This is the recollection of a Summer of Awakenings.
It flirts with flirting, oninism, love, lesbianism and incest but nothing remotely approaching sex even nearly happens.
It is, what else?, the memory of my 14th Summer.
My maternal grandmother was French. She met my Irish grandfather in China and they went on to live in Ethiopia, Australia and Surrey with their children, my mother and uncle.
Meanwhile, her sister (my great-aunt) married a Frenchman, stayed in France and spawned my mother’s French cousin, Moutie.
Moutie went on to marry Robert, a General in the French Army, one of 4 children adopted by a barren Count and his wife and it was with the families of these siblings that I spent two Pyrenean Summer holidays in my teens.
Three of the four chose to participate in the annual Elysian adventure, together with their family units:
1. Up-standing citizen Thierry and Francoise, his homespun paradigm-of-French-motherhood-wife- all ruffled skirts and pressed blouses, given to dabbing the corner of sticky children’s mouths with a handkerchief moistened by her own lavender-scented spittle, and adorable 7 year old daughter, Clare.
2. Germanic, life-loving, chest-thumping Bertrand and his languid blonde bride, Christine, and their two polar opposite daughters, beguiling 17 yr-old Anne-Dominique and pesky 11 yr-old Benedicte.
3. Diminutive, bald, hook-nosed French caricature Oncle Robert and my kind but scantly-humoured Tante Moutie, with their visiting grown son Etienne and and the daughter of a family friend, Helene- 14 years old, like me.
All descending on a long, wooden house, once one of the finest in a sizeable village near Pau: a walk-way balcony, shutters, bidets, wooden floors – the whole neuf yards; twenty feet above a rambling prairie, trees and churches spread out in the distance beyond a low stone wall which, together with the L-shaped house, formed the borders of the grass garden and its cooling plastic pool.
The village boasted old ladies in black dresses tending chickens, a Saturday market, a Foie Gras shop and a leisure site on the outskirts, with swimming pool, tennis courts and camping area. It also had a scattering of charming- if modest- houses, one of which was home to a family with a wholesome country girl, Marie-Laure, also my age.
‘Moutie has asked you to join them in Tournay this Summer,’ said Mum. So I did.
I was naive, over-analytical and spoke minimal French. I was uncomfortable with the unknown and particular in my preferences but slave to approval. I had a solitary sensibility with aspirations of inclusion.
I was not, by nature, the ideal candidate to be dropped into the middle of a dozen strangers speaking in a foreign tongue, which was precisely the point.
Feeding into which an emergent theme: I was not a girl, not yet a woman, in a Britney kind of way.
I had left behind white socks (though not so long ago!) and tight pony-tails but was still two years shy of the end of a parental ban on ear-piercings. My number one holiday outfit was a pink top and chequered skirt with gold thread, in which I felt tres, tres, chic. My borrowed Tourister suitcase (with miniature keys) embraced a pink, striped bikini, Body Shop cosmetics bag of nail varnish and eek, that aggressive Grown Up talisman, a silver ankle bracelet.
I hasten to add that Brigitte Bardot nymphette I was not, spending the majority of the holiday in over-sized Miss Selfridge t-shirts, reading Jeeves and Wooster books and wondering why everyone was calling me ‘jonty’ (gentille: kind). I was gauche beyond belief and would secretly have liked my stuffed pandas to be leaning against the toile de jouy bolster at bed-time.
In the sexuality department I could be described as dual aspect. Not in the sense of having windows at the front and at the back but in being simultaneously precociously aware and experientially backward.
I had long since discovered the mechanics of my body, via the floats in my school* swimming pool but without the remote inkling of an idea as to how they may be operated by a boy (*all girls). The opposite sex were an unfathomable, swoony concept, albeit one I was swiftly warming to.
The impact of morning coffee in a bowl, evening cricket sounds and cigars, on the teenage imagination, cannot be underestimated. Throw in rambunctious communal activities and my unchallenged senses were assaulted on all fronts.
But as welcome as these were, a lack of control over my position in the social dynamic, coupled with serious communication issues, was a source of angst.
The issue was simple: with whom does a 14 year old want to hang out, sandwiched between an 11 and a 17 year old?
Benedicte was bossy and still clinging to the childish ways I was desperate to forget. She played with toys, was useless at ping pong and dominated Clare, over whom I had my first maternal feelings.
Anne-Dominique was sophisticated to laid-back perfection. She had olive skin, beautiful breasts and a glass of wine with dinner. I was in girl love.
Now, who does a 17 year old want to hang out with? Her awkward, mute 14 year old English relative or her handsome, dark-haired boyfriend Emmanuel, always keen for an evening smooch up against the ivy?
I blamed pre-pidgin French for my failure to impress Anne-Do but in retrospect it probably saved me from some earth-swallowing conversational opening gambits, as well as from speaking my mind with the ever-present, ever-thrust-on-me Benedicte and her punchable little mush.
