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Vive Les Anglais, or How the Bennetts Conquered Burgundy


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I started writing this last summer, but for various reasons it's taken rather longer than expected. Now its got going again I'll post each chapter as I complete it.

I wanted to write something lighthearted about a family moving to France without resorting to the usual stereotypes of eccentric locals and amusing incidents with livestock.

Am I succeeding? You tell me. All constructive criticism gratefully received.

Val
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AND SO IT BEGINS ...

It was Dad’s idea. Like all the really mad ones.

I’d closed the front door as quietly as possible, and was half way up the stairs (remembering to avoid the creaky one, third from the bottom), when something in their voices stopped me in my tracks.

It wasn’t just that they had that half-way down the second bottle of wine and heading for a third quality. That was fairly normal for a Saturday night. No, it was something else, something that told me that A Really Serious Discussion was going on. Question was, was it serious enough to get caught coming in late for the second time this week?

Mum was using her “be reasonable and it’ll all go away” voice. She hadn’t yet got to the shouting stage. “… not just the house Tom. What about Will’s GCSE’s? And we promised Toby …”

I groaned inwardly. Not again. I strained to catch Dad’s reply, but could only pick out “… can’t let a six year old boy …”.

“But France! We don’t even speak the language!”

That did it. I stopped at the turn in the stairs, a place where I could overhear without being seen. I sat down as quietly as possible, and strained to hear what was coming next.

Dad’s voice had risen from a sullen growl to a self-justifying rant. “Look, Mel. If you think I’m going to be able to stick McCallum for another five years, just because our youngest son is a spoilt brat …”

That’s my Dad. I overheard one of his many bosses describe him as, “brilliant but difficult “, and, believe me, it’s a label Dad would wear with pride. He does something in IT which involves databases and the Internet, and he’s so good at it that he can (and does) change jobs as often as he likes, usually with a fat pay rise.

At first it’s all great. The latest move is the best thing he’s ever done, should have done it ages ago, new boss is a great guy (or gal). After about six months max it all begins to go wrong, and it’s all the boss’s fault. Dad’s bosses always end up progressing quickly from Total Plonker to Complete *******, and they’re always more than glad to see the back of him. He’s never had a reference that was less than glowing.

“I’ve done the figures. It’s all here, look.”

This was serious. If he’d done the figures, the latest idea had really got a grip. He’d always reckoned that working for himself was what he really wanted to do. To Mum, on the other hand, it was all a “silly, far-fetched idea,” and she wasn’t having any of it. Didn’t stop him trying to persuade her. Over the years I’d lost count of the business ideas he’d come up with, each one madder than the last.

I caught my name from Mum, and the word “ … college …”

A snort from Dad. “We’ll it’s hardly going to make any difference is it?”

I suppose you could blame my lousy academic record on the fact that we’d moved eight times in the last twelve years, and Mum usually does when she’s feeling charitable. Not just from country to country, either, from continent to continent, and back again.

In the end you give up. You just get settled, and heigh-ho, here we go again. New school, new teachers, new classmates, new curriculum. Oh, most of our moves had been with Dad’s companies, so there was always a nice, bright, clean fee-paying school, with nice, sympathetic and helpful teachers, but it all gets too much after a while, and in the end I just couldn’t be arsed. My last Headmistress didn’t actually say, “Just do your best, dear,” when she entered me for my pathetic handful of GCSE’s, but she looked it. The results were exactly what she expected, too. Pathetic.

Maybe it’s because Mum’s family always has to have a black sheep in every generation. As far as my one remaining Gran, Mum’s mum, is concerned, I’m it. Have been, ever since I was sick all over her the first time she picked me up. That story always cheers me up. I can’t stand the old bat. A horrible thought struck me. They wouldn’t leave me with her and go swanning off to France, would they? Please, no …

Mum had finally lost it, “ … all you ever think of. What about me and the children, what about what we want for a change?”

I stood up and tiptoed up the rest of the stairs to the safety of my room. There wasn’t any point in listening to the rest. I could predict what would happen next. Vicious row. Mum storms off to sleep in spare room. Several days of Not Talking to Each Other – “can you tell your Father the car needs taking to the garage,” that sort of thing. Finally, a passionate reconciliation involving several bottles of wine and lots of noisy sex. Embarrassing. You’d think they’d know better at their age.

