Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Common Denominator

I didn’t see the many fields covered in sunflowers or the dark woods as they flew passed the car window, my vision too blurred by tears. They pooled at the bottom of my eyes, until they were too heavy to stay there, then they dropped onto my arms. I felt, more than watched them trickle along to my hands all the way to the tips of my fingers and fall onto my jeans, slowly but progressively soaking them. I couldn’t understand why I was crying for I had been given what I had been asking for since my father passed away.
She had tried to keep us both with her but my brother had run away after my father had his accident and when my father finally died, after months in intensive care, I blamed my mother for everything. All my looks conveyed contempt and all my words venom, I was merciless in my actions towards her and the arguing was relentless and exhausting. Yet she struggled to keep me with her for months, happy to withstand my actions so long as I was with her. Until money became so tight she started to struggle to feed us. Only then, after months of fighting and with the real fear of not knowing where the next meal would come from, did she finally lose the strength to keep going. I don't know whether she called social services or whether they just finally felt the need to intervene but one day I found myself in that car, making the journey to the first foster home I would stay in. My actions had clearly conveyed that being away from her was all I wanted and yet there I sat, drenched in tears, my stomach in knots, trembling, every inch of me screaming to be let out of the car yet knowing it would make no difference for if I was taken back I knew in my heart that the anger would return and so my lips remained silent.

I have no idea how long the journey was, just that to me it seemed interminable. It was only the click of my car door opening that made me realise we had arrived. I’m sure that the house was perfect, for I recall that it sat atop of a little hill, surrounded by little country lanes and fields, ideal for a child to explore and enjoy but this isn’t how it seemed to me at the time. In fact, it’s the floor that I remember the most.

I didn’t want to look up, didn’t want to run the risk of anyone catching my eye and seeing the depth of the pain that resided there. I was guided around the house by people I didn’t see. If I was made to look up I just looked right through them like they were ghosts, fortunate enough to be able to pretend that I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me, that my French wasn’t that good. And so I was guided round the house.

First came the concrete steps leading to the front door, then the terracotta tiles of the living room floor, the pink slippers of the woman who was to look after me, the Wellington boots of her farmer husband, the tiled floor of the kitchen, the wood flooring of the bedroom and the wooden frame of the bed I would have to call my own for a while.

One by one I was introduced to the other children who were staying there. First came a small, tatty pair of trainers belonging to a boy about the same age as me. Next was a little pair of brown boots belonging to a girl younger than me but who was leaving that same day. Finally, a much larger, newer pair of trainers on the last boy. They belonged to a teenager a few years older than me, but it was his name that made me look up. My eyes followed up the jeans, the t-shirt, then found the face of the boy I knew as my brother.

I had no idea this was where he had been staying for the past few months and by the look on his face he didn't know I would be there either. My mind raced at a million miles an hour with only my heart keeping pace. All of my other family was in England, I hadn’t really made any friends to speak of in France, my father had died and my mother couldn’t be with me anymore and I thought I was alone. But here was my brother, my final link to my happier past, I wouldn’t have to be alone, I didn’t need to be afraid...I had my brother again.

But he took one look at me and with the hardest and coldest eyes I have ever encountered in my life he said in an even voice: “If she's staying here then I won't be.”

Shock ran through my body. Why? Why wasn’t he pleased to see me too? What had I done to make him despise me so much, to abandon me? He was older than me by almost five years, surely he was meant to be there for me, protect me. Even if he stayed but refused to acknowledge me because I was his annoying younger sister I could have understood that reaction, liked it even, as it would have been much like the siblings we were, always ready to disagree, known as chalk and cheese when we were growing up. But this I couldn’t understand.

“Please” I chocked on my own tears, “Please stay with me”

He looked at me and for a fleeting moment I thought he might reconsider...but the moment passed, his eyes hardened again and he walked away.

I have no idea what followed in the hours after that exchange just that he did indeed leave me there. I do remember laying that night in a strange bed, shaken to the core and in my mind as a child I put two and two together and realised that of all these people who were no longer there, that I was the common denominator. There was something wrong with me.

