We received the first letter about Classe Poney last month. Each of the two divisions of Theo’s year group would be spending three days at a residential equestrian centre in the Rouenaise countryside. Each class needed six parents to act as residential helpers, spending a night apiece in a dormitory to chaperone the children. I didn’t give it a second’s thought. I had three other children at home and I was essential to the operating of our home – school runs, meal times etc. I returned the list with a negative in the response box. Over the ensuing weeks I received identical letters with increasing frequency. I was beginning to suspect a conspiracy to conscript me. I began to break, weakened by the constant battery of demands. Could I make it work, could I install a strategy to take my place if I was to disappear for 24 hours? Eventually I capitulated, surrendering to the request to take on a dormitory of 5 children for 24 hours! It was only once I was firmly typed into the list that I realised that the conscription process had been applied with equal pressure to each and every parent – all the others were simply made of sterner stuff!
Once on that typed list there was no opt out clause – the contract was binding. I was more than a little concerned that Harry would suddenly announce an urgent meeting in London coinciding with my night away. With no family in the country – that would be a tough call! As it happened, it wasn’t me who ended up with the problem. The Russian maman’s husband was called away from town, and being in the same boat as me, with no family within a few thousand kilometres found she was unable to withdraw. She found herself in the unenviable position of finding acquaintances who would be prepared to look after her four year old son, who had never slept away from home before!
There had been two weeks selected for the camp. The first coincided horribly with Theo’s birthday, the second conveniently the following week. I completed the necessary forms (the French like forms!) politely requesting that since no weeks had been allocated, that classe CPb was given the second week. My request was duly ignored! It was necessary to organise an advance birthday/present unwrapping time in order to not disappoint his siblings, and prepare a cake for 30 children that was transportable, as well as preparing his and my bags for departure.
The day of departure arrived. The children were due to arrive at the equestrian centre for 5pm. Carole, who was chaperoning the first night in our dormitory, arrived in her car at my gate for us to go in tandem to take our respective kids. She followed me as we made our way through the depths of the countryside to the camp. Theo parted from me without issue when we arrived, and being his first night from home alone, I was more affected than him. Nevertheless, I was focussed on the cake making issue for the day ahead.
As is always the case, the following morning I discovered that my store cupboard had inadequate supplies. Having dropped the other children at school, I hastily dropped into the supermarket to pick up the last supplies. It was only when I came out of the supermarket that I suspected there was a problem. The roads were stationary with traffic and I was too far from home to walk. As I approached the roundabout for the by-pass, a mere kilometre from home, I saw road traffic police barring my turn. I swept the roundabout twice hoping I could smile sweetly at the officer and be let through. It wasn’t to be. By this time I was growing nervous. It had taken a good half an hour to crawl a kilometre, and now the only way home was to take a ten kilometre detour skirting the forest round three sides to take the northern approach! It seemed the majority of other vehicles had the same idea! The cake baking time was being irrevocably squeezed, if only I hadn’t left it to the last minute!
I eventually pulled into my driveway. Up ahead an articulated lorry had crashed on our roundabout and spilled his entire load of sand on the road. Ironically the road from the penultimate roundabout to mine was clear. The spill was on the section of roundabout after my own turn. Next time I will tackle the police more courageously. I had wasted a load of time! Glancing at the clock, I knew it was touch and go whether there was enough time to get the cake mixed and baked. But this was no ordinary cake. I owed it to Theo to make a whopper splendiferous cake to impress his friends, and this was the reputation of all English chef’s and housewives on the line. There was a band of French adults waiting to pass judgement on English culinary skills. I went into overdrive, beating and whisking with a passion, praying as I popped the enormous tin in the oven that it would cook in time for the lunch time school run!
