"Come on Simon, it's about time you found yourself a nice little froggie and settled down. Until you do, no mother in this town will feel her little girl safe from your grubby little Irish hands."

This kind of light-hearted, well-meant banter was beginning to become quite frequent at the pub. To be perfectly honest, the thought of settling down was the last thing on my mind. I'd come to Gensdouce for adventure. I found something different. I liked it here. I wanted to stay. These wonderful people were my friends and the thought of one day leaving them had never crossed my mind. But settle down, build a home, start a family - that was a step too far. And I couldn't help feeling, the accusation levelled against me - however friendly it was meant - was a little overdone. True, I'd done my best to charm one or two of the fairer inhabitants of Gensdouce, and I'd had the odd one night stand but it was nothing but a bit of harmless fun. The only serious attempt I might have made, would have been on Thérèse. But I knew, she was out of bounds. No way, would I betray my friendship like ours. And even if I did, Thérèse would have put me in my place before the thought of anything untoward even crossed my mind. My reputation for invincibility only stood because I knew who not to take on; Thérèse was one of those.

In fact, I had been playing around a little bit over the past few weeks. I'd met the young lady in question coming home one day from Besançon. She was petite, dark and mysterious with that little touch of mischief in her eyes that really appealed to me. On her insistence we only ever met outside of Gensdouce. She was quite taken in, not just by my frivolous and flighty manner, but also by the novelty of being with someone every self-respecting mother would warn their daughters against. It was only when, one windy day, I got a visit from Gérard, that I understood the full truth of what was going on. I hadn't seen him since that first, fateful day in France. He'd walked out on me in the pub then, and now he came to warn me off his sister. My eyes were opened, but it only made the forbidden fruit even more attractive. However, a few days later and the novelty wore off. With her birthday coming up and hoping for some nice, glittering presents she chose her camp without even bothering to sit on the fence for a while. Once again I thanked my lucky stars for getting me out of another mess I'd stumbled into. Time to get on with life.

It was the end of September and the 'espace loisirs' was opening up for another season. And this time I was on the billing. I was signed up to lead two groups - English for Beginners, and English Conversation. They even added my phone number for further information. My idea was to provide a fun way for those who knew some English to meet together and practise what they knew. It had been a pretty tough battle to get permission for me to do these courses. Mayor Demille had pulled out all the stops to persuade the powers that be that I was an undesirable person for such a responsibility. But in the end he was forced to bow to economic reality. I was volunteering and thus the centre would save quite a bit by taking me on. And English classes were always a big money spinner. So, I spent most of my spare time, digging into various books on how to teach English. I even did a correspondence course, which would enable me to get a certified and universally recognised qualification after one year. I'd have to do regular exercises and some of my teaching would be monitored, but it was worth it, if I could get my foot on the career ladder. A quick glance at the local newspapers showed me that there was quite a demand for English teachers in the city, especially to teach professionals.

So, I didn't really have the time nor the inclination to act upon the light-hearted banter of my friends at the pub. Still, occasionally I did find myself feeling a little alone and hoping that fortune would one day smile on me and provide with a jolly little companion to brighten up my existence. Not that I'm admitting to it, mind you. This will forever remain my secret. And if that author of mine, should tell anyone, I'll sack him on the spot!


Pride shone through the Mayor's eyes as he announced the 2 million € project to the press and to the world. It had been a hard fought battle, but at last Littleknown was to get a hospital complex to rival the big university medical schools scattered around the country.

"This is fantastic news both for the region and for our town. The new centre will thrust us onto the forefront of many medical battles and provide a much-needed economic booster for our town. It will put Littleknown not only onto the map, but right at its centre, and will provide hundreds if not thousands of jobs over the next ten years. We couldn't have hoped for anything better."

Watching this the few remaining patients at the Littleknown Cottage Hospital didn't feel any of the pride of their Mayor. To be honest the news scarcely touched them. All they felt was immense gratitude for the small staff of the local cottage hospital who gave their all to help make their final days, weeks, months, - for some even years - such a positive experience. Little did they know that they were witnessing their own demise. Unknown to them the price for this wonderful, progressive, colossal piece of anonymous, technological brilliance would be the closure of their little piece of paradise.

Hospitals is the theme of this week's Sunday Scribblings. If you click here, you'll hopefully not end up in one.

