Sitting at the bus stop, swigging bubbly from a bottle, the 10% of my brain which was still working peered at the sunset and thought that this was a very happy time indeed, and that I loved my girlfriends very very much.
The year was 1991, the place Manchester. The Stone Roses were in their heyday and the Happy Monday’s star was rising. This was by all accounts The Place To Be, for an 18 year old. Yet I was bored, and lonely, despite the fact that I was surrounded by more people than ever before in my life. When an old school friend rang from Corsica, suggesting I fly over to be an au pair for friends of the family that she worked for, I didn’t hesitate. Manchester might have been the epitome of cool, but it was still grey and rainy; even constant intoxication and exciting music couldn’t change that.
Within a few weeks, I had swapped overcast skies for a bright October day, sitting under a lemon tree meeting the children who would teach me to speak their language, and Marie-Jo, their mother.
Marie-Jo was blonde with blue eyes, an unusual thing on that Mediterranean island. She was very beautiful and she took me to her heart straight away. At first , she spoke to me slowly in French, until she thought I understood her, when she spoke much too quickly for me to follow. ‘Oui,’ I would smile and nod, or shake my head, depending on which seemed right at the time, occasionally venturing a short phrase which she would correct. She was lonely too and she needed someone to talk to. She was teacher and surrogate mother to me, someone I looked up to and tried to emulate. By the end of the year I spent with her, I spoke French with the same intonation as her, had lost a stone as she did, and had dyed my hair blonde like hers. Together, we toured the island; I saw the Autumn colours from the mountains, driving around hairpin bends and through steep tunnels of trees, to emerge to vistas of red and orange leaves, clustered around villages nestling on the hillside. We collected firewood for the fire. We walked on the beach. We sat by the fire, and I looked after the children while she cooked or went out.
‘Au pair means ‘a deux” she told me ‘the job of looking after children is not meant to be done by one person alone.’ Marie Jo’s husband did not help to look after the children. He preferred to play golf. Marie Jo had been lonely and bored for a long time. As she started to feel better, though, she began to make more effort with her appearance, to go out more, leaving me with the children, who I sometimes liked to pretend were my own little daughters. She became distant and I became lonely again.
When she went to stay with a cousin for a weekend, I was left with her husband, who tried to kiss me (as a Mediterranean man, this may have been a point of honour) although he usually said I was like a daughter to him. Although nothing happened between us, it triggered a whole wave of imaginings in my 18-year-old brain. I would imagine life as Marie Jo – if she didn’t come back. I would look after the children, who loved me and who I loved. Marie Jo’s husband would love me too. I would learn to speak real proper French and forever be known on the island as the English au pair.
It would be much easier than going home and having to make my own life.