When I was fifteen my parents considered me sensible enough to go on an exchange holiday to France. Little did they know. I was excited, nervous. I had never been on holiday alone; I had never been in a plane; my french was execrable which didn’t matter anyway because being shy, I always became tongue-tied with strangers.
I flew from what was then, in the sixties, Yeadon airport (Leeds/Bradford airport). It was just a big shed really in comparison to airports now. I arrived at Nice airport in the afternoon. It was then that things started to go wrong. No-one came to meet me. I waited and waited, getting more and more anxious. I considered ‘phoning my parents but I knew they would only tell me to come home. The stubborn streak in me wasn’t going to let that happen!
The problem was that I didn’t have the full address of the family I was to stay with. I had their Paris address where my parents had sent all the details of my flight but what we didn’t know was that they had decamped for the summer to their villa…somewhere near St. Tropez.
Tired of waiting, in a fit of bravado I took a taxi from Nice to St Tropez. The taxi driver took all the money I had with me when he dropped me off at the Gendarmerie. Gathering what shreds of courage I had left I marched in to explain my problem. By now it was about ten o’clock at night. The gendarmes were surprised but kind.
‘How is it you came without having the address? How could your parents let you come?’
Reasonable questions. I tried to explain that I had the Paris address but not their phone number.
Around midnight, after much telephoning and gesticulating as the gendarmes tried to track down the family, the sergeant decided they would keep me for the night. I had no money for a B&B so they put me up in one of the cells at the back of the gendarmerie. It was hot, humid and smelled of pee…but at least I could get some sleep. I was tired and not a little scared but still a dusting of bravado stuck to me. Before getting onto the slab of wood called a bed, I slathered myself in a fake tan cream. If I were to be sent back to England the next day as the sergeant threatened I was damned if I was going back maggot white! The following morning I was a glorious shade of orange.
Eventually the gendarmes tracked down the family’s holiday address and around mid-day they turned up to collect their lost property. Things were looking up…weren’t they?
To an angst-ridden teenager, riddled with uncertainties, the month I spent with the family was, to say the least, difficult. The daughter of the family was a couple of years older than me. She did her best. She introduced me to her crowd of friends and we idled away the days on the beach. But I just didn’t fit in. My clothes were all wrong; I wore pretty summer dresses, the girls wore bell-bottoms and skimpy tops. I wore a swimsuit they wore bikinis. I had (thanks to my taxi ride) no money whilst they seemed to have unlimited amounts. The first few days I felt like some newly-discovered species as people came to inspect L’Anglaise.
It wasn’t all painful though. My french improved. One of the girl’s in the in-crowd befriended me and guided me through the norms and culture of teenagers on holiday on the Cote d’Azur. I found a boyfriend and danced the night away. We stomped to the strains of Woolly Bully by Sam the Sham (the song of the moment) still echo in my head. I visited the Casino in Cannes, spent lazy days on a boat out in the bay, ate food I’d never dreamed of, discovered wine, walked the wooded hills behind the villa and watched, horrified as those trees burned in a forest fire one night.
I took my first steps towards independence and self-reliance that summer together with the realisation that there was more to the world than the loving yet cocooned existence in suburban Yorkshire. It was the start of my love affair with France. As an adult I returned to France whenever I could discovering more of its history and culture until I took the final step and moved to a small village in the south-west and here I hope to stay.
The following is an extract from a short story taken from my book The Siren and Other Strange Tales. Whilst the family life of Sukie, the girl in the story in no way resembles that of my childhood, some of her experiences in France are culled from my own. Hope you enjoy it.
Extract from ‘1966 – Sukie’
So there I was, fifteen years old, alone on a plane for Nice airport. I had a suitcase full of new clothes – dresses, shorts, tops, the lot. I’d wanted to buy a bikini but when I tried one on I felt too embarrassed and I knew I’d never wear it. So mum chose a red white and blue striped bathing costume that made me look like a barrel and I chose a tiger-skin patterned one with a daring keyhole cut in the front. I’d also wanted a pair of blue jeans but oh no, mum said, “They’re far too common, Sukie. They’re not for a girl like you.” So she bought me a pair of those trousers that have the little straps to go under your feet to keep them in place. They were a ghastly mustard colour.
