Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Ten

Babies are the greatest time-wasters in the world but perhaps they simply give us an opportunity to marvel at the miracle of humanity. In the three weeks that Thomas was with us he ran our lives. Guests of his parents flew in for short breaks in their busy schedules. Adam’s friend, Tom Harvey, was amazed to see that the rough barbecue they had built together ten years before was not only still standing but in constant use. We cooked trout stuffed with rosemary and garlic, kilos of sardines and large fat prawns. The young went separately to the market and, often disorganised, came home with double quantities of everything, especially oysters.

On the one occasion when they all dined out, Thomas refused to go to sleep. By nine-thirty I gave in, hauled him out of bed and into his pram. Down through the orchard we bumped, while he looked up in some bewilderment at the dark branches of each succeeding tree. To my relief, the great round eyes began to narrow. He held out to the last however, staring at me though two black slits until sleep finally won the battle.

July was wonderful, bright blue skies with the superb prospect down from the pool across a vast expanse of sunflowers to the woods and valley beyond.

‘I couldn’t have a better view if I were a millionaire,’ said my contented husband.

When I was a child my father was often out of work and, to supplement the dole, my mother would sit up dressmaking half the night. On Fridays she would count out her money into Oxo tins labelled ‘rent’, ‘coal’ etc. On the rare occasions when we did have a holiday, we would stay in a terraced house near the railway line in Littlehampton, where the unlovely landlady would throw us out at ten in the morning. For our midday meal we looked for the cheapest café. I hated being poor and would escape into my fantasy of becoming a film star, Bette Davis being my idol. I imagined myself incredibly rich with, of course, a swimming pool, and the ultimate triumph, returning one day to Littlehampton to travel slowly down the main street in an enormous, bright pink, chauffeur-driven Cadillac. As I sat by my pool that summer with my family around me, I knew that there were other sorts of riches, and I wasn’t too bothered about the Cadillac.

After they had all left and we were tidying up, Mike knocked the telephone onto the tiled floor with a crash. We were hardly surprised to find that it no longer worked and, later that afternoon, we went down to the farm to call the engineers. Raymond laughed. ‘That won’t do any good,’ he said. That very morning, he told us, he had been coming along the road on his tractor when he saw his neighbouring farmer in a field at the bottom of our track. He had just finished loading his tallest trailer with five great rounds of straw.

‘Il a justement fini,’ began Raymond dramatically. He had clearly told and retold this tale all day. ‘Et avec les cinq grandes boules de paille,’ Raymond did a vivid mime, ‘il a commencé à tourner.’

Approaching, Raymond had seen the coming disaster. The five great rounds of straw obscuring any view to the rear, the edge of the trailer just caught the telephone wire. Raymond had waved and shouted, but as with his own smouldering load one previous summer, he had found that communication with a distant tractor is easily misinterpreted. As his friend waved back assuming Raymond’s gestures to be some ecstatic ‘Bonjour’ on this lovely morning, not only did he snap the wire and pull down the pole, but the next three telephone poles went down like dominoes. Once it was all mended our telephone worked perfectly.

M. Duparcq returned to cut and cement a drainage channel all round the north side of the house. I knew it had to be done. When the chai was only used for wine, it hadn’t mattered if the earth floor became damp when there were heavy rains. Now that we had had it divided and intended to tile the cement floor of what would be our new bedroom, a damp course of some kind was necessary. The long, steep slope of the roof made the water cascade down the roman tiles and fall in a curtain off the lower edge, and it had to run somewhere. The new cement channel would slope gently down to a soakaway past the house but…it necessitated digging up a great many of Anaïs’s roses.

I already knew that M. Duparcq’s feeling for stones did not extend to plants, but he nodded patiently as I tried to explain that, if it were possible, I wanted to save the roses and replant them further back. The sweat ran off his face and down his long back as he dug them up. After a light pruning, I pushed the tangled old roots into buckets of water and stood them in the shade of the ash tree. We had a lucky escape this time from Radio Monte Carlo as the batteries on the transistor needed replacing. The only electric plug near where he was working being the one I used for the washing machine, we had almost continuous laundering for several days. Once replanted, the roses revived.

The diamond wedding over, the final plans for Véronique’s wedding at the end of August began to take shape. Hundreds of paper roses were being made, and everyone sat down with Grandma and made a few more when they had a moment. There seemed to be cartons of them in every room. The great paper chandelier, festooned with ribbon and flowers, hung in the corridor, and mysterious packages arrived almost daily. Claudette still came to swim but she did not stay to gossip. Pre-wedding preparations were a serious business. The whole house was scrubbed and polished. Her garden was exceptionally well weeded. Two large square tubs, one on either side of the balcony where the bride and groom would stand for the photographs, were ablaze with scarlet and yellow canna lilies and zinnias. The barn facing the house, which like all barns holding a thousand farming necessities was usually a loosely organised muddle, was ruthlessly tidied. She was now trying to persuade Raymond that the courtyard itself needed to be resurfaced.

