Fiction Month 3

In Part 3 of Chalet Concerto Angela hears Anne’s grim story and makes a momentous decision…

Chalet Concerto Part 3

     ‘Not then; I stuck it out for months. I didn’t want to leave our son’s home because he still needed it-and needed me in it during his leave from Sandhurst. And I had no income. It sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? There was money for housekeeping, but I couldn’t use it to fund a deposit and rent for a flat. And my husband was past discussing anything, let alone my departure.
Then two days ago he turned up at one am demanding a meal. I got up and made an omelette and a salad, which was all there was. I poured him some wine. He was unhappy about the food and became aggressive, throwing the wine glass at the wall. He told me I must move into the spare bedroom to sleep because he’d be bringing his new wife to live with us. I remained calm and I asked him how it was possible to have a new wife when polygamy is illegal. He stood up and shouted that he could do what he liked. He took hold of my shoulders and…’
She stopped to wipe her eyes with the shreds of tissue and I handed her the box.       ‘What did he do?’ I whispered.
‘He threw me against the door, hitting my head. I think I passed out because after a while I seemed to be on the floor and he was nowhere to be seen. I pulled myself up, went to the bedroom and packed a case. I gathered all the money I could and rang for a taxi to go to the station, then I sat on a bench until the morning trains started running. I looked at the destinations and chose one. I didn’t want to use a hotel as he’d be more likely to find me, also I don’t have much cash. I thought the holiday park would be anonymous-and cheaper. And then you found me.’
I sat back. ‘Anne, this is a terrible story. You must go to the police. He may be your husband but nowadays they have to take this kind of abuse seriously. And your head should be looked at. You need to see a doctor!’
She leaned towards me, her face pale, her eyes wide. ‘No! No Angela! I can’t do that. Please! I can’t tell them. Please say you won’t tell anyone!’
Her abrupt show of terror shocked me. ‘Alright, but there must be someone you can go to? Have you no family? What about your son?’
She shook her head. ‘No! I don’t want him to know.’
‘Have you no brothers or sisters? Friends? Someone you can call?’
‘I do have one sister.’
‘Why don’t you call her?
‘I…I don’t have a phone, Angela.’
‘No phone? Why? Didn’t he allow you one?’ She blinked and hung her head. ‘Well I have a phone. Do you know your sister’s number?’
She nodded. I went to get my phone and dialled the number, then handed the phone to Anne. I picked up the wine glasses and went indoors to spare her embarrassment, waiting until the murmur of her voice stopped before I returned.
The phone was on the table. She looked up at me. ‘My sister is at home, in Gravesend. I can go there. I just need to get to the station…’
‘Wait.’ I considered for a moment, chewing my lip. I’d had two glasses of wine but I was compos mentis enough to drive, I was sure of it. ‘Go and pack, Anne. I’ll scribble a little note for Dave and I can take you there. It’s not that far is it? Only an hour or so.’
She looked up at me, the tip of her nose still red. ‘You are kind to offer, Angela but I can’t ask you to do any more for me.’
‘You didn’t ask, did you? I offered. Go on-go and get packed. We’ll stop at the site office on the way out. The one night shouldn’t cost much. I’ve been coming here long enough to persuade Irene to let you off a week’s stay!’
Twenty minutes later we were on the road to Gravesend, with Anne’s sister’s address in the Satnav. I imagined I’d could be there and back before Dave returned from the clubhouse bar and we could go up and get a meal there because it was ‘curry and a pint’ on Thursday nights.
The drive went smoothly but she didn’t talk much, just rested her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes. I thought she must be exhausted, after all she’d been through so it didn’t surprise me. We got to the outskirts of the town and into a residential area. Blayden Lane, that’s where the house was-a small bungalow, nothing posh. When I pulled up Anne opened her eyes, sat up straight, said she could not thank me enough for all I’d done and got out. I said to wait while I gave her our phone number and address in case she needed anything but she went to the boot, got her case out and said goodbye. I said I’d wait to see she got in safe but she didn’t seem to want me to. She said to go on back and enjoy the rest of my holiday. Then she said a strange thing. She said, ‘Forget you ever met me, Angela.’ So I started the engine and drove back here, to the holiday park.