Then Mum would give in. If Dad, really, really wanted something, she always did, in the end.

So that’s how I found out we were moving to France.

© Val Patchett, 2004

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1. GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

Six months later we were queuing for the 7.00 am Dover/Calais ferry. The five of us, plus all the stuff Mum didn’t want to trust to the movers, crammed into Dad’s latest toy, a top of the range people carrier with a dashboard that looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

It always goes much quicker than you expect it to. Moving, I mean. You tell yourself there’s loads of time to get used to the idea, but it still sneaks up on you, just the same.

I suppose Dad thought the quicker the better, before Mum had time to change her mind. He’d got the first property hunting trip fixed up before she had time to draw breath. The first, and the last. They came back triumphant. Our future home, it seems, was going to be a large, dilapidated 19th Century house in Burgundy, with more rooms than you could count, a garden that you could get lost in, and an enormous cellar. The fact they’d bought it without even thinking about letting me, Will and Toby see it was pretty typical of the way things happen in our family. Three days after they got back Dad handed in his notice, and they put the house up for sale. By the end of the week they’d got a buyer, and Project France was ready to roll.

I’d expected Dad to throw himself into the whole thing with great enthusiasm. He always did. No, it was Mum who surprised me. Once she got the bit between her teeth there was no stopping her. She spent her days making phone calls and her nights on the Internet doing research. Since I can remember, moves have always been organised with the help of Dad’s companies, and someone called Penny or Angela around to sort out the troublesome details. They all had cut glass accents, and the ability to make you feel about six years old. Dad suggested going to one of those companies that does the same thing for people buying property in France, but Mum vetoed the idea on the grounds of cost. I suspect she was relishing doing it all herself without some Penny or Angela making her feel inadequate.

“It could be a whole new start for Mel,” I overheard “Aunty” Jean telling another friend of Mum’s at their leaving party, “So much energy and talent, and for years it’s been wasted.”

I suppose you could say that “Aunty” Jean was Mum’s closest friend, which I find really odd. On the surface they were so different. Aunty Jean was at least ten years older than Mum. She looked like Joyce Grenfell, and sounded like her, too. She reminded me of the games teacher at the posh English girls school I went to when we were in Singapore. They’d met when Mum was supply teaching at a local comprehensive, supposedly to prepare for going back to full-time work. When Toby arrived that idea bit the dust and we were soon off on our travels again. However, Mum and Aunty Jean kept in touch, and they visited each other frequently.

Later that evening I found myself in the kitchen, helping Aunty Jean with the clearing up, and we got talking. There was something about her which made me feel quite uncomfortable at times, as if she saw and understood a lot more than other people. At first it was easy. We chatted about Mum and Dad’s plans to turn the place into a B&B, the schools Toby and Will were going to, the area, and Aunty Jean and Uncle Roger’s last holiday there. It wasn’t until we had finished putting the last of the crockery away that she turned to me and put her hands on my shoulders, looking me straight in the eye.

“It’s not Toby and Will I’m worried about,” she said, “Toby’s young enough to adapt, and Will doesn’t care as long as he’s got his PC and those awful games. It’s you. It seems to me that this might be one move too many.”

I felt a sudden lump in my throat, and struggled hard to stop the tears coming. I couldn’t speak. I found myself looking anywhere but at her.

“I want you to promise me something,” she went on, giving me a little shake to make me look at her. “If it all gets too much, and you want to come back here, you’ll come and stay with us. I’ve already told your mother you’ll be very welcome.”

For the first time I understood what Mum saw in Aunty Jean. She was so much more, well, maternal than Gran. Gran’s idea of sympathy was to tell you to pull yourself together and stop whining. I nodded.

“Good,” she said simply, and gave me a brief hug. I muttered an excuse, and escaped into the garden, where Max was sneaking a quick fag behind a bush. I flopped down on the grass beside her, grabbed the packet, took one, and lit it.

“What’s up?” Max asked.

“Nothing.”

She grinned, and produced a can of lager from behind her back. The great thing about Max is she knows when to shut up and just be there. She handed the can to me, and I popped it open. Mum would go ballistic, but what the hell, I was hardly Little Miss Popular most of the time, anyway. I took a swig. It was true. This move was close to being one too many. What Aunty Jean had done was made me realise just how much I’d miss Max.

