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Tournay, ’87

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.


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The News


Anchorman: Many parts of England and Wales have been covered this week in large blankets of snow. Early indicators say it hasn’t snowed so much for ages- that’s how snowy it is.

It’s generally stopping people getting to work because it’s very wet and cold and interferes with wheels and lots of ways of getting to work involve wheels.

It’s not great for trains either which run on tracks and prefer a clear path or for airplanes because they need visibility and other stuff to stay in the air.

In London, you might think the Underground is feeling smug but, no, because all the other transport is up the creek so everyone’s heading down there and it’s causing delays.

The only way to get about is walking and even then it’s slippery and you might fall over and split your head open.

James Wyatt is in the thick of it in some village in the middle of nowhere, reporting on how much snow there actually is.

How much snow is there, James?

Reporter: Loads, Michael.

Anchorman: And what’s it doing?

Reporter: It’s hard to describe. It’s packing several inches deep. It hasn’t snowed this much for at least a good while.

It’s just come out of the blue.

Anchorman: Even though it’s February and we live in Britain?

: Yes. Christmas day came and went- what the hell’s it doing here now?

Anchorman: How are the villagers being affected?

: Well, Michael, there are road closures, people staying indoors all over the shop. Salt.Warnings.

Above all, it’s generating an enormous amount of news.

: What would you say to awkward people who argue that snow is a natural weather condition occurring when the temperature drops below freezing point?

Reporter: I’d like them to come down here for a few hours and see for themselves what snow does when it settles.

: What does it do?

: It gets very slippery, which is difficult for cars.

And you have to put on masses of extra clothing.

And it means that normal people have to do extraordinary things just to go about their daily routines.

I saw a man earlier using a shovel to get out of his own front door- it was almost freakish to watch.

Anchorman: How is morale in the village?

: There’s an atmosphere of disbelief. It’s all anyone can talk about.

‘God, it’s cold’, ‘Have you seen the snow?’– that kind of thing.

On the plus side, there’s an increased camaraderie: strangers laughing with each other in the streets at the sheer absurdity of it all.

Anchorman: What are the more serious implications?

Reporter: Apart from safety concerns surrounding the operating of skiddable machinery in a substance that’s very slippery there’s finger pointing at those not turning up to schools and offices.

Anchorman: Surely they’re snowed in?

Reporter: No, they’re generally taking the piss.

People are also cooking unnecessary quantities of comfort food to watch in front of daytime television and neither of those are good for your health.

But we don’t want to over-react here.

Anchorman: Anything good to come of this?

Reporter: It’s pretty- Narnia-like. The kids are larking around with snowballs and in open fields men of snow have been brought magically to life.

There’s a crunch underfoot and an eerie end-times silence that may cause some to reflect on the selfishness of their empty, miserable lives.

Anchorman: Can you sum it up for us?

Reporter: Yes, Michael: hospitals, school children, traffic police, carrot farmers- all very happy.

Small businesses, taxis, delivery men, skinny people- quite pissed off.

Anchorman: James, thank you. And be safe.


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Spiders and Guilt

Somewhere in the Bible it is bound to say that it is OK to hate spiders.

Although let’s think about this. They scuttle, they’re hairy, they eat their wives- there’s already a lot for them to deal with.

What justification vindictiveness?

Yet if I Google my brain for spider memories the guilt synapses compete for attention.

There is really only one spider story.

It’s the one about the enormous black shadow on the carpet, illuminated by the televisual rays of a John Hughes film, when you were 12. The sheer shocking size and black hairiness of it, that scared the living daylights out of the whole family. The Benny Hill transference of the beast in a cup and post-card, after it concealed itself behind a chair. Or maybe the drowning or crushing of its threatening presence.

Some people will have a special Black Widow tale, or maybe an encounter with a weird kid who kept tarantulas. Most know never to initiate a chat on the subject in the company of anyone who has lived in a hot country. They’ll rain all over any anecdote you may have, unless you can pull up your trouser leg and draw a gasp from the crowd.

Surprisingly, my salient arachnid moments seem to be joined together by a cobwebby thread of emotion and these are they:

The Innocent:

At some age under 10, my father made me a bunk bed out of wood, that had a desk and draws under it. It was magnificent. It was also very close to the ceiling, bringing me closer to the creatures that therein dwell.

One night, traumatised by the sighting of such a fellow, I called for my mother, who seemed unwilling to negotiate the bunk-bed ladder and embuggerance of hastening its swift exit. I proceeded to launch into a full Gwyneth. Two minutes later she was looking it in the eye and grappling with a glass.

Everything seemed to happen very quickly. A distracting squeal (me), a bodged lunge (mother) and an ill-advised side-step (spider) conspired to make the operation a failure.

I had caused a death for the sake of a night’s sleep- a fact that had not escaped my mother, over whom I had exerted my powerful, murderous influence.

In the event, I did not sleep that night or for some nights to come.

This might have had something to do with the nuns at my Convent school, whispering ‘Be sure your sins will find you out’ into my ear as I changed into my gym plimsolls every morning.


The Victim:

Some years later I was listening to Mozart’s requiem in the dorm of my boarding school, while my friends were smoking behind the music wing, when I looked out of the window and caught sight of a large spider on the windowsill.

It was a sunny day and the spider was slap-bang in the middle of it, as if sun-bathing. What a strangely relaxed critter, I thought.

On closer inspection, however, the full horror of its predicament was revealed.

Rather than topping up its tan it was, in fact, being baked alive, its eight legs stuck fast into the drying paint of the recently re-decorated window.