Check in to Anecdotage next week for the twisting conclusion of the story…

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Fiction Month 2

       In Part 2 of ‘Chalet Concerto’, Anne finds a sympathetic ear in Angela, to whom she begins to open up. As she starts to tell her story it takes on a darker note…

Chalet Concerto Part 2

         ‘I couldn’t help noticing your hands, Anne. They are beautiful. I’d love to have nice hands. Mine look like piles of sausages compared to yours!’
She sniffed, spreading her long hands out as if she was going to do a magic trick. Her voice was small. ‘I was a concert pianist once, a long time ago.’
I leaned towards her. ‘How wonderful! I’ve never met a concert pianist! Do you still play?’ She shook her head and was silent, staring down.
‘First time here, is it? We’ve been coming here for seventeen years, Dave and me; always this time of year and always to this chalet. Dave likes the golf and I’m happy enough. We get to meet up with folks we know and there’s a bit of entertainment in the evenings. It’s Bingo tonight and Karaoke tomorrow. Do you fancy coming along, Anne?’ I realised I was prattling but I couldn’t seem to stop. I don’t mind my own company but I do like a gossip when I get the chance, although I was beginning to think Anne was not much of a one to chat.
She put her teacup on the table. ‘I’ve left my husband’ she whispered. Just like that!
I waited for her to continue but she sat silent. ‘Oh’ I said. ‘Did you want to tell me why? You don’t need to. I know what husbands can be like. I’m luckier than most, I suppose, what with Dave being out on the golf course so much and staying for drinks with his mates. He falls asleep snoring most nights before I’ve finished cleaning my teeth!’ I grinned at her. But I was blathering.
She looked away, across the table at the rows of chalets. ‘I couldn’t stand to be in the house with him a minute longer.’
I nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging way.
‘My husband is French. He is a conductor. After he met me at a recital he pursued me. This was thirty years ago. We married. We had a son. I gave up my career.’ She paused.
‘But children are such a blessing, aren’t they? Our two girls came here with us for years but it’s not exotic enough for them now they’ve grown up. They want to go abroad-Majorca or Florida. I still miss them but I’m hoping one day the grandchildren will come with us. I haven’t told Dave that though!’ I was jabbering again.
‘Our son left to go and train to be an army officer. Sandhurst. My husband wanted him to have a career in music.’ She shrugged. ‘They have to be what they want, not what we want.’
‘I never had what you’d call a career’ I told her. ‘I work in a garden centre. I’ve got no qualifications but I do know a lot about plants. I love it; that’s the main thing I reckon. You have to like what you do.
But you haven’t said why you left, Anne.’
‘My husband travelled for his work with orchestras. I stayed at home to look after our son in our Bayswater apartment. I played the piano a little when I could but without the rigour and demands of an orchestra I wasn’t able to maintain a performance standard. When my husband came home he derided me for my lack of polish. He began to sneer. My son started school. You’d think I’d have had more opportunity then but somehow I lacked the will. My fingers became stiff.’