I don’t make friends easily. Dad can, he’s just got that ability to make people like him, and Will’s inherited it. But me, I’m more like Mum, not great with strange people. Over the years I’d got used to a pattern of initial interest at a new school, followed by indifference at best, or outright hostility at worst. Singapore was the pits. The other girls soon decided I wasn’t “one of them”, and after that they amused themselves by nicking my stuff and sending me vile text messages. When Dad finally got a new job it came as a blessed relief.

Most places I’d end up forming a friendship with another outsider, and these never lasted longer than a couple of months after the next move. Until I met Max. Mad Max, the others at school called her. Like me, she was an outsider, but unlike me she didn’t give a damn. As she once said, “If being part of the in-crowd means caring about who wins ****ing Pop Idol and what’s going on in Eastenders, then count me out.”

Max’s Dad was an ageing hippy who ran one of those weird New Age shops in a little side street near the centre of town. The place had become a sort of unofficial community centre for the lunatic fringe, and it was always packed. When Max’s Dad wasn’t protesting against something he was off to yet another festival or on a retreat, and Max went with him everywhere. They took me to Glastonbury with them, and it was awesome. Mum took a lot of persuading about that one. She’d have had kittens if she’d found out that we spent most of the time sitting round a campfire with Max’s Dad and some of his mates smoking industrial strength spliffs and talking rubbish. Max’s Mum had died of cancer when she was nine, and I suppose that’s why they were unusually close. You certainly couldn’t say that about me and Dad, or me and Mum, for that matter.

“Your Mum is so suburban it’s unreal,” is how Max put it one afternoon when we were skiving off school and lying low at her place. I sometimes wondered if Mum had ever been my age, and perhaps she hadn’t. After all, Army life’s hardly conducive to having a wild youth, is it? Grandad was a Captain in the Royal Fusiliers, and Mum had spent her teens trailing around after him and Gran from one posting to another. Talk about history repeating itself.

It was nearly time to board, and long queues of cars were beginning to form. Beside me Will yawned and closed the comic he’d been reading, turning to stare out of the window at the early morning drizzle. He was sulking because Mum wouldn’t let him play with his Gameboy in the car.

For Will this was all just another move. He seemed to make the transition from one house to another and one school to another with an ease which made me envious. Will knew how to play the system. He was good at getting the teachers on his side, and after a couple of months in a new pl
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2. BE IT EVER SO HUMBEL

My heart sank when I saw the house.

For a start, it wasn’t exactly the best time for introductions. The journey from Calais to Chalon had been a complete nightmare. It hadn’t stopped raining once, while Toby’d been travel sick since Troyes. Mum’s dodgy map reading got worse as the day progressed, as did Dad’s temper. By the time we passed Dijon they were barely on speaking terms.

As if that weren’t enough, Dad kept getting calls on his mobile from the solicitor in London about some problem with the transfer of the house purchase money. Every time we stopped off he spent ages on the phone arguing loudly and attracting stares while Toby whined, Mum fretted, and Will and me tried to pretend we weren’t with any of them.

Mum had suggested that it might be a good idea if we left seeing the house to the following day, and went straight to the hotel, but oh no, Dad wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to show off his prize, and he wanted to do it now. So to the house we went.

As we pulled up, we were greeted by a fury of barking from a couple of dogs penned up in front of the house opposite. There were only two of them, a large ugly one and a small hairy one, but they were making enough noise for six. A woman appeared at an upstairs window and shouted, but the dogs took no notice. I got out of the car and looked at the unkempt shuttered bulk, squatting angrily behind its overgrown hedge. It bought back memories. Bad ones.

When I was small and we lived in London, Mum had decided that city life was really, really bad for me, for her and Dad, and for any future sprogs they might be thinking of having. She managed to persuade Dad that rural isolation was what we all needed. Which just goes to show that Dad doesn’t have the family monopoly on stupid ideas.

Of course, I was too young to really understand any of this. But from what I’ve picked up since, I think Mum was looking for some rural idyll she thought she’d experienced when she was little, before Grandad got a whole string of overseas postings. Personally, I can’t see it. Gran and rural life? “The country? Full of peasants, my dear. And the smell!”