I stayed at that home for some time before being moved on elsewhere but it was months before I saw my brother again. His reaction was never mentioned and it became a moment that belonged just to us. I'll never forget the feeling I had that day, I don't hate him for it, he was suffering just as much as me and couldn't cope with my sadness as well as his own.

That fateful day did however define me as an individual for years to come. It was the beginning of some of the biggest battles off my life. I had to battle against depression which went on for years and almost cost me my life and I had to fight against my own mind set that I wasn’t worthy to be loved or stood by. To this day I try desperately to make people like me and I question over and over again the things I say and conversations I have trying to make sure that I haven’t slipped up and said something that could turn them against me. I know we all have these kind of scars, gained during our childhood. These are mine and I bare them every day, I have just learnt to hide them well.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Accident

When I sit on the wall opposite the shop window I can observe him sitting behind his desk but because the wall is a few meters away and at an angle I doubt he notices me. I often come and sit here, never for long to ensure I remain undetected.

I’ve got questions to ask him, hoping his recount of what happened that night would give me an understanding of the incident, an insight and ultimately some peace.

Bleak. I don’t think there is any better word to describe that night. Probably the bleakest night of my life. We drove along in silence, the rain pounding on the roof of the car, hard and fast like my heart.

“I don’t want to leave you.” My voice came out squeaky despite my best efforts to control it.

“You can’t stay with me, the place is barely habitable. Your brother and I are going to struggle as it is and you’re a young girl, you need your mother.”

There was no point arguing, even at ten I was sensible and could see the logic. “An old head on young shoulders” people would always say to me, a title I endeavoured to live up to often to the detriment of my childhood, far too busy at being sensible to have any fun.

They started arguing as soon as we arrived. They argued like only a couple who had been happily married for as many years as they had could. Every slight infraction from the past fifteen years, ignored at the time, suddenly reappearing in greater dimension. Every sin stated with the venom that came from years of lip biting and overlooking the little things. Invading each other’s space, spittle traded like bullets with each insult fired. And before my eyes they turn grey, becoming puppets I can manipulate, tugging on their strings until they stop screaming, until they stop waving their arms and instead slowly place them round each other, heads nestled in their necks, hearts beating, souls forgiving…

…maybe that might have happened if they had had more time. Maybe.

I don’t remember saying goodbye. I wish I did. Instead I just remember waking up.

When I woke the next day my mother was standing at the end of the bed. Quietly looking at me, waiting for me to wake. She moved to the edge of the bed as I sat up, bleary eyed, wondering why she was there.

“Last night, there was an accident.” But the words come out so quietly that I have to strain to hear. In my heart I blamed her for the breakdown of the marriage. I know now that I shouldn’t have, but at the time there was no one else.

“What did you say” The words are spat out, in disgust.

“I said, last night there was an accident. Your father is in intensive care.”

I laughed. I laughed out loud. I don’t know why, I couldn’t stop it. Surely this stupid play in which my life had become the main tragedy had to stop soon. I didn’t want to contemplate another chapter.

“You evil Bitch! How could you! Haven’t you done enough damage without making up evil nasty stories, to scare me.” My voice trembled as I screamed the insult.

She just stood there and took it and for years to come this would be her stance. She would stand there and take the abuse as all around her accused, probably because she felt guiltier than anyone else could make her. Maybe because she felt it was justified.

She shouldn’t have. She needn’t have taken the blame. It wasn’t her fault.

As I looked into her eyes I knew it was true and as the tears fought their way to the surface I had to ask, “how?”

“After he left here he drove off on the wrong side of the road. I don’t know why. It’s possible he was distracted and thought he was driving in England or he may have been confused, it was late, dark…he drove straight into another car. Your father was taken straight to hospital. The driver of the other vehicle is fine…”

And there he sits, in his office, behind his big desk, absolutely fine. I walk to the shop front, finally finding the courage to ask him what happened that night and why he gets to go home to his children and my father doesn’t. My hand rests on the door handle and suddenly my eyes meet his. I can tell he knows who I am and he almost looks afraid. I unexpectedly lose my nerve, faltering in my movements, my mind racing at a hundred miles per hour. I realise at that moment, after weeks of sitting on that little wall, that none of this is his fault. So instead I find the courage to walk away for good.

