The Mad Game Christmas Present 1913 – An Extract (Chapter One)

January 11, 2014

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Waiting For Odile – December 1913

I cannot believe that I have been in France with my beautiful French girl, Odile, for over a year. I look back to the day I returned to France, in September of 1912, after that first visit with my father in the April. My unannounced return surprised her father, as well as startling the beautiful girl of my dreams. It was a comical moment, now I think about it. A lovely September day and I can remember almost every moment here in France with Odile since then.

Here I am right now in our special little tool shed in Martinpuich. An odd space for romance I admit, but I suppose many things about our romance are odd. A cramped space, smelling of oil and dusty grime, but we both love that, so I suppose it’s fitting enough. I can look out the tiny window and around this small farming village, nestled between ridges in the lovely region of the Somme in northern France. In the distance is the road north from Albert to Bapaume. I can’t see the road from here, but it is the road that brought me here to this wonderful life in France. I expect the view from this window will always be wonderful and nothing can take that away, I am sure.

I sit now and await the arrival of my beautiful Odile. The captivating free spirit that landed squarely into my life in April of 1912, a spirit that is now wrapped around my heart and soul, gripping me willingly tighter in to her and one which will not let me go. I am not attempting to resist, for I know now that I truly love her. Indeed, it was in this small space that I told Odile, in my terrible French. I do think it is getting better, it’s just sometimes, I forget the names of things.

I am not yet sure if she feels the same way about me. I see by the way she looks at me, the way she moves around me, that I do mean something special. After all, I am a long way from home and she is happy for me to be here, so I suppose that must mean something. My French is still an engine in pieces strewn on the floor of this shed, but I do know she wants to spend her time with me and wonderful time it always is.

Outside the shed is the equally wonderful and yet terrible motor bicycle that we have been using, to spend time with each other. We have finally made it work and the frames that I have put on to carry the vegetables and other items in my errand rounds are strong enough to carry my precious love in very little comfort, but with much fun to make up for that. We always end up smelling of petrol and covered in soot, but it is wonderful to spend time in the free wind with Odile, her hair unable to resist the breeze over the slopes of the Bazentin Ridge.

Today is cold. Not the coldest I can remember, but the roads are covered in mud, which freezes into ruts and this makes getting about on the motor bicycle probably dangerous, if I was actually riding it. But I don’t much in December. I am spending most of the time pushing it along as it either does not start, or slides around in the mud, throwing me off in to the fields for a soft landing. I have now lost count of the number of clips around the ear from the village families, angry with dirty cheese and bread, with fingermarks and mud coating the parcels. Still, most give me a smile and a coin as well, once I tell them how hard it has been to get to them at this time of year and I always get to them, just the same.

Today, Odile is coming to meet me, to help get the motor bicycle back home again, with at least some of the bread still in a fit condition to eat. She is late, as usual and it will be dark soon. I will write her a note in English, hide it here as I often do and hope that she will understand it well enough. Sharing notes here is something we have always done. It is exciting and I can say how I truly feel without my clumsy French making me look a fool yet again. I get quite enough digs in the ribs with the usual ‘imbecile’ to last me quite well enough. Her notes are in English and French, to help me learn the French language on the page, which I struggle with all the time.

I expect she will be here in a half an hour or so, so I can at least make a start. It is nearly Christmas now and about time I finally learned of her feelings and showed her my deepest soul, now hers for all days.

Darling Odile, my beautiful French love from over the sea. I am always too shy to say the things I really feel to your face in my terrible French, so I want to say this to you, right now, in the cold of this tool shed but in the warmth of your love. It is nearly Christmas in 1913, a time of year when we can say how we feel, without fear and so I take this chance to say these things to you.

I wish every moment to be with you, I have some coins in my pocket from my errands, wages earned in the desire to stay here in France with you. I worry that I must return to England, worry that if I did, we may never be able to get to be here, like this, again.

Perhaps in the future, we can see the things we have planned in our heads take their place in this world for real. I will, I promise, learn French enough to take lessons as an engineer. I will travel to learn the skills and then be able to make and repair my own machines and to solve problems by inventing devices. This I will do. For you, Odile, are truly my love.

I look into your eyes and realize this is where I want to be. There will be nothing in the future, I am sure, that can take us away from each other, nothing that can break our bonds of love. This is my hope. I do hope that you feel the same about me, or this may be a wasted heart, walking the halls of life empty, cold and shrouded in a great darkened cloak.

Christmas in 1912 was new and exciting. I was away from home and it all passed by so quickly, I can scarcely remember. This year, I have a plan for you and I do hope that you enjoy the surprise I have made for you, my all time love.

 William – imbecile

As usual, I wrapped the note tightly and placed it in the usual not-so-secret, secret location. This tool shed was not used often by the owner, this corner never at all, in my opinion. I don’t think he knew we used this place. It was a good place, on the road from Bazentin towards Pozieres, on the rise in the ground sweeping away from the Bazentin Ridge.

Odile now arrived, very cold and now hungry. I looked at the two parcels left to deliver and decided that one of the bread loaves could be spared.

