We are not a family for planning, as is evidenced by the 15 month gap between the births of our children. And we are very much of the “Go now, fuck it up en route” school of thought when it comes to holidays. This particular year was no different from any other. We had just finished an uninvited week at the Gxxx’s house in Cornwall. In common with many other stays at my friends’ houses, we had not been allowed to stay in the actual house but had been confined to a field nearby. We had had a lovely time and finally taken the hint that it was time to leave when I saw Hugh bribing his children to water bomb our camper van.
Now, camper vans can be the acme of cool. Retro trip wagons which conjure up envy in the most stony-hearted. Or, they can be purchased in haste and later transpire to be poorly converted decorator’s vans. You may hazard a guess as to which group ours fell into. In any event, we rolled back to London with a couple of weeks left to the holiday and no pressing plans. No sooner were we through the door of our house when it came to me. France. We should go to France – baguettes, cheese, eclairs. Perfect. There was a Shuttle shooting through the Tunnel in 2.5 hours. I booked it on line and threw the children, some bags, a dog and my wife back into the van from which they had just staggered and we were off. 2.5 hours to make a 2.5 hour drive. What could possibly go wrong?
As we charged through the sun-soaked Kent countryside, weaving between lanes of traffic and making new friends along the way (beep, beep, wave, wave), Lisa turned to me and asked if it was raining. Assuming that the leaky cooker’s carbon monoxide alarm had stopped working again, I merely smiled, shook my head and opened my window slightly. The change in air flow soon revealed that my wife had not been hallucinating but instead had felt the screws holding the brace for the pop-up roof falling on to her. The corner of the roof began to lift like a sardine tin lid and the sound of rushing wind stifled the children’s screams.
By a process of trial and error, I determined that 55 mph was the speed at which Lisa was able to comfortably counterbalance the roof by hanging on to one of the straps. Above 60 mph and she began to rise slowly and majestically out of her seat like a lazy Orca. Stopping was, of course out of the question. We had a train to catch.
During the inevitable 3 hour wait to embark the delayed Shuttle, the family began to question the necessity of our headlong flight. I quieted them with a steely look and turned up the radio. Once Lisa had calmed down, we agreed that we would press on through France for as long as her arms could hold up and then seek the assistance of a French mechanic. Thus resolved, we went to the Leon in the Shuttle services for some lunch. I still can’t quite lose the association with the film of the same name and kept a close eye on Isobel lest she further her already quite considerable assassination skills, thereby nearly missing Sean’s attempts to fill his pockets with proper food for the journey. Finally, we loaded into the train and I explained for the umpteenth time that there is no glass roof to the Tunnel and we would not be able to see the fishes. As we shot out into the French countryside I whooped, “Nous sommes ici!!” to the cold indifference of my children.
It was, of course August and on top of that we had had the misfortune to arrive on one of the bank holidays which are held on alternate days in France throughout the summer. The country was essentially empty, the French had decamped to wherever it is they go (pour les vacances) leaving two Romanian border guards and some baguettes. The chances of finding a mechanic were slim.
We had a copy of ‘Cool Camping – small batch edition’ (guaranteeing us that no one else would have heard of these particular middle class hidden gems and we could bask in smug seclusion among genuine locals) but Lisa was finding it difficult to read and keep the roof on; I saw an opportunity to get a night in a decent bed and some proper French cooking before the horrors of Le Camping. Spying a sign to an adequately AA-starred hotel in the dwindling light, I skidded the van up the gravel drive and came to a sliding stop in front of the picture windows of the rather fine looking restaurant. Now, I was not too sure of our exact location but I was fairly confident that we would be nowhere near any acceptable campsite and so, reluctantly, we would be forced to take a room in this desirable chateau. I took the usual precaution of getting the children to stay in the van. I am under no illusions as to how ‘darling’ they appear after several hours in close confinement. Brushing the worst of the crumbs from my T-shirt, I strode confidently into reception.
“Monsieur, you cannot camp here”
“But I don’t want to. I just wondered if there was anywhere nearby…?”
It had to be said that our arrival had caused something of a hiatus in the service in the restaurant and forty pairs of French Rotary Club (Club Rotisserie?) eyes were fixed upon us.
“Ah, I see. Well, I wonder if you have any rooms?”