Still Mum had Dad convinced, so off we went. They found a house twenty miles from London, but so deep in one of the remaining pockets of rural Hertfordshire it might have been on a different planet. It was really cheap, too. The old lady who’d lived in it hadn’t done anything to it for like, years - and it showed. She and the house had just got older and more decrepit together. So finally her son put her in a home and sold the house to us to pay the fees.

In those days Dad’s salary was merely very good rather than totally obscene, and he’s quite a handyman, so the idea was that he would do the place up in his spare time. What this plan failed to take into account was, that for the kind of people Dad works for, “spare time” is not a concept that is readily understood. In two years all he’d managed to do was to make the place barely habitable. We were still living with archaic plumbing, dodgy electricity that cut out every time there was a high wind, and heating that barely qualified to be called heating at all - not to mention the wildlife of various kinds.

Mum stuck it for as long as she could, but even she eventually got fed up and suggested they’d have to find the money for builders to do the essential work. Dad blew his top, told her to do whatever she bloody well pleased, and promptly lost interest in the whole project. So the builders came in and did the necessary. Then they put the house on the market, and by the time Will was born six months later we were back in London.

And me? Well, this was my first experience of what was to become a too familiar pattern. One day I was trotting along well known streets to a modern primary school with friends I’d made the first day I went there, nature was the park or a well-manicured back garden in a suburban street, and life was enlivened by outings to the zoo and the cinema. The next I was going to school in a run down Victorian pile with a bunch of strangers who laughed at my accent and bullied me when the teacher’s back was turned, nature was actually trying to bloody come and live in the house with us (ants, cockroaches, mice, rats, you name it), and all I had for entertainment was what was on the telly. Not a fun time, to put it mildly.

“God, what a dump,” I heard Will mutter as he got out of the car. I shot him a warning glare. Toby took one look at the place and began to snivel again. Dad strode ahead, oblivious. Mum gave us all one of her strained, “isn’t this nice?” smiles and followed. We trailed after them.

I stood on the terrace and looked out over the fields, trying to imagine actually living there, and failing miserably. Meanwhile, Dad waxed lyrical about potential, with Mum nodding enthusiastically. Will glowered silently, and Toby kept whining, “I’m hungereee.”

We eventually got to the hotel in Beaune, but only after Dad had insisted on dragging us round what seemed like every inch of the overgrown grounds, burbling enthusiastically. It wasn’t until Toby sat on the ground and refused to move another step that he finally conceded it was time to go and find something to eat. For once I was grateful to the little sod. Tomorrow, we were promised, we’d actually get to see the inside. Oh joy.

The hotel was quite nice, and my room was comfortable. Best of all it had a shower which actually lived up to the description, with lots and lots of hot water. I looked round at the bright modern wallpaper, the jazzy pictures and the TV babbling in the corner and just wished I could stay there.

I climbed into bed, turned out the light, and lay in the darkness, looking at the streetlights reflected on the ceiling.

“I’ll think about it tomorrow,” I told myself, trying to sound like Vivien Leigh playing Scarlet O’Hara. “After all, tomorrow’s another day.”

Who was I trying to kid?

© Val Patchett, 2004

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3. THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME

Next day was better. France decided to stop sulking and put on its tourist face to welcome us new arrivals. The sun came out, the sky was deep blue and cloudless, and the temperature already in the 20s when we arrived on the hotel terrace for breakfast. All this, coupled with the best pain au chocolat I’d ever had, did a lot to improve my mood. I sipped my coffee while staring out over the endless rows of vines at the back of the hotel and listened while Dad outlined our programme for the day.

First, to the house, where we had to do a tour of inspection with the present owner and the estate agent. The afternoon would be spent signing the legal papers at the noitaire’s, then it was back to Beaune for a slap up meal to celebrate our new status as the owners of a little chunk of Burgundy. I groaned inwardly. Spending a whole afternoon in a solicitor’s office with the terminally hyperactive Toby had about the same appeal as Sunday lunch with Gran – a bad idea to begin with, and bound to end in tears before bedtime.

“Just how long does it take to buy a house in this country?” Will muttered in my ear, earning us a stern glare from Mum. I gave him a shut-up-will-you look, and pinched the last pain au chocolat before he could get to it. I didn’t need to be clairvoyant to know who was going to end up keeping Toby amused while Mum and Dad got to grips with the legal niceties, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Will. I reckoned I deserved all the sustenance I could get.