‘Oh William, you do look so tired and unhappy. Let us get out and home into the warm again, yes?’

‘Yes Odile, the cold is starting to get to me. You take the parcels and I will push this blasted motor along’.

‘I will, William, but now you must only be speaking at me in French, how is that? You must learn my language, Mr William-not-the Conqueror’.

I had to agree. I had to give my French another chance to disappoint.

‘Let us go Odile, it is weather for us to about turn’.

‘William Collins, you are the worst French speaker I have ever known. Will I ever get you to speak, silly English imbecile’.

We both laughed, but I was no clearer what went wrong with my French. Anyway, off into the afternoon, just as it began to get dark.

We arrived at the last house on my round for the day. It was on top of the slight hill on the edge of Bazentin-le-Petit village, where the road curves away to Pozieres and down into the village itself. Odile lived in the farm opposite the church, although her father was an engineer and not a proper farmer. He had a number of strong and friendly lads working with him, mostly older, married men from the village. They always looked out for Odile, as a daughter of the village and made sure I knew my proper place, where that was concerned. I was happy to be here and always knew the rules. I knew my way around them though, which was more fun!

I went inside the small house, warm and smelling of burning wood, whistling as usual so as not to startle Madame Villiers. Odile waited outside, as it was my work and I had to get by in French without her help. By making enough friendly noise as I went in, she would know it was me and not the cheeky little lads coming to pinch her wood as they did from time to time.

‘Bonjour, Madame Villiers. It is William, I have come inside to offer you food and other thing’.

Behind me I could hear Odile trying to stifle a laugh. I was trying my best, but it seemed still to be not good enough.

‘I have brought you Christmas, here in a box. I hope it is all there. I think one loaf might be away, but there is enough remaining and I had one left over from tomorrow’. Another giggle.

‘Oh hello young William, my sweet boy. I think I know what you have said, ha-ha. Getting better every day. Let me see you, here, come over. There, such a handsome boy, even for an English one. So, you have brought me Christmas have you? What does Christmas in a box look like then eh? Let me see’.

‘Yes here it is’. I saw a twinkle in Madame Villiers’ eye, but was none the wiser.

‘It is all here, my boy and more besides. Here you are, take these for your trouble and thank you. Are you there Odile, my love? I think I can hear you encouraging your young man here to improve his French. It is not so bad now. At least he isn’t offering me soap cakes any more’.

I was not able to follow the conversation, but it was kindly enough and the coins were more than the usual, so that was a good thing. Two in the box for the future, one for Odile’s mother and one to send home, or perhaps take home, if I am able to, next year.

‘Yes, Madame Villiers. William is improving every day. Perhaps by next year, he will get through a day without anyone scratching their head when he leaves. See, look he is smiling and has no idea what we are saying. Here, let us end his torment’.

Odile spoke to me in English, to help me understand my mistake.

‘My darling William, one day, you will follow our conversations, but alas, is not today. Let us go away from Madame Villiers to let her, say, scratch her head at you offer of Christmas in a box’.

‘Er, right. Thank you Madame’, I said over my shoulder, in bewilderment, ‘I will see you after Christmas, so jolly Christmas to you’.

Odile and Madame Villiers both laughed and we left the warmth of the corner house and went out again into the cold. Odile squeezed my hand a little harder and I could hear under her breath, more words in English, not French.

‘I do love you, silly English boy. More practicing I think’.

It was only a short walk and push, happily now it was down the hill, to home. We stepped through the gate of the Lefebvre farm as the day finally sank into night. It was now deep into the year and around the shortest day. There was much still to do and lamplight would be how it was to be done.

My little outhouse was very comfortable. It now had a chair and table as well as a small bed. The roof did not leak water, but cold air could get in and so Odile’s mother had knitted together old woollen clothes to hang across the roof, to keep away windy draughts that arrowed down my back, chilling me to the bone.

After dark, Odile was not allowed into my outhouse alone. It was a rule of Odile’s father. A kindly man, but one whose sense of right was clear. He was happy for us to talk openly of marriage and a life together, but all in good time, William, let life take its course, he would say. He loved his family, his daughter more than any I expect. He told me that he was sorry not to have had more children, in a quiet moment working on an engine, but was pleased that I was around to help out.

‘William, I have written to your father to tell him how well you help and that you earn your stay with hard work. A clever boy you are, solving problems with machinery and with a talent for engines I see. That is pleasing and I know that you care for Odile and that you are a fine mannered young man. I think maybe you can go to England to see them again and to think about your future. I am happy for you and Odile, but do not neglect other things that are important. Your family love you too’.

‘I know sir and I will to go back to see them more one time. I am happy that you allow me to stay in here with Odile and your mother, sorry, er Mother of Odile. I like to work hard, I enjoy the engines and a new ideas’.

Monsieur Lefebvre smiled and came over to pat my shoulder, smiling and guiding me into the house. The unmistakable smell of French onion soup filled the kitchen with wonderful aromas and steam. Warm at last.

Read More of William and Odile and William’s journey through The Great War in

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