He didn’t know that when he set off that night that he would go over the brow of a hill and hit a car driving on his side of the road. He wouldn’t know whether the man in that car had accidentally found himself on that side of the road, confused in the aftermath of such an emotional moment. Or whether that man would be devastated enough to take his own life and heartless enough to involve someone else.

Yes, he gets to go home to his children and why shouldn’t he? He is an innocent in all of this.

But then, weren’t we all?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The value of innocence.

I don't like wine. I don't like the taste of wine and I like the smell of wine even less. Coming from someone who spent most of her teens in France you would probably find this surprising, or at the very least, rather unusual. You might think that maybe it's because I haven't tried enough wines, or have only ever consumed cheap, acrid wine. Or maybe, as someone accused me of once, it is because I have “an immature pallet” (whatever the hell that's supposed to mean!)
But I don't need this analysed. For once I know the answer. I can tell you exactly why I don't like wine and it all begins with a hello.

There are so many ways of greeting someone in France. A handshake, a kiss on the cheek, one, two, three and even four isn't uncommon. These greetings change depending on where you are in the country. One kiss on the cheek would suffice at one end of the country, less than four would be rude at the other end. It also depends on whether you are a boy greeting a girl, a girl greeting a woman, a man greeting a child... innocent daily gestures...

I stand there suddenly unsure of myself. It had seemed so appealing just moments before when I was tying the strings of my pretty white apron into a big white bow which rested gently in the small of my back. The café had fascinated me from the moment we had opened. Sparkling glasses lined the wall behind the bar, bottles of different shapes and sizes stood to attention next to them, liquids of various levels, all intoxicating, waiting to be chosen. The stainless steel beer pumps reflected my image, distorted and grotesque, like the mirrors you would find at the funfair. I was enchanted by the idea of helping my mother in the café who, reluctant at first, finally agreed, after I had refused to give her a moments peace, begging her daily.
I anticipated that it would be like playing shop when I was a child, only this time I would be allowed to use real money and serve real customers. It was, except that here, in France, you had to greet your clients. It would be rude not to and we couldn't afford to be rude to the customers.

“It's the custom” I'm told, “just the way we do things here” a hand placed in the small of my back as I'm gently but firmly pushed forward towards the table of old men.

The group of old men are all deep in discussion and have yet to notice me, quietly waiting for an opportunity to take their order;

“Now, Maurice, did you finally get your tomatoes to ripen”

“Of course! Do you take me for a novice! They are big and red and juicy”

“Ha, Tell me, did you take your wife to the fields and do things to her that would make your tomatoes blush? How else would they have turned so red!”

I gently cough to get their attention and in unison they turn, look at me and smile. They are all missing most of their teeth and the teeth that remain are brown and broken. They look at me expectantly

“Come now child, don't be rude, come closer and say hello.”

And then it dawns on me. Before I can take their order, before I can have the fun of choosing the glasses and carefully pouring their choice of tipple for the day, before I can take their money and give them their change and hope for a tip, before I can do any of this, I have to kiss each of them on the cheek... twice. So I approach them slowly. They smell of wine. Sweat and wine. All of them, without exception. And I don't just have to get close enough to serve them, I have to get close enough to kiss them on the cheek.

So I took the plunge. I held my breath and kissed the first elderly gentleman twice. He looked at me with kind blue eyes and ordered red wine. So far so good I thought to myself. Get it done quickly, just get it over and done with. The next two went much the same, both ordering red wine. One more to go and then the job would be almost done and I would be onto the best part. I lent forward but as I did he grabbed my wrist.

I could see his bony hand wrapped around my wrist. These guys may have been toothless and old, but weak they were not. They used to be farmers and since retiring would spend hours everyday in their gardens, toiling soil and chopping wood. And right now his bony muscular hand was wrapped tightly around my delicate little wrist.

