I shall always remember Toulon as a yellow town. The palm trees were quite frequent and exotically noticeable to an English eye. As we approached the outskirts of the town the yellow became more pronounced. Every single house seemed to be yellow. The earth was yellow. Even the buds on the trees and plants were yellow. A yellow landscape. At length we drove into a camp of military huts – it was called a camp, though recent rain had turned it into a yellow bog.
I went to get my hair cut by one of the French barbers – nothing like talking to a barber to get the lie of the land, and we had an interesting conversation for about half an hour. That afternoon, I succeeded with several other comrades in extracting myself from the marsh of gluey clay – which was our camp – and we were free to explore.
We stopped a small, broken-down lorry on the road, and perched atop the drums of smelly swill it was carrying, we rode in triumph to the outskirts of Toulon. We got down to finish the last kilometre on foot, thanked the smiling men who had given us a lift, and began to walk. Civilians passed us, hardly sparing a glance for us foreigners, so used were they to meeting us. But the tongue they spoke was familiar to me and from time to time I caught snatches of their conversation. I experienced that peculiar feeling of empathy I have always had whenever I have had the good fortune to visit France. I felt “at home.”
As we came into the town, we saw a tram – two carriages, one pulled by the other, and no “upstairs” such as we were used to in England. The tram was just starting. We began to run, and jumped aboard. The conductress asked us where we were going, and I commenced a long conversation with her trying to find out the geography of the town on behalf of our group.
Near the town centre we left the tram, and for a few moments watched a group of men playing “pétanque” on a gravel patch by the roadside, quite oblivious of passing trams and motorcars. We cast around for something to eat, but restaurants were out because food coupons had to be given for meals. We stopped at a stall near the pétanque players, where we bought bon-bons and dry biscuits from the woman in charge. Cars passed ceaselessly, trams were grinding and groaning. Everywhere one found typical French cafes, with tables and chairs scattered about the pavement and people seated at them, enjoying a glass of wine. This was the civilised way to live!
It begins to get dark. Shop windows become filled with light. No more “blackout”. How wonderful that is. Towards eight o’clock, after having strolled here and there, we discover a little bistro in a side street. The proprietor is very pleasant, and we make the acquaintance of his sister, a charming lady, and of her son, a kiddie of three or four years old who is called, so he prattles to us, “Pierre”. One day I shall call my own son by this name, but that is a long time off. We take a few glasses of Eau de Vie de Marc, a strong white liquid which the “patron” tells us is the nearest thing he has to whisky. At the end of the evening we leave the estaminet with many fervent declarations of friendship. We catch the last tram, leave it on the outskirts of town, and then succeed, despite the late hour in begging a lift on a military lorry going towards our staging camp. The lorry, which is bound elsewhere, sets us down behind the camp, so we have to climb over a high, barbed wire fence with a ten-foot drop on the other side. No problem for old sweats such as us, especially after having enjoyed excellent French hospitality for most of the evening.
The following day the results of our splurge in the estaminet make themselves felt, and we suddenly discover that we are short of money. This was a situation that had to be rectified. With unaccustomed foresight I had brought with me a spare blanket, scrounged from the quartermasters store in England. Two comrades had similarly provided for themselves. It was merely a matter of finding someone to buy our blankets in exchange for silver to cross the palms of avaricious shopkeepers. We left early in the afternoon with this mission in mind.
Near our camp stood a small estaminet where one could drink at rickety tables in a small back room. The proprietress, so rumour ran, had started off by selling wine in the usual way, but had climbed somewhat in the world. At the time of our stay in the district, she found herself at the top of the social ladder, being a Buyer of British Military Blankets. These blankets were, of course, ‘half-inched’ from the quartermaster’s store by the rough and licentious soldiery prior to being flogged to Madame. It was this lady, then, whom we had chosen to be our benefactress.
We therefore shrouded our blankets in greycoats and set stealthily off, like grave robbers carrying corpses out of a cemetery. We succeeded in leaving the camp without raising the suspicions of the sentry at the gate, and arrived at our chosen bistro. This gem in the heart rural France was a tiny cottage surrounded by green and bathed in sunshine. There were four of us, and we all had blankets to sell, except my mate Mack, who was temporarily rolling in money, having persuaded some gullible person to buy his wristwatch.
