Franco-British council short story competition 2010: 19-25 age group
by Jack Boardman
We moved to Hull when I was fifteen. Papa told me that Hull sat in the mouth of a river. I looked it up on a map. With my finger I traced a straight line between Calais and the snarling mouth in the right rib of the U.K.’s side. I thought that maybe when I was there, from my bedroom window, I might be able to still see home, France.
The tips of the Humber Bridge were visible through dark trees with far-reaching limbs at night. I could not see the river. I could not see France.
On the first day of my new school, where the uniforms were black, I stood in the middle of the school yard beside a pond as a crowd of loud voices heaved around me. A shoulder bumped me and I fell backwards. Laughter erupted. I turned to the face of the older boy whose back I’d stumbled into. He looked down on me with a sneer amidst freckles and ginger, rigidly-spiked hair.
‘He’s new!’ said a voice from behind me in the crowd.
The older boy prodded me in the chest with a sharp finger. ‘You doin’?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, a little too frantically, spilling the quills of my accent for all to hear. My English was strong; strong enough, I supposed, that I could conceal myself as English if I spoke little enough. I was not ashamed. I was only scared of being outcast, ostracised, seul from the moment I spoke differently to them.
The bully laughed. He paused and turned back to the other skulking figures. They cackled like hyenas.
‘Are you French?’ he said, springing the name with an exaggerated impression. ‘Hee-haw hee-haw hee-haw.’ He twisted his fingers, twirling them beside his cheekbones to suggest a curled moustache, like Frenchmen from the cartoons. He ceased laughing, squinting at me to size me up. My shoes were leather, his were trainers. My trousers were fitted with an ironed crease down the thigh and front of my narrow shins; his trousers were baggy, slouching off his heels. He wore a puffy anorak; his eyes lingered over my fitted trench coat with the belt and wide lapels. Then he met my face; I wondered if my face and blonde hair was different. ‘What year you in?’
‘Year ten,’ I said.
‘You look older.’
He laughed. ‘Cocky, i’n’t he?’
His friends laughed.
‘I’m Leigh,’ he said.
They pronounced my name John. I became so accustomed to it that when Mama and Papa said my name correctly I didn’t always respond.
At school, I had joined the football team. I had also become popular, spending my time with Leigh at break and lunch. He’d told me that I was a magnet for lasses and kept me close by.
Leigh saved me a seat beside him at the table with his four friends: Dan, ‘Airy, Clarky, and Wilson. Others from my own year group followed them around, offering us all cigarettes when outside the gates. I got to eat earlier than my classmates, going into the cafeteria with the older pupils.
They greeted me and I sat, happy to remain quiet as always, to simply not be alone like some of the other outcasts at tables by themselves.
One in particular I often noticed across the room was Christopher Roberts, he was in the Special Needs class and ate with a school-assigned carer. Christopher Roberts, as he was named by all, as though pronouncing the full name of a chemical in science, appeared normal enough to me; he had brown, scruffy hair, not dissimilar to any popular boy. He was in the year below. When hyperactive, he struggled to control himself. I’d once seen him strike another person on the school field and then run, like a rabbit, in the utmost fear.
Christopher Roberts stood to clear his tray. His eyes were sombre, not darting as when in a frenzy. Leigh and the others grabbed chips from their plates and launched them through the air, hitting Christopher Roberts in the face. Some chips and a bread bun hit Christopher Roberts’ carer. Neither reacted. His carer gestured for him to clear his tray, and then to head for the exit as lunchtime supervisors came to give us detention.
One day at home Mama told me she was worried that I was changing.
‘Don’t grow up,’ she’d said, stroking my face. Papa often said I looked like her, though with his blonde hair instead of her long dark curls.
I told Mama not to worry, Je suis le même garçon que vous toujours avez su, that I was the same boy she’d always known.
I no longer worried myself about neglect or loneliness at school. I ate lunch and stood with Leigh and his friends at break, sometimes smoking at the gates. I had friends in the football team and classes, where I mostly sat talking. I was one of them. Girls liked my accent, as though it were from another part of Hull. The girls also liked my clothes, calling me stylish.