I felt my breath catch in my throat, gagging at the smell of him and the fear of what he might do.
“Come here child, he said in a deep whispered tone akin to one you might imagine of a snake, do not be so very quick to run away.”

He pulled me towards him so I could kiss his cheek. His eyes, narrow and dark, never left mine.

“now hold out your hand”

As he still had hold of my arm I had no choice, slowly I uncurled my fingers.
He placed his hand over mine, so it was completely covered and left it there, and then slowly he dragged his hand the full length of mine till the tips of our fingers were touching. It sent an icy shiver down my spine and made me feel sick at the same time. He had complete control over me and there was nothing I could do. I wasn't brave enough to shout or scream and with three other elderly men sitting there watching and doing nothing, I assumed not only that I couldn’t do anything but that I shouldn't.

I realised then that there was something left in my hand. Covered in filth and barely recognisable ten centimes sat in the palm of my hand. It's value, at the time, was one penny.

I looked at the ten centimes, then at the red marks left on my wrist by his grip, then my eyes tried to find those of the other men sitting at the table but theirs refused to meet mine. And then I looked at him, I looked at him in pure bewilderment.

“That, in the palm of your hand young lady is your tip for greeting me well...remember what you are worth”

Monday, 6 June 2011


At nine I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. To me it was just a grotty, old brick building which was completely creepy and yet to my parents it was the corner stone of a much bigger plan. It's only now, looking back, that I realise how big an achievement that first purchase was.

My Father, who was a Londoner born and bread, struggled with English and though he was fluent in cockney rhyming slang and was an avid reader he didn’t know how to write. Being over fifty, for him, learning any French would have been an immense struggle. My brother and I were young enough to pick up the language relatively quickly but even then it would be years before we were fluent. And so the burden of communication fell upon my mother’s shoulders who, with only school girl French, was faced with a wide spectrum of daily conversations, from having to discuss property purchases and law with French solicitors, to doing a weekly shopping trip.
Considering all of this, to finally be standing in the property which was now in their name must have felt phenomenal to a point that I can’t even imagine. To me however, as a child, it was horrific.

The narrow building was in the town centre, four stories high, with no garden at all. The roof was full of holes and the walls were damp, I wasn’t allowed up to the fourth floor as the floorboards were full of woodworm and there were holes everywhere. A tiny enclosed staircase lead to the third floor which was bare and uninviting, even with two windows little light seemed to enter the room making it bleak at all times of the day. The path to the second floor was a much more treacherous one. To get to the second floor you had to climb a wooden ladder and at the top you had to balance with one foot on the top of the three inch newel post which belonged to the stairs below and swing the other leg over to the floor above, if you missed you would have fallen two floors below, it was unbelievably dangerous and yet we all did it repeatedly nearly everyday for months. The second floor also had windows at the front and back which for some reason gave more light, I remember feeling less afraid there and discovered that eventually it would be where we would eat and sleep.

The first floor was the shop floor. It had previously been a hairdressers and had pipes which poked out of the wall and a huge glass window at the front. All of the sinks had long ago been ripped out and there was no running water or electricity and yet this was the main source of excitement. This was where my parents would walk around, arms flapping, sometimes pointing at walls, scribbling drawings on bits of paper and smiling with affection at each others suggestions. They were so passionate about what was to come, so full of vision that they refused to see the difficulties which laid ahead, convincing each other, in a way only they could, that everything would work out if they believed it would. It’s the way I like to remember my parents, full of passion not anger, excited not afraid, a team that no one could tear apart... though eventually they did that themselves.

