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The right of Joanne Teague to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with

the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Copyright Joanne Teague 2013 First Edition - 2013 Published by Candy Jar Books 113-116 Bute Street, Cardiff Bay, CF10 5EQ A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library ISBN: 978-0-9571548-7-2 Cover illustration Copyright Nathan Hudson 2013 Printed and bound in the UK by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted at any time or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright holder. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise be circulated without the publishers prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published.

Dedications: For Danny, Will, Alice and Peter. Family memories to last forever.

How do you eat an elephant? You chop it up into tiny pieces and you just get on and eat it, piece by piece.

See You In September is dedicated to the memory of Mark Walker, my dearly loved big brother, who lost his battle with Vascular Ehlers-Danlos in October 2012, age 56 years. You were always so much wiser than me!

f you invite one hundred and fifty family members and friends to your leaving party, should you be flattered or offended when one hundred and fifty turn up? We would have plenty of time to ponder on this over the next few months; tonight was a time to share with those closest to us. A time for our final farewells before setting off on an adventure that had been so long in the planning. The hall that we had spent the afternoon decorating with flowers and helium-filled balloons was now throbbing with 70/80s music and the excited chatter of so many friends. The dance floor heaved with the gyrations of the middle-aged reliving their glory days. Sophie, taught by her teenage son to play air guitar, was centre stage, on her second rendition of Stairway to Heaven. Others clapped and egged her on; not that she needed much in the way of encouragement. Sally, my close friend of many years, was chatting in the far corner and was trying not to wince at the rock music. Both she and her husband are professional musicians, and a cello concerto or piano recital was more their style. Rock music and

ABBA medleys were testing their endurance and the fact that they had come to the party was confirmation that they were true friends. I looked for Danny in the crowd. Fifteen years of marriage had taught me that I was unlikely to find him on the dance floor. He was on the far side of the room, pint in hand, holding court amongst a group of his work friends, no doubt deep in conversation about the latest rugby scores. Hiya, Jo, got you a glass of red. Jen was tottering across the floor towards me, Lyn clutching her arm for stability. They were juggling three glasses of slopping wine with a large pink box. Youre a lucky bugger, going on this trip, said Lyn. Got room in the boot for me? asked Jen. Sod off! Im going if theres a spare place, said Lyn, cackling. They had obviously started the evening earlier than most. With much giggling they placed the three drinks and large box on the table. This is for you, dont let him have it, Jen chortled, nodding in Dannys direction. A quick peek inside the box revealed an assortment of fancy face packs, face creams and body lotions. I thanked them and offered my assurance that I wouldnt need to keep Danny away from the girly treats. Although he did do the ironing once, Danny can hardly be described as a New Man. The chances of him spending the evening adorned with a pink face pack is about as likely as Wales winning the football World Cup. More friends were arriving and a second large box, highly decorated with ribbons and bows, was paraded in with great ceremony. Danny and I found ourselves jostled to the centre of a circle of friends, all watching us expectantly. A large label proclaimed that the box was an emergency survival kit. Inside

were numerous packages each bearing their own label: paracetamol for when the wife has a headache, a nit comb for when little buggers get on your nerves, and, of course, the largest box of Kwells known to man they knew that Danny hadnt stopped fretting about the ferry travel since wed booked it. Each gift was met with a hoot of laughter and we were egged onto delve deeper and deeper into the box. In the bottom, hidden beneath the other parcels, was an envelope containing a large sum of euros and a note signed by many of our friends saying: Treat yourselves to something special, but make sure you think of us when you do. Danny and I grinned at each other. In a rare moment of thinking alike we both knew that something special was happening. The evening culminated in a lusty rendition of Summer Holiday Cliff would have been proud. Even Sally could be seen tapping her feet and beating out the rhythm on the table. It was time to say our final farewells. See you in September! we chanted over and over again, until our faces ached. The final people to leave were Jen and Lyn. Wine glasses still in hand, they gathered up handfuls of the multi-coloured balloons and made off like two naughty schoolgirls, staggering like Laurel and Hardy as they made slow progress down the corridor. Danny and I stood hand in hand, laughing as they left. We would miss our friends. Emails and texts would help, but these could never replace catching up over coffee or sharing a bottle of wine together. The school run always provided a rich source of gossip. As we stood together, surveying the remains of the celebrations, we began to wonder whether we had made the right choices. Itll be funny not seeing anyone, wont it? I mused.

