Gary used his middle name ‘Frank’ when he took his summer holiday, insisting it was pronounced ‘Fronk’, which he found far more in keeping. These were the best two weeks of his year for which he started to prepare months in advance, sowing onions in his allotment and growing a slim moustache that he waxed as soon as it was long enough.
Gary had become obsessed by France when, aged thirteen, he fell in love with his French teacher, Miss Mecredi, as did all the other boys at Newbury Grammar. In lessons he would daydream, picture himself as the Xavier from his text book, with Miss Mecredi being Mme DuPont, living together in a maison in the French countryside with Serge, their pet monkey. The day Miss Mecredi missed a button on her blouse sufficient to inadvertently expose the bottom edge of her bra and the top of her belly to him and the rest of 3T he rated as the pinnacle of his education and still the most erotic moment of his life.
Now twenty years on, France and everything French still held an aura of excitement, romance and with a slow bucolic way of life not available in Berkshire.
But Gary was disappointedly British. Despite his longings, he never got to grips with speaking French, though even now he remembered the words for some things, like stylo for pen for example, But verb tables always made him shudder, so he could never string his sparse array of nouns into coherent sentences. This made him terrified of actually visiting France, although he had a weekend ferry trip to Calais a few years ago with his cousin. He had loved it, sitting outside a cafe sipping café in the town square after walking the aisles of the hypermarket, marvelling at the unusual kinds of biscuits, the colourful range of misshapen vegetables and the tank at the back containing live crabs. How he wished he was French.
.His fear of the French language meant he spent his summer holidays cycling Berkshire dressed as a French onion seller. This was no fancy dress, he was as authentic as he could make it – blue-and-white stripy top, black beret and trousers, red neckerchief. He wove his ripe onions into strings which he bore round his neck before setting off along the roads of Newbury and beyond, at a gentle pace on his heavy bicycle. With camping gear in the basket, he stopped at every village for an ice cream or just to sit on a bench and smile. Sometimes he was ridiculed, or stared at. Sometimes he even sold a few onions, but he didn’t mind – he loved travelling like this and sleeping under the stars.
This year he stopped to see the Newbury Show. Pushing his bicycle through the crowds, Gary was admiring the rare cattle breeds and heritage chickens when someone called ‘Oi Pierre! – over here!’ He turned to see a man running towards him from a marquee.
The man explained that The Round Table were holding an onion-eating contest but due to an unprecedented number of entrants, were in danger of running out of onions. The man offered to buy all the onions he had. He’d had no intention of selling them – they weren’t worth much, were ln integral part of his Frenchness and without them he suspected he’d look silly. However the man was persuasive and Gary was a pushover, so trade was transacted.
Gary was now quite irritated – at his lack of onions certainly, but more so at himself as he made his way towards the exit, when another voice called at him “Garcon! Ici! Vite vite!”
He turned to see a tiny old lady carrying an even smaller dog. It was one of those yappy things that look more ratty than doggy and bare their teeth and angst to everyone.
“Shh Pipi” demanded the lady, the dog taking no notice and was clearly angry with Gary for being the object of his mistresses attentions. Gary reared back from the dogs high pitched barking as the woman shouted at him in fast unintelligible French.
Gary shrugged his shoulders in true French style before admitting to the old lady, who he reckoned had more wrinkles than a pickled walnut, that he “non understandez pas le Frenchais.” This rather stopped her in her tracks.
“You French boy who not speak French?” she asked.
.. Gary nodded shamefully.
“You Engleeesh” she slapped her forehead hard with the palm of her hand. “Bonkers.”
The lady introduced herself as Madam Hilda: French, 85 years old, one point one metre tall and carried her “petit angel Pipi” everywhere. Pipi’s snarling struck Gary as most un-angelic and laden with intent. But Hilda didn’t seem to notice its latent malevolence and grilled Gary over why on earth he would purport to be a Frenchman in false circumstances. Gary told her his whole sorry story and of his love for France.
“Idiot!” spat Hilda, almost as aggressive as her dog. “You come back to Franҫais today. Work for me tomorrow then all other days”. You want be French? Hilda make you French. I live in big, big house. I come to England to get man as no Frenchman will work for Hilda. All gone. You French Englishman -You come.”
