Saturday, 2 December 2017

Three golden days

In August 1984, I was in that rare position of being between schools. It was a time for looking back and forwards; it was a gap when nothing mattered because all was to begin again; and it was a hugely long summer holiday. We spent it partly in France, staying in a caravan in Fréjus.

Our friends, the Watsons, were staying in another campsite nearby. Chris Watson had first met my mother at work when she was pregnant with me, and had offered my mother her daughter Kate’s outgrown baby clothes. My mother had recently been told that I might be twins, was overwhelmed with the prospect and gratefully accepted the offer. Thus I began my life wearing girls’ clothes. Chris's husband Dave had won my father's admiration early on by repairing his car. There the friendship had started and we had holidayed together many times, with my brother William and Kate's sister, Emma, not long following their elder siblings. "The littleuns", Kate and I had used to call them with great superiority.

The campsite where the Watsons were staying was in a place called Roquebrune, near a lake. We drove there one morning. Those were the days before mobile phones and the plans had been vague: so there was that wonderful tantalising question of whether they would even be there; and the half surprise when we found one another.

I was swiftly given an opportunity to show off my recently acquired Common Entrance French. My parents went off on some errand leaving my brother and I with the Watsons. On the way to the lake, we passed a fruit stall and Chris liked the look of the apricots. “Des abricots, s’il vous plaît”, I said to the stallholder, receiving from Chris and Dave, whose schooldays had finished years before, looks that made me blush with pride.

The Watsons introduced us to their new friends, near neighbours in their campsite: the Ranges. Peter,  a gravelly accountant, Eileen, an amateur singer with one of the most infectious laughs I have ever known, and their daughter Sarah who would one day become a solicitor who instructed me and a great friend. Not yet though; the age gap of about three years was far too great and I don’t think we addressed a single word to one another during the holiday. Instead she and Kate sunbathed silently by the lake, turning away in horror and shielding their faces whenever my father’s video camera went anywhere near them. When my father got round to editing the holiday video, setting it to music, he pointedly set shots of the two teenagers refusing in the embarrassed way to engage with his filming to a song which went “Building a wall to surround you, gathering all your treasures around you, building a life apart...” Peter and Eileen were less reticent. “Isn’t it lovely?” mused Eileen on camera.

It was. The three families spent three golden days by the lake in Roquebrune. When the video later emerged, my father had included our munching on baguette with saucisson to the Beatles’ “Have you seen the little piggies?”

The first night Chris and Dave entertained us next to their caravan and Chris produced a most extraordinary food which she had bought in the local market, “to try it”. My mother’s conclusion: “If you'd mixed a white sliced loaf with a tin of Kit-e-Cat and shoved it in a pig's bladder, the result would have been about the same.”

The following night my parents entertained the Watsons and the Ranges in their caravan. I cannot remember what we ate but my father managed to persuade Dave that evening that it really would not take him as long as he thought to drive back to Calais and home and that the Watsons should really stay another night. As an added incentive, if one were needed, Peter and Eileen invited us all to a barbecue on what would be our third night.

The next day, disaster struck by the lake. Peter had been showing us all the art of windsurfing. Patient though he was with me, I realised quickly that this was yet another sport at which I would never even achieve even the most basic skill and retired to read with the others. Meanwhile, my father was swimming in the lake. His goddaughter, Emma, was floating on an airbed and he thought it would be amusing if he swam underneath the airbed and popped up the other side to surprise her. As he slipped below the water, he felt his glasses go ... and they were a murky shadow before him that he was unable to grab as they sank to the bottom.

Those who could swim went out to join my father. I felt inadequate and wished I could have been among them. They all returned, but it was not a joyous swim. They had taken it in turns to dive for the lost glasses but without success. My father, without his glasses, looked worn and fragile.

Eventually, we returned to the campsite. There had been adult talk of our needing to begin our drive back to England the following day. My mother would need to drive all the way. The idea of finding an optician’s in France was, curiously, not discussed.

The barbecue went ahead, the mood a little more sombre than it had been for the past three days. Eileen cheered us by producing a bowl of what she persisted in calling rat-tat-tat-touille. The loss of the glasses did not prevent my father from filming; on the contrary, he told us wryly that he could see quite well through the viewfinder. And he was to be rewarded. Later on that evening, he reached into his video bag for a spare battery or something and found ... his spare pair of glasses whose existence he had completely forgotten. Someone produced a still camera and he capered around for the shot, losing years, and everyone around him was grinning with relief. The end of three golden days.

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