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how do you say GOOSEBERRY in French?

fête

noun, feminine

party, celebration

  

“Mo-li.”

I hear my name through the blur of French voices around me.

It isn’t either of the boys sitting next to me at the table. They’re pretending I’m not here. Both of them looked as horrified as I was when the adults arranged us all boy-girl-boy-girl and they ended up next to me. They gave it a go, talking to me, but honestly I’ve only got about five minutes’ worth of French chit-chat, and it’s pretty much confined to curriculum-dictated topics such as school, where I live and my thoughts on racism and green issues.

“Mo-li.”

There it is again. French people say it with the stress on the second syllable and the ‘ee’ sound a sort of squeak like a surprised mouse. It sounds much better the French way than boring old English Molly, doesn’t it?

It won’t be Léa, though she’s the only person I actually know amongst the twenty-five or so sitting around this table. She hasn’t even looked my way, apart from a ‘what can I do about it?’ shrug when we sat down, her near the foot of the table where the noisiest kids are, and me towards the middle, almost at the adult end. What could Léa do about it? Well, not abandon me in a crowd of strangers when I’ve been in France for less than a day, that would be a start.

“Mo-li!”

I see who it is now. There are two girls, little girls, nine or ten, on the other side of the table and down from me, heads together, staring at me and giggling. One of them catches my eye and then ducks her head when I smile back. I wait until she peeks again and then I wink at her, provoking squeals from them both and a reprimand from the adults beyond them. Bit unfair really, considering the noise from the other end of the table. When the girls look again I put on a sad face, and they huddle and giggle.

It’s not all bad. The food is amazing: a stream of dishes, one after the other, never two different things on the table at the same time: pizza, quiche, green beans, salad, garlicky lamb so rare there’s actual blood seeping out of it, cheese, cake, coffee, then champagne and a different cake. Now and then the bubble of silence that surrounds me is broken by someone placing another dish in front of us and saying something which I nod and smile at even though I don’t really understand. Sometimes an adult nudges the boys beside me, who turn and make some brief comment to me, await my response and then go back to exchanging shouts with the fun end of the table.

I accept wine when it’s offered, though I wouldn’t at home, but the boys next to me say yes, so it seems the right thing to do. After the first sip, I leave it. It has a heavy, old taste, like something that you’re not actually supposed to drink. When the champagne comes I’m about to refuse because all I know about champagne is that it’s fizzy and I don’t like fizzy drinks, but the man handing me the glass says (I think), “But I insist. It’s a celebration,” so I take it and, you know, it’s delicious, in spite of, or maybe because of the bubbles.

After the champagne and cake, the meal’s over and we get up and I follow the rest of the kids outside while the adults clear up. I don’t see Léa until she detaches herself from the crowd and grabs my arm.

Ça va?” she says. I nod. She links her arm through mine. “Vraiment?” she says, looking right at me. Really?

I shrug.

“Come and meet Yannis. He’ll make you happy,” she says in French, and I understand every word, which makes me happy in itself.

Yannis is a tall blond boy with a tan and a dazzling smile, like a boy you’d see in an advert for something really healthy. Léa strokes his arm as she introduces us, and then twines her fingers into his. No need for her to actually say, ‘Yannis is my boyfriend’. He leans forward and kisses me on each cheek, as everyone I’ve met so far has done. I may have been kissed more since I got here than ever before in my life. Yannis kisses me with one hand on my arm (the hand Léa isn’t hanging onto) and as his head moves away from mine and into focus, I see that he’s smiling at me.

He starts to talk, a barrage of fast sounds. I get fête (party) and anglaise (English) but that’s about it.

Léa laughs and shakes her head. “Doucement, Yannis,” she says. He stops talking and then says very, very slowly in English, “I’m sorry. I am speaking very fast.”

We end up sitting at one of those picnic tables with benches attached, Yannis and Léa on one side and me on the other. When I can see their faces and they don’t talk at the same time, I can understand pretty much everything they say. Answering isn’t so easy. I keep wanting to say things that I have no idea how to say. I know most of the actual words, it’s just that I can’t string them together in the right way. But we get by, and I learn that this party is for their friend Simon who’s recently back from a year in Iceland, some sort of EU exchange.

“Why Iceland?” I say. “It isn’t very useful for a French person to learn—” but I haven’t a clue how to say Icelandic.

Pourquoi pas?” Yannis says. Why not?

It seems obvious why not to me, but I definitely can’t put it into French.

I shrug.

“A week away seemed like a long time to me,” Léa says. “Imagine going away for a whole year.”

Yannis winds a piece of Léa’s hair around his finger. “You just don’t know how to manage when you haven’t got Maman and Papa to do everything for you.”