The basement was for me the scariest part of the building. There was a creaking set of stairs which lead to a near pitch black room. There were no windows, just a coal shoot which let through droplets of light and big wooden garage doors. There was a single light bulb which hung from the ceiling and which almost made the atmosphere worse as its dim light revealed the dreary mud coloured walls. The floor was stones and earth and right at the back was a round hole dug into the ground which was the toilet. Around it was a thin cloth curtain hung by what appeared to be a washing line, there to preserve your dignity despite not quite reaching the floor. It would have been the perfect place for a horror movie and frequently I imagined people being chained to the walls and tortured. If I was ever left there alone I could feel the tension grip every part of my soul and my breathing became laboured. When I was older I realised that it was just a panic attack but at the time I was sure I was going to die.
My brother (who like most older brothers had a sick sense of humour when it came to his younger sibling) took a perverse pleasure in coaxing me down there, pushing the light bulb so it would swing, creating an even eerier feel to the whole place, and then running back upstairs leaving me there, in my own personal nightmare. And yet to my parents, this was the stuff of dreams.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Intensive Care

He remained in intensive care for more than three months and yet I only recall one visit.
I see the grey concrete playground rush beneath my feet as hand in hand with my mother I run towards the exit of the school. I don't recall that day as being the one on which he passed away but I do remember the urgency we felt. The need to get there and be by his side. Maybe we had been told that it was almost time, and so we ran.

When we arrived we were led into a small room with bright florescent lights and handed clothes made of paper. Paper robes which were hard and rough to touch, elasticated plastic bags for shoes and hats that resembled shower caps. Any other time we would have laughed. We would have mercilessly teased each other at how silly we looked but this time the room was too quiet, the nurses who surrounded us too serious, the atmosphere too sterile. So sterile that it took your breath away. The grazes on my little hands, caused by tripping over whilst playing hop scotch with my friends, stung from the sterile soap we were forced to use. Those little hands reached for the door.

When it opened my eyes became mesmerised by the dozens of wires, all different colours, intertwined, leading to the man I knew as my father.
Weeks later I was talking to a boy the same age as me and told him my father had died. “I'm sorry” he said “what happened” “He should have lived” I replied “he was strong enough to, but a nurse tripped on the wires and pulled them out, by the time they put them all back he was gone. He could have survived, he was strong enough” I don't know why I lied, why I needed a reason, why I couldn't let go and accept that he held on for three months and that in itself was exceptional. I can only speculate that like most children perceive their fathers I had only ever known my father as an invincible hero.

He was a lean builder, who even in his fifties could carry multiple bags of cement over his shoulder and had a six pack that would put most twenty year olds to shame. I imagine I didn't understand why he couldn't fight back. I don't think I even believed the man I saw that day was really my father.

The man in the bed attached to all those wires was pale, his face haggard and old. The small tube which seemed to enter his nose scared me the most as it was so small and insignificant, yet it looked so painful. A ventilator pumped up and down, spewing air from a tube near his mouth. He resembled Frankenstein's monster, not my lean, strong, tanned father. He tried to talk but only managed to make harsh rasping sounds, so little air in his lungs and not enough in the room.
He looked at me with desperation in his wide deep brown eyes, dying to tell me something. Literally dying to tell me. His trembling hands reached for big marker pens, handed to him by the nurse, and a pad of paper. He tried to write, with his skeletal hands, hindered by the drip, held back by the wires, trembling. Eventually he held the pad up for us to see, merely for a few seconds, any longer would have been too much. His pleading eyes found mine again, stabbing at my soul like nothing else ever had. I stepped back and gripped my mothers hand. Sensing my distress she stepped forward, wrapped her arm around me and told my father “we know, darling we know you love us.” My eyes searched the scratchy lines on the paper trying to see what she could but all I could see were wavy lines, lines which in his drug induced eyes made sense, lines which were supposed to have meaning. But to me they were just lines drawn by a stranger.

He sat back in the bed and seemed to relax. I walked towards him knowing I should do something but not entirely sure what. So I lent forward and kissed his arm. I could feel the tears as they filled the wells of my eyes but I wasn't crying for the man in the bed. I didn't know this stranger. I was crying because I knew my father was no longer with us, that he was already gone, and that I would never be held again by the strong loving father figure that I knew.

Now when I think of my father I always try and remember him standing on the roof of a house he was repairing, my neck craned all the way back as I try and look up to see him. When I do all I see is a shadowy figure standing there with the sun shinning behind him. Strong, happy, healthy, looking down on me, with sticky tape holding the bridge of his big old glasses together. Proud that I didn't run away from the scary man in the chair and that I remembered who he really was.

