Like many of us, Esther Harris had a dream. A lithe, tanned, whole-life-ahead-of-her, gropes-on-the-beach, sand-in-her-pants dream. And then she realised she was 40.
I arrived in France this year on a mission to feel young again. I blame Jilly Cooper. As a 15-year-old, I was all over her summer romance Imogen – the tale of a librarian from Leeds who travels to the Côte d’Azur and loses her virginity to a dashing Sunday Times journalist.
Imo got to party with the jetset in the most glamorous sounding places: St Tropez; Antibes; Juan-les-Pins. Their hot-sand beaches and softly spoken Frenchmen were a far cry from stony Southsea and chatup lines like: “We have sex, then I decide whether or not I like you.” One day I will escape here and find the south of France, a 15-year-old me promised herself.
We arrive at our holiday park and even though I am clearly a 40-year-old with first-world holiday problems (no WiFi, forgot to wax chin hair, whining family, etc), I clutch the Imogen dream to me like a toddler does its rubber ring.
While the kids scream, I pause to savour the balmy air, feel the throb of the pool bar and spy the cute lodges in the woods just waiting to be made out behind.
And I start to see them everywhere. Teenagers. Girls strolling slowly past with their flat tummies and bare shoulders. Boys looking cool on scooters; newly hairy legs, shorts and trainers. Wanting to be seen but self-conscious, too. Flirting furiously under beach umbrellas. I smile at them understandingly. My people.
They look blankly through me. As though I’m invisible. Then it hits me; the loss of my youth. These people are TWENTY-FIVE years younger than me. They are NOT ME. Whooosshh! That was my Imogen opportunity gone. Blink? You missed it.
OK, stiff upper lip. Cries in toilet. France is beautiful. Hate France; wish we’d never bloody come. It’s magic to be here. The evening light puts you in the mood for wild nights at the mini disco, the aquamarine waters perfect for canoodling dragging the kids around on a doughnut.
I do the kids’ hair and makeup before they go to their first disco. They have sparkly dresses to change into. They are lovely with their translucent skin, their blemish-free bods, the spring in their step. I am old and tired and only have one pair of shoes for the week but it doesn’t matter because I am literally Mrs Nobody.
Still crying in toilets. On the second night, I’m tossing and turning in bed when I hear someone banging the wall. Someone is trying to get in the cabin! I shake my husband awake.
“Someone is trying to get in! What’s the emergency number in France?”
Mobile phone on pre-dial. I’m armed and ready. My husband peers out of the front door into the darkness.
“It’s just a kid.”
Then: “I think he’s lost.”
I look out to see the most paralytic drunk and pathetic-looking 18-year-old slumped in one of our sun loungers. All my fear evaporates – as does all my yearning to be young again.
My husband unlocks the front door. “Perdu, mate?” he asks sympathetically.
The boy looks pained. This kid needs a blanket and a glass of milk. My husband and I hide our smirks as, in pidgin English, he struggles out his cabin number: 188. The one above ours. We point, but he literally can’t put one foot in front of the other. The excruciating crapness of being a teenager.
My husband throws a shirt on and, propping him up under the arms, gently leads him next door where his friends have suddenly appeared, looking frantic. “Merci beaucoup! Merci beaucoup!”
Husband returns and we laugh like hell and drink gin together on the deck and talk about all the times when we got that pissed. In a flash I see my dreams about my youth for what they were: the naive fantasies of someone trying to escape a painful pre-pubescent stage and who didn’t get out an awful lot. I go to bed feeling old and glad and not holding my stomach in.
Screw you, Imo.
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Esther Harris is (still) writing her first novel and tweets @writer29