The French Summer in London
When I think back to the summer of 1973 I remember glorious sunny days in Chelsea and our higgledy-piggledy mid –terrace bursting at the seams with joss sticks, Beatles albums, books on revolution and Air India posters.
I remember bright summer mornings as I dawdled reluctantly to catch the No. 22 at Sloane Square, past leaf-dappled squares, and long summer evenings high up in our roof-garden, overlooking the other gardens and rooftops which stretched down at sunset to the violet ribbon of the Thames. But most of all, I remember it as our French Summer in London, the summer we met François.
Jennie and I shared the top two floors of the shabby house just off the King’s Road. We shared it with four cats from the Rescue Centre in Battersea, two birds (road accident survivors), a balding hamster and a Venus flytrap. Jennie, a keen disciple of worthy causes, was “into” Hare Krishna and soya sausages in those days. She tried valiantly to wean the entire household onto a herbivorous diet but was only notably successful with the hamster and myself.
One Sunday evening late in May I was hunched over a flower-pot on the roof-garden, digging hopefully for worms with a chopstick, as Jenny had finally decided that the Venus fly-trap was looking anæmic. As I triumphantly speared my first wriggling victim, I sensed a pair of eyes boring into the back of my neck and I turned, squinting, to look over my shoulder. The dripping saris and voluminous cheesecloth skirts on the washing-line had been parted and I found myself staring back into a pair of light green eyes that sparkled with mock alarm and no little amusement.
The face blushed and vanished behind the skirts, but a moment later popped back and a little ruefully a hand was extended.
“Pardon, mademoiselle, but what do you do?” he said warily.
“Who are YOU?” I countered, hiding the skewered worm behind my back.
He scrambled down through the Maginot line of clothes and tipped his beret.
“Je m’appelle François. I am your – ‘ow you say eet? – neighbour for the summair. I am coming from France to lairn the Engleesh.”
Trying not to stare at his beret, I hurriedly dropped both chopstick and worm and stuck out my hand to shake his. “Er … bienvenue à Londres, François,” I muttered, drawing frantically on virginal reserves of O-Level French. “Je suis Ruth.” He took my mud-caked hand a little gingerly and pressed it to his lips.
“Enchanté” he murmured. He was right, of course, but the enchantment was all mine. How irrestible, how devastating this Gallic charm, in contrast to the usual “Hello, old girl” and the whack on the back that is the usual greeting of one’s countrymen.
François was the first proper Frenchman I had ever met, not counting the waiter at Asterix and Obelix, the gallette café on the New King’s Road. He was wonderfully French. His father had sent him to London to improve his English and so François insisted on always speaking in English – not so much to increase his own proficiency but because he would shudder to hear us massacring his beloved mother-tongue.
In every other way, however, he was a little piece of France transplanted into the heart of London. He never took off his battered beret, he smoked Gauloises, his shirts all had little crocodiles on the top pocket and he insisted on calling the Tube “Le Métro”.
He and Jennie both had summer jobs at Harrods, and they would cycle off together every morning, François on the wrong side of the road, doggedly sporting his Maigret mac with the collar turned up, incongruous in the sunshine. He had soon discovered that our knowledge of things French was sadly limited to the school syllabus, Frère Jacques and the Scarlet Pimpernel. We had also heard of French letters, but didn’t dare mention our illicit knowledge which was nothing to do with the postal system and Jennie thought one could probably only purchase on prescription.
François was mortified by the depth of our blissful ignorance. Then he looked very grim, then thoughtful and finally - extremely determined. He pronounced that he would spend the summer educating us in the ways of
France, ignorant Anglo-Saxon peasants that we were.
From that moment, our house became a college for Francophiles – an Aladdin’s cave of French bric-a-brac.
Each week, François would be transferred to a different department in Harrods, and every department yielded a fresh trophy from “la belle France.” From the Fine Arts department came a bright Renoir print of a lady with red hair, and a man with a straw hat, waltzing straight into our living room. From the Food Hall, he produced a silver box of creamy marrons glacés and frangipane cakes, and even a tin of escargots that we later fed discreetly to the very grateful Venus fly-trap. From the Music Department, our record collection was boosted by one or two of the Piaf classics and a pop record by Françoise Hardy. There seemed to be no end to the treasures. François was so eager to teach us about France and we, Jennie and I, were swept along on the tide of his infectious enthusiasm and patriotic pride.
A few weeks after our first meeting, he burst onto the roof-garden through the washing, bowed with his customary French flair, and whisked me into an impromptu polka around the tomato bags.
“Ecoute, petite anglaise,” he beamed, “do you KNOW what day is it on Sunday?”
I looked blankly at Jennie. She shook her head.
He waved his arms about. “It is fourteen July,” he announced triumphantly.
