Updated: Dec 6, 2019
By: Joy M. Lilley
Dad would spend days away from home, looking for work, much to Mum’s angst. However, his perseverance eventually paid off, and he was offered a job as a handyman and overseer to a housing complex in the Dordogne, France, made up of residents from a variety of different countries. He returned home in March of 2010, full of excitement about what he referred to as ‘The Life Anew.’
After months of weighing things out, going over the pros and cons, and trying to imagine what this new chapter would be like, finally Mother, me, and my brother Dan agreed to take a chance on France.
It was early summer 2010, if my memory serves me right, when we started to put our lives into boxes and prepared to leave the only home we had ever known. I was sixteen years old. Dan was a month away from turning 18. Out of the four of us, I’d say Dad was the most on board for this move, I was second, and Mum and Dan were in a distant third and fourth place. They weren’t exactly thrilled about uprooting their lives to another country.
Dad loaded the car until it was full to bursting. He drove alone so room was available to take more stuff. He hired a large van at great expense, and his friend (the one who told him to look abroad for work) drove it. They went in tandem and drove for the whole day. It took them a good nine hours to get to Saint-Severin. We traveled behind them, taking the boat across the English channel, and then hired a car in Calais, yet more expense. It was decided that we would break the journey at the approximate halfway point. We stayed at Le Logis des Tours. Dad made sure Mum had a good map and explained the route thoroughly to her and Dan. Me, being a mere girl, was excluded from this conversation.
The journey was long and I began to feel very car sick. I hadn’t experienced this before, so I put it down to Mum’s bad driving. She had trouble navigating the country roads. Driving via these bumpy highways was to avoid the tolls on the main motorways. Dan kept on at Mum to let him drive; even though he had only just passed his driving test. And that was after the second time taking it. Still, he felt sure that he could do better than she was doing.
“You have only just learnt to drive properly, and here we have to drive on the other side of the road,” Mum said. “You may forget that small detail and kill us all.”
“Oh, Mum, don’t be so hard on me,” Dan argued. “I will be very careful. After all, we don’t want to die just as we’re beginning this new life of ours, now do we?”
“Get on with it, then, and you just be careful, son, as you have precious cargo on board,” Mum said.
That night, we ate far too much of the lovely French food and drank rather more than we should of the cheap wine. Whatever money we saved from avoiding the toll roads, I was all but certain we spent it on that heavy dinner. All of us were suffering from some indigestion that night when we checked into our hotel. This led us to a restless night of sleep in strange beds. The next morning Mum settled our bill and thanked the hotelier, as he wished us bon voyage and happiness for our future life.
Mum finally turned the wheel over to Dan. He actually drove very well, slowly and cautiously. There were no complaints except for the one instance when a tractor had the right-of-way coming out of a side turn; a rule of the road that was unheard of back home. It was quite unexpected. Dan pulled our car to a sudden stop and there was just enough room for the tractor to pass by us. It served as two good lessons for us all: always slow down when driving in these countryside villages. And beware of tractors.
~ ~ ~
As we meandered along the twisting and turning roads towards our new location, I felt the first wave of homesickness. Combine this feeling with some of the remaining indigestion from the night before, plus the motion sickness from the drive, and my stomach was doing some gymnastics in the back seat.
I looked out my window and saw this canal that looked awfully similar to the Hythe Canal, close to where we lived back home. We had lived in Hythe, in Kent, The Garden of England, where time seemed to move at a slower pace. In the late spring and early summer, the hollyhocks were just beautiful. They seemed to spring from everywhere, even poking out of walls and up through some of the cracks in the pavement.
Every chance I had, I was down by the canal with my bike. Come rain or shine, I whistled on past riding my little rose coloured bike, complete with the must-have mini basket at the front, usually full of bits and pieces collected along the towpath. I was a happy child, I’d say around eleven-years-old was when I really got into these scenic bike rides.
There was one day when I was on my way home from school and the weather around me was scary. The sky was darkening considerably fast and took on a kind of reddish, yellowy hue. I’d never seen anything like it before.
“Perhaps it’s the end of the world!” a boy shouted as he passed me on his bike.
I stuck my tongue out in response and carried on riding by the canal.
I looked over to the other side and froze in my tracks. There was a man staring back at me; a stranger I’d never seen before. He was gargantuan in height compared to me, and despite being quite some distance away, I could easily make out his face. There was something wrong with it—perhaps it was his skin, it was hard to tell. What I could see poking out from underneath a Stetson hat, was his long, greasy-looking, unkempt hair. He was following me intently with his eyes, as I tried to pick up speed and cycle like the wind towards home.