Gary was not one to say no, particularly to a lady, especially a French one brandishing a demonic dog, so with few English prospects and many French hopes, he agreed. He popped home and grabbed his passport, packed a change of clothes and a toothbrush then cycled to the hotel address Hilda had given him.
An hour later his bike was lashed to the back of a world-weary Citroen 2CV. Gary sat in the passenger seat holding down PiPi, trying to keep him from taking a bite out of his neck whilst Hilda drove hard for Dover, apparently untroubled by which side of the road she should be occupying.
Her house was very French and enormous. Gary was enthralled at its Gallic charm and tumbledown feel. She made him follow her to the kitchen where she demanded that he make soup. Being an OK sort of cook, he found some lentils in the larder and a few carrots and herbs growing in the potager and made a decent broth which both Hilda and Pipi appeared to relish.
“You must change now” Hilda said and pointed to a wooden trunk in the corner for him to open. From its contents, she insisted he put on a canvas shirt whose sole remaining button was at navel height and a pair of breeches so tight he was scared to sit down lest they split down the middle and drop down either leg. By the way she was looking him up and down he thought Hilda must be appalled by sight of his every contour so tightly bound by the way she stared at him with unblinking eyes, while Pipi also stared, licking his lips as though anticipating titbits. Thus attired, he tottered his way into the courtyard where Hilda made him bend over and beat the dust out of all the mats in the house one by one, whilst she sat in a rickety chair behind him, stroking Pipi on her lap, both apparently monitoring his labours. Over Pipi’s growling he could hear Hilda muttering French words that he could not recall from his grammar school vocabulary.
The perspiration that covered Gary came from a mix of hard work and relief that his trousers had remained intact thus far. Hilda insisted he wash under an outside shower, watching him shiver as she tugged again at the string that brought the freezing water over him.
By the time it was dark, she had made him work so hard he craved sleep. She pointed out his room It was very simple, just a wooden bed, chamber pot and a glass of water on a small table, but it did the job and he collapsed into the bed and soon fell into a deep sleep. Next thing he knew it was morning, the room was bright and he was lying on his side. He couldn’t help but notice that the glass of water now had a set of false teeth in it. Nervously he turned over and there, next to him, was Hilda, all hairnets and face cream, asleep but with her mouth moving and drooling as if chomping on a rubber blancmange. He yelped, which woke Pipi, who stuck his head up from under the covers between them, and barked his annoyance at being disturbed.
“Ah, bon matin my petit plum” , Hilda smiled gummily at Gary. “Time to perform an Englishman’s duties on a poor, innocent French girl” she cooed .
Gary grabbed his English French clothes and ran, while Pipi jumped up trying to nip his boules and Hilda cussed as to why there were no real men left, French or English, not since 1982.
Now at a safe distance, Gary regained his breath, put on his onion sellers gear and started walking towards England. France was just too, well too French, he decided. After a couple of hours he reached a town. He was tired, hungry and had no money. His attention was drawn by a girl, about his age, ringing the bell on her Raleigh Chopper.
She had on a bowler hat, a three piece suit and carried a large satchel. Gary thought she was beautiful. She saw him staring and said, with the worst French-English accent imaginable “Ello Guv. You want’nee frog-in- de-‘ole?” She reached into her satchel and held out a plastic carton containing sausages, surrounded by soft, Gallic attempt at a Yorkshire pudding. He could not resist her.
It turned out Francois (or ‘Frank’ as she called herself during her summer holidays) loved England because of her English lessons with dishy Mr Wednesday all those years ago. Now to her grandmother’s disgust, she travelled up and down the Loire valley on her holiday selling Toad-in-the-Hole, as Gary corrected her. “Delicious! All that needs”, he suggested, “is some onion gravy”.
“Ah, l’onion jus” she said and they laughed.
They shared one of those golden sunny afternoons sitting in the Town Square, their eyes smiling and they sensed Anglo-French relations could be set to improve forever.
But a rickety CV2 squealed to a stop on the road beside them.
‘What you think you are doing!’ fumed Hilda, slamming the car door behind her.
Gary was scared, as was Francoise, Hilda’s granddaughter.