The funeral

Since my first post I have been asked by many either how did I end up in that situation or to recount what happened next. There seems to be some frustration in the fact that I started at what appears to be the middle of my tale. I can understand the frustration felt but it's hard for me to do anything but trust my mind in where it leads me. As I said before I can't start from the beginning as my memories are tangled like a ball of wool and I have to tug at strands here and there to try and unravel them one by one. I promise I will try and be more organised.
I suppose before we can go forward we need to go back. Not too far. I can't go back too far. I will, eventually, but today I will try and go back to the day of the funeral.


It seems that the more emotional the memory the more my mind has erased. I couldn't tell you what I was wearing, though something black would seem fitting. I don't know what the weather was like but I guess drizzle and grey skies would be appropriate. I wouldn't even know what time of year it was, though autumn, with it's golden leaves and chilling winds that make you feel the need to wrap your arms around your chest to protect yourself from the cutting cold would be poetic justice. But in reality I couldn't tell you for sure.
I remember sitting on the hard wooden pew in the church and feeling quite important as I was sat right at the front. It didn't dawn on my young mind that the reason I was there was simply because it was my father in the coffin before me.
Faceless are the people who surround me, I can't even see in my memory whether my brother was there or not, though I guess he was. The man standing in front of the coffin in his long robes, droned on in an old French that I couldn't be bothered to try and understand. I recall feeling perplexed that I wasn't feeling the way people imply you are supposed to. If you believe the way these things are recounted in books or films I should have been clinging to the coffin, heaving with racking sobs, distraught and unable to let go. I didn't. I didn't cry, I didn't scream, I didn't even whine a little. I just felt numb and feeling numb made me feel guilty. So there I sat at my fathers funeral feeling guilty and wondering if I should try throwing myself on the floor just to save face. Fortunately the service was over very quickly and I didn't have time to act on my concerns.

What happened next is like a misty haze. A hole in the ground, soil, gravel, staring at my shoes as we walked back to the wake. Non of this matters, it's not relevant in my mind, just a series of events that didn't leave a firm imprint on my mind. What happened at the wake though, is another matter.

They blamed her for everything. Acted like she had been the one driving the car when in reality she hadn't even been there. Three of my five half brothers and sisters had travelled to France for the funeral and they only had a few hours to make their feelings towards my mother clear and they took the opportunity with both hands. We stood in the big family room above the café. The voices from the punters below floated up to the silent room, loud, creating evidence for my siblings to use against her.

She's left the bar open, yet more proof that she's all about money, money, money”
I suppose they were not to know that we had had bailiffs coming into the café demanding payments. Only a few weeks later there wouldn't be enough food to feed my brother and I and my mother knew that day was coming, she just wasn't able to admit it to herself, let alone them. They were not to know that by leaving the bar open on the day of the funeral wasn't because she didn't love and respect my father but that she loved my brother and I more and was prepared to look bad in their eyes if it meant keeping a roof over our heads for one more day. They didn't know these things but they didn't ask why either. They just judged her.

Vile witch, probably killed him so she could get more customers in”

Their tear strained faces turned to me as I stood quietly looking out the window still wondering why I felt nothing.

Don't you worry honey, we'll look after you. We won't let her hurt you.”

And then I felt something. I felt anger. Everyone else in the room was angry surely I should be too.

When she entered the room she was met by cold hard stares. Her pale tense face filled with grief and guilt didn't register with me.

You decided to keep the bar open even during your husbands funeral. What kind of woman are you”
you don't understand, it's our livelihood, without this we...”
We what! We won't be able to afford another romantic evening with our new boyfriend? We won't be able to afford another packet of fags? You disgust us and I hope you get hit by a bus!”

My father had just died after a horrific car crash and here my half sister was wishing my mother to die in a similar manner. Surely you would think I would realise then that these were not the people to side with, that they were twisted inside to the point of being damaged. But their sentiments were so strong they overpowered anything else. I let myself be swept up in the crashing waves of their anger and turned on her too. As she came to me to take my hand and lead me from the room my fists clenched and my arms went rigid by my sides.

