Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Eleven

When Philippe had been married we had only been on the periphery of the preparations. For this, the wedding of Véronique and Jean-Michel, we were completely involved. To decorate both the church and the salle de réception it is traditional to use wild asparagus fern, but the problem is that its whereabouts are a closely guarded secret. Not, as one might imagine, because there are so many weddings, but because the asparagus itself can be sold at market. Sadly, none grew anywhere on Raymond’s land. Mike, who that morning had just finished varnishing the parking signs for the guest’s cars, went off with Raymond to find some.

I imagine that Raymond had made some preliminary enquiries at farmers’ reunions and they had to drive some distance. The chosen farmer, before taking them to his source, made them swear to secrecy. Although very sympathetic to weddings he was equally unwilling to lose any part of his livelihood. While Mike and Raymond bumped over a field to load our car with the long and feathery, but surprisingly prickly fronds, and bring them back to the farm to be decorated with the paper roses, I was sent to market to buy kilometres of pink and white ribbon. We cut it into strips and curled them with the back of the scissorblades.

We finished this task as a whole team of people arrived. Great branches of box were unloaded in the courtyard. They were to be cut into enough small pieces to fill several dustbins. Chairs and secateurs were provided. Imelda, a childhood friend of Claudette, had come from Paris with Robert, her husband. Staunch family friends, they often combine a holiday with help for various harvests. Sturdy and excited neighbours in sun hats and pinafores brought children to help and Grandma supervised the whole affair.

It was very hot and sultry. Jean-Michel, happily recovered – the poultice must have been effective – shinned up and down ladders decorating the outside barn, where they would later set up the bar. The old car was to be exhibited. It was cleaned and polished and adorned with streamers. In the afternoon, we, the team, which now also included the man who normally comes to do the muck spreading, went off in a convoy some five kilometres to another village where the salle municipale had been hired for the grand repas. It was a larger room than the Restaurant Palissy but less appealing, and we spent hours covering the bare walls. Jean-Michel’s sisters and Philippe’s mother-in-law were dab hands at twisting the asparagus fern to join it into continuous lengths. We then added the curled ribbons and paper roses and looped these garlands along the length of the room. Philippe arrived with a pump to inflate dozens of balloons and worked like a demon. There was no sign of the bride. She was, apparently, in Agen, chez la couturière. It was certainly a full-scale production.

While we decorated the hall, Mike and Raymond had been off on another quest, this time for juniper trees. They had found some promising looking specimens on a sloping hillside, separated from the road by a field of tobacco, in the process of being harvested.

‘I can’t give you permission to cut those trees,’ said le patron when they enquired. ‘I don’t own the land. But I’m packing up in a few minutes and if you’d like to follow me I’ll show you where you can help yourselves.’

He took them to a small wood of junipers near to an abandoned farmhouse, where the old man had died and the whole property was apparently in dispute.

‘That’s the way it’s been for over a year now,’ grinned the farmer. ‘And until they sort it out you can take as many trees as you want.’ They chose the eight most handsome, so tall they hung out of the back of the car. The first two they delivered to us at the salle to be trimmed with yet more paper roses. The others were for the doors of the church, the Mairie and the entrance to the farm. These delivered they then set to work to wash out 200 plastic bottles to hold the punch which Philippe had made the night before.

Véronique’s ambitions for music for the wedding grew daily. Thanks to Christina we already had the entrance and exit music organised and, thank heaven, the accompaniment for my Ave Maria. Now I learned that a cousin from Bordeaux was going to sing another Ave Maria. Who was going to play for him? Mlle Bruet apparently. I said nothing but wished him luck.

Next Véronique returned from Agen with tapes for interludes of music during the service. I was pleased to see she wanted a Vivaldi Gloria but not so sure about the suitability of her next choice – the Dies Irae! I hoped I could manage to keep it all running smoothly. The afternoon before the wedding we had a rehearsal in the church. Each separate piece was recorded on a different tape to avoid having to wind on. This was kindly done for me by Nicole, our erstwhile swimming instructor. Mme Barrou had been up early and picked armfuls of marguerites. She had arranged them in vases the length of the church, turning all their faces to the altar. The musty building was filled with their freshness. At the front of the church are the oldest chairs which have the initials of the original occupants written in brass studs on the top. I looked down the line and saw A.C., Anaïs Costes. In this small, plain church I sat for a few moments in Anaïs’s chair, and felt strangely moved.

The great day arrived. Véronique began her final countdown. At the hairdresser at seven, she next visited the dentist for a special nuptial clean and polish, before going on to the beautician for the customary professional make-up. The morning was hot but overcast. There was no wind. Claudette brought out the great paper chandelier that she had spent so many hours making, and hung it over the balcony. There was some initial alarm as to exactly who had the keys to the church. Raymond ran in and out anxiously. They were eventually found, and we were able to open up, set up the tapes and have a last-minute run through. The young men were still busy putting the final touches to a triumphal arch which stretched over the juniper trees at the bottom of the drive. The initials of the bride and groom were on either side of a heart, resplendent with yet more paper roses; no wonder we had had to make so many!

