We went to visit Aunt Mathilde and Uncle Sebastien in the summer between schools. Everyone was fussing about me. Mummy was fussing the most. Everyone was worrying about the things that didn’t need to be worried about. I didn’t care about my school uniform, but I did care about what it would be like at the senior school.
It’s true that I didn’t know where exactly in France I was going. But I did know that the weather was hotter than anything I had experienced in England. It was the heat I expected from a holiday in Spain I had never been allowed. Why hadn’t we been to visit my Uncle and Aunt before? Was it connected with the death of one of my French Grandparents? But that was a month before and I had remained in England with my older brother who hated looking after me. I suppose he’s a typical brother – thank God he doesn’t look at all like me…
My parents had been crotchety before going then and Mummy had been especially upset. Now they both seemed so quiet.
The trees were shorter and the greenery lighter with lots of brown and orange earth. I knew it was special my being there – in that foreign country where the family lived. It was my first time abroad and everything excited me. My parents handing over passports excited me; the ferry excited me. The sea shone such a deep blue – such an exotic colour for the Channel. Yes I was so excited and my parents laughed at me, for they thought my imagination extraordinary, and they told me so. I was known for my stories after all. I would even make up tales about “how I was found in a basket drifting down a deep and wide river”. Of course I wasn’t “found” at all.
The sea shone deep blue and there were the crests of the waves breaking even in the midst of the Channel. There was the sea breeze that tossed my hair. And I was glad that the pins placed carefully by my Mother were lost and my hair was free to untangle.. People noticed me; boys didn’t – but older gentlemen did. Yes I was curious but naive and it took time for me to grow up and understand. But it took less time for me to actually live those years. Now that I remember I am almost nostalgic for that young girl. For then I was so truly innocent.
In France I was like a sleek horse let loose. People spoke differently. Of course I knew that, but had never lived it you see – for it is one thing to know something but yet another to live it. The air smelt differently, the boys looked strange and the houses were odd compared to the homes in England. It felt like life was beginning again. There was no feeling of oppression, nothing ominous. I was just living.
The drive to the villa of the Uncle and Aunt I had never seen (apart from on the few faded photographs) seemed to take forever. I knew I must have annoyed my parents, I knew it even at the time for I wasn’t stupid. And yes I loved to look at the fields that rolled by and the cars with their unusual number plates and the fact that we were driving on the wrong side of the road. Everything was thrilling but it took too long. My brother hadn’t been allowed to come and I enjoyed that – but I knew my parents were sad too. Were they still sad about my French Grandmother?
We turned down a dusty road and after my Father made another wrong turning and started to swear – which upset my Mother – we were pulling up outside the villa. There wasn’t a sound and nor was there any sign of movement. I suppose they must have been expecting us. The roof tiles burnt in the blazing heat of the late afternoon, my throat was dry. Shadows were stretching from the building and from the squat trees nearby. The villa was like an oasis.
The clucking of hens nearby and in the distance a whining motorbike broke the silence. I remember the sense of solitude; perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about it quite like that then but I did feel something deep within me. Daddy went up to the door and gave it a loud knock. The sound reverberated through the air and appeared to kick up dust from the driveway. In some ways it reminded me of those corny American Cowboy films I’ve had to watch – watch in silence too.
The door was knocked again and I saw a strained look descend over Mummy’s face. The sun was drying sweat on my neck but with each movement I made it created more. I was so thirsty. Above, the sky was vivid – bluer than the sea – it felt close to me and thankfully a slight breeze tickled the water that was moistening my skin.
Eventually the door was opened and I saw Aunt Mathilde for the first time. She shrieked out some French that I couldn’t much understand apart from the ‘Bonsoir, bonsoir.’ My Mother, who had been sitting in the car, got out and kissed in that disgusting French fashion. I know some people like that kind of stuff but I certainly didn’t then. Daddy introduced me and I knew I had to stand demurely with my hands behind my back. Swaying a little I gave out a forced smile. Aunt Mathilde ushered us in quickly as if we would fry in the heat. The shadows had lengthened – it was “bonsoir” not “bonjour” – but still the air stifled.
It was the darkness of the place that I remember. All the shutters were drawn. And there was so much junk everywhere – I knew that Mummy would be freaking out; she really hated junk. It was weird and at first wonderful to me. But I had to blink my eyes a few times just to see. In the corner of the main room, kind of skulking, I saw Uncle. Uncle came out of the shadows and looked pleased with himself as he shook hands. He spoke French to my Mother who understood perfectly. I’d never really thought of her as French before – it was strange to hear her speaking like that. Yes we spoke French sometimes at home but it all seemed so unreal, so put-on, so false if you like. Now it kind of un-nerved me to hear her speak like that. Not even when she spoke on the telephone did it seem real. But now…
Uncle bent down and stared at me. It wasn’t a nice stare. You don’t get nice stares I guess. He bent down to kiss me and I could see the texture of his skin and smell the aroma from his breath – was that the way French people smelt? I backed away and he laughed. He laughed a lot did Uncle. But he didn’t laugh when you would expect it. I learnt that. Only when you least expected it would he laugh. I didn’t trust him from the start; you might as well know that. And of course I was right not to. I must have been a sensitive child to have felt all that so early. It wasn’t something I could put any words to, just felt it. Uncle seemed to peer inside my soul.