The sun was enticing from the Maths room window. I walked with an eager step when the bell rang. I wore my shirt sleeves rolled up, with my coat draped over my shoulder. At the gates I looked for Leigh and the others. They weren’t outside yet. I had no intention of seeing them over the Easter; I was going to stay at Grandmère’s in France. I pulled a cigarette from my satchel and leant against the railings. I held the smoke between my teeth, afraid to inhale. I spied a flock of seagulls and imagined the ferry-ride over to Calais. I decided that when I got home I would trace the journey with my finger on the map…
Something struck the side of my head. My right eye flashed red and I clutched my hand against my cheekbone. My cigarette flew from my lips. When I looked, there was blood on the tips of my fingers.
‘Christopher, what are you doing? You don’t hit!’ said a shrill voice.
I blinked my eye open. My cheek was bleeding. ‘What happened?’ I said to Christopher Roberts’ carer.
‘Goodness, you’re bleeding,’ she said, approaching me with a tissue.
I gently ushered her hand away, my heart was racing with shock.
‘I hit you with my bag,’ said Christopher Roberts. ‘Because you shouldn’t smoke!’ His eyes were wild, dilated. He bobbed on his tip-toes, spindling his fingers.
‘Christopher!’ said his carer. ‘You’ve made him bleed. You must not hit people.’
More people had begun flocking around the gates. A palm clapped my shoulder. I turned, still applying pressure to the cut with the heel of my palm.
‘Frenchy,’ said Leigh. ‘Did you just get battered by Christopher Roberts?’
The others laughed.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It was an accident.’
‘Nah, Wilson said you got hit by his bag. You’re bleeding!’
Some girls that were in earshot began to giggle. My eyes began to blur with tears. Leigh stopped laughing.
‘Deck him then,’ he said.
‘Deck him. Hit him. You can’t let him get away with that.’
I looked to Christopher Roberts who shouted excited profanities, dancing as his carer attended to him. He strayed away from her. His glare wasn’t quite focused. He didn’t seem aware of what he had done.
Suddenly I jerked forwards. ‘Airy had shoved Wilson into me. I dropped my satchel and crashed into Christopher Roberts with my shoulder. He fell. When he stood, blood trickled from his nose.
‘Get him!’ someone yelled. The others began to chant the words until the cacophony of bullies was all I could hear.
I didn’t know what to do. I did not want to cause violence to anyone, but as I faced the bullies, the desperate threat of being outcast, I thought of nothing more than the laughing faces surrounding me, as though nothing existed beyond them. I forgot France.
The crowd pressed in. I began to hyperventilate until through utter horror I balled my fist and struck Christopher Roberts on the nose.
Christopher Roberts began to cry. His carer moved him away, out of sight. Some in the crowd called after him, calling him names, mostly laughing; the others in the crowd clapped me on the back whilst I was still panting, cheering me on. I smiled as best I could and told everyone I had to go. As I moved away from them, the masses, I began to cry. Above the numbing silence of the wind I sobbed, once, too loud. Deafening.
J’ai reconu le bonheur au bruit qu’il t’a fait quand il est parti, I recognised happiness by the noise that it made when it left.
I told Mama that I’d cut my cheek playing football. Papa knew from my eyes that, whatever it was, I was not proud. ‘You must learn from such things,’ he said. ‘You’ll feel better, like your old self when we get to Grandmère’s, when we get to France.’
On the ferry, I leaned over the rail to watch the flurry of white foam grinding from the propellers into the blue water. The docks, and then the island with everything and everyone on it shrunk into the grey horizon, and the entire view behind me as we sailed to France was shrouded in fog.
by Cordelia Lynn
That summer, they went to the house in Provence for the last time. Every few days they escaped isolation when the father drove them into L’Isle sur la Sorgue for a few hours. They lounged by the river, saying very little, watching the emerald-green water-wheels spin circles into the sunlight. Sometimes they cheered the ducks on as they tried to make their trembling ways back upstream again and sometimes they bought an espresso or an overpriced beer in the shaded terrace of the Cafe de la Sorgue. Often they’d get a creme freche pizza from the hole in the wall where the man with black hair made them all day, one after the other, as if by some strange Sisyphean punishment. Nearby, under the shade of the town’s surviving plane trees, was a faded merry-go-round where they would sit to eat. Once they bought a bottle of red wine and, having no corkscrew, asked one off a tramp with eczema and a small dog, who laughed, throatily at their Englishness. For they were conspicuously English.
