I wrote this as an exercise for my fiction workshop (though it’s really memoir, and not fiction at all), after I’d read The Buddha in The Attic, in which Julie Otsuka masterfully uses the “we” point of view and anaphora (a repeated phrase at the beginning of a sentence) to tell the story of the Japanese picture brides. My subject matter is completely different, though.
On the road we sang Jean-Jacques Goldman. We sang about love. We sang about dark grey and light grey. We sang about the lure of communism and anarchy and the dream of flying away from responsibilities. We sang about Jewish children in the war. We sang about a woman who leaves breadcrumbs on her balcony for the pigeons, who lives her life vicariously, though we had no idea what vicariously meant. We sang, improbably, about women having babies without men. We sang about the indelible footprints that people leave on our lives when they go.
We sang though we should have been sleeping. At four a.m. we had been up, the countdown over at last, school out for two glorious months, all the maths and the Latin and the Dutch lessons done until September, which was an eternity away, so far away that there was no point thinking about it, because it did not exist. At four thirty we had picked up our heavy duffle bags, tried again to squeeze our sleeping bags into their covers, failed, and told ourselves it didn’t matter, that we would just fold them up and sit on them all the way down to the South of France. And at five there we had been, in a pre-ordained car park on the outskirts of an ugly Belgian industrial city which we loved because it had come to symbolise tea towel fights and midnight snacks, whispered secrets and campfires.
On the road it was dark and cold. On the road it was warmer and lighter and then almost unbearably hot as we drove south through France into the heat of the day. On the road it was mostly monotonous motorways until it was windy and nauseating, but we didn’t care about any of that because we had landed a space in the Mahieu family van, and that was the only place in the world we wanted to be. Singing to the same 80s pop cassette. Sharing out sweets and biscuits. Unwrapping sandwiches that had been lovingly wrapped in tin foil by our mothers. Poking small cartons of orange juice with straws and spilling the sticky drink onto our laps. Laughing with Marianne, who sat in the front rubbing her belly, pregnant for the fifth time, dispensing instructions on driving and life to her long-suffering husband.
The first night we slept in beds in the stone house. It was late and we had earned it with all that sitting, and no one had the energy to pitch tents. We wriggled into our sleeping bags and whispered about who would be in which team for the week’s competitions. We thought about the boys we had crushes on. We wondered who would be new this year and hoped they would fit in and not mess with the well-established order of long-held friendships. And in the morning, we waited.
We waited for the others to arrive, cars and vans full of Belgian adolescents. We waited, feeling as though we were the owners of this paradise, preparing to welcome guests to our home. We waited, slightly smug that we knew already who was going to be on washing up duty tomorrow.
We put on suncream. We put on shorts. We put on t-shirts, and the boys took theirs off again by lunchtime. We put on the blue and red scarves that said we belonged together. We put up the big blue tent and chose our sleeping spots, rolling out our sleeping bags over our airbeds and saving a space for Hélène next to us. And we waited.
The vans arrived and tired families tumbled out, families whose parents were leading the camp and had all of their children in tow, from the eldest who was one of us to the baby in a carseat. The cars arrived and holdalls and rucksacks were lugged to the tent. The cars arrived and we kissed everybody’s cheeks three times, Belgian-style, introduced new people, and the sounds of anticipation and welcome echoed throughout the grounds, from the stone house to the back of the field where the next day we would play handball and chase each other with water pistols.
In the girls’ tent, all was order. In the girls’ tent, we put our bags at the foot of our airbeds and took out our torches and maybe our Bibles for the morning. In the girls’ tent, we lay facing each other in two rows of eight. In the girls’ tent we inwardly cheered that we had made it this time, that at last we were in the inner sanctum, right by the people we most wanted to be close to, the people everyone wanted to be close to, not like the last year’s camp when we had been put in a room with all the other misfits and new girls. This time we were next to Hélène and across from Anne-Laure and this was the way life should be. In the girls’ tent, we giggled until we saw the flashlight against the canvas in the darkness, and knew that it was time to be quiet because we did not want to be told off on the very first morning. We did not want to be told off ever, because we were good girls who wanted everyone to like us.
