There is no turning back. Perched on a bench at the fore end of the promenade deck enjoying the sea air and swooping gulls, I’m starting to write my travel journal on the very first day of July, 1955. Ferries are fun, afloat to the unknown. Words seesaw on the page with each pitch and toss. Everywhere inside the ship is painted the same colour, a magnolia shade of distemper, the ubiquitous wartime colour for schoolrooms, hospital wards and station waiting rooms. Mother explained it was cheaper and easier for factories to produce gallons of the same hue. At least it’s brighter than the utilitarian brown slapped over the wooden fittings on this boat taking me to France. I’ve been observing from the railings the sunburnt sailors tugging at ropes and coiling them, presiding over the throbbing heart of the ferry.
I’m a tabula rasa, a clean sheet, drifting with the flow of events into the unknown.
Two Americans on an adjacent bench are scrutinising me, unaware that I am about to slip this sensibly clad couple tracking seagulls through their binoculars into my journal. Thirsty, I follow them to the lower deck in search of the bar.
‘Like a drink?’ Why do they have to talk to me? There are two of them; they can chat to each other.
‘No. Thanks all the same.’
‘What’s your name?’ The sturdy husband in rather loud check trousers is balding before his hair goes grey.
‘Val,’ repeats the wife with curly blond hair and freckles, eyes and nose crinkling into a wide smile. Her body is round and bouncy, smaller than mine. ‘Val, you must be thirsty. Have a coke. Do. On us.’
‘Just a glass of water, please.’ I don’t like Coca Cola. Mother says it rots your teeth. I’m never called ‘Val’. Why does she assume such familiarity? It’s what Dad calls Mum.
‘Can’t afford more. I’m a student.’ A pause. ‘My mother’s name is Val, so –‘
‘So you’re Val junior, or Val II.’ Oh dear, he’s trying to be jovial. ‘That often happens in the States. I’m Charles Hammond IV! And this is Liz, my wife.’
‘In my case they couldn’t think of anything else. They were expecting Timothy, and here I came, another daughter.’
The barman, about my age, is eying me with interest.
‘Do your parents let you travel abroad alone?’ Liz asks. I don’t want to speak, let alone think about them, my father’s bankruptcy and their hasty departure from our last home to rent the ground floor of a house; owner above, tenants – us – below.
‘I’m going to study in Paris. My Cambridge professor has invited me. The rest of July I’ll be teaching English to a girl my age in the south of Spain. In Andalucía.’
‘Fun, but hot. Olé!’ She raises her glass of beer. ‘Good luck, Val!’
Prying adults! I just want a simple glass of water and my own, uninterrupted thoughts. I admit I’m amused by the young barman who, eyes half closed, is scanning me with his head slightly tipped back. Then with, ‘for a girl like you,’ he plonks a glass of water down in front of me.
A girl like me! He’s probably a student as well, pretending not to glance at me while dealing with random orders.
Charles Hammond IV is saying, ‘the dull food, rationing and slow service’.
‘It’s pointless to think back to the pre-war Cunard liners, or Harrods. Now the only place for a decent meal is the Lyons Corner House, and that’s not up to much,’ his wife reminisces sadly, lips pursed behind a glass of tepid lager.
I pull myself upright and draw in my chin, ready to pounce in defence of the Corner House. Just before leaving London, I splashed out guiltily on ‘all you can put on to a plate’ using too much of the money I had just earned slaving away
in a jam factory. It was fun to see how much from the cold buffet could be balanced in a pyramid. Mike, my student boyfriend with shaggy hair like a Newfoundland dog, piled up so much food on his plate that it collapsed all over the floor as we laughed at his audacity. We ended up sharing my food mountain. I smile at the American couple and escape to resume my quest for the French coastline. I must write about my solitary encounters with fate.
How come your parents let you travel alone? The Hammonds are too pushy by far. Or are they? That’s a normal question, I suppose. My elder sister Rosanne jollied off to the continent on her first university vacation, and now she’s in Finland or somewhere in north Europe. My family is always on the move. This is at least the fifth time our parents have changed house, and I’ve been to almost as many schools. The ground floor of the house in Godalming where they are now is no more a home than any of the other places.
A tentative line on the horizon. Eureka, France! Over it lie grey clouds. Soft, unfocused, the face of Uncle David, who was like an elder brother, appears as if hiding behind them. No, he didn’t die near Calais. It was somewhere closer to Le Havre. He was blown up in France on D-Day 1944, whereabouts unknown.