Well be fine. Anyway, whats wrong with my company? Danny replied. Nothing, nothing at all its just Its too late to back out now. Just think all those months of planning and were finally doing it. Danny was right. No more planning, no more fretting; it was time to get on with enjoying ourselves.

e began to believe that we might actually do it. Danny was due to retire from the RAF in 2009, and the children would not be in critical school years, so it seemed to be as good a time as any far enough away not to plan the details, but close enough to dream about. The planning grew more intense, the itinerary grander by the day. Danny had high hopes of six months exploring Australia and New Zealand; I fancied the Galapagos Islands to see the turtles. Ten-year-old William pictured himself lion spotting in Africa and Alice (six) and Peter (five) would settle for anywhere with a swimming pool. The Great Wall of China, India, Borneo and Mexico were also thrown into the pot. So many dreams. So many fantasies. Such a long way to fall. Our plans came to an abrupt end in January 2003 when I developed a near-fatal heart condition requiring emergency heart bypass surgery. Two months in hospital were followed by many more months of slow, arduous rehabilitation. In a few cruel moments, I had been reduced from a frenetically busy mother of three young children, who managed to walk the odd marathon and juggle home life with work as an occupational

therapist, to a pathetic weakling, too frail to move from the sofa. I had a terrifyingly irregular heartbeat, which reduced me to a nervous wreck. I was too terrified to be left alone, too exhausted to look after the children. A rehabilitation programme and sheer bloody-minded determination saw me back on my feet, but even making it to the school gate to collect the children felt like running a marathon. Hiking in the Himalayas was definitely off the agenda. Life was grim enough but in May 2004 our lives were dealt the hammer blow. I was told that my need for heart surgery the previous year was caused by a condition called Vascular Ehlers-Danlos a rare genetic disorder of collagen. We were told that there were six main sub groups of Ehlers-Danlos with the most common ones being the Classical and Hypermobility groups. In these types the joints are hypermobile and the skin very stretchy and easily damaged. The sufferer often has severe unexplained pain and it has been called an invisible condition; outwardly the person looks well. In the Vascular type, the skin is translucent but not stretchy and the joints are usually unaffected. Instead, the lack of collagen makes the blood vessels and other internal organs fragile. My blood vessels were weak and prone to rupture without prior warning. The doctors could not promise me that the horrors of the previous year would not be repeated. Their advice was to go home and get on with life. Easier said than done, but we immersed ourselves in the day-to-day business of raising a family, until a second medical consultation with a so-called expert in the field was to completely demolish the already crumbling fabric of our lives. Go home and look it up on the Internet, she advised. Not much has been written about the vascular form of EhlersDanlos, so thats your best bet. So, like lambs to the slaughter thats what we did. As soon as the children were tucked up in their beds that