She flexed her fingers with their long, tapered nails. They were unadorned except for a pale gold band on her wedding finger. ‘I became concerned only with domestic matters. I cooked. I looked after our son. When he was at home my husband would sometimes invite associates to dinner, soloists, composers and so on. These occasions became a cause of great anxiety for me because he would badger me for days about the menu, about the décor, about my appearance. I worried that nothing would be good enough, that I was never good enough. The dinner party conversations would concern recent tours, new compositions, the benefits of one soloist over another. I began to be marginalised-as if I’d never been part of the musical world. One evening a principal violinist turned to me to ask me what I did and before I could reply he said ‘Oh you don’t work, do you?’ as if a career was the only defining aspect of a life.’
‘Hold on a minute, Anne’ I said. ‘I think we need more tea, don’t you? Or would you prefer something stronger? How about a glass of White? I’ve got a nice Chardonnay in the fridge.’ I dashed in and returned with two full glasses and a bowl of crisps.
‘So there you were’, I prompted, ‘at home, feeling a bit left out, I suppose.’
‘I didn’t mind taking a back seat.’ She took a cautious sip of the wine. ‘but he began to find fault with my housekeeping and my appearance. He seemed to have lost respect for me, seemed to have forgotten who I was and who I’d been. He started criticizing my hosting skills, my cooking, my choices, my conversation. He undermined me, suggesting we get caterers in.’
I had a little laugh to myself about that one. I wouldn’t mind Dave suggesting we got caterers in, especially after a cold day at work. Then her story took a darker turn.
‘Some of the visitors were women, of course and many of them single. We had a small studio apartment in Paris where he stayed and I began to realise he was having affairs, using the Paris flat as a base. But I couldn’t really care too much about it because I knew by then I didn’t love him; that my feelings for him had died with his contempt of me.’
I topped up our glasses, noticing that the wine was loosening her tongue.
‘When our son was ten my husband told me of his intention to send him away to school, to a conservatoire near Paris where he would study music. I was horrified. My son had become my raison d’etre, my purpose in life. I railed against the idea until my husband became enraged, shouting, threatening me physically so that I was really afraid-for myself and for the boy.’
‘And your son, what did he think?’ I wondered why she never once called her husband or her son by name. It sounded odd.
She sighed. ‘He was a tall, confident boy, studious. His teacher said he excelled in sports activities and enjoyed organising his class-mates into games. He was always volunteering to help others. He showed no interest in singing or learning an instrument. When anyone asked him what he wanted to become he’d say he wanted to join the armed forces. When his father told him about the music school he became withdrawn, taking meals in his room. His schoolwork deteriorated, worrying his teacher, who called us in to discuss matters. It was she who convinced my husband that our son was not musically inclined and explained what his strengths were. My husband relented and he was sent to a private school as a day pupil, where he worked hard and achieved three ‘A’s at A-level, easily gaining himself a place at Sandhurst, which was all he wanted.
I was lonely when he went but I was relieved that he was out of the flat, out of the poisonous atmosphere and away from his tyrant of a father. I spent my time reading, playing a little piano, walking and visiting galleries. Then my husband’s behaviour changed. He started arriving home without warning, often late at night. It would be obvious that he’d been drinking as he’d blunder in, swearing and tripping over the furniture. He’d order me to get up if I was asleep, demanding meals and drinks. I lived in fear of his return to the apartment, never knowing when it would be.’
‘So you left?’

