Island Blog – Pas pour Moi

I wake with the sun, can feel the warmth and the promise of a new day ahead. Impatient, I leave first, walking from the apartment down the little hill towards the village. Bonjour Monsieur-dame, I greet an older couple coming towards me with bags of shopping. I can smell the baguette and see it too, peeping out as baguettes always do, refusing to fit in. She, Madame, appraises me, her eyes covering my body like a touch. She is, I know, looking for an inappropriate bare of skin. She won’t find it, for I know this old fashioned place and am respectful of its rules of thumb, its unwritten laws. She, naturally, is dressed for a winter’s day in Alaska, all in black and so buttoned up as to appear more like a seal than a woman. Her face, pinched into a critical catch tells me that her smiling Monsieur will be disappointed at my coverings and also that her life has not been an easy one.

The streets that wind through the village are cobbled, worn by thousands of feet over hundreds of years, smoother around the entrance to the cafes and bars where feet have scuffled and stopped, turned around or opened the door for refreshment and friendship. Picasso painted here, as did Matisse and Dali and it is to the painters I am bound. Through the archway and down to the rocky harbour I find them, placed like buskers and probably with their own pitches considered sacrosanct. Bonjour I say and more than once as I walk by with only a glance at their work. I know the rules. No artist wants to be gawped at and most certainly do not invite comment. as they apply oils to canvas, eyes on their subject. I look out to where the sun rises pinkly perfect over a calm and submissive sea. Around the curve of the natural harbour an old stone edifice stands sentry. Much of its face is gone but once it would have stood proud as Punch. This is the way in, it would have said to the fishermen and sailors seeking sanctuary.

On the edge of a spit of rock stands a woman in white. Her long dress floats a little in the warm morning breeze but nothing else of her moves. Her hand below a bonnet of white satin is shading her eyes as she looks out to sea. Searching for her husband, says a gruff smokers voice behind me. I am startled back to myself. How did he know I was English? Ah, Madame, he says, English always look English, no matter where they go. I am momentarily disappointed but concede he is probably right. She will not move all day, he continues. She is an art student and this is how she earns money for her studies. I smile and move closer to her. She doesn’t even blink. The heat, I think, the heat! Already, at 7.30 am it is 20 degrees and she has enough clothes on to kit up the whole cast of Hamlet.

I move towards my favourite cafe and sit outside beneath the shade of a tree, one I cannot identify. Cafe Madame? Our, mercie Monsieur. In moments he returns with a small coffee, black, thick and hot. Beside it he places a tiny shot glass of something and winks at me. For the heat, Madame, he says and swings away.

Later we swim. There is a storm gathering and the waves are restless and confused. Himself, snorkelled up, is ferreting about among the rocks whilst I sun myself on the stony beach. When he returns to me I can see something is wrong. He has lost his teeth, pulling them clean out along with the snorkel tube. Lost, he lisps at me. I roll my eyes and feel a small panic rise but the storm is closer now and the waves too high and mighty for a search. I resign myself to a toothless husband who doesn’t care one bit. For three days as the storm rages he orders omelette or scrambled eggs for dinner and thinks the whole thing hilarious. I smoulder across the table. It is, after all, one thing to lose all your teeth to the ocean and quite another to think it amusing, having no intention whatsoever of either organising a new set once we get home or to have any regard for the way I feel watching him lose food through floppy lips and talking like a drunk.

After the storm has moved away and the waves, their skirts still upskittled a bit, have calmed, I move into the water. Point at the place you lost them, I call back. He looks at me as he might a crazy woman and guides me. There! he says and turns back to his book. I duck beneath the water and there they are, sitting atop a rock, complete, waiting. Triumphant I lift them to the sky and call out to him. The whole beach looks up as if I had just found gold, which, in my opinion, I have.

We are the talk of our favourite restaurant. C’est impossible! They say and I am a Cheshire Cat. Pas pour moi, Monsieur, I reply. Pas pour moi.

