Trobairitz – the storyteller: tales from a mother trucker
Can Weed separate fact from fiction in time to save her own love life?
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Trobairitz were 12th century female troubadours. They brought news and sang songs of love, current affairs and the role of women in society. My Trobairitz is a modern day trucker. She entertains a group of drivers at an overnight truck stop in south west France by telling them the story of ex prostitute Catherine Joubert who is now in her seventies.
I fell in love with Languedoc when I lived there. Books two and three of the Trobairitz story may take some time yet but each stands alone.
Best Book Bit:
THEY CALL ME TROBAIRITZ. It’s an honour. It started as a tease but the joke grew into something else and now when they see me, ‘Here comes Trobairitz,’ they say. ‘What have you got for us tonight?’
We flash each other on the Autoroutes and when the other drivers see my customised cab they send me an exaggerated wave. Sometimes they gesture a sexual invitation. Sometimes I give them the finger in reply.
At the Routiers where we park for the night I make some effort with my appearance. They expect it now. It’s part of the performance. They want to see me as a woman, not as one of the lads. You’d think they would object to my presence: a female in a man’s world and at first they did. But I started telling them a story and they listened. I became Trobairitz.
I WAS ON THE A9 one October night, just outside of Béziers with a load from Spain. I’d filled up at La Jonquera. Diesel was cheaper over the border as was just about everything else including tobacco and the price of the girls who solicit lines of trucks in fuel queues.
While I was waiting my turn for the diesel pump, a thin, black-haired, dark-eyed woman came up beside my cab. Her skirt revealed knees too old for that length and as she drew nearer I could see her face: haggard, lined, old enough to be the other girls’ mother. She called out to me, first in Spanish then in French.
‘You got time? You got money? What you like?’
I climbed down from the cab and pulled off my cap.
Her body language left me in no doubt what she thought of me. She turned on her heels and made for a different line of trucks, swearing all the way. I know how to say shit in so many languages now, you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got the full complement of European expletives. I don’t make a point of swearing regularly but you’ve got to admit there are times when nothing else will do.
‘Hey!’ I shouted after her. ‘I’m just doing my job. Same as you.’ But I was taking up the space of a prospective hot dinner. She’d wasted her time and lost her place in the other line. If she’d hung around I would have given her the price of a meal and saved her the trouble of earning it. Besides, there were things I would have liked to ask her.
I drove the short stretch from the border, cutting through the Pyrenees, following the coast around Argeles, thinking hard. Where do old whores go? When they quit, where do they go? What do they do? Does anybody know?
I pulled in at the Routiers near Béziers in time for dinner and made my night checks on the truck. I grabbed my things and used the showers. Put on a clean pair of jeans and went into the restaurant. The place looked full. Buzzing conversations and clattering cutlery. It’s a popular stopover for both North-South routes and East-West, but that night was my first time there.
I scanned the room: the regular set up. Serve yourself buffet bar; specials written up on a chalkboard. Wipe-clean tablecloths and bud vases with real sprigs of greenery on the tables. Fresh and clean. Lighting too bright. No greasy overalls allowed. I made my selection and spotted an empty table near the side entrance.
Three drivers were talking about La Jonquera. When I took my tray and sat down near to them they stopped.
‘Don’t mind me, fellas,’ I said. ‘Maybe if there’d been a cute hunk at the filling station, I’d have been tempted myself.’
One invited me to join them. He was the oldest of the group, tidy, stocky, grey short hair and old-fashioned polite. Told me his name was Raymond. He briefly introduced the other two. They didn’t look too pleased but he ignored them and started asking me the usual questions. Why would a woman be interested in long-distance haulage? What did I do before? Where did I come from?
I don’t answer that kind of question. I refuse to give personal details. They never ask outright about my age but I know they wonder. Why do they need to know I’m forty-two? I wear size 12 U.S. 14 UK. That translates to something like a 44 in European sizing but I don’t buy much here. Take one look at the petite average woman in this part of France and you can see why I get most of my stuff online. My hair is naturally curly, still dark brown. I wear it loose or stuffed under a baker-boy cap when I’m driving. I like Dire Straits and Rachmaninov. I speak French, English, Spanish and Italian. I play guitar and I’m teaching myself mandolin. I’m a passable Mezzo. I read everything and I’m blessed with a good memory. But I don’t tell truckers any of this. It’s nobody’s business but mine.
All I said in response to Raymond’s questions was ‘I like driving.’
Raymond got up to fill his water glass at the cooler. At the same time another driver came in from the parking bays to join the group. He looked freshly showered and he smelled of the garrigue heathland, green and herby. His damp hair curled around his ears. Maybe a few years younger than me, his skin had a healthy outdoors glow. He filled his T-shirt very nicely. He greeted everybody except me and I know the reason for that. Drivers assume that any female present is somebody’s bit on the side, along for the ride. They wait to be introduced. He hurried through the handshakes and seemed anxious to tell them something.
