“Watch out for Pépé le Moko!” shouts Dad as the coach sets off.
Jammy stops fiddling with the earpiece of her iPod. “Watch out for what?”
“Oh, he’s a character in a 1930s French gangster film. Dad’s got a whole collection. They’re all in black and white and he knows them by heart. He’s been pulling my leg ever since I gave him the form to sign. He even wittered on about them at the parents’ meeting. Could Miss Binard assure him that his Karen wouldn’t be mixing with the likes of Rififi or Bob le Flambeur?”
“Did she know he was joking?”
“What do you think! She so doesn’t get English humour. She glared at him and said, ‘Things have moved on since those days, Mr Russell. I can assure you that Karen will be perfectly safe. The French pupils taking part in the exchange are from a variety of backgrounds, but the milieu, the underworld, isn’t one of them!’ I could have died when Mum told me.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, Kaz. I might have had to sit with Baggy and she’s always sick on coaches.”
“Thanks a lot!”
We settle down to enjoy the journey. Jammy’s been dancing around for weeks, ever since we got the little slips of squared paper and struggled to read our partners’ spidery writing. Hers is called Christine Delwarde. I’ve got Marie-Françoise de la Roche. Miss Binard said that the ‘de la’ bit shows that the family’s an old one. Aristocratic.
Gary Turner chipped in that all families are old and anyway the French Revolution was supposed to have got rid of all that snobbery. Gary plans to be a shop steward like his Dad when he leaves school and practises on our teachers whenever he gets the chance. He and Miss Binard argued until the bell went and she forgot to set us any homework.
Here she is now. “We’ve a long drive ahead of us, everyone, so quieten down and try to get some sleep.”
Like that’s going to happen! Not with all the giggling and texting going on. Everyone’s brought too much stuff and there’s nowhere to put our feet, let along stretch out. I take a photo of Jammy hanging upside down like a bat with her legs over the back and her head resting on the seat. It’ll look good on her Facebook page.
By the time we get to Dover, everyone’s yawning and stiff. The driver’s in a strop about all the rubbish on the floor and the teachers come round with dustbin liners. Miss Binard picks up one of Baggy’s sick bags from the aisle and holds it at arm’s length, as if it might explode.
“Bernice Bagshaw?” Deep sigh. “Oh, well, you’ll be better in the fresh air.”
“Very bracing on the top deck,” adds Mr Mann. “Now then, Year 10s, behave yourselves on the ferry and don’t fall overboard. You can’t imagine how complicated the paperwork would be.”
“That’s not a very caring attitude, Sir.”
“Read into it what you like, Turner. I’m looking forward to my breakfast and then we’ll be in Calais in no time. From there, it’s only about three hours to Paris.”
We’re suddenly in no hurry to be handed over to our French families.
The pavement outside Lycée Apollinaire is crowded and everyone stares as we get out of the coach. A man with long floppy hair and faded blue jeans picks up his clipboard and introduces himself as Monsieur Duval. He and Miss Binard sort everyone out and there’s a lot of handshaking and kissing. Jammy doesn’t know which cheek to aim for and bumps noses with her Christine Delwarde.
Now I know how World War Two evacuees felt when nobody wanted them. I’m the last one left and there’s no sign of Marie-Françoise de la Roche. No one at home either. What to do with me?
A big black car with tinted windows arrives. It’s Pépé le Moko. Well, not quite. He’s got the same slicked back hair, but he’s wearing mirrored sunglasses like a heavy in a James Bond film. He speaks very fast. Miss Binard explains that an urgent family matter has called away Marie-Françoise and her parents. The Salvados – Monsieur is a business associate of Monsieur de la Roche – are willing to take me instead, although their daughter attends a private school.
My teachers look at each other. They’re both very tired.
“Normally, we wouldn’t…”
“It’s very irregular, but we can’t really…”
“It’s been such a long journey. Under the circumstances, we may have to…”
Madame Salvado, blonde and glamorous as a footballer’s wife, peers at me through a huge pair of sunglasses and offers me a cold powdered cheek to kiss. Monsieur settles for shaking my hand. Just as well. He could do with a shave and I’ve got sensitive skin. I wish I could see his eyes. Or hers.
Anyway, he opens the back door of the car for me and we’re off. I string a few words together and lean forward to ask about the daughter. A hand with scarlet talons pats mine, but there’s no reply. Is my French so bad?
We pass the Eiffel Tower and stop outside a tall building overlooking the Seine. I recognise it from a photo Marie-Françoise sent me. The Salvados must be neighbours. Monsieur punches a code into a panel at the side of a pair of heavy wooden doors and we’re into a black and white tiled hall with a row of metal letterboxes. Then there’s a glass door that has to be opened with a key. Beyond that, there’s a polished wooden staircase and a cage with a lift in it. There’s only one door on the top floor. I jump when I read the nameplate. Not Salvado. De la Roche.
Monsieur gives me a flat, unpleasant smile. Without the mirrored lenses, his eyes are expressionless.
“No questions now, but you’re going to help us, my dear.”
This was my winning entry for a free place at The Writers' Summer School, Swanwick in the 2008 Writing for Children competition.