It was the seagulls she remembered most as a child. Walking the dull grey streets of the island in winter, or sitting on the beach during summer, the seagulls were a constant thread of maritime provenance, a wheeling cloud of white noise that punctuated the seasons. The small island where Audrey lived sat proud as a castle of rock amidst the tidal races of the Cherbourg peninsular, and the seagulls ebbed and flowed with the tide, following the fishing boats as they worked the waters around the islands, across to mainland France, and back again.
Audrey was born in 1949, a product of a happy reunion between a mother and father who had spent five long years apart during the war. Her mother had remained alone at home in Guernsey at the end of the long lane above the cliffs. The population of the island endured a bitter occupation, but in the years that followed the war, Guernsey was fortunate not to suffer during the continued rationing that affected so much of the mainland, and the island returned to some normality far quicker than England. Audrey’s childhood was a relatively happy one, enhanced by a yearly summer trip to the French coastline, so often a dark smudge to the east on a fine day. Audrey felt a kinship with the French people and their country.
One Christmas, Audrey came across an old French phrasebook at a church sale. Fascinated by the words and sentences, she dawdled so long at the trestle table and its mountains of books that the lady behind it waved away Audrey’s sixpence with a smile when she finally looked up to pay. The young girl took the small book home and studied it religiously, finding at last some sense in the French names that dotted the island on street signs, building plaques and the signposts at the end of each granite wall. As she grew older her horizons broadened and she learnt more about the very people themselves, whose names had become part and parcel of the Guernsey landscape. Her parents encouraged her interest, for as descendants of French immigrants many hundreds of years ago, they also shared that special affinity with the country out to the east across the water, as most Guernsey people do.
Each yearly vacation on the continent only reinforced Audrey’s love for the country, and so it was no great surprise to her family when she left home in June of 1968 with a backpack, catching a lift on a friend’s fishing boat across to France she embarked on what was supposed to be a three-month summer adventure.
Hitchhiking her way to Brittany, she found temporary employment on a campsite set high on the pink cliffs to the west of Paimpol. All across Europe, young people were traveling in an era of free love, luridly coloured clothing and an explosive mix of music, fashion and drugs. Audrey was a good girl, though, from a solid island background, and she proved herself to be a reliable and calm employee. She spoke relatively good French and English, and proved herself adept at most tasks set before her during that first summer abroad. When the season ended, the campsite owners had taken to her so much that she was almost a part of their family and they begged her to return the following year. She agreed with a smile and set off southwards with friends to pick grapes in Médoc, to earn a little additional income, before turning her eyes even further southwards to the new craze in the Pyrenees where snow formed a perfect contrast for sunburnt states of mind. There, people were hurtling themselves down mountains on skis of fiberglass and steel, and more work beckoned for those in the right frame of mind.
Along the way Audrey fell in with people of like mind, youngsters of sturdy limb, strong tanned backs and smiles to set the world on fire, a generation of freedom on the move with a backpack each and legs strong enough to march across Europe. It was during the first day on the way to the mountains, hunched in the back seat of a salesman’s big Citroën with a friend she’d made during the whirlwind grape harvest, that they stopped for lunch south of Bordeaux. The little restaurant was out off the main road, in a small village the salesman knew well, and after the three of them had finished their plat du jour the two girls left their driver smoking a prandial Gauloise, and set off to stretch their long tanned legs on a ten minute stroll through the hamlet before restarting their ride south.
On the outskirts of the hamlet in a small lane, they came across a tiny house shuttered up against intruders. The paint was peeling from the walls and it looked totally forlorn and unloved. A small grapevine was climbing up the front and an old stone bench seemed to been inviting them to come and sit down. A deliciously provocative, ‘À VENDRE’ (for sale) sign hung crookedly on the gate almost totally obscured by leaves; someone had scribbled a phone number underneath that was just about legible.
Startling herself, Audrey fell instantly in love with an idea so impossible for a 20 year-old girl that it made her heart sing. Why not buy this little cottage, and live here ever after? She made a note of the number and took some photos with her new little Kodak camera. Her traveling companion was a well-seasoned young woman, a couple of years older than Audrey called Mary, from Sydney in Australia, and she thought the idea was such fun that she giggled at the thought of it, and whispered with big eyes that Audrey would need to find a boyfriend to help her live her life to the full. They looked at each other at that remark and were still giggling when they got back to the car and the dozing salesman. Five hours later, they were in the golden-leafed city of Pau, and waving goodbye to their lift, they thumbed their way into the mountains, feeling the change in temperature.
It was nearly a week later that Audrey finally sat down at the payphone in the hostel with a pile of coins and rung the number she’d made a note of, and after five minutes she knew she would probably never own her dream little cottage. The man the other end had not sneered at her youth, nor at her imperfect but good French; instead he had answered her questions seriously and told her the price was 50,000 French francs, and although they had had no offers on the property yet, they would surely do so before long. Audrey mournfully put down the phone and went back to her small room she shared with Mary and broke the news. Together they reviewed the situation and Audrey’s growing amount of savings.
Over the summer she had tucked away just over 5000 francs with tips and a frugal lifestyle, working at the campsite and then serving beer behind the counter in the village bar several evenings a week. The bar had been popular with both locals and the visitors to the campsite and there was no shortage of shifts to work if one had the right attitude. Audrey’s determined outlook and her steadfast approach to work was unusual for one so young, but it had made her popular with adults, and a forlorn target for the young Frenchmen along the way who might have been attracted to her blonde hair and typically English corn-blue eyes. Then, of course, there was the pile of banknotes from the baskets of back-breaking grapes. It all added up to a huge sum for a young woman, but it was still nowhere near enough for her tiny house.