night, we poured some wine for Dutch courage (Im so glad we did) and hurried to the computer. What we found turned the wine sour and stunned us into a grief-stricken silence. At first, we read what we already knew; that most people have no idea that they have this condition until they become seriously ill, usually in their twenties or thirties. For a large number this is the end of the road, while others recover only to have further ruptures in the following years, needing more major surgery. A line jumped out at us: If the patient survives the first event it is unlikely that they will survive past the second or third. One down, one (maybe two) to go. Dreading what was to come next, we were compelled to read on. The next bit was a real gem. It informed us that the average life expectancy for someone with Vascular EhlersDanlos is forty-one years. I was two months off my forty-first birthday. Great! I assume everyone reacts differently to a situation like that and although you may imagine what you would do, no one knows until faced with dire reality. Dannys reaction was to bury his head in the sand, mine was to weep and wail and to seek out as much information as I could. The only one to benefit was the dog. Treated to daily stomps to the beach and along the headland, if he minded my yelling at the wind he didnt say so. He was probably too engrossed in chasing rabbits to notice my sorrow. Danny and I couldnt bring ourselves to talk to each other and the only thing we could agree on was to protect the children from it all until we had got our heads sorted. We circled each other for days until eventually my sister provided some much needed advice. Turn the bloody Internet off and get some proper help, she implored after yet another tearful phone call. If only we had thought of that ourselves. Once we had been referred back to the hospital to see a

very down-to-earth consultant, and later to see a Professor who was undertaking research into the condition, we began to see that maybe the Internet search had only given worst-case scenarios. Slowly we began to put it all into perspective. I might never receive a telegram from the Queen, but neither was my demise imminent. Better get the Tesco order done as well need to eat this week, and we may as well get on with the plans for my fortieth birthday party, well OK forty-first but Id been too poorly to have a big do last year. We went a bit quiet about our someday plan. We still talked of faraway places, but the stories didnt have the Teague family as the main characters; our hearts were not truly in it. We didnt dare to plan ahead as far as 2009 it seemed like light years away! As the days turned to weeks, and I was still breathing, our hope for the journey began to resurface. Fate can also be very obliging. In late 2005 Danny was offered redundancy with six months paid leave and the offer of another job starting September 2006. We stared in disbelief at each other; the only chance at our someday plan had just slapped us in the face. We needed a reality check. Medical opinion suggested that although I was probably as safe as the next person to fly, it couldnt be guaranteed. Since it was such a rare condition, no one really knew. My illness had knocked some of the bravado out of us, and we were less enthusiastic about trekking the Himalayas or searching for gorillas in the jungle. Even Australia and New Zealand had lost some appeal. Im sure the hospital facilities are first-class but it would still be a long way from home if things went belly up. We also had the children to consider; they were a lot younger than we had planned. Traipsing around the world with three young children could turn nightmarish; this was

supposed to be a fun trip. Added to this, there was the small matter of funding. Blowing Dannys entire redundancy package was seriously tempting, paying off the mortgage less so. We put on our sensible, middle-aged personas and split the budget down the middle. A new responsibility had catapulted itself into our lives we now needed to plan for the possibility that I would become too ill to carry on working. Danny and I sat around the kitchen table and, aided by copious amounts of wine, we thrashed out what we wanted from the trip. Weve had a disastrous year, Danny said. I just want to spend some time as a family: no problems, no stresses. Youre right, I replied. Lets build some memories that will last forever. Nothing more needed to be said. We both knew what that thought was about. We wanted the trip to be a good mix of sightseeing and relaxation. If the children were to have six months off school, we felt it best that they learn something; pure frivolous fun was calling but wasnt really in the spirit of what we were aiming for. This would be a more persuasive argument when the time came to confront their head teacher about our plans. With flying out of the equation, our choice came down to boats or driving. We toyed briefly with the idea of a three-month cruise but knew that we would become frustrated by going along with the crowds. That left driving, which rather ruled out anything much further afield than Europe. The more we thought about it, the more the idea took off in our minds. Europe is not The World, and Athens will never sound as exotic as the Galapagos Islands, but it ticked all the right boxes. We could already think of more than enough must-do sights to fill six months and Danny and I liked to think that we knew enough European history and geography to fill the childrens heads.