She pouts at that, and he tugs on the curl. “You know it’s true,” he says.

I wonder. Léa was supposed stay at our house for three weeks at Easter, but after a week her mum phoned and said she was needed at home because of some family emergency. It never occurred to me that there might be another reason.

“How long are you going to be in France, Molly?” Yannis asks.

“Six weeks,” I tell him. Going away for the whole six weeks of the holidays seemed like amazing luck when we were planning it. Now I’m not so sure.

“I love England,” Yannis says. “I want to go and live in England.”

“Pity you’re useless at English then,” Léa says.

Yannis punches her lightly on the arm.

“Why?” I ask him.

He leans towards me and gestures behind him.

“Listen to that stuff,” he says. Someone’s put on some noisy, old-fashioned rock music, nothing I recognise. “French rubbish,” Yannis says. “All the best music is English—”

“Or American,” Léa adds.

“English is better.”

Yannis names a whole bunch of British bands: Mumford & Sons, Coldplay, The Beatles, Arctic Monkeys. His band plays covers of all their songs, he says, and they’re trying to write their own songs in English. I can’t imagine what sort of band they think they are with all those different influences. Léa makes a dismissive little noise and Yannis taps her knee.

Méchante!” he says to her, and then to me, “She doesn’t think I’m serious. But we’re good, really. We’re playing on Sunday, you could come and see us.”

Léa shakes her head. “We’re leaving tomorrow night, remember.”

“Tomorrow? To, where is it, Tarn-et-Garonne?” he says to her, and then to me. “But you’ll be back, right?”

Léa sighs deeply. “Four weeks in the other house. Just like every year. That’s why Molly’s staying for six weeks. Because it’s too complicated for her to go home in the middle.”

So look, my French isn’t all that great and I may be missing something here or reading too much into it, but that sounds to me like Léa would rather I wasn’t going to be here for six weeks. In fact, right now, I get the feeling that Léa’s had enough of talking to me, that she wants Yannis to herself again. She wraps his arm around her shoulder, snuggles up to him and whispers in his ear, giggling. He whispers back, but then turns back to me.

“Well, we could get together when you get back, you could look at my lyrics?”

“Yes, OK, I could do that,” I say, but it’s obvious they both want me gone now, so I stand up and ask how to find the toilet. Yannis starts to get up to show me, but Léa gives me a look that says ‘don’t you dare’. At least I think that’s what it means, but I don’t know her that well, do I, and anyway, who knows if I can read expressions in French any better than I can understand what people are saying to me. So I tell Yannis I’ll be fine, and wander off by myself.

Once I’ve found the loo, I’m not sure what to do with myself. Everyone here is already talking to someone and they don’t know me and why should they be interested in me anyway? There’s a chair off to one side that no one’s sitting in, so I sit down there and get my phone out.

I’ve promised Mum I’m not going to use it too much, my phone. It’s too expensive to text or call from France, she said. And anyway, I ought to be talking French, not English. Surely she’d get that this was an emergency though? I text Lily first.

– What you doing? – I type.

Then I delete it. Sounds like I’m bored, which I am, but I’m not going to advertise it.

– Hey Lily! –

Delete.

Bonjour!

That’s better. Chirpy, like I’m having fun at a party and want to include my friends.

Send.

I wait.

Nothing.

I text Alex and Maya.

It’s not till after I’ve sent the text to Maya that I see what time it is: 1.28 a.m. here, which means it’s 12.28 there. I can’t believe it. We’ve been sitting at that table having dinner for hours. Maybe it’s a bit late to be sending idle texts to people at home.

My phone buzzes. It’s Alex.

– Hey, you! How is it?

Do I keep up the chirpy thing, or am I honest? I stick to chirpy.

– At a party. We had champagne!!!

– Get you! Not missing us at all then?

I’m just texting – Can’t live without you – when my phone buzzes again. I hit send and then open a text from Lily.

– How’s France?

– Good

– How good? –

– Nice food, sunny

The two little girls who were at the table earlier have been peeking their heads out of the doorway to stare at me, whispering to each other and giggling. Now they are creeping towards me in a way that I suppose is intended to be surreptitious. One of them sidles round to the back of the chair and looks over my shoulder. She nods at the other girl and beckons her over.

– 2 little girls are reading my texts – I text Lily and Alex. I hold the phone up so the girls get a good view over my shoulder.

They peer and giggle. I wonder if they understand what I’ve written.

– Why? – Lily texts back.

– Nosy

One of the girls taps me.

Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?” she says. The phrase I’ve been using every five minutes since I got here. What does that mean?

I do my best to explain ‘nosy’. They giggle again and touch their noses. They want me to write something else. Pretending to be cheerful to my friends while also entertaining these two is more than I can manage, so I text Lily and Alex – Got to go. Love you babes!

