The summer passed quickly on the campsite above the beach. The weather was glorious and Audrey worked with a goal in mind, saving every centime as the weeks passed. There were moments of great fun, sharing a campfire and a jug of wine until dawn with new friends, and moments of disaster like the day an August gale swept along the coastline and barrelled away with two tents over a fence into a field packed with cows. She served beer most evenings, fending off advances from tipsy campers and lovelorn boys from the village, protected when needed by the burly bar-owner who adored Audrey for her punctuality and thoroughness. In July she turned 20, and her ‘French family’ threw a surprise party the night before, roasting two whole lambs for what seemed to be the entire neighbourhood; Audrey was bemused by how many people arrived to wish her well. Many of them were from the village, and at midnight the bar-owner reached into the boot of a battered old Renault 4 and appeared with a box containing a bottle of 1949 champagne he had been storing for years. Despite its age it had been kept in perfect conditions and it was one of the most delicious things she had ever tasted. An hour later the man said he was going to leave his wife and marry Audrey, and the entire crowd cheered with laughter. Audrey blushed a colour deeper than a setting sun and murmured she had far too much to do amid the good-natured jests.
This was becoming more and more like a second home and one evening with a sigh she realised that there would come a year when she would not return. It was hard work but she had become almost fluent in French, enough to pass for a local girl to a stranger. Her hair grew longer, bleached by the sun and her body was muscled and toned with the hard work and active lifestyle. She was an English sun-burnt rose amongst a field of dark strangers, and despite her weekly phone-calls home there were still times when she asked herself if she was doing the right thing. But she allayed her fears on her days off, borrowing a bicycle and visiting villages and towns inland, away from the tourists on the cliffs. Each time she passed a small cottage or an old broken farm building, she would grin with purpose, happy to still have her dream. Four times she called south to the number in her little worn leather-covered notebook, and each time ‘her’ house remained unsold, waiting for her.
September arrived and with it the campsite became deserted save for the odd young backpacker or two who were drifting their way through France. She managed to coerce the family into two weeks of extra work while she waited for Mary to arrive, straightening out the shower-block and helping to install a new hot-water boiler with a plumber from Paimpol. She had little inkling that all she learnt that summer would be used to good purpose another day. She was painting the walls of the changing-room one afternoon, still dressed in cut-off shorts and a t-shirt, so incredible was the weather, when she heard the ‘clink’ of the camp-site gate and she looked up to see a familiar figure walking towards her.
“Mary!” she shrieked, and dropping the paintbrush she tumbled down the ladder and ran to meet her friend, hugging her with such force that Mary squealed with laughter. They stood back, looking at each other, and grinned, knowing a new adventure was about to begin. The Australian girl had caught the ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and then found a farmer going to Lannion with a lorryload of hay for his cattle. The lift had been slow and as Mary recounted her story of the canting load that shifted terrifyingly on each slow corner, Audrey giggled in amusement. Together the girls walked back to Audrey’s little room, and later she introduced Mary to her French family over an end-of-season supper. That night they talked through the small hours, bringing each other up to date on the past few months, Audrey’s new little transistor radio in one corner determinedly tuned into Radio Luxembourg.
Two days later, backpacks thumping on their shoulders, they closed the gate to the campsite, kissed Audrey’s French family on each of everyone’s cheeks, and set off southwards once again for the Médoc. They did not hitch, but instead bought a cheap train-ticket. It took them two days to get to Bordeaux via an interminable amount of stops, changes, and strange directional meanderings through the late summer countryside. At Rennes they halted for a few hours at Mary’s insistence to pay homage to the cathedral, and at Nantes they stopped for the night, sharing a hot mosquito-busy room in an auberge a stone’s throw from the station. From there they went inland to Poitiers, and with a five-hour wait looming they visited another ancient cathedral. Audrey rationed her film for her Kodak camera but the great stained-glass windows proved a distraction difficult to resist. There was an ice-cream seller in the street outside the station and they sat in the sunlight leaning back on their packs as they waited for the late afternoon train, licking cones that sweated stickily onto their brown fingers. The girls talked endlessly, forging a bond that transcended their friendship from the previous year, unaware that their lives would be forever entwined.
The train plinked and clinked its way into the Gare de Saint Jean in Bordeaux late that evening. It was here that they hoped to meet Mary’s cousin and Audrey realised with a start that they had said little about her, she didn’t even know her name. Cheerfully she asked Mary who her cousin was and what she was doing in France. Striding with keen briskness through the thin crowd on the platform, Mary turned to Audrey and said with a grin, “You’ll see” and she marched off in front.