The coast looms, the sky above clear in expectation. Time to disembark at Calais.
At the foot of the gangway porters jostle for custom from passengers straggling towards the Paris train. A porter in dark blue tunic and beret, a gaulloise on his lower lip, hoists my new suitcase onto his shoulders, legs bending under its weight. Trotting after him, I practise my French on the notices. Pas plusde 45 francs par valise. Easy. Forty-five francs for each suitcase. I’ve only one suitcase, a knap-sack and a shoulder bag holding valuables. Admittedly the case is heavy with the tomes to read during the long vacation. Poor old porter! But it is his job; he looks tough and keen. Not many travellers so he can’t be earning much. I feel uncomfortably like Lady Bountiful, and smile at the Hammonds as I pass them in the wake of my speedy porter. They have a stouter one, who progresses at a statelier pace towards the train. One common goal: Paris.
Are French trains higher or platforms lower? Whatever the explanation, it’s a big step up into the train. My porter grunts and curses as he heaves the case into a carriage towards the front, shuffles along the corridor to an empty compartment, hoists it on to the rack making the netting bulge dangerously under it and stands four square, expectantly. I open my purse confidently. Forty-five francs, the poster says. I count out forty. Then fifty. The bank hasn’t provided anything in between. A pity. Still, the porter must have change. I smile, hold out the banknote, and turn to wriggle the knapsack off my back.
Are French trains higher or platforms lower? Whatever the explanation, it’s a big step up into the train. My porter grunts and curses as he heaves the case into a carriage towards tSacre dieu! My case is hauled off the luggage rack and hurled out of the open window to land in front of the American couple. Catches snap open to reveal underwear wedged between shoes. Books skid along the platform. A battered alarm clock protests in a state of shock. The porter scowls: I freeze. What have I done? His departure is fuelled by a burst of incomprehensibly rude expletives referring to cul, bottom, as in cul de sac. All rather unnerving.he front, shuffles along the corridor to an empty compartment, hoists it on to the rack making the netting bulge dangerously under it and stands four square, expectantly. I open my purse confidently. Forty-five francs, the poster says. I count out forty. Then fifty. The bank hasn’t provided anything in between. A pity. Still, the porter must have change. I smile, hold out the banknote, and turn to wriggle the knapsack off my back.
‘A fine mess.’ Charles Hammond IV is contemplating my exploded case prone on the platform. His porter stops, half-dropping their two fine leather suitcases.
‘We’ll be back in a moment.’ Liz glances at me staring in horror from the compartment window, and pulls at his arm. They hurry off in pursuit of the bags that have resumed their progress along the platform; I must deal with my shattered suitcase. Better to put the heavy books in my knapsack, and drag the case up myself. Better…
‘Can we help?’ Here they are again, like unsummoned guardian angels.
‘Can cope, thanks!’ I straighten up and grin my thanks. The husband insists on heaving my battered case into the carriage. They are so kind, but I want to be
alone. I have so much to filter through my mind.
‘We’re in the next car if you need us.’ Their porter is smiling and thanks them many times, exuding Gallic charm. Hardly surprising, since they confess they tipped him a hundred francs for each suitcase! Better not to understand French and ignore advice given on posters. Just blunder through and take the risk, though I can’t pay that sort of money.
They itch to travel. So do I, but differently. I’m sailing out to improve my French and Spanish. A friend in Italy has also asked me to stay. All that my parents know. I’m free to go with the current, gathering material like a journalist over whatever remains of the summer vacation. A thrill or two lie ahead, I hope.
Leaving Calais, the train chugs over flat fields enlivened by sparks from scattered poppies. Some farmhouses are rebuilt; others still sit war-scarred on the edge of ripening wheatfields. I turn away, not to be reminded of my father’s experience of the First World War, nor of the Remembrance Day service in church every November, overwhelmed by memories of Uncle David. ‘At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day…’ echo in my memory. Looking through the window again, I can’t see any trace of the trenches where father had saved soldiers under fire. That’s why he was awarded his Military Cross. Wrong part of France perhaps.
