Woman's Weekly (UK)

Serial: Know Your Onions by Joanna Toye

Jill’s first love held a secret place in her heart, though she knew she’d never see him again – or would she?

- Joanna Toye’s World War Two Shop Girls novels are published by Harper Collins. Her latest, is out on 8 July. The Victory Girls,

Oh, Emma, you do sound bad, love.’ ‘I’ll live.’ Jill’s daughter, sitting at the kitchen table, sniffed bravely. ‘Nothing a bowl of your famous onion soup won’t cure.’

‘You’ve got a lot of faith in its magical properties! These summer colds can be nasty.’

‘You look as if you’ve got one yourself, Mum!’

Jill wiped a tear from her red, stinging eyes. Over the years she’d tried all the tips the magazines and websites recommende­d – putting the onions in the freezer beforehand, slicing them under cold water, opening a window. But keen to get the soup on the go as quickly as possible and get a bowlful in front of her daughter, she was cutting corners today.

She turned on the gas and set the pan with its knob of butter and slug of oil on the flame. A typical 20-year-old, Emma was scrolling through her phone now, lost in her own world. Jill couldn’t help smiling to herself. She hadn’t been that far off Emma’s age when onions had first played a big part in her life.

They called them ‘Onion Johnnies’ – the men who used to come over from France in the summer with vans full of onions. They stored them in barns, where they lived, slept – and worked. There, they’d string the onions together, then get out their bikes, drape their produce over the handlebars and set off round the neighbourh­ood. Some parked their bikes on shopping streets in towns and cities; others went door to door selling their wares. And that’s how Jill had met him…

He’d called at the house one lazy August afternoon in the school holidays. With her dad at work and her mum out seeing a friend, Jill had been lying out in the garden. Her Georgette Heyer novel was discarded beside her, her floppy hat was over her face and she was soaking up the sun in her new bikini. ‘Excusez-moi, mademoisel­le?’ The voice had made her jump. Snatching the hat off her face, and struggling onto her elbows, in front of her she saw a vision. A boy a little older than herself, he was at least

6ft tall, with curly blond hair and bright blue eyes.

He must have rung at the front door and, getting no

Close to, he was even more gorgeous

reply, had come around the side of the house. He was holding an old-fashioned bicycle by the handlebars. It was so laden with strings of onions, shallots and bulbs of garlic that it was a wonder he could ride it at all.

‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ he went on.

He spoke in English, but with a French accent. ‘Sorry’ and ‘disturb’ had that sexy rolling ‘r’ that Jill’s French teacher at school was always trying to get them to perfect. The effect was heart-stopping. If Jill had been standing up, it would have made her go weak at the knees.

Suddenly rememberin­g she wasn’t standing, but was lying in front of him half-naked,

Jill scrambled to her feet, wrapping the towel she’d been lying on around her.

‘Some onions?’ he asked. ‘Sweet onions from Roscoff in Brittany?’

‘Um… My mother might want some, but she’s out,’ stuttered Jill.

She doubted it, though. Her mother wasn’t much of a cook.

‘Ah. C’est la vie,’ said the boy. ‘But… could I trouble you for a glass of water? It’s hot today. For England!’

‘Of course! Wait here.’

Jill ran into the house, straight to the hall mirror. As expected, her face was red and sweaty and her chest and stomach a violent pink, while her legs still looked like a couple of milk bottles. So much for being an English rose! Her sundress was over the banisters. She dragged it on and ran the clothes brush – the only thing to hand – through her hair. Trying to look composed, she carried a glass of water out to the garden to him.

The boy had propped up his bike and was sitting on the wall round the fish pond. Their fingers touched as she handed him the glass and Jill felt a flutter of excitement deep inside. Close to, he was even more gorgeous. She watched his tanned throat as he drank thirstily, then set the glass down.

‘Thank you. Now I should go,’ he said. ‘But can I see you again?’

And that was how it started. His name was Hubert, though ‘Oo-bearr’ was how he said it, of course. He wasn’t around all the time. He’d come over with his uncle, who owned the onion farm, but there was a big group of them, around 30 men and young lads like himself. From the barn, they travelled on their bikes all around the district. But when Hubert was back at base, he and Jill could meet.

