Chapter 20 Summer holiday
"I'd like to take you to a real old-fashioned pub," said Alan. "I know one right next to a small canal, if I can find it. And just behind is a row of houses with little bridges over the canal, instead of front door steps."
"That sounds great."
"I have to show you something of the way we live. You can't go back without seeing the inside of some English pubs. There's more here than castles and Roman ruins, you know."
The pub was built of huge rough pieces of timber in the Tudor style, with spaces between filled with stones and plaster. The whole building had sagged and the door leaned at a giddy angle. A wedge three inches wide at one end and tapering to nothing at the other had been cut from the top, and joined at the bottom, to allow the door to fit the distorted frame. The doorstep was worn in the centre like a sunken cake.
"This reminds me of the Scot who wanted to repair his front step," said Alan as we entered the dim interior and found comfortable seats in a window corner. "He decided to turn the stone over rather than pay for a new one. The stone mason spent all day carefully removing it.... and found it was also hollow on the other side."
The barman raised his eyebrows at my request for a brandy, lime and soda, and his concoction was not what I had expected.
"That must be an Australian speciality," said Alan.
We talked about Australia and he was very knowledgeable, except for his notion of snakes. I don't think he was altogether convinced when I tried to tell him I had never been face to face with one in forty years.
"All ready to leave in the morning?" he asked. "Did your cousin get away?"
"Yes and yes. Margaret left her suitcase with me; she has taken her rucksack on a tour of the continent with a group of young people. When she comes back, she's going to stay with someone in the Lake District and then she's off to Canada. Jacqueline is glad to have her bed back."
"Well I'm off to Scotland again for a few days golfing, but apart from that I'm not doing anything much all summer. I'll read some books I've had for a while and haven't got round to."
We talked of music and books and golf and sailing. I knew he was shy of forming any relationships with women. He probably felt safe with me knowing that I would be leaving at the end of the year, so he was able to relax and willing to express some of his intimate fears and hopes.
That night it was impossible to sleep. Alan and I had become good friends and I found that in spite of reason, I was hoping for much more than friendship. If he had given me a ray of hope, I would have cancelled the trip and spent the weeks waiting for a phone call from him. In the morning when we left for our seven-week tour of Europe, my heart was heavy; also my eyes from lack of sleep.
The organization at Dover was chaotic, and my disposition was not improved on discovering that David was still in his slippers, and had forgotten his shoes. I believe in travelling light, but this was taking it too far.
It seemed that half of Britain was on its way to France. Ours was the last vehicle aboard the car ferry, about two hours after the advertised time; and we drove off to find ourselves, not at Boulogne, but at Calais! Even further from Paris which we could not avoid on our way south!
During the long hours at the wheel, my thoughts kept wandering to Alan and our date the previous night. Why are you so scared of marriage? Two mature people who understand the pitfalls, only have to set out with the determination to make it work, I thought.
We both valued the same sorts of things, integrity, honesty... we both like music... we both believed in conservation, that progress often demands too high a price. We enjoyed talking to each other.
By five o'clock I was exhausted and we began to look for a camping area. There were a couple in the handbook, but they were very elusive and we could not find them. Three weary hours later we reached Maison Lafitte in Paris, and I put my head in my hands and wept quietly while the children bustled about and prepared a meal.
With our lunch in an airline bag the next morning, we set out for the city centre by train. I posted a letter to my neighbour, enclosing a key, and asking her to send David's shoes to Uncle Willi in Germany. I also sent a postcard to Alan, hoping he would be pleased to hear from me.
We walked up the hill to Sacre Coeur, and climbed right up to the dome of the church (for a price) and listened to a recording telling us about the history and significance of various aspects. This was now the height of the tourist season, and I couldn't help feeling that this belonged more to the tourist world than to the true believer. One or two people crossed themselves and knelt upon entering, the hundreds of others were intent upon the architecture, the decorations, the souvenirs or the view from the dome. Hundreds more sat on the steps eating lunch, playing guitars, planning trips, leaning against rucksacks. Several tourist buses brought the more sedate visitors in their best travelling suits, with their movie cameras and their binoculars. This was "The Season".
Place du Tertre
Nearby is Place du Tertre, where dozens of artists crowd the square, hoping to sell their products to the tourists. The square is surrounded by cafes with tables on the footpaths, so that customers can enjoy their refreshments while they watch the colourful passing parade of artists and prospective buyers, and those just looking. Were all those stalls, and all those thousands of pieces of artwork packed up and taken home each night, and set out again each morning during the season?
Our first experience of the Metro underground took us successfully to the Luxembourg Gardens where we sat for an hour watching the birds among the bright flowers, the children sailing boats on the ponds, the people enjoying the summer days.
"Look at those statues," I said as we strolled across the road to the adjacent park. There was a series of larger than life torsos.
"Somebody has been painting them," exclaimed Peter. "Look, the man has red socks, and a beard painted on him."
"The next one has underwear and measles!"
This was appalling. I wondered how long they had been like that, what the Parisians had felt when first the desecration had been discovered, what efforts had been made to remove the paint, how long they would remain in this condition. Was this a thoughtless students prank, or had someone a determined dislike of these particular sculptures?
"What's for dinner?" asked Peter, forever hungry.
"I saw a shop at Maison Lafitte where I think I can buy something."
It was the sort of shop where the ordinary Parisian might have gone. The lady was helpful and patient while I calculated how many grams of salad of several varieties we could afford. A long French loaf, and as a final extravagance, some petits fours, delicious little biscuits, very French. These we rationed strictly during the next few days to make the treat last longer.
Driving toward Switzerland and enjoying the last of the petits fours, we took a secondary road with the idea that it would save us many miles. It was a rather narrow and twisty road, but not so much so as to impede our progress. Around a curve there was a hold-up for no apparent reason. After waiting for a while, and seeing a police vehicle pass on the wrong side of the road, the children decided to investigate.
"Probably an accident," I said. "Traffic is held up both ways."
I poured myself a cup of coffee from the thermos and began to take advantage of the delay to relax for a few minutes. The children came racing back.
"Two dead and the baby still alive," said Jacqueline in a matter-of-fact voice.
"How do you know?" I asked disbelieving.
"One lady had her arm ripped off, and the other was just lying with her head through the windscreen. The baby is beside the road crying." I felt ill.
"Stay here," I said. "I'll see if they need help."
Was the baby really just lying by the roadside?
The small car was off the road with one side completely removed, as if by a giant can-opener. A large Teddy lay on the exposed back seat. The two bodies in the front had been covered by the time I arrived. The baby, a toddler, was being examined by the policeman, and was whimpering softly. He was bruised all over and looked only semi-conscious. The other policeman was talking to the driver of a big truck on the other side of the road. There was no apparent damage to the truck.
"I think we had better go the long way round," I said as I came back to the van.
"Can't we stay and see what happens?"
"No, definitely not," and I started to back up and turn around.
"Who will take care of the baby?"
"He'll go to hospital for a while, then I suppose his father or grandparents will look after him."
There were dozens of questions about death, and orphaned children.
"What would happen if..."
I tried hard to answer patiently.
I felt so nauseated by the whole scene, and so disturbed at the thought of how one can be driving along quietly, and the next instant be dead. Had the driver looked away for an instant, glanced around at the baby, been distracted by her friend? Was she overtaking the truck, and cut in when she saw something else approach? This would account for the missing side of the car. Did they see death coming?