We are just back from a holiday in the south of France.
“Let’s drive!” I said.
“It’ll be an adventure!” I said.
“We’ll stay over somewhere on the way down and the way back. We’ll discover gorgeous villages and stay in amazing places!” I said.
And, we did.
But, bloody hell it was a long drive.
We went with another family. They’re good friends. Lovely friends. Saints you might think, for even wanting to put up with us for two weeks. Or fools, perhaps?
They have three fantastic boys, similar in age to our three monsters, who managed to keep our three happily entertained for two weeks. Copious amounts of red wine were drunk, fabulous stinky cheeses were devoured and a lot of belly laughing helped in the battle against my increasingly flabby cheese and wine tummy. I, inadvertently taught all the children how to swear in french with my constant potty mouth (Merde!) and Mabel wondered why there was such a thing as an “Awful Tower” in a place called Paris.
It was marvellous.
I love France. I suppose it is because I can speak the language relatively well and also that it was our main destination as a family when I was small. We used to go Eurocamping. A lot.
The Loire Valley, The Dordogne, Provence, The Alps. We spent many summers travelling down to France in our Renault estate. My sister, wedged between my brother and I, always able to nod off to the land of dreams by simply closing her eyes. We would put up with her head resting on us for a short while and then would shrug her over to the other side, each sibling taking a turn to bear the weight of her surprisingly heavy “tete.” (Told you I could speak the lingo!)
Mum would always pack the car. She was expert at it and would methodically plan where everything would go: Sleeping blankets, pillows, the bare essentials, like tin foil and bin bags. And us three piled in the back seat, both on blankets and covered in pillows. It was all part of mum’s careful plan to completely maximise the available space.
There was always a smell in the car. Not unpleasant, but I can almost smell it now as I remember being hemmed in by feather cushions and soft sleeping bags, their zips occasionally catching on our legs. A foreign smell perhaps. Warm, dusty air instead of the lush green of Yorkshire. Different. The sound of Chris De Burgh, Alison Moyet or Linda Ronstadt playing on our tape deck. My brother and I arguing over who would listen to the Walkman. I can’t listen to Chris De Burgh without smelling and tasting that car journey. I see it too; my mum’s one arm rested out of the passenger or driver window (she would quite happily drive in France,) so that she could catch the sun, even when we were between campsites or out for the day. She always kept her watch on and we would marvel at how brown she was, asking her to show us her slim white watch mark every day or so.
I remember one holiday in the alps, it was freezing and rained a lot. I remember my mother walking with me in the middle of the night to the washroom block so I could use the toilet. I remember the torch she had in her hand and all the frogs we caught in the beam of that torch. It was so exciting. Then being tucked back in to my sleeping bag (being careful of the zip against my shivering body) and listening to the rain on the canvas above us with my parents just through the canvas wall next to me was magical. Safe and magical. A warm and happy memory now.
She hated having her picture taken, so there are not many of her on our holidays, but the ones I have found show her slim, brown, smiling and utterly gorgeous. She still had a dancer’s physique; toned legs, a slim waist (despite three children,) elegant feet and a graceful walk.
We have been to France with our kids a few times. We have done the Eurocamping, but never in a tent. I am quite happy now NOT walking to the toilet block in the middle of the night and having my own loo that I don’t have to put shoes on to visit. This time though, we hired a farmhouse. A very beautiful farmhouse, surrounded by fresh lavender, rosemary and thyme, with a pool, a boules pitch, a table tennis table and acres of garden for the kids to play rounders and cricket in. And fabulous friends, of course.
The last time we were on holiday with the Duffys was three years ago. We had a lovely week in Cornwall. Mum had just been diagnosed and was dangerously close to being sectioned. Her decline from the April in that year to the end of August was so rapid it was hard to keep up with all the different things going on. She called the police because there was a stranger in her house (my dad) on a number of occasions. She would scratch and bang at the living room window at the neighbours, thinking that she was being held captive in a house with a dangerous man. She rang me thinking there were men in the house who intended to rape her. However bad it got, the next day it just seemed to get worse.
I remember crying over dinner one night, expelling all my anxiety and fear in one snot-drenched cascade of emotion. Everyone was very understanding and I managed to spend the rest of the week without putting anyone through it again.
The same happened in France. I had one night where I decided to let the wall down and allow the emotions out. It is now a conscious decision when I do this. It rarely catches me out anymore. I am now accustomed to hiding the constant sadness and loss. The grief. It is a part of me and I have learned to live with it. But, when I allow myself to think about my sadness, well, there’s no turning back. The gate cannot be shut. The grief cannot be re-housed without supreme effort. The wall cannot be re-built very easily!
Poor Andrea. I wailed and I sobbed. I shook and I trembled. I couldn’t catch my breath and I howled like a baying wolf.
I just felt her long and elegant arms come round me and she let me cry and she cried with me.
Then it was done.
Then I could slowly put my wall back up and the grief gradually slid back into its dark, pitiful hole.
Andrea was once upon a time a ballet dancer. A proper one that went to study at ballet school and trained for years and years. Like my mother, she has the body of a dancer, lithe and trim with toned muscles that seem to require no constant toning. Like they just enjoy being toned naturally.
I tried not to look at my own short legs as we read our books by the pool. I focused on the wine. I think her long legs might have actually made me eat more!
Mabel is desperate to start ballet lessons and I have her booked in for a trial at a small local dance school next week. She asked Andrea to show her some dance moves. Andrea very kindly did and Mabel has spent most of her time, since we returned home, practising her good toes, naughty toes. She even did it today in the library whilst we were trying to negotiate signing our books out on the supposedly simple to use touch screen.
“There, press ‘renew all’,” I hissed at Martha. As usual we’d forgotten to take one of the books back. In fact we’d forgotten we had it.
“Do we want a receipt?” she asked.
“No!” I said as she pressed the button for a receipt and we waited for a piece of paper I would stuff in my bag and forget about to come out of the creaky machine.
“Look at me, Mummy! I can do good toes, naughty toes here too!” said Mabel.
“I don’t think you can do it standing up,” I whispered.
“I can!” she snapped back, a little too loudly for a library. And, fair play to her, she did a pretty good effort.
Perhaps my littlest will be a dancer like her granny. Perhaps Martha will inherit her love of cooking and sewing. Perhaps Archie will continue with his golf and become a great golfer. Perhaps they will all grow up remembering their trips to France when the car journeys took forever and the playlist included Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay. Perhaps the smell of lavender will always remind them of the farmhouse we stayed in with our fabulous friends.
I hope so.
I miss you, Mum x