Nobody put any of the main lights on so that the house was always a kind of eerie half-light. They had two huge dogs too that were let out of somewhere and who jumped all over me with their disgusting licking tongues and foul breath. Nobody told them to get off or if they did they didn’t mean it. Everyone laughed as I wiped off the dust from my dress. What was the point of putting me in clean clothes to laugh about them getting messed up? I didn’t want to wear a dress after all. But I was at that awkward age apparently. It wasn’t so much awkward for me as frightening.
Uncle was always looking at himself in the mirror; you could see it embarrassed my parents. In the middle of a conversation or during a meal he would simply get up and move over to the mirror to look at himself in the dark-light. I mean the mirror was filthy too. The place was an absolute mess. But at least I had a big room to myself and there was a gas lamp for the night and also candles. Either he would look in one of the dusty mirrors or he would stare sideways at me; I’m sure he did that. Of course now I know why. Now I know everything.
Daddy and Uncle got drunk on the wine and though I knew Daddy wasn’t relaxed the wine seemed to calm him down enough for him to get stupid. Aunt Mathilde and Mummy did the washing up and talked away in French but I knew Mummy wasn’t that happy either. I didn’t know why we were there.
When it came to me having to go to bed I was taken up to the room and shown how to use the light and Aunt Mathilde even gave me a disgusting thing to ‘use’ should I need it in the night. Where was the toilet? I asked Mummy, but she laughed. I was serious. Couldn’t they see what was happening to me? I was going to the senior school after the holidays.
In the middle of the night I turned down the gas lamp and put down the book I was reading. With at least one ear I had kept abreast of the conversations down below. There was the shouting of Uncle and Daddy, I didn’t know if it was in English or French, or both, and there was the murmur of Mummy and Aunt.
The conversations ebbed and flowed but kept me company so that I didn’t think much about where I was. With the gas lamp down low I lit a few candles for fun. It was probably a silly thing to do because candle light just enflames the imagination and the sort of dark imagination you don’t want in a place like that. One of the dogs even managed a howl from outside right on cue.
It was typical of me I guess to scare myself like that and to watch the shadows move in that place. Outside, the sound of insects was alien and the dragging of the dogs’ leads made me scared. It was too late to snuggle down and forget my thoughts. The conversations had ceased and the sound of water being flushed gone with the hissing of the pipes. The house had returned to a primitive silence. The shutters were closed in my room as in all the others. Lying there in bed I tried to stop the images of monsters and creatures that flicked relentlessly through my mind. I tried to remember that I was going to the senior school after the holidays and that I was too old to think such stupid things. But every time I felt more composed one of those dogs would get up and mooch or something and drag its horrible chain behind it like a ghost wandering through the night. Or there was the sound of scratching coming from somewhere and I imagined a rat was on the loose.
The candles burnt down steadily as I lay wide awake. The shadows became forms, became grotesque creatures so that I cursed my wild imagination. But nothing really made me jump up till that point. That is till I heard the sound of the stairway creaking. It reverberated through the whole house. And the door of my room was beginning to be opened slowly with the creak of the doorknob. With an absolute frozen heart I lay like a corpse in that bed. The door opened wider and Uncle was standing there. He whispered something in French and smiled slightly as he moved towards me. I was too scared to open my mouth.
As he approached where I lay he stumbled and checked himself by placing a hand on top of the light sheet that covered me. I could see a glint in his eye like a wild schoolboy though he jerked his arm away quick enough. Then he came to my side and I could smell the wine from that distance which grew heavier as he placed a hand on my forehead and wiped away a lock of hair. His shadow was cast behind him like a vampire’s as he stooped low and whispered something close to my cheek. I could not move. My heart was either beating a hundred times to the minute or was not beating at all. His lips puckered and I had the strength only to avert myself slightly as he laid a kiss on my skin. Again his hand wiped my forehead and then he was gone – a lumbering awkward giant loping out of the room.
One of the candles burnt out. I wasn’t sure what to do. I could still smell the rankness of his breath. Should I have woken up Mummy and Daddy? What would I have said? The sound of a dog barking and more rattle of chain coincided with the final candle burning down and out. Only the hiss of the gas lamp was left as I heard a door close downstairs and some muttering I took to be my Uncle. I simply could not move and I noticed that he had not shut the door fully behind him.