Island Blog – Little Fires

I believe that grandparents have a gift. One that is gifted to them. They also have a gift to give, through translation, nothing lost, unless they choose to ignore the opportunity it brings them, and by extension, the generation below and the one below that.

On the first gift, I can say it comes as a surprise. This gift is one of a second childhood. Not physically, of course, but in a renewed lease of life. From banging on about arthritis to clambering over a fence with a cackle of glee; from medication programming to random acts of play; from soup at midday on the button to fish finger sandwiches just because we’re hungry – with ketchup, naturally. The awakening of the sleeping child is painless. Sparkles return to rheumy eyes and stolen carrots from the veg counter at Tesco’s are an absolute must. An old woman who has plodded, fallen- arched, and for many years, up one aisle, politely rounding to the next, might suddenly find herself speeding up for a swing-wheelie at the top. The giggles of the little ones egg her on and she just can’t help herself. Her mind is full of naughty ideas that came from nowhere. After all, these half-pint charges of hers have been sternly groomed for a perfect public face and mummy never does any of these things.

As mummy, we don’t either. Many of us are so caught up in right and absolutely wrong that we contain, without intending it, the free spirit of our children until their bodies can barely bend at all. And here comes the second gift, the one given. With granny we can fly and fly high. My granny was like that and we all adored her. The mischief in her eyes set little fires in our own and although she was in all ways the perfect lady, she showed us a side of her true self that my mother rarely saw as a child. I feel sad about that and wonder how much, and how often, I contained my own children in boxes at least two sizes too small for their exuberant personalities. But how else to protect, teach and develop a child into the adult we want them to be, hope they will become? This, in itself sounds like a box, but only to my granny ears. So is it just that we can ‘hand them back’ or is it that second chance to what, make amends? My own children, now parents, are not always delighted at granny’s antics. Initially I faced a few stern reprimands on my behaviour, feeling like the child in trouble and most uncomfortable. Can I say God or should I pretend he doesn’t exist? Can I answer questions on where babies come from, asked by a ten year old, or should I say “Ask Mummy’ thus making it very mysterious and serious? I get my nickers in a right knot at such times, and dither like an old woman who never thought an original thought, or was never allowed to.

9 grandchildren in, I now am more relaxed about the nicker knot thing. I pause a lot after a question is asked. I might distract, as I would a puppy chewing on a cat, suggest some toast or a bounce on the trampoline. I might answer the baby question, but vaguely, with something safe, like ‘Mummy’s tummy’ and leave it at that . As to God, I might say, some believe he exists, some don’t, and round with a question for them. What do mummy and daddy say? Always a safe bet, that one.

I don’t remember my mum having any bother with dithering. She just answered as she saw fit, no matter what parental bans we had put in place. And blow it. Thats what she said. She had no intention of bending to our whims and I cannot imagine ever being brave enough to challenge her. In my day and with my mother, challenge was verboten. However my generation have been confounded with all the new information about parenting. Strait jackets were out, for starters, and choices offered to small people on the best dinner plates. My own children, and I have heard them all employ this, would ask their 3 year old what she would like for supper. I managed to keep my snort silent, although it gave me indigestion and required my scrabble into handbag depths for a Rennies. Now, I am used to it. I remember, once, tapping a child on the leg when her tantrum threatened the entire neighbourhood, and being strongly warned never to touch a child again in anger. It wasn’t anger, I began to say, but said no more after making eye contact with the parent in case. The Childline number is readily available, after all, and there are posters in every school in most of the rooms, and at a child’s eye level.

However, the joys of playing hooky with grandchildren are the best. Naughtiness and mischief fan the embers of my internal fire any time I am with them. And I am reminded, often, of the gift I have received and the gift I can give – that reconnection with my own childhood and the chance to be the child free, the child outside the box, setting all the other children free from their own boxes and, together, heading off into a fantasy world of mischief and fun and laughter.

I am going to have to live for decades more, it seems.