Garcon – a glass of white wine each before getting down to business – and Monsieur Mack will pay. (He has agreed to finance the group until our fortunes take a turn for the better).
The wine suitably swallowed and savoured, I make enquiries about Madame for it is a blue-jowled gentleman who speaks French with strong Italian accent who is serving us. Madame? She’s out doing the shopping, but she will be back very shortly. In the meantime, would the gentlemen care for another drink? Well….. why not? Mack is paying. But yes, certainly, the same again. Fortunately Madame arrives just as we are sampling our second drink. Good day, Gentlemen. In what can I serve you? In examining some blankets which we have acquired, Madame. Ah, blankets. C’est bien ca. Faits voir. Let’s have a look.
We display our wares. She fingers them. Her friendly smile becomes pitying, finally disdainful.
“Eh bien, madame?”
“Gentlemen……what can I say? These blankets are…….’moches’. They are absolutely rotten. I could not possibly buy such blankets. They are made of cotton.”
Consternation. Our benefactress had turned into an ogress. Frantically we sing the praises of our army blankets. These blankets are specially made to keep British soldiers warm and fighting fit. How can she say that they are made of cotton!
She fingers them once more. Contempt and scorn fight to gain control of her curling upper lip. Finally she says, “I should be mad to buy these cotton blankets. But…..you are British soldiers, so I will buy one blanket only.”
“One blanket only? But the others are of fine quality, madame.”
“That is not true. They are made of cotton. I will buy one only.”
Her mind is made up. We leave, having each drunk two glasses of wine. After paying for the booze we don’t seem to be much further ahead. We have sold one blanket and we have two to go.
We direct our discouraged footsteps towards another rustic pub, just by the bus stop. A small, dark haired man receives us. We wash out the dust, which has gathered in our throats since the last bistro, with a glass of beer. The bar tender sees our blankets and asks us how much. What does he offer? – A hundred francs apiece for blankets of that quality. – But that’s daylight robbery. Look, Monsieur, see how nice and soft these blankets are. We might……we just might……consider a hundred and fifty francs apiece, but even then you’d be getting them very cheap.
He scratches his head. It is a hard decision. Would we care to buy another glass of beer each while he makes up his mind.
“All right. But wait, when does the bus for Toulon arrive?”
“Not for half an hour yet.”
“But Madame at the other bistro said it was almost due.”
“Mais non. She must have made a mistake. Another beer?”
“I will pour it out. The order is four beers, eh, messieurs?”
At this moment the bus drives up. Ah, the horrible liar. He is on the point of pouring out the beer. We hurriedly cancel our order, dash out and climb aboard the bus, blankets unfolded and higgledy piggledy. Quelle pagaille! We have to stand in the bus and get in everybody’s way as we try to bundle our blankets up into our greatcoats and reassume some sort of dignity.
The bus enters Toulon and comes to a stop. We leave and lose ourselves in the little streets, which descend towards the harbour. Even now the masts and funnels of the huge, scuttled French Fleet protrude, mournful and sad, above the waters. After some prodding from my friends I approach a housewife who is standing at the door of her house and say to her in my politest French:
“Madame, would you have the kindness to indicate to me the road by which we may arrive at the black market?”
She looks at me as if I am crazy. Hurriedly I explain that we have some blankets to sell, and she gives me complicated directions. We follow them as best we can and finally arrive at a block of dirty grey cement houses, several stories tall, and seeming to form a separate quarter of narrow, cobbled alleys. On the wall facing us is painted a notice: ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN TO ALLIED TROOPS. The neighbourhood seems deserted as we cross the threshold of this new, mysterious corner of Toulon. We turn into another alley on the left, and suddenly we discover a dozen men behind us who have appeared from nowhere. An Algerian wearing a fez asks us what we have to sell. We show carefully, prudishly, almost shamefacedly, like young ladies of the Victorian era giving a glimpse of their ankles to infatuated suitors, the corner of a blanket. But abruptly someone else pushes the Algerian aside and plants himself in front of us. He is a tall, thin man, well-dressed and handsome in an effeminate way. We talk; we haggle. The Algerian has vanished. We have nearly concluded a deal when a thickset, loutish man, dressed in a ragged military jacket and baggy military trousers, who has obviously not shaved for days, pushes himself forward, feels the blankets, and announces in a voice of authority: “These are lousy blankets.” There is silence. The thin, well-dressed man becomes doubtful, is suddenly undecided.