“Is it your boyfriend?” one of the girls asks.

“No, just my friends,” I tell them.

They want to show off their English to me. They introduce themselves: Alice, the sister of Simon whose party this is, and her friend Marine. They’re ten. They struggle to tell me more about themselves in English so I try asking them simple questions. They have between them four dogs, two cats and a goldfish. Their favourite foods are ice-cream (Alice) and profiteroles (Marine). That’s as much question-and-answer as they can manage, so we resort to pointing at different objects and naming them in English and French.

A light flicks on to a chorus of groans and a man comes out, the man who gave the toast earlier when we had the champagne so I suppose he’s Simon and Alice’s Dad.

“Just a moment,” he says. “Then I’ll turn it off again.”

He goes down to the end of the garden, sending two or three couples wandering back into the light by the house.

Alice gets up from the arm of my chair and pulls on my hand.

“Come on,” she says. “It’s the surprise!”

She drags me towards the huddle of people on the terrace. The rest of the adults have emerged from the house now and Léa and Yannis appear behind me.

“Where were you?” Yannis says. “We were looking for you.”

I don’t believe him. They’ve got a sleepy, pink-cheeked look, like they’ve spent the last hour or so hunkered down beside the picnic table snogging or whatever.

Léa smiles at me. She looks more cheerful than she has since I got here. She takes my hand and swings it.

Tu t’amuses bien?” she says. Are you having fun?

And I nod. It’s been OK hanging around with the little girls and I don’t want Léa to think she’s got to put her life on hold just because I’m here.

“Lights out!” yells Simon’s dad.

Someone squeals, Alice or Marine I think, and a rocket shoots into the air, green and red, whizzing, screeching and then popping into white stars.

Ce sont des feux d’artifices,” Alice says. “Comment dire ça en anglais?

“Fireworks,” I tell her. She has trouble with the ‘ire’ sound and the ‘w’. Every time the bangs and cracks quieten she comes back to make me say it to her again.

After the fireworks, the party’s over. Everyone kisses everyone else and Alice and Marine throw themselves at me. Léa pulls me into the back seat of a car and Yannis climbs in the other side, next to her. A boy leans round from the passenger seat to talk to Yannis, but then the driver, his dad I suppose, interrupts and the boy turns away from us.

Yannis leans forward around Léa and looks at me.

“Hello,” he says in English.

“Hello,” I reply.

He reverts to French. “So how did you like the French party?”

Léa moves round in her seat so that she’s facing Yannis and has her back to me.

“She liked it,” she says to him. “And now she’s tired of French boys asking her questions all the time.”

She leans into him and kisses him, really kisses him, and his arms go round her and I squash myself up against the door as far from them as I can get. The driver catches my eye in the mirror and says something I don’t understand. I close my eyes and lean against the cool glass.

I wake up as the car stops. Léa’s leaning over me to open the door. She pushes me out and I stumble and stretch. My neck is stiff. It seems like I’ve been asleep for hours. As the car pulls away, Yannis leans out and calls, “A ce soir!” See you tonight. Tonight? Isn’t this the night? Does soir mean something else?

Before Léa can get her key out, her mother opens the door.

“Oh it’s you!” Madame Masson says with an air of surprise. Who else could it be? Or maybe she’s not surprised. Maybe French people always sound surprised to English people.

“Did you have a good time?” she says, following us up the stairs. “Who was there?”

Léa doesn’t even look at her. “Go to bed, Maman.”

By the time we’ve crawled into Léa’s king-size bed, it’s four o’clock. I ache with weariness but Léa’s not ready to sleep. She turns towards me on her pillow.

“So, it was fun, wasn’t it?”

“Mmm hmm,” I murmur.

“And Yannis. You think he’s cute?”

Mignon is the word she uses. I thought mignon meant cute like fluffy kittens, but I suppose people do talk about cute boys, when they mean fanciable ones.

“He’s nice,” I say. I use the word sympa, nice. I don’t want Léa getting the idea that I fancy her boyfriend.

“No, but you like him, don’t you?” she insists.

I’m not sure if this is an interrogation or not but I do know that my French isn’t up to girly conversation at this time of the night, morning, whatever it is.

“I’m too tired to speak French,” I say, in English.

“OK,” Léa says. “Fais des beaux rêves.” Sweet dreams.

She shifts down the bed and draws the covers around her neck. Her breathing slows and deepens as she falls asleep almost instantly. There’s too much going on in my head for me to sleep. Words chase themselves round in my brain: perfect French phrases I couldn’t conjure up at the appropriate moment, meanings I failed to understand, the food, the faces. Gradually, my thoughts sort themselves into place and then I sleep.

 

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