Chapter one

"Etes vous tombez par terre, Monsieur?" Shrieks of laughter.
The voice came from a cassette recorder on the desk. The boys all sitting on the desks feet on the chairs, crowded round.
"That’s fucking you Mikel."
"It bloody well isn’t."
"It fucking is. Who else speaks French with a Yorkshire accent?"
"I don’t speak French with a Yorkshire accent." I protested.
"You were born in Huddersfield weren’t you?"
"No I were born in Wales. I just grew up in ‘uddersfield." more laughter.
"’uddersfield? That’s definitely you. You should have seen him asking this poor old boy if he’d fallen on the ground. The old boy must have thought he was mad or summat."
"But it wasn’t me. I don’t remember any old man, or saying that."
"You don’t remember eh? Mad, and losing your mind."
I sat quiet. I definitely hadn’t been the one on the tape because I hadn’t said a word of French all day. My confidence was at an all time low, without making a fool of myself trying to speak a language I didn’t know, or barely knew.
I was 14 years old and on a school trip to France. We were staying for the week at a French boarding school in Morlaix North Brittany It was half term for the French so most of the French children had gone home for the break.
We had spent the afternoon walking around Morlaix in groups, carrying a cassette recorder and interviewing unsuspecting French people. Asking questions of them, Where did they work? What did they do? It all seemed seemed so pointless to me. This wasn’t real conversation this was just asking a prepared question and not standing a hope in hell of understanding the answer. So I hadn’t asked any questions. But now here I was accused of asking an old man if he had fallen on the ground, in a Yorkshire accent. I was going to have to live with this for another five days in France.
The teacher walked in "Settle down boys."
"But Sir. You must hear this?"
"What’s that Morgan?"
"It’s Webster Sir. On the tape. He asked an old man if he had fallen on the ground."
"Haven’t you anything better to do with your time here in France than to ask damn fool questions."
"If you can’t take this seriously. I’ll give you something to take seriously."
"The other boys are working hard on their French.........."
"Are they hell!" I thought
"......and you think you can just muck about. Well I’m telling you this.............."
The teachers voice drifted away, he was still talking but it wasn’t getting through.
"...........Ok boys that’s it for today. Off you go to dinner." There was a mad dash for the door. "Not you Webster."
"Sir?" I got another lecture. How I was in the priviliged position of being here in France. How I should make the most of this wonderful opportunity to improve myself. How I was an ambassador of our country and I should conduct myself accordingly. It was all so pompous. I missed first sitting at dinner and found myself having to queue with the French for second sitting. I slipped onto the end of the queue next to a young girl. She had long brown hair and big brown eyes. She said nothing but just smiled. I smiled back and stood there idly bouncing my dinner tray off my legs. Every so often looking at her standing there. The queue moved. I let her go first. She collected her food and wandered off. I watched her move carefully through the tables, carrying her tray.
"Et vous.............Monsieur?" The dinner lady was staring at me as I turned round.
"Pardon." I pointed to the same things the girl in front of me had.
I took my tray and followed the girl. She was sitting with her back to me.
"May I sit here?" She looks up questioningly. "Can I sit with you?"
"oh oui." she says.
"What’s your name? Comment t’appelle?"
"Helene." she said quietly. That’s the thing about Helene, or Hell- en as it sounds in France, she is always quiet and calm. When everything around is going crazy she doesn’t panic, doesn’t fluster or bluster, or make an issue of it. Her calmness was like an aura around her. It spread to me. I was fourteen years old and liable to fits of impulsive behaiviour. But in those first few seconds I felt her calmness, her tranquility. I felt peace.
The boys had already finished their dinner and were putting away their plates and cutlery, and stacking the trays. They jostled past me.
"Found a new girlfriend Webster? Bit young isn’t she?"
"Cradle snatching now? Can’t find a real girl?"
"Ete’s vous tombez par terre Webster?"
"What’s the matter couldn’t find a girl with tits?"
I looked at Helene. It’s true she was young. It’s true she was as flat chested as an ironing board. But they didn’t see what I saw. They didn’t, couldn’t, feel what I felt. They weren’t close enough to be inside Helenes invisible aura of calm and peace.
"They make joke with you?" she asked.
"It’s nothing, C’est rien." I tried to make light of it, but it was obvious I was the butt of the joke in any language.
"They make joke with me?"
"They said you are trop Jaune."
"Too much yellow?" she looked at me puzzled. "Pour quoi?"
"Non. Trop jeune. Too young."
"Oh But I have 12 years. It’s not important."
"No it isn’t."
We sat silently eating our dinner. I couldn’t stop looking into her eyes. Each time she caught me she just smiled and looked away again. We finished dinner and put away our trays and stepped out into the courtyard of the boarding school. It was a big square with tall buildings all around. We had nicknamed the place Colditz. Some of the boys were playing basket ball, others table tennis and a few more playing cards on one of the tables around the edge of the courtyard. I motioned to Helene to sit down at one of the tables. I could hardly speak any French, her English was no better. So I suggested we play cards like some of the other boys. She agreed, and we spent the next few hours innocently playing cards together. Not for one moment did we ever imagine that thirty years later we would be sitting together once again watching each others children in exactly the same situation playing games together, none of them knowing the others language.