“Oh goodness,” said Jennie. “That’s Independence Day or something, isn’t it? The day the Americans threw our tea into the sea and sang Yankee Doodle Dandy. Right?”
François went very pink. “Wrong. Non, non, NON!” he moaned. “That is FOUR July, imbécile. FOURTEEN Juillet is Bastille Day – the day when France is breaking the chains of tyrannie forevair. And you will celebrate this day with me. Alors, we will drink French wine, and sing French songs and I will create for you a marvel of haute cuisine, a feast incomparable … Bœuf Bourguignonne, or perhaps Poulet Bonne Femme.
We commence with pâté de foie …”
I noticed Jennie beginning to blanche as he warmed to his meaty feast.
“Er, François,” I said uncomfortably, “we are sort of vegetarian, actually.”
There was an ominous pause. “You do not eat the meat?” he snapped incredulously. “But all haute cuisine is for the meat.” He sighed deeply. “Feesh, alors. You eat feesh?” He glared at Jennie who shook her head. I could tell we were on the verge of an international incident. “’ow about a duck? A très petit canard à l’orange. One leetle duck, its mothair will never meece it?” he wheedled hopefully.
“I’m really sorry, François,” said Jennie, “but I’d never be able to look my Daisy Duck fluffy slippers in the face again. How about a nice mushroom omelette, or something?”
“Omelette?” he said witheringly. “On Bastille Day you wish to celebrate with an OMELETTE?” He made it sound as if it had died on the plate. “Non, I will not make an omelette. But, for you, I will murder a vegetable. Hah!” Casting us both a look of terrible scorn, he swung on his heel and vaulted back onto his own roof. “Un omelette!” we heard him muttering bitterly under his breath as he sloped off.
That week François kept very much to himself. Occasionally we would glimpse him cycling past, puffing furiously on a Gauloise, his brow furrowed in thought. We debated in giggles … what vegetable would he inflict on us?
Sunday dawned brilliant and clear. I went out to feed the hamster and found François busily rigging the Tricolour to our washing line, linking our rooftop to his, with a slender thread of bunting.
“Salut!” he said cheerfully. “Now don’t forget tonight … we dine together. I have prepared a special surprise for you.” He actually hummed the Marseillaise under his breath.
Jennie and I were anxious to dress appropriately for such a momentous occasion. Jennie wore a white Empire-line cheesecloth dress tied à la Charlotte Corday with a red and blue satin ribbon. I was pretty certain she had murdered someone in a bathtub which sounded a bit dodgy, but Jennie assured me it had been a revolutionary act, so it was okay. I wore my new bell-bottoms and a red and white striped T-shirt which Jennie said looked very revolutionary as well. I think she was being kind. I looked like a barber’s pole. Clutching a bottle of Beaujolais from Safeways bargain bin, we climbed the wall and knocked on the French windows to his roof terrace. Did the French call them English windows, I wondered.
François was wreathed in smiles. “Welcome, welcome … come in, come in,” he said, drawing us towards him and kissing our hands affectionately. The front room was draped with red and white and blue paper chains.
The table was laid out with care, a red rose in the centre and crystal and cutlery gleaming in the candlelight. François decanted our bottle of plonk as carefully as if we had presented him with a bottle from the cellars of the Chateau de La Fitte, and we sat down to the first course.
He had prepared a delicate blend of asparagus and tomatoes in a vinaigrette sauce, peppered with basil from our roof-garden. There was hot French bread and an aperitif of Ricard which, even when watered down, still tasted like toothpaste, so I downed it in one. Appreciatively, he poured me another.
When we had finished, François disappeared down into the kitchen and then reappeared with a flourish, bearing an enormous flat, round dish.
“I ‘ave search my thoughts,” he said, flushed with triumph, “and then I remember a recipe of my mother. Perfect for you, and traditional for me. Et voilà – mes demoiselles – I give you … La Quiche Brétonne! Oignon Pie!”
What a triumph of a pie! The pastry was rich and crumbly, the onions were sweet, soaked in thick Crême Fraiche and cognac, topped with coarsely ground black pepper. As long as I live, I think I will never taste a pie so delicious. It melted in my mouth.
We ate dreamily, drank the Beaujolais and worked our way through the rest of the cognac. We sang in French and English. “La Vie en Rose” and “Michelle” (especially the French bits). Much later, we went out onto the roof and set off one rocket, which shot joyful sprays of red and silver stars, streaming towards the moon.
I don’t know where François is living now. He left London at the end of that magical summer and we lost touch. But every fourteenth of July, even now, my friend Jennie and I raise a glass to our friend François, and to France, and to the memory of the incomparable Oignon Pie.
Winner of the best short story Radio Bahrain competition 1979