‘Just parked next to a new Volvo FH16,’ he said, searching the drivers’ faces for a reaction, ignoring me. ‘Classy, black livery. Somebody gone over to Trans-Angelus? Anybody we know? Who got lucky?’
‘That’ll be me,’ I said, keeping my eyes on my plate of faux filet.
You could taste the testosterone around the table. Without looking up I knew that hackles were raised, muscles clenched, jaws stiffened.
‘French trucks not good enough for you?’ the newcomer taunted.
Very slowly I put down my knife and fork and leaned back in my seat. Then I lifted my head to look him square in the eyes. Deep dark brown ones, I noted. I smiled.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Nice to meet you too.’ I kept the smile beaming bright, eyes and teeth like a chorus line showgirl.
He didn’t know where to go after that so he gave a little grunt and pulled up his chair. Raymond came back with his fresh glass of water. He greeted the fourth man.
‘Jimi, my friend,’ he said. ‘I thought we might see you tonight. Family okay? How’s the Renault?’
I couldn’t let that go, couldn’t miss out on this perfectly timed gift.
‘Renault Trucks,’ I said quietly, scratching the back of my neck and screwing up my eyes as if I’d only just remembered. ‘Bought out by Volvo in 2001.’
One of the others sniggered. I’d made my point. I don’t like to come across as a clever bitch but Jimi had asked for it.
But I like men. I really do. Wasn’t it Dorothy Parker who said there’s nothing quite so much fun as a man? And I’ve had my share of fun. I’m no angel. I just never saw the attraction of getting into that permanent couple thing.
Raymond, Jimi and the others were talking about past times, stopovers where they’d met before. I got up and helped myself to dessert from the buffet. When I came back to the table they were into discussing the Volvo FH16. I let them get on with it. Didn’t offer any information. Didn’t tell them about the 750hp, the benefits of a 16.1 litre engine or the extras in the Globetrotter cab.
Instead, I offered to buy drinks. I knew I needed to make some gesture; bragging about my I-pod interface, Bluetooth support or the 400w amplifier audio system and DVD player wasn’t going to endear me to them any further. They accepted my offer. I went to the bar and ordered a carafe of local red wine for two of us, and three beers for the others.
‘This won’t upset the alcolock, will it?’ Raymond joked, referring to the breath test starter control, and the others laughed with him.
They carried on talking about routes and deliveries, other Routiers stopovers with good facilities, ones to avoid. I felt Jimi staring at me.
‘You don’t say much, do you?’ he said.
‘Only when I’ve got something to say. I’m a good listener though. Somebody has to be.’
He thought about that for a moment.
‘So, if you do so much listening, I bet you’ve some stories to tell.’
‘That’s right. I have.’
‘Go on, then.’
I tried to read his face to see if he was goading me again. I glanced at the others. They were all waiting for me to entertain them. I guessed they expected more haulage histories.
‘I have a story for you,’ I said, visualising the women at the filling station in La Jonquera and remembering what I’d been thinking on the way into France. ‘This is a story about women.’
One of the drivers grimaced. He rapped his fingers on the table then flicked at his fair hair. He looked impatient.
‘And it’s a story about a village and the people who live there,’ I added.
Raymond waved an arm to stop Jimi interrupting. Blondie was screwing up his eyes.
‘But above all, it is a story about courage,’ I said, switching to formal French. ‘It is about the art of love and the power of jealousy, about tradition and its place in our world today. Did you hear about the trouble they had in Montalhan?’
‘Where?’ Blondie said still grimacing.
‘Montalhan sans Vents. It’s just below the foothills of the Montagnes Noir.’
Raymond said, ‘You’ll have to excuse Laurent. He never had an education.’
‘No,’ the guy sitting next to Laurent said, ‘his father used to beat him round the head so he never had a brain worth educating.’
Laurent pulled a stupid face, a marginal improvement on the grimace.
‘It’s a small village,’ I said. ‘One of the old circulades. Built in the shape of a snail shell, you know? Where the houses spiral round the church on top of the hill? The surrounding foothills shelter it from the winds; that’s why they call it Montalhan sans Vents.’
Laurent shrugged and said, ‘There’s no place this side of Narbonne you can get away from the wind. Have you ever heard of this place, Raymond?’
Raymond stared him down.
I waited. We all took a drink. Shit, I thought, I’m making an idiot of myself.
‘Well, I’ve never heard of it,’ Laurent said again.
‘Of course you’ve never heard of it,’ Raymond said. ‘It’s fiction. You heard of that? Now shut up.’
I took another swig from my glass of wine. They were all watching me. Laurent was playing with that floppy lock of fair hair. The guy next to him was sitting in silence, perfectly still and upright in his seat. I couldn’t read his face. Raymond was wearing an encouraging smile. Jimi’s eyes were dark and intense.
I put down my glass and then leaned forward and stretched my arms across the table. One by one, I looked them in the eyes as if I were about to reveal a great secret.