's) head. (I don't know what you say instead - nothing I guess.)

S. Kearney said...

Thanks CB,
I guess instinctively we say nothing because we are so shocked. Luckily I was just an obstacle that had to be bypassed and not the focus! I wouldn't have a clue what to say in a different situation - can we discuss this over a coffee? you remind me of an old friend? do you come here often?

cate sweeney said...

You really should try and sell this as a story. I wasn't sure if it wasn't just gripping fiction, but I assume is true. I suppose that is the essence we try and capture in the voice we use as we write isn't it? That feeling that this happened and I'm telling you about it so listen... you do it very well...
I get nervous when fake guns appear onstage, so god knows what I'd think confronted with a real one!

S. Kearney said...

Thanks Cate,
I'm glad you liked it! :) Yes, every bit of this tale is true - unfortunately!
I did a writing course once where the tutor demonstrated how our writing is often richer and more urgent, with a more defined voice, when we write about real events. Now, if we can just translate that into our fiction writing! :)

Liz Dwyer said...

That's a bit hilarious that your landlady thought you were tripping on some psychedelic shrooms. You've inspired me...by the time this week is over, I'm going to write on my own blog about my experience with getting robbed at gunpoint here in LA. I can reminisce about it because I came through relatively unscathed. Glad you did as well, and so glad they were robbers that were only in a threatening/robbing mood instead of a shooting mood.

S. Kearney said...

Hi Liz, nice to have you stopping by. :) Yes, do tell us about your LA experience. I can't believe how many of us have had these nasty gun incidents! :)

Debi said...

The key is to remember it's not the gun that's the threat but the person holding it. Look them in the eyes!

S. Kearney said...

Good advice, Debi, which I hope I will never have to remember! :)