‘You just can’t imagine what I’ve been going through!’ brought me downstairs when I was home last Christmas. The kitchen door was ajar. Dad, head in one hand, the other flat on the kitchen table, was mumbling about being too old for a free-lance writer. Paper is rationed. His wartime job in the Ministry of Information has ended. Similar positions are now filled by younger men back from the war. ‘My wound and Military Cross from the First World War simply don’t count,’ he growled. ‘Nor does my service as air raid warden and fire fighter in the second one.’ Then came the confession. He had been catching the same commuter train to London for months, wandering in the streets or reading discarded newspapers, if he could find a warm place to sit. Then back on the usual evening train. The bank had just closed his account. Mother was staring at him in disbelief. There was no more money for fares.
I resigned myself to father’s bankruptcy during my first year at university. The rented ground-floor flat removed them from their neighbours’ inquisitive eyes. Rosanne had to study for her finals, graduate and get a job – quickly. I scraped savings from my university scholarship to send to them. When I was invited to stay in Paris and then found a summer job in Spain, I didn’t ask my parents if I could travel on my own, being underage, as they had already a lot to worry about. I was, however, thrillingly aware that an innocent young girl travelling to the Continent for the first time couldn’t fail to encounter adventures.
The suitcase is on the luggage rack with underwear hanging out where a catch won’t snap shut. I’ll have to buy a strap in Paris. String will do for now.
‘OK?’ Freckle-faced Liz Hammond pokes her head into the compartment, followed by an ample body. As she sits down, the upholstery puffs up on either side of her buttocks. Too close. Why does she have to come? She means well, of course. These adults seem to insinuate their way into my life just when I want to strike out on my own. If it isn’t my parents, then it’s some unwanted person trying to in loco parentis me, just because I’m under age, too young and vulnerable for the ‘big bad ways’ of the world. These are precisely what I want to confront. Secretly and alone.
‘A nice girl like you travelling alone.’ Along come the usual questions. I live in Surrey. Yes, south of London. With my parents. A pang as I picture the 1930s cottage-style house they had to sell, mother tending the flowers while father mows the lawn. Yes, I’m a student at Cambridge University. Sophomore year? Well, I’ve finished my first year. The second starts in October. I don’t mention my secret mission to record Europe shaking off the war years. A scoop, perhaps. Who knows? It’s a very personal quest in search of the indefinite. Open-ended. If I gaze out of the window, Liz might take the hint and leave me to my thoughts.
Instead, through lack of conversational fodder, she changes the topic into an account of London with rationing and bargains found in old bookstores and antique shops because no one seems to bother about such things. Quite right too, I think, mindful of the homeless, bombed out during the war and still living in prefabs. I turn my head firmly to survey the fields and the Hobbema avenues of Lombardy poplars.
That picture by Hobbema has fascinated me since I first saw a reproduction hanging behind the headmistress’s chair on the same wall as Franz Hals’ Laughing Cavalier. When Miss Green was sitting bolt upright in her most headmistressy mood, her bespectacled face topped by a tight bun of grey-streaked hair blocked the avenue. Hobbema’s poplars sprouted behind each ear! It was reassuring for a chastened child like me to know that, when Miss Green relaxed and leant sideways with her bony hand over one side of the chair, I could walk my eyes up the dead straight avenue of poplars that faced me wherever I stood. Before leaving, I would turn and smile politely, when really I just wanted to run up the sunny avenue again, or shift to a much more disturbing proposition – those insolently attractive eyes of the Laughing Cavalier. If I had time, and didn’t feel that Miss Green might interpret it as being rude, I could glance sideways from the safer avenue to check if the Cavalier was still looking at me. He was.
‘- then we’ll leave Paris for Rome. Next Athens,’ Liz drones on, ‘ though we’ve seen an exact copy of the Parthenon in Nashville -’ A light in a distant farmhouse. A small town flickers past. Dusk is blurring the edges of the world outside. Charles Hammond IV pauses at the door with three paper cups.
‘Time to keep up your strength. We’ll arrive in forty minutes.’ My first taste of this fiery liquid, Bourbon, brings unwilling tears to my eyes.
‘You’re welcome to have it. I know you all have been deprived for so long. Bourbon is a horrendous price in London…’ It is decent of them to include me. I must try to be more sociable.
‘I haven’t been to Paris. Ever. My tutor, Madame Magny, has invited me to stay for a few days.’ Charles laughs as he describes pre-war Paris, trying to tease Liz with sly allusions to the Folies Bergères. Fields give way to careworn 19th-century suburbs. The outskirts of Paris at last. The Hammonds stand up to return to their compartment, Charles worried about my suitcase. I insist I can manage on my own. At the Gare du Nord I lean out of the window and wave as they walk away. Really kind people.
