Interest has been expressed (yes, I am overstating it; Juci is mildly curious) in how the CFO and I met and our 'unforgettable' first date in a wood store.
Well. Settle down for a slightly (very? tell me in the comments) dull story.
I am nineteen and am assigned a job as a French "assistante" in a school in Normandy in my gap year. Normandy sounds like the arse end of dullness to me. It is full of cows, and rain, and offensive dairy produce. I know this from my A Level French project on Normandy where we studied nuclear power stations and cheese until we begged Mme Cockroft for mercy. I had rather been hoping for Nice, or Biarritz or something mildly glamorous. I look up the location of the school assigned to me in an atlas (this tale takes place, children, before the advent of the interwebs. Reference will also be made to something called a 'public telephone box'. Ask your gran.) - it is near Rouen, which is at least a city of sorts. Some consolation.
I call up my predecessor in the post. He tells me that he was held up at knife point in the supermarket car park by two of his students whilst buying vodka. I choose not to tell my parents. Actually, it sounds rather exciting. Things are looking up!
I arrive in Rouen on a Friday night in January after a two day induction during which I learn nothing, except that red wine is fantastically cheap in Paris. The train rumbles through several miles of flat industrial wasteland. Fetching. The English teacher, who is a wispy and sad looking woman in her fifties, picks me up at the station and we share my first Lipton Yellow, which is horrid. I make the mistake of adding milk. Worse. She drives me to my new home, a metal box on a hill outside Rouen. On the way, we are overtaken by ten vans full of CRS (the French riot police), sirens blaring, pin pon pin pon pin pon.
Inevitably Prog Rock in his research found out that Flaubert had written a short story set in my new home. He did not find out, however, that modern day Canteleu was one of those cités that the French media go all alarmist and Daily Mail about. Tower blocks, 45% unemployment rate, a thoroughly, and understandably, pissed off immigrant population. Visits every night from convoys of riot police with shields and CS gas and batons. The road outside the school, it transpires, is a prime joyriding spot, and every evening my tiny room is filled with the sound of exuberant handbrake turns. My room is about 6 square metres. The walls are made of metal and are in fact the outside walls. There is only a sheet of metal between me and the rioting populace. There is an interesting second room that combines kitchen, toilet and shower in 2 square metres of space that would give the Health and Safety Inspectorate enduring nightmares.
I put up lots of posters (Take That, but ironically, of course), take up smoking Gauloise Blondes, and listen to Nina Simone hanging out of my metal window smoking, watching the joyriders and feeling tremendously sophisticated, but also bored and lonely. When I visit the scene of the near-knifing, I find the supermarket is aptly called "Atac". I eat radishes and ice cream and nothing else, just because I can. It does not stop raining for the whole first weekend (in fact it does not stop raining until April but thankfully I do not know that at the time). I take my life in my hands and take a trip to the phone box where I am surrounded by youths shouting "hello! fuck you! pussy!" in a cheery fashion as I assure my mum that everything is FINE and I am taking my vitamins.
Monday rolls around and I head across the yard to the staff room, passing a small man in a giant red Puffa jacket manning the gate (DID YOU SEE ME FORESHADOWING THERE???? I am marvellously subtle, no?). He appears to be frisking pupils before he lets them in. This is both comforting and, paradoxically, not at all. The staff room has bars on the windows. Ashen faced, resigned looking men and women huddle around the cafetière, smoke and talk about their most recent bout of industrial action. Noone talks to me. Eventually the headmaster gives me a timetable, which indicates that I will only be needed for 8 hours a week, to run lunchtime clubs and assist in two lessons. I am about to head back to the metal box with a sense of anti-climax when someone offers to introduce me to the surveillants.
Surveillants are students who work in schools for money, doing the discipline, lunch duty, récré tasks that the profs aren't paid for. There are four of them - Laurent, Nathalie, Marie-Laure and the CFO. The CFO isn't in fact a student. He has weasled out of doing his military service and is doing 'civic' service instead, confiscating knives. Later he tells me how he didn't eat for a week and took loads of drugs before the army medical, then refused to speak for the whole 24 hours they kept him, so he wouldn't have to stay. Determined. They have a tiny cupboard where they sit and share war stories, drinking unbelievably bad coffee (Aromex it is called, and it is impressively cheap) between confiscating flick knives and grass, and patching up head wounds. It is a TERRIBLE job, especially in a school like this. In my six months, one pupil gives another second degree burns by holding his hand against a radiator. Several are arrested. Drug busts happen weekly. Needless to say, English conversation classes are not wildly popular. After a couple of weeks I give up on pretty much everything, and just bring copies of Smash Hits with me and hand them out and get them to ask me questions about lyrics if they have any. The wispy English teacher has a nervous breakdown about a month after I arrive. She is something like the fifteenth teacher to be put on sick leave that year.
In the midsts of the chaos, the small man in the red puffa jacket stalks around looking severe and squinty eyed, telling people off. I don't pay him much attention at all. I can't say there is any particular attraction as we sit in the staff canteen at 11h30 (surveillant meal time! ridiculous) toying with tongue and drinking red wine. Laurent is probably more my type. I am, however, HEINOUSLY bored. Canteleu is possibly the most boring place on earth, when there are no riots to watch. When I walk along the rain sodden streets to the supermarket and back, I am surrounded by youths from my class practising their swearing. It is not even fun the first fifty times. Eventually even they get bored of it.
So when the puffa jacket man stops his ancient Peugeot outside Atac where I am wrestling with my shopping bags and offers to take me into town, I accept with enthusiasm. He says portentously that he can practise his English, while showing me the sights of Rouen. It doesn't sound like the most exciting offer I have ever had, but it has to be better than Canteleu and another evening staring at the walls and practising smoking.
The CFO has a treat in store for me! First, we go to the Prefecture (administrative centre) so he can file some papers. Then, we go to Normandie Bois et Matériaux where he spends an unfeasibly long time haranguing them to give him free wood for a woodwork class he teaches. I have never been in a wood shop before but the novelty soon palls. I start pining for my metal cell. Finally, he takes me for coffee in the Café de la Poste, where he talks at me in impenetrable, awful English. I have my limits. I tell him that he cannot practise his English on me any more. He accepts fairly gracefully. He takes me back to his hovel (NO. NOT LIKE THAT. WHAT KIND OF GIRL DO YOU TAKE ME FOR?) in a grim industrial suburb. It is unbelievably sordid and ugly and he has the most awful seventies droning music. I remind myself how boring Canteleu is and stick it out as we chat, now in French, about god knows what. In the end, we go out for a Mexican meal, which is a nice change from radishes and ice cream and I tell him a pack of lies about myself (I love clubbing, have my own LandRover, have had fifteen boyfriends), telling myself that none of it matters very much, since I will certainly not be seeing him again.
He still thinks I used to have a LandRover, fifteen years on.
La suite? Or too boring?