“I’ll just get the manager”
“But we don’t want a room”, hissed Lisa. I smiled at her thinly, with my best “don’t make a scene” look. The manager arrived, “Monsieur, you cannot camp here.”
“But I don’t want to. I was just asking if there was anywhere nearby…”
“Yes,… oui, I’d rather gathered that. How much are your rooms?”
The manager assumed the air of a man plucking figures from the ether “300 euros a night.”
“We’re not paying that!” Lisa erupted. The manager gave her a knowing smile.
“Nor, Madame, do we take dogs”
Crestfallen, I followed his withering gaze to see that the children and dog had spilled out of the van and Sean, who for some reason best known to him was wearing wellies, shorts and one of his mother’s bras as a hat, was wrestling the dog on the petanq pitch. Mustering what dignity I could in the circumstances, I strolled slowly towards the van, swearing colourfully at the children to re-embark. After some meandering through increasingly lonely roads we decided to stop at the very next non-murdery looking place. The children still speak enthusiastically of the pinball machine at the site at which we eventually ground to a halt but I remember little of it save the brisk pricing policy that seemed readily adapted to late-arrivals, I fell into a fitful sleep in which I dreamt I was piloting a single-seater bi-plane.
Lisa’s arms seemed to be holding up pretty well, all things considered, and we arrived at Beynac-et-Cazanac with little further mishap. Beynac is in one of those areas of France that makes me grudgingly admit that not all that is worth seeing in Europe is confined to Devon, Cornwall and parts of the Celtic Fringe. There are castles on every hill top and rivers gurgling through every valley. Contrary to my theory, not all of the castles had been built by the English, the French being too work shy to possibly have knocked this lot up, though I suspected that they had had help from the Germans. Our campsite was at the foot of a truly beautiful castle, village, and cliff ensemble and, as I relished the sensation of diving into a swimming pool overshadowed by a 16th century chateau, I began to believe we had lucked out.
The lesbian couple on the adjacent plot had taken an obvious and visceral dislike to us. I didn’t know whether it was our late and haphazard arrival or our ill-disciplined camping methods. They were certainly very well-organised; I had thought that perhaps we could bond through shared van type. Alas the camaraderie-of-the-road attached to the classic VW Beetle doesn’t extend to a Transporter T5 in builder’s white. And so the limpid evenings spent watching the children throttling each other in the dust were pierced somewhat by the hostile gazes of our neighbours. They had a child of about 5 who had clearly been instructed to have nothing whatsoever to do with us, to the extent that he would tread with pantomime exaggeration along the invisible but very real boundary of our plots, tip-toeing as if along a high wire. I made a mental note to offer him high-sugar items at the first discreet opportunity.
Nonetheless, all was bliss and we passed a week of surprising enjoyment. The weather was idyllic and it was a genuine joy to throw open the van’s door in the morning to be greeted by the majestic castle towering above above us in the rose glow. Rising was a careful ballet, I would have loaded the stovetop coffee thingy the previous evening with water and coffee, and I would shuffle to the end of the bed as the dog slunk like a furry snake past to my still warm spot. On would go the coffee while Lisa blinked smilingly in bed. I would call gently to the children in the tent to begin their daily routine of argument and blame – the first subject being which of them was going to the campsite office. Each morning a baker would appear there to dispense diabetes-inducing breakfast goods. My children could not quite get over the fact that here, at last, was a country that truly got breakfast – a pain au chocolat accompanied by a Nutella-laden croissant and washed down with a hot chocolate was, they assured me, an authentic French petit-dejeuner. When Lisa caught them and upbraided them about the need for fruit, they simply included a pain au raisin.
We visited the castle, ate ice-cream, took photographs of hot air balloons and troughed tourist food (easily identified by the label ‘traditional’). We took the dog on a canoe trip and had water fights. We marvelled at the Dutch couple in their seventies who arrived in a double kayak. From its small recesses they drew, like septuagenarian conjurers, never-ending items of kit until, within mere minutes, they were ensconced in the camping equivalent of the Ritz, sipping a fine wine and nibbling on charcuterie. I require several applications of Ibuprofen cream to stumble, creaking, out of the van in the morning; the idea that in thirty years time I would be able to exit a kayak without surgery and lifting apparatus was inconceivable. It would be like a Viking ceremony as all efforts were finally abandoned and I was left to drift out to the open seas with the onlookers muttering to themselves “I don’t know how he got in there in the first place. They must have changed his medication.”