When the evening came, the father arrived in the open-topped car to drive them home through the winding, Luberon dirt trails, through the brilliant descending sunlight and heavy scent of lavender and pine. One of those evenings, the final one of those evenings, the girls (who were sitting in the back seat) climbed up onto the seat heads and screamed Edith Piaf songs into their wild, colourful hair, snaking patterns in the wind. The farmers they passed whistled and waved to them and they waved back and held hands, while Her brother smoked a languid cigarette out the front. They felt very young, and shed their voices onto the road behind them with the vanishing car fumes.
Every day is transitory.
In the afternoon the light is golden and clear and in the evening it is orange and thick as soup till it fades into the blue-grey of the Luberon hills. They have a fig tree and suck on the fruits with yoghurt and lavender honey for breakfast and leave now-cold coffee in their cups on the half-cleared breakfast table. The front of the house is shaded by two awesome plane trees and a trellis that scatters the sunlight in ripples over their bare arms and thighs. In the afternoon She tries to write and Her friend with golden hair reads in Italian and Spanish and Her friend with red hair reads in Italian and French. They translate passages for Her and only the golden haired friend doesn’t smoke. Her brother is walking barefoot round the back of the house with his head bowed, and trailing dead leaves and dried mud inside where he lies of hours in the cool. This is how they spend the day, every day, unless the father takes them to L’Isle sur la Sorgue for a few hours.
In the evening guests come, sometimes as many as seven or eight so there will be fourteen for dinner. The mother cooks pintarde and ratatouille and peels a hundred vegetables in the empty kitchen amongst twenty empty chairs while the father watches the sun set extraordinary from his special deckchair. She peels so many vegetables that she screams into the vastness of the house, ‘This isn’t a hotel, you know! Will someone come and help me?’ But they are lazy and young and pretend not to hear as they gather their remaining cigarettes to them while the twilight gathers the encroaching darkness.
The guests stay late and drink deeply and, often, by the end of the night, She and Her mother dance drunkenly together, clapping to the music, a little off-beat. The friend with golden hair has arranged the candles so prettily and the moths dash themselves against the flames and finally collapse, fossilising themselves in the bubbling wax. The guests are growing old but the young ones don’t realise it because they feel older too now and have things to say that should be heard. The artist gives them his cigarettes, because they always run out of their own, and She snaps the filters off with a debonaire pride. There can be more love around a table than is found in a marital bed; love and nostalgia sink into the skin around a dinner table where the young and old collide like moths and flames.
In the Luberon there are a thousand stars, one for every transitory day.
There was that Christmas when Her brother brought the succulent, brown hash with him. The Luberon is subzero in the winter, the mistral flies down from over the hills and settles indefinitely, screaming amongst the houses and the swimming pools and the dead and dying olive trees. The house was cold and the parents bought a dozen hot water bottles and all day, every day, She and Her brother were sent to the barn to collect apple-wood for the sitting room fire. That Christmas the family seemed to fall out from within itself. She was scared and Her brother was lonely so, together, they walked out to the orchards around the house and lay down in the crackling frost to lose themselves together to a half hour’s high. They framed the multitude of stars with clouds of breath and barely spoke, arms just touching, watching themselves in their mind’s eye from above.
The mother peeled two hundred vegetables in the kitchen for there would be twenty guests that christmas. She screamed again into the vastness of the house, ‘This isn’t a hotel, you know!’ But they slunk past her giggling, and sat down by the sitting room fire that exploded over and over again, and laughed, and laughed and laughed.
She decorated the Christmas tree alone, late on Christmas Eve, with borrowed tinsel and golden baubles, and arranged all the presents underneath (so prettily). The house is entirely still at night, except for the sounds of Her brother making sandwiches in the kitchen, using too much mayonaise.
Inside the house is the silence of the vast and aged, though the house isn’t ancient, only old. There are two staircases and you can walk up one and down the other and not see another soul on the way. There is a library that doesn’t have any books because all the books are in Geneva, and a ballroom that doesn’t have any dancing because they don’t use it and a barn that they call ‘The Hanger’, though it doesn’t have a plane. The father sits outside on his special deckchair and reads the Economist and wonders what to do about installing central heating. “It will cost thirty-thousand Euros,” he thinks and sighs. They buy more hot water bottles. The mother lies in the cool of her bed with a pale hand over her brow. She has a headache and wants to write but cannot because there are always people walking in and out of the house, in and out. She is ill. Perhaps she is Virginia Woolf. The door to the bedroom creaks open and She offers her mother some tea. “No darling,” the mother replies. “I’m just going to rest a little bit longer.”
