Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Twelve

Two days later the publicity department of Virgin Publishing rang to say that Country Homes and Interiors wanted to do a feature about Bel-Air and were sending a photographer. He was on his way. When would he or she arrive? Probably in a couple of days. We looked at each other in dismay. Of course it was good for the book, but for the last few weeks we’d hardly had time to look at the house, let alone spruce it up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Marie, the publicity girl. ‘They don’t want anything changed. They want it just as it is.’

I looked at the cobwebs in the corners, the dead horseflies on the window-sill, the dust on the mirrors, the paint flaking off the bedroom wall, and the little tin lids of mouse poison in the spare bedrooms and laughed. And so began the most thorough cleaning that Bel-Air has ever had, or is ever likely to have. Not that I am sluttish, you understand, but there are always more interesting things to do here than housework.

The interior of our country home began to gleam. Windows were supercleaned. Mirrors shone. Tiles were polished and the cupboards and chests now shone with scented beeswax. The assortment of Victorian china, none of it matching, which hangs on the dresser was plunged into soap suds. The wide open hearth was swept more scrupulously than ever before and all the soot was brushed off the fire back so that the design of two medieval grape-carriers could be seen. Plates on the walls were taken down and long-dead creatures removed from the rims. Rugs were beaten, frayed ends cut off. Beams were dusted, the porch was swept. Even Biggles got his cage spring-cleaned.

Claudette was amused. ‘I’ll lend you some extra geraniums for the porch,’ she said. As I filled the bedrooms with vases of flowers I only hoped the photographer would come when he had promised. I knew how quickly spiders replace their webs and I certainly didn’t want to have to start all over again.

The next day I walked down to the village to meet him and sat on the wooden bench in front of the shop. Everybody collects there in the evening, but now the whole place seemed deserted. It was a beautiful morning. The wedding day storm had cleared the air and we were set fine for September. At last an English car slowed down at the crossroads, we introduced ourselves and rode up to Bel-Air together.

He seemed impressed and soon set to work. He took hundreds of photos of the house, both inside and out and, at the last minute, one of me. When the magazine eventually came out the following September they had chosen some very good shots of the house, but they had also included the one of me. I looked unusually solemn and was, even more unusually, seated at a desk. When I took it down to the farm Grandpa looked at it gravely. ‘C’est pas vous,’ he said.

‘Yes it is,’ I insisted. He went to fetch his glasses. He looked closer.

‘Ah oui,’ he conceded. Then he shook his head. ‘Mais…là…vous êtes trop sévère.’ He screwed up his nose and chuckled.

When les Fostaires had visited us the previous year Judith had come from the Parc du Vecors and had told us how beautiful it was. This year they planned to return there briefly en route for Italy with Graham and Anne Arnold, both painters. They rang to invite us to join them for four days. We would all be staying in a former monastery in St Croix which was now owned by the département and used as a slightly up-market youth hostel. It sounded just what we needed after our hectic summer. Tony and Nan had arrived a few days before with their son and daughter-in-law so, leaving Bel-Air in their capable hands, we set off eastward to cross France, a new experience.

We kept to small roads as far as we were able. I love maps and Tony, a keen fisherman, had brought me a pair of bi-focal fisherman’s sunglasses. I no longer had the problem of changing from one pair of spectacles to another, as the amount of magnification for tying flies is perfect for maps. Travelling eastward on roads like corkscrews the landscape varied enormously, as we climbed and then descended the many steep ridges which ran north to south. The rugged countryside had a wild beauty, but the towns were not as flower-decked or as prosperous as those of the south-west, and had an air of dejection. Once we had descended into the Rhône valley the feel of the South returned, and we crossed the river at Loriol and drove on, climbing all the while until we reached St Croix. Les Fostaires and Co drove up to the gate, just as we had at last found the monastery.

It was a large rambling building enclosing a central courtyard. Everyone seemed to be having a siesta. We unloaded our bags and, wandering round, eventually found a young man who showed us our rooms, which were at opposite ends of an enormous echoing corridor. It was easy to imagine the monks filing up and down. We had a wonderful view from our window of steep hillsides and a riverbed curving below. It was all so different from our region. This was just what we needed. We caught up with each other’s lives, and ate a very good but simple meal of cold meat and salad, seated together on long benches in the courtyard. Our fellow guests turned out to be a team of cyclists. Looking at the surrounding terrain I thought them very brave but le cyclisme is a passion all over France.

The nearby town of Die, which we visited briefly after supper, seemed to be a centre of activity. There were several theatre groups performing, a festival of modern music, even a visiting orchestra from Hungary, but we were very tired and, after sharing a bottle of the local, excellent, Clairette de Die, we came home. We planned our sightseeing for the following day and said goodnight.

