Written by Jen Brister


A week in the merde

One cramped campervan, four fractious children and several dozen mussels in double cream. What could possibly go wrong? For Jen Brister, adrift with her family in 1980s rural France, the answer is an emphatic “EVERYTHING”.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Strictly speaking, holidays should be fun and what could be more fun than going away with four children? It means that even if three of them are having a good time, one of them will be kicking off, making every second of every hour utterly unbearable for two whole weeks. Kids, eh?

Personally I loved family holidays: it was an opportunity for my brothers and I to verbally and physically abuse each other in an entirely new environment. Looking back at the photos I can see that my mum may not have shared our enthusiasm. In fact, she looks depressed in 88.86 percent of all our holiday snaps. Yes, I made that statistic up, what of it?

I’m guessing that when you have four kids, wherever you go is just geography. You can’t leave the magic of motherhood behind. Who cares if the sun is shining if your children have decided to sing, “We want to be Smith’s crisps” at the top of their lungs in a campervan for four hours without stopping for breath? People have murdered for less.

To this day, I will never understand why my father decided to uproot his family from what was clearly an amazing holiday in France. We were supposed to stay on our static caravan site for two weeks, but I think my dad must have looked at his kids running freely through fields, making new friends and hiking down to the nearest beach every day and thought, “I know what will make this even more fun. Forcing four children under the age of 11 to drive round in a campervan for four days during a heatwave. Happy days!”

“We loved moules! We loved cream! This was moules and cream! Essentially two of the richest foodstuffs brought together by the French to test the digestive mettle of Johnny Foreigner. ‘More moules!’ we cried.”

I don’t remember that much about those four days other than the constant feeling of carsickness, my brother Alex’s insistence on repeating unintelligible phrases over and over again and the sun burning a hole in my forehead.

The only other highlight of this driving marathon was on the final day when the entire family dined out on moules marinière. That’s right – mussels in double cream. Can you imagine such decadence? It was a gastronomic delight. We loved moules! We loved cream! This was moules and cream! Essentially two of the richest foodstuffs brought together by the French to test the digestive mettle of Johnny Foreigner.

My brothers and I thought it was the best thing we’d ever tasted. “More moules!” we cried. My parents happily obliged. I can only imagine that the novelty of experiencing momentary silence while we ate was too good to pass up. So my dad, with all the optimistic enthusiasm of a man enjoying the sound of his own breathing, bought us another round of moules. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing that went wrong was when my father couldn’t find a B&B or campsite for us to stay that night. This meant that the six of us would have to sleep in the campervan together. My father, as usual, was completely unfazed by this realisation. Who needs a campsite for heaven’s sake; we have everything we could possibly need inside the campervan! Apart from running water, a toilet, a stove that worked, beds… Still, it was going to be “an adventure!”

Finally my father parks the van in what feels like the middle of nowhere. My mother by now is freaking out. I can tell this is the case because she is actually freaking out. This involves shouting at my father and trying to quash the rising hysteria while helping my youngest brother Stephen change into his Flumps pyjamas.

Looking back at this time, I can honestly say that had I been in Mum’s shoes I would have left that night. Just slipped out the back door. “Hey, I’ve done my bit but this shit isn’t funny anymore. I need some TIME OUT, PEOPLE!”

But my mum didn’t leave. She stayed in the camper with her family and slept on the back seat with my skinny brother Greg huddled next to her for warmth.

“I’m nine years old and the realisation of exactly what is happening has come crashing down on my mortified head.”

Fast-forward three hours and I’m woken by a very loud growling in my stomach. As I struggle to sit up on my narrow bunk I can hear Greg’s strained whisper, “Dad! Dad! I need the loo!” I feel the van rock as my father fidgets in the front seat where he is sat with a blanket on his lap attempting to sleep. “Wha…? Son, just go out the window.” Needless to say, Greg obliges before slipping back into his makeshift bed with Mum.

Another 20 minutes pass and the growling in my stomach has turned into a very immediate feeling. I can feel sweat forming on my top lip and I know I have very little time before something extremely bad happens.

“Dad! Dad I have to go to the loo! I have to go now!” Hearing the urgency in my voice, my father gets up and opens the van door. “Just go behind a bush or something,” he mutters.

My brother Stephen is now also awake and looking at me with a face that is screaming HELP. “Jen, I need to go too!” My dad, delirious with exhaustion, points randomly to a dark corner about 100 feet away. “Go for a wee there…” What my father has failed to register is that neither Stephen nor I need a ‘number one’. What is stirring in my bowels right now is very much in number two territory. It may come out in one consistency but a number one it isn’t.

Stephen and I find ourselves in the front garden of what looks like a cottage. In the corner of this garden is a dark shadowy spot. I rush towards it, pulling my pyjama bottoms down just in time before I begin a very thorough evacuation of my insides. Meanwhile, Stephen, unable to wait for me to finish, has squatted down where he stands and, to put it bluntly, shits himself empty.

The next morning I am awoken abruptly by the sound of the van door opening and my father shouting, “Christ almighty! It stinks in here!” He’s right. The smell is enough to make your eyes water.

I step out of the van and walk round to where Alex is doubled over laughing. The smell is even worse outside. I look at the van and see a trail of wet, sticky poo starting from a very small window and working its way down the side of the van. It appears that Greg had wedged his tiny bottom out of the window and squitted down the side of the van before crawling back into bed with Mum.

“We are a family covered in poo standing next to a van covered in poo.”

My dad for some reason thinks this is the time to make a common sense appeal to Greg.

“Why did you poo out of the window, son?”

“You told me to, Dad!”

The humour surrounding Greg’s ‘accident’ subsides rapidly as we realise that my father hasn’t parked in a field or even down a country lane. No, my father has parked our maroon VW campervan in the middle of a village square. The people of this sleepy French village are now very much awake and staring at us with a mixture of incredulity and disgust. We are a family covered in poo standing next to a van covered in poo.

Meanwhile my father is calmly collecting water from the village pump and dousing the van with it. My parents are seemingly oblivious to the growing number of French locals who have gathered nearby and are holding handkerchiefs to their faces while trying not to dry retch.

I’m nine years old and the realisation of exactly what is happening has come crashing down on my mortified head. I’ll never forget the embarrassment of having to strip down to my underwear, listening to my mother shouting, “STAND UNDER THE TAP. JENNIFER, YOU HAVE POO ON YOUR LEG. WE’RE NOT GOING BACK IN THE VAN COVERED IN POO.”

I don’t think I knew what real shame felt like till I had to stand in my underpants covered in poo listening to my mother shout her own personal humiliating commentary: “I’M GOING TO HAVE TO THROW YOUR PYJAMAS IN THE BIN. THEY STINK,” while a group of French villagers looked on in disbelief.

Needless to say, we left the village that morning without even stopping for a croissant. The only other thing I remember is the elderly lady incandescent with rage and shouting abuse at my father while he tried to navigate the van through the busy village square. To be fair, her fury was more than justified. After waking early that morning she had opened her door to discover a steaming liquid turd on her doorstep and another one next to her garden pond. I can still hear my mother’s words, “But why did you poo on someone’s doorstep? I just don’t understand…”

Stephen and I bowed our heads in shame.


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Written by Jen Brister

Jen Brister is a stand-up comic, writer and comedy actor. A regular performer on the UK and international circuit, she has also written for BBC Scotland and presented for BBC 6Music.