Changing times

Over the last few months I've been reading through Vincent Van Gogh's correspondence to his brother Theo. This gave me the idea for this piece today. It would have been interesting to weave real extracts from his correspondence into the narrative but I'm not sure whether copyright would have allowed that. And it would have required hours of research. So the extracts are fictitious, but they are completely in keeping with the true-life correspondence Van Gogh wrote.


Daniel and Melissa pushed their way through to two of the few remaining seats in the huge auction room. As she sat down Melissa closed her eyes and tried to take in the atmosphere around her; the low buzz of sound as people whispered in preparation, the already palpable staleness of the air, the hardness of the seats. Then she opened her eyes and examined the confined conditions of the once fine palace ballroom, stripped bear of all but a few crystal chandeliers.

"It's a good job we arrived as early as we did," whispered Daniel beside her as yet another expectant art lover pushed passed their knees.

"I can't really understand why it's creating so much excitement. It's not as if it's one of his greatest works."

Theo, I've just retrurned from Darthe's gallery. It seems 4 people came in during the last week and looked at some of my work. One even spoke to Darthe himself. He's hopeful that the gentleman might come back next week and ask to see more. He's going to try and arrange a meeting. This could be my big breakthrough.

"Yes, but what you don't realise is that there hasn't been a Van Gogh on the market for at least four years. Every vulture in the world will be descending on this room today with the sole purpose of becoming the new owner of The Red Vineyard. The moment the Pushkin museum announced it was putting the work onto the market, the art world has been in turmoil."

Theo, things here aren't any better. The man I told you about last week did come back. But when Darthe showed him my newest work, he was very critical. It seems my work is too radical for today's public. I don't consider myself to be a great artist, not yet. But I do think I have enormous talent, and that's what people fail to recognise. I just want someone to appreciate what I'm trying to do. That will help me improve. One day, Theo! One day, someone will see through my inexperience and recognise the genius that is in me.

"Well I must say it's been a stroke of luck for me, having a original Van Gogh sold when I'm right in the middle of my thesis. My superviser was green with envy."

"I can't blame him. I'm just glad Arthur was transferred to Paris in time to give us a chance of getting in. On the black market the asking price for getting in here was more than I pay for a whole year's rent."

Theo, Malabois gave me 3 francs advance for some classes he wants me to give to two of his prodigies. No one draws better than Vincent, that's what he told them. Mme. Clothilde nearly fell through the floor when I paid her two weeks rent in advance.

"And what do you think the selling price will be?"

Theo, at last I've sold my first painting; my Red Vineyard. It was one of the series I wrote to you about a few months ago. I'd spent several weeks in Jacques Maire's vineyard playing around with different perspectives and above all with colour. I mentioned this to the buyer and hoped he would want to see some of the others. They are much more interesting when viewed as a series. I got three hundered francs for it. If I continue to live frugally, that'll keep me going for the next six months. And by then I'm sure, I will have sold more. I celbrated this evening on a battle of wine this evening and shared it with Mathilde and the miner.

"Well, it's difficult to guess. As you said, it's not one of his most famous works. It could have some historical value, as it's rumoured to be the only painting that Van Gogh actually sold during his lifetime."

"Yes, but that's one of the things my research is putting in doubt. From what I can gather, he could have sold two or three other paintings, besides. And there's some evidence to suggest that one of his dealers may have pulled a fast one on him - more than once."

"You mean, sold one of the paintings and pocketed the money for himself?"

"Yes, something like that. But it's more likely to have been his drawings than a painting. He did hundreds of them, so selling one or two on the sly would have been easy to conceal."

Theo! Things are getting desperate. I haven't received a single letter from Paris since coming here. But all my friends say my work is great but unsellable. Thanks for the money you sent. It was much needed. I'm able to live off just half a franc a day, if I'm really careful. But I'll soon need to buy some more paints, and then I don't know what I'll do. I can only hope that something comes up soon.

"Anyway, to get back to your question. It's anybody's guess how much it'll go for. Normally, it would be more than 20 million. But if someone wants it badly enough, the price may go up 50 million. However you look at it, the auctioneer will be able to buy himself several bottles of champagne every day of his life for as long as he lives with his commission."