She was sitting on the veranda, still in Her dressing gown, smoking and listening to the far-distant autoroute, dreaming up a half hour’s fantasy.
“You and your pyjamas,” he said, gently, suddenly coming out of the house.
“Oh…you know me. I just don’t like to get dressed if I can possibly help it.”
“Or you just like to be naked,” he teased.
She stood up and walked out onto the softer grass under the plane trees and then further into the burning garden.
“You shouldn’t go in the sun with skin like that.”
They walked together to the pool and sat down on the warmth of the wooden patio.
“Do you want to hear a little story,” She asked, slowly and concentratedly stubbing out Her cigarette by Her feet.
“Last summer some wasps made a nest under the boarding here. They were everywhere, the pool was unusable and one of the tenants got stung. So, of course, daddy called the pest control to get it sorted out. When I arrived in September, I noticed that there was one wasp that, every day, came flying to just about here, crawled under the boarding and then flew out again. Every day, every single day it came back here looking for the nest. It must have been away on some kind of wasp mission when they got rid of it and so it didn’t know.”
There was a terrible stillness in the leaves of the plane trees and, suddenly, the heat in the garden was just a little too much.
“Isn’t that just the saddest thing you’ve ever heard?”
He didn’t respond because he wasn’t there. Losing interest, she headed back to the big, yellow house, fleeing the potential of an evening chill.
by Polly Akhurst
“Now, dear”, she swooped out into the garden where I was lazing by the swimming pool, her deep blue silk kimono robe fluttering around her in the light breeze “you showed an interest in cleaning a squid?” I looked up from my book and removed my hand from Seb’s leg, and as she moved closer I could see that she was wielding a kitchen knife. I looked to Seb, who uttered what, I had realised over the last sixth months of our relationship, was his favourite catchphrase, “best do what mother says” his eyes narrowing, “I think she wants to put you to the challenge.” I looked up at Monica, substantial in her kimono and for a fleeting second I referenced Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Seb had told me that his mother was quite a serious cultural snob and Seb, her oldest son, was her protégée; he had started piano lessons at six, singing at seven and private art history classes at nine. Now, at 17, he was set on the path to Cambridge. He was Monica’s hope, her shining star, her recompense for her bitter divorce with his father, and although he hadn’t exactly said so, I had guessed that she doubted whether I was up-to-scratch. I was determined to prove her wrong.
“But if you don’t want to…” she added, lowering the knife.
“Oh no, I’m coming”, I swooped up and followed her towards the kitchen.
I was sixteen and my discovery of the Langley family was as unexpected as an anthropologist stumbling upon the cast of a Noel Coward play in a rainforest. Their habits were a strange mix of the English and the continental. They listened to opera in the afternoons, were devoted to P.G Wodehouse, always respected the aperitif hour and could not believe that I had never tried foie gras. Overlooking my latter fault, they had invited me to their country house, Les Pruniers, “you must come”, Monica had stated flatly, a command rather than an invitation, “it’s simply wonderful.”
“Oh yes”, said Seb’s eleven year old brother Tom, “I’ll show you my telescope; we can spy on the Lebourtins. Having shown little aptitude for either music or art, Monica had encouraged Tom to adopt “the scientific route.”
Seb had whispered in my ear, “please come, you’ll make it vaguely bearable.”
For Monica, the yearly trip to Les Pruniers was the apex of the quotidian mountain that she toiled her way up every year, for the two weeks when she could look out over the fields of South West France, survey the world and smile. For Seb, who wasn’t particularly keen on the sun or on France, it was merely a test of endurance.
Four months later, we bumped down the stony track, the ground scorched from the cumulative effects of three months of ruthless sun. From the main road, Les Pruniers looked like an abandoned stables, perched lopsidedly on a hill that overlooked the Valle du Lons. Seb claimed that its tatty appearance was calculated to deter French burglers, but behind its ramshackle exterior, it hid from the road a charming garden and swimming pool, maintained by the faithful, grizzled Mr Lebourtin, local farmer cum odd-jobs man, who, living halfway down the hill, was also the closest neighbour.
“Right, dear,” she rolled up her sleeves, plunged her arm into the bucket, and pulled out an alien lump of jelly slapping it onto a chopping board. “First we have the decapitation stage,” she observed, twisting and wrenching head from rubbery body, with all the panache of a revolutionary taking on a member of the Ancien Régime.
