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The greener grass of Albion, a short story, part 3
I had learned early in life that one divulges information to his parents, no matter how fantastic they might be, on a need to know basis. Everything in due time. Never say more than you have to. So, I hadn't made any mention of my real agenda to anyone other than my friends at school. Of course, there was no doubt I was going to ride the bike to school in good weather. But I had, I must confess, an ulterior motive. I had been working on my plan for months, quietly, but I'd like to think efficiently. I had made the decision to go spend a whole month in England in the summer. And since we couldn't afford to send me through the proper channel, no pun intended, I was to create a parallel one. My friends had secretely contributed to the conspiracy. Jean-Louis, more commonly known as Loup had loaned me a mini tent supposed to accomodate two adults, but I put it up for tests in the backyard once, and honestly, when I had all the necessary gear inside, there was barely enough space for me to sleep. The whole idea was simple. I would ride my bike from our hometown to Calais, all 190 miles of it. There, I would get on the ferry to Dover and then ride again to wherever my final destination would be. At this point, we had no idea where that might be. I had to wait for my friends to receive their paperwork from the Exchange students body in order to know where they would be located. We knew from their previous experiences that it would be somewhere in the South East of England, but it could be anywhere along the coast :Dover, Folkestone, Eastbourne, Hastings, Brighton ? Wherever I would end up, I would settle myself at the local camping site for the month and then would head back home the same way. I looked at a map I had obtained form the British Tourist Office in Paris, and it seemed that public campsites were all over the place. Jean-Pierre had given me a nice backpack he didn't need anymore since he got kicked out from the Boy-Scouts. The choice of clothing was important, as the space was extremely limited. I had to account for rain (no kidding!) and possibly a few cold nights. Even though the South coast is the best England has to offer in terms of good weather, it is still, by no means, the French riviera !
The backpack had little side pockets that would accomodate the small stuff, flashlights, swiss army knife, a fork and spoon. One of the larger pockets would house my camera, a cubic boxy inexpensive Kodak thing with a handle on top. Everybody had at least one of those. No cooking gear. I would rely on sandwiches, Wimpy hamburgers, fruit and water. Convincing my parents about the legitimacy of my adventure was no picnic in the park. Dad was about excited as I was, And I knew he would have love to come along or make the whole thing a family trip if he could have. But he was worried about the traffic on main roads. So, I redesigned my itinerary using mostly secondary roads. It would take a little longer but I agreed to it for obvious safety reasons. As for Mom, she was a nervous wreck and I could anticipate candles burning at the church for my well being on a daily basis. But we all have to severe the cord at some point, don't we ? At no time did they try to dissuade me. I had made a choice and as much as they were not crazy about it, they were going to back me up. That's the kind of parents I had!
At the beginning of June, we celebrated my fifteenth birthday, and by the end of that month, a short week after school ended, I was ready to go. For my birthday, I had asked for a parka type jacket that had the advantage of being light, waterproof and warm, as it was lined with some imitation sheepskin. I was made to promise to call on a daily basis the neighbors across the street who ran a construction business, at least until I settled safely somewhere in England. I finally learned from my friends that Loup was going to Canterbury, while Jean-Pierre was assigned to a family living in Folkestone. Good news, as with the bike, I could commute from one place to the other, the two places being only 17 Miles apart. Actually, there was also a possibility that the three of us might be able to get together once or twice.
So, the last Sunday of June 1963, at six in the morning, the engine of the Mobylette gently warming up, I kissed my parents goodbye on the sidewalk in front of the house. Mom wept. That was expected and she almost made me cry too. Dad hugged me and wished me good luck while discreetly sliding a 100 Francs bill in my pocket. I really feared for his co-workers. These guys would never hear the end of the story of how his son went to England all by himself, and on, and on, and on, for months to come. I got on the bike, put on my helmet and goggles, and slid my hands into the sheepskin lined mitts. And this, my friends, is how it's done!
I had worked long and hard to be ready for this trip, and at least on paper, I had left no room for guesswork. Of course, I knew something wouldn't go according to plan, but hopefully, it would be a little something and not a major disaster. And so, I headed for Paris first, using the good old fashioned roads since I was not allowed on the highways. The coolness of the morning made the engine breathe better and I was cruising along. With a maximum speed of about 45 MPH, I had calculated my trip based on an average 35 MPH speed. Technically, I could be in Calais that night, even late, which would be good as the night ferries are usually a lot cheaper. But I wasn't set to beat any landspeed record. Speed alone had no interest to me in that instance. Longevity of my machine and endurance were of the essence. I reached Paris in less than an hour. I used the circular boulevards to go from South to North, instead of going straight across the busy city.Then, I got on the Route Nationale 1.
I had chosen to leave on a Sunday because there would be less big trucks on the roads. Also, people usually get a later start on Sundays, so I had the road almost to myself for a while, and sharing it with very little traffic later on. I had never felt so good and so proud in all my life as far as I could remember. I felt I had just reached the end of childhood. I had become self reliant and whatever was going to happen to me, I was on my own and in control. Quite a big responsability in a way, but the feeling of freedom overshadowed everything else. Needless to say, Mother had fed me a gigantic breakfast before I left, so I wouldn't probably get hungry before lunch time.
The Mobylette had no fuel gauge so you needed to remove the filler cap and shake the bike while listening carefully to assess how much fuel was left in the tank. The first time I stopped to refuel, in a small family run garage in a tiny village, a boy about my age operated the pump.He asked me where I was headed and I said I was going to spend a whole month camping in England, all by myself. His eyes opened up to a size unseen before! I would have told him I was going to the moon, he wouldn't have been more surprised. As I was leaving the garage, I looked back and saw him watching me, his arms down along his body, in complete astonishment. I'm not sure he believed a word I had said.
See, a dream like mine was nothing but a fantasy. And the way I saw it, fantasies are meant to be acted upon. That's what life is all about, at least in my book. Do something with it! All the authors I had read so far had become popular and successful by writing stories filled with out of the ordinary adventures. Even Madame Bovary, not the most exciting book to read as a teenager was the tale of a daring adventurous woman, at least at the time it was written. And I had read quite a lot already : Zola, Balzac, Cronin, Hemingway, Steinbeck...All these people wrote wonderful tales and that's probably where the roots of my own daring thirst for adventure found a place to grow.
To be continued...
Copyright 2012 by Austinhealy, his heirs and assigns.
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