As they were speaking, a man in a dark, conservative suit entered the room from a small door beside the podium. There was perfect silence as he stepped up onto the stand and looked out into the room, contemplating everyone's eye fixed on him. He couldn't help wondering who would have spared a glance for Vincent Van Gogh, had he been present at the scene.

This was written for the fiction friday exercise on the Write Stuff website. For more interesting takes on the theme of auctions click here.

Quo Vadis?

Life in Gensdouce was running its usual course. I'd been here for some six months now, and outwardly everything was fine. I had a nice flat, a good job in the pub and not a care in the world. If all went well, I would start giving English classes at the espace loisirs after the summer break. Maybe, that would be the breakthrough I needed to start a career. Yet, somewhere deep down I felt unsettled. True, news from home wasn't good. The rejection by the Welsh of a national assembly, despite massive support for a similar measure in Scotland was a major blow to the principle of self-determination; and worse was to come, when a bomb blast killed the Tory Northern Ireland, spokesman Airey Neave. With Margaret Thatcher poised to become the next Prime-Minister, prospects for peace weren't looking good.

But what was the reason for my unrest? Life was treating me well. Indeed, Gensdouce was living up to its name. The people were kind and friendly. I had one or two really good friends and got on with most of the people in the village. My raucous attempts at learning French had caught the imagination of the population and everyone was rooting for me, helping in whatever way they could. True, whenever I had to cross the footbridge into the newer part of Gensdouce, I felt like an intruder. This was where the new arrivals lived; people who came from the city and brought their own lifestyle and culture with them. They made but occasional forays across the footbridge, preferring to stay among their own. In general, they looked upon the inhabitants of the village as curious but quaint much in the same way an adult would look upon a not yet grown up, but trying to act grown up. They lived here, because life was far pleasanter than in the city, but they never settled. How could they? They would take the 6.14 train every morning and not return until after dark. And every weekend they would congregate in each other's dining rooms and exchange stories about an unexpected brush with locals, all the while insisting as to how much their little piece of paradise in the country increased their quality of life. On the whole, they were more tolerated than liked by the villagers, and there was little contact between the two. But if the newcomers were tolerated, those who crossed sides, were treated with disdain. This included the Demille family.

Javert Demille was the son of a local butcher. He had been the first in the village to get a scholarship to the university in Besançon. But after just six months he was back in the village. Rumours abounded, but no one ever found out why, and Demille was certainly not volunteering any information. He made no bones of his antipathy towards village life, never failing to remind everyone that he was going to make it to the top, come what may. Fortunately for him, May did come, although her name actually turned out to be Madeleine. She was rich, pretentious, not very beautiful and at 29 very available. Javert didn't exactly sweep her off her feet, but she wasn't going to risk waiting any longer. In her eyes it was now or never and she jumped. The day after the marriage Javert bought up a large strip of unused land on the other side of the railway.

"Setting himself up on the other side. Doesn't want to mix with us commoners."
"Won't last long. Not with that nervous wife of his. Guess she'll cry herself back to the city in no time."

These were just some of the comments that flew around the village when the news broke. But the Demilles never settled down next to the railway. Some four weeks after the purchase news came of the major new development which gave rise to the 'newcomers estate' as it soon came to be called. Javert's land shot up in value and he sold out to the highest bidder. There was an investigation, of course, but he got round that by agreeing to build a luxury retirement residence, promising to care for the auditor's handicapped mother in a specially built ground-floor apartment. From there, he never looked back and within a few years was elected mayor of the town with a small majority, secured by those who had arrived on the estate just months previously. From the old village he received just one vote, that of his now widowed mother. No specially-built apartment for her; she remained in the flat above her husband's shop long after his death. Nevertheless, she remained proud of her son's achievements until her dying day.

So, with everything going for me, why had I suddenly taken to long, reclusive walks after dark with no other company than myself? Why did I keep wondering what life was about and where my life was going? Why were my feet I constantly finding their way to the philosophy section of the library? What was it about life that I was missing out on? And where could I find it? Maybe, I would have to speak to Thérèse and Guillaume. I'd recently caught a few snatches of conversation they'd been having about the Bible. And I knew they had started to go to a new church in a neighbouring town. Not that it was religion I was looking for. But there had to be something.