After the inevitable hour plus spent faffing around which occurs whenever our family tries to go anywhere as a unit, we piled into the people carrier and headed off for our new house.

With the sun shining and a good breakfast lining my stomach even the house didn’t look that bad. True, the dogs were out there staging their usual welcoming committee, and in daylight the signs of neglect were more obvious, but it all seemed a little bit easier to cope with second time around.

“What do you think?” I asked Will as we followed Mum and Dad to the terrace, where a small group was already waiting for us. He shrugged.

“It’s still a dump.”

“Maybe it’s not too bad inside.”

“You are kidding, aren’t you?”

“You’d better hope not.”

The owner was a plump elderly man with a weird handlebar moustache that made him look like something out of Asterix the Gaul. He was accompanied by his equally plump wife and a thin young man in a sharp suit who I guessed must be the estate agent. As Dad’s French was non-existent, and Mum’s not much better, he was going to translate.

I stood watching the flurry of introductions and handshaking with a low-grade panic churning my guts. I’d studied (if that’s what you call it) French on and off for over five years, Mum had dragged me with her to French for Nearly Absolute Beginners at the local Adult Education centre for the last six months, and I didn’t understand a word. Not one word. How the hell was I going to get through daily life?

Mum was struggling along gamely on a mixture of rusty A level French and six months of refresher classes, while Dad (bless him) was doing what he always did. When in doubt, pick the nearest person and flirt outrageously. He seemed to be doing pretty well with Madame, too; had her giggling and blushing in no time. It’s all in the body language, I suppose. I’ve never hated him quite so much as I did at that moment.

Will and me were taken aback to find that we were included in the handshaking bit, too. Everyone, but everyone, shakes hands in France, kids included. I felt totally self conscious as I stammered something incomprehensible, while Will flashed them both his most charming smile, which seemed to go down as well as Dad’s performance. As they turned away to coo over Toby, I caught his eye and made sticking fingers down throat motions.

Formalities over, Monsieur produced a bunch of keys that would have done credit to the Tower of London, and proceeded to wrestle with the front door. It obviously hadn’t been opened in a while as by the time he finally managed to turn the key in the lock he was red faced and sweating, and I was seriously convinced he was going to have a heart attack there and then. The door swung open with a Hammer House of Horror creak to reveal absolute darkness. He motioned us to enter, and we filed in reluctantly as he followed us, groping for the light switch.

The first thing I noticed was the spiders. The ******s were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Webs festooned every available corner. The only saving grace was that the spiders themselves seemed to be the sort with small bodies and long wispy legs, as these scare me marginally less than the big meaty fat-bodied sort. Mum and I shared a collective shudder, while Will, who’s been Deputy Spider Destruction Operative since the age of six smirked unpleasantly.

We spent what seemed like hours wandering from room to room while Dad, Monsieur and the estate agent held a strange three-way conversation with Mum and Madame chipping in every so often. Dad was asking questions about the place, and didn’t seem too happy that about half the time the answer was a Gallic shrug, and the words, “je ne sais pas”. After several repetitions even I was able to work that one out.

I soon lost my bearings. The shutters were all closed, and each room was pitch black. Electric light did nothing to improve things, casting a harsh glare over stained wallpaper, dust, dirt, and the inevitable spider webs. All utterly depressing. Until, that is, we reached the last room on the first floor. Here, one of the shutters had broken and was hanging askew. Sunlight streamed through the full-length French window. Perhaps it was being able to see daylight for the first time since we’d entered the place, or perhaps it was something else – I don’t know. All I know is that I fell in love with that room the moment I saw it.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the ceilings in the other rooms. I was too busy trying to avoid counting the resident spider population. Sunlight made the webs less noticeable. I found myself staring. It was beautiful – a riot of curly plasterwork in the centre and a sort of plaster frill round the edge with scallop shell shapes at each corner. The rest of the room matched the ceiling. In the corner to the right of the French window was a fireplace of some dark grey material with an elaborate cast iron stove planted in front of it. The wallpaper, though faded and stained like everywhere else, was actually quite pretty with elegant little sprigs of flowers on a pale pink background. I moved across to the window, and noticed a sort of mini-balcony. The floor was wooden, and unlike many of the other rooms, traces of the original varnish remained, giving it a warm chestnut colour. It was all rather Jane Austen, and I wanted it.