‘Oh, regarde! C’est pas joli!’ she cried.

Raymond huffed and puffed but, as usual, gave way. Then it was heated discussions about exactly what colour gravel to use with the tarmac. We made trips to the quarry and to different villages to compare one person’s drive with another.

Véronique herself was deciding, among a million other things, on the music for the ceremony. I was rather alarmed when she brought me piano copies of ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’ for the entry of the bride, and the march from Aida for the final procession. I must have spent a small fortune on pianists in my time. I am a less than adequate accompanist – a solo pianist I certainly am not. And in any case what was I supposed to play them on? There was no organ in our tiny village church. I reckoned that getting through my Ave Maria would be a sufficient responsibility.

Singers are like athletes and must go into training for a performance. As well as entertaining the cows with daily scales, I had found a slight and nervous accompanist who lived in Villeneuve and I would go to his odd, impersonal house once a week to sing. He was quite proficient although he made most of his money copying and scoring music. He seemed to enjoy my varied programme which always finished with the Ave Maria for the wedding. I said goodbye to him for the last time as my friend Christina, a marvellous accompanist, was due to arrive the next day with her husband, her son and my sofa.

The sofa, a handsome, iron-framed antique, covered in a William Morris fabric had been donated to Bel-Air by les Fostaires some years before. The only problem was how to get it to France. The prices quoted were astronomical. The previous year our friend Hugh had, with some difficulty, (as it was extremely heavy) put it on a trailer and taken it from Clapham to High Wycombe. He intended to include it in a load of his belongings for which he was hiring a van. His own furniture safely on board, he found he had underestimated both the amount of space he needed and the size of our sofa. It made the return journey to Clapham where it sat, disconsolately, in a spare room.

One day, after a session with Debussy, I was discussing its plight with Christina, a lady who likes solving problems, musical or otherwise. Later that evening her husband Marcus arrived with a tape measure. After about ten minutes he announced that, if he could saw off the feet, he was pretty sure he could get it into his Volvo. They would be happy to bring it to the house in the sunflowers, and then put back the feet.

Friends bearing a sofa was an offer I could not refuse but, on the day they were due to arrive, there was no sign of them. I was slightly worried that the weight of the sofa might not only have delayed them but actually caused it to fall through the floor of the Volvo. Also the last sunflowers were beginning to turn and, in a few days, the once golden field would be patched with brown. I was relieved when the following morning they telephoned and, within a couple of hours, we saw them bumping slowly up the wrong track to the house, one really only suitable for tractors and our own old 2CV. As they drew nearer I could see ten year old Samuel in the back of the Volvo sitting in state on my sofa.

‘I think he’ll quite miss it on the way home,’ said Christina.

Once unloaded, the sofa went into the living room where it fitted perfectly. It joined the ancient sideboard and farm table which had belonged to Anaïs and looked as though it had always been there. The covering fabric in dark red and ochre was a very happy choice with the terracotta tiled floor.

Once out of the sofa, Samuel lived in the pool. One day we invited the Albert family up to swim. The great grandparents stayed at home but everyone else came. Mme Albert cannot swim but she enjoyed playing with her grandchildren in the shallow end. The three year old, safe in a ring, suddenly discovered how to propel herself along and, with her dummy in her mouth, chugged up and down the pool and refused to come out. Eventually they had had enough and we put all the tables end to end and rushed about for chairs. I had prepared a huge rice salad with prawns and we barbecued small lamb cutlets with rosemary. By now it was past nine o’clock and, their work finished for the day, Raymond and Claudette came up to join us all for le dessert.

My English friends are always amused to see me making bread pudding but I find that it is the only way to deal with the vast quantities of French bread that are too hard to eat. Because the French bake twice a day, their bread is not intended to keep, and guests invariably come back from market with a gigantic loaf saying. ‘I just bought this – it looked so delicious.’

This bread pudding was the deluxe version. Highly spiced, it was stuffed with every kind of dried fruit and topped with brown sugar and toasted almonds. Raymond rubbed his hands.

Ah c’est le pudding au pain!’ he exclaimed. The Alberts looked polite but sceptical until they tasted it. We served it with vanilla ice-cream and as always I wondered why the British can’t make ice-cream. In my local French supermarket I can buy a wonderful range – blackcurrant, coconut, mango, pistachio, apricot, dark, dark chocolate and creamy, real vanilla. Even the cheapest own brand has twice the flavour of British ice-cream, and is less expensive.

