We spent the last two nights of our holiday on a Brittany island in a ‘converted farmhouse’ with its ‘landscaped garden’. We arrived at the Bed and Brefast to find the front drive freshly raked, the beds on either side weed-free, and the plants within perfectly aligned. Janine welcomed us; she was relaxed, tanned, slim and smartly dressed. In keeping, our room was clean, tidy and twee. Everything about the B&B oozed convention.
Later that evening we met her husband Alex, a tall, well-built, good-looking man, who, like Janine would have been in his late forties. He had a full head of blond hair, possibly thanks to the sun of a long summer. A builder by profession, it was he who had converted the farmhouse, leaving Janine to establish, and then run, their B&B business. Alex had a swagger which made me wary.
Breakfast next morning was served in a typical B&B parlour with knick-knacks peppering its walls. Whether it was because he liked helping out, or because business that month was ‘slow’, it was Alex who brought the meal. After Janine had taken our order, he appeared from the kitchen with a full tray. With his large frame and workaday hands, serving was compromised – he was ‘all fingers and thumbs’. Trying to put the teapot down delicately on a crowded table was a challenge too much, but in his struggle to do his best there was something endearing. His French was awkward too – when he had first arrived in France ten years earlier he spoke only Greek. It was often a struggle to understand what he wanted to say but he pressed on with a warm smile. By the end of breakfast my initial wariness had almost passed.
A few days earlier we had scratched the side of our hired car. The damage was caused by thorns in a hedgerow which we rubbed against when I was avoiding an oncoming car. Scratched body-work attracts a hefty penalty and I asked Alex if he knew of a car body repair shop nearby. His face lit up – maybe he could help. If we parked our car in front of the shed behind the building he would meet us there in half an hour.
After inspecting the scratches he disappeared, emerging minutes later from the side door of the shed with a workman’s tray full of cleaning materials. Each step of his work was accompanied by commentary. There were two sprays for cleaning, some thick paste for filling the scratches, and two creams for polishing, one requiring a special buffing-up machine. An hour later he stood back to review his work – most of the marks had gone and those that remained would probably be missed. He was clearly satisfied, not to say proud; here was obviously an expert and despite our repeated offers to pay, the work was done as a favour.
When I asked where he had gained such skill his smile broadened and he invited us to look inside the shed. The front doors were opened and gleaming on their stands were two pristine, highly polished, monster motor bikes; one a Triumph, the other a Harley-Davidson. The body-work of each was immaculate and their shiny chrome parts – engine, hubs, spokes, exhaust pipes etc – reflected like mirrors. Hanging from the ceiling were his, and Janine’s, black biking leathers. On one wall were a series of crash helmets together with various posters and a skull and cross bones flag. On the other wall were photos of him and his wife dressed to ride. To maintain the bikes there was an array of tools on a work bench and in the floor a pit to allow him to work on their undersides. Maintaining bikes was a consuming hobby and riding them something he and his wife did together whenever time allowed. This was a way of life that they both clearly loved.
As we left for home he asked the name of our car hire company. It turned out that he knew the boss and would contact him. He was sure that the combination of their friendship and his repair work would mean that any penalty for damaged bodywork would be waived – and he was right.
Over our two-day stay, it was soon clear that my initial view of Alex as awkward, was unwarranted, in reality he was kind and caring. For that I felt guilty. And there was the second twist which meant that, once again, my initial judgment was plain wrong.The revelation that a couple living an apparently conventional life could have such an unconventional passtime was a wonderful surprise. Seeing the two giant motor bikes in their garden shed was a sight neither of us is likely to forget.