Scrambling to keep up, with her heavy backpack slapping with each hurried step, Audrey was bemused, but followed dutifully, not wanting to be left behind.They showed their tickets at the barrier and reached the station entrance seconds later and walked outside into the very last of the evening glow; it was just light enough to see across the cobbled streets to the row of cafes on the far side.
“Come on, Mary, where’s your cousin, and what’s her name? I don’t want to look a fool,” she pleaded good-naturedly.
Mary turned to her with a huge grin of excitement “You silly thing, Auds, it’s not a ‘her’, it’s a ‘him’, and he’s called David,” and she turned back around. Over her shoulder, Audrey saw a young man walking across the tramlines towards them with a steady, powerful stride, the ubiquitous backpack high on broad shoulders. She stood stock still, disbelieving, and as the young man approached she realised how tall he was. Mary could not contain herself any longer and flung herself the last few yards into a hug of family joy, leaving Audrey rooted to the spot quite speechless. She felt her cheeks aflame, confused thoughts ran wildly through her head, and when the cousins’ heads parted from their greeting and he looked up and smiled at her, her poor heart burst with something she was unable to understand.
“Hello Audrey,” said the face, “Mary’s told me all about you,” and the man smiled again, a smile so contagious and revealing of character that Audrey felt herself blush from head to toe, and was thankful for the poor light. She smiled back unsteadily, aware that Mary was watching with amusement. “Come on, I’m thirsty, let’s grab a beer,” she said and clasping Audrey’s hand on one side and her cousin’s on the other, she led the way back across the street to the cafe, all of them unaware that they were crossing an unseen threshold into adulthood and a future that stretched out before them like a long voyage across a sunlit ocean.
The vendage that year was a memorable one, but not for the wine it produced. After a warm dry summer that looked so promising, the rains came and created havoc in the vineyards, and everyone remembered that year as the harvest of mud. It was actually a much better year for music and the soundtrack from that autumn, played out on the small transistor radio, became the background against which she and David grew closer together. Every evening seemed to be a party; unfatigued thanks to the vitality of their youth, couples from a dozen nationalities danced into the night, the sound of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles rippling faintly across the rows of vines wherever they worked. Mary fell hopelessly in love with a local Frenchman who drove the machinery for several vineyards. As a foursome, they sang till their hearts ached; and as the days grew longer their spirits chortled with shared laughter. It was a September that seemed afterwards to have been rewritten in a blur of moments, each day passing like some grainy frame from a vintage film-reel.
To David, Audrey was a girl for all seasons, and he knew by the end of that month that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Their relationship had developed steadily and strongly. In an age of free love Audrey was still managing to be a solitary figure of difference and pride, a charm that grew on David until he protected it like a bear, enshrouding her with a wall of support and feeling that wooed her finally to faint acquiescence on the matter of travelling onwards with him. Mary was so happy for them both, and she giggled when alone as she thought of the moment when she had started to plan their meeting. As the harvest ended, so people departed, and at the last vineyard they worked that year the three of them found themselves alone in a bunkroom one night, the sole survivors of the travelling clan of their fellow pickers. Even Mary’s Frenchman had gone, back to a village where no one showed a light after dark and the church tower struck a bell at an ungodly hour.
They sat until dawn, planning a future, picking at the threads of lives not yet fully weaved into wholesome thought. They talked about countries, travel, culture, music and they talked about Audrey’s ‘house’. At some small hour her little box of savings was dug out from a hole beneath her bunk and they counted it all out.
“Jeez Auds,” muttered Mary, her head fuddled with the figures and half a bottle of red wine. “There’s a small fortune here.”
David was still counting his pile of notes and then threw them on the others. “Blimey, Audrey, that’s just over 8,000 francs in total – do you want to play some poker?” he asked, only half in jest.
They stared at the money, which together with Audrey’s savings from the previous year, amounted to a little over 20,000 francs. It was an unheard of sum for a girl of 20. “Is it going to be enough for what you want to do?” asked David, dumbly aware also of the fact that this same girl wanted to buy a house in a country far from where he was going back to.
Audrey shook her head, “No, it won’t be enough. Nowhere near, unfortunately,” and she sighed deeply at the thought, aware that she was at a crossroads in her life; a man she had fallen in love with, on one side, and her family and two places she loved on the other. She stared at the money, knowing that she was going to have to make a decision that might change her life forever.