‘Chalet Concerto’ continues next week. Part 1 is in the previous [last week’s] post. Anne continues with her story and Angela makes the unwise decision to intervene…

 

A Month of Fiction

It’s November, a month that brings dark evenings and chilly weather; a month for curling up by the fire and indulging in a novel or a short story. Here on ‘Anecdotage’ fiction is celebrated in November with a month of stories, new and hitherto unpublished. 

Story 1 begins with a simple, uncomplicated woman whose curiosity mingled with a desire to help lead to complications…

Chalet Concerto [Part 1]

           I’ve been married to Dave for twenty five years. Sometimes it’s hard to get his attention. I often think I could swing naked from the light fitting with a beer can in my teeth and he’d still be glued to the football; so when I told him someone had arrived to the chalet next door he didn’t so much as grunt, even though it was gone eleven and the Match of the Day credits were rolling up the screen.
I was looking out of the curtains when he turned the telly off. A light was on but nothing else. He said ‘Are you coming to bed or what?’
There was no chance I’d see who it was until the morning. Once I’d cleaned my teeth and got into my nightie Dave was already asleep, lying on his back snoring as I was tossing and turning, wondering who would arrive to a chalet at eleven fifteen. A single person-and with no car.
When I was making the tea next morning I kept looking out but I had to wait until after breakfast to spot her: Anne-only I didn’t know her name then. I went outside to put the shower towels on the rail-there’s a little decking area with a rail around and she was coming out with a handbag on her arm, a small, grey haired woman, hunched over and behaving a bit suspicious, like a burglar. She looked neat enough though, in a navy jacket and a pleated skirt. Only I thought to myself ‘it’s not holiday wear’; it’s not the kind of outfit most folks here put on to go walking the dog or sunbathing, or sitting on a lounger doing a puzzle, which is my preferred activity.
I called out to her. ‘Morning!’ and she turned her head to mumble something back before scuttling away towards the park shop. ‘I’m just going down the shop, Dave’ I yelled and I dived in for my purse. I was thinking we can always do with something or other-biscuits maybe or a nice bit of cake to have at coffee time.
I got down to the shop and said ‘Hi’ to Wendy on the checkout.
‘You’re an early bird this morning’ she said. It’s not a big shop, just a mini-market with stuff campers might need and it’s bit gloomy and cluttered. There were only two or three shoppers besides me and I soon spotted the woman in the middle aisle, looking at the tea bags.
‘They only have one sort’ I told her. ‘If you don’t like those you are welcome to borrow some of ours-I always bring tea bags. We’re quite picky about our tea!’ She half turned, not looking me in the eye. Her face had a sort of pinched, haunted expression. My mum would have said ‘like someone walked on your grave’.
‘Thank you’ she said, ‘I’m alright with these’. Her voice was refined, quiet and a bit posh. She had the packet of Red Label in her hand.
‘The milk’s at the end, in the chiller cabinet.’
‘Thank you’
‘Angela’ I stuck out my free hand. ‘Nice to meet you’. I waited then she took my hand. Hers was cold and dry. She had long, thin, papery fingers which struck me as unusual for such a tiny woman.
‘Anne. My name’s Anne’. It was almost as if she was telling herself as much as me, like she needed to remind herself who she was.
‘How about coming for a cuppa at ours this afternoon, Anne? Dave, my husband, he goes out playing golf in the afternoons so I’m on my tod most days.’
‘I don’t know.’ She was frowning, turning the Red Label packet over in her hands.
‘It’s nice to have a bit of company. I’d only be sitting doing my puzzle book otherwise.’ I gave her my best smile. Then she nodded, down at the tea bags, not at me.
‘Perhaps I will’
‘Good! I might see you this afternoon then!’ I left her and went to pick up a Battenburg and some Cherry Bakewells for later.

‘There’s a single lady next door-Anne she’s called. She might come round for a cup of tea this afto’.

      I was getting a bit of lunch while Dave read the paper. Once he’d finished eating he’d change into his golfing clothes, get his clubs and be off. I knew he wouldn’t be back until this evening because he always stops at the clubhouse for a drink or two or three. That’s when they discuss the shots they missed and pick over it all which is enough to send anyone into a stupor and the reason I don’t go and join them. Golf is boring enough, but golf talk would bore the shell off a tortoise.
To be honest I like it when he’s gone out. I put my lounger in the sun and get on with my puzzle, or read a magazine or even a book. I’m fond of Mills and Boon but sometimes I do a bit of historical romance. I usually make a cup of tea and now and again I have a glass of wine, which feels a bit wicked but indulgent-like I’m spoiling myself.
I sat out with half an eye on next door until about three o’clock. There was no sign of Anne so I put my wordsearch down, went to her chalet and knocked on the door. I realise this seems a bit pushy and I didn’t want to intrude but I had the feeling she’d wanted to be persuaded-and she could only say ‘no’, couldn’t she?
After a moment she opened the door. ‘The tea’s made’ I said ‘and I’ve got a bit of cake if you fancy it’. I’d made it difficult for her to refuse, so she stepped out, closed the door and followed me up on to our decking.
‘Now Anne, sun or shade?’
She sat on the wicker armchair where a small triangle of shade appears in the afternoons. I sat down opposite her in my usual sunny spot. I’d made a pot of tea and put out cups and saucers.
‘How do you like it? I like a good strong cup. Do you take sugar?’ She shook her head.
‘Help yourself to a slice of cake-or a Bakewell?’
She took the cup and saucer from me and stared down into it then as she raised the cup to her lips her face was wet with tears. I ran indoors to fetch a tissue and dropped it into her lap. She put the cup on the table and blew her nose.
‘Thank you. I’m sorry. It’s just-you’ve been so kind, Angela.’
‘Not at all. We’re neighbours, aren’t we? Even if it’s only for a few days! Is there anything I can help you with? I don’t want to pry and there’s no reason why a single person shouldn’t take a holiday on their own but here, it’s unusual.’
She twisted the damp tissue around in her slender fingers. I ploughed on…