Those of you who live in the UK will know the radio program "Any Questions" in which a panel of public figures, mostly politicians, answer questions put to them by members of the audience. The debate is usually chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby who calls for the questions and calls upon each member of the panel to answer in turn.

"And so we to our final question this evening...."

"John Welter, Mayor of this town. If the panel could become King or Queen of the World for just 24 hours, what would their very first act be?"

"Philip Scott, would you like to kick this one off."

"Well, let me first say that for me it would suffice to become King of Scotland. Indeed, that's my one ambition, so if I were to become King of the World my one and only act would be to grant seccession rights for Scotland before the English try to get their hands on our riches once again."

"John Greene. You're not know for your nationalist sympathies, so what would you choose as your first act."

"I think it's obvious that the biggest challenge facing any world government is the environment. If we don't act decisively and do so very soon, there soon will no longer be a world to govern. So my first act would be but I assure you it would be followed up by a number of similar acts with the aim of making our world a cleaner and more sustainable place to live."

"Martha Spend, do you think the environment is the most important cause to take up?"

"Well, I can understand John's concern about the environment and I agree it's something we would have to tackle without too much delay. But surely the greatest priority has to be redressing the social differences which exist between the haves and the have nots. That's why my very first measure would be to raise my government's income by introducing a new tax on Western countries based on their GNP and the profits of which would go to encouraging small family businesses in the Third World so as to reduce the misery and poverty in which a vast number of people live today."

"Selena Prudent, you're shaking your head vigourously. What would you place as your number one priority?"

"Yes, Martha's solution doesn't surprise me in the least. It's the sort of left-wing dream that she would espouse. However, we're not living in a dream world of philanthropic wildcards but in the real world. And in the real world the only way to get is through hard work and the opportunity to spend whatever you earn without some great big bureaucrats from wherever they are from coming along and pinching it from you. So my first act would be to reduce income tax by a thrid and to cut down government spending to an absolute minimum in order to increase individual initiative throughout the planet."

"Thank you panel for your very direct answers. As I'm sure, you all agree, over the 20 or so years I've been running this program I have tried to remain painfully neutral and never to join in any debate which we have had here. Well, as tonight is the very last time I shall be sitting in this particular chair, I'm going to allow myself the luxury of an answer to this question. As King of the World my first act would be to force all politicians to answer truthfully to whatever question I asked them. So, Selena Prudent, my first question is for you. How much do you stand to gain from your own tax-cutting measure?"

"Well, actually very little. Fortunately, I have found an extremely useful loophole which reduces my income to well below the single person's threshold. And as you know, I've never married. True, my partner and I share all of our income together, but by keeping my income separate on paper, I get to keep all I earn. And that's why I want to go cutting taxes, because as I rise in the party hierarchy, I shall be earning more and more, and must do all I can to avoid giving any of it away."

"Philip, why is it that you own three English country houses, and haven't visited Scotland since your speech at the party's national conference in 2005?"

"Well, the simple and I add the truthful answer to this, is that I don't give a damn about Scotland. I wanted to get into parliament, and the two larger parties wouldn't have me. So I found a cause to champion, and here I am."

"Selena, last week you refused a request made by the chairperson of the Fair Trade For All pressure group to address a speech at the launching their new campaign aiming to spread awareness of Fair Trade throughout the country. Why?"

"Quite simply, Jonathan, because fair trade only serves to make prices here in the UK rise even higher. This is bad for our party because if it continues, it will probably have us voted out of government next year, but secondly because it means I have less money to spend on myself. I agree that we urgently need to address the problem of Third World poverty, but I have absolutely no intention of becoming the sucker who does that all alone. That's why we need a tax solution, because I'm going to get Selena to reveal to me her loophole so I too no longer have to pay taxes."

"And finally, John, may I congratulate you on leaving your chauffeur-driven car behind this evening. What made you feel that it was necessary?"

"Well, Jonathan, as you know I'm a very busy man and after this evening's program I have to get straight back to London for a champagne reception to launch my campaign to become our new party leader. Since driving down the M1 would take at least 30 minutes to reach the outskirts of London, I considered it far more reliable to hire my own private helicopter. You can here the engine starting up right now, and as soon as we're off air, I shall be whisked away in a jiffy. You see, concern for the environment is all very well, but the burden needs to be shared by us all, and not just by one or two politicians."

