A first school exchange trip to France throws up challenges and a small miracle for the young Elizabeth.
I crash into the painted wardrobe and slide to the floor. My handstands are at best unpredictable. The second attempt is better: legs up straight, a moment of perfect balance, then a sideways tumble into the bedside table. I plonk the pink shade back on its lamp base. And listen.
The first time I went abroad without my family was in the late 1960s on a school exchange to France. I was 10. As my parents waved goodbye from the receding platform, the thought that I wouldn’t see them for the next fortnight began to roll around inside my head. To stop it from gaining momentum, I pulled out the food parcel Mum had packed for me: crabpaste sandwiches, a boiled egg wrapped in foil, two Penguin biscuits, a tomato, an apple and a banana. Knowing my distaste for fizzy drinks, she had included miniature bottles of fruit nectar. I opened one of them.
The sound of snivelling filled our end of the compartment. My friend Cindy smirked.
“Richard’s homesick,” she said.
I nodded in mutual disapproval, closed my eyes and savoured the flavour of apricots flooding my mouth.
I imagined Mum shopping in the drizzle. With a scarf tied under her chin, she looked like a cross between the Queen and the lady with cold hands and bitten fingernails who worked at the greengrocer’s. Tears puddled behind my eyelids, I squeezed them tighter.
“Feeling homesick too?” said Cindy.
I looked away, through the grimy window.
“I wonder if it’s raining in France?” I said.
We travelled from the station to Miramas by coach. The roads were dusty and empty. There were no traffic jams, few parked cars, no cat’s eyes between white lines.
Où sont les bicyclettes?
It was quiet. A sandy patina infused everything, from the roads and pavements to the buildings and trees. Blue enamel tiles with white numbers stood out on the walls of each house. Odd that everyone used the same method for numbering their home. In Streatham all the houses had different signs in clashing colours; Ivy and Derek Parker had a plaque saying ‘Ivander’.
The coach stopped in a sunny road. We got out and were paired with our French exchange partners. Standing to attention, a mouth full of braces, Christiane seemed shy.
“Bonjour?” I said.
“Hello,” she whispered.
Echoes of my crash fade. Christiane is in the kitchen at the back of the house with her mum. They’ve left me to settle into my room. No-one comes. Perhaps they haven’t heard me. I decide to have one more attempt at the perfect handstand. It is a success, so I remain upside down with my feet against the bedroom wall. Pink roses on the carpet slide across the floor into my hair. More flowers grow up the wallpaper, twirl their way across the bedspread, and form posies on the pale cotton curtains. On the window ledge, white, glossy paint shines beneath pottery animals.
Très jolie, comme un jardin. Un chambre des fleurs.
It’s the antithesis of the geometric red walls of my room at home, where shelves and surfaces are peppered with books, comics, felt-tip pens, pencils, notepads, dolls with severe haircuts, talcum powder, bits of wood, shells and significant stones. The tears come again, and this time I let them fall up my face into my eyebrows. I sink down and get back on my feet. And come face to face with a brown smear on the wallpaper.
I check my shoes.
Rubbing at the dirty patch with a wet towel makes it worse. Now a two foot long dark stain stretches across the pristine wallpaper and I’ve ruined the nice peach towel someone’s left out for me.
I close the door to my room and step onto the landing as she nears the top of the stairs. She lets me herd her back down.
Fresh coffee, intermingled with a smell I don’t recognise, perfumes the ground floor. Christiane’s Dad and young brother are at the dining table. Her mum places a bowl of soup in front of me. I look inside at beans lodged in lumpy brown goo, they aren’t baked beans.
“Du peng?” says Christiane’s Dad. I don’t understand. He points at the bread.
“Du pain?” I say in my best classroom accent. The small brother laughs.
“Yes, Elisabet, but here it is ‘peng’, different to how you learn in school.”
I accept a chunk of soft white bread from a long skinny loaf and try the soup. It tastes like the smell I can’t identify. I like it, but I’m not hungry. I imagine the stain growing, obliterating the flowers on the wallpaper. Too scared and embarrassed to say anything about the damage upstairs, I tell them I am tired and would like to go to bed. I tell them not to worry and that I’ll be OK seeing myself to my room.
“Bonne nuit,” I say, trying to smile.
The mark is still there.
At least it isn’t any bigger.
I turn off the light and cry until I sleep, vowing never to do another handstand.
Next morning the blot has gone. I waste no time wondering how or why this miracle has occurred (it will be years before I realise it evaporated during the warm Provençal night), and do a barefoot handstand on the spot.
Later, in the dining room, Christiane’s dad is drinking black coffee.
“Salut Elisabet, ça va?” he says.
“Ça va très bien, merci!”
I eat everything Christiane’s mum lays in front of me: Corn Flakes, hot chocolate, chunks of ‘peng’, honey, orange juice. It’s just like being at home.