Chalet Concerto continues next week…

When the High Tide of Expectation Drops to a Catastrophic Low

The research took some time. It was tricky finding a suitable date, near enough to the actual big day plus an itinerary that would be acceptable. It had been impossible to find a Rhine cruise that allowed us to drive overland to the embarkation point, so I’d had to select flights then change them [at a cost] because they were at some obscene hour of the morning like 6.30am. A 6.30am flight, as I pointed out to the lady on the phone hardly constituted a birthday treat, especially as airports these days require you to be there two hours before take-off. This would be 4.30am. 4.30am!
Then there was the complimentary taxi to the airport, which would need to collect us at 2.30am. 2.30am! How would anyone manage this? Would you sleep beforehand, retiring at a ridiculous hour then getting up at 1.30? Or would you stay up and be almost comatose for the first couple of days of the trip?
No. I changed the flights. I reserved a room at the Heathrow Hilton. The taxi would take us to Heathrow at a respectable hour of the afternoon, we’d check in to the hotel and enjoy a leisurely meal, get a decent night’s sleep and be at terminal 5 at around 8.30am for a 10.30am flight. Sorted.
Husband had chosen a Rhine cruise as his birthday treat. These days there is precious little ‘stuff’ that he wants or needs, and being a man, if he wants or needs something he gets it. As regular readers know, Husband, that character who features in many posts, had a particular milestone birthday two weeks ago and as a result had an entire post written about him…
I’d been startled by his choice of a cruise, as we are great avoiders of such holidays [this, reader has also been much documented on Anecdotage], but river cruises are as unlike sea cruises as cycling is to motor bikes. The boats are not vast, floating monstrosities and passengers must not endure days and days at sea getting stuffed with gargantuan meals, enduring endless, tedious cabarets, ‘dressing’ for dinners and making small talk with those with whom they are incarcerated. The modest cruise boat makes frequent stops at places you can walk around and the ambience is casual. There would always be something to see, even from the cabin. We’d have begun at Amsterdam and finished at Basle. I was frustrated that we’d had to fly such a short distance [Amsterdam is a city that can be driven to in a day from Dunkirk] but when the detailed itinerary arrived in the post it looked thrilling. We’d be stopping each day at beautiful, historic places and get walking tours, as well as travelling through the beautiful Rhine gorge and seeing the Lorelei rock.

I bought new suitcases [ours hailing from a bygone era], bought shoes, organised, laundered, ironed, primed the neighbours.

‘You should see this’ Husband informed me as I returned from shopping. It was an email from the river cruise holiday company to the effect that they were changing the itinerary to mostly coach travel. This was due to a lack of water in the Rhine. He [and I] never at any point wished to embark on a coach tour. I cancelled.

I must admit to feeling slightly nauseous [yes, yes I realise it is a ‘first world’ issue].

We packed our camper van and drove off to the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, 30 miles away from our home and parked in the sunshine overlooking the hillside at Corfe Castle. We strode out over the hills and enjoyed the breath-taking views of our lovely Dorset coast. I stopped feeling bereaved.

Out in the van, we are never disappointed. Yes, there are sometimes challenges or difficulties. Yes, we must make the odd meal, wash up, empty various tanks. But we are not dependent on flights, hotels, plans others have made.

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Next week Fiction Month begins! Check in to Anecdotage for fresh, new fiction…

The Lure of Simple Pleasures

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            We’ve been spending a few days at a favourite site here in South West France. Situated on the Atlantic coast on the peninsula created by The Gironde, Le Gurp nestles in pine woods by a beach that stretches on almost as far as the eye can see, stroked by azure Atlantic rollers crashing on to the sand in frothy crescents.
This camp site is almost entirely visited by German holiday makers, who flock here for the waves, which are perfect for surfing and for its proximity to the beach, which is surveyed by lifesaving personnel and has soft, white sand, a couple of showers and a car park. The proliferation of Germans [and surfers at that] makes for a Boho, hippy atmosphere where strings of bunting, flags, drapes and all manner of camper vehicles abound-like a Mad Max movie.