She didn’t tell her mother – she knew she wouldn’t approve. So Jill would cycle off on her bike to meet him. Off they’d go into the countrysid­e, to woods and meadows and hillsides, where they’d have a picnic and do what teenagers do – lie in each other’s arms and gaze into each other’s eyes. It was all very innocent and, beyond a few kisses, nothing much happened.

Over the course of a month, Jill probably only saw him four or five times, but in her besotted state it was enough to convince her that she was in love with him, and to start fantasisin­g about living with Hubert in France.

It wasn’t to be, of course. In early September, when the leaves were starting to turn, and the sun was lower in the sky every day, Hubert told her that he and his companions were moving on, into Wales.

‘Can we write?’ asked Jill, desperate. ‘Even when you go back home? Can we keep in touch? I could come and see you maybe? And you’ll come back next year?’

Hubert held her face in his hands.

‘Ce n’est pas possible,’ he said. ‘I have to tell you… there is a girl in France. I am expected to marry her.’

She’d treasured the memories of that golden summer

Jill’s heart did a somersault and so did her stomach.

‘It doesn’t mean I don’t care for you,’ Hubert went on. ‘I do, very much. But there is no choice for me.’

Jill had had to accept it, and that night, her red eyes had nothing to do with cutting up onions.

‘It’s hay fever,’ she’d explained to her mother, and her mother had produced a packet of antihistam­ines. As

Jill swallowed the tablet she didn’t need, she felt all her hopes and dreams were being swallowed with it.

For months afterwards, she had treasured the memories of that golden summer – how far off it seemed now! How her legs had ached from trying to keep up with Hubert as he sped ahead on his bike, and how saddle-sore she’d been! She hadn’t wanted to admit it to him, but he’d spotted it from the wincing when she dismounted and the awkward way she got back on.

He’d laughed and said she had a bad technique, and had tried to show her how to let the bike take more of the strain – not easy on her beaten-up old boneshaker. Once Hubert had left, Jill could hardly bear to look at the thing, and at Christmas her dad had cleaned it up and put it in the local paper’s ‘For Sale’ column. The last physical reminder of Hubert was gone.

What he had left her with, though, was a lasting love of France. She’d decided to stay on at school and take French A level, then she’d trained as a teacher. She’d met Geoff through a college friend. They’d married and had their two girls. Jill had gone back into teaching once the girls were at school, then moved into one-to-one tutoring, which was what she did now. So Hubert had left a lifelong memory, and not just of his kisses.

‘Mm, this is delicious, Mum, your best yet!’

Emma spooned up the rich brown liquid. Onion soup took patience. Jill had let the onions soften for a full 10 minutes, then caramelise­d them with a sprinkling of sugar for even longer before adding the other ingredient­s. She’d left out the wine, though, not wanting to make Emma’s stuffed-up head any thicker.

Jill savoured her own spoonful, with its soup-soaked, cheese-topped piece of bread.

‘Not bad, though I say it myself,’ she smiled.

‘I’m feeling better already,’ Emma declared.

When Geoff came in from work later, the rich soup smell still lingered in the house.

‘You’ve been cooking,’ he said, dropping a kiss on top of her head. Geoff loved his food.

‘Yes, but not all for you,

I’m afraid,’ Jill replied. ‘Emma came over, it was her day off. She’s got a shocking cold, though.’

Geoff tutted.

‘I hope she didn’t give it to you. Because I want to talk to you – about holidays!’

‘Oh yes?’

Jill sighed inwardly. There wasn’t much to talk about, really. Their summer holiday, the one they took abroad, was always the same. Geoff was a keen golfer, and their destinatio­n was chosen not for its quaint old town, its great food or beaches, or for things to see, but for the quality of its golf course. They always went with another couple, Denise and Tony. The men played golf every day,

Jill and Denise lay by the pool. Their husbands joined them for a late lunch, then each couple did their own thing, meeting up again in the evening. It was easy, it was comfortabl­e, it was pleasant.

‘OK…’ said Jill. ‘Where’s it to be?’ In the past they’d been to Turkey, Florida, Spain and Portugal. ‘It’s Portugal’s turn, isn’t it, this year? Have you checked dates with Tony?’

‘No, I haven’t,’ Geoff replied. ‘This year, I fancy a change.’