More concerning yet was their striking camp. I had guessed from the couple’s practised ease unpacking that the loading of the kayaks would not be accompanied by quite the same blood-curdling celestial invocations as our relocations. Sure enough, not once did the man finger a protruding article of camping equipment while eying his wife malevolently. She did not have to jump up and down on the tent to get it to fold. There were no run-ups required. They were wrinkled, leisure ninjas; arriving and leaving silently and swiftly. I was dreading moving on and had begun tentatively suggesting that we pop the van on bricks and put the kids in to the local village school.
Then it happened, Lisa had a phone call. Well not exactly, my wife is not the best at modern communications and I had a Facebook message from her sister in Columbia telling me to ring her brother in Vancouver. Her mother had had a stroke. So somehow, from a van in the middle of a field with a dodgy signal in the middle of France, we had to arrange to get Lisa as quickly as possible to Canada. While she freaked, understandably and non-too quietly, and the dog took the opportunity to reveal to me the real reason for the sapphic hatred from next door by crapping in the middle of their plot, I dealt with 90s style loading speeds on the web and the French rail and air systems. Fortified by stale pains au raisin and coffee, the hours flew and by 9 the next morning, all was sorted.
I’d like to say that the children responded to the crisis by pitching in and reining in their meta-argument. I’d like to say that. As her train pulled away, I embarked on a dangerous containment policy. Short-term, yes. Short-sighted, yes. Sugar, yes. Cans of Fanta dispensed, I turned to the pressing matters at hand. The immediate problem was that, along with her many other and wonderful attributes, Lisa was really good at stopping the roof coming off the van. The journey from the railway station back to the campsite was slow but nonetheless served to underline the difficulties we now faced – our van was a convertible.
Lisa’s departure coincided with the end of our booking in the bosom of this idyll and we were due at another site an hour’s drive away. There wasn’t even a thin charade of regret from the Beynac site staff as they refused to extend our stay, nor was any explanation offered, they reasoning quite correctly that engaging with the clearly deranged man (whose wife had obviously just left him, poor woman who could blame her) would only lead to a series of increasingly desperate pleas from him.
Packing without Lisa was not quite the horror that I had expected; there was more room, we weren’t going far and, well, I didn’t give a toss about the packing process. I simply hurled everything in the van like an unwatched removal man, chucked the kids a pair of Magnums and we were off. It was a baking hot day and, having found the site with relative ease, shouting at the kids only a little bit, I sent them to the pool while I assessed the situation and tried to rig up an awning. When the children found me later, I had run out of duct tape, was bleeding from a tent peg wound, was semi-permanently attached to a groundsheet and had mild sunstroke. It was the latter that I blamed for the otherwise inexplicable decision I had made. I had decided that the tent, a difficult job to erect single-handedly on the rock hard ground with no peg mallet, was too far from the van for the awning to work. So I laboriously took the tent down, moved it 1 foot closer to the van and re-erected it. About 1.5 hours of endeavour in the scorching French sun. Or, of course, I could have moved the van 12 inches. Could have, but didn’t. And so our new neighbours came to learn that I have a wide-range of expletives. And a loud voice. And no common sense.
This was the ideal opportunity for some child-father bonding. I wouldn’t like you to get the idea that we don’t have a great relationship. I can’t of course vouch for their views but I like to think that they see me not entirely disfavourably. In common with most 10 and 11 year-olds, their assessment of my IQ plummeted by the day while they retained dwindling stocks of the respect that their younger selves had for me – dwindling but not entirely spent. I hoped to kindle the dying embers of paternal regard and forge some joyous memories that would carry us through the rocky teenage years ahead. The disaster of their grandmother’s stroke would be turned into a triumph of fathering. Sights would be seen, great meals savoured, jokes cracked and educational walks taken. The path of development, however, is not one that can be bent to paternal will.