"Well, panel thank you for your unusually honest and frank answers this evening. I leave this program safe in the knowledge that it will never happen again."

Going home

I awoke that morning with an expectant feeling. I was going home. Just one more week and I would be getting on the plane. If all went, I might even get back in time to wish my wife a happy anniversary. Not that that was very likely. We were due in at 22.30 just 90 minutes before July 5 disappeared for another year. And in all my ten years experience of traveling to and from Africa I'd never had a plane arrive on time. Not that it was going to matter. After seven months apart who was going to quibble over 90 minutes. And anniversaries can be celebrated any time. Being together again was what counted.

But this was no time to stay in bed reminiscing. There was work to be done. I jumped up and headed outside for the shower. One glance up at the sky reminded me of the other reason for expectancy. Rainy season was approaching and the way the sky looked we might even get the first rains today. They were late coming. The farmers were getting irritable, they had to be able to plant soon. When would the rains come? Would they continue? Or would the crops flourish and then dry up for lack of water. The same questions every year hiding the terrible fight for survival.

My shower didn't last long today. It was too cold for that. The water I'd set to boil on my little petroleum stove would soon be ready. I headed through the door greeted my neighbours and got some bread from the corner. The same existential questions as yesterday... when would it rain?

I poured the hot water onto my coffee and started to relax. The baby chair opposite me no longer made me shudder. I was too close to going home for that to happen. But what did that baby look like now? He'd been just 11 months old when they left. And now? He could be there sitting next to me in a crowd and I wouldn't even recognise him. And how would he react to me? 7 months is a long time for a baby. At first, Janice would write and tell me how he always smiled whenever she showed him photos of me. But there'd been no letters now for months. They were probably all stuck up in the capital, stuck or pillaged for whatever contents might have been of value. The new order didn't seem to be any different from the old one.

I finished my coffee and started to think about packing. Everything had to be cleared out, as others would be staying in the house during our absence. The storehouse had more than enough room for our meagre belongings and the furniture would go into the station guest house. Ben was coming for everything at five that evening with the pickup. I had to have everything in the storehouse by then and we could load the furniture onto the pickup. I'd stay with them for a few days before taking the trip up to the capital to wait for my plane. It was best to get there a few days early, you never knew what might happen. And this time, I wasn't taking any risks.

I gathered the few things I would be taking with me and flung them in my usual fashion into the case. Janice wouldn't say anything this time, not after seven months absence. Then I set about packing my books, taking a lot more care with them. I wrapped all the dishes in tea cloths and clothes that were staying here and opened up the special dust and water proof box to pack them away. It was then I saw the little package wrapped in bright gift paper at the bottom of the box. "For Mum and Dad", it said. I stared amazed at it. This was the video for Janice's parents. As they wouldn't be getting to see their youngest grandchild that Christmas we'd had some friends with a video camera come over. They'd spent all day with us and done quite a bit of filming. They invited us round a few days later to show us the video they'd made. Janice's parents would be so proud. But in the end, they'd never got the film. They had something far more precious. They had Janice and Davy instead. And I was stuck here thousands of miles away with nothing. I'd remembered about the film and tried to find it to find it to watch at Christmas. Now it seemed so obvious that it would have been in the dust proof box until we'd had a safe opportunity to send it. But I'd not thought of that at the time.

Slowly, I undid the paper folding it away for another time. Tears welled up in my eyes as I turned it over and over in my hands. I could remember every detail of that film. Davy sitting on the mat in front of our house, his little sailor's hat on to protect him from the sun. It had been a present from my Dad, who'd passed away just a few weeks later. Davy climbing around on my stomach as I lay on my bed resting; the two of us singing "Old McDonald had a farm...; Davy cheerfully perched on top of our table in his little bath tub splashing around and laughing at us all; Janice nursing him, looking so beautiful and so contented. As all these scenes ran through my mind, I remembered that fateful morning we were separated. We'd woken up early to the sound of shooting. That was nothing out of the ordinary. But when it continued, we suspected something serious was going on. The uncertainty of not knowing. The agony of trying to decide whether to leave or stay put. In the end we left. The wrong decision. Things were far worse at the station. The radio announcement. All women and children were to be evacuated. Any men who chose to, could also leave. I remembered driving them to the base, seeing Janice wave goodbye, going back to an empty home, and the sight of that empty baby chair hitting me full in the face.

