At the time my French was basic school, and TOH’s was limited to “bonjour” “s’il vous plait” “merci” “vin” and “fromage.”
One of the soldiers spoke a little English. He enquired what we were doing on a military airfield. With vague gestures and a few words of Franglais we explained about the storm. All eyes swivelled upwards to a sky devoid of any hint of cloud.
A large car swept along the tarmac and came to a halt beside us. From the back out stepped a man in mess dress, looking as irritable and and arrogant as only a French Air Force officer who has had his dinner interrupted can. There is a code of cameraderie amongst pilots, but the officer seemed unaware of it. He ignored us completely and snapped at one of the soldiers.
“This officer is going to taxi your aircraft into a hangar,” explained the English-speaking soldier.
“He is not,” said TOH. “He is not to touch my plane.”
“But he is an officer of the French Air Force,” stuttered the English-speaker.
“I don’t care who or what he is. This is a British aircraft, and he is not to touch it.”
The English-speaker translated to the officer who stalked back to his car, slammed the door, and was driven away.
A van arrived with two gendarmes, who invited us into it. They drove to a large sinister building with lots of doors and gates and telephones and red lights and machines making pinging noises.
An officer who spoke a little English questioned us, we gave our explanation, he shook his head and picked up a telephone. After a brief conversation, he told us that we were being handed over to the police.
Back we climbed into the gendarmes’ van, and were driven at terrifying speed through a small town to a police station. There we were taken into an office and introduced to an exasperated policeman who spoke no English. He put his head in his hands, took a deep breath and summoned another policeman and spoke rapidly, jerking a finger at us. The only word I could recognise was “Anglais”. The second policeman disappeared and returned five minutes later with an interpreter – one of the prisoners, a smiling gentleman from Senegal wearing a pale mauve and white shell suit.
With a line of communication established, the policeman asked yet again why we were on a French military airfield. Once again we related the facts of our arrival – an ominous storm which we had landed in order to avoid but which had vanished as if by magic.
The policeman took out from his drawer a large book with cartoon-like drawings in it.
An old lady falling under a bus.
A bicycle in a ditch.
A car on its back.
A burglar climbing out of a window.
He flicked through the pages searching for a drawing of a British aircraft landing on a French military airfield, and drew a blank.
He took a notebook and a pencil and began writing.
He noted our passport numbers, our address in England, and the registration letters of the aircraft.
“What is your aero club?” he asked via the interpreter.
TOH was just about to give the name and telephone number of his club, when he recalled that it was Saturday evening. On Saturday evenings the club members, who, even on quiet weekdays were as mad as a box of frogs, would be smashed out of their heads. We could visualise the scene in the clubhouse, people smacking each other around the head with barstools, and knickers hanging from the propeller above the bar. The telephone would ring. A French voice would ask, in French, whether we were club members. Entering into the spirit of the thing, whoever answered the phone would adopt a Peter Sellers accent and say that yes, yes, we were well-known drug smugglers, dangerous and likely to be carrying concealed firearms.
“The Royal Aero Club,” he replied.
“Who is the President of your club?”
“Who is he?”
“He is the son of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who is the patron of the club.”
He put down his pencil with a sigh.
“We will take you to a hotel for tonight,” he said. “How much money do you have?”
Enough to sustain us modestly for a week. Not enough to stay in the George V.
“Very little,” we replied.
Back we went into the police van. They took us to a strange building, a kind of ricketty shed at the back of a railway line. Inside were about two dozen French people sitting at trestle tables, singing merrily. They gave us a friendly wave and invited us to join them. We sat at the table smiling foolishly. The beaming patronne planted two gigantic plates of charcuterie in front of us. We shook our heads and tried to explain that we didn’t eat meat. Back she came 10 minutes later with some chicken and rice. “Volaille,” she smiled. We shook our heads. The singers had stopped and were watching curiously and murmuring among themselves. “Omelette?” asked the patronne. When we nodded there was a collective and audible sigh of relief . They were the biggest – I estimate a dozen eggs in each – and very best omelettes we have ever tasted. The singers seemed to be performing an Edith Piaf tribute, and although they were all patently drunk as skunks, they sang beautifully. It was one of the strangest places we have eaten, but also one of the most charming.
Because of our abrupt transfer from the plane to the interrogation unit at the airfield, we had nothing with us apart from TOH’s wallet. No change of clothes, no toothpaste, nothing.
Our hostess led us to a bedroom, which lived behind the urinals and seemed to be constructed out of compacted cardboard. There were three double beds, all made up with winceyette sheets that had obviously been slept in many times before. One had a large coffee stain all over it. The winceyette sheets had gone bobbly, and each bobble had a small black dot in it, like an embryonic tadpole in frogspawn. The aroma from the urinals was overpowering. There was no toilet in the bedroom, only a bidet. No loo paper, no soap, no towels. Just the dirty beds. We selected the least dirty bed, used our arms as pillows, and fell asleep to the noise of the singing people.
Next morning we were up at daybreak, keen to breathe clean air, have a wee and wash our hands. There was a lively market and we wondered around enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of our first full day in France. We bought a kilo of cherries, and a large punnet of strawberries. In a dark little café we found a loo and somewhere to wash, and then sat munching croissants, sipping grands crèmes and wondering what would happen next. In the distance we noticed two gendarmes frantically rushing around. We waved to them and they galloped over, oozing relief that we had not escaped.
After we had settled the tiny bill for our dinner and bed, the gendarmes hurtled us back to the airfield, where a friendly French Air Force officer shook hands. He was also a private pilot, and spoke perfect English. He had come from Beauvais, and recalled that a band of bad weather had swept quickly through the area the previous evening. We were vindicated! We could leave.
But we could not! The aircraft still had a broken wheel.
The wheel is broken!
That was no problem. With a metaphorical click of his fingers, he summoned a fleet of French Air Force engineers, who removed the wheel, took it away and returned it repaired a couple of hours later. There was no charge.
No problem – we will fix it!
From being suspected enemies of State the previous day, we were now cherished friends. As we prepared to fly away, a crowd gathered. The two policeman from the van; the gendarme and his bicycle from the previous day; the officer from Beauvais and the team of engineers. After they had all shaken hands with TOH and kissed me, we took off and circled overhead their military airfield, and then TOH pointed the nose down and we swooped. From the ground, our new French friends waved and cheered. They seemed to be pointing at something. Glancing through the side window, I could see the exterior step into the plane, and dangling from it the plastic bag of cherries and strawberries just before it slid off and away into space.
And so it’s time to say goodbye to our French friends.
Tomorrow: The story behind the story