Come with me”

She stared at me. Willed me mentally to stay with her, to leave the room, to be a compatriot in arms against all those who wished her ill. But I didn't, my resolve stayed firm and my heart like ice, I turned away from her. She quietly left the room, defeated and broken.

Don't worry, we'll be there for you” And when my half brother said that with his hand on my shoulder, his grip firm and strong, I believed him. But they weren't. They left France the following day and apart from a couple of phone calls, I didn't see or hear from them for many years. On that day though, their actions had the same effect as dropping a pebble into a still pool of water. The damage rippled out throughout my childhood, affecting everything and everyone around me.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

First day at school

As usual I was trailing behind - I was short even when I was only nine and my little legs could never seem to keep up with other peoples – a few paces ahead of me I could see my mother and even from behind I could tell she was frowning at my brother, who was much further ahead and proclaiming in as loud a voice as possible that he didn’t see why he had to go to a fucking French school when he couldn’t speak fucking French. His rude language wasn’t really a problem, he was fourteen, angry and where we were not many people could speak any English, so it was unlikely to offend. Admittedly I was inclined to agree (although I would never have said so out loud for fear of encouraging his outlandish behaviour, which was annoying my mother more and more).The whole situation was alien to us; we were used to gray uniforms, white shirts with starched collars, ties that felt like they would choke us if they were pulled even slightly tighter, shinny black shoes, modern schools with colourful welcoming classrooms and desks where all books were kept and pencils provided when necessary; and yet here we were, wearing jeans and trainers, carrying school bags heavy enough to make you feel like you could topple over, walking along hot cobbled streets towards a building which could have been easily mistaken for a church. I discovered that this was to be my new school; my brother was off to a more modern secondary school, where at least there would be an English teacher who taught French children English lessons. I discovered that every week my brother would get a few hours reprieve from being surrounded by people who could and would only speak French, I however would not be so fortunate.
The stone structure loomed towards me in a menacing manner and as we approached the entrance to my school I discovered that I had to walk through what appeared to be an empty building to get to the playground and eventually my classroom. This building appeared to rely solely on natural light, but as it lacked many windows, it remained gloomy. On the sunniest of days this was made worse for as you stepped out of the sun into the building, you were soaked in darkness until your eyes adjusted. For me it was the gateway to a different world, one of solitude and isolation. It felt like when I walked through that building that I stepped back in time, where the toilets were all outside and the children entertained themselves by playing hopscotch and sat on the concrete steps of the classrooms. The school I had left in England had just had a new wooden climbing frame installed, with rope bridges and bark chippings, and an open field we were encouraged to use. Here, the only playground they had was concrete and I distinctly remember staring at the gray floor and feeling like I was peering into my soul.

My first day wasn’t without its surprises. As I was lead into the classroom by my new teacher, a man who smelled strongly of aftershave and wine, I was plopped behind a desk in the middle of the class and nothing more was said. I sat patiently and tried to guess at what was going on around me. Some things were easier to figure out than others; the teacher standing at the front of the class shouting out and each child individually answering “oui” implied the morning registry, the scribble on the board with the numbers in the middle must have been the date and so on it went until something strange happened.
All appeared to be going fine until my new teacher started to raise his voice, then from behind me a little boy responded with what was unmistakably a quiver to his voice, the teacher responded with more venom this time and the little voice behind me grew strangely squeaky when suddenly the teacher charged down between the desks and as he charged back a bundle bumped against the desks all the way to the front, this happened so fast that I didn’t realise at first that the bundle was in fact the little boy from the desk behind me. There he stood, well dangled, more or less by his ear which was firmly clasped between the teacher’s index finger and thumb! He wriggled and squealed and the teacher with his face only inches away from the boy’s, bellowed at him with all his might. Even from my desk I could see bits of spittle fly from the teacher’s lips and land on the boy’s cheeks, which had become increasingly inflamed. Then as quickly as it had started the moment passed, the boy was returned to his feet and the teacher walked back behind his desk. As the boy walked back down the aisle I was amazed to see him discreetly grin and wink at his friend at the back of the room, implying that this was a regular occurrence.
Having come from an environment where teachers were kept at arms length this was a terrifying insight in the difference between our two cultures.
Needless to say that when I returned home that evening the first thing I said to my mother was “if you think I’m going back to a Fucking French school again, you’ve got another thing coming!” I wasn’t surprised that my mother smacked my behind for swearing but it was worth it if only for the look on my brother’s face.

