My guitar lessons with D didn’t go quite as I had expected. I did occasionally play guitar – but for the most part D would play guitar and sing, and I would sing a harmony. I was quite happy with that arrangement, though – it was something I loved to do. I used to sing a harmony whenever I played records at home, and back in Essen I sometimes sang harmonies with M, while she played guitar.
Over time, D and I became friends – and eventually boyfriend and girlfriend. During one of my guitar lessons, D mentioned that he was in a rock band, and asked if I’d like to come along to a gig to sing backing vocals. I thought he was joking, so I said yes.
About a week later, a small convoy of cars transported us, plus the rest of the band and a few friends, to a small church in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. While the band set up their equipment on stage, I chatted with the assorted friends.
At the appointed time, the band prepared to perform – even though the audience consisted solely of the previously mentioned handful of friends. I never did work out the purpose of our being there – I hoped, for the band’s sake, that it was intended as a kind of dress rehearsal, rather than an actual gig.
Just before they started playing, D motioned to me to join the band up on stage. They had set up a microphone for me, over on one side of the stage. So, joking or not, up I went. I hadn’t performed on stage in almost ten years – since I had sung and danced in pantomime at Cadbury’s concert hall in Bournville, as a schoolgirl. But I didn’t feel at all nervous being on stage again – I felt excited.
I didn’t really have anything to be nervous about, anyway – the band was so loud that I couldn’t hear a note I sang, and I assumed nobody else could either. It didn’t really matter to me, though – the main thing was that I was performing on stage, and I was having fun. Sleeping on a wooden church pew overnight, while we waited to be collected the following morning, was not so much fun.
About a week later, D received a note from his friends in the band, asking him to find out if I would come along to the rehearsal for a planned gig at the university. Perhaps they had been able to hear me after all…
The gig at the university went down a storm, and I was now considered a fully-fledged member of the band. Suddenly I found myself at the centre of a large group of friends – not only the band members, but also their girlfriends, friends, and loyal followers.
The majority didn’t speak a word of English, so I got plenty of practice in speaking French. I also picked up a lot of French slang words, which some friends found hilarious. Eventually I got that same feeling that I’d had in Essen – only this time, it felt totally natural to be speaking French, and I couldn’t imagine speaking any other language. Once again, I had achieved my aim of fluency while thoroughly enjoying myself.
By the start of the summer, the university had closed down – and so had the Halls of Residence. D had moved back to his family home, and I looked for an apartment nearby. It occurred to me that, if I were going to pay rent anyway, I would rather pay D’s mother for food and board, instead of handing over money to a stranger. Fortunately, she was happy with the arrangement, as were D and his sisters. It felt good to be part of the family.
Over the summer, the band played several gigs in the surrounding area – including one in Chauvigny, where we were supposed to play in a room on the third floor of a Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture (youth club). Having dragged all the equipment up three flights of a narrow spiral staircase, the band realised that there was no space left for the audience to stand. So the equipment had to go back down to the courtyard, and we played outdoors to the biggest crowd so far – around 400, according to the local newspaper.
I loved being in the band – joining in weekly rehearsals and performing on stage every couple of weeks gave me the connection I had longed for since my arrival in Poitiers. I’ve never been considered “cool” – and I would never have imagined being in a rock band – but, even as an introvert, I thrive on the immediacy of performing in front of a live audience and getting their reactions.
* * *
I was only required to stay in France until the end of July, in order to qualify as having spent “a year abroad.” But I was having such a good time that I decided to stay on a bit longer.
In early September, the band de-camped to a tiny village in the Tarn, where the drummer’s family owned a rambling and rather dilapidated old house. There was a party atmosphere as we prepared to set off – squashing the equipment into a variety of cars with the help of our most loyal fans.
The plan was for the band to spend two weeks rehearsing new songs for future gigs. Everyone knew that I had to return to England at the end of September, for my final year of studies – so while the band rehearsed, I was free to sit in a field and daydream.
Every few days, we all piled into various cars for an outing in the beautiful Tarn countryside – or a trip to the nearest supermarket, which was miles away. In the evenings, we entertained each other with guitar playing and singing – and occasionally additional friends turned up for a couple of days at a time. The house was constantly filled with music, laughter and sometimes dancing.
Eventually this idyllic lifestyle had to come to an end. After such a difficult start to my time in Poitiers, I now felt so at home that I was seriously considering staying on in France, rather than returning to England to complete my degree. But there was a part of me that wanted to finish what I had started – especially as getting a degree in Modern Languages had been a dream since my teen years, when I would spend hours teaching myself languages and writing to penfriends.
* * *
Reluctantly, at the end of September, I boarded a train for London, via Paris. As with my journey from Essen to Poitiers, I had the foresight to send my luggage on ahead of me to London Victoria station, so that I wouldn’t be burdened by suitcases and other items along the way.
After a long, tiring journey, I arrived at London Victoria railway station with a rucksack carrying my classical guitar, and a shoulder ‘tote’ bag. I gathered up the rest of my possessions from the customs office: two suitcases, and a large box which had previously contained tins of mackerel and was now brimming with assorted crockery and glassware, accumulated as mementos of my time in Essen and Poitiers.
There was a lift down to the main hall from the customs area on the first floor, so it was relatively easy to get all of my possessions to the station exit. But I needed to get from there to Victoria coach station, about half a mile down the road.
Outside the railway station, I approached a London taxi driver to take me to the coach station.
“It’s only half a mile,” he grumbled.
I pointed to my luggage and explained that there was no way I could carry everything half a mile. The taxi driver shrugged and agreed to take me to my destination – but he refused to help me load my possessions into the taxi.
A couple of minutes later, we arrived at Victoria coach station. The taxi pulled up, I paid the fare and unloaded each item onto the pavement, one by one – again with no assistance from the driver. The distance to the entrance was about the length of three double-decker buses – not very far in a normal situation, perhaps, but with so much luggage it felt like a world away.
With the rucksack and guitar on my back, and my tote bag over my shoulder, I developed a system of kicking the box, one step at a time, in front of me, so that I could carry a suitcase in each hand. Slowly, slowly, I arrived at the entrance to the coach station – only to discover three small steps up to the door.
I had closed my eyes for a moment, to gather my strength for the next onslaught, when I heard a man’s voice.
“Can I help you with your bags?”
I looked up, brimming with gratitude, to spot a young woman in a mini dress and high heels, carrying a miniscule vanity case – and a middle-aged man who relieved her of the vanity case and took her arm to assist her up the three shallow steps.
“What about me?” I thought. “Don’t I look like I need help with my bags?”
If ever I had felt like emitting a high pitched scream, this was the moment. Instead, I dragged my suitcases up the steps, put them down, then lugged the box up the steps, placing it between the suitcases while I grappled with the entrance door and shuffled to the ticket desk, From there, thankfully, my luggage was wheeled to the bus.
Back in Birmingham, I was grateful to be collected from the coach station by my long-suffering parents. As a result of my ordeal, I was relegated to bed for a week with a high temperature and a septic throat – wondering what had happened to all the Knights and Dames in shining armour that I encountered on my travels when I was younger, more naïve, and had a lot less baggage.