Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter One

It is hard to believe that this will be our twentieth summer at Bel-Air, our house in the sunflowers. The details of that first glimpse on a hot and hazy day are still vivid. We had been searching intermittently for three years and were leaving for England at the end of the week. As we followed the sun-burned, barelegged farmer on his small motorcycle up through the maize, head high on either side of the bumpy track, we had no idea what we would find. M. Bertrand, his chin still greasy from eating confit de canard, was reluctantly interrupting his midday meal to show us the house he had for sale. Our thirteen-year-old son Matthew leaned out of the camper window as we approached what appeared to be a complete ruin. Turning to look back at us, the farmer shook his head, his mobylette wobbled and we breathed again. We turned right, passing a dried-up pond, a barn wall and turning again, stopped in front of an old stone house with a long sloping roof and a well under the wide porch. The broken shutters were closed. We looked at it in a silence broken only by the sound of crickets. It seemed to be asleep. It was not a ruin but, had it been left empty another twelve years, would have certainly become one. The tiles were haphazard, sliding down the roof. Inside there was a stream of green lichen across the wall of the main room, and all the wooden floors were eaten away. But there was also something else; a spirit of place. This house had once been loved and cared for, and it has been our project, our joy and our delight, ever since that day.

In these twenty years we have come to realise how very fortunate we were to find both this particular house and the friendship of M. and Madame Bertrand, who, very quickly, became Raymond and Claudette. Together we have watched our children grow up. Their son and daughter and our two sons, who are now beginning their own families. We have also looked back and learned a little of the people who lived at Bel-Air before us. Anaïs Costes came as a young bride in 1889 and lived here until she died in 1961. Her only son Aloïs was crippled with polio as a boy. He never married. When she died he could not manage without her and died five years later. Her husband Justin, as the eldest of the three brothers born at Bel-Air, inherited the property. Justin died of a heart attack when he was only fifty-two, leaving Anaïs and her handicapped son to look after everything.

Those who remember her always say, ‘Ah oui, Anaïs…elle était vaillante.’ Two photographs of her hang on my wall. One when she was in her twenties with her young son at her side holding a hoop, and another taken much later at a family wedding. She was then sixty-two. Her face is lined but her smile is almost mischievous. She wears a brooch to pin her collar and a plain head band. Her son looks very smart in a stiff collar, his hair neatly arranged. I have faded photographs of her husband and brother-in-law, taken during their periods of compulsory military service when they were young. They are handsome and carefree in their uniforms. Now we are hanging our own dynasty on the opposite side of the wall, photographs of our children and grandchildren, who will be the next guardians of Bel-Air.

This is the short holiday, the flying visit. Not that we fly any more – Eurostar has changed all that. After London to Paris, the TGV takes us to Agen – pronounced Agenne by the people who live there – and if we travel on a Friday, there is a good connection to Monsempron Libos. We are told that it is a station that SNCF would dearly love to close but, so far, petitions to retain its services have succeeded. The station house is painted a deep yellow ochre, its white edging and shuttered upper windows giving it a residential look. Shaded by a Mediterranean cypress, doves sit cooing from the painted corbels. Sometimes we take the night train direct from Paris which arrives here just after six in the morning. If it happens to be a Thursday, the first traders will be unrolling their umbrellas to set up the weekly market, the largest in the region, when the whole town is closed to traffic.

We are in Lot-et-Garonne, six hundred miles south of Calais, and it shows. Most of the people who come in from miles around both to buy and sell are short and dark, with wide faces and ready smiles. The local accent is strong, with rolled r’s, and the last syllables pronounced emphatically. If it is summer the stalls will be piled high with melons and nectarines, strawberries and peaches, artichokes, the finest French beans and twenty kinds of olives. There will be the squeal of piglets and the smells of paella cooking in a giant pan, quails roasting on a spit, goat cheese and strings of garlic.

Whatever time we arrive we know our friends will meet us. We hug each other and stand back to look. Perhaps a little thinner or, more likely, fatter; always, alas, a little older.

This time it is Claudette who has come to collect us. We hurry home along the familiar roads.

‘I see they’ve had a new roof at Mathilde’s old house.’

‘Yes, just before Christmas.’

‘Ah, M. Lombard is still planting sunflowers in his top field then. Good.’

‘Would you like a drink before you go up?’

As we climb out of the car, Claudette’s elderly parents, Granny and Grandpa, stick in hand, come very slowly across the courtyard from different directions, like two old snails. Grandpa has used a stick for many years but it is the first time for Grandma. Her back is noticeably more crooked but her face is plump and rosy and her smile as sweet as ever.

‘Ça va, Mami?’

She shrugs. ‘Tout doucement’…slowly.

Grandpa shakes our hands peering up uncertainly, then suddenly smiles and nods.

‘Eh! Oh!’ shouts Claudette across the courtyard. From the nearest orchard, through the gate by the first barn where the chickens scurry out of his way, Raymond comes to greet us. He kisses me warmly and beams.

‘Ça va?’

‘Oh, pas trop.’

‘Why? What’s the matter?’

‘It’s my shoulder. I can’t remember what I was doing. I turned my arm and…clac!’ He stops himself just in time from repeating the movement, so eager is he to explain. He’s had an X-ray but it showed nothing. It’s a ligament. He’s had physiotherapy, acupuncture – nothing helps.

‘Rest?’ I suggest. He laughs.

We troop up into the familiar kitchen. Cats are tipped off chairs and we sit. On the shelf there is a large, gaudy trophy which Raymond displays with pride. Once again they have won the prize at the special ‘soirée de dégustations, de convivialité et d’humeur’, which is given each autumn by the local Cave Coopérative. It was apparently a great evening. There were two hundred participants Raymond tells us, his eyes shining. Each producteur competes to encourage the greatest sale of wine from the Cave, and Raymond’s success is due in no small measure to all our friends and family who put every purchase down on his total. In addition to the cup he is also rewarded with his own weight in wine. We shall not go thirsty this holiday.