Decision made. Turning a dream into reality, however, is hard work. Where would we go? What would we drive? Where would we stay? We encouraged the children to have an opinion, not that much encouragement was required. Around the kitchen table one night, we discussed the pros and cons of booking selfcatering accommodation or travelling in a motor home. Predictably, the motor home won 3:2. A whole new world of motor homes was revealed to us. Life had moved on since the campervan. We trawled the Internet and spent hours climbing all over the latest models in showrooms; some of the RVs were seriously impressive, with more mod cons than the average home. One with a full-size bath particularly took my fancy I could just picture myself wallowing neck deep in soapy water, chilled wine in hand, while Danny navigated through Italy. It was time for another reality check. The smaller models, which were more affordable and better suited to the roads in Europe, would be rather cosy for a family of five. The larger models were impressive but would most definitely blow the budget and were just too big for many of the places we wanted to get to. Danny also paled at the thought of getting a monstrous campervan on and off the Greek ferries. We would have to tow a smaller vehicle with us to use once wed set up camp, and somehow it was all getting a bit complicated. We returned to our earlier plan of pre-booking self-catered accommodation and travelling in a people carrier. The children found it difficult to enthuse about the adapted plan. We resorted to a tried and tested parenting technique; Tough! we told them. Were organising this trip and were paying. Stay at home if youd rather. To soften the blow we assured them the car would have a DVD player and at least

one house would have its own swimming pool. Great, can we have a diving board? asked Peter. Can we take Lord of the Rings? asked William. And Brother Bear? Alice added. Children are so easily bought. For the next few weeks, Danny and I spent the evenings sat at the kitchen table, elbow deep in maps and guidebooks. It could be said that our idea to tour Europe was somewhat general. Our mission now was to flesh out the plan. Although dreaming comes without difficulty to both of us, decisionmaking has never been a strong point and we just couldnt agree on where to start this adventure. I fancy taking the ferry to Santander, crossing the Picos D Europe and walking the last bit to Santiago de Compestela, I said. A Christian pilgrimage seemed like a great beginning to me. Then what? Danny was clearly not warming to my theme. From there we can drive back to Barcelona and cruise to Italy. Be reasonable, he pleaded. Youre the only one who wont chuck up. Are we travellers or what? I sighed. Later, recalling Dannys last bout of seasickness when we were still in the harbour at Calais, I reluctantly agreed. Danny fancied starting in Florence, driving there via Toulouse to call in on old friends. Therell be days of motorway driving, the children will drive us nuts, I said. I failed to warm to his theme. I started to worry; if we couldnt even agree on where to begin how were we supposed to organise a six month trip? Eventually after several more aborted evenings, we agreed, for the sake of family unity, to forget the start and concentrate on the rest of the trip. Athens was easy to plan it was to be

the furthest point of travel. From there we could work backwards. Corfu was a must; we had both read the Gerald Durrell books and a trullo in Puglia captured our imaginations. We wanted to explore the Amalfi coast, Elba, the Italian Lakes, Austria and Lauterbrunnen to show the children where our married life began. The list grew and grew. I envisaged Greek Island hopping, whereas Danny pictured trailing from one Roman remains to the next. We continued tossing ideas about, adding them to the list, deleting them again until we reached a compromise and were satisfied. All we had to do now was find somewhere to stay in each place and, oh dear, we still had to agree how to start. I pleaded to head for the sun as early on as possible but Danny remained resolute about no boats. Once again, we agreed to differ. The following week Danny came home from work triumphant. Ive found it, he declared. Ive found the start! Fully expecting a vague plan to see some obscure remains via at least three countries, my response was not as enthusiastic as it perhaps could have been. His excitement unwavering, he produced details of a house in Paris from his rucksack and thrust them under my nose. Lets stay here and then go onto Florence, Rome and out to the sun in Athens. The piece of paper revealed details of Bobs House a pretty house with a garden leading down to the river set on an island on the river Marne in Paris. Something about it just felt right. I smiled; he had indeed found the start.