I say: “Of course, Monsieur, you may refuse these blankets if you like. That is up to you. But I assure you that their quality is of the first class…….”
Someone whispers something in the thin man’s ear.
“Tiens!” he exclaims. “Un flic. Blimey, a ‘tec.”
It is a magic word. The crowd thins. In next to no time the alley is once again completely deserted. We might have dreamt the meeting. Where the “flic” is, I have no idea. We see nobody.
Since our customers have gone, there is nothing to do but quit this quarter of tall, grim, houses. We retrace our steps, turning over in our minds the possibilities which remain. The whole exercise has been most discouraging, and the general opinion is that we must be realistic. Quite clearly the local market for blankets has been over supplied by British soldiers. The Blanket Boom has burst. The market is very bearish with regard to blankets. It is not a seller’s market any more, and to be honest, our blankets are somewhat threadbare, and anyone wanting to buy them must be hard up indeed. What are we to do?
Somebody suddenly has a brainwave. Suppose we give them to Madame, mother of Pierre, who was so hospitable to us yesterday evening. Why not? We’ve walked enough, and we want to take a weight off our legs. We each buy a large sandwich at one of those “baguette” sandwich stalls, and then direct our steps towards the swing doors of the bistro where we have spent the previous evening. Madame spies us through a haze of pipe and cigarette smoke and serves us with beer. Little Pierre sits down with us, and one of the lads gives him a bar of chocolate.
We have put down our greatcoats on another table with the blankets rolled inside them. I am supposed to make the presentation to Madame with an appropriate little speech. I rise to do so – and two gendarmes enter. I sit down again. Mustn’t incriminate Madame before these bloodhounds of the law. We wait half an hour, but the bloodhounds, who have all this time been engaged in animated conversation, seem set to stay all night. We decide to leave and come back later.
After ten minutes’ walk, we come to a fair ground, and stroll along looking at the stalls. One of the lads nudges my arm and asks, “See that bloke looking at us?”
I turn. A thin, unshaven man, with a waggish expression smiles at us from behind the counter of his stall, then points suggestively to our greatcoats. I go up to him, feeling rather annoyed. Is he trying to be funny?
“Well, what have you to sell?”
That, of course, is different.
Rapidly the blankets disappear behind the counter where the fellow feels them, judges them.
“How much are you asking?”
“A hundred and fifty each.”
“Ça va. It’s a deal.” He searches in a greasy wallet. “Here’s three hundred francs.”
Confound it. I might have got two hundred francs each if I’d only asked. Still, never mind.
“Thanks,” I tell him.
“De rien, mon vieux. Don’t mention it.” He extends a filthy hand, which I shake enthusiastically for the sake of the Entente Cordiale.
“And if you’ve got anything else, Monsieur, anything – understand? – come and see me. Come and see me!”
He smiles fraternally, exposing tobacco-stained teeth, as if this underhand deal is a transaction of honour between two gentlemen. I disengage my hand, and we leave the bright lights, the raucous music and the cries of the fairground behind us.
The following day we got up early, boarded awaiting lorries, and drove through a thin drizzle to the harbour. In single file we made our way aboard a large, rusty ship called The Empire Battleaxe, and waited. Towards nightfall we put out to sea. A mist lay about the bay, half hiding the town. Au revoir, France. See you again soon, I hope. Who was it that said the waters of the Mediterranean were blue? The waters are grey and sullen, the rain dribbles down, and I suddenly feel fed up with this pointless military existence I am forced to lead.
I go below and search for the bed graciously provided for me. It is a piece of canvass stretched across a folding steel frame – one folding shelf amongst several hundred others – and I try to sleep. Towards midnight as we get well out to sea, the Empire Battleaxe, which seemed so big in harbour, starts to pitch and toss like a cork. I find that this has little effect on me if I lie still and compose my mind. But many of the lads get up, caught by the diabolical agonies of sea-sickness, stagger to the lavatory, and have a good vomit. Unhappily there are many who don’t make it as far as the ‘loo’, and as the night wears on, anyone who walks between the beds is well advised to do so carefully and watch where he puts his feet. The engines pound sonorously when the propellers are in the water, whirr in a frenzy when the stern is lifted on the crest of a huge wave, and turn madly in the empty air. We are clearly having a most unseasonable passage.