Once in bed, we realised we had chosen the wrong end of the corridor as, from our room, we could hear every footstep from up and down the wide stone stairway. Also the cloakroom and lavatory at the foot of the stairs had a medieval door with an iron latch. As it was lifted it scraped; as it fell it clanged. Both sounds reverberated up the stairs. Ah well, it wouldn’t go on all night. We fell asleep.

We were shocked awake by a bright light on our faces. Startled, we sat up. It was only then that we noticed a wide fanlight on the wall above our heads. Anyone using the corridor outside would put on the light and…we had no choice but to lie listening to a murmured and maddening conversation, too loud to ignore – but not loud enough to understand.

At last the light went out and we fell asleep again, only to be woken some time later by the returning cyclists who, not as tired as we, had clearly stayed much longer in Die and enjoyed many a verre. The downstairs latch scraped and clanged repeatedly until, at long last, they all seemed to shuffle off into another part of the monastery and it was quiet. This time it was more difficult to get to sleep but we did…eventually.

About half an hour later we were dragged once more into desperate and unwilling consciousness. The accursed latch rose and fell and another troop of footsteps came up the echoing stairs. There were voices too – but what language were they speaking? It wasn’t French. It wasn’t particularly quiet either. But with the next sound I thought I must be so tired I was hallucinating – gypsy violins? Many years before I had learned some Hungarian songs. I was singing in several languages in a small nightclub in the West End, mostly favoured by au pair girls and foreign students. Also on the bill was Ronnie Corbett, at that time relatively unknown. His act then consisted mostly of Noel Coward impressions. They were good but meant absolutely nothing to the audience. ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ was not what they wanted to hear. He was paid off and I was required to learn yet more songs in Hungarian. Some months later, I included some of these songs in my act at another club, where one of the waiters turned out to be a Hungarian gypsy musician. He invited me to meet his brothers, their wives and their children who all lived together in two rooms in Brixton. While the children sat up in bed, the sheets folded neatly back and secured with large safety pins, the brothers took their instruments from the back of the wardrobe and from under the bed and we made music. This was not the kind of music normally heard in Brixton and people leaned out of their windows to listen. Now in the middle of the night in a monastery – this was the same music.

I began to laugh. My husband did not see the joke, as the haunting tunes went on and on. The Hungarian orchestra were clearly either having a post-mortem on their performance that night in Die or, I suspect, just playing a wind-down after a long tour. Cigarette smoke curled under the door. They were clearly sleeping, or not sleeping in the adjoining rooms. I began to hum the tune. ‘For God’s sake!’ pleaded my exhausted husband. ‘It must be nearly dawn.’

At last, once more we slept. Suddenly a horrendous howling forced its way into our unbelieving ears. It was like something in torment. Each time we started to drift off again, it recommenced. The sky was light. We had had almost no sleep. I staggered out of bed. I looked down but could see nothing. It started again. Neighbouring dogs began to bark. It was no use, we might as well get up. Even after a shower we were still reeling from the worst night we had ever had. Not even coping with teething babies could compare and that was a very, very long time ago. We decided that we couldn’t possibly stay another night.

We joined the others for breakfast expecting a similar tale but one look at their relaxed and smiling faces told us that at the other end of the vast corridor they had heard absolutely nothing. The girl who served us coffee sympathised. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘Everyone is leaving today. You will have the whole place to yourselves.’ The howling it seemed did not often occur. It was just the local dog having a nightmare. Bully for him, I thought, at least he was asleep!

We had no more troubles and the rest of our stay was a delight. We drove up the de Cambeau valley and climbed up to look at the Tête de Praorzel. 1951 metres high, it was spectacular. Judith finds great heights positively intoxicating. She and Barry went as high as they could where they crawled to the edge and looked over, Mike, who loves walking, just set off and disappeared, while Graham and Ann and I sat half-way up, just gazing at the flat-topped head of the mountain, wreathed in fine gossamer cloud. We made a trip south to visit friends who had bought what had been the village post office in Venterol. They were just as much in love with their house as we are with ours, and, also like us, had wonderful French neighbours. We went to market in Nyons; very Provençal with herbs, soap, olive oil, dried flowers and local pottery and, before we left, we bought lavender oil from an old woman in the village of St Croix. Her son harvested the lavender from as high as it would grow. That way the oil is stronger, she told us. I have half a bottle left and one drop in a jug of hot water, can still, after all these years, blow your head off.

Our friends left for Italy and we decided to return to Bel-Air via the Mediterranean. Since having the pool my swimming had improved, and I had a sudden overwhelming longing to swim in the sea. Bernard and Mary Spear, who were to arrive at Bel-Air at the end of the month, had told us many times how beautiful Collioure was. We looked at the map. It couldn’t have been much further south without falling into Spain, but off we set. Sadly by the time we got there we were very tired. It was horrendously crowded and, after having tried unsuccessfully to park anywhere, or even to slow down, without getting hooted at, we drove through and never did get to see it. Perhaps one early Spring, or very late summer in the future, we might try Collioure again.