Danny Age: Not yet over the hill. Strengths: Driving. Expert packer of car boot. Can light a BBQ. Weaknesses: Stubborn and opinionated (when allowed). Irritable when wife navigates. Refuses to acknowledge when lost. Hopeless at foreign languages. Never does anything that could be left until another day. Loves: Beer, historical sites and doing nothing. Dislikes: Tomatoes, planning ahead and boats. Specialist subjects: Roman and Greek history. Most looking forward to: Roman remains at Pompeii. Dreading: Being dragged around art galleries. Jo Age: Just over the hill. Strengths:. Multi-tasking (ability to cook, watch telly and drink wine at the same time). Organised navigation. Likes to have a go at speaking French and Italian. Weaknesses: Stubborn and opinionated. Tends to lapse into

very bad Welsh whilst attempting French or Italian. Prone to falling asleep whilst navigating. Life falls apart if to-do list is lost. Irritable in any weather that is not glorious sunshine. Specialist subjects: Twentieth century history, reproduction of ferns, wine, food. Likes: Wine, sunbathing and boats. Dislikes: Rain, early mornings and not knowing where the nearest toilet is. Most looking forward to: Uffizi art galleries. Sun-bathing. Dreading: Being dragged around endless Roman remains. William Age: Ten years going on eighteen. Strengths: Confident that he knows more than either hopeless parent. Impressively fit. Can work car DVD player. Weaknesses: Hopeless parents. Experiences withdrawal symptoms if separated from football for over an hour. Easily embarrassed. Loves: Football and pizza. Dislikes: Fruit and vegetables. Most looking forward to: Rome. Football World Cup. Dreading: Anything religious. Being seen with parents and going to museums. Alice Age: Six years, considers herself wise beyond her years. Strengths: Always right, even when proven wrong. Excellent ballet moves. Cute and expert at bagging freebies off waiters and market stallholders. Weaknesses: Impressive ability to sulk and stamp feet. Unable to walk past an ice cream stall. Sings and dances constantly. Loves: Swimming, chocolate, schoolwork and showing off. Dislikes: Cheese, football and brothers.

Most looking forward to: Corfu swimming in the sea. Dreading: Boring art galleries and Dads history lessons. Peter Age: Five years, maturity of a three-year-old. Strengths: Always first to offer an opinion. Telling stories and jokes. Mimicking other people. Trumping and burping the alphabet. Weaknesses: Stories have no ending. Never sits still. Unable to walk with the family insists on his own route. Moans incessantly when sightseeing or walking uphill. Loves: Eating pizza, pasta, chocolate, in fact anything edible or otherwise. Football, swimming, making a mess and being the centre of attention. Dislikes: Sisters, being told what to do and schoolwork. Most looking forward to: Swimming pools. Dreading: Mountain walking in Switzerland. Ruff Strengths: Cute, loyal, very waggy tail. Weaknesses: Selectively deaf. Sleeping on forbidden sofa. Devours all consumable items. Chases anything that moves. Loves: Sleeping, walking the coastal paths and chasing rabbits. Dislikes: Anyone sleeping on his sofa. Completely oblivious to: The fact that hes not coming on this trip.


fter weeks of planning, packing, repacking and getting our domestic affairs in order, we are finally ready. For the first time in Teague history, all items have been crossed off the multitude of to-do lists. The rather swanky people-carrier sits gleaming in the drive its been lulled into a false sense of security what with all the polishing and admiring looks. It has no idea of the abuse it is to endure over the next six months. Much to the childrens dismay I have packed a large box labelled schoolwork. Informing the head teacher of our plans had been top of the to-do list and three weeks later it is still top of our to-do list. We agonised over correct procedure; do we tell her were going, ask her permission to take them out of school or, if it came to it, beg? We rehearsed our reasons for going and had a believable plan as to how we would continue their education whilst away. The appointed hour loomed large. Outside the head teachers office Danny and I perched