Monsieur was talking nineteen to the dozen and gesturing at the broken shutter, while the estate agent did his best to keep up. I gathered that it was important that we got the shutter fixed “toute de suite” or we’d have problems with the insurance. Dad seemed to be trying to get it across that he rather thought the broken shutter was Monsieur’s responsibility, as it had obviously been that way for some time, but without much success. Eventually he gave up but I could see he was a couple of notches short of spontaneous combustion.

I drifted over to the fireplace, and started tracing my name in the thick layer of dust on the top. Then I caught sight of Will watching me. I tried to appear nonchalant but I could see I’d been rumbled. If he knew I wanted this room you could bet your life he’d decide he wanted it too. Well, I’d have to cross that bridge when I came to it, as Mum would say.

We finally got to the end of the tour, and wi
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[quote]3. THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOMENext day was better. France decided to stop sulking and put on its tourist face to welcome us new arrivals. The sun came out, the sky was deep blue and cloudless, and t...[/quote]

Excellent writing, Val. Bravo!!

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Dear all,

Thanks for all the positive messages - it's been a real boost to know people are enjoying my story. Fear not, the next installment is being written as we speak, and I hope to have it up by the weekend. BTW -a bottle of virtual Cremant de Bourgogne to the first person who can guess what the heroine's first name is :-).

Battypuss - I would LOVE to find a publisher, but the problem is that most publishers won't even look at something that isn't submitted through an agent these days. I need to find an agent who likes my work and is prepared to go out and sell it. If anyone out there can put me in touch with someone who is prepared to look at my work, please email or PM me.

Val
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4. GOODS AND CHATTELS

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that seeing as how my family has travelled from one corner of the globe to the other during the last 12 years we’d travel light. Well, you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.

Mum and Dad are both fully paid up members of the It Might Come in Useful Sometime Society. Our garage at the last house was so full of things that Might Come in Useful that there was barely room for the car. Every time we moved there was a feeble attempt at a cull, accompanied by much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, which never really did much to reduce the mountain of stuff we ended up dragging with us.

Of the two of them, Dad’s the sensible one. Unfortunately, his attempts at rationality are sabotaged by Mum’s other blind spot – Sentimental Value. Even the most rubbish things have Sentimental Value in Mum’s eyes; my first pair of baby shoes, old birthday cards, bits of tat from off their wedding cake, for God’s sake. Faced with the spectre of Sentimental Value Dad just tends to give up, sigh heavily, and get on with packing the boxes.

But not this time.

The first quote we got from the removal company for transporting the entire Bennett household lock, stock and barrel from England to France was astronomical. Something had to go. What? The next couple of weeks were like a scene out of Star Wars, with Mum and Dad deploying It Might Come in Useful Sometime and Sentimental Value like Luke Skywalker wielding his light sabre. Just when it seemed we’d got over all that, we found ourselves embroiled in the great Do We Take the Fridge and the Washing Machine debate, as it seems that electricity over there is different, or something. Or was it the plugs? Probably. I’d glazed over by then. And when that was all over, we moved on to You Kids Don’t Really Want To Take That, Do You? Honestly.

The final result of all this discussion filled half of a bloody great lorry and was entrusted to the removal company the day before we left for France. Our worldly goods arrived, as arranged, on the third day after the signing. The previous three days had been spent evicting spiders and cleaning the place up. Doesn’t sound like much if you say it quickly. Tell that to the several zillion spiders I’d hoovered up over the course of three days. Hoovering was the only way I could deal with them, despite the fact that Will kept telling me they were perfectly capable of staying alive in the bag and crawling right out again.

All of us were hard at it – Mum, Dad, me and Will, despite his moans. He was used to being able to whinge his way out of any work that needed doing, but this time Mum proved a hard taskmaster. Will found himself polishing windows, while Mum and me swept and hoovered, and Dad banged about getting the water on and testing the ancient oil-fired central heating system. Mum was nest building, and Toby, who was used to being able to command her undivided attention, found himself shoved out to “play in the garden”. The look of baffled fury on his face was priceless.

So it was that when the lorry, driven by the bloke we were to come to know as Alan-the-mover, rolled up outside the front door we were nearly ready for it. Nearly, that is, by Mum’s standards. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, my mother is a perfectionist, and she was still panicking about the half a dozen things on her “to do” list that remained undone as the pantechnicon chuntered to a halt.

