France

TALE: Love on Fire

I had a choice: I could choose Euro Disney and work in a restaurant 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, wearing a ‘turn of the century’ costume, carrying on my shoulder a tray large enough to take 20 plates, living just a little too far out of Paris so that it would be tantalisingly close but yet realistically too far to fully appreciate; or, I could work for Carisma Holidays and work seven days a week, true, always more or less on call, yes, but wearing nothing but shorts and a bikini everyday, hosting cheese and wine parties and living only 300 metres from the beach on the west coast of France. I was 19 and to me the choice was obvious.

It was Easter and I had just come back from five months of raclette, vin chaud and flying up and down the slopes of the Swiss Alps. Well, that is, when I wasn’t getting up at 7am to open the piste-side café or scrubbing down the toilets or picking up candy wrappers frozen to the terrace with my bare hands. I’d been working in a ski-station restaurant and somehow I had made an enemy of my boss, Madame Danielle, in the first week. Accidentally, innocently, I’d been caught flirting with one of her sons over the Christmas dinner table. The day she gave me the task of cleaning between the dining room floor tiles, with a toothbrush, I knew my fate, to be always assigned the most ghastly job, was sealed.

Despite the harsh working conditions I was not deterred. Outside working hours, I was having the time of my life. I refused to give in and go home early, this being my first foreign adventure living abroad on my own. I’d decided to take a gap year, between college and university, in order to review my options. Since I’d left home, all of 6 months ago, I had learned a lot about myself. I knew I definitely did not want to be a lawyer. I knew I loved speaking foreign languages. I enjoyed being in control of my own destiny. And I knew I was not going to be broken my some bitter old lady. And the learning didn’t stop there. Emma, my new best friend, had taken on the challenge of teaching me how to ski. We had become inseparable, going out dancing to Euro-pop and improving our ‘conversational’ French on double-dates with the beautiful ski instructors. Moreover, I’d learned that I would not be treated like a slave again, no matter how amazing the view from my serf’s quarters.

I packed my bags for the coast and headed down to Southampton, taking the ferry across to France and a coach down to the Vendee. The lacklustre interview for the luxury camping company didn’t appear to hold much promise, given that the owner seemed almost bored, reeling off the questions without paying much attention to my answers. That was until he spotted my time spent with the Girl Guides, at the bottom of my résumé. The atmosphere went from apathy to over-enthusiasm in seconds. He proclaimed, ‘Guides, well it’s all about being resourceful, being outdoorsy and cook-outs, and of course pitching tents. It’s only natural you should be our next Tent Manager’. I laughed, in an awkward- I’m not sure what that means but I want something from you so I’ll play along way. It turned out that, more than a mere camp rep, I would be solely responsible for the well-being and holiday-happiness for all those choosing to spend their precious paid holiday with their families under high-class Carisma canvas. Tents! A manager of tents, when all said and done. But I saw this as my opportunity work and travel abroad without having to answer to anyone remotely like the Madame. I decide it was not the time to point out that I had not pitched a tent since I’d gained my Baden Powell Trefoil at age14.

I felt blessed to be in such a position. Yes, there was still cleaning to be done, to get the campsite ready for the first arrivals in May, but I was really like my own boss. I mapped out my own work schedule, planning out how long it would take to set-up, clean and arrange each tent. I took breaks as and when I wished, wandering through the forest down to the beach. I felt truly free, and more importantly, in control. When there was time available, I would, of course, go and help the other reps that were prepping the luxury mobile homes, but it was sweaty work and made me feel trapped. I loved that my waterproofed-cloth kingdom was on the other side of the campsite, giving me the freedom to make my own rules, to really reign as I wished.

The holiday-makers began to arrive and things settled in to a routine. Every two weeks, on Monday morning, I would do my rounds, introducing myself as their tent manager, ready to make sure they had the best holiday possible, there for their every need, night or day. I was full of information on day trips to authentic markets, historical towns, quality patisseries. Carl, Gabi and I would do the supermarket run to the nearby town every Tuesday morning, picking up supplies and stopping off for a quick panaché or Pastis on the way back, a bonus for being a manager. Plus, our cultural evenings were a hit all round. The kids got hotdogs and games down the beach, while the mums and dads got to knock back French plonk and scoff French cheese while getting their fill of adult conversation. The sun shone every day and it seemed that that as long as I did a good job, I would be left alone to run my own ship. 