nervously on the tiny child-sized seats strategically placed to cause maximum intimidation to an errant child awaiting their fate. We fidgeted and squirmed dreading our moment of reckoning. Mrs Connolly, an Irish firebrand with a reputation for speaking her mind and no hesitation in telling any parent the error of their ways, was not expected to give us an easy ride. She had spent the last year on a one-woman mission to improve school attendance by dissuading parents from taking holidays during term time. Our plans would blow her beloved statistics out of the water. After many long knee-trembling minutes her door opened and we received our summons. Bustling around the tiny office, she cleared the piles of files and books from two chairs and gestured for us to sit down. Perched on her high throne on the other side of her desk she peered over the top of her spectacles and fixed us with a stern stare. How can I help you? she asked. Well... we... wed like to ask your permission... I stammered. She raised one eyebrow and I faltered. Sensing we were losing the upper hand, Danny went for the direct approach. Actually, weve come to say were taking the children around Europe for six months so they wont be in school until September. We waited, hardly daring to breathe, for the expected tirade and endless list of bureaucratic rules to inform us of our irresponsible behaviour. Fantastic, if only more parents would think like you! Throwing her arms in the air with delight her response caught us totally off-guard. What? You dont mind about the attendance figures? Is that OK? Ahh, who cares a damn about statistics? Well we thought you did actually. Just think what they will learn, the language, the

geography, the culture. How wonderful! Oh yes, yes, more parents should think like this. Tell me, tell me where are you going? Huddled around her desk, Danny and I began to outline the itinerary. Were starting in Paris and then travelling down through Italy and on to... Italy, ooh I love Italy, you must go to Amalfi. I remember I Ill get the year fours to put a map up in the hall and then we can follow your route. So exciting! She gazed out of the window, lost in her own thoughts, perhaps recalling her own memories of time spent in Italy. Danny and I dared to glance at each other; this was going better than either of us had anticipated. It was only then that she remembered that she should be in headmistress mode. The stern stare over the rim of her spectacles returned and she said, What will you do about the childrens schoolwork? We cant have them falling behind. William is coming into his most important year and Alice has settled in so well, shes a very bright little girl. I started to remind her about the third little Teague in her school but hastily bit back my words. Six months absence would be equally welcome from both sides. We tried our well rehearsed lines. Give us a list of the textbooks we need and well make sure they use them. My school budget doesnt run to lending out textbooks, she assured us. Of course not, we replied. Were more than willing to buy them. We were fixed with another stern stare. Come with me. Bustling down the corridor, she marched into Williams classroom where she disappeared inside a large cupboard. She hurried on again and we followed her to another classroom.

Within a few minutes, we had a large pile of textbooks in our arms. I cant give out textbooks, she announced with a wink. Course not, we winked back. We got the message, keep quiet and return them in September. Well, that was Mrs Connolly sorted. That just left the dog. Ruff was going on his own adventure to stay with some friends in the village. They were dog novices and in two minds as to whether to get their own dog. They viewed this as a chance for a trial run. We fully expected them to be the proud owners of a cat by the time we returned. As I packed up his belongings, Ruff grew excited he knew the routine and had assumed that he was coming with us as usual. He bounced to the front door and waited for the moment when he could jump into the boot of the car. Guilt washed over me and I mollified myself by feeding his expectant face with chocolate biscuits. For heavens sake! Danny yelled. Hell throw up on their carpet if you give him any more. Friends carpet in mind and smothered in a soggy mess of tearful kisses, Ruff was eventually bundled into the car with his bag of belongings. He looked rather pleased with himself as we waved tearfully from the driveway. I bet Danny didnt tell our friends that Ruff liked to get fruity with his blue blanket. Tomorrow was only a few hours away. It was time to get the last few jobs done and the car packed. The phone had rung continuously and there had been a steady stream of wellwishers to the door. Our faces ached and wed had our fill of tearful hugs and chants of See you in September! We put the word out that we would love to see everyone, but that we wouldnt be answering the door after 5pm on Monday. There was method in this. In one last bout of domesticity, my plan