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           Sites vary as much as hotels do. If your preference is for infinity pools, spas, cocktail bars, beauty salons and karaoke you could have it. If, like us you prefer a beautiful location, a clean, warm, efficient shower, security, space and the basics Le Gurp is the place.
We happened upon it the first summer we travelled to the Gironde with a tent, twenty or so years ago. The site we were on, near to Soulac [having supposedly booked to no avail] was tightly packed with chalets and boasted raucous entertainment each night. During a cycle trip we found Le Gurp beach and site. Could we book? No-it is a municipal site but is vast. There was plenty of space so we moved.
From the site a network of tarmac cycle tracks radiate through the pine forests to tiny, pretty villages like Grayan et l’Hopital and Talais or bustling seaside towns like Montalivets [which has an extensive and boisterous Sunday market] or Soulac-which is touristy but pleasant. On our first visits here we were runners, jogging every morning along the forest tracks in hot sunshine as many continue to do. Later [and older] we took to cycling. On the way to Montalivets by bike you’ll go past the tight brush-work fencing of ‘Euronat’-supposedly Europe’s largest naturist holiday park, although anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of naked tennis or boules-in-the-buff will be disappointed. If you’re bent on spotting unclothed bodies a stroll along the beach in either direction will reveal plenty of devotees-but it’s not a pretty sight!
A short walk [or shorter cycle] over the hillock from the camp site towards the beach takes you past a surf shop, a small supermarket, a newsagents/beach shop, a boulangerie, a launderette and several bars and restaurants-not a massive development but everything, in fact that the average German camper needs or wants.
During the day tiny children play among the pine trees, peddling madly around the tracks on bikes and ganging together to play with sticks and pine cones before being taken to the beach. Here there are no organised activities, there is no pool, nothing but a couple of swings and a climbing frame to amuse them-and so they amuse themselves. Camping is surely the best holiday a child can have?
In these late summer evenings, the sun sets like flames through the pine trees and as twilight descends the site comes alive with twinkly lights from tents and vans. There will be an occasional gentle strum of guitar and groups of al fresco diners will sit up chatting into the night over bottles of wine. You could sit outside with a glass or two or stroll over to one of the beach bars for a late drink. Wonderful.

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Aires-and Grace’s Guide…

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Nowhere in Europe has motor-homing taken off more than in France and while just about every nation has its devotees, the French have thrown themselves with gusto into holiday-homes-on-wheels, the bigger the better.

You can generally guess the nationality of motorhome owners without glancing at the coded number plate. A German will drive a camper-van fabricated from a vehicle that had a former life as a fire engine/horse box/burger van/security van/army lorry and will have been furnished with a wood-burning stove and decorated with artistic graffiti. The French will drive white, shiny, gargantuan gas-guzzlers furnished with their beloved net curtains crocheted with images of kittens, roses or boats.

In response to the explosion in French motor-homes businesses and councils of almost every community have capitalised on these tourist convoys by providing overnight parking with or without services, sometimes for a few euros-sometimes with no charge at all. The idea is that by attracting camper-vans [‘camping cars’ as the French call them] to their town the owners will spend money in shops, bars and restaurants.

Aires vary. Some are landscaped with trees and verges. Most are basic car parks with marked spaces and the addition of a machine selling water [typically 2 euros to fill the vehicle’s fresh water tank] and providing an emptying slot, a ‘vidange’ for the toilet cartridge. You have to hope that your fellow motor-homers are conscientious about keeping loo and water hose outlets separate [hence my regular disinfection of our hosepipe!].

Many aires are part of a larger, town car park. For a large proportion entry is gained by way of a ticket machine-and there are various types with vastly different operating systems for entry and exit. Heaven help those who mislay their exit ticket or number!