In the mornings, we listened to the crickets from our airbeds, our airbeds which made us all smell faintly of rubber. In the mornings, we ate bread and chocolate spread for breakfast. In the mornings, we lined up, waiting for our turn to have our hair French plaited. In the mornings, we sat in the chapel and sang again, not Jean-Jacques Goldman this time but our favourite church songs about days of joy and days of victory and about God being love and listening to us when we called. In the mornings, we sat under the shade of the tree across form the tent and talked. We played volleyball. We were called in for potato peeling duty. We were told to chop vegetables and were too scared to say that we never did it at home and didn’t know which way to cut an onion.
We sang in the mornings. We sang in the afternoons. We sang in the evenings, in the chapel again, but different songs this time. We sang about the story of a sock with holes weeping on the edge of a bin. We sang about spending the night walking around the Champs-Elysées. We sang campfire songs that made no sense but whose sole purpose was to get louder and louder until we almost lost our voices.
We didn’t have mobile phones. There was no phone at all, or maybe one, but long-distance calls were expensive and unnecessary unless someone was dying, which of course no one was, because we were young and invincible. There was no post, even, because our parents would have had to write to us two weeks before we left so that we got the letters on time. There was no Facebook. There was no Twitter. Some of us had cameras but not a lot of pocket money for films or to have our films developed, and so we took twenty, maybe thirty, photos in total over ten days and we hoped for the best and later we were excited when the photo of our favourite family came put well enough to be blown up and framed and hung on a bedroom wall in memory of the perfect summer. We lived in the moment and years later we marvelled that our memory had taken its own photographs. This, too, Jean-Jacques Goldman had sung about, so we should have known.
We had crushes on each other. We had crushes on the same two or three boys, the same two or three girls. We had crushes, some of us, on the unexpected people. Someone had a crush on us and we didn’t quite know what to do about it, but he was nice and so we became friends with him. We hoped nothing would happen. We hoped something might. We hoped that if it did we would know what to do.
Our junior leaders had crushes on each other too and we knew it, or we thought we knew, or we longed to know. Our junior leaders were old and wise but they were also somehow fun because they were, in fact, only twenty or so. Our junior leaders were enigmas. Our junior leaders strummed guitars and we sat next to them in the shade of the tree, listening, and wished we could be like them. They were everything we wanted to be when we grew up and we could not even quite say why. Our junior leaders knew how to do macramé and we left ours with them for them to finish for us on the day we went swimming in the river. Our junior leaders were the big brothers and the big sisters we wanted or had left behind in Belgium and missed already.
We all wanted to be friends with the same girl. Mostly we were, because the reason we all wanted to be friends with that she was super sympa. Those of us who were bilingual never used the English word, because nice is so insipid and she was not insipid. Nobody could be accused of insipidness on this camp. Nobody could be accused of anything bad, ever. Years later when we would talk about these memories and people who had not been there would say “it couldn’t have been that perfect”, we would smile to ourselves and try to remember that only those who had been there could ever believe that it was. We would not argue because to argue would be to sully the inviolable.
On the seventh of the seventh one of us celebrated his birthday. He would always celebrate his birthday at camp until the end his life because of when he had been born, a beautifully symmetric day: seventh of the seventh seventy-seven, and we would always remember him on that date even when it turned out that we had, in fact, stopped going to camps after all. On the seventh of the seventh we would forever be able to taste the butter icing from the cake that Marianne had made for him.
All that talk of sevens made us think of forgiveness, the story of Jesus saying that was how often we had to forgive, seven times seventy-seven times, which hurt our brains because the seven-times table had been the hardest one to memorise at primary school and we had never got further than seven times twelve. The maths required thinking about the kinds of things we had resolved not to think about until way ahead in the future when we were back behind our desks for our second or third or fourth year of secondary school. Back where our lives were regimented, governed by a timetable and a mother who demanded that we never get less than eight out of ten for any piece of homework. Back where we were the only Christian in our class and people looked at us strangely even though we had not quite the reached the age for the endless discussions of what you should or should not do with your boyfriend before marriage. And so we did not think about those things, they were gone, poof. It was as if they had never existed, as is they never would. Our brains were full of sunshine instead, and of plots of pushing one of the boys into the fountain.