was for us all to strip off our clothes and put on just our dressing gowns. I wanted to wash and dry the clothes, and then I really could bin the to-do list. By 9pm, we were sorted and the children were finally asleep. Loading the car revealed the first chink in our carefully prepared itinerary. We live on a main road and as Danny carried the first boxes out to the car, he glanced down at his attire. For Gods sake, Ive got my dressing gown on! he squeaked as he ran back inside, desperately pulling his nowhere near full-length dressing gown down. He rummaged about in the wardrobe and came back with what was once a presentable outfit. The multi-coloured mishmash of paint, unidentifiable stains and gaping holes told the story of ten years worth of house renovations, garden landscaping and the day Ruff took a fancy to it. It was not a sexy look but was deemed to be more presentable than the dressing gown. With the last of the boxes finally stashed in the boot, we poured ourselves a glass of wine and settled down on the sofa to unwind. We congratulated ourselves on getting this far but neither of us dared to voice the many what ifs inside our heads. To our horror the doorbell sounded. Oh my God, who the hell is that? I managed in a loud whisper. Just look at the state of us! We did what any rational person would do; we ignored it. It might just go away. Thirty seconds later, it sounded again. Danny peeked around the curtain, Good God, its the vicar! he exclaimed as he hurriedly closed the curtain. Too late, the vicar tapped on the window where Danny had been standing; hed obviously seen us. Oh my God, he muttered. Stop saying God, its the vicar! I snapped. Our only option was to act cool. We welcomed him in, cleared a space for him

on the sofa and poured a large glass of wine. It said more about his suitability to the job than any sermon ever could that he didnt so much as raise an eyebrow. Perhaps sharing a bottle of wine with two members of his congregation, one dressed in nothing very much, the other in rags, was just a normal Monday night for him. Hed come to offer his own see you in September, and possibly make a thorough inspection of the car. Over the years, he and Danny had spent far more time discussing the merits of numerous vehicles than any spiritual matters. As a vicar, he had added a new dimension to the job of ministering to the people of our village. He could sniff out anyone wishing to sell a car at fifty paces and always knew of someone else in the parish in desperate need of such a vehicle. A deal would often be struck without the buyer so much as seeing the car, and so long as the vicar was presented with a bottle or two of red wine, everyone went home happy. Prior to his departure, he took us by surprise by saying a blessing. He blessed us as a family, blessed the car and asked for us to be kept safe on our journey. Were not sure why this surprised us, it is after all a very vicar-like thing to do, but we were touched beyond words and I choked back a tear or two as he spoke. He presented us with a scallop shell, the symbol of St James, which had been brought back by some church members who had made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela. As wed toyed with the idea of making the pilgrimage ourselves this seemed perfect. The next morning it was given pride of place on the dashboard. In fact, it remained there throughout the journey and has been put in a similar spot in all the cars we have owned since. Its presence may not have been sufficient to prevent some very unholy scenes in the car over the six months that followed, but it did bring us all home alive.

Tuesday morning finally dawned. It was time to go. The children needed no shaking; they were dressed and ready to go within two minutes of our alarm going off. None of us could stomach breakfast; we had far more exciting things to be getting on with. They piled into the car with none of the usual fights over who sat where and mastered the workings of the onboard DVD player within a few seconds. Danny and I were less focused. We checked every door and window many times, bickered over whether to leave the curtains open or closed and argued over the need to pack more warm clothes. Eventually, a good hour or so later, we were off and after a long session of did you pack...? we settled into contemplative silence. Our schedule was thrown to the wind by the time we reached Swindon, no more than an hour or so down the road. A major accident resulted in a long tail-back and, more than a little flustered, we limped into the Euro Tunnel terminal long after our train had departed. If we couldnt make it to the train on time, the rest of the schedule was certainly going to defeat us. Luckily for us, cross channel travel was in a bit of a lull and without too much delay we were boarding the train. A last minute decision to spend 400 on a Sat Nav had paid for itself by the time we arrived in Paris. Even sitting in five lanes of traffic on Le Periphique didnt faze us. Kylie (dont ask its a Danny thing sexy voice, nice little mover) instructed us every step of the way, and relaxed yet weary, we duly arrived at Bobs House. Kylies announcement that you have reached your destination was met by a loud cheer from us all. Madame Gilbert stood at the vast, wooden green gates to meet us. Waving us in, we pulled up on the wide, sweeping driveway whilst she closed the gates behind us. Within a moment of opening the car door, we were greeted with a warm,

