This was my second visit to France, in summer 1969, and I was to go with my exchange partner’s family to a wedding. It was difficult enough working out which clothes I could take with me for a three week stay in France that might involve the town, the countryside and the seaside, and definitely meant living up to a level of chic I had never encountered before in my life. I had already explained to my mother how Madame Martel would visit her couturière each season and have a set of perfectly co-ordinated clothes made for her. They even matched her beautiful auburn hair. She also had different perfumes for summer and winter. To a girl who kept a little bottle of eau de cologne in her satchel, this was something to aspire to. I once caught a glimpse of Madame M. naked in her bedroom, dressing. Quite how I found myself peeping at her bedroom door is a mystery. But the image of very white skin and a small, neatly curvaceous body is still quite vivid, merged with Bonnard paintings of women dressing that I have seen since this moment. As my voyeurism suggests, I was fascinated by Madame M., by the whole performance of being a middle-class French woman, from getting up at six to get langoustines from the market for the soufflé, to the sexy voice and laugh, the delicately rouged cheekbones and perfectly coiffured hair.
So the question of what to wear for a French wedding seemed to me horribly complicated. Especially when my exchange partner Marie explained to me that I would be paired off with a young man, or cavalier, who would be my companion for the day. ‘Don’t worry’, my Mom said, ‘we’ll get something out of Grattan’. The catalogue came to the rescue, not for the first time. It was certainly much less scary than having your measurements taken by a stern French dressmaker. My mother and I hit on a little red, white and blue number – a short dress and matching coat, with a white collar. When it arrived, all wrapped up in brown paper, there was a big trying on session, and the outfit was found to be perfect. To complete the look we got a big white floppy hat from C and A; I already had navy shoes and bag, and white socks. Yes, socks. I suppose we thought tights would be too hot. The socks of course destroyed the fashionable impression created by the rest, but I was oblivious. I set out for Birmingham airport with every confidence in the outfit and my O level French.
In the days leading up to the wedding the Martels’ huge apartment became even more hectic than usual. Madame Martel spent long hours preparing elaborate meals for the wedding guests who would be staying with us, but still found time to check our outfits. When it came to mine she nodded in approval until her eyes rested on my spindly sock-clad legs: ‘Ah non, les chaussettes ça ne va pas du tout’. She re-appeared moments later with a pair of tights – I muttered a humble ‘merci’ and she whizzed on to the next candidate for inspection.
Then I was moved from my usual room into the youngest son’s attic, while he camped in his parents’ room. I realised only later that this move was necessary in order to put as much space as possible between me, the Martel girls, and the young male cousins who were coming to the wedding. I did not fare very well in my new attic abode, which was hot and infested with mosquitoes. I got so many bites that I had to spend ages every morning putting concealer on the ones on my face. This was not a great start to the wedding preparations. However, when the day dawned, the outfit, a lot of Rimmel concealer, pale lipstick and blue eyeshadow transformed me into a vision of such splendour that Monsieur Martel exclaimed ‘Vive l’Angleterre’ as I emerged from my gloomy lair.
I was introduced to Christophe, my cavalier, who had in fact stolen my room. I immediately forgave him. He was twenty-three and an actor, from Paris. I was so overwhelmed with admiration and desire for him, that I was completely tongue-tied. This did not matter much as we were immediately plunged into a series of incomprehensible rituals, involving a long church service, the mairie, and a procession between the two. Finally we arrived at the bride’s parents’ house, and champagne was served. We stood in the garden in hot sunshine, sipping our drinks, and in my case desperately trying to think of something to say.
After the apéritif we transferred to the salle des fêtes in the village for the meal. I sat next to Christophe. The first course was melon filled with port. I started to feel a little light-headed, and Christophe kept asking me if I was alright, with a concerned look. A different wine was served with every course after that, until we reached the pièce montée, a tower of choux pastry balls covered in caramel. After all of this I felt the need for a breath of air. Christophe followed me out, and we wandered down to the banks of the river Vienne. At last we managed to talk. He asked me if I believed in God, and when I said yes, he told me it was because I hadn’t thought about it yet – ‘parce que tu n’as pas réfléchi’. This was a touch patronising, but I didn’t mind. Eventually Christophe said we should be getting back, as otherwise everyone would think what everyone thinks when a young man disappears with a girl. In fact I had nothing to fear, or rather to hope for, as Christophe told me I was ‘trop bien entourée’, too well surrounded by family.
The next day we bathed in the Vienne. I caught a glimpse of Christophe, but conversation was limited to ‘Ça va?’ ‘Oui, ça va’. As I swam in the river, Marie rather cruelly but not inaccurately remarked that I was keeping my face out of the water so I would not spoil my maquillage. Someone else remarked ‘C’est pour Christophe’, and I blushed.
Monsieur Martel told me at dinner that Christophe was leaving early the next morning. So the next day I made a special effort to get up early, and went downstairs well plastered in Rimmel, and wearing a dressing-gown that was pale blue and 100% nylon, one of Grattan catalogue’s less successful efforts. Christophe and the other cousins chatted with Monsieur and Madame Martel, and I tried hard to participate, but without much success, for I was trop bien entourée. This was not the romantic goodbye I had dreamt of.
Four years later I spent Christmas with the Martel family. One evening there was a lot of giggling. I assumed they were doing the frogs’ legs trick again (giving me frogs’ legs without telling me what they were had been one of the big jokes of an earlier visit). Mais non. After dinner we watched TV: Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. It was not surprising they thought I would like this. Then suddenly, there was Christophe! Now a member of the Comédie française, and playing Sebastian. I acted out all the required expressions of amazement and excitement to the delight of my hosts, but the dream was dead. I was no longer sweet sixteen and only just out of socks.