‘Oh?’

‘I thought we’d go on our own.’

Jill looked at him sidelong. ‘Have you been losing to Tony lately or something?’ she asked shrewdly.

‘No!’ Geoff said indignantl­y. ‘Well, sometimes, and sometimes not. We’re pretty evenly matched. But in case you’ve forgotten, my love, we have a rather special anniversar­y coming up.’

So they did. Their silver wedding. It was sweet of Geoff to remember without being reminded – some men wouldn’t have had a clue.

‘Go on.’ Jill was intrigued. ‘Where to then?’

Where was he thinking of? Did they have golf courses in the Caribbean? The Maldives? Dubai, perhaps, there were bound to be fabulous courses there.

‘France!’ said Geoff triumphant­ly. ‘We haven’t been for years, you speak the language… I thought you’d enjoy it.’

Not Barbados then – and thinking about it, it was rather unlikely on their income!

‘Yes, I’m sure I would…’ said Jill. ‘So were you thinking about the south of France?’

Already she could see them strolling by the harbour as the millionair­es’ yachts bobbed on the water, or drinking cocktails on the terrace of a smart hotel.

‘No, I thought the north,’ said Geoff innocently.

‘The north?’ Jill was astonished. ‘Why? Oh, hang on… it’s got golf courses, I suppose!’ She rolled her eyes, but affectiona­tely. ‘But we’re going on our own… I thought you needed someone to play against? You haven’t bought me lessons, I hope!’

‘What? I’ve seen you play table tennis, you’d kill me with your first swing!’

‘It’s tempting,’ teased Jill. ‘You play the course as well as your partner,’ Geoff explained. ‘And I won’t play every day, or only nine holes, a couple of hours in the morning and the rest of the day together.’

‘I thought you were going to suggest the Caribbean,’

Jill’s heart started to beat a little faster

Jill couldn’t resist saying.

‘Or maybe the Maldives.’ Geoff looked crestfalle­n. ‘Oh. Well, it’s your anniversar­y too. If that’s what you’d really like… I can have a look at our finances?’

‘No,’ said Jill. ‘You know how easily I burn in the sun. And come up in great lumps if I get bitten. Let’s do France. Have you thought where exactly?’

‘I’ll show you.’

Eagerly Geoff sat beside her and held his phone between them to show her the map.

‘We get the ferry to Cherbourg, in Normandy…’ ‘OK…’

It might be fun, thought Jill, just the two of them, touring around. They’d never been to that part of France and there would be lots to see. There were coastal towns and cathedral cities and the World War Two landing beaches. Geoff used his fingers to move the map.

‘Then,’ he said. ‘We go west. Along the coast into Brittany…’

Jill’s heart started to beat a little faster.

‘Brittany?’

Absorbed, Geoff hardly noticed she’d spoken.

‘We end at this place and get the ferry back from there. Roscoff!’

Jill started to laugh.

‘What? What’s so funny?’ ‘Oh nothing,’ laughed

Jill. ‘But Roscoff!’

Now she’d started laughing, she found she couldn’t stop.

‘What?’ repeated Geoff. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing,’ said Jill, still shaking with laughter. ‘Book the ferries, Geoff. We’ll have a great time!’

Later, when Geoff was watching the news and, feeling rather secretive, Jill did a bit of research. She started with the basics: Roscoff had some nice hotels, a promenade and a pretty port with a lighthouse.

But – and she had to smile – onions were still important too. There was even a museum dedicated to ‘des Johnnies et de L’Oignon de Roscoff’. Onions were that big a deal!

Fingers trembling slightly, she typed ‘onion farms near Roscoff’ into the search engine. And that was the first disappoint­ment – there were about 10 to choose from. Jill had never known Hubert’s surname, let alone his uncle’s, or the name of the farm. Frustrated, she closed the laptop.

She had to admit it. She’d really thought – hoped – she might be able to look Hubert up. But Roscoff was a sizeable place. She wasn’t going to bump into him in the street, if she’d even recognise him by now. And she wasn’t going to be able to go and seek him out, even if she’d managed to track him down, with Geoff in tow… or – somehow – was she? CONTINUES NEXT WEEK

Joanna Toye, 2021

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