There is nothing to say in my defence that I lay there so passively and did nothing. There was much in my mind that confused me. It was a new country, a new house, the insects droned on outside and penetrated the steel shutters. Blackness was enveloping the dark, blinded corners of the room. It was with a troubled heart that I did finally turn off the lamp and slipped down the bed pulling the cover up and over my face and head. I felt like a coward down there. I felt like a child.
The feeling, the terror with which I was woken from the saving grace of sleep cannot be expressed. Again I heard the creaking of the staircase. The door opened slowly and its swish across the floor was like the fluttering of my heart. There was the soft padding of feet. My God. Why could I not cry out? What would he do know, that foul-smelling man? The touch of his lips had burnt into my cheek and I could feel him close by again. Why could I not cry out?
There was the sound of heavy panting and through the thin sheet I could smell the rank odour of his breath. My God an arm was exposed, I had left an arm free from the cover and this turned to stone. What was he going to do this time, now that I had half given my consent by not rushing to my parents? No-one would understand…I could feel a wet touch upon my arm out there in the dark, black, blind room. I could feel the horrible, gruesome wet touch of his lips. And then as if ignited by something primitive, something I could not describe neither then nor now I flung the sheet from me and threw it back, lifting myself up and forcing air through to my lungs ready to scream. And then…
And then I saw it there. In shadowed dark I saw the terrible monster I had presumed was going to ravish me, carry me off into some hideous Hades of sexual deprivation. The nose of the dog nudged up my arm and the beast’s eyes glowed blackly in the dimness of the room. It was difficult to see much but the dog’s breath gave it away and it yearned to have me extend my other arm and stroke its glossy coat. What a fool I had been.
The following morning Uncle had the same kind of glint in his eye as if he was daring me to give his misdemeanour of the previous night away. I wasn’t going to tell anybody. I wasn’t going to let anyone know that I’d been too scared to say anything. I didn’t say anything about the dog either.
There seemed to be a growing tension in the house that I could feel with all my young flesh and bones. The following night I thought I heard Uncle prowling through the house again, but he seemed to remain downstairs. All the time we were there he laughed maniacally and stared at himself in the dark mirrors of that dark house. Many times I caught him staring at me. It seemed so cruel the way he would look me up and down. I was at a certain age – uncertain.
And he came to my room again on the night before we were to leave and he kissed me in the same manner. This time he spoke French to me that I could not decipher from his drunken lisp. How I wish I could remember those words now?
No dog visited me after him.
The following morning Uncle was looking in the mirror when I opened the front door and stepped out into the sun. He smiled at his reflection or was it at me? I glowered back. Outside the sun was beginning its relentless climb. Chickens ran across the dusty garden and shadows were starting to form. I could see where the dogs were chained up. Brushing crumbs from the jeans I had changed into I went for a walk down the lane. As the sweat began to form on my neck I vowed at that moment never to think childish thoughts again. A few days away were the start of senior school. We would be in England tomorrow.
Nobody spoke much at first on the return trip. I could still feel the kiss from Uncle burning my lips which he so ostentatiously kissed before we parted. There were many tears as the tension seemed to have dissipated. We were a family again. And that is the way it might easily have ended.
In the second year of my new school I learnt that Uncle Sebastien had died of a heart attack; he was not old. I learnt then also that he was my natural Father. I learnt about the girl who had got pregnant and who had left him, quite simply, “holding the baby”, how he had tried to cope but failed. How he had “changed”. I learnt how my French Grandmother had taken the child, me, and then arranged for my Mother to adopt. I knew I was an adopted child, but what did I care? I had been a baby. They were my parents as any others – better than most. And I had learnt of my Uncle’s wish to see me before I “changed” as he put it. Aunt Mathilde had been in touch with my Mother. My Aunt acted as a Mother to my “Uncle” – that is to my real Father. I never learnt about my real Mother; that girl had disappeared. The death of my French “grandmother” was the catalyst for my “Uncle” to become my Father one last time. And for the first time I understood my Mother’s loss and why she sometimes
felt so disconnected.
So you see I am French through and through not just supposedly on my Mother’s side. I didn’t even cry when I learnt all about this – not for many years to come. But now that I think back I understand why that trip to France was so peculiar and so memorable. My Father at least had been able to see his child at the moment she stepped from girlishness to womanhood, for I did so soon after. And I changed more than that too; I grew up both physically and spiritually, it just took a few more years for me to discover that.
Somewhere out in France I imagine my natural Mother living her life. But I have my real Mother in England. Aunt Mathilde writes from her new home. And I visit France with my children often; they are girls and they too are growing up fast. I am waiting for when they “change” and become women and then I will tell them of my first holiday in France and all about the dark house in that hot and distant countryside.