I was a bit nervous on the plane, travelling alone and abroad for the first time ever but I’m not stupid and I watched what everyone else did and followed their lead. I even bought a carton of duty-free cigarettes. At Nice I recovered my suitcase safely and stepped out into the arrivals hall. The heat was incredible and the air was filled with the pungent smell of cigarette smoke. I could feel damp patches forming under the short sleeves of my pink gingham dress. My new bouffant Mary Quant bob wilted into flat straggles. I stood there for about five minutes feeling utterly lost and bewildered watching as people rushed up to greet the other passengers, hugs and kisses all round and a babel of voices. Eventually I found the Information Desk where I was supposed to wait for the family to meet me and waited and waited.
Finally as I began to worry and think about how to get home…no never, there was no way I was turning tail – a large lady with a shock of curly ginger hair approached me. She wore a garish sleeveless dress which displayed the extent of huge sunburned red arms. She had a bust like a balcony large enough for a 5 piece orchestra to play on and into this I was subsequently enfolded and kissed. But it was the girl with her that I looked at in dismay. Tall, bronzed, unfairly slim with brown curly hair held back with a golden alice band. She wore dark green trousers with huge bell-bottoms and a skimpy gold crochet top.
“Welcome to France Susan” Madame spoke to me.
I nodded but relief that I’d been found warred for supremacy with anxiety because I knew this wasn’t going to work.
I said thank you in a tiny voice.
“This is my daughter Marie-Laure. The tall, unfairly thin daughter held out a slim hand all the while taking in my crumpled, damp dress and wilting bob. I knew what she was thinking because I was thinking it too – ‘What can this bedraggled, dumpy English chick in a prissy pink dress possibly have in common with me?”
And there you have it. What indeed?
The answer of course was nothing. For the next few weeks I was doomed to tag along after this fashionista and her friends. True we had considerable freedom; Mme Balcony Boobs was too indolent to worry herself about us. We had our routines; she knew that and so contented herself by giving us a peck on each cheek in the morning as we left for the beach just across the road from the villa. The routines were simple: beach, gossip, flirting, lunch; afternoons were a re-run of the mornings followed by dinner in the evening followed by a party somewhere or other, dancing to the Beatles and the Stones and yet more gossip and flirting. It was all torture for me. I got sunburned. I was sick after eating mussels for the first time. The fashionista and her friends laughed at my attempts to speak French (which actually I thought were pretty good). I cringed when Marie-Laure sifted through my wardrobe.
“You wear this in England? And this?”
She turned in a virtuoso performance with her supercilious expression and eyebrow raising that would reduce a grown man to tears.
In short, I was thoroughly miserable and, truth to tell, I missed mum and my books and my room full of all my things. So I skulked away the days under the parasol on the beach. Occasionally I tried to join in the gaggle that collected around the beach side bar but I was like a drab brown hen amongst a flock of colourful tropical birds as they chattered about how far someone got with someone else the night before.
The only bright spot for me was Giselle – one of Marie-Laure’s friends and again, tall, blonde, leggy, unfairly thin (but not as much so as ML) but, unlike the others, innately kind. She sought me out, chatted to me and helped me with my French and generously tried to engineer some sort of entente cordiale between me and the others. She also knew that I longed, oh how fervently I longed, for a pair of bell-bottom trousers to replace the mustard crap mum had bought. I felt that if I dressed a bit more like the rest of them, I might fit in better – a vain hope probably and anyway I hadn’t the money to buy a pair.
One morning she ducked under the parasol.
“Here, let’s go. You’ve got to try these on”
‘These’ were a pair of turquoise bellbottoms.
I squinted at them. She smiled.
“You want a pair don’t you? Well these aren’t the right colour for me but I think they’ll suit you really well.”
It was a blatant lie of course, but a kind one. What she really meant was that they were too big for her but I might just be able to squeeze myself into them. I tried them on. If I breathed in really hard and long and wrenched the zip up quick I could just about make it. There was nothing I could do about the roll of flesh that draped itself over the waistband – puppy fat mum called it. She said I would lose it as I got older but, of course, I never did.