My situation suited me perfectly, particularly as I had met someone special. As I’d jumping off the bus at the campsite gates, Matt had been there to greet me, all bronzed and fresh-faced. He’d been there a month already, setting up and hanging with the boys every night, playing cards, drinking whiskey and talking men’s business. His eyes, so honest and eager, reached into me, pulling out the desire for relationship that I didn’t know I had. He was down to earth, uncomplicated and I found that sexy, after those frilly Europeans. Whereas the other staff had to share, 4 people to a tent, I had my own 8-person marquee. Good Housekeeping would have been proud with my efforts; separate living and eating spaces, pictures on the wall, even a walk-in closet. So, it wasn’t long before Matt was crossing the frontier to stay the night in my flexible, homey residence. We’d go for moules frites at the little place across from the campsite, making a list of the 24 flavours on offer and checking them off as we went. We bought second-hand bikes and cycled into town for the menu du jour, eating sea-snails and frogs legs washed down with carafes of vin du table. Of an evening, we’d stroll along the beach, hand in hand, swapping funny stories about weird things our customers had said or done. It was turning out to be the most perfect summer.

One Sunday evening, as we relaxed before the busy Monday ahead, on the table in the middle of the kitchen I lit a few candles and some anti-mosquito incense and closed up the tent for the evening. It had been raining, uncharacteristically, that day and the air felt chilly. Matt and I lay down for a kiss and cuddle in my plush double-bed compartment and enjoyed our evening off together. As things progressed, the atmosphere in the tent quickly became steamy, and later, when I played the scene back in my mind (over and over again) I remember thinking, like only someone in love could do, that if our bodies could produce this much heat together then we were meant for each other. I was flying high, being warmed by the sun, my love-wings melting within. All around me felt bright. I looked down at Matt, his eyes closed savouring the pleasure, and said, ‘Do you feel that too honey?’, ‘Yes sweetheart, the sparks are really flying tonight, baby!’ Maybe he really was taking me to heaven and back.

It was probably only 30 seconds later, or less, that I was yanked out of my sexual haze, realising that the heat, the light wasn’t a product of our passion but actually coming from the rolling flames licking the roof of the tent above our heads. I jumped up, pulling Matt with me. ‘Hey, I was enjoying that! What’s wrong?’ ‘THE TENT IS ON FIRE!’ Quicker that you could say ‘tent manager’ he was running out of the door, calling to me ‘Don’t worry honey, I did some fire-fighting training in the Navy’. What do you do when your home, however temporary, with all your possessions inside, is burning down and you are stood watching it, helpless and naked? Yes, we were both naked, not having any time to grab a stitch before the flames really took hold.

By now a crowd had gathered. Some were holiday makers who had only just arrived, holiday makers to whom I would have to give a welcome speech the next day. Others were French families who had owned plots on the site for generations. Matt ran back holding three fire extinguishers under his arms, which prompted some of the men watching to do the same. He was in action-man mode, dousing the fire in foam, no thought about his own personal safety, including the fact that his manhood was potentially in danger. We had only known each other for a few months and this was a whole new side to him I have not yet seen. At the same time, I was painfully aware that we were both very much on display, to what now seemed like the entire campsite. Particularly enjoying the show were the old French ladies, whom I overheard commenting on my boyfriend’s cute ass, amongst other things! Days later, I would walk past and hear them say something along the lines of, ‘Well, I have never seen anything like it in all my years’, as they giggled at picture in their minds.

We were beyond lucky, given that it had rained only that day, after three straight weeks without a drop. The trees above the tents could have caught fire and in a domino effect the whole row of 15 tents could have gone up in flames. The fire was eventually tamed and one of the ladies kindly gave me a blanket to cover my modesty; after all, the real show was over now. We stood there in shame and looked at the wreck of our ‘night in’. My jacket, ruined by melting plastic dripping from the roof of the tent, could have been my face. The kitchen table, a hole blown out of it by the exploding gas canister, might have been Matt. How fortunate we were not to have been injured or that our foolish actions had not injured anyone else. My position brought with it not only perks but responsibility and I could not avoid in serious trouble waiting for me at headquarters. The irony was not lost on my customers either. As I did my rounds the next day, my new clients seemed to take pleasure in heckling me with Tent Manager jibes. I felt so humiliated, with no one to blame but myself.  I mean, who lights a candle inside a tent? I calmly explained, until I was red in the face, that I had simply followed the instructions sewn inside every tent, stating that lit candles must be placed away from tent walls. Only the wind had blown the candle over causing the flame to travel across the floor and up the sides, until the whole place was a blaze. It was futile; I had to face facts. I was the Tent Manager and I had burned down my own tent in flagrante.


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