An International Woman

Entry by: macdonald

11th March 2016
An International Woman

I don’t remember how to identify an irregular verb or what a false cognate is or why ‘actuellement’ is one but I do remember my French teacher Mrs Craig. Her shiny black high heels and well cut grey wool suits, which she always wore over a white blouse. Her short dark hair, pale skin and big eyes, which saw everything that happened in class, even when she wasn’t looking.

I never could remember whether a particular noun was masculine or feminine, always thinking there must be a secret formula for gender, but I do remember Mrs Craig’s unwritten language of French gestures. All those Gallic shrugs and pouting and kissing and hand-waving and the way she showed me how to tap my nose with my index finger when I managed to use ‘tu’ instead of ‘vous’ correctly or just thought myself clever.

I don’t remember which of ‘etre’, ‘avoir’ or ‘faire’ was ‘to do’, ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ but I do remember the way Mrs Craig gazed dreamily out of the classroom window and over the rugby pitches and rooftops to the distant hills as I struggled with essays entitled ‘Mon Vacances’ or ‘Ma Famille’.

I do remember the neatly folded copy of ‘Le Figaro’ which she got on Thursdays and the little paper bag of ground coffee and the aluminium pot, blackened at the bottom which she kept in her desk drawer. She didn’t like the instant coffee powder in the staff room.

I do remember the heavy earphones we had to wear in the language lab. and the big rolls of magnetic tape and the noise they made when she rewound them before we listened to phrases and conversations I struggled to understand and how it always got very hot in the lab. and Mrs Craig’s face would go redder and redder even after she’d opened her suit jacket and the top two buttons of her blouse. And I remember when the tape recorders broke down, as they often did, and how she would stick out her lower lip and hold her hands up and call out:
‘Bof!’ and we would all follow her back to the cool classroom.

I remember how beautifully she wrote on the blackboard with white chalk, without any scraping or squeaking. A round-hand script of elegant strokes and loops and curves done with her left hand as the index finger of her right hand was missing. There were twenty stories as to how she’d lost it and none of us knew which was true.

And I remember for one week in class she gave us all French names and I was Pierre and she called herself Jacqueline, which was her real name. She’d been Miss Jacqueline David when she'd married a Colonel of the Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment somewhere abroad in 1947 and came to Edinburgh as a young woman who never returned to France.

And I remember the school spring trip to London and the enormous queue for the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum and how Mrs Craig disappeared up the entrance steps shouting in French and waving her arms and then came back ten minutes later and whispered to us that we all had to pretend that we were French schoolboys. She led us to front of the queue and we were met by a very charming museum official who spoke to us in French as he guided us around.

And I remember the following year, the year that her husband, who was ten years older, died of a heart attack, and she was going to Jamaica for the Christmas holidays and we’d all seen ‘Live and Let Die’ that autumn and one of my school-friends asked her if she planned to visit James Bond in Jamaica and she replied:

‘Not this year but I did go snorkelling at Goldeneye with him once.’

I could never remember when to use ‘depuis’ and when ‘il y a’ but I do remember the senior school trip to Paris when she taught me to say ‘quatre biere a la pression, s’il vous plait’, and three school-mates and I drank beer from tulip shaped glasses outside a café in Montmartre and she had a glass of red wine and pointed down a side street and told us she’d lived in a top floor apartment there until she was fourteen. And we knew that she was forty-seven then so she must have been in Paris in 1940.

‘That’s when the Nazis arrived’ someone said later.

And I remember the next day after we’d all returned from Versailles and we went to dinner in a proper restaurant on our last night and Mrs Craig didn’t come and the other teachers wouldn’t tell us where she was except that it was personal and on the coach back to Calais the following morning none of us did ask her as she looked so tired and red-eyed.

And I remember my last day at school, when there were no lessons and we said goodbye to all the teachers and played games or watched films in every class, or just chatted together in the common room about our plans for the future. Mrs Craig brought a record player into her classroom and played Bach all day.

‘Wasn’t Bach a German, Mrs Craig?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, he was German,’ she said and after a pause she lifted up her right hand and said. ‘But it wasn’t Germans who cut off my finger.’

I heard on the old boy’s grapevine that she retired in 1988 and moved to France. I wondered if she might be dead by now until last year a familiar slim figure in a grey wool suit suddenly appeared on the television news. She was sitting three rows behind President Hollande, who was giving a speech.

‘That’s my old French teacher, Mrs Craig,’ I shouted to my children, as I pointed to the screen. Apart from grey hair she didn’t look much older than I remembered her. She was holding a sign in her left hand. I recognised the handwriting from the school blackboard.

It read ‘Je suis Charlie’.

My children didn’t believe the woman on television could possibly be almost ninety but I told them about the missing finger on her right hand and how she had been living in Paris when the Nazis arrived and my daughter explained that ‘David’ was usually a Jewish surname and I‘d never realised that and then we all saw that grey haired old woman lift her right hand out of her suit pocket and saw that the index finger was missing. As she swapped the little card from her left to her right hand I shouted out:

‘Bravo Mrs Craig! Vive la France!'

And she tapped her nose and smiled.

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