After supper, Samuel, who was once more in the pool, was persuaded to play for us. He hauled himself out, shook the water from his red hair, dried his hands and went to fetch his fiddle. He was already a student at the Guildhall, and would later win a violin scholarship to the City of London School. Extremely talented, he had a wonderfully matter-of-fact attitude to performing. We all sat spellbound, especially the little Alberts, as he stood by the pool and began to play. The acoustics were amazing. The sound reverberated off the wall of the house and to add to the magic, as if on cue, an almost full moon came slowly up over the hill. Later, when everyone had gone, we sat looking at the stars and Samuel was excited to see his first satellites, moving steadily in the wide, dark and mysterious sky.

Meanwhile the wedding preparations were accelerating. The bride and groom were to have their respective stag and hen parties on the following Friday night.

‘C’est pour enterrer le vieux garçon et la vieille fille,’ laughed Claudette. As it happened it almost did bury the groom. The next day Jean-Michel looked very woebegone. He held his head stiffly and at an odd angle but it was not, as one might reasonably have imagined, the result of too much drinking. For their celebration the men had gone to a pizzeria with a swimming pool and, in the resultant horseplay with his friends, he had injured his neck. The girls had chosen a more upmarket restaurant. ‘C’était un joli cadre,’ said Véronique happily, while stirring something on the stove. ‘On a mangé du poulet avec une très bonne sauce d’écrevisses.’

It seemed that her husband to be hadn’t felt too bad that night, as they had all met up at 5.30 a.m. and danced till dawn. Today however it was a different story. He had been to consult someone – not it appeared Madame Orlando – as a result of which Véronique was now preparing a special brew of twenty-five walnut leaves and one root of mauve – wild mallow. She then soaked a series of cloths in the mixture and applied them to the injured neck.

Jean-Michel is the youngest of five, the others all being girls. During the day one sister after another kept appearing to see how he was. They drove in and out of the courtyard which was still in the final stages of being resurfaced. Claudette and Grandma were moving furniture. They were clearing the corridor and setting out decorated tables to display the wedding presents.

Grandpa had had enough. ‘C’est pas un mariage – c’est un cirque!’ he yelled, stomping back to his house.

I learned that a certain Mlle Bruet, who lived in the next village, would bring her portable organ to play for me at the wedding. I decided that with so much going on, it was up to me to arrange a rehearsal. Christina, Samuel and I met her at the church. She was a rather timid young woman. She plugged in the organ. I gave her the music and waited. She looked at it for a long moment then played one note. I hesitated. ‘Er – the introduction goes like this,’ I said, humming the tune. I pointed to the music. She wore thick glasses and stared at the notes as if they were the first that she had ever seen. She then played, very slowly, my opening phrase. I tried again. ‘That’s my line,’ I said. ‘You play the accompaniment underneath,’ I smiled encouragingly, already knowing that I was in deep trouble.

She sighed. ‘I only play the top line,’ she said, ‘with one hand.’

Christina and I looked at one another. There was a long silence.

‘Would you mind – would you allow my friend to play for me?’ I asked.

‘Bien sûr,’ she said. She practically fled from the organ while Christina couldn’t wait to get her hands on the keyboard.

‘Are you quite sure you don’t mind?’ we asked. It was, after all, her organ.

‘Pas du tout!’ To my great relief she genuinely appeared not to mind at all. We went through the Ave Maria. Unfortunately there was no possibility of Christina being able to play for the actual wedding as they were leaving the following day. We rushed back to the house for our cassette recorder and her husband Marcus’s assistance. Then we realised that the organ was laid on a shelf next to the only electric socket in the church. Suspecting that the electricity supply to the church might well also be on tarif primitif, I couldn’t risk blowing the fuse by using an adaptor.

The nearest house to the church was only used at weekends. Fortunately this was a Saturday. Rosaleen was watering her plants. ‘Pas de problème,’ she smiled. ‘Entrez, entrez.’

But of course, there was a problem. The lead wasn’t long enough and she didn’t have an extension lead. Another journey through the village and up the track to Bel-Air and at last, we were ready to record. The shelf on which the organ was placed being high on the wall, it was necessary to play standing up, but nothing daunts Christina. Finding that on one side of the organ was a sliding volume control she enlisted Samuel’s help. Bending her knees to indicate a crescendo and raising them again for a diminuendo, while Samuel pushed the knob back and forth, she played my accompaniment for my Ave Maria. She also very kindly recorded for me the other two pieces of music that Véronique had requested. Bach and Verdi were saved from being ill-used by me. Of course – it could have been even worse – they could have been left to Mlle Bruet!

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!