The days ran into each other. The days ran into each other as we took hikes in the mountain, condensed milk and other essentials in our rucksacks, ready to sleep in a mountain refuge, five of us huddled together on an enormous bunk. The days ran into each other as showers broke down and we washed each other’s hair in the fountain. The days ran into each other as we ate meal after meal of chicken and chips or the leaders thought they would try to feed us something new, quenelle, and we did not approve and some of us threw up and laughed about it later.
And then, inevitably, the end. Sleeping bags were rolled up. Tents were pulled down and tidied away until only the rectangle of squished and yellow grass attested to the fact that we had made it our home for the last ten days, that a part of us would always think of it as our home. Plates were washed up and tidied away for the last time, tea towels thrown into a bag together for washing rather than hung out to dry.
We slept outside on the last night so that we could leave early the next day: à la belle étoile, and the poetry of the language matched the melancholy of the mood. We did not sleep much at all. We looked at the ink-blue sky and felt already the pangs of the awful thing that is le cafard, that perhaps only French-speaking children truly feel because the English do not have a word for it.
Le cafard is nostalgia, but it’s so much more than that. Le cafard is mourning for what once was, and will never be again. Le cafard is the deep wistful longing that it would be again nonetheless, and the fear that it never can. It’s a leaden weight in the pit of your stomach. It’s the sharp sting of absence. Of silence. Le cafard is waking up in your own comfortable bed after the first good night’s sleep in days, and finding no-one invading your space. No-one to sing grace with before breakfast. No one to make you laugh so hard that yoghurt comes out of your nose. Le cafard is the word for a cockroach, and like a cockroach it is big and black and threatening and indestructible. Le cafard fades to gentler blues eventually, around the time that the first letters start arriving and the photos comes back from the developer. And le cafard recedes, like the tide, but that too is painful in its way, because you feel you are letting go, and you don’t want to let go.
But life goes on. Life goes on and school starts again and maths isn’t so terrible after all. Life goes on and there are flute lessons and Latin declensions. Life goes on and before the next July there are letters and sleepovers and dreams of the boy whom you still sometimes thing about.
We sent letters to each other, long and multi-coloured. We slept over at each other’s houses though the sleeping part was mostly theoretical. We recorded ourselves talking into the night on both sides of a cassette, knowing we would want to listen to our younger selves in years to come, not knowing that cassettes were a passing, fleeting fad, that one day music would come from a tiny rectangular machine, much smaller even than a Walkman. We looked at photographs and told the same stories over and over again. We played Jean-Jacques Goldman on the piano and sang his new album. We sang about life’s chances and what suffering can do for us. We sang about our mistakes. We sang about what love was not, though we did not yet know what it was.
We wrote our own words to his tunes. We wrote his lyrics out and next to them a commentary, convinced that these songs were for us, that they had been prescient of our lives, of the family we’d chosen for ourselves. We wrote, eventually, our own poems, angsty and never-ending, and we dreamed of being novelists.
We gathered, after a few weeks, to see the slides. We gathered, after many months, at a wedding. We gathered, after a decade, at a surprise birthday party. We gathered, two decades later, at a funeral, when we were still much too young but apparently no longer invincible. Just when we thought we had lost sight of each other, we gathered online. Some of us gathered in foreign countries when one of us had moved there and another was passing through.
One of us moved to England and was never the same again. One of us moved across an ocean and became American. One of us refused to fit into the narrative we had built for her and married someone entirely unexpected. One of us joined the army. One of us became a doctor. Some of us were fervent and devoted in our faith. Some of us went through the motions with a lukewarm heart. And some of us slipped away, too often unchallenged by people who would have considered themselves our close friends.
That era is gone. The innocence is gone. The stone house where we ate breakfast on wooden trays has been transformed beyond recognition: gone. Our ability to just be, for ten days, to let ourselves live, to slip away from the world and allow it to go on without us, gone. Gone.
And yet. And yet.
Those indelible footprints.