Successfully cooked and cake shaped, after lunch I set about creating a chocolate fingers fortress complete with knights and flags curling off the battlements. Ready to set off for the equestrian centre, to relieve Carole from her post at the 5 o clock deadline, I received a call. The unthinkable had happened! A last minute meeting. No longer was Harry able to collect the children from school at 4.45. It was necessary for me to head back to the centre of town, cake sliding about in the hot sun in the back of the car. Typically my children were the last to be let out, whilst I anxiously tapped my fingers against the dashboard, all the time watching the cake for signs of slippage. I threw the car into gear and headed back out into the traffic to take them home, watching them into the house before I sped off trying to make up time for my now late arrival at the equestrian centre –carefully negotiating the corners to prevent the cake being swept off it’s board and under the seat!
I relieved Carole who was waiting, anxious to be off, and who had spent a sleepless night with uncooperative children. It was only then, once the cake was safely hidden away in the kitchen, that the reality of what I was up against popped into my head. I was about to take on 5 unruly children, guide them through quiet dormitory play, dinnertime and preparation for bed. I was resolved to read them a story – in French – and get them to quieten down for sleep with a very limited vocabulary. I was hugely anxious that they wouldn’t understand the story with my dismal accent and believed I would be up till the early hours plaintively pleading with them to sleep. It is an awkward and unyielding position to be in when children 6 times younger are more verbally adept than their carer!
It started scarily enough as I had anticipated. Despite all the outside exercise and fresh air, the kids were over excited, particularly Theo who was in invincible birthday mode and desperate to see his cake. Instead of a quiet game of Uno, the boys took to lobbing their teddies from the top bunks, simultaneously jumping on the top bunk and swinging them about their heads like Olympians, trying to “take out” their companions. The decibel level was rising, and as fast as I was reaching up to remove one child from his position, another would replace him. It was of course at this moment that Veronique, their very efficient and strict teacher popped her head around the door to check how were were getting on!
Dinner-time followed with a classic French three course menu, followed by English birthday cake. Slightly suspicious at first the children devoured the cake, leaving only a small tower (on request) for me to take home. I was hugely glad that everyone seemed to enjoy it, if for novelty alone. But consequently I was overwhelmed by the number of 7 year old French children sweetly coming up to me to express their enjoyment. I have never experienced that before – maybe the English children will cheer as the cake arrives to the table at an English birthday party, but these children came up individually to me after they had finished, and each told me it was lovely, or delicious and a myriad of other compliments in between. In cute 7 year old French, it sounds even better!
I was even more delighted to hear that Veronique had decided to spare me the humiliation of story reading by reading to the whole class herself, and so the whole class disappeared into the adjoining room whilst we adults went to prepare the dormitories for bedtime. We began by sending the children in to the showers, and I fielded the requests to find the correct bottle of shower gel, flannel or towel. The wet floor became a disaster zone with children tumbling over and the one blood nose. But bit by bit we shepherded them into their respective bedrooms and attempted to get them to sleep. It is never a good idea to chaperone the dormitory with one’s own son in it. They never respond to parental discipline – especially when there is an audience and it is their birthday. There followed an half hour period of snorts from under my son’s blankets, followed by uncontrollable giggling from the other bunks. My “quieten down” vocabulary of one phrase was quickly mimicked by the same little boy to more hysterical sniggering., and after an exasperated attempt to induce sleep by a “copy the adult” representation of sleep in my own bunk, I barked to the two remaining offenders –” S’il vous ne taisez –pas, je vais chercher Veronique”. and suddenly – Silence! If only I’d tried that at the outset.!
The following day the kids experienced a “Balade des Poneys” in the forest near the centre. Fifteen little children set off leading fifteen other little children on Shetland ponies. All went well until we emerged onto the road where the verges grew green with their abundant vegetation. The ponies, having been stabled overnight, and possibly for some days, on feeling the fragile pressure on their leading-reins, made a bid for freedom. Suddenly nigh on ten little children flew over the heads of their pony’s as the brutes suddenly raced of and abruptly dropped their heads to enjoy the roadside banquet. Terror took hold and a cacophony of wailing and sobbing shattered the quiet, as the six adults attempted to gather together children and ponies before one of the little darlings was trampled underfoot.
Later that afternoon, the parents arrived to collect their offspring and, once they were safely dispatched, Theo and I left for home!