There was a moment of panic as the refrigerated lorry arrived. It was driven by Daniel who worked for a cheese firm, and would lend it for such an occasion, to throb away on the edge of the courtyard as an extra refrigerator. Would it pass underneath the arch? ‘Doucement!’ yelled everyone as it inched through. Last of all a green pathway was laid with the thousands of pieces of cut box tree. It stretched from the door of the house across the courtyard down the long drive, under the archway and along the village street to first the church and then on to the Mairie. Total strangers passing through the village slowed down, leaning out of their cars to look.

The newly resurfaced courtyard was bright with tables and umbrellas. Jean-Michel’s mother arrived with great trays of homemade pizza. His sisters and various neighbours scurried about, filling rows of small dishes with nuts and nibbles, and the crates of punch were brought out from the cave and loaded into the refrigerated van. Every minute excited guests arrived very conscious of wearing their best clothes. Children jumped up and down and there was a great deal of kissing. Cars were directed to the car park before being decorated. People looked at their watches. At last all eyes were turned to the flight of steps, cameras clicked and the bride emerged.

It was hard to realise that this was the same little, plump, rosy cheeked ten year old who had once helped me clean my derelict ruin, and giggled over my dictation mistakes. She looked stunning. There was not the slightest trace of nervousness. Her dress was in satin with a long train, the low cut bodice heavily beaded, as was the hem. The short sleeves were puffed and ruched, but most distinctive was the hat. It was a tiny satin boater worn perched forward on her head with the brim curved up at each side. At the back was a huge tulle bow with floating ends which hung down to join the train. She looked as though she ought to ride off side-saddle on a white stallion holding the reins in her ruched and beaded satin-gloved hands. However, she was, of course, to walk – and quite a distance – and she began immediately to instruct the children how to carry her train before she started to descend the steps.

At that moment an anxious Jean-Michel arrived wearing a short black jacket and dark trousers with a very faint stripe. He gave the bride one swift approving nod and immediately ran up the steps to help with the train before inspecting the last minute arrangements of food and drink. Raymond came dashing out looking at his watch and Véronique, with the children adjusting the train, positioned herself on his arm and everyone fell into step behind. As they walked down through the village to the Mairie along their box-covered green route, followed by the excited procession, we left for their next entry as a married couple after the civil ceremony. I would like to have seen Raymond’s face as they were married by the unpopular Mayor but I was waiting in the church – my finger on the button. The same cherubic old priest that had married Philippe and Corinne was to officiate and he said blithely that he would cue me for the musical excerpts.

‘I will nod for you to begin Madame, comme ça,’ he said. ‘And raise my hand for you to fade out.’

How simple. I wondered how many couples he had married in his long career.

‘Too many to count but each one brings me joy,’ he smiled.

Two delicate old chairs which had belonged to Véronique’s great grandparents were placed in front of the altar, facing the congregation, as the couple would be seated for most of the ceremony. Mike, positioned at the door, waved, there was a flurry of latecomers into the tiny packed church, I switched on the first tape and to the strains of Jesu Joy of Man’s desiring, in they came. I hardly took in the service, I was so preoccupied with the music. The cousin from Bordeaux had a pleasant voice but was hardly helped by one-handed Mlle Bruet, droning away, often several bars behind him. As the service progressed people jostled for position with cameras but the little curé was unruffled. The introduction to my Ave Maria being only two bars long, I had to switch it on, and then move pretty fast into place. I actually sang rather well, the acoustics were good and Christina’s sure accompaniment helped. But I was in such a hurry to get back to my music station for the next tape that, on the last Amen, I sang what must have been the worst note of my entire career, so I was astonished when the whole church burst into applause. And of course, that note is for ever preserved on the family video – no chance of a re-record.

The curé gave a short and moving homily about both the solemnity and the joy of the occasion ‘au milieu de vous et devant Dieu’, and, the service over, to the march from Aida we followed the radiant couple. We crowded out of the tiny church, leaving yet more photographs to be taken at the door between the festooned junipers. Mike and I drove back to the farm, taking a handicapped relative, and so were able to see the bride and groom process once more up the green box pathway to the courtyard, followed by a great excited crowd. It was all kisses and congratulations and choosing of tables to enjoy the food and le vin d’honneur. Everyone was very hungry, there were delicious things to eat, and no one really noticed that the light had faded and a little breeze was riffling through the umbrellas and beginning to swing the decorations.

Suddenly Véronique looked southwards and gave a cry. The sky was changing fast. An ominous, dark grey funnel was moving towards us at speed. With shouts of ‘Orage!’ and ‘Oh là là!’ all the previous organisation went into rapid reverse. Within minutes, umbrellas were folded and lifted out of tables. Trays of food and wine glasses with chairs and tables were dragged frantically under the cover of the two open barns on either side of the courtyard. In the midst of all the scrambling panic, I saw Claudette dash up onto the balcony, her dress whipped by the wind, to rescue her precious paper chandelier. She struggled for a moment but then managed to untie it and, holding it high in front of her, for it was almost as tall as she was, she raced for cover.