So it was I was resigned to ogle my crush sweeping bare-footed and long-limbed through the house day after day, in tongue-tied silence, and occasionally with a stuffed rabbit being shoved in my face.
I turned instead to my two peers, Marie-Laure, the sweet neighbour and Helene, the confusing visitor.
Looking back, there were echoes of delightful French snobbery in my Aunt’s reluctance to encourage my time with local girl, Marie-Laure, but I forged ahead regardless.
She too was trying to slip free of the little girl suit. She wore bracelets and had her curly hair cut in a bob. She wanted to try on make-up and learn the word for night-club in English. But mostly she was just comfortable in her easy physicality and warm skin. I wanted a bit of what she wanted and a bit of what she had and that is the crux of a friendship.
Helene was a more troubling character to me. She stayed only a short time but in the twin bed alongside, leading to night-time chats because, for some unremembered reason, she spoke perfect English. Not as good as an English person but unnervingly superior. In one fell swoop she managed to usurp my U.S.P and become my interpreter, causing me to question the value of understanding and being understood. She took the veil of mystery between myself and my hosts and folded it into a neat, annoying napkin square. She was too school prefect to be attractive and I didn’t like the way she looked in her swimsuit.
However, at night, with her sleeping close by, I admit to fantasies of helping her achieve certain pool float sensations, the recollection of which disturbed me during the day. I worried that I might unknowingly betray some remnant of my unspeakable thoughts and tried to avoid her, except when I wanted to know the words for chocolate pancake.
My male love interests numbered two, neither of whom were the swarthy Emmanuel, probably because I sensed his thoroughly understandable devotion to Anne-Do and disinterest in me.
The first was a quiet sort of fancy. The kind where you feel self-conscious and flushed and struck for even incomprehensible French. The good news was that I hardly acknowledged my feelings until the end of the holiday. Because the bad news was that he was my second cousin and a Daddy-o twice over. Which, though not officially incest, was surely not on my mother’s wish-list when she was popping the French-English dictionary into my ruck-sack.
He was blue-eyed and skinny and not an obvious Prince Charming. But he had a twinkle in his eye and spent time trying to unpick my mumbojumbo. Perhaps seeing him surrounded by his family I dared to dream of a future as his wife, or any wife- carnal thoughts in abeyance, only involuntary flirtations giving away my game.
The Boy At The Pool was The One. Out of the tangle of flesh, lycra and screams he spectacularly stood- Adonis amongst rugrats. Gallically good-looking, in bermuda shorts with a sporty physique, I perceived Frederique to be the older man- maybe even 16. I can’t remember if I clocked him immediately or if it took a few visits but soon excursions to the leisure site were very much on my mind.
I agonised over when to look in his direction, how best to represent myself and when I would see him again, imagining countless romantic scenarios, all of which involved talk, leading to a kiss. And I thought he noticed me too, smiling and swimming close by.
The feeling I got when I saw him was like syrup filling the lungs. It was first lust: all-encompassing, disorientating, mostly drenched in sun and water.
Only once did we exchange words, meaning he asked a question which I did not understand and to which I was unable to reply. I was playing the only quality of tennis available to a 14-year old who knows they are being watched by their object of desire: rubbish. Catching sight of him in my peripheral vision leaning up against the court- t-shirt riding high to reveal tanned torso, fingers bent around the wire- it might have been my heart being thwacked around the net.
Of course, the Summer didn’t last forever. No more frites, no more Frederique. Or Pierre, Jacques, Yves, whatever his name was- lost in all details save for visceral ones.
This Easter I visited Nice, Moutie’s home town. We met at the Galerie Lafayette department store and ate a croque monsieur together, she still smart in her double-breasted woolen suit (30 degress outside) but updated with a mobile phone, me with a pea-flinging Rufus.
As we conversed in French I can’t be 100% certain she told me she lived next door to blasphemous monks. But the following I did glean of my erstwhile holiday companions.
Oncle Robert resides in a home for Alzheimers sufferers and is 80 years old. He and his siblings were bought out of the house by Bertrand, who continues to spend Summers there with much of the clan. Anne-Do and Benedicte are both married with families (and neither to Emmanuel or stuffed rabbits). Clare is a lawyer. Etienne’s daughter, who I held in my arms as a newborn, is a nurse at Robert’s home. A photograph of the man himself, meanwhile, drew from me a gasp, revealing as it did the unlikelihood of his going home empty-handed in a paedophile pageant.
It was surreal to reminisce about days separated by two decades. I was moved by our re-connection, her eagerness to hear my news. Her years have been filled with births, marriages and death at a steady pace, all of which she has survived with a mixture of gratitude and stoicism.
Little could she imagine the stirrings she once facilitated in the heart of her teen protege nor the slight disappointment now nagging the adult counterpart: Moutie said not a word of my leisure-site love.