That day Giselle and her mum drove me into Ste Maxime to a little dressmaker’s shop and after being prodded, poked and pinned, a few discreet alterations were made and voila, I had my bell bottoms. I looked like Barnacle Bill the Sailor, but I did feel better for a while.
Into my third week I got a letter from mum and step-dad Smugsy enclosing a postcard with my ‘O’ level results. I had passed nine out of the ten with top grades. Later that day I met Giselle and told her my news.
“But we must celebrate.” She smiled.
So her mum took us into Ste. Maxime in her little car and left us at a café/bar in the shade of some pine trees overlooking the promenade. That was my last happy day. We celebrated, chatted, laughed and eyed up all the passing talent.
When it grew dark Giselle’s mum came back to pick us up and I made my big mistake. I lied. I said I was meeting Hector and we were going out for the evening.
Who was Hector?
A sweet, shy Scottish boy I met at one of the endless parties. I wish now I’d never used his name because the police gave him some hassle later.
Why did I lie?
Because sitting at the table next to us was a Sean Connery look-alike. He was so gorgeous and I was sure that he’d been eying me up. Me…not beautiful Giselle…can you believe it?
Giselle’s mum looked a bit doubtful but I convinced her. Once they left I ordered a glass of white wine and lit up one of my duty-free ciggies. Oh I felt so sophisticated. Then I cast what I thought was a subtle sultry glance across at Sean Mark II. With hindsight I probably looked more like a hungry hippo in search of its first good meal for a year. Whatever! It worked and Mark II slid his chair across to my table and in a rich melted chocolate voice asked,
“May I join you Mademoiselle?”
Read what happened next in The Siren and Other Strange Tales
About the author
Sheila Williams, author, slipped into this world on Guy Fawkes night, under cover of fireworks and bonfires. Outraged to find other nurslings in the nest, she attempted to return to her own world but found the portal closed.
Adopting a ‘make the best of it’ attitude (which has remained with her to this day) she endured a period of indoctrination to equip her for her place in society.
Freeing herself as soon as possible from such torture, she embarked on a series of adventures; hospital manager, business consultant, life coach, sheep farmer. She attempted to integrate into society by means first of marriage and then partnered before setting out alone to discover another world, known as France, where she now resides.
Always fascinated by these humans amongst whom she dwells, she has developed an interest in psychology, magic, the supernatural, ghosts, Ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Dark thoughts and black humour lurk within her.
Her outlets from this unfathomable world include nature, animals (especially funny videos of), books and writing stories. This latter occupation enables her to create her own worlds, populate them and dispose of the residents as she thinks fit. She finds holding the fate of these poor souls in her hands immensely satisfying.
Find and follow Sheila Williams
A NEW BOOK by Sheila Williams
Other books by Sheila Williams
THE SIREN AND OTHER STRANGE TALES is a collection of six short stories spanning the twentieth century and each with a spooky twist.
•Double-dealing care assistant Mandy Robinson meets a mysterious cat. The cat knows when death approaches but does Mandy?
•On a lonely road in France, self-absorbed artist Gavin is given some ghostly marriage guidance.
•A holiday in France proves to be one life-lesson too far for rebellious teenager Sukie.
•In German-occupied France collaborator Jean Fourrier pays the price for his betrayal.
•A simple game of cards between four respectable middle-aged ladies. Nothing could be more natural…could it?
•A stranger comes to a remote seaside village in the middle of winter. What haunts him? Is it grief or guilt…?
The Holderness Coast in East Yorkshire is a 38 mile stretch of English coastline between Flamborough Head to the north and Spurn Point at the southernmost tip. It has the dubious honour of being one of the fastest eroding coastlines in the world. Over the centuries more than 30 villages and settlements have disappeared and ‘gone back to the sea’. Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast captures some of the history of this unique coastal strip before it fulfils its destiny and falls into the sea. Close to the Edge offers a selection of stories bringing to life people, places and events from past times. You will discover: Why Fat Willy gave land to found a monastery; what happened to the port of Ravenser Odd; who murdered the Rev. Enoch Sinclair; why the Holderness Coast is shrinking; who were the Naughty Nuns of Nunkeeling…and much more. Illustrated with both contemporary and old photographs and maps, Close to the Edge offers an entertaining and informative account of this remarkable coastline.
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