Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Fourteen

We drove on through the luxuriant lanes, finding a place for a picnic by a small stream. It was getting hotter and the strong sun was dazzling through the trees. Anxious to avoid Limoges we took an unfamiliar route. We were on our way to St Junien when we saw the first sign. We said nothing. A few miles further on there was another. This time it would be only a five-minute detour. We looked at each other. We simply couldn’t just drive by. Much has been written about Oradour sur Glane. To see it for myself was an experience I do not regret.

The surrounding countryside is so beautiful. The small road winds through green banks lush with cow parsley. It is impossible to imagine that one of the most grim sights in all France is forever preserved around the next corner. What must it be like to live in the new Oradour built outside? The people there were shopping, going about their daily lives as we drove through and followed the sign ‘Village des Martyrs’.

The village is enclosed. There were few visitors. The signs asking for quiet are hardly necessary. To walk those blackened, desolate streets is chilling. Each place is marked where groups of men from the village were shot by the SS and then burned in heaps. No birds sing. Nothing grows. I don’t know whether they deliberately kill any vegetation which might have, in time, softened this desecration.

It was General De Gaulle, taken to the village a few days after D-day in 1944, who commanded that a wall be built around this village and that it be left as a memorial and a witness. More than fifty years on, witnesses are harder to find and doubly important.

We walked slowly up to the church and on entering found a small group with a guide. We listened. He was a sweet-faced man with prematurely grey hair. His parents had lived in Oradour. He owed his very existence, he told us, to the fact that on that day – 10 June 1944 – a wedding had been held in a nearby town, and his young parents, not then married, had been invited. He described very quietly the horrors of that day and the very matter-of-factness of it all. He told of the man cutting hay on the edge of the village, the young German looking at his map, checking the boundary as if doing a survey, and then telling him to go away as he was on the right side of the line.

Among those on the wrong side that day were the 247 children in the school. Only one of them survived. An evacuee from Lorraine, he had already experienced the brutality of the Germans and when, at two o’clock in the afternoon, lorries full of SS men in battledress arrived and everyone was told to assemble on the big village green, he ran away.

No one else suspected anything. They were used to seeing the odd German vehicle pass through the village but that was all. There had never been any trouble. Someone said it was just an identity card check. A group of six cyclists rode into the village. They, unfortunately, had crossed to the wrong side of the line.

When the men were separated from the women and children, fears began to grow. From the church where they were imprisoned, frantic women heard the sound of gunfire and must have smelled the smoke. In the village, as the bodies of the men were piled and burned, a few escaped by feigning death and later crawling out. But the church was not to be a sanctuary for the 500 women and children locked inside. The Germans first filled it with suffocating smoke. In the panic and chaos, one woman managed to climb out of a window and eventually survived, although she was badly injured in the hail of gunfire with which the SS then massacred every other woman and child. Last of all they set fire to the church.

‘Imagine the anguish of people in nearby hamlets who had, that morning, sent their children to school, as they saw the smoke rising from Oradour,’ said the guide. ‘There was nothing they could do. They could not get near. The whole place was sealed off. And later, almost worst of all, a concertina and sounds of revelry could be heard across the fields. The SS men sang as they looted the houses. It was not until the early hours of the morning that the troops moved out of Oradour, leaving everything burning behind them.’

‘But – why did they do it?’ asked a small woman, in tears as we all were.

The guide shook his head. ‘No one really knows – perhaps simply to frighten the French people and stop them collaborating with the Allies after the D-day landings.’

‘I’m from Canada,’ said a man at the edge of the group. ‘I just want to ask—’ He paused. ‘Do you ever have German tourists here?’

‘Oh yes,’ said the guide. ‘And – they tell me they are very fearful. They see the same spirit amongst a few of their young, and—’ he added firmly, ‘I have had my whole life to think about this and I tell you – they were very young. The ones who did this. They were at that stage in life, you understand, when they were emancipated from their families, but, as yet, had no commitment, no wives, no children. This is the dangerous time, Monsieur, when anyone can be corrupted by false ideals. It can happen in any country.’

‘Animals!’ sobbed one of the listeners.

‘Pire!’ answered the guide. Worse!

We returned slowly to the gate. As we drove back into the present we were glad we had turned off our route. As a very young soldier my husband was among the troops who liberated Belsen concentration camp. We were married for almost twenty years before he told me, or could talk about, what he saw.

