The Ecphorizer

How I Met Madeleine
Paul Gregson

Issue 05 (December 2005)

It happened in the evening of September 6th 1952. We met in a train standing at the platform of the Gare St. Lazaire railway station in Paris. The train was waiting to go to Dieppe.

In the summer of 1952 I worked for Commercial Union in Athol Street in Douglas [on the Isle of Man'/>. I had two weeks vacation so I decided to take a trip to France. I got a passport, issued on the 26th of August, and bought rail and ferry tickets for a round trip to Dieppe. I put on my old R.A.F. uniform, prepared to sleep under the stars if necessary. My warm uniform was left over from my two years national service.

The journey began with the four hour boat trip from Douglas to Liverpool, a long train journey to Euston Station in London, then another train to the port of Newhaven. On arrival in Dieppe I had lunch in a restaurant, left, and almost immediately felt the need of a bathroom. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember the whereabouts of the restaurant in order to return and use theirs. I couldn’t speak French but I saw a policeman directing traffic at a very busy intersection. I went over to him, and mimed the use of a bathroom. He jerked his thumb at the place where I stepped off the sidewalk – right outside a clearly identified urinoir. And so I learned my first practical word of French: That and s’il vous plaĭt will get you anywhere in France.

I went down a busy street that had a signpost indicating it was the road to Paris. I stuck out my thumb as a hitchhiker. I immediately got a lift, which got me to Rouen. In Rouen I got a ride to Paris in a very large lorry. In both cases the drivers stopped every now and then and bought me drinks: my R.A.F. uniform was paying unexpected dividends. Everybody recognized the blue uniform but they hadn’t seen one since the end of the war. On arrival in Paris my driver took his large vehicle down a succession of narrow back streets where he would stop the truck, disappear into a building for a couple of minutes, come out shaking his head, restart the lorry, go somewhere else and repeat the performance. Quite a feat, maneuvering that vehicle throughout the back streets. I had no idea what he was doing. Finally he came out with a big smile. He had been checking hotels looking for one that was both cheap and clean. Each morning I paid in advance for that evening. Somebody showed me how the very efficient Metro system worked and in no time at all I was travelling all over the city.

As I explored, I found myself again the recipient of overwhelming generosity from the French. In one instance I went into a restaurant on Boulevard Sebastopol. The cashier looked at my uniform and made me understand that it was an expensive restaurant. She directed me round the corner to a back street where I dined very well. There are plenty of cheap restaurants tucked away in the back streets of Paris. The vin du table was somewhat harsh on my throat but I had that and good soup with bread for very little money.

I actually spent a week in Paris for £10. That sum was recorded in my passport on August 30th in compliance with the British currency regulations then in effect concerning the export of sterling. Britain was still trying to recover from the war and didn’t want people moving their money to more profitable countries.

One of the first things I did in Paris was to buy a one way rail ticket from Paris to Dieppe, where I would connect with the other ferry and rail tickets I had a bought. That way, when my funds were exhausted I was able to return home.

There were two trains a day going to Dieppe.  I asked the hotel proprietor to wake me at 7:00 the following morning but couldn’t have explained it very well because I woke after 8:00 a.m. and realized I had missed the morning train.  No problem, I had enough money left to see some more of Paris

I went to Gare St. Lazaire that afternoon and boarded the train for Dieppe.  I was alone in the compartment until a young lady came in, accompanied by a man who turned out to be her father, seeing his daughter off to Nelson Hall Teachers Train-ing College England.  He was a small man, perhaps five feet tall and had difficulty getting one of her suitcases up into the luggage rack.  It was remarkably heavy.  I found out later that it was full of books.  I watched him struggle for a minute or two, then went over, took it off him and put it on the rack. I was very strong when I was twenty three.

That was Madeleine and her father.  Her English was far superior to my French and we got talking.  (The conversation went on until we separated, some thirty-six hours later). Eventually the compartment filled up with six of us, all young people. When a French Canadian girl got up and went to the toilet I stole her seat so I could sit opposite Madeleine.

Our conversation continued, even on the night ferry, up to the time when I went to the toilet, came back, and she was nowhere to be found.  I learned later she had gone to the Ladies Lounge.

So I lost her.  The boat docked in Newhaven at five or six in morning, There were three or four gangplanks for the passengers to disembark, with a crowd of people at each.  To my great surprise and delight I found Madeleine standing in the crowd beside me.  It was drizzling rain and cold at six a.m.  She had the presence of mind to loan me in a blanket.  

Having previously been to Britain she knew the arrival routine better than I did.  Passengers were split into two queues at Customs and Immigration – British and foreigners.  She was aware of this division and knew that being an honest Brit. I would have to find her to return the blanket.

Holders of British passports passed through fairly quickly; so I went over to the exit for foreigners and waited for her. When she came through we found we were both going to the Newhaven railway station.

Then we learned that we were both taking trains from Euston Station in London, so we joined forces and split the cost of a cab to the Newhaven railway station. At Euston station we discovered we would again be taking the same train; she would get off at Stoke-on-Trent whilst I continued to Liverpool.

So we were able to continue our conversation for many more hours, during which time we exchanged addresses. I continued on to the Isle of Man, thinking what a nice girl she was and went down to the Commercial Union office in Douglas, where Jim Ebling was the temporary manager, to tell him about my holiday. At one point he said I was talking about nothing else except the girl I’d met on the train. He said, “You’d better go back and secure her affections" or something like that, "You’ve still got a week’s holiday."

I said “I can’t, I have no money” whereon he opened his wallet, took out a five pound note, gave it to me, and said, “Pay me back when convenient.”

Next morning I was back on the boat heading for Liverpool where I took a train to Stoke-on-Trent. I located a bed and breakfast place near Madeleine’s address, left my luggage there and went round and rang her doorbell.

Madeleine was employed as a teachers aide in the Stoke school system. She was staying with, Fred and Enid Clarke, who had three children. Madeleine paid the trivial amount of one pound a week in return for bed and board

I asked Enid for Madeleine only to be told she was out, and would be back later. When she returned, Enid told Madeleine a young man had been asking for her. This bothered Madeleine, thinking it was a Frenchman living in Stoke-on-Trent whom she didn’t especially care for. She was very surprised when I later came to the door.

I spent several days in Stoke-on-Trent. The weather was kind to us and we walked around some beautiful parks. I know a good thing then I see it so on the second day I asked her to marry me. In spite of her earlier inclinations to stay single and travel, she said “yes”. However we had to wait until she graduated from teachers training college.

On the 17th of July 1954 we took a bus and got married in the Registry Office in the town of St. Helens. St. Helens has responsibility for Garston, the suburb of Liverpool in which we set up home. Being as poor as church mice we borrowed a ring and had a honeymoon later when we could afford it.

Our wedding took place on the wettest day for eighty years. 

Contributor Profile

Paul Gregson

Paul is one of those wonderful story-tellers who has a vast range of personal experiences that he draws upon for his humorous vignettes about his life. He and his wife Madeleine lived in Placerville until his death in 2006.




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