Summer Essay: A French farce of a summer
Liberation came in the form of an agonisingly slow train to Antibes. In the wee hours of a hazy mid-summer morning in the southern French town of Agde, three of us collected our belongings and hurried to the station.
Our pockets bulged with thousands of French francs. Big flowery notes of huge denominations. So much prettier than the Euro that would follow a decade later. But it wasn't just the money that made freedom so sweet. It was the notion that we were free from the tyranny of a brutish boss whose screaming orders still rang in the ears.
We three were me, my sister, Kate, and our friend, Lucy - your classic English rose.
As we made that dash out of town we half expected to hear the Gallic roar of Kate and Lucy's boss, Franc - the man we were escaping.
Of course, he would be fast asleep with his beautiful, young and horrid wife.
Franc's bellow as he summoned Kate and Lucy into his sweltering kitchen to fetch and carry this or that over that blisteringly hot summer is still remembered two decades later.
A month earlier we had tottered down the ankle-twisting, cobbled Rue de l'Amour, more an alleyway than a road, feeling rather smug that we were living in France - intoxicating, delicious France.
We had the carefree nature of young women who plan no further than the next glass of vinos colapsos.
Kate had scored a job in a fish restaurant.
She had met the owner in the Alps during the previous winter, and he had lured her down with the offer of good money and free accommodation.
I jumped on her coat tails, ditching London during a pretty intense heat wave.
The steps leading up to Kate's little studio apartment had deep curves from years of feet making the same ascent. Who had lived in this wonderful higgledy-piggledy apartment before us over the years? Whoever they were, they must have been petit.
Looking out over the street you could almost reach across to the apartment on the other side of the cobbles.
We often tossed items of clothing and makeup back and forth to Lucy during that summer. We would call across to her and her boyfriend, Alex, to make arrangements for an evening out. Franc would yell at us to "shut up - you sound like Italians!"
You could certainly hear every word uttered below in the restaurant where Kate and Lucy slogged it out each night.
"Kaaaaate!" Franc would bellow. "Moules! Quickly, vite vite!"
Their first night did not go well.
Nor the second.
Every night turned out to be an endurance test.
"He's just such a bastard," Kate would lament over a beer in the local bar .
Lucy thought he was trying to kill them.
"Every time I touch the light switch I get a zap. He just says I must wear rubber gloves."
I could see him cooking his fish over the flaming stove, from the safety of our apartment. He looked like the devil incarnate, ranting and raving in French and English in case Kate and Lucy hadn't got the picture.
Benoit, a beautiful young guy who wove baskets in his attic and sold them to Franc, had the measure of him.
"You won't last," he said. "His staff never last."
He and some other shop owners on the street started running a book on when Kate and Lucy would quit.
"Have you met his wife? Elle est pire que lui," he said.
I asked Kate what that meant in the little-sister way I always have since we were small.
"She's worse than him," she whispered.
I managed to get a job at a family restaurant across town. My bosses were the antithesis to Franc. I forget their names but I'm pretty sure I called the chef, Papa, and his wife, who ran the front of house, Madame.
Madame would follow me around righting my mistakes, redistributing meals to the correct tables and re-taking orders. They were good people.
My French was limited.
I recall one Christening party at the restaurant where all the children lined up to ask me questions for the express purpose of getting a good laugh. I couldn't blame the little blighters. It was as though the little darlings had never heard anything so funny as my verbal incontinence in French.
Papa and Madame knew Franc.
They didn't seem terribly keen on him.
He was a bad guy, they said one night over our regular staff dinner.
Madame mentioned that one year Franc's head waiter had thrown a molotov cocktail through his window.
Revenge served hot.
Agde, one of the oldest towns in France, dating back to 525BC, was a beautiful place to live.
On days off we'd walk into the countryside, taking care to avoid quite a few roaming and rabid- looking dogs patrolling the fields. Snakes lived there, too. Big, fat, green ones with mischief in their eyes and badness in their veins.
We'd sit beside the canal and watch the long boats cruise through. We envied the freedom of those on board.
There were not many English people in the town so my French improved, though not enough to answer back the stern women working in the post office who would shout at me for never leaving enough room for a stamp on my postcards.
We lived off my wages.
Papa and Madame paid me after every shift, plus tips. We had to stretch it out but often we'd blow it on a slap-up lunch in one of the town square restaurants. We found it difficult to say no to an offer of a Kir Royale on a hot summer afternoon.
Kate and Lucy slogged it out for a month at Franc's restaurant.
His bullying took its toll and they grew to hate every shift working for him. Alex jacked it in and went back to London for a sensible job.
We all seriously doubted Franc would pay them at the end of the month.
When he did cough up, it was done so begrudgingly.
The thousands of francs were stuffed into pockets and a plan was hatched. The Cote D'Azur beckoned.
Franc was hardly surprised when Kate and Lucy told him, in the nicest possible way, he could stick his job where there was pas de soliel.
The train rolled up at 6.45am. It hovered for the last passengers. Then, with a brutally sluggish pace, it pulled out of the station and we trundled towards blue skies and the freedom of a new adventure.
The following week was a heady mix of partying in the Bar du Port in Antibes - a dubious establishment frequented by old sea dogs and travellers like us looking for work.
Lucy, Kate and I made some very lacklustre efforts to get work on the superyachts that postured in the still waters of the Mediterranean.
Hanging at the beach seemed a much better way to spend the days.
In late August, we decided to head back to London. We hitched all the way up through France, getting back-to-back rides with truckies. When one truckie needed to veer off the route to Calais he would call through to another heading our way and we would be transferred. We congratulated ourselves on such a nifty plan.
We had to keep one driver awake by talking incessantly as he threatened to nod off. We were stranded at a petrol station in a violent storm in Dijon for a few hours when our rides ran out. It took us 24 hours to get to Dover.
From there we waited a long time for a ride mainly due to a young guy who insisted on playing his Spanish guitar as he hitched on the same corner.
We eventually managed to score a ride with some lads who had done a booze run to France and were on their way home with their liquid loot.
We climbed in the back of their van and lay on slabs of beer.
Bumping down a country lane it suddenly occurred to us that this ride might not be a wise idea. We started thinking in headlines and bailed out when they stopped for gas. As we cruised into London on a hot afternoon Katrina and the Waves' I'm Walking On Sunshine was blasting on the car radio of our last lift.
And it did feel good.
The Dominion Post