Sunday 4 September 2011

Dispatches from the front lines

We have been in Normandy, fighting battles.

The enemy approached across a lush landscape of orchards and cornfields. Wave after relentless wave bore down on us, drumming through clustered stone hamlets and lashing hedgerows and lanes.

In the face of such a deluge we sought many and varied strategies, tilting at one idea after another and fighting down panic. We began with straight confrontation: on the first day of our holiday we put on our armour and clad in anoraks and sensible shoes marched past the pool and sun loungers to find other entertainment. We went to Avranches, explored the cathedral and perused the botanical gardens under lowering skies. We admired the Mont St Michel shimmering in the distance across the bay, tethered by a silver ribbon of river across the mudflats. Then we went home and dried off.

The next day we tried ignoring the bombardment. The kids gamely unpacked toys and played in the sitting room of our cottage, marching Lego figures across decorative rugs and carved occasional tables whose every corner was a reminder how much nicer it would be to be outdoors. The bickering began. In a sinister twist the game was renamed Lego Riots. Hastily, we made sandwiches and put everyone into the car for a trip to picturesque Villedieu-les-Poeles, famed for its copper pots and pans. We walked through the market, bought sausages and cooed over fluffy ducklings in crates until baby Betty, wrinkling her nose at the animal smell, urged us on. The drizzle was low-level but building, as was the bickering. I slipped away into a gift shop and bought ceramic bowls painted with figures in regional dress and finished with our names in flourishing Gallic script. I willed us to be a happy family as I watched the shop assistant stack and wrap and bind us in protective bubble-wrap.

At lunchtime we hid out like maquis in the massive, silent Forest of Saint Sever. My husband carved up sausage and handed around bread to dejected troops as huge raindrops plopped onto us from the canopy above. By now Grace was retreating further into her herself, irritated by any request or interruption to her internal stream of thought in the absence of any compelling external activity. My younger stepson D, bruised by Grace's bluntness and tired of playing nice, was a tinder box in the dampness. J, my elder stepson, alternately teased the others and then retreated aloof behind his Beast Quest books. The in-fighting started in earnest.

This was not the holiday I longed for. This was not the giggling bonding with Grace in the pool under the sun, dipping and ducking and twisting to catch her ankles in the turquoise blue. This was not lazy and relaxed. Our cottage smelled increasingly damp and sour with boredom and disappointment. The next day the boys insisted it wasn't really raining and lobbed a tennis ball disconsolately back and forth in the wet garden, then played half-hearted games of Monopoly before falling out. Grace circled and paced. She hates ball games requiring co-ordination and loathes board games using numbers and other people's rules. She could not settle to read. Even drawing could not hold and soothe her. All she could think of was when or whether she would next be able to get into the swimming pool. She asked me over and over and over. By nine-thirty one morning I found myself counting the hours til dinner when I could have a drink.

On day five we tried another tactic -- outrunning the rain. We drove for an hour flanked by dark clouds then suddenly shot free of them and pulled ahead. A cheer went up in the car. We found Fougeres, a charming medieval town laid out on different levels like a game of snakes and ladders, with steps leading to dead ends and turnings that brought us back to where we started. And then there was the castle: a giant ring of crenellated fortress walls dotted with wild flowers and strung with piebald turrets from which the children chased bats.

By evening the enemy had found us again and the rain came all night like handfuls of needles thrown at our windows. The next day we surrendered entirely and sat watching the miles of rainclouds that stretched in every direction. The kids refused to get in the car but gave up asking if they might be able to swim. My husband and I defused quarrel after row after scratchy argument. My heart was in my boots. I had set such store by this time together with no homework and no chores and no work stress. But Grace was as detached as ever, furious and cutting whenever I asked her to take part in tedious family routines and no closer to the boys who could barely be in the same room themselves for five minutes before locking horns.

I tried to get away and run but could only manage a short, slow slog, hampered by rain and hills and a lack of form after a recent virus. I am rubbish at everything, I wheezed to myself.

Back at the cottage, as I started to think about what I should begin to pack first, the sky began to brighten. I ignored it. But then the sun came out -- tentatively, like it knew it was in trouble -- and we all rushed outside, turning our faces up to it like sunflowers. The cheering warmth was divine. We scurried to the pool, where Grace, J and D leapt in with whoops and splashes and started to shove each other around like old comrades. My husband bobbed gently around the shallow end with Betty, beaming, fastened around his neck. Like atoms, my family spun and bounced and separated and then clustered together in the middle of the pool, arms around each other, hugging and kissing while I watched from the side with a lump in my throat.

Within thirty minutes it was raining again. But this time the sun remained, stubbornly undimmed. We ate dinner with all the doors and windows open, beneath a rainbow.


  1. What a brilliant piece of writing (too good to be called a post!). We love France & have visited those places & of course when it is two old folks the rain doesn't matter so much. I'm so glad you had some sun & there is nothing like out door eating & a rainbow. I hope it gave you lots of energy for the autumn!x

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