I snap awake after three, maybe four hours of alcohol-saturated sleep. The events of the previous night swim into stark, shameful focus and I find myself unable to move; paralysed by guilt.
Tadpole, our daughter, is chanting. A low, plaintive murmur of "mummy, mummy, mummy..." travels along the corridor from her bedroom to ours. Left unanswered, her sounds will grow louder and more insistent, the volume rising in a hairpin crescendo. Someone will have to go to her and lift her warm, sleep-scented body from her bed into ours. A task I would relish on any other day.
My groan — and the protesting arm I heave across my face to blot out the daylight which infiltrates our room through slatted shutters — has the desired effect. The bed creaks as Mr Frog hoists himself upright and stumbles wordlessly in the direction of Tadpole's room. His silence conveys many layers of disapproval. That I'd stayed out into the small hours. That I'd returned so obviously tipsy, key fumbling ineptly in the lock. That I would doubtless not be in any fit state to drag myself to work.
I hear returning footfalls and moments later anxious fingers prise my arm from my face; a pair of grey-blue eyes gaze questioningly into mine.
A wave of visceral love engulfs me, but I fight the urge to clutch my daughter to me, to bury my face in the back of her neck and inhale her milky, innocent scent.
"Mummy's got a bad, bad headache," I mumble feebly, turning onto my side and burying my feverish face into the cool pillow instead.
But there is no pain, at least not in a physical sense. I am, quite simply, stricken with horror; aghast at the thought of the upheaval I am poised to inflict on our little family. Terrified that what I am contemplating can somehow be read in my face: a scarlet letter freshly branded on my forehead.
And yet, at the same time, every cell in my body vibrates at a higher frequency. I feel the blood thundering through my veins; the hair on my arms standing on end. My fear — fear of hurling myself headlong into the unknown — is shot through with giddy exhilaration. Never have I felt so guilty, nor so intoxicatingly alive.
I lie immobile while Mr Frog moves resentfully around the apartment, making no move to help as I hear him dress first Tadpole, then himself; pour breakfast cereal into her bowl.
Even before the front door slams accusingly closed behind them, I am itching to power up the computer. Spinning a web of words in my mind, I'm impatient to commit them to my blog while they are fresh and raw and new.
The day I created my anonymous internet diary, the nom de plume "petite anglaise" instinctively sprang to mind, and felt so very right, so very natural, that I considered no other.
Ask any English girl who has ever lived in France, and I'm sure she'll tell you she has been called a petite anglaise at some time or another. It is a name loaded with meaning: an affectionate tone implies that the anglaise in question is not just English, but cute and English; a hint of lasciviousness makes her sound sexy, but also taps into a commonly held view that English girls are rather easy.
But there is another layer of meaning I've always found appealing: those two words summed up neatly everything I ever wanted my life to be. Petite anglaise: an English girl who has been translated into French; her English life transposed into a French key.
For my pen name, or perhaps that should read mouse name, I took a liberty, dropping the "la" which should, by rights, precede it: Petite became my first name, Anglaise my surname. In a few whimsical clicks, an alter ego was born.
It's simple enough to identify what made these words such a perfect, obvious pseudonym. But I struggle to divine the source of my deep-seated desire to become a petite anglaise in the first place. What on earth could compel a girl to uproot her whole existence when she had never so much as tasted a genuine croissant? When her childhood holidays seldom took her beyond British shores, and her family tree was firmly rooted in Yorkshire? What was it that caused me to fall in love with the idea of immersing myself in a language and culture which were not my own? And why set my sights on France, in particular?
My recurring daydream, as a child, had long been one of escape. As our Vauxhall Cavalier tore along the motorway, my legs wedged at an uncomfortable angle in the narrow space behind my father's seat, my stomach lurching with motion sickness, an image played across my shuttered eyelids. Closing my ears to the sound of my younger sisters bickering beside me on the back seat, I saw myself running. I parted fronds of wheat as I cut through fields, I sliced across people's gardens, leapt over dry-stone walls and streams.
It was as if there was somewhere else I wanted to go, but I didn't know, then, where this somewhere was. In the daydream, my course ran parallel to our car. My running self had no inkling of her destination.
A few days shy of my twelfth birthday, dressed in the navy uniform of Mill Mount Grammar School for Girls, my nylon, knee-length skirt crackling with static, I took my seat expectantly in an attic classroom. The wooden desk, scarred with many generations of graffiti, was at an unfamiliar gradient and I had to place my pen with care, just so, to prevent it rolling to the floor. Mrs Barker arrived and wrote her name on the blackboard, her resolutely English surname momentarily dampening my enthusiasm. "Bonjour tout le monde!" she said brightly, and with that, my very first French lesson began. I opened the well-thumbed Tricolore textbook which was to be my guide for many years to come, pushed my wayward glasses back up to the bridge of my nose, and bent my head studiously over page one.
France. Here was a destination to bend my running steps towards; a hook to hang my daydreams on; so alluring, so exotic, so tantalising close. No matter that school French lessons consisted of little more than endlessly rehearsed role-plays and verb conjugations. No matter that my first extended stay on French soil would not take place for another six agonising years. As I sat in a numbered booth in the school language lab, cumbersome headphones blocking out the English sounds of the world around me, I closed my eyes and pretended I was actually there. I yearned to taste the two hundred grams of pâté I was instructed to buy in the grocer's shop; to visit the church or the town hall after quizzing a passer-by — invariably an elderly man wearing a beret — for directions.
"Ecoutez, puis repetez!" said the voice on the crackling tape at the start of every exercise. "Listen, then dream" would have been more apt. I'd fallen hopelessly, irrationally in love with the French language, and by extension, with France.
From the Hardcover edition.