enveloping welcome. Bonjour. Bienvenue a la maison de Bob Hello, er croeso Je suis Madame Gilbert, et vous? Er oui, oui. Like two startled rabbits caught in the car headlights, we couldnt muster a word of French between us. Cool. William wasnt helping. We looked from one to the other, deafened by the awkward silence, not sure how to fill it. The children made good decoys; we pushed them forwards and nodded frantically at them. Bonjour Madame Gilbert, they chimed, as drilled in the car earlier that afternoon. William squirmed with embarrassment but Alice saved us all by dropping into a curtsey. Alice oui? Si jolie! Whilst Madame Gilbert tousled Alices hair and pinched her cheeks, we stole a few precious moments to collect our wits. We remembered a few basic phrases from schooldays and we each tried a hesitant introduction. It was enough to break the ice and Madame Gilbert was off down the driveway, beckoning for us to follow. In front of us sat a large detached property complete with shuttered windows and ivy-clad walls. It looked like it had come straight off a postcard; square and incredibly pretty with a huge lawn running down to the river. On the other side of the river was a pathway bustling with students and workers hurrying on their way. Nearby were families with young children out feeding the ducks. Nestled by the river an outdoor eating area, decorated with fairy lights, completed the scene. It was way beyond our expectations. To be honest I didnt really have any. My thoughts had gone no further than getting over the farewell party hangover and crossing items off the to-do list.

Madame Gilbert took our delighted faces as her cue for the guided tour. We were led around the garden, shown (and required to name) every bush and flower, bird and wildlife. Not happy to stop there we were invited to take a detailed inspection of every room and cupboard. We admired the kitchen, thoughtfully stashed with Easter chocolates for the children, and wine for the adults, and on through to the living room with its green squashy sofa and French doors looking out over the garden and river. We waxed lyrical about the exquisite stained-glass pictures perched on easels along the staircase and delighted in the bedrooms. There was one for each of the children, decorated in bright primary colours and Disney-themed bedding, and a larger room with a vast bed looking out over the garden and river for Danny and me. Her pride in the beautiful property was infectious and we soon found ourselves promising to look after it as if it was our own. Our first task would be to remove the stained-glass panels to a place of safe-keeping for the duration of our visit. Finally, we were left on our own. A quick rummage in the boot for Tesco premium label tea bags (no others would do so we had a six months supply with us, the only exception to our well eat what the locals eat rule) and a pint of milk saw us restored to somewhere near normality. Something told us that we were going to like it here. The island rewarded us with an idyllic evening stroll along the riverbank, spotting the ducks and coypus. Coypus are funny looking creatures, someway between a beaver and an otter. Perhaps an extremely large rat would be a more appropriate description. They enjoyed the remains of our lunch anyway. Just a shame we hadnt read the multitude of dire warnings in the house about feeding the vermin. Apparently, they can be quite vicious and love nothing better than to wreck havoc in the carefully tended gardens.

On our return to Bobs House, we noticed a footbridge at the end of the garden, leading over the river. Excited to explore our new surroundings, the unpacking and childrens bedtime could wait. Hell, we were on holiday! We raced each other over the bridge. It led to a pedestrianised street, lined with delicatessens and speciality shops. The children took less than a nanosecond to spot the chocolatier. Oh yes, we were going to like it here.

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