Onions make you cry
It was the onions that did it. It always was. Tears streaming down her face, Sally tried to wipe them away with her apron and carry on chopping the onions.
‘Are you alright Auntie Sally ?’ Joe’s voice was full of concern.
‘Is it your bad knee? Is it your varicose veins? Is it your hip replacement?’
Sally laughed and smiled at her nephew through her tears. His mother must have drilled him about her ailments.
‘No love, it’s just the memories that come back to me when I’m peeling onions.’
There was a snort from across the kitchen table. Joe’s big sister Ellie was painting her nails with black polish and sticking little skulls on top with one hand and with the other she was tapping away on her phone. She looked up at her auntie, a scowl on her face and when she spoke her voice was full of scorn.
‘Yeah Joe, she’s sad about losing the competition for the best onion tart in the village fete.’
Sally turned back to the chopping board a heavy feeling of sadness in her heart. What had happened to the sweet little girl so ready to smile and give cuddles?
Her nephew Nick had warned her about Ellie and how difficult she had become. The children were staying with her while Nick and his wife Marie had gone on holiday to save their marriage as he had put it. They had been living in Singapore for ten years and recently moved to London. It seems they both had such high powered jobs that they had lost touch with each other. Nick had begged Sally to have the children, the nanny was on holiday and his own parents, Sally’s younger sister and her husband were living in Spain . Ellie was furious at giving up her half term and her city life. She was just fifteen and Nick had said something about her getting in with bad company. Joe was six years younger and when they arrived that morning had burst into tears when his parents left for the airport. Sally had hugged him tight and tried to soothe him. She hadn’t seen much of the children over the years and had been looking forward to the chance to get to know them better.
Now they were sitting round the kitchen table, their school books spread in a messy heap, while she prepared the lunch.
‘Is that it Auntie Sally? You lost the onion tart competition? ‘ Joe looked bewildered.
‘No darling,’ she chuckled, ‘ it was a journey I went on once, a long time ago, a road trip with a very handsome French young man.’
Ellie put down her phone with a clatter. Her lip curled and her pretty face was full of disdain.
‘Where did you go? France?’
Sally had perceived some interest in her niece’s voice and went to sit next to her at the table. She leaned forward and looked straight at her,
‘We started off in France. I had just finished studying at the university in Paris when I met Jean-Paul at a party. Before the night was over I was so in love with him that I would have followed him to the ends of the Earth. He had a friend that had driven to Australia on a motorbike to a place called Darwin and was helping the people rebuild it after a major earthquake. Jean-Paul asked me if I would go with him and so I did.’
Joe looked astonished, ‘ Australia’s at the bottom of the world, you can’t just drive there. ‘
Sally told Ellie to open her atlas and look at the route. Surprisingly she obeyed, struggling to hide her eagerness.
Seeing that she had the children’s complete attention Sally closed her eyes and returned to the Paris of nearly fifty years ago.
Jean-Paul had done all the organizing. they’d set off one Spring morning, the roof down on their Volkswagen beetle. The road was their home, the small car their protective shell. They had worked their way through France and Italy, in vineyards, restaurants and hotels, selling doughnuts on the beach in France, coconuts in Italy.
By the time they reached the Yugoslav border they felt confident enough to continue to Australia. Their passports and papers were all in order and the border guards waved them through with cheerful smiles.
Driving across Yugoslavia they felt for the first time like strangers travelling through foreign lands. While in France and Italy they had chattered constantly, words tumbling out of their mouths in a quest to find out all they could about each other. The interior of the car seemed to have absorbed their intimacy and felt like a cocoon. Jean-Paul gripped the steering wheel and stared at the road ahead as the scenery changed from familiar Alpine scenery to long straight roads of endless forest. Whenever they stopped for petrol and a meal they were immediately surrounded by locals asking direct questions. They soon picked up a sprinkling of Serbo-Croat and were greeted warmly at each stop. They slept in the car in the light of the petrol stations with the lorry drivers and sat in a circle sharing French Marc and Plum brandy called Slivovica.
Jean-Paul was full of French charm and everyone they met warmed to the young couple. Their notebooks were soon full of addresses and promises to keep in touch.
Once they crossed into Greece they drove all the way across a rather barren and mountainous region to the Turkish border eager to feel the exotic charm of the Orient.
Sally opened her eyes and smiled at the children. They were gazing at her with rapture.
‘Find Turkey on the map now Ellie. I loved this country from the start. It was like a magic gateway. It has a foot in Europe and a foot in Asia. Istanbul which used to be the imperial capital controls the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Jean-Paul had some friends staying there and had invited us to their hotel. We had our first proper bath and dressed up for a special dinner where we saw the most beautiful girls dancing, it was the first time I had seen belly dancing. The women explained all the special meanings behind the moves, to do with fertility, water and life forces.
We drank special Turkish coffee and the most delicious little cakes, I can taste them now.
The next day though, we were longing to get back on the road. The car had become our refuge and our friend.
We entered Iran and then onto Afghanistan. We passed through wheat fields, sugar plantations, fruit groves, high plateau great mountain ranges. Jean-Paul was an engineer and so we visited various sites where they were building dams to take water to the cities and restoring canals. Here too everyone we met treated us with kindness and curiosity. We had been told to take care crossing from Pakistan to India but when we stopped to show our passports the guards from both sides were all in the same bar, laughing and drinking together. Most of them spoke perfect English. They just waved us through.
When we arrived in India we started having trouble with the car. We got as far as Bombay, nowMumbai and Jean-Paul made enquiries to see if we could get a boat to Australia. After lengthy negotiations and lots of Gauloises, the captain of a cargo ship agreed to take us. They hoisted the car up in a net and gave us a small cabin.
As we set sail and stood on the deck watching the sultry coastline of India it seemed like the end of the road.’
The back door slammed and they all jumped. A tall, handsome man appeared, holding out his arms.
‘Look at you, Joe, haven’t you grown, and I would have never recognized this glamorous young lady!’
Joe was the first to recover and ran to him.
‘Uncle John, Auntie Sally’s been telling us a story about her driving to Australia with a French man.’
There was a giggle from the table, Auntie Sally stood up to take the Onion Tart out of the oven and then went to join in the hug.
‘Oh Joe, Uncle John is the French man, ‘ she squeezed her nephew and ruffled his hair.
‘Mais, oui, c’est moi’ John beamed around him and winked at Ellie, who started to smile but then stiffened, put on her usual scowl. and mumbled,
‘Well why haven’t you got a French accent, and anyway I still don’t see what onions have got to do with driving round the world.’
John pulled up a chair and gave a Gallic shrug,
‘You cannot spend all that time in a car with a romantic English girl and not lose your accent. As for the onions, the boat that took us to Australia from India was chock a block full of onions, they were rolling around all over the place and we kept finding them in the car for months afterwards.’
Sally laughed, a loud and joyous sound that made even Ellie smile,
‘And that is why I often make onion tart, to remind us of our youth and our road trip and bring back all the wonderful, happy memories.’