We retreated to Argeles Plage and had two wonderful swims. The sky was blue, the palms waved, the pods on the poinciana trees were full of seeds. Our hotel was small and the Catalan cooking excellent. We were going to stay two nights but we drifted off to sleep to the unwelcome sounds of nearby televisions. At five-thirty in the morning, a metal shutter being thrown up below our window was our first indication of the bakery next door. As they began work on the daily bread, we went down to a deserted beach to swim in the dawn light, came back, showered, had breakfast and left. It was time to go home.

It took us five hours by D roads but we needed the quiet. Bel-Air was waiting for us. Tony and Nan had prepared a meal. We sat together in the blessed peace as the stars came out, and they told us of the previous night down at the farm when they had gently, but firmly, to demur from watching a third video of the wedding.

A few days later I took another look at the decrepit old cupboard which still leaned against the wall in the new room. I knew that English, proprietary brand paint stripper was useless against these old paints.

‘Il faut de l’encaustique,’ said Claudette. ‘Mais – attention! Il faut aussi des gants et des bottes.’

I bought caustic crystals from the droguerie and, as she had told me, wearing Wellingtons, gloves and even goggles, followed the instructions on the packet. We carried out the cupboard.

‘The story of my life,’ said Mike to Tony.

‘Moving furniture!’

We gingerly turned it flat, and balanced it on top of the workmate. Added to the bucket of water, the caustic bubbled like witches brew. I slopped it all over the surface and, after a few moments, hosed it off. To my amazement the dirt and paint just dissolved and trickled off, and the handsome walnut grain was revealed. It was the most satisfying work. A certain caution was necessary, and I was glad of the goggles, as I later discovered a minute, round burn on the end of my nose. Once the cupboard was dry, we waxed it and repaired it sufficiently to be able to use it as a simple wardrobe. We were very glad that we had not chopped it up.

Before we finally left that summer, it was necessary to make our new, as yet unfinished room, secure. As well as the original window, M. Duparcq had cut the spaces for a new door and a second window. We now needed them filled, and shutters made. We also had to decide what to do with the old window. It had no glass and a very ancient, crude, outside frame and shutter. The small oak beam at the top had warped over the years and looked like an eyebrow, but it was very much a part of Bel-Air.

M. Brut, our original carpenter, who had made our kitchen cupboards and replaced the old shutters, had retired. M. Parges, a handsome, curly-haired man, was confident that he could do all that was required except the old window. He looked at it doubtfully. Yes – he could quite see that it had a certain charm but – it was extremely old. He wasn’t even sure he could make a window to go in that space – mind you if anyone could it would be himself – but – the shutter? He shrugged.

‘But you could try?’ I pleaded.

‘Bien sûr, mais…’

Whether it was the fact that he turned out to be Corinne’s uncle, or whether he just had second thoughts, he did manage to make a window frame to fit inside. He did repair the shutter, and he did have the grace to say that it looked très joli after it was finished. The whole north side of our house, neglected up until this holiday, looked très jolie.

I began to plan the new room. We gave the walls a coat of flat white and, as one of the beams came down very low, we asked M. Duparcq if he would add an upright beam at the lower end to stop people walking under it. This he did, but rather crudely and, as the two beams were of different wood, I resolved to paint them the following year and perhaps have a try at stencilling something on them. The weather changed and after our last guests had gone we closed the pool and brought in the furniture. Bernie had entertained us reading Alan Coren aloud and telling us the latest Jewish jokes, but we had needed fires in the evening. The swallows were collecting on the wire. The last sunflowers in the neighbouring fields were dry and almost black, their shrunken heads bent over like rows of rusty nails. It was time to begin packing up. We went to settle our bill with M. Albert, the plumber. He wouldn’t take anything for the second-hand washing machine, saying that he had exchanged it for the old gas water heater. I put weedkiller down on my terrace, mulched a few tender plants, and we made a last trip to the Mammouth – the hypermarket – to stock up with coffee for the winter, and to buy a few Christmas presents, blackberry liquor and large tins of confit – preserved duck. I couldn’t imagine any supermarket in England where, at that time, for just over £6 for two, one could eat for lunch, terrine de sanglier with a rice and pineapple salad, chocolate flan with pears, and drink a carafe of reasonable red wine. I noticed that civet de lièvre was also on the menu, but I doubt it would have been up to Claudette’s standard.

We pushed our trolley out under a leaden sky and I knew it was time to return to London. We had always imagined that each year we might want to stay a little longer but, as with all the best laid plans…we hadn’t thought about the difference having a grandchild might make. Now we had one, we found that we missed him. It had been a wonderful summer and there was always the next trip to plan.

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