It was early evening by the time we reached Bel-Air. The sun was still shining. Raymond declared that we must have brought it with us as, unlike England, they had had a disastrous June. ‘The hay crop was all but ruined,’ he said. ‘But your garden looks pretty,’ he added.

It was the morning glories that must have caught his eye. Although that day’s blooms were closing, the plants were everywhere, trailing up their poles where I had planted the new seeds and where I had simply scattered pods from the previous year, trailing everywhere else they could find a space. We had two weeks in which to get the house and garden into some sort of order to welcome our first guests. We brought Biggles up to his summer quarters outside the front door. One morning, thinking he might like a change of scene, I foolishly put him on the ground under the ash tree. Ten minutes later there was a mad flurry of wings as a kestrel swooped on the cage and did its best to get him out. Biggles looked petrified. I thought he might die of fright, but once back in the safety of the porch he chirped away as though nothing had happened.

We had a succession of guests that summer, many of whom had never been before, but they all seemed to fit in. We also christened the campsite. Behind the slope down from the wall where the laurels shelter the pool, we have a wide strip of grass. As it is our only level piece of ground we thought it might be good for anyone with a tent, and so it has subsequently proved. But our first campers arrived from Switzerland in a smart, two-storey camping van. Geneviève, one of my first au pairs with whom I have always kept in touch, came with her son, a friend and two more children.

Seven-year-old Alexandru leaned out of the top bunk. ‘Good morning!’ he shouted. His mother laughed; it was nearly dusk. ‘It’s his only English word,’ she said. ‘He was determined to use it.’

They stayed a few days and then went south as our next guests reached Bel-Air. It seemed extremely quiet without the children as Ivor sat drawing the bales of straw in the great field with increasing boldness and Marian kindly read the script of my play and gave me lots of good advice. While they worked by the pool, Mike and I were busy finishing the new bedroom with its striking floor of white tiles. We treated all the woodwork with an anti-woodworm product and gave the walls another coat of flat white. The worst job was sanding a crude overhead beam which, unlike the massive oak beams, was a later addition. I had bought a copy of Jocasta Innes’s Paint Magic and I was full of enthusiasm but it didn’t make the sander any lighter or my arm ache less.

Eventually the beam was smooth enough to undercoat. Then came the real fun. We mixed a very pale green for the beam and the upright that joined it. Would it work? It did. We gave it another coat; so far so good. We had brought stencil paper from London and Mike cut a simple stencil of a curving stem and five leaves. We mixed a slightly darker green, and beginning at the highest point we twined the stencilled design round the beam. Once so ugly, the beam was transformed and we began to realise just how compulsive stencilling can be. We looked at the wall where the bed would go. With another stencil with a straight stem we began at the door and, as though the garden was creeping in, we brought the stems and leaves up from the floor for about two feet and continued round as far as the bed. Then we stopped, which was not easy. Without Mike’s restraining hand I might well have turned the whole room into a leafy jungle.

We went off to buy a bed and came home with it on top of the car. Just as I was laundering sheets for the next guests, the second-hand washing machine which M. Albert had installed the previous summer began to shudder and refused to spin. As phonecalls produced no immediate response, it was like a miracle when we had a totally unexpected call from our friend, Louis of all trades, in London. He and Helen were on their way to the Olympics in Barcelona and begging a bed for the following night. Did he have his tools with him? Yes. Wonderful! It was just as well, for we had five French guests for the next two nights and friends from Germany were due any moment. It was a full house. Raymond and Claudette came up almost every night to swim and afterwards there would be long discussions round the pool. When guests enjoy themselves together it is a great pleasure to sit back and watch them. Apart from clean sheets, they all know that there is no service at Bel-Air.

The new room was finished just in time for what was becoming my cousin David’s annual visit. For the first time he was bringing with him his partner Charles. David gave up his parish in Notting Dale to found the charity CARA – Care and Resources for Aids. Having always refused to make any compromises about his own homosexuality – not easy as a priest – he felt passionately that the church was failing to address the whole problem of Aids. CARA was his answer. I had never sat on a committee in my life but he persuaded me to become a trustee. David is very good at talking people into extending their talents, and working for CARA has certainly changed my life.

Sadly Charles was already very sick and this was, for him, a kind of farewell tour. They had started in Amsterdam where they both spoke at the fourth World Aids Conference, then went on to Germany to visit Charles’s sister before dropping down to Cluny to go to Taizé. This is a religious community, founded by a monk directly after the war, to promote religious tolerance. It has become a meeting place for many thousands of young people of every religion, and Charles had always wanted to see it. Their next stop was to be with us. I have worked in the theatre for many years and people’s sexual orientation has never been a problem for me, but I did wonder how Raymond and Claudette would react. They knew and loved David, but Charles was a beautiful Greek Cypriot, and with his long hair and unashamedly camp manner – on verra.