Ben wasn't angry when he arrived only to discover I wasn't ready. One look at my face was enough for him to realise what I'd being going through. Without a word he pulled up his sleeves and started loading the pickup. I quickly finished packing our things away and heaved them into the store room. I took my place next to Ben with relief in my heart. I was going home, at last.

Me A Teacher!

The next day my first visit was to Mme. Bouclier. I never used to like shopping, but calling into a small, family store for a few things was different. And Mme. Bouclier was not only friendly but also very encouraging. At first, she didn't really understand very much and my shopping was a bit of a hit and a miss - witness the soap flake soup which was not my only disaster. In time, however, I managed to put together quite an impressive shopping list, and usually went home with what I wanted. I didn't really need very much today but just wanted to thank her for the asparagus soup she'd sent round. Coming as it did after that visit to the inner courts of the regional immigration office, it was the best pick-up I could have wished for. So it was quite by chance that my questions of the night before, began to get some answers.

"Well Mr. Simon, I really must congratulate you. Your French is getting better every day. You're even beginning to speak just like one of us."

"I'm afraid, it'll be a long time before my French will be anything like yours, Mme. Bouclier. It's still pretty limited even if I am beginning to make myself understood. There are so many things I have in my mind that I just can't put into words."

"Maybe! But you're using our words, not those big words people in offices use and you're saying them the way we say them; that's what I mean."

"Well, that's not surprising. It's in the pub I learn most of my French. Straight out of the horse's mouth, so to speak." I was really proud of that saying. I had learnt it a few evenings before talking with a local blacksmith, and it was the second time I'd used it since.

"Anyway, what I really came here for is to say thank you for that wonderful asparagus soup I got last night. It was delicious. And home made, I'm sure."

"Not only that Mr. Simon but fresh from our very own field. Me husband only picked it yesterday mornin."

"Well, it was delicious. And if there's anything I can ever do for you, just tell me."

"Well actually...." She broke off a little sheepishly.

"Now come on Mme. Bouclier, no secrets from me. What is it? I'll be only to glad to help."

"Well, you see Mr. Simon, I'd really love to learn some English. I never had much schooling like, though I did get to visit London with me Dad when I young. And ever since I've been wanting to learn English. We did have some courses at the espace loisirs a few years back. But they never let me in. Didn't have enough schooling, they said. Not even worth my trying. Anyway, I want to learn to speak like you speak, not like they speak in books."

"But they don't give English classes any more, do they?"

"No, they stopped after about a few months. They only had three or four people and the teacher didn't want to come all the way from Besançon for that many. But no one really liked her anyway. Cut above the rest of us she was. And made us feel it, too. But you Mr. Simon, you could do it. If you was to give some classes, half the village would come."

"I don't think, that's quite right, Mme Bouclier. But I've been wondering if I couldn't do anything here in the village. Maybe, that's the answer."

"Oh, that would be great Mr. Simon! And I'll be your best student, I promise!"

I thought a lot about what Mme. Bouclier had said. Her grievances struck a cord with me. My father had been a schoolteacher and had thrown it all in when I was 15. "Doing no one no good," he had said. "Just teaching people what they don't want to know." He had hoped to get a job at the local community college, but his former employees put pay to that. He'd ended up traveling the markets selling antiques. So ashamed he was that he'd always have to hide away whenever any of his colleagues came by. But he for ever remained a fervent believer in education for everyone and I was beginning to follow in his footsteps. But could I really teach English? I spoke it well enough, of course. But I'd never really considered myself an academic. Besides, as far as I knew the espace loisirs came under the auspices of the town council and I couldn't see M. Demille accepting me as a teacher. I decided to talk to Jean about it in the pub that afternoon.

"Well lad, it would give you something else to do. And they've been wanting some new blood in the place ever since Violette went back to university. Her writing classes were always popular, enjoyed them every time, I did. Damn fine looking girl, too. Left a big whole when she quit. And left Thérèse with a load of extra work trying to run the place. I'd have a word with her about it, if I were you. And don't worry about M. Demille. He'll be an easy hurdle to get over, we'll see to that."