A la vôtre!’

A la tienne Étienne!’

‘No problems up at the house?’

Raymond shakes his head. ‘And your 2CV is working. I started it this morning.’

Claudette drives us up the track, past the farm in which their daughter Véronique now lives with her husband and three-year-old child, and we see Bel-Air for the first time for eight months. There are swathes of wild marguerites interspersed with love-in-a-mist just waiting to bloom. The wisteria is past its best but the boule-de-neige is heavy with round white blossom. The valerian which I planted two years ago, has at last taken off and the mallow bushes are as abundant as heavily pregnant girls. Will they flower before we have to leave?

The porch is a blaze of colour. Claudette has planted all the pots along the wall with petunias, marigolds, busy lizzies and small dianthus.

‘Oh, how lovely!’

Pleased that I have noticed, she briskly dead-heads a geranium.

Alors…à ce soir…vers huit heures.’ And she’s gone.

There are eggs and walnuts and wine on the working surface. There are more flowers in a jug on the table, lilac, arum lilies, roses and white irises, and four very tired looking apples in a bowl. But they are all ‘fabrication maison’.

We make the bed, unpack and then tour the garden to see what else has survived. We look at the weeds and the long grass which Raymond has roughly cut. There is so much to do – but we have two weeks. The air is sweet and clean, blowing gently from the south-west. We can see down across le grand champ, as Raymond always calls it. It is newly sewn with maize and the thin green lines give it an odd perspective. They are never completely straight but curve gently and in the corners there are strips of cross-hatching where the great machine made a few extra turns.

In the meadow at the far edge of the field a herd of pale cows – les Blondes d’Aquitaine – move slowly, and beyond the pasture is a band of woodland with a central gap through which we can see the farm. There are four buildings side by side, all built at different times. The earliest part is marked on the map of 1765. The church spire from which the angelus rings three times a day rises above the trees. Seven in the morning, midday, and seven in the evening – the only hours a farmer really needs to know.

Beyond the village the ground rises again. The skyline is scalloped with the rolling banks on the far side of the river Lot. It is a gentle landscape. A car passes silently on the road below. Unless it is a very heavy lorry it does not disturb the peace. The only sounds are the drone of a distant tractor and the call of hens. From the front of the house we look up past a meadow where more cows will soon be brought to graze after the hay is cut. Beyond that is the new vineyard and then another wood which stretches up to the highest point for miles around, where the château d’eau – the water tower – nestles into the hillside. There was mains water already here when we bought the house but no tap. Anaïs and her son were too poor, or too frugal, to pay for water. They preferred to rely on the well under the porch and the pond at the end of the track.

To the west there is more gently rolling hillside and a wood which curves. Who cut that shape I wonder? One thinks of this landscape as timeless but I now know that the ruin at the end of the track was once a large house. Aloïs, so I’m told, used to do odd jobs for the family who lived there. They are always referred to as ‘les Carles’. For some reason they decided to move. They demolished much of their property and, putting the stones on carts, moved down into the village and built two small houses. There are always changes. Even the track which now goes past the back of our house, once passed the front door, and recently we were surprised to learn that there was once a church, Saint Nicholas, now completely vanished, just across the next field. These seemingly solid buildings with their metre thick walls were cemented with earth and, once the roof goes, the rain eventually washes them away.

The smaller creatures here are adept at renewing their shelters. The miner bees, who live in ever greater numbers on my south-facing terrace, patiently re-excavate their neat cylindrical holes when a sweep of the broom upsets them. The tunnel spiders patch and weave when their intricate webs are broken and the ants rush in concerted effort to rebury their eggs in the disturbed anthill. There is the time and quiet here in which to wind down and observe this other world. As I rested briefly from weeding, an ant dragging a dead grub three times its own size caught my eye. As it passed beneath my chair I turned to watch it. Such a cumbersome burden was not easy to manipulate. On and on it went, over small stones, up grass stems and down again, the grub tipping perilously from one side to the other. Occasionally the ant abandoned it altogether and turned a small rapid circle as if to get its bearings – then off it went again, dragging the long, fast dying corpse. I moved my chair some three metres ahead. The ant soon passed me and I moved again. Its energy and speed at close quarters was amazing. It arrived at a hole in the stone wall. Home at last? No. On it went another three metres, to disappear in the undergrowth at the end of the terrace. I decided to try to find the nest. The first pile of earth was an old molehill, also the second. I had to walk to the very edge of our land before I found it. I set down my chair and waited. Would the ant get eaten by some other predator as it penetrated the great green forest of cow parsley – or, almost worse, would its booty be stolen? I watched other ants scurrying back and forth – some bringing home a small fly but nothing as spectacular as my ant’s giant burden. Just as I began to think I had lost it altogether out it came – the juggernaut trailing its great load. On and on across the rough grass littered now with scraps of pampas leaf, it reached the edge of the nest. This last stretch was the hardest; there were no easy, ground floor entrances. I watched as it hauled its trophy up the steep incline to the very top. I blinked and it had gone. Such are the distractions from gardening – and from writing.

When we first bought Bel-Air there was so much work to be done on the house that writing about it was the last thing on my mind. Even later, when I had had an article published, I never contemplated a book. It is now eight years since I wrote the first book and so many things have changed as they must do in all lives. We are still working on the house, still making plans for both inside and out. We are very conscious that we have had the great fortune, both to be able to share our summers with good friends and neighbours and, on that hot and hazy day, to have found Bel-Air.

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