As passengers flow past the compartment window, I note women are wearing longer and wider ‘New Look’ skirts. Wonderful to swirl round in, but I couldn’t make myself one. Too expensive. They use up so much material.
How can I lug my battered suitcase to the metro? I must get off at Denfert-Rochereau. From there I’ve been given rough directions to find a street next to a cemetery. I’ll retrieve Madame Magny’s brandy-stained map from my handbag. It hadn’t been the best moment to ask her for directions. A number of empty bottles graced the ledge outside her university room that morning, and another two, one unfinished, stood on her desk. Oh well, her map will have to do.
I try to lift the suitcase down from the rack without dislodging the contents. String? Only dry biscuits, sticking plaster, disinfectant, scissors, safety pins, lipstick, hankies, a sanitary towel, rubber bands and books in my knapsack – no string. Rubber bands for the catch. Quick, the cleaners are in the next compartment. Knapsack hitched on to back, handbag slung sideways over shoulder while dragging the case along the corridor, I feel people staring. I’m not used to being watched. Blond, leggy Scandinavians might top the desirability charts, but dark hair, blue eyes and a Celtic wiriness convey a more subtle charm – according to my boyfriend Mike. For an instant I wish him here; tall, shaggy and hugging me tight.
Peering through the window is a steely-eyed porter, beret pulled down over bulging forehead and inch-long eyebrows. I drag the case further along the corridor away from those predatory eyes and bump it down on to the low platform. The rubber bands snap off the catch shedding the contents. As I bend to gather them up, the knapsack, heavy with books transferred from the case, crashes against my head, half knocking me out. A hand pulls it back; another steadies my arm.
‘Voyons!’ It’s the same porter who peered into the carriage; behind him the notice, forty-five francs for each piece of luggage. I point at it; he nods and heaves the half-open suitcase on to his back, just like in Calais.
‘Ecoutez. De la ficelle?’ Any string? Better a strap, but I can’t remember the French word. He grunts, twists to one side, replaces the bag carefully on the ground, and flicks his hands round the innumerable pockets of his blue tunic. It’s after eight. No shops will be open. Can I manage the metro, change station, and walk to the flat near Denfert-Rochereau without leaving my possessions in my wake? A taxi is the only solution I can think of, but it costs too much. My vacation is ending before it begins.
‘Voilà!’ His longish piece of string might be grubby but it’s strong, resilient and full of hope.
‘Merci, ça va très bien.’ So far so good, but the dilemma remains. In the face of this gift, does forty-five francs increase twofold or more? How much does string cost? Direct method best. That’s the way Miss Green managed her school, bobbing her bun up and down Hobbema’s avenue while issuing orders. I try to help him tie one end on the broken catch and pull the string round so both ends just meet. Phew! One potential disaster averted. Another looms. I tap his shoulder to stop him swinging the case onto his back, and point again to the forty-five francs.
‘Bah!’ Is that bon or the sort of equivocal response that the downturned corners of his mouth seem to indicate? His shoulders are too weighed down by now with the case to be shrugged and his arms balancing it could hardly be shoved in my direction, palms upwards. Sign language is all, I’m thinking as I scuttle along the platform after him, especially in France.
How does he know where I’m going? Have I mentioned the metro? Which line is it? I must not panic. Only one option at this point: the end of the platform. There he carefully lowers my suitcase on to the platform and looks at me.
Please, to Denfert-Rochereau.
He’s carrying my case right to the metro, each step making me more and more nervous. The case can’t stand another thud. The other catch will break. A cab? Impossible. Better to ask him straight out.
‘Combien, s’il vous plaît?’
‘Comme vous voulez, m’selle.’ I’m to decide. Help! forty-five for one case. Then something for the string and more for going right inside the metro? Fifty francs? Anything to get out of this without a fuss, and to salvage the suitcase. The porter smiles, pats my shoulder and disappears into the evening crowd.
