The town of Pau is situated 100 km east of the Atlantic, 50 km north of Spain, stands on the edge of the Pyrenees and is the birthplace of Henry IV of France.
It is provincial, bourgeois, and my first impression of the place in September 1949 was that it could prove deadly dull but not as dull as my paternal grandmother with whom I was to live for six months.
I had not seen this grumpy old lady since she had visited us in England just before the war when I was eight. She was now seventy four and in those ten years she had not changed much, but I had changed a great deal.. Apart from noticing that I was taller than her, she said very little to me and was so indifferent that I would have suspected she knew I wasn’t her grandson if my mother had not made a point of telling me that ‘Grandmere’ knew absolutely nothing about my birth and that she was the one person on earth who was never to find out the truth because my non-father, her son, believed she was proud that a third generation of Launays was going to carry on the family business. I didn’t think she cared a fig and got the distinct impression that my presence being foisted on her was just an unwelcome imposition.
‘Grandmere’ whose husband had died before I was born, lived in a 1930s villa which resembled a Swiss chalet. It was surrounded by a neat garden and inside smelt of furniture polish and Gruyere cheese. She was looked after by a thin, repressed Swiss German spinster called Elise who did everything in the house from cooking meals to cleaning the bidet without ever complaining. Though I must have doubled her work load - she made my bed, washed my socks and plied me with apple strudel - I sensed that I provided a little light relief in her tediously humdrum life.
Before my arrival it had been arranged that Elise would wake me up at 6 am, make sure that I ate a hearty breakfast and send me off on a bicycle to the salami factory where I was to learn the profession of ‘charcutier’. As the lunch break in France lasted from noon till two. I would have time to cycle home to eat and have a short rest before peddling back to work. By four I’d be free to do what I wished. It was hoped that I would make friends with acceptable persons of my own age, go with them for walks, play tennis, or perhaps fish for trout in the local mountain streams at week ends like a good boy.
On my first morning of employment, after a pleasant enough ride through the empty misty town and down a hill past Henri IV’s sixteenth century chateau, I clocked in with the French, Basque, Spanish, and Portuguese butchers and was handed over to the burly Italian factory manager who whisked me off to a store room and kitted me out with a pair of chequered chef’s trousers, a white chef’s jacket, a black rubber apron, yellow gum boots and a huge carving knife. Thus apparelled I was thrust through a pair of stainless steel doors into a slaughter house.
I had seen pigs on Berkshire farms wallowing in mud. I had seen sides of pork in Smithfield market, but I had never seen live pigs hanging from their back legs on a conveyer belt squealing blue murder before having their throats mercilessly slit by a savage looking individual who sang La Vie en Rose, as his face got spattered with blood.
I was not asked to do any slaughtering but put at the end of a long wooden table on which the dead animals and their entrails were unceremoniously dumped to be dismembered and sorted into piles of livers, kidneys, intestines, fat, bones, eyes and flesh. I watched my work mates, copied their example and did my best with the carving knife, trying not to breathe in the unsavoury odours. My colleagues waited for me to throw up, I was stoic but, within minutes of attempting to remove the cartilage from a pigs trotter, my knife slipped and I cut my hand deeply enough for me to be rushed to an outer office where I was bandaged by a motherly secretary and sent home.
During the one day of convalescence suggested by the motherly secretary, I visited the town like a tourist and discovered, under one roof, a theatre, a cinema, a dance hall, a night club and the gaming rooms of the Casino Municipal.
This pleasure palace, a gift from the Gods, was to become my nightly headquarters for the remainder of my stay in Pau..
Granmere and further down Elise the house keeper by Granmere's car.