Sitting on their beds in the cosy little bedroom, Mary took the initiative and told Audrey not to give up. She’d done the exact same to finance her trip to Europe, working hard and saving until she’d felt happy with the amount of money saved, both to buy the airline ticket and to pay her way around the itinerary she’d set herself.
“Work hard, Auds,” Mary said, snuggling up under her blankets. “Think how much you’ll have by next year if you don’t give up!” She spoke with the conviction of someone who had struggled and succeeded on the same perilous journey where temptation lay at every step.
Audrey nodded miserably. She’d been mad to think it would all be an instant success, she knew, but each time she took out the photo she carried in her backpack of that little house, it smiled at her. She simply couldn’t stop dreaming about it. She nodded in agreement finally.
“You’re right, Mary, I shall just have to work more and save more.” Brightening up, she threw a pillow at her Australian friend and said, “Let’s go and make some hot chocolate in the kitchen!” and they fled, racing for the small shared facilities of the hostel, hoping someone might have left some Suchard in the jar.
The following March, Audrey hitched her way north to St.Malo, making a point of stopping along the way in the small village to see ‘her’ house. It was a brilliant spring day when she stepped cautiously down the street towards the gate. She’d managed to find an English couple in a battered old camper van heading northwards who had offered her a lift, and they waited at the end of the road, brewing a cup of tea as she approached ‘her’ house. She’d called the number, still tucked safely in her purse, before leaving the mountains and although surprised to find the house was still not sold, she wondered superstitiously whether it was a sign of fate that it should be so. The shutters still hung tenderly across the windows. She quickly took some more photos and went back to the camper van a little happier.
Four days later she was home in Guernsey for the first time in nine months, and still damp from a turbulent crossing on a French coaster she had happily recognized in St Malo as a friend of her father’s, she sat at the old pine table in her parents’ kitchen, surrounded by familiar loving faces, all agog at the tales of her travels and round-eyed at her adventures. Her pile of photographs were examined studiously, and after the stories and friends behind them had been reviewed and explained, she came to the dozen or so photos of her ‘house’ at the bottom of the stack. Her father had gathered rapidly that the Audrey who had returned home was a very different person from the teenager that had left, and gruff with pride at the change in the young woman, he looked intently at the pictures as he puffed on his pipe and listened to her plans, giving the photos the due consideration he understood she wanted.
“How much have you saved then, Audrey?” he asked simply, looking at her directly across the table. Her mother busied herself with the tea-pot and the remains of a fruit cake, keenly eying her daughter with fresh eyes.
“A little over 12,000 francs, daddy,” she relied proudly, fidgeting at the interrogation. Her brown face still showed traces of a winter sun from the mountains and she sat at the end of the table upright, aware she was different to her siblings and aware of the respect her father was giving her.
“But why on earth would you want to live there all by yourself?” voiced her mother. “Aren’t you a little young to be thinking of buying a property?”
Her mother crossed to the stone sink noisily, but it was her father who replied.
“If a young woman wants to think of creating a home, I’m not sure we should be stopping her,” he commented, tapping his pipe. Old-fashioned he may have been in some ways, but in his eyes anyone who wanted to put their trust in brick and stone was making a sound investment. It didn’t take but a stroll around St Peter Port, the small capital town on Guernsey, on a Saturday afternoon so see how most of the young would rather spend their money. He nodded at Audrey, strengthening his approval. He was a man of quick decisions, and he understood Audrey’s affection for France. If she chose to live there, and perhaps marry and spend her life there, then that was her choice, especially if she was happy. Besides, they could visit, and he and his wife always enjoyed their trips to the country to the east as well. He nodded again.
“What are you going to do then?” he asked, and leant forward to hear her reply.
Audrey had it all worked out. Much was dependent on the house still being for sale when she was able to make an offer. “I need to work another whole summer in France at the campsite, dad, and then perhaps pick grapes for a month or so. I might have made enough by then to tell you something,” and she winced at the memories of the telephone calls she had made home during those long nine months, a call every week. If she’d only saved all that money as well, and she sighed at the costs.
Two months later, she passed the island of Jersey as she sat on a new ferry to St Malo with a larger, new backpack on the seat beside her, a gift from her Mother. June loomed bright and sunny, but cold with an easterly wind. Arriving at the campsite after a long bus ride, she was greeted like a lost daughter by the French owners who proudly showed her all the improvements they had done during the winter. It appeared that caravans were becoming the ‘in’ thing and Audrey knew they were going to have a busy season. The salty smell of a coastline exposed by a huge spring tide rose up the cliffs and promised a summer of rock-pools, moules-frites, dancing till dawn and happy memories.
Dropping her bag off in her small cramped room, she discovered a postcard from Mary, with a London postmark. She was planning to travel out to meet Audrey in the summer, which meant the two girls could go south together to Médoc if all went well. Mary also hoped to meet a cousin in Bordeaux, who was traveling in Europe that year. Somewhat guardedly, Audrey wondered how another person would fit into the friendship and the forthcoming adventures.
Half an hour later, Audrey strode down to the village to see if she would be serving beer again. She also had a small handful of francs in her hand, and after greeting old friends and arranging her first shift behind the bar for a week later, she anxiously phoned south to the number she had kept carefully in her wallet, hoping beyond hope that ‘her’ house was still for sale.
It was. She stood there, and gently put the phone back on the hook, keenly aware of swallows flitting across the road in the last dregs of the afternoon sun, and she knew, deep inside, that she would buy the house. Her arms prickled with goosebumps and she shuddered with a smile at her superstitiousness.
I hope you have enjoyed the first part of this story; part two will follow next week. Susan x