... another "boyhood memory"...
I was in France. I took the train to Paris, leaving my home country for the first time, and have arrived in Maisons-Laffitte, a suburb to the north of the capital that is famous for its chateau and its horse-racing track. I was thirteen years old. My sister, Flora, had come here the year before to stay with the family of Philippe, our French exchange student. Now it was my turn. It was Philippe, by the way, who taught me how to masturbate… He was a year or so older than I was at the time.
But that’s another story. This is a story about plum brandy.
But first it’s a story about bombs. Because Philippe had a best friend, Jean-Claude, who lived a few houses away from Philippe’s, down a dusty lane that led to a garbage dump, And the two of them, Jean-Claude and Philippe, were adventurers. They loved danger. They smoked—they taught me how to smoke black Gauloise cigarettes. They boasted of their success with girls. And they made bombs.
This is how: first they stole shotgun shells from Jean-Claude’s father’s basement. Then they opened up the shells and poured out the gunpowder from inside. Then they filled a length of pipe or a small soda can with gunpowder and tamped it down with a length of rag. Then we took the “bombs” down to the garbage dump and laid them on the ground, leaving a trail of gunpowder a few yards long. Then we’d light the end of the gunpowder trail and turn and run away as far as we could before stopping to watch the sparkling trail reach the bomb… and the explosion that followed.
But this is a story about plum brandy. Or really it’s a story about Nicole.
Nicole was Jean-Claude’s sister, twelve years old, two years younger than Jean-Claude, a year younger than myself, something of a tomboy in her colored jeans and white blouses that hid secrets about which I longed to know. I fell in love with her the instant that I saw her. A twelve-year old who’d never known anything but boys at my English boarding school, I found this creature wildly exotic, beautiful beyond anyone I had ever seen in my life before, desirable in ways I could not yet fully understand.
I was in love. It was the first time. I was shy. I was innocent, ashamed of my innocence, too, beside those worldly French boys who seemed young men already and who knew secrets about girls that I did not yet know myself. I blushed easily. I hardly dared utter a word in the presence of the one I loved. And, yes, I was working hard at being a bad, bomb-making boy.
But this is a story about plum brandy.
It was summer time, and it happened that the plums in Jean-Claude’s back yard were ripening. Jean-Claude’s father, a thick-set, heavily-mustached, pipe-smoking Frenchman of the laboring classes, was not slow in recognizing cheap labor when he saw it, soon put us all to work. We filled baskets with masses of the ripe plums from the ground where they had fallen around the tree, and from the tree itself. We lugged the overflowing baskets from the orchard to Jean-Claude’s father’s garage, and we stuffed them into the small opening of the wooden barrel in which Jean-Claude’s father would make his annual supply of plum brandy…
And it was in stuffing the plums into that dark hole at the top of the barrel that my little boy’s fingers could merge, in a secret, forbidden ecstasy, unknown to anyone but myself, with the object of my lust, Nicole’s. Unless, perhaps, somewhere deep in my dark soul, I hoped, I yearned… that she might know it too. I know that she looked at me as our fingers touched. And a sudden flash led me to hope that she might feel the very same thing that I did…