Somewhere to start

Every good story should have a hero (if not many) but this one doesn't. There are some losers, some survivors and then there's me. But then this isn't a story. These are mixed recollections of very real events. Mixed because I couldn't put these events in sequence even if I tried, my brain left confused and dazed by the quantity of emotions experienced, unable to organise itself.

I suppose I should try and start from the beginning but I can't quite bring myself to. So instead let me take you back to a memory I have. I don't know why I have chosen this one just that it's prominent in my mind. I'm often haunted for days at a time by vague memories of things I would rather stay buried, maybe writing about them will help me put them to rest once and for all.

It's the smell that wakes me. The sweet smell of brioche being warmed in the oven. My eyes adjust to the darkened room and register the few sharp strands of light which penetrate through the gaps in the wooden shutters. Its the middle of August in the south of France and yet the room is cool. That's just the way old French houses were designed, incredibly efficient at remaining cool in the face of the summer heat. I slip out from under the covers of the huge old double bed, menacing with it's dark wooden surrounds, and head towards the window, desperate to cast light over the various pieces of furniture, all made of dark varnished wood, all foreboding in their own way. Admittedly, to an antiques dealer, or someone with more mature taste, the furniture which is heavy and ornate would be enchanting but to a twelve year old like me, they are gloomy and ominous and reflect my feelings beautifully.
I wait to be sure that the sunlight has chased away the gloom before I turn around. As I stand there waiting in the face of the open window, I can feel the breeze which is warm almost muggy, even early in the morning. It gently runs through my hair which tickles the small of my back. My long chestnut locks, my crowning glory as my mother used to say, damp with sweat from the heat of the night. From my window I can see green fields and blue sky as far as the horizon, the quiet only disturbed by the occasional car which whizzes past on the only nearby road or by the bleating of the many goats. Some dream of this. Of sweet smelling pastries, of sunlight, heat, fields of gold and only animals to break the peace. Not me. I am in an idyllic setting and yet inside I am numb.
I slip on some clothes and go and sit on the bed, my feet dangle, swinging backwards and forwards wondering whether it is me who is short or the bed which is high, trying not to think of anything else. Trying not to think of the car, crushed, bent like an accordion, battered and broken. The hospital, the paper shoes we had to wear, the scowling nurses, the machines. The wine bottles, the old men, their cheeks stained with red blotches and broken blood vessels...then the noise of tyres on the gravel interrupts my wondering mind. Someone is here.
I listen intently as the car stops, I hear the car door open and close, footsteps, voices, broken French and fluent.
I want to see her, please”... “I think she is still sleeping”... “please check. I just need to speak to her”...
I hear footsteps coming down the corridor and the kind lady who is fostering me gently taps at my door. She speaks in French slowly to me, knowing mine is far from perfect. “Your mother is here, she wishes to speak with you.” … “Please tell her I am not ready”... “are you's been weeks”
… “I just can't yet”. I don't know why I do that. I want her more than anything. More than anything I want to hold her and not let go. But then I suppose that's the problem. I would have to let go, would have to stay here and I'm just not strong enough. And I can still feel the anger, the complete uncontrollable anger. I'm know I'm not angry at her. I'm angry because my father is dead, because I don't know where my brother is, because I'm in a foreign country away from friends and family, because we had everything and now we have nothing not even each other. Because I'm scared. And it's true, when we are at our lowest we hurt the ones we love because we know it's safe to do so. I love her so much and I'll hurt her so much.
I'm afraid she's still sleeping”... “wake her please, I need to see her”... “I'm sorry, the child needs her rest” I know she has reluctantly accepted the poorly concealed lie, probably because it hurts less than hearing the truth. And as the tears slowly pool onto the floor I wish for one thing only. Strength.