His large red coat stood out. It was a strange sight for sleepy old Hythe, and his Stetson hat was equally out of place. This strange attire, and his transfixed gaze, made me quicken my pace as my heart began to beat faster and faster in my chest. My breathing quickened as my body prepared for the speed needed to get me home safely. I couldn’t quite shake off the idea of the man, though. Did he know me? Had he followed me back home? Who was he and what did he want? These questions lingered in my mind long after the sighting and my speedy race home.
After all, I reasoned afterwards, he was just a man, even if he was incredibly odd-looking.
As I dashed into the backyard to put my bike away in the rear of the garage, I heard Mum call out, “Where the devil have you been? It’s taken you long enough to get yourself home.”
“Well, Mum, I was riding on the towpath and guess what?” I began to tell her. “This
horrible looking man was watching me from the other side. I’ve never seen him before. He was huge, like a giant, and wore this long red coat and on his head sat a cowboy type of hat.”
“What have your father and I told you over and over again?” she said. “You need to be careful on that path—in fact, I think from now on, you can come home the long way around.”
“Oh no, Mum, please don’t make me. It takes ever so much longer that way and the roads are so busy. I could have an accident or worse still, be killed. Then what would you do?”
“Stop your noise, you silly girl. You’re just being a drama queen as usual. I’ve told you
what’s going to happen moving forward and, from now on, you will not be going down to the canal at all. That’s final.”
“But, Mum, that’s where all my friends go! I shall be okay with them all around me.”
“Uh huh, and where were they today? Hm? Go and get changed, your tea is ready and your father will be home soon.”
Feeling thwarted in my proposed summer-holiday antics, I rushed upstairs to change out of my school uniform. When I came down, my father was home from work and he looked extremely upset. In fact, I thought he was going to cry. It was the first time I’d ever seen that and it made me uncomfortable. Dad was usually the one to nurture and care for all of us. What on God’s green earth could have made him so upset?
“Jack, stop that, you’ll frighten the children,” I heard Mum say in a quiet voice.
Dan walked in the front door. My brother took one look at our father and asked, “Whatever is it, Dad? You look awful.”
“I feel awful, son. I’ve just been sacked from my job.”
Dad worked as a master baker in the bakery in Sandgate.
“Whatever happened for them to sack you?”
“They said I was too old for the job and that they wanted someone who was younger and more reliable. I don’t recall being unreliable except last winter when I had the flu.”
“For being sick? No. They can’t do that. We should take them to court. That’s not legal!”
“Dan, you go and tell them that and you’ll see what the reply will be, boy.”
It’s crazy how certain memories can stand out so clearly like they happened only
yesterday. I can picture that room. The wallpaper. The wooden calendar we had hanging by the clock. The way my dad sat at the table, shoulders slouched, everything about him looked defeated. Broken. And the way Dan stood up, pacing around like an Army general. In that moment, Dan was the man of the house, the one coming up with a plan. Dad was the dejected child, sitting still as if looking for direction. Dan was left assuring the family that everything was going to be alright.
I began to feel claustrophobic indoors with all the racket occurring, all of this talk about jobs and money and perhaps needing to look at other locations. It made my head hurt and I felt small, like I had no say in the matter. No say in my future at all. All I wanted to do in that moment was get out of the house.
So, I went to get my trusty bike and went back to the canal, deliberately disobeying my Mum’s most recent command. En route, I bumped into James. His bike was newer and better than mine; mine was second-hand. James was a good friend to me and was in my class at school. We got along just fine and he would stick up for me when the bullies started. He was big for his age, and towered over the ‘shorty’s’ who were never afraid of giving us girls a load of lip. James always managed to scare them off and put them in their place. All the girls in our class thought of him as their saviour and hero. I felt exactly the same way, but always felt special that he paid more attention to me.
“Where you off to, Maisie?” James asked.
“The canal, of course, there’s trouble at home,” I told him. “Dad’s been given the sack
and now we won’t have any money coming in and Mum’s already starving us on ten almonds a day.” This was all about some crazy idea of feeding us correctly, because of the obesity crisis. Mind you we still get sweets from the tuck shop and I’ve seen Dad going to great lengths trying to make sure his secret chocolate eating remains undiscovered.
“Oh, that’s bad news. I’m sorry. Still, not to worry. Come on, I’II come down with you and we can have a race, and I bet I’ll be beating you.”
We set off to the canal.
“Have you had your tea, James?” I inquired.
“No, not yet. Mum’s not home from work till seven; we have to wait ’till then.”
“I’ve not had any food, either, maybe won’t get any tonight, because Mum will be so
upset over the news of Dad losing his job.”
We got to the canal, and it was awash with people walking their dogs. It was a beautiful night. The birds were singing for all they were worth in the huge and numerous trees running alongside the canal. I think they were oaks or larches or something of that line—can’t remember what the names are. The birds’ chatter occasionally got louder and louder until a scuffle, usually by the big black-and-white birds (can’t remember what they were called, either) and it always ended with one of them being beaten by the black-and-white jobs and the victims soaring off into the sky until they disappeared from view.
