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We have had a cold spell (where I live), and it is now March, and impossible not to look forward to the summer, and, let’s hope, summer holidays. I am one of those who go to the same place every year: we have lots of friends there now, and I have grown to love it. We go the Livradois in Auvergne in central France. What do I like about it? The place – it is very beautiful; the space – there is plenty of room; the mushrooms and wild fruit; the people – we feel accepted and welcomed; and the air – it is famous for its clean air, at where we go at just over 1000 metres, the people live longer than in many parts of France, and it is never too hot in summer. If you want to look it up, here is the site: saintgermainlherm.com One of my friends there, Marcel, has told me what the place was like when he was a boy, over 80 years ago. He has told me all sorts of interesting things, like how hedgehogs kill snakes (they impale them on their spines and bite their heads off), and all sorts of stories. This is one of them. If you want it in French, it has appeared in the local magazine: just let me know, and I could send it to you.
My name is Jean. When I was a boy, the winters were very cold. We didn’t have central heating, – as you do – for I am old and this was a long time ago. None of our neighbours had central heating either, for we were all poor and there wasn’t any heating anyway. Most of us had stoves, but there were still some families who cooked in a pot in their fire place.
The winters were such fun. In the long evenings, we used to take turns to visit each other. The women would light oil lamps and get out their lace bobbins, thread and crochet hooks. This was not a hobby, but work: a merchant came up in the autumn to tell them what to make, and bought what they had made the year before. The women didn’t earn much, but it all helped. While the women made lace and crocheted, the men smoked and drank whatever was on offer. Pretty strong stuff it was too! It was all home-made: we made our own liqueurs – plum and pear were Papa’s favourites . We children played in the corner near the fireplace, if we could, for there was always a fire blazing. Our dog, Rusty, slept in his basket which Maman made.
One evening, – just like any other – my favourite uncle Rene tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey Jean,” he said, “do you remember last summer when you helped me bring the hay in for my cows? You worked long past your supper time but you never asked to leave…You were a good boy to me, and now I am going to make you a sledge!”
“Don’t spoil the boy,” said Maman. “Who should he help if not his uncle? We’re all family! – Say thank you to your uncle, Jean.”
I began to stammer. Rene laughed kindly. “Don’t worry, boy. I know you mean thank you, don’t you?” I flushed. Of course, I did! A sledge! For me! It would be my most treasured possession. Some of the boys had home-made skis, but none of them had a sledge!
Uncle Rene was good with his hands, – we all were for we didn’t have money to waste. Before a fortnight had gone by, the sledge was finished. Such a beauty! So light, yet solid, with curved runners rubbed with candle wax to slip over the snow…I thanked him with all my heart. “That’s all right, boy,” he said. “I know I can always count on you.” “Oh yes, uncle, you can,” I replied.
Every morning when I woke up, I looked out of the little window where we slept to see if there was any snow. How I loved the snow! If there was only a little, we walked through it to school. But if we were lucky, the snow was too deep to walk through, and we couldn’t go. My heart sang. The sledge! I was quickly up and had my bread and milk for breakfast. I wrapped up warm, and Maman handed me the sledge. “It’s yours,” she said, “but let the others have their turn, and mind where you go.”
I took the sledge and went across the field to the hill. Some of the village boys were out there already, some ran along behind me, all begging for a go on my sledge! Rusty was there too, – she would help me pull the sledge up the hill later. I put it down carefully at the top of the hill, – I walked to the right, for I didn’t want to use it where water had been flung on the ski piste, so we could ski faster. I sat on the sledge and lifted my legs. Someone pushed me from behind and whoosh! I was off! Rusty running and barking beside me.
It was wonderful. I was not just whooshing down the hill, I was on my own sledge, and I could do it again, and again! I was so happy. But how to steer? and how to stop? I soon learnt to guide the strings gently. As for stopping, it was no problem, for our hill only went down so far, and then it began to go up again. My legs stuck into the snow and Rusty jumped on top of me… Somehow, I got up, and with Rusty’s help, we pulled the sledge to the top of the hill. A group of boys watched me, – they all said the same thing. “Can I have a go?”
My heart sank. I knew it was right to share, but if they all had a go, it would be so long before I had another turn myself. I thought carefully. “Well,” I said, “you can each have one turn, but that’s it. And after each turn, I shall have one. It is my sledge!”
Christian, the biggest boy, pushed his way to the front. “I’m first,” he said and he took the sledge from me and sat on it. I wasn’t too happy about this. I felt elbowed out and unappreciated. He whooshed down the hill, – but oh, look, he was totally out of control. He smashed into a tree, came off and was still. Worse (though I shouldn’t say this), my sledge was smashed to bits. With Christian’s weight on it, and the speed it went into the tree, it just broke up. I bit back my tears. No-one spoke. Then Christian’s brothers called for help, – it was obvious he was badly hurt. That was serious.
Smashing my sledge was very serious for me. That night after souper (supper), Uncle Rene patted me on the shoulder. “Bad day, boy? Broken your sledge have you?” I couldn’t look him in the face, I looked down and nodded, my eyes stung with tears.
Rene put his arm round me. “Not to worry boy. Not your fault, – that Christian’s a clumsy fool just like his father! We all know it wasn’t you that did it! Besides, there’s something you don’t know.”
“What’s that?” I asked surprised.
“I was happy making your sledge and I’m going to make you another one!” Rene laughed. “Mind you, I’ll not make you a third, so careful with this one.”
“Rene,” I gasped. “I will never, never forget this.” And I never ever did.