It is 1978. There is a ferry strike. The French farmers are blockading the ports. Our early morning ferry across the English Channel has been delayed by eight hours, an entire working day. So now we are driving through the night to get to the Dordogne, an eight-hour drive in itself.
It is August, English school holidays and the month of total French shutdown. And the weather is good – indeed, the temperature rises, the further south we get.
There are three families, three cars in convoy – our cousins, their friends and us. Us is my mother, my stepfather, my sister, my youngest stepbrother and myself.
We are in the Saab – blessed by an enormous boot but still, curiously, a rear footwell filled with a box of Victoria plums.
This is my stepfather’s doing. He loves his plums. They are from our garden, which has many plum trees and a long season, but he still cannot bear to be away from his blessed plums for two weeks at peak season. The waste would be unimaginable. So the plums must come with. No matter that this may well be illegal in some biobugolical way.
So. After a late afternoon petrol stop, the parents confer and there is a decision made to drive until 9pm and then stop to sleep, who knows where, to give the drivers some semblance of rest. There is no talk of hotels – clearly that would have broken the budget and we are certainly on one: this is a camping holiday.
At 9pm we find a lay-by. Two teenagers, my cousin and his friend, decide to sleep on a picnic table. The rest of us, wary of wild French wildlife but clearly less concerned about wild French axemen or farmers, sleep in the cars.
This is not comfortable, especially as ours contains five people, one of whom is my not very slim youngest stepbrother, and – lest we forget – a box of Victoria plums.
The car is a two-door so the backseat sleepers require a front passenger to let them out. My stepfather (quite tall, driver) and stepbrother (equally tall and not small) are allocated the large, tombstone-like front seats. My mother, my sister and myself are allocated the rear bench.
In the front, all is – relatively – ergonomic Swedish comfort: Saab seats are legendary – even recommended by orthopaedic surgeons. In the back, there is less space, less comfort, three people, no doors and – as we know – a box of Victoria plums.
At about 3am my bladder has had enough. Our cramped little blood family unit has slept little, although gentle snores come from the front seats. I am wedged in to middle of the back seat, my mother is on the left behind my stepbrother and my sister is on the right, behind my stepfather. The plums are therefore in front of my mother, in the left footwell.
No one is really asleep except the Swedishly cossetted front-seaters.
The back seat revolts. Or, at least, my bladder – not renowned for its capacity or fortitude – does.
I speak – stage whisper at first – to no one in particular:
“I need to pee.”
My mother grunts. My sister sighs. The front seats snore on.
I speak again, slightly more desperately:
“I need to pee. Now.”
My mother also speaks:
“James. Giles needs to pee.”
We do not want to disturb the other front-seater.
There is movement in the front passenger seat. Something is stirring. My mother, conscious of her son’s wayward bladder, releases the lever to push the tombstone seat forward to allow me out. I climb across her, pushing the seat further forward in my haste to get out, for urgent release.
There is a shout. My stepbrother’s head is wedged between seat and dashboard: he is trapped by the tombstone. Startled by the shout, I spring back from my hurtle to freedom. One foot lands in the plums, the other kicks the box. I fall, with plums, through the front door of the car to urinary freedom, finally freeing both myself and my stepbrother.
“Bloody plums!” My mother exclaims.