I completely forgot about the bother back home, being totally absorbed in the goings-on by the canal. I glanced at my watch and lo and behold, reality came rushing back.
“Better not be out too long, James, or Mum will have forty fits,” I said. “She worries about us coming down to the canal. Have you seen that strange man? The one who walks along in a long, reddish-coloured coat and wears a Stetson hat? I saw him and I think he was watching me earlier today and it quite put the wind up me. He started to walk along the other side of the canal as I rode my bike on this side. He walked pretty fast, too. He was obviously following me.”
“I’ve not seen him down here. But he sounds like any of the other odd bods who come out at night—surely you know that.”
“No, James, you’ve got it wrong, this was in the daytime. And he was definitely the oddest man I’ve ever seen, here or anywhere else.”
We cycled along for about three hundred yards or so, or that’s what it felt like to me, and I said to James, “Must be off for home now, it’s nearly seven, and you did say that’s when you had to get back, didn’t you?”
“OK, shall we have a bike race?”
“Yes, give me a bit of a start, though.”
“Only a little bit. Go on; you can have a bit further than that.”
As I turned to get James’s approval of the distance between us, I noticed the strange-
looking man again, on the other side of the canal, staring at us. I was more scared this time. He was looking directly at me and I could see this creepy grin on his face.
“Look, James! Quick, look over there on the other side. There he is—the Stetson man. Let’s get out of here!”
I still felt safe with James by my side. As long as he was there, I’d be ok. But he cycled up ahead of me a good deal and as I cycled along, I looked over my shoulder and saw the man getting closer. He was following me. I peddled faster but he was keeping up with his long stride. Panicked, I turned into an unfamiliar alleyway to try and lose him, but he saw this and followed me. The alleyway had a dead-end and I cowered in the corner, the man just kept slowly walking toward me until he was staring down, looming threateningly over me.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” James shouted.
His voice sounded far deeper than normal. He sounded like a grown man, as if it were my dad standing there at the end of the alley. The creepy man turned his back to me and began walking toward James. He slowly approached James and it sounded like he hissed at him like a snake as he approached. James stood his ground and then, in the blink of an eye, kicked the man right in the crotch. He fell to his knees letting out a loud high-pitched squeal.
“Maisie, go!” James shouted.
I pedaled as hard as I could. As I went by the creepy man, he reached his arms out for me and almost hit my back wheel. We kept riding as fast as we could until the man and the canal were well off in the distance. We escaped. And both of us were completely out of breath.
“Are you alright?” James asked.
“Yes, I. Yes. I’m so glad you found me.”
“Well, you weren’t wrong,” James said. “That’s certainly the weirdest looking guy I’ve ever seen. I’m just happy you’re ok.”
For the next few nights, we watched for hours on end all the comings and goings of the canal. James and I had always fancied ourselves as amateur detectives. We were both avid readers of the Sherlock Holmes books and we’d recreate these little mysteries around town. James would guide me into abandoned houses and take us on these scary walks through cemeteries or, like now, returning back to the canal in search of a deranged man. James would pretend to be Sherlock and I would pretend not to be nearly as scared as I was.
But this case would remain unsolved. We never saw that man again and after a few weeks moved on to the next exciting (and less scary) mystery around town.
“Earth to Maisie,” Dan said from the driver’s seat. “You sleeping with your eyes open or something?”
I laughed it off but as I looked out of the window, I had this deep longing to be back home. I missed James, my dear friend and saviour. Always there for me. Who knows what may have happened that day if he hadn’t come to my rescue. He was always coming to my rescue and I felt so empty on that drive thinking just how long it might be until I’d see him again.
“Mum, I’m feeling homesick already,” I said from the back of the car.
“Never you mind that, love,” she told me. “I think we’re all feeling unsettled. After all, we have no idea of what we’re going to do. Let’s think of it as an adventure; one to be enjoyed.”
My Mum looked out her window and thought for a second. I could hear her lightly slap her hands on her thighs.
“Well, you two, we have got to make a go of it, this trip has taken most of our money,” she continued. “We may find that everything is absolutely fine and will settle in happily.”
It was as if she was trying to pump herself up as much as she was trying to raise our spirits.
“I think it would be better if we spoke the language,” I said. “Dan and I are going to find the school-work hard, at least in the beginning. I can speak Pigeon French. How about you Dan?”
“I don’t know any, and I’m not gonna waste my time learning that stupid language,” Dan said. He looked more and more confident behind the wheel. “I’ll learn just enough to get myself some fine French ladies. But that’s it. And even at that I probably still know more than you do, Mum.”