As usual, it is not the things that one worries about that come to pass. Charles could charm the birds from the trees. He had a totally disarming frankness. During the day David would take him to all his favourite places and at night we would sit under the stars and talk in a way that I don’t think would have been possible with anyone else.

One night there was a sudden storm. It didn’t last long but there were a few minutes of a tornado-like wind and the next morning we were horrified to see that five, heavily laden plum trees in the orchard near us had blown down. Mike went to fetch Hugh and all morning they worked with Raymond and Jean-Michel to winch the trees up and then lash them to a strong bar set between two posts. It wasn’t long before Grandpa came up. He looked on suspiciously.

‘C’est les racines,’ he said to me quietly. ‘The roots have loosened. Shaking them about with that machine. I told them but…’ he shrugged. I thought he just might have a point but I said nothing.

On Sunday we all went out to lunch at La Petite Auberge at Villefranche. It was, as usual, very good. While we were sleeping it off by the pool we opened one eye to see David and Charles driving off quietly down the track.

‘Where on earth are they going now?’ asked Mike and fell asleep again.

That evening, as we sat idly under the porch, our friends the Thomases arrived looking very elegant and bearing champagne. We had hardly recovered when Hugh and Sally and their children appeared with gifts, closely followed by Raymond and Claudette and the two old people. David and Charles carried out an enormous cake and everyone wished us a happy wedding anniversary. How David knew is a mystery. We are so bad at anniversaries that, when we bought Bel-Air and could not remember the exact date of our marriage, the notaire did not believe that we were married at all. It was pure pleasure to have a fête arranged by somebody else. We sang and drank many toasts and it was an evening I shall never forget.

All through August, family and friends came and went, each bringing their own interests. Some wrote, some painted and others simply ate, slept and swam and recharged their batteries. The weather was perfect. We bought a summer cover for the pool. Made of bubble plastic, it floated on the surface of the water and retained the heat during the night. It also prevented leaves and dust blowing in and hence reduced the amount of cleaning.

We hoped that the cover would enable us to swim right up to the beginning of October but once the new September moon arrived it brought the rain with it. Every few days we would have yet another heavy downpour and we began to worry about the increasing amount of leaks in our roof. The problem was not the roof itself; the tiles were sound, but the underlying rafters, and more especially the voliges – the ancient laths which crossed them, and supported the tiles – were beginning to sag. This caused hollows in which the water collected and, eventually, it found its way through. The ping of drips into buckets began to haunt us.

When we had first set eyes on Bel-Air the tumbling roof tiles had been part of the charm of the place, at least to me, even the great hole through which one could see the sky while standing in the living room. But once we had bought the house, renewing the roof was our first priority and we thought it had been adequately done. We had indeed asked the charpentier to replace all the wood that was necessary, but he had clearly only changed the bare minimum. Also when he had retiled he had used new, flat ‘stop’ tiles which lock into place underneath the ancient curved top tiles. They prevent the upper tiles from sliding down, especially useful when the Mirages from the French Airforce occasionally splinter out of the distance to shatter the countryside with sonic booms. La tuile stop is a sensible idea but it makes the roof heavier and gradually bends the voliges.

‘We’ve got another leak,’ said Mike gloomily one lunchtime after we had been helping with the plums.

Raymond was sympathetic. ‘You can never make these roofs completely watertight,’ he said. ‘But perhaps you should ask M. Lecours to take a look. Before the pigeon season,’ he added with a grin.

A few days later M. Lecours joined us in the attic. It runs the length of the house, and at the far end, a doorway has been cut through the thick wall into the later addition. After you crouch to pass through, if you turn back you can clearly see how the newest section of the house was just added on, against the chimney wall, as a child might build with toy bricks. There is a border of white in the crepis and a broad splash of blue where, on this once-outside, end wall of the house a vine was long ago treated with copper sulphate. How long ago I still do not know. Madame Esther thinks that it was her grandfather who enlarged the house, and he was born at Bel-Air in 1839. I believe that at one time the family slept up in the attic while the animals were stabled below. As I often do, I stood in the attic trying to imagine the three little boys sleeping on their narrow straw palliasses.