Rocking back on her heels, her torn jeans showing brown knees she spoke. “I’m going to have to call the owner again tomorrow, I guess, and see if there has been a change in price.” She looked up at the others, adding, “What do you think?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Mary and she looked at David inquiringly. Through the gloom, she could see her cousin had gone quiet, deep in thought. Then she watched with quiet amazement as he got to his feet and knelt in front of Audrey.
“Oh crikey,” muttered Mary. She knew, she understood. Her eyes glittered with excitement and she clenched her fingers, willing what was going to happen to go right.
“What?” said Audrey, nonchalantly, still not fully aware of what David was about to do.
“Audrey,” said David shakily, “Audrey, look at me,” and she looked at him with sudden interest. She took in the way he had taken her hands, and the fact he was on his knees, and her heart thumped so hard she was sure it might burst.
“Audrey, will you marry me?” said the face, and Audrey’s life swam before her eyes; closing them for a brief moment she saw her parents sitting at their kitchen table, and beyond through the window her seagulls swirled like confetti in a dark Guernsey sky. She thought long and hard for a brief moment of time, reaching deeply into her inner sanctum of saved thoughts and treasures, and knew that really there was only one choice, and she would have to do what she could with the remains that were left. She snapped them open, and squeezed his hands back.
She smiled at him steadily, and said, “Yes, David, I will.” and Mary leapt to her feet, jumping up and down and squealing with excitement into the thunderous night.
“I’m going to be a bridesmaid, I’m going to be a bridesmaid,” she sang and she turned full circle and reached out for her cousin and best friend, only to see they were in a place where she could never go, in an embrace that could have saved the world so much energy and passion was being put into it.
The house stood softly in the sunlight, an autumn blush on the tiled roof as it basked in the halo of a setting sun. Its shutters and windows were open at last after so long, and a warm breeze gently blew away the cobwebs and dust of two decades of neglect. There was no longer an ‘Á VENDRE’ sign on its little gate, which glistened under a coat of new paint. To a stranger, the house might well have looked tidy and well-kept for there was much fresh paint everywhere and the front door seemed well cared for at the end of its short, weeded, path. The roof was clean of moss and even the hedge had been trimmed, it looked sweet and pretty, as a small old house in an ancient French village should have done. But the stranger might then have noticed sounds from the house, a banging of tools and fluent cursing from a young man’s deep voice, and if they had entered they would have found a tall man lying under a sink while a young woman laughed softly nearby. One would have had to be an Australian to fully grasp the intricacies of the insults being showered upon a non-existent water supply, and only an English person would have understood the giggled replies. But the kitchen-table in one corner had food upon it, an open bottle of wine and a small transistor radio which was always, but always, playing music.
The village hummed with gossip about the young engaged couple that had bought the long-time deceased Mme Dupont’s old cottage. Audrey’s father had given them 15,000 francs as an early wedding present and together with her savings it had been enough to seal a deal on a sale that had been so long in the making that the house might have cried softly in sympathy. The owner was a man called René, Mme Dupont’s only heir. He helped the couple with the paperwork and legalities of ownership when they first arrived, and a week later found them an old car for sale, a Renault 4, so matched in bruises and colour to the old bar owner’s car from the campsite that they named it after him. It proved invaluable in becoming a builders-van and Audrey and David worked through the winter of 1969 to make the old house watertight, wind-tight and less cold than it might have been with its old stone walls and cracked window frames. The week before Christmas, René brought a chimney-sweep to their front door, and within hours a roar of flames in the ancient fireplace and a plume of smoke from the chimney announced that the little house had fully come to life again. They moved the mattress from their bedroom in front of the fire for the winter to keep warm, and the days and nights passed in a whirlwind of happiness.
While David worked on the house almost full-time those few cold months, Audrey found a restaurant in a neighbouring town which needed a competent person to wait on tables after the house garçon was fired for stealing wine from its cellar. It was an opportune moment, for she literally passed the door as the man was thrown into the street, and as he stalked away in anger down the road, she simply turned to the glowering owner in the doorway and asked if what she thought had happened was correct. The owner turned and took in the young woman; he noticed her straightness of back and those cool, direct corn-blue eyes that seemed to read his thoughts. As a true Frenchman he understood beauty and he passingly wondered if his custom would increase if he hired this girl. He had no notion that the woman was not French, so fluent was her speech, and when he asked if she had a reference Audrey gave him the bar-owner’s number from the village high above the cliffs. Grunting excitedly, he told her to wait and went inside to a phone. The lunch service was but an hour away, the phone call short and to the point, but when he came back after a short conversation he had a smile, and reaching the door he simply said, “Cherie, What’s your name?”