To the strains of classical music, I watched as it heaved its stubby body from side to side within the restricted range of its fixed position, whereupon I embarked on the following thought process:

‘Does it realise what has happened? Is it in pain? Is it panicking? Do spiders feel fear? Do spiders have feet? If I intervene, would it be crueler for it to live the rest of its life with eight feetless legs or for me to kill it straight away, even though it is clearly expressing a will to live?

If only I had thought to juxtapose this episode with my formative spider experience. I may have seen that, where I had once cowardly taken action to cause an unnecessary death, I now had the opportunity to take action bravely, to cause a necessary one.

Instead I lay on my bed and thought morbid thoughts and wondered why I was so prone to bouts of childhood melancholy.

The spider perished, one freed footless leg waving aimlessly in the air, grateful perhaps for the sip of water I had dribbled into its mouth during its dying moments.

I went on to study a joint degree in Philosophy and English Literature at university, dropping the Philosophy just before my tutor lost the will to live.

The Unfortunate:

In my later teens I stayed the night with my student sister, drinking alcohol and trying to talk to boys when actually I was itching to get into the kitchen and do all their nasty washing up.

That night I was awoken by the heavy footsteps of a gigantic dinosaur-spider on the headboard of my bed.

I had, at this point, had time to reflect on my childish behaviour and had developed a humanitarian stance towards the whole spider-removal debate.

Responsibly, I fetched a mug and proudly overcame yawning chasms of all-encompassing terror, to trap the creature in its tea-holding void.

Holding it away from my body in case its captive made any clever moves, I took the Bee Gee mug into the un-lit kitchen and flung its contents out of the back door, despite an uncomfortable awareness of the temptation that an open kitchen door at midnight may provide to any shivery spiders waiting outside.

Imagine my horror when, examining the emptiness of the cup in the moonlight, I discovered the dinosaur-spider still lurking within.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it and neither did most of Surrey because I screamed convincingly and dramatically flung cup, spider and honorable intentions onto the paved garden.

Thus killing spider with a sharp shard of Robin Gibb, together with the chance to make peace with the Spider kingdom.

Oh God, will I never make amends?

The Terrorised:

Many years of pedestrian spider encounters passed. No infestations, no escapees from the Creepy Crawly enclosure, no memorable face-offs involving the slippery surface of bath enamel.

Until the honeymoon in Zanzibar.

And a spider so gargantuan, so gob-smackingly, eye-wateringly out-sized it would have toppled John Prescott with the gentle outreach of one casual leg, during nap-time.

Right above the marital bed, thrown into relief by a white mosquito net and stucco walls.

Now, the usual argument for the just eviction of a spider in Spider kingdom court, is that they are out of their element. Whilst one wouldn’t chase them around with implements in the garden, when they introduce themselves into the interior of a home they do so univited.

This the domain of nertured Man. This is where Laurence Llewelyn Bowen unwinds.

Things weren’t quite so cut-and-dried on this occasion, however. This was a beach hut. A very nice beach hut but no carpets or loo-roll dollies- the usual turn-back signs for a spider who has lost his way.

And yet there were so few places for the spider to hide. And no way there was going to be enough oxygen in the room come sunrise, considering the enormous gulps of air the wall-climbing animal must be consuming, competing with my own rabid intakes every time I caught sight of its shadow throwing the room into darkness.

Q: How do you bring yourself to explain to a local man, at one with nature, that you cannot contemplate one of their national treasures sharing your room?

A: Contemplating the national treasure sharing your room.

Once he had finished laughing, our friendly host made his way towards the intruder, armed with some tools of destruction. Which he very much needed.

Because this sucker was going nowhere.

The Terminator of spiders, it refused to die. To the extent that, had the laughing not made me feel ever so slightly stupid, the spectre of 3 adults losing a fight with a furry foe, would have done the job.

Almost a whole can of poisonous spray finally ended its evening.

And a whole heap of shame ended mine.

The Fooled:

So we arrive at last week.

Not content with wreaking my own twisted form of spider aggression on the world, I now feel it necessary to involve my innocent child, who has recently taken an uncommon interest in the raven rascals.

In the process of examining exhibit number 23 on the way home from nursery, I decide that it would be educational for Bruno to watch a spider negotiate its web to catch some food. Having little patience to wait for a flying sacrifice it seemed like a rollicking good idea to lob a tiny morsel of my raw carrot instead.

Mother and child then spent an agonising five minutes watching the following scene unfold.

Conscious of the ‘tug’ of food that has landed in its expertly-crafted home an excited spider leaves the comfort of his central position to approach lunch. Smacking his chops in anticipation, he is confused- to say the least- by the bright orange mass he finds on arrival.

Assuming it to be a super-breed of rare fly, bolstered by a balmy European Summer, it attempts to get its jaws around the vegetarian treat, only to be overwhelmed by the denseness of its composition, the indigestibility of its sinews, the sheer weightiness of its corporeality.

Soon, the combined strain of root vegetable and spirited spider begin to deplete the intricate lacing of the web so that by the time the carrot has fallen from its sticky net curtain and the spider is heading back to HQ in a huff, there are missing rungs of the ladder.

Not only exhausted from exertion and ravenous from the unfulfilled promise of a feast, the hapless spider must now desperately struggle for foothold in the house of his own making.

‘Do spiders eat carrots?’ is the question that inevitably drives the stake through my callous, spider-hating heart.


It is, therefore, with a modicum of relief that I can summon this photograph of my lovely friend’s Spider Hoover, which she keeps in Switzerland to deal with her mountain visitors.

Smiley and so very much like a flower, what spider would fail to be charmed into its gentle suction? What spider would resent being lovingly replaced in its own environment amongst the bees and the singing birds?

Certainly not the one I recently helped to re-habilitate- calmly and sensitively and without more than half an hour’s rumination.

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