By Claire Handscombe
On the road we sang Jean-Jacques Goldman. We sang about love. We sang about dark grey and light grey. We sang about the lure of communism and anarchy and the dream of flying away from responsibilities. We sang about Jewish children in the war. We sang about a woman who leaves breadcrumbs on her balcony for the pigeons, who lives her life vicariously, though we had no idea what vicariously meant. We sang, improbably, about women having babies without men. We sang about the indelible footprints that people leave on our lives when they go.
We sang though we should have been sleeping. At four a.m. we had been up, the countdown over at last, school out for two glorious months, all the maths and the Latin and the Dutch lessons done until September, which was an eternity away, so far away that there was no point thinking about it, because it did not exist. At four thirty we had picked up our heavy duffle bags, tried again to squeeze our sleeping bags into their covers, failed, and told ourselves it didn’t matter, that we would just fold them up and sit on them all the way down to the South of France. And at five there we had been, in a pre-ordained car park on the outskirts of an ugly Belgian industrial city which we loved because it had come to symbolise tea towel fights and midnight snacks, whispered secrets and campfires.
On the road it was dark and cold. On the road it was warmer and lighter and then almost unbearably hot as we drove south through France into the heat of the day. On the road it was mostly monotonous motorways until it was windy and nauseating, but we didn’t care about any of that because we had landed a space in the Mahieu family van, and that was the only place in the world we wanted to be. Singing to the same 80s pop cassette. Sharing out sweets and biscuits. Unwrapping sandwiches that had been lovingly wrapped in tin foil by our mothers. Poking small cartons of orange juice with straws and spilling the sticky drink onto our laps. Laughing with Marianne, who sat in the front rubbing her belly, pregnant for the fifth time, dispensing instructions on driving and life to her long-suffering husband.
The first night we slept in beds in the stone house. It was late and we had earned it with all that sitting, and no one had the energy to pitch tents. We wriggled into our sleeping bags and whispered about who would be in which team for the week’s competitions. We thought about the boys we had crushes on. We wondered who would be new this year and hoped they would fit in and not mess with the well-established order of long-held friendships. And in the morning, we waited.
We waited for the others to arrive, cars and vans full of Belgian adolescents. We waited, feeling as though we were the owners of this paradise, preparing to welcome guests to our home. We waited, slightly smug that we knew already who was going to be on washing up duty tomorrow.
We put on suncream. We put on shorts. We put on t-shirts, and the boys took theirs off again by lunchtime. We put on the blue and red scarves that said we belonged together. We put up the big blue tent and chose our sleeping spots, rolling out our sleeping bags over our airbeds and saving a space for Hélène next to us. And we waited.
The vans arrived and tired families tumbled out, families whose parents were leading the camp and had all of their children in tow, from the eldest who was one of us to the baby in a carseat. The cars arrived and holdalls and rucksacks were lugged to the tent. The cars arrived and we kissed everybody’s cheeks three times, Belgian-style, introduced new people, and the sounds of anticipation and welcome echoed throughout the grounds, from the stone house to the back of the field where the next day we would play handball and chase each other with water pistols.
In the girls’ tent, all was order. In the girls’ tent, we put our bags at the foot of our airbeds and took out our torches and maybe our Bibles for the morning. In the girls’ tent, we lay facing each other in two rows of eight. In the girls’ tent we inwardly cheered that we had made it this time, that at last we were in the inner sanctum, right by the people we most wanted to be close to, the people everyone wanted to be close to, not like the last year’s camp when we had been put in a room with all the other misfits and new girls. This time we were next to Hélène and across from Anne-Laure and this was the way life should be. In the girls’ tent, we giggled until we saw the flashlight against the canvas in the darkness, and knew that it was time to be quiet because we did not want to be told off on the very first morning. We did not want to be told off ever, because we were good girls who wanted everyone to like us.
In the mornings, we listened to the crickets from our airbeds, our airbeds which made us all smell faintly of rubber. In the mornings, we ate bread and chocolate spread for breakfast. In the mornings, we lined up, waiting for our turn to have our hair French plaited. In the mornings, we sat in the chapel and sang again, not Jean-Jacques Goldman this time but our favourite church songs about days of joy and days of victory and about God being love and listening to us when we called. In the mornings, we sat under the shade of the tree across form the tent and talked. We played volleyball. We were called in for potato peeling duty. We were told to chop vegetables and were too scared to say that we never did it at home and didn’t know which way to cut an onion.
We sang in the mornings. We sang in the afternoons. We sang in the evenings, in the chapel again, but different songs this time. We sang about the story of a sock with holes weeping on the edge of a bin. We sang about spending the night walking around the Champs-Elysées. We sang campfire songs that made no sense but whose sole purpose was to get louder and louder until we almost lost our voices.
We didn’t have mobile phones. There was no phone at all, or maybe one, but long-distance calls were expensive and unnecessary unless someone was dying, which of course no one was, because we were young and invincible. There was no post, even, because our parents would have had to write to us two weeks before we left so that we got the letters on time. There was no Facebook. There was no Twitter. Some of us had cameras but not a lot of pocket money for films or to have our films developed, and so we took twenty, maybe thirty, photos in total over ten days and we hoped for the best and later we were excited when the photo of our favourite family came put well enough to be blown up and framed and hung on a bedroom wall in memory of the perfect summer. We lived in the moment and years later we marvelled that our memory had taken its own photographs. This, too, Jean-Jacques Goldman had sung about, so we should have known. Continue Reading…