For the past month rain had been badly needed but, as it lashed down into the courtyard, making a swirling stream which washed away the carefully laid path of green box, the wedding crowd stood damply in their opposite shelters shaking their heads and throwing up their hands in disgust at such terrible timing. The temperature dropped and dropped, but miraculously, Véronique kept smiling. She and Claudette brought out a selection of cardigans and jackets to protect flimsily clad shoulders. It rained hard for almost an hour but as soon as the rain eased the bride tripped from one side of the glistening courtyard to the other, greeting her guests with her train looped up on one arm. It was as good an example of ‘the show must go on’ as I’ll ever see. But of course, farmers are ever philosophical about the weather and she is a farmer’s daughter. Alas, there was no dancing as planned, the barns were too crowded, but the food and wine soon disappeared. By six o’clock the crowd had thinned and Mike and I were able to slip away and get our heads down for a couple of hours before le grand repas.

By late evening the storm had moved away and our endless convoy of cars passed beneath a serene sky washed with rose-edged clouds, to arrive at the decorated salle. The room looked very festive and we, the team, congratulated ourselves. It was clear that, safe from anything the weather could do, the bride and groom, still wearing their wedding clothes, were determined to enjoy themselves. The disco was set up by a professional animateur. My heart sank for they can be tedious, especially at village fêtes where they tend to keep up a continuous, loud stream of nonsensical chat. However, animated he certainly was, a sweet-faced and tireless young man who, as well as organising the toasts, the music and the dancing kept the children happy with crazy games.

One look at the menu and we knew we were in for a treat. We began with one of Grandpa’s favourites, salade Quercynoise, a green salad sprinkled with small pieces of duck breast and gizzards, air-cured ham and walnuts. After that we were served salmon in a champagne sauce. At this stage there was a choice of wines; a rosé from our local cave des Sept Monts which is very good, a Côte de Duras, and a Sauvignon. With the plat de résistance, the ever popular filet de boeuf in the famous sauce Périgueux, we drank a Bordeaux Château La Croix ’86. The beef was superb. I imagine Claudette had chosen it again. The service was very slow and there was dancing in between each course and this time – sciatica free – I was able to join them. Everyone danced, the old and the very young. A long time after the beef came roasted quail with raisins and great dishes of pommes forestières – potatoes sautéed with wild mushrooms, garlic and parsley. I was amused to see the simple green salad which followed described on the menu as ‘boulevard des escargots.’ Not a title which would happily translate.

The children played games for prizes while the cheese was passed and it was midnight before we reached the dessert and yet more young guests arrived. First we were served fruit salad in liqueur and then the wedding cake was carried in. It was not profiteroles this time but ‘Un Moulin des Amoureux.’ It was a windmill with a miniature bride and groom in a very dangerous position were the sails ever to turn. The whole thing was made of biscuit and crisp caramel. The children gathered round with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ licking their lips for the first taste. It was more like confectionery than a cake and must have taken hours to pipe all the sugar. It seemed a shame to destroy it but it got smaller and smaller as the evening wore on.

The animateur had a super microphone and with several glasses of good wine inside me and no tape to worry about I enjoyed singing unaccompanied. I had been practising, with the cows for audience, Marguerite Monnot’s ‘Hymne à l’amour’ and it seemed appropriate – with wonderful words by, of course, Piaf herself. We danced not quite until dawn, but until we were exhausted and left the young ones to it. The bride and groom would get little sleep as they would be woken up again almost as soon as they got to bed with the famous tureen of garlic soup, as a starter to the next party.

But my fondest memory of the whole affair is of Véronique the following day. There were many sore heads, including the new husband Jean-Michel, who retired to bed after the midday meal of leftovers, which we ate in the courtyard. But the salle had to be cleared. That, apparently, was part of the deal. So, led by the bride, off we went, an army of us, with plastic sacks, dustbins and brooms to the scene of the revelry of the previous night.

Down came the garlands, the balloons, the ribbons and the paper roses. The tablecloths were folded and the tables too. Chairs were stacked high against the walls and Véronique, in T-shirt and faded leggings, swept the floor. Her young face bare of make-up, she looked like a very tired, but utterly contented, child. As though all her young life had been a preparation for this, she had a quiet confidence that she had chosen wisely and that it was now up to her and Jean-Michel to carry on the traditions and responsibilities of working the land. We collected up our laden dustbins. Would the decorations be stored somewhere for another party? I didn’t know. The hall was bare again. As we filed out, and closed and locked the door, only the junipers, on either side of the porch, were left as a souvenir of un temps de bonheur – a time of great happiness.

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