M. Lecours was in more practical mood. He confirmed our fears. The rafters were in reasonable shape – perhaps it might be prudent to replace one or two. The problem was the waney-edged laths which went across between them at about twelve inch intervals. These, he advised, needed completely replacing with a solid boarding. ‘There’s no urgency,’ he said, thinking no doubt of the fast approaching pigeon season. ‘I could do it for you in the spring.’

He gave us a price which made us wince, but we knew his charges were always the most reasonable. In any case we realised that it was sixteen years since we had first had the roof done. Mike announced that his days of climbing up to fix slipping tiles were definitely over and we ordered the work for the following April.

It was about this time that Dan arrived.

‘I’m getting this young man to help with the plums,’ said Raymond one evening as he sat drinking a pastis under the porch. He looked slightly worried. ‘He’s been staying with someone who works with bees and produces honey but now they’ve arranged for him to come to me. He said he works all right but…’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to understand Romanian.’

‘Romanian?’

‘Yes. It’s some scheme or other. For farmers…’ Raymond was vague.

‘How long is he coming for?’

‘A month!’

‘But…surely that’s good!’

Raymond has plenty of help when the children are on holiday but once they go back to school he has a problem with the plum harvest. This seemed to us to be the answer.

‘Perhaps he’ll have some French,’ we encouraged.

The next evening after supper Raymond and Claudette came up to Bel-Air bringing with them a slight, pale, dark-haired young man with a drooping moustache and large soulful eyes. He was polite and grave and, in fact, spoke good French.

‘Are you going to be a farmer?’ I asked.

He shook his head and looked at me coolly.

‘No,’ he said. ‘When I have finished my studies I shall hope to be a diplomat.’

Raymond looked even more worried.

We saw a great deal of Dan over the next few weeks and watched him change. At first intensely suspicious, he told us that he considered democracy a system with little or no virtue. Elitism was his ideology and he was clearly puzzled by the relationship between Mike and me and Raymond and Claudette. As far as he was concerned there was little a university lecturer, even a retired one, could have in common with a simple farmer. He worked conscientiously enough but he was always uneasy, almost disapproving. When Raymond and Claudette came up to swim he would sit by the pool, lost in some dream or other. He rarely swam. Claudette tried in vain to fatten him up. He often asked us the price of various things in England such as televisions and cameras, and seemed reluctant to believe us. This young Romanian was a curious mixture of sophistication and naivety.

But during his stay he had a birthday. We were surprised to learn that he was only twenty-three; he looked much older, the effect of the moustache no doubt. As always Claudette made much of the occasion. She bought a special tart, we drank champagne, sang bon anniversaire and gave him gifts and suddenly the intending diplomat became a homesick young man. His suspicion finally faded and in his last few days he really seemed to enjoy himself. He gave us a plate before he left which he had brought from home and a woven bag. He wrote to us several times but we have heard nothing now for several years. He sent Raymond a photograph of his wedding. We wonder sometimes how Dan the diplomat is faring and what influence, if any, that summer had.

The heavy, early morning dews of September turned the little tamarisk we had planted on the edge of the now uninhabited camp into a bouquet from some frosty legend by Hans Christian Andersen. In the morning sunlight hundreds of webs glittered, straddling the tops of the tall grasses, a ripple of silver in the breeze. Against the wall of the chai the morning glories were still managing a few last blooms and the cobea scandens had three buds. Would they open before we had to leave? The Virginia creeper was already vivid with red leaves and purple berries on scarlet stems.

The village below shone in the sunlight but the valley of the Lot and the hills beyond it were shrouded in a rolling mist which the sun would slowly burn away. On the other side of the house there was one more field to harvest. Raymond had enlarged it a few years previously by clearing some of the trees at the edge of the wood. One year he had planted sunflowers. This year, due to the abundant rain, there was a magnificent crop of maize. He talked one morning of planting vines there. This was the first we had heard of it. A new vineyard sloping down towards the house was an attractive proposition.

The maize harvested, today the wood is full of cèpe seekers. This highly prized edible fungus – boletus edulis – has just began to thrust upward from its moist, subterranean hideout and the hunt is on. They are already selling in the market for over 100F a kilo. These are free – if you can find them – and if you have the right to pick them. The cars of family or friends go slowly up the track to the wood, rest an hour or two and return. We greet the patient gatherers.

‘Did you get any?’

