The very first time the Menards took me down to the beach at Tréguinac I noticed him. Amongst the hordes of yapping French people he sat silently reading a paperback. He was very brown and had black wavy hair. Perhaps he felt my glance, because he looked up suddenly in my direction. His eyes were pale, pale blue. They looked strange in his brown face; I had never seen anyone at home as brown as he was. I looked away quickly. It was the first time in my life a man had caught my attention so fully, and it made me feel a little tense.
Though there were at least three large families in our group, Mic only introduced me to two people, a girl called Françoise and a boy called Joël. Françoise was slim and pretty and wore those neat French jeans which fit so well. She made me feel a lump; my jeans were baggy and had generous turnups owing to their length. Everyone talked fast, too fast for me to follow. Suddenly Mic, Françoise and Joël set off up the beach; it was Joël who came back for me and said slowly and clearly,
‘Come on. We’re going to play ping-pong.’ He made batting movements, and smiled encouragingly. He had wild red hair and freckles, and was tall and gangly; he was obviously a year or two older than me. He pointed: ‘We play over there, in that café.’ Mic and Françoise had already gone inside. I glanced back at the beautiful man as we walked up the beach; he had stopped reading, and was talking now to Mic’s mother, Madame Menard.
The café consisted of a large room, with the ping-pong table at one end, some bar−football tables in the middle, and an assorted collection of cafe tables at the other end near a zinc-topped counter. The barman sold everything: ices, coffee, booze, stamps, sweets, and those smelly French cigarettes. The whole place reeked of them and I must say I liked it.
The barman wore a T-shirt with the name Elvis Presley stretched across his fat chest. The T-shirt was faded and full of holes. The man smiled at me and said something in a hoarse gravelly voice; I smiled weakly back and muttered, ‘Anglaise.’
‘Ah. Anglaise,’ he said as if it wasn’t obvious, and I loved Jean from then on. He poured out a glass of stuff called Pschitt- Orange, and presented it to me saying, ‘Bien venue á Tréguinac.’
He scratched himself as he watched me drink it, a smile of approval on his face.
‘C’est bon ça.’
‘Oui.’ The orange juice was indeed delicious, and he wouldn’t let me pay for it. The table was free now, and the four of us started to play. Ping-pong is one of the few games I’m good at, so I began to feel distinctly more cheerful. Jean shouted hoarse eucouragement. I learned later he was supposed to charge us for using the ping-pong table, but he never did.
While we were playing, Jean’s radio crackled and blared. He leant over the bar watching us, humming to himself in between comments. The music changed to a tune that was sad and powerful; Jean held up his finger and said, ‘Ah, mes enfants, listen to this. The best song in thc world. ’ ‘We know it,’ said Françoise. ‘It’s Ne me quitte pas.’ She was unimpressed. ‘C’est vieux ça.’
‘You have no ears, Françoise,’ he said. Then his radio started crackling and blurping so much that the song was inaudible. Jean twiddled the knobs and swore but the noise got worse; he switched it off angrily.
And so it happened that in my first afternoon at Tréguinac I saw the beautiful man, I met Joël, and I heard Ne me quitte pas for the first time; all three in their different ways were going to change my life.
The Menards were my exchange-family; Mic, really Marie- Claire, had just stayed with me in London and now I was staying in their summer place in Brittany for the first time. Their home was in Paris, and Monsieur Menard worked for the Government. Mic wasn’t very clear at what. My father is a doctor. The Menards had five children, which I was discovering is a moderate family by French standards. Joël’s family, the Jouberts, were six children; Joël at sixteen was the eldest; the youngest was a baby known as Pish. Mic was fifteen, like me, and was followed by Gervaise, Angélique, Patrice and Etienne. The last two were dreadful little boys, worse than my own little brothers.
There was another large family who spent the summer at Tréguinac called Lamartine; I never sorted them out, Françoise de la Tour was the youngest of her family, and was staying with her grandmother. She told me her sisters were married and did not come to Tréguinac any more.
‘They go to the South of France,’ she said. ‘It’s more amusing. I’m going next year. Tréguinac is boring when you get older.’ Though I liked Françoise, she made me feel inferior. She even looked after her nails properly; mine always looked as if I’d used them to scrape the dog’s dish.
The Menards had two little houses in one garden, just above the beach up a steep path. The houses were old two-storey granite cottages at right angles to each other; fruit trees grew trained against the walls. If a Breton wall was sunny, it had fruit not flowers growing up it. The garden was full of fleshy green artichokes and solid sunflowers.
One of the little houses was slightly smaller, and I think had once been a barn or a stable. We slept in it, above the dining room and primitive kitchen, an arrangement of calor gas rings behind a curtain. Every floor in those houses was gritty with sand. I don’t think anyone ever swept them, so it didn’t matter how much mess we made. We all slept in Breton beds, which are like cupboards built into the walls or eaves, and curtained. Mine was the most beautiful. There was carving all over the wooden frame, red-checked curtains to draw, and plenty of room inside to sit up and read or talk. Right from the start Mic and Angélique would join me in my cupboard bed, and we would talk at night for hours. Monsieur and Madame and the boys slept in the other house, and never heard us. Some nights we crept down and pinched food to eat in our hideout, but there was never much to pinch. Madame bought fresh stuff every day, most of which got eaten. I adored the smells in that little house; of garlic cooking in oil and butter, of fresh bread, of chocolate warming in the morning for our breakfast.
The morning after I arrived was clear and hot, so we had breakfast outside at a battered tin table, and drank our chocolate from bowls. Then we ran down to the beach; the tide was high so we bathed at once in the sparkling green water. No bathe was ever better than the morning bathe when the tide was high. While I was in the water, I saw the beautiful man appear at the top of the beach; he stared hard as if looking for someone, spoke briefly to Françoise, and then disappeared again. I wanted to ask Mic who he was, but she was so sharp it wasn’t worth risking the teasing that would inevitably result.
There was much about Mic I didn’t like and much I did; my feelings just about balanced each other out. I was stuck with her and she with me; our parents had fixed up our exchange and we just had to get on with it. Mic once said slowly to me, looking at me assessingly from under her long eyelashes, her head tipped back,
‘Quelquefois je t’aime et quelquefois je te déteste. ’ ‘Snap.’
She was very cool, was Marie-Claire Menard. ‘Je suis égoiste, moi,’ she said, proudly, and I envied her having thought of herself that way. It had never even occurred to me to wonder whether I was an egoist or not. But I began to think about myself that first summer in France.