I remember once talking to an English teacher who had travelled the world before returning to Liverpool to teach English to refugees. Survival had been the very definite answer she'd given when asked what made her return to the UK from her last job in Thailand. "The people coming here aren't just learning English, I'm helping them survive." Well, in my little French village the stakes may not be quite so high, yet survival was the unformulated, and for a long time subconscious goal of my first year in Gensdouce. There was so much to learn. I felt like a baby beginning life all over again. But this time mother wasn't there, and I had to learn to lifeswim alone.

Shopping wasn't that much of a difficulty. Being quite close to Besançon there was a giant sized supermarket right on the edge of town. It was a synch to go there and pick out everything I needed without using a single word of French. Even the numbers at the cash desk were in English. Strangely enough, I never met any of my friends there. Indeed, the only people from Gensdouce I did meet there, were Gérard together with a lady who was unquestionably his mother. He looked sheepishly the other way, and I could hear the words of the prayer racing through his mind. Like a benevolent god I stayed away. It wasn't until I'd been in Gensdouce for a few weeks that Jean dropped me a kind warning in the pub, one afternoon. Gensdouce people didn't go to the supermarket. They supported the local traders. So unless I wanted to be classed among the "nouveaux arrivés" - that group of people who sided with the likes of Mayor Demille, I'd better start frequenting the local stores. That's why tonight's dinner consists of soap flake soup, instead of the asparagus soup I'd thought it was. And the next day I put my initials to a petition going round to stop the store gaining trading advantages over the small shopkeeper.

Needless to say there were many other challenges, and the mistakes multiplied. But people were indulgent. I was one of them, they would look after me. Fortunately, I had a small number of really good friends who held the lifelines for me whilst I learnt to swim. Thérèse and her boyfriend Guillaume were the most helpful. I could knock on their door at any time of day and night. And as Guillaume worked for the town council he was fluent in administratese - the language of the INA, the elite French national school of administration. To this day I'm convinced he saved me from getting eaten alive, the day I was ordered to appear before a frail little lady to justify my existence in France and obtain the necessary papers to stay.

At least, she looked pretty frail but the burst of machine gun fire that shot out of her mouth had me cowering under the counter, shaking with fear. Patrice told me this was quite par for the course. Indeed, if I'd been there, that morning then I'd have had lots of company. But thanks to Guillaume's insistance, I got the necessary papers at the first time of asking - something quite inconceivable for a mere mortal like me.

That night it took several Guinnesses to get my nerves back to their normal state of relaxation. It also got me thinking. I'd been in Gensouce for six months now. It had been great fun. I'd got a nice little flat lots of friends. I was the talk of the pub with my French sentences which I still faithfully repeated every evening and life was treating me well. But where was I going? This had never worried me before. I'd enjoyed muddling along day by day. But I was beginning to get wrestless. Not that I wanted to leave Gensdouce. I would never envision that. What was it about this place that had so drawn me in? And more importantly, what was I going to give it in return? The weather had been beautiful that day and it was a bright clear night, so on leaving the pub I took a long reflective walk taxing both my legs and my brain, trying to figure out the next step. I didn't get back home until shortly before midnight only to find a small container sitting on my doorstep. Inside, a sealed plastic bad and a note pinned to it. "Bon appetit! Mme Bouclier."
... Asparagus soup. Damn! I knew I should never have told her husband about my little mistake.

Jill who?

This week's Fiction Friday revisits and a nursery rhyme. I wonder if you've ever wondered what really lies behind the accident Jack and Jill suffered that day they went to fetch some water. Well, for the first time ever, all is revealed. And more frightening, funny and devastating truths are revealed here - fictional one and all.


Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water.
Jeck fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.

Nobody had the slightest suspicion of foul play; not until decades later that renowned and most intrepid of crime fighters, Dr. Holmes Watsonian came by chance upon the scene during his honeymoon. Against the local police inspector's better judgement and the silent pleas of his wife, Dr. Watsonian decided, after making an initial examination of the crime scene, that the case must be reopened. He had been forced to admit that the scene would have considerably altered over the thirty years since the accident, if accident it was. But he never let facts like that worry him. Logic, cold calculating logic was all that counted in a case like this.