The previous night we’d had a family conference. Mum and Dad do this every time we move, and I can only suppose it’s some kind of feeble attempt to inject an air of democracy into the process. They might as well not bother, as the things the three of us would actually like to be consulted about, such as where we’re going to live, are definitely not up for discussion. If Dad’s to be believed its very good practice for real life, actually.

So, there we were, the five of us, crammed into Mum and Dad’s bedroom at the hotel, discussing the niceties of transforming the house into Chez Bennett by distributing our goods and chattels around the place. First subject on the agenda, as it always was - bedrooms.

Dad had spent half a day fiddling about with the design program he’d blagged off a mate of his who worked for a software company. He’d been trying out various combinations of knocking down walls, building walls, diverting the plumbing, etcetera, etcetera. He’d come to the conclusion that four rooms to the left of the main staircase on the first floor and three on the second floor were the best ones for converting to guest bedrooms, leaving the four first floor ones on the right hand side of the main staircase for the family. Which meant my Jane Austen Room was up for grabs. It was time to stake my claim.

Dad laid out the plans on the bed. “Right,” he said in his best Chairman of the Board manner, “Let’s get started. Anyone got any preferences?”

“I want that one,” I said quickly, pointing to it, before Will could put his oar in. I knew having spoken up first would give me an advantage, if only a feeble one. I shot a quick glance at Will. Just as I’d predicted, he waited until Dad was about to speak, then –

“I wanted that one.” Will can never resist an opportunity to wind me up. Why? Because he can. Will’s version of tying tin cans to puppies’ tails I suppose.

“Well then,” Dad said briskly, “Since you can’t both have it, we’d better toss for it.” He turned to Mum. “Give us a coin, Mel?”

For the second time in a couple of weeks I found my eyes burning with unexpected tears. Typical. Bloody typical. Why did he have to make such a charade out of “being fair”. Couldn’t he just make a decision, as in “Lizzie was first, so she gets the room.” But no, that would be too easy. Mum and Dad had this big thing about not showing favouritism in these situations. Never mind that they broke that rule every day, with Mum letting Toby get away with murder, while Dad spoilt Will rotten. Which left me in the unenviable position of family scapegoat. “You’re the eldest. You should know better,” was the usual refrain from both of them. Great.

I opened my mouth to protest, then shut it again. I knew from bitter experience that arguing would get me nowhere fast. Furiously, I blinked back the tears. I wasn’t going to let Will see how much he’d got to me. As I looked up, I caught Mum looking at me with a peculiar expression on her face. I looked away quickly.

“No, Tom. Let her have it. After all, she doesn’t ask for much.” This was unheard of. Usually, Mum and Dad backed each other to the hilt in public, then rowed about it for hours in private. Dad opened his mouth to say something, then shut it with a snap, and nodded. He looked like someone had just hit him over the head with a large brick.

“Mu-u-u-m, that’s not fair …” Will was revving up for a major whinge, but Mum cut him off crisply.

“That’s enough from you, young man. Think yourself lucky you’re getting a room of your own at all. We did think of putting you in with Toby.” Will subsided into stunned silence. Dad cleared his throat.

“Let’s get on with it, shall we. We don’t want this to take all night.”

The rest of the proceedings washed over me as I sat, torn between delight and incomprehension. This was not the way things usually went. Not the way at all. What had got into Mum? I sneaked a surreptitious glance at her when she wasn’t looking. Was this just a one-off, or the start of something? If it was, life in France could get very interesting indeed.

If there were any repercussions between Mum and Dad I saw no sign of them, and I’m pretty good at picking things up where they’re concerned. Life was back to what laughingly passes for normal the next morning, and we were all in the enormous bare kitchen going through Mum’
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A real page-turner so far.

Seeing the move through the eyes of a bright but cynical young girl certainly separates it from the Year In Provence genre and the ear for dialogue is spot on, also the eye for detail.

Re potential for publication, is this going to be a full-length book? If so, and this standard is maintained, I'd want to buy it.

And if it is, it'll be interesting to see if the British rubbing up against the French theme can be developed without introducing at least some local stereotypes (seems to be plenty of them in our area).

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