The metro ticket first. Direction Porte d’Orléans. The string is holding but, alarmed the suitcase might be jostled open, I keep apprehensively to one side out of the main rush down the stairs. At the sound of a train arriving people begin to run. The less mobile travellers are flipped back by two metal barriers with leather flaps that swing down when the train reaches the far end of the platform. To prevent people crowding others on to the rails, I suppose. Curious – perhaps effective in the rush hour. There is no need to hurry. Better not to. The evening is yet young and Madame Magny didn’t fix any arrival time. The reek of cigarettes explainsthe general grime of the pitted platform. Discarded packets have landed with apple cores and spittle beneath the rails. Unshaven workers returning to the suburbs gape through puffs of smoke at the monochrome posters, while couples clutch and giggle, oblivious.
Out on Place Denfert Rochereau, lights, voices, a shiver of expectation. The brandy-stained scrap of paper has a rough circle for the square and a squiggly line for the road alongside the cemetery with an unpronounceable name. No way of telling which side of Place Denfert Rochereau I’m on in relation to the cemetery. Where to start? A bar-tabac would be the place to enquire. I deposit the case by a tubular stand plastered with posters and, careful not to forget the slip of paper, make for the nearest bar. On my return two figures are contemplating the suitcase. A whiff of sweat and beer, a glimpse of dark stubble, whites of eyes; faces scoured by despair. Panic. I must grab the handle and flee – never mind the weight – to the far side of the square. At the end of a street, a dim outline of trees. The cemetery. Turn right there. Decipher the numbers. Thirteen. Unlucky? No choice. That’s where Madame Magny lives. Don’t look behind; they might, may, will be following me. The door pushes open in answer to my prayer. Dumping the case just inside the entry, I peer out into the now dark street. Silence. A siren wails in the direction of the square. Not a soul in sight.
The concierge emerges from her cubicle, eyes narrowed in professional suspicion, knitting dangling, and a shawl over her grey dress on a warm July evening.
Madame Magny mentioned there was a lift, but where? No sign of it in the panelled vestibule. I don’t dare ask. Too stupid a question. One foot shoves the case past the concierge’s snugly lit cubicle to reach the curved end of the vestibule. Mirrors confuse the space. A wave of sleepiness swamps me; all I want in the world is to slump down right here. A light shines though some stained glass, a whirr, and the panelling opens to scatter two figures into the dimly lit hall. Foot out to keep the door open, back aching but grimly determined, I tip the case inside, swing round to close the door and thud the knapsack against the side almost knocking myself over. Nothing broken, but unsettling. Troisième. I press button three rapidly before anyone else enters. There’s hardly room to spare. The lift opens on to a dark landing. Three doors. To the right, Soulages. To the left, Moquet. Opposite, voilà! Magny.
The old apprehension is returning, a gut reaction as I recall skirting those bottles in the college corridor before confronting a brilliant mind swooping and scoring. ‘Stand up straight, Valerie, draw in your breath…’ I miss my mother’s cup of chocolate and company when situations twist my stomach. A step backwards and a glance at the lift, still open. I could ask for the date on my return ticket to be changed. Green fields and horseriding, the cinema, tennis… but without my childhood home and friends. All have vacation jobs. I might even meet some of them on my travels. Breathing deeply and with sudden misgivings, I ring the bell, ready for the unknown.
A middle aged, whiskery man opens the door. People are sitting around the high-ceilinged room and I panic. Where is she? Have I mistaken the door, invitation, date, time? There she is ensconced on a faded flower-patterned sofa, holding court. I suppose this is a modern version of those 18th-century salons ofMesdames de Quelquechoses!
Funny the way tiredness engulfs you unawares, just when you want to make an impression. I am introduced around as ‘mon étudiante assez douée’, but to be frank I’m so worried about what exactly theassez means that I can hardly rub one word of French against another. I must be letting her down 100%, since she thinks I am either ‘quite’ or ‘very’ gifted.
Who are these people? All middle-aged or more; definitely old. The whiskery man is Maxime something. He seems to be paying attention to a wild-looking woman called Claudine; she has round eyes of unfocused brown depths and her wavy greying hair is all over the place. A sort of gamine charm, I suppose. She doesn’t look well-to-do. Nor does anyone for that matter. Then there is a Count Guy de something or other. I blurt out ‘Maupassant’ and everyone titters. Fool I am. At least he comes over to me smiling, squeezes my arm and offers me some dried-up bits of cheese – or meat – on a stale biscuit and a glass of vinegary wine. As soon as I can, after a brief visit to a bathroom without a proper bath tub, I’m shown to a couch under a sort of inside balcony. I’m sticky, smelly and exhausted. But above all, excited.
Here I am – actually in Paris! What will happen now?