The children were in a bickering phase, though ‘bickering’ does not quite capture the ceaseless, pointless, mind-melting essence of their stand-offs – conducted at variously loud volumes, regardless of time or place. I was bewildered, they had up until this stage been fairly devoted to each other (apart from the time that they were both brought home early by the tennis coach who just could not handle their sibling rivalry a second longer – my breezy references to Serena and Venus fell on stony ground). Lisa, by dint of having been brought up in a sprawling and complicated family, had long since learned to tune out the sounds of argument. I, by dint of having been brought up in a small and complicated family, had not. Nor was it that Lisa was necessarily better at dealing with them, though she was. At least when there are two of you, you have an ally, someone to hand-off to before you do or say things that will echo in therapists’ rooms for years to come. Singlehanded is parenting neat – the real deal, undiluted – and it was to test me to my limits.
The new campsite was run by a lovely Australian couple who had spotted the rotten heart of the English middle-classes and stuck some sofas and bales of hay outside the kitchen of a rustic farmhouse, knocked up a rotating 7 day menu of organic, traditional dishes, insisted on recycling and, voilà, an Eco-resort. No need to speak to the tiresome French as Patrick would intercede for you and book everything. They had an arrangement with a local wine-merchant and a baker, a swimming pool and table-tennis table. That’s not to say that they did not have to work hard, not least because they had to deal with the horrors of the British abroad. The campsite managed to appeal to a mainly overly-entitled middle class clientele but with just enough non-Audi owners to give the others something to roll their eyes at. As far as the eye could see Isla bikes lay outside small Big Top tents. I watched, dumbstruck, one morning as my neighbour collected her morning bread order from the office. She went to hand her money to Patrick, “Oh no (silly me), I shouldn’t give it to you, you’re handling the loaves” her face in an arch rictus of a smile. He didn’t miss a beat and Natalie, his wife, swivelled seamlessly round from her task to take the money. “We. Are. Camping.” I screamed silently, “I am a walking Petri dish and we have been eating off the floor for two days. Get a grip.”
She fancied herself as the alpha-mother, though that did not seem to extend to spelling me off. She and her perfect family were with us for a merciful two days and on the morning of her departure she held court to others of her tribe who had subconsciously acknowledged her tutelage. The brevity of her stay was no bar to her definitive findings, “Then there is this marvellous bio-market, every Tuesday. My friend runs it. It is simply perfect. The food is amazing. I mean so amazing.” We are in fucking Perigord, of course the food is amazing, you moron. She was so thin it was hard to believe that she ate anything anyway. Perhaps she meant it looked amazing.
I was exhausted. At night I would crawl into bed and one by one the children and dog would join me. What seemed a flat-pitch by day at night turned into a precipitous slope so that I rolled against the side of the van, my face pressed up against the wheel arch, at the bottom of a human and canine pyramid. However little water I drank, I would always wake at least once in the night to face the camper’s dilemma. There was a bathroom block, situated some walk away over sharp stones and between treacherous guy-ropes – which therefore necessitated putting on glasses and shoes or being prepared to make some new friends as you tore down their tents, hopping on one foot, swearing and pirouetting like Jeremy Clarkson on a bed of hot coals (there’s a thought). Or, you could slip, with all the noiseless grace of a midnight cow, round the back of your tent or van and hope that you were not illuminated by a pool of disgusted German torchlight. The one joy of the stroll of the night-time, middle-aged bladder is that, if you dared to look up, you could recapture the child-like sense of awe at the sheer magnificence of the Universe spread above you, while you peed down your leg. I usually forgot my glasses and so was denied even that as I desperately hunched over myself, urging my bladder to empty and trying to make myself invisible by sheer power of will.
And so would begin another Sisyphean day, I would have slept little, my one true desire being to finish a cup of coffee before my children woke. We would start a cycle of pleading and bribery that involved increasing quantities of sugar: higher and higher went the children, sharper and sharper was the crash, larger and larger was the bribe. I had grown my usual holiday beard which, in a moment of idle amusement, I had shaved into a goatee. I had also shaved the few strands of hair remaining on my head and so was bald. Come the evening, the other campers would retire to the sofas, artfully arranged, and unwind from the hell that is spending time with our families by getting artlessly drunk. The bar and sofas afforded a sweeping view across the site. One thing that remains deeply suspicious in even the most liberal of English minds is the non-drinker. So, as people formed short-lived friendships with people they inwardly loathed for reflecting themselves back too accurately, their gazes would settle on a white van occupied by a Gary Glitter lookalike and two children, with no woman in sight, and across the Burgundy air would float the muffled, desperate shouts “Shut up, for God’s sake, shut up” and, perhaps, the sound of a man sobbing.