I went on four school trips to France. Two were strange.
The first time, I was eleven or twelve. It cost eighteen pounds. I paid for it myself after having asked people to give me money at Christmas instead of a present. I had fifty pounds altogether. I lent forty of it to my brother. He knew I was saving to go to France, yet he spent it on something trivial and never paid me back.
Every copper that ever passed through my hands after my first forray into big time lending went into my secret sock. Before long, I had a tenner. And I was only just in time to meet the deadline to pay for the trip and be a part of the 1984 Normandie expedition.
More exciting than that, we were going with the girls' school, too.
I'd been educated separately from my fellow female friends for well over a year and it was so good to be in their company again. The straight boys liked to be in the company of the girls, too, though their reasons were far different from mine.
I was away from home for three days.
We left from Portsmouth on the evening of our first day and arrived at a northern French port, which one, I can't remember, the early evening of the next day. It was the first time I'd ever had to sleep in a chair and it was shite.
On leaving the boat, we went to something of a truck-stop, something we'd call a greasy spoon here in the UK. However, in the French parallel universe, there was not a greasy spoon to be had. For my breakfast, I had a pain au chocolat and a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was served in what looked to me like a cereal bowl. I felt very continental, very bohemian, very French. Remember, dear reader, I wasn't even a teenager at the time.
It was the best hot chocolate I've ever had.
We did some touristy things with the school party after that and then went for lunch in the town square. Again, I'm sorry, dear reader, but I've forgotten the name of the town. I was picked to go and ask for some bread!
"Je voudrais...Vingt baguettes, s'il vous plaît... Monsieur!"
Sadly, the guy replied to me in English, but it was all good.
After lunch, we were allowed to do our own thing. Paula Page, the two Tanyas, Sarah, John and I went to the market. I had five pounds to spend, which translated as fifty francs.
Our teacher had told us to barter. The original price was never going to be the price the stall-holer expected us to pay.
I held up a string of glass beads, for my Mother. "Red, white and blue," I'd tell her, as if expressing France's love for the British. In fact, they were blue, white and red.
The stall-holder told me they were two hundred francs. I knew I'd never beat him down to ten or twenty, so looked for something else. I saw a necklace which looked like it was made from the teeth of a dozen fish.
This time, he told me twenty francs. I was so taken aback, I offered the twenty francs there and then. But the nice man looked kindly upon little Minge and told me ten would be fine, again, in English. I nodded and paid.
"These will look very sexy on you, garçon!" he said.
I did not know, because of his accent, if he was saying these or this. Also, I didn't know why he was saying the necklace would look sexy on me.
Did he fancy me?
Gosh! I think he did. As I turned to leave his fabulous stall, he winked.
Naïve I might have been, but I knew when someone was cracking on to me, even at that tender age.
After my market experience, we went to a café.
"Une verre de thé, s'il vous plaît!"
I was served with a glass of black tea. Thinking back to the cereal bowl, I just accepted the fact that tea must be served in glasses in France. And cold! Not wanting to look a fool, I accepted said beverage and duly drank it, although I hated every sip!
Learn from my mistakes, dear reader. Verre = glass. Tasse = cup.
We went to a large cathedral later that afternoon. Then it was time to go back home via a hyper-market. I bought my Mother two real French baguettes. Sadly, by the time we got back to school early the next morning, they were stale.
But it's the thought that counts!
Mum made bread and butter pudding with them. And very nice it was, too.
The next time I went to France, I was fourteen years old. Our school was co-ed by this time, so the number of girls aboard our coach was nothing special. But what was special to me was the fact that the vehicle was filled with enfants from every year group of our school.
The younger kids seemed to look up to us older ones. I was in the third or fourth year by now. A boy from the year below me decided to sit next to me on the coach. His name was Paul. His brother was in my year (not on the coach) although I did not know of this relationship. Sitting behind us were Paul's two pals, Danny and Tim.
I had a great time with the three boys. They were a real hoot. We got on really well. They were very impressed to find that I knew the french for stamp was timbre and asking if a market was near here was est-ce qu'il y a une marché près d'ici?
Sometimes I'd find myself sitting next to Paul, sometimes Tim, sometimes Danny...
Danny first looked up to me, like the other kids did. This then manifested itself as hero-worship and then a major crush. He had a walkman and took great delight in telling me he was listening to Bronski Beat. He asked me what boys in the back room might mean. He told me they were reading The Ballad Of Reading Gaol in their English class at the moment and that he loved Mr Valentine. I knew what he was trying to tell me, but I ignored it. He was thirteen years old for Christ's sake!
Then he went to sleep. Well, he pretended to, that was obvious. First, his head rested on mine, then he put his hand on my leg, then, for one dangerous moment, I thought he was about to kiss my neck.
I freaked, stood up, said sorry for waking him, but that I had to go to the front of the coach and ask Miss O'Hare if she had a sick bag. I was feeling queer. Although this was a big lie. Danny was the one feeling queer.
I told Miss O'Hare that I might vomit at any given moment. She gave me a Waitrose carrier-bag (all the school lesbians had excellent taste) and I sat there with her until we'd reached our destination.
Bloody hell! Who else might have seen what he got up to? I'd be the talk of the bus! Would I be in trouble? But why? What had I done.
Miss O'Hare said I should go back to my own seat now, which I did. When I got there, Paul and Danny had swapped places. Danny hardly spoke to me. He was really embarassed. I didn't know what to say, what to do or how to deal with the whole situation. I was only a child myself, after all.
I still feel bad about the whole thing, even now.
I hardly had anything to do with Tim or Danny once we got back to school and within a year, both had left, either moved away or gone to a different school. Paul and I never talked about it.
I saw Paul every day at school, though we never socialised outside of it. I thought I'd never see him again once I'd left for college - and this was true, until, I think, 1990. I saw Paul at a Take That concert. He was with another guy. I was going to go up to him and say, "Hi!" Then I saw the two of them were holding hands.
I had no idea Paul was gay.
It was obvious that I was, all those years ago. Why did he say nothing to me then?
I've thought about it long and hard over the years, and I came up with the thought that perhaps he didn't know himself.
There was me, a flamboyant and out gay boy/man. I could have been a useful figure for any of the younger kids struggling with their sexuality, but I never made it. I was fine with being myself and accepting others, I was good at being queer, but not very good at being gay.