Indeed, to Dr. Watsonian it seemed far more likely that somebody had tried to do away with Mr. Jack Anonymous. The motive was not difficult to ascertain. Any suriving relative would profit enormously from the vast fortune which the song written in his honour would raise for his estate. It was for no lesser reason than this, that his one and only suspect was Mrs. Jill Anonymous. The fact that Jill herself had been badly injured in the accident counted for nothing. Dr. Watsonian knew full well that injuries could be faked, and any amount of pain would be more than compensated for, if the reward was sufficiently large. So Dr. Watsonian went down on his hands and knees in order to make a meticulous inspection of both the hill and the pathway on which Jack's crown met his match. Watching from afar, Watsonian's wife gave a wry smile as he uncovered piece after piece of incriminating evidence, each time refuted by members of the local police force, bumblers one and all. That Watsonian's powers could still be so acute more than thirty years after the crime was committed, both amazed and worried her. Who knows what he would yet uncover! She sauntered slowly down the hill towards the spot where her husband lay prostrate on the ground, but as she approached him she tripped and fell, sending the tip of her umbrella plunging into the back of his neck. Dr. Watsonian had indeed made just two mistakes. He had failed to realise that Anonymous was not really the culprit's surname, and he had forgotten his wife's Christian name.

When I left the room my whole face was aching. It must have been one of the toughest 60 minutes since my arrival in France. I knew now what contortionists go through to get their bodies into whatever shape and size is required. But I was not pursuing a new hobby, I was just trying to learn some French. And that evening we had attacked all those weird and wonderful sounds the French make in pronouncing their words but which don't exist in English.

You see life at the pub was going pretty well. Custom was thriving, people even came from Besançon, some 30 kilometres east of here, because they'd heard this was a real Irish pub with genuine music, not just one that sold Guinness and added the epithet "Irish" to make it look good. I was still living in the spare but had already made arrangements to move into a flat when the current occupiers left in a few weeks time. I enjoyed my work and the people I met at the pub. My only real problem was communication. Most of the regulars knew enough English to make me cringe, and they tried it out regularly. Hearty laughs were usually the result but it did make me feel kind of lonely, and sometimes even worse than useless. Jean and Annie were great; you couldn't imagine a better boss. But I couldn't hang onto their apron strings all the time. I had to learn to fly on my own. I had to learn French.

So when I learnt that one of our regular customers actually taught French at the local "espace loisirs" - what you might call a community centre - I decided to broach the subject. To be perfectly honest, I'd been looking for an opportunity to broach any subject with her ever since she first came into the pub, despite the fierce looking man who sometimes accompanied her. So the next time she came in, I stuck a feather in my cap, skipped my way across the room and asked:

"Avez-vous une mine pour moi?"

She looked at me with stunned silence and then a burst of laughter filled the room.

"Are you Welsh or Irish?" came the reply. And with that she tucked my arm into hers and marched me out of the pub.

We walked out onto the village green.

"I was trying to ask you for a little smile. I was just being flirtatious."

"Well, actually you asked me if I had a mine for you?"

"Good gracious! No wonder, you thought I must be Welsh."

"Especially after the colour you turned when everyone burst out laughing. And you're doing it again. It suits you."

And with that she reached up and gave me a little peck on the cheek.

I explained what I wanted - I mean the language lessons, of course. The rest she would have to guess for herself, but I'm afraid any hopes I had on that score were misplaced. So that was how, the following Monday I took my place at one of the tables in the espace loisirs and started French lessons. To tell you the truth, I was actually enjoying them. If only school had been like this. I'd have loved to have had Thérèse as my teacher, but she didn't teach the beginners' class. She did drop by now and again to check on my progress and I saw her quite often with her boyfriend back at the pub. He became less fierce every day and they soon became good friends.

Meanwhile, back at the pub my French antics were rapidly becoming the subject of much light-hearted banter. My teacher gave me one practice phrase per week. I had to go and repeat it to at least 5 people per day. And then, ask them the same question. Of course, the pub was the perfect place and progress was rapid, as I went around from customer to customer with my little dialogue:

"Je m'appelle Simon. J'ai 19 ans. Et vous?"

But for the prettier young ladies I reserved a special speech:

"Je m'appelle Simon. Je suis Irlandais. Je suis beau, n'est-ce pas?"

Newer Posts Older Posts Home

Blogger Template by Blogcrowds