The French are cunning about their use of aires and over-night their motor-homes just about anywhere, on pieces of scrub land, beside canals, in lay-bys or in town car parks. They’ll choose any spot with a view or that is convenient then come into an aire to use the services [especially if free of charge]. The powers-that-be are as laisser-faire about parking as the owners are gung-ho but we, the timorous foreigners tend towards towing the line and we park up carefully in a marked bay, whereupon subsequent travellers enter and take up any available spot as long as it isn’t next to us. We’ve grown used to this now-nobody wishing to have the Anglais for neighbours. Perhaps post-2019 we’ll be banned altogether?

In the morning there will often be a queue to empty and refill the vans-an opportunity to observe and to indulge in ‘compare and contrast’. You have to beware of ‘services rage’ or those who take a studied, unhurried approach to the task.

Of course other European countries provide stopover sites [although not the UK] but they are never so widespread as in France. Once we got the hang of using aires we never looked back. You wouldn’t want to use them all the time-although I suspect many French do; we use them for night stops and sometimes 2 nights if we want to visit a city. They are not to be confused with motorway ‘aires’-those landscaped picnic areas along the roadsides which are useful lunch stops but must never, never be used for overnight sleeping!

How we Roll-

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These days we cross the English Channel [our most trodden travel path] by taking the line of least resistance-and since we live a few miles from Poole that line is Brittany Ferries to Cherbourg, a four-hour crossing leaving at 8.30am.
Despite the proximity we know better than to hang about and we are sure to leave home by 7.00am. Once, inspired by Husband’s ‘It’s only half an hour away-we’ve got oodles of time-we don’t need to be there until five minutes before’, we arrived at the barrier just as the ferry was about to leave and winged it up the ramp with minutes to spare.
The ferry, the ‘Barfleur’ [named after a Normandy coastal town] is comfortable and familiar by now. We know that once on board there will be good coffee and fresh, buttery croissants as well as comfortable reclining couchettes in a quiet salon in the bowels of the ship. We know that we can mooch around the small boutique and peruse the eclectic array of merchandise both useful and otherwise. There will be WiFi and television news.
Mostly, these days the ship is peopled with retirees or young couples with pre-school children because since retirement we have the choice of avoiding school holidays. This time, however by setting off a little earlier we are beset by knots of excited, shrieking children who still have time for a quick taste of France before knuckling down to learning their tables. They gallop about the ship, throng around the games room, chase each other from the bar to the restaurant, use loud devices and shout to each other. I surprise myself by enjoying their excitement, which reminds me how I felt on early trips abroad when every experience was new.
A sulky boy wearing a onesie in a bear design makes several circuits past our table with his lecturing mother, prompting me to wonder what he has done and if his excitement got the better of him. A tiny, table-height toddler staggers about, chased by his doting father and shielded from protruding table corners by the various diners he is entertaining.
In the quiet zone I open my Kindle and continue reading Alan Bennett’s ‘Keep On Keeping On’, which is part diary/part memoir/part lecture in itself and a treasury of informative and amusing anecdotes. A couple of rows behind us two men slumber whilst between them a young boy plays on and with a mobile phone, the sound of which is just a little distracting-loud enough to hear but not enough to decipher. Husband, whose own hearing has been compromised during the last few years is immune to such irritations and dozes off easily.
We arrive to Cherbourg, disembark and set off-not tearing southwards as usual but this time meandering across the Cherbourg peninsula to the coastal town of Barfleur itself, where we have lunch and a wander around the curving harbour followed by drinking coffee. Then we continue a few miles on to St Vaast, another harbour town with a convenient aire for us to park up in.

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St Vaast is a delectable place; full of seafood cafes, narrow alleys lined with pretty seaside homes and beautiful gardens, boulangeries packed with luscious pastries, breads and tarts, a crowded marina and a working fishing harbour where sturdy mussel boats are tied up.

There are many, many West coast ports like this, with harbourside brasseries serving the freshest shellfish you can get. We take advantage and I am able to enjoy my favourite treat-a plate of fat oysters nestling on a bed of ice and tasting of the sea.

We stay 2 days despite the drizzly intervals and walk the coastal sea wall to see ‘La Hougue’, part of some anti-British defences of 1664. Then it’s time to move on.