“Audrey,” said the cool blue eyes, and he laughed at how it sounded.
“The job is yours but can you start right now?” he asked, Audrey nodded; an hour later she was putting a plat du jour of braised kidneys in front of her first customer.
In June of 1970, David and Audrey arrived in Guernsey to be married in the small church of St Peter de Bois, the parish church where she had been christened two decades before; when they stood before the vicar to make their vows the pews behind them on the famous sloping floor were filled with a large contingent of Australians, and half a dozen other languages punctuated the air; friends far and wide had come to see them joined in hand, and her French family stood proudly in the third ‘home’ pew alongside the love of Mary’s life from the vendage, Stéphane; even the burly bar-keeper was there with his diminutive wife. Her father had arranged for a fishing boat to go direct to Paimpol and help with the ferrying of guests, and as a result nearly twenty-five people had come from the campsite and the village. It was one of those rare days when everything ran like clockwork, and Audrey’s proud father patted his pocket for a forbidden pipe all day long.
Standing under the tall square tower for photographs, David grinned down at his new bride and Audrey felt so serenely content she thought she might float and rise softly upwards in a blur of frail wedding dress to join her seagulls as they whirled above in the ocean breeze, knitting together a patchwork sky of blue and white. David’s parents and Mary were proudly head of the Australian delegation, and David’s best man was Mary’s brother. A slew of jokes and tall stories littered the celebrations at the reception and when the dancing started Audrey found herself next to her new mother-in-law, a small woman with sun-worn skin from a Queensland lifetime. She was a cheerful character called Shirley, and as they talked the party swept and whirled about them. In the previous few days Audrey had already formed the basis of a friendship with Shirley that would help her in years to come, but David’s father had been difficult to talk to, and he sat apart, distant in thought; fleetingly, Audrey had wondered if there was a problem.
She posed the question innocently enough to her mother-in-law and she noticed the eyes in the face in front of her cloud with concern and worry. Audrey instinctively reached out to touch her hand and apologised in a small voice.
“There’s no need to worry, Auds,” said Shirley in a small voice, “but we’re all a little worried. The farm is only just coping with things. We’ve had a good go with it, but I worry it’s getting too much for him,” and she turned to look at her husband with tenderness. She turned back to Audrey, and there was a small tear in one eye. Audrey squeezed Shirley’s hands harder, as the small woman continued, “He’s so tired these days. David’s not there to help anymore, as you know, but even with the other help we have he just seems a world apart from it all,” and at that a steady stream of tears started to fall. Audrey leant a little closer and reaching into her purse found a handkerchief. People watching thought they were seeing tears of happiness, and by a cruel twist of fate there were smiles on many faces when there should have been none. Shirley, sobbed for a few seconds, then brightening, squeezed Audrey’s hand back and looking up, said in a thick voice, “I’m scared Auds, I can’t talk to my family, they wouldn’t understand, but you seem so,” and she paused for words, “you seem so, how can I put it….knowing?” and she patted at her eyes.
It was the only painful part of the day, Audrey reflected later, and as the evening drew on the party moved to her parents’ house. They’d put a small marquee on the back of the tiny lawn with a wooden floor, and as they were not leaving on honeymoon, Audrey turned her back on the crowd at midnight to much fanfare and threw her bouquet in a tall arc into the Guernsey night. With a gasp of excitement Mary found herself under its trajectory as it landed and she turned to Stéphane with a huge grin, the poor man blushing amidst the catcalls and cries of laughter. As the sun rose royally orange over the French mainland to the east, there was just a die-hard contingent of people still awake, clustered around two people with guitars as they all sang in the new day softly.
Audrey looked far into the distance across the water and whispered hello to her little house, tucked away below the horizon, and envisaged a lifetime of la vie en rose in its sheltering walls.
To be continued next week! If you missed Part I, you can read it here.
Thank you so much for all of your comments, I am so so happy you have enjoyed this story so much, please keep letting me know your thoughts, for that’s what makes it all so worthwhile and I hope you all have a wonderful, peaceful and happy Sunday x