Two hours later, the once rubbery mass had morphed into a succulent, subtle, delicacy, complimented by the sweetness of tomatoes and the infusion of thyme and rosemary from the garden. Monica read the pleasure on my face as I took the first mouthful. “Tomorrow,” she said, “you’re going to be chopping a lot of onions.” Seb nudged me and I knew that I’d gained a little of her approval; she had adopted me as her sous-chef.
At first Monica’s rigid schedule made me feel as if I had involuntarily enrolled on an army cooking camp, but a few days later, as I got a feel for the methods and ingredients, I was addicted. My initial apprehension at the use of excessive amounts of butter was dismissed by Monica’s motto of “we must never skimp on the butter”, followed by a strategic pause before continuing, “because the butter is the secret.” My protestations that foie gras was inhumane were responded to by a knowing, “wait until you try it.”
For two weeks, I chopped market-fresh vegetables, tomatoes already bursting from their skins, bulging peppers and oversized onions, simmered sauces, tied bouquet garnis and jointed chickens. I learnt not only how to cook but how to eat. On those lazy afternoons, whilst the sun blazed relentlessly on the desiccated garden, we would sit outside, at the wooden table in the shadow of the barn, for up to three hours. I learnt that beneath the crispy skin of the confit de canard there hid the most tender meat, and came to appreciate the specially designed mini-forks used to pick snails out of their bath of garlic butter.
It would be fair to say that I spent more time with Monica than with Seb. He didn’t seem to mind my new passion; he spent most of the days reading Evelyn Waugh in the shade of an umbrella by the swimming pool, intent on preparing for his Cambridge interview. “He looks like the young Byron”, remarked Monica, as we gazed at him out of the kitchen window, before scolding Tom, whose telescope was aimed directly at Mr Lebourtin’s bathroom window.
There was no television at Les Pruniers, so we spent the long, light evenings playing charades, boules, or simply looking at the stars through Tom’s telescope, listening to Debussy drifting out of the kitchen window. It felt as if we had all gone back in time, to the pre-Club Med era of what was once called “holiday-making”, in which people literally did make their own holidays without needing organised paragliding lessons and daytrips on air conditioned coaches.
“My dear, I don’t feel very well”, she sighed operatically, “I fear I won’t be able to cook tonight”. I suspected that this could be somehow associated with our return to the UK the following day. “But oh, I forgot, Mr and Mme Lebourtin are coming tonight.”
“Well, you know, I….”
“Would you dear?” she replied, a little too quickly, “Oh how kind”, she beamed. “You can cook the omelettes and maybe I can just about manage the crème brûlée”
So that’s what it was, the omelette test; a procedure that was so basic, yet so easy to get wrong. And not only was I entrusted to cook for the Langley’s; but also for the Frenchman and his wife.
My omelettes had been complimented by all, Monica even mentioning perfection. We were now on the desert course, attempting to talk in French, whilst our faces were warmed by the last rays of the sun.
“The crème brûlée is as magnifique as the omelette”, Mr Leboutin exclaimed after his first mouthful.
“Why merci, Mr Lebourtin” replied Monica coquettishly.
“How do you say crème brûlée in English?”, asked Mme Leboutin.
“Well, I suppose it would be burnt cream” replied Monica, laughing.
“The English language is so much less nuanced than the French”, I laughed.
“The French had no Keats,” Seb muttered
“But we had a Baudelaire,” Mr Lebourtin retorted.
I turned to Seb, “You can’t deny it, crème brûlée sounds much better than burnt cream.”
Monica laughed, “No wonder we kept it in the French.”
I sat there and said the words in my head, “burnt cream, crème brûlée”; what a perfect comparison of our two countries. The English version sounded solid, to the point, whilst the French version was infinitely more delicate, the soft “r” of the crème requiring the tongue to hit the soft palate in a most un Anglo-Saxon way, while the “b” of brûlée required a most provocative pout.
After the plates had been piled up at the far end of the table, we sat in silence, languidly observing the sun set beyond the burnt patchwork of valleys to our west. All of us, even Seb, looked different, healthier, more at ease. The butter and the heat and the countryside had melded together and somehow changed us all.
And then the silence was broken, as Tom blurted out, “time for charades.”
There was definitely something in the air that summer, an intangible, enchanted energy. Six years on, I still can’t put my finger on it. But it had a lasting effect. Seb and my relationship would end, but my relationship with this country, so far yet so near my own, was just beginning.