Post image for Come and see my etchings!

Come and see my etchings!

December 16, 2010


She stopped a couple of steps into the room, her eyes closed in anticipation of the promised surprise.

‘Freeze ! Don’t move!’.

His voice was urgent.

‘What could it be?’ she thought.

She wanted to open her eyes but she didn’t want to spoil the fun. Jean had prepared her for this for days, and her excitement was just too much.

Jean and Nennette had met at summer camp where they were employed to look after youngsters on a French government holiday scheme. The children, from industrial towns in the north of France, came in batches, one or two weeks at a time.

For the staff, it was twelve weeks of very hard work, with little time off. Since the camp was a stone’s throw from the beach, time was spent mostly swimming, fishing, singing and playing around the camp fire or exploring the pine woods.

Jean and Nennette were training to become school teachers and the summer holiday was an opportunity for them to earn some money to help fund their studies. This was their second and final summer at camp as they soon were to qualify and start their teaching careers.

Jean and Nennette

Jean and Nennette

Nennette was a local girl and lived with her parents in the village whereas Jean came from Paris and lodged on site, in staff accommodation. They had become friends quickly as they were both particularly keen on organising the sports activities of the camp. Soon a relationship developed and now, a year on, much against her common sense and the house rules, she had finally agreed to visit his room to see this extraordinary ‘thing’ he secretly kept there.

She’d had to promise to tell no one. She was beside herself with the excitement and the fear of the unknown. What if her parents got to know where she was now, breaking all the rules they had consistently drummed into her? After all, this was 1937, she was only twenty and young ladies on their own were forbidden the unchaperoned company of young men….let alone a visit to their quarters!

All went quiet in the room but she could perceive Jean’s slow movements close by. She began to feel all wasn’t as planned and she gingerly started to open her eyes, afraid to break the spell.

‘Just don’t move’, he repeated in a barely audible voice. ‘Trust me, I do this all the time.’

And there he was, bent over his single bed, eyes fixed on the top, gently waving a white handkerchief over the cover with his left hand, a forked stick in his right one.

‘What on earth….?’ she thought.

Suddenly, in a flash, the adder had darted forward, eyes fixed on the moving object and bitten into the handkerchief. Jean was just as quick, the fork of the stick jammed behind its neck. There were a few seconds of thrashing but Jean’s hand quickly grabbed the tail and pulled the creature up and away from him, where it unrolled helplessly. Nennette, stunned into silence, started to move backwards.

‘I said don’t move!’ Jean said in a low impatient growl. ‘There are another five somewhere in this room!’

Nennette turned into stone as she watched him deftly slide the snake into the bedside table which he had converted into a cage. He shut its wire netting door quietly and resumed the hunt. One in the sink, one under the bed, one on the window sill, one by the door and another in the far corner. Finally, all were accounted for and returned to their cage.

Nennette stood still petrified by the door, in disbelief of what she had just witnessed. As Jean came towards her with a wry smile on his face, she turned and ran out of the room, heart pounding, wanting to be sick. He caught up with her, begging her not to say anything. He was sure to lose his job at the camp if he was found out. He certainly had some explaining to do.

How do you explain to the girl in your life that you are so penniless that you have to resort to extreme measures when you want to purchase an engagement ring? Jean had entered a contract with the local pharmaceutical firm. Over the summer, he was employed to catch adders in the wild so that the laboratory could manufacture anti-venom with the ‘milk’ extracted from the live snakes. Every time he had half a dozen of the creatures. He would make his visit to the lab and be paid accordingly.

Jean and Nennette were married the following year. The ring was humble but very special. Throughout their life in adder country, he enjoyed many opportunities to exercise his snake catching. Nennette just didn’t want to know. ‘Boys never grow up!’  she used to say, fingering the ring on her left hand.

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