‘Oh…not many.’ They are cagey. We peer into the bag, the better to identify them ourselves – if we can be bothered to go searching. They usually have less than a kilo, many of them nibbled by passing creatures in this world of the wood where everything eats everything else. Later Claudette appears silently, stick in hand, wearing her apron and Wellington boots. She sits down under the porch and proudly shows her kilos of beautiful specimens.

‘I thought you were tired yesterday,’ I say, making her a tisane.

‘Oh ça,’ she shrugs. ‘Aujourd’hui c’est différent. Chercher des champignons’ – she grins, ‘c’est un vice!’

Our last visitors arrived, my friend Bridget and her old friend Marianne. No stranger to Bel-Air, Marianne, indomitable at eighty-two, insisted on working in the garden and was only slightly miffed when stung by a wasp. Baring her ample buttock she came in and asked calmly for a dab of vinegar.

A neighbour had offered me a white buddleia and I had been waiting for the right moment to transplant it. ‘Now!’ said Marianne firmly and off we went to get it. Marianne was enchanted with the neighbour’s house and garden and took many photographs. We were less enchanted with the buddleia bush which, although magnificent, was about three times as large as we had anticipated. We stuffed it as best we could into the back of the car and drove home. Marianne took charge of both the planting and the pruning and it still survives.

Intensely curious about everything she was such an appreciative guest and gave me a wonderful lesson in how to grow old, not exactly gracefully – that wasn’t her style – but certainly gratefully. When I offered to make her a sandwich for the return journey she declined, informing me that she never travelled anywhere without a knife and a very small block of three-ply. Bridget later told me that she also carried a handkerchief square of gingham and a fish-paste jar in which to put a flower – if only a dandelion – to decorate a picnic.

The weather deteriorated. Every day it rained. We were inundated with small, bright green tree frogs. Claudette explained that normally they would stay close to the pond for moisture but as this autumn was fast becoming the wettest on record they roamed at will. They straddled the glazing bars of the windows and our eye would be distracted by their pale underbellies and manic legs as they suddenly changed positions, holding on with the suction pads underneath their tiny feet. Their extraordinarily loud croak would surprise us from the most unexpected places. One, especially intrepid, would balance on the neck of an old wine bottle on the porch, his serenade like a ship lost in the fog.

There were also dozens of snails which would perambulate after every shower. Not wanting everything in the garden eaten, I started collecting them to take down to the farm where Philippe stores them in a special cage. There they are fed on flour or dry pasta for one or two weeks to clean them before they are cooked. Claudette always grumbles at this task for escargots are one of the few dishes she does not like. I must admit I agree with her but both Raymond and Philippe adore them.

After all that rain the paths around the house became slippery with a kind of land seaweed. I had always been intrigued with this primitive but highly efficient form of life which I had never seen anywhere else, and I was fascinated by the way it almost vanished in hot dry weather. It amused visiting children when I would tell them to pick up what looked like a minute scrap of black paper in amongst the gravel on the path and left for an hour in a saucer of water, it would miraculously turn into a fat greenish lump of seaweed. In a day it would treble in size like some science fiction monster but I had no idea what it was until one year I took some back to England.

Dr Gill Douglas, a botanist at the Natural History Museum, identified it for me, even sending me a couple of photographs at 500x magnification. It was a blue-green alga called Nostoc Commune. As she told me that it is especially common in Alpine meadows, Arctic tundra and golf courses I am still at a loss to understand why it has been bordering my path at Bel-Air for as long as I can remember. In the Orient it is apparently cultivated. Some species are used as a valuable fertiliser as it is capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen. She told me that it is also edible. But I’m not sure that Raymond would be keen to try ‘omelette au nostoc’!

One evening after supper before we left, Véronique was bouncing Philippe’s little son Clément on her knee. She looked sideways at Jean-Michel and then announced that Clément would be getting a little cousin the following spring. No one said anything. I rose to give her a hug, feeling that some sort of congratulation was in order and then everyone followed suit. Jean-Michel looked relieved.

‘I was afraid you were going to say “Well – you might have waited a bit longer,”’ he said.

As well as constant rain now it began to get colder. This was the spur we needed to order the installation of power points. We had begun to use a word processor in London and knew that, as far as our writing was concerned, there was no turning back to the tedium of a typewriter. We called on M. Fernandez in Monflanquin, described what we wanted, and were promised that the work would be completed before we returned in the spring. We chopped wood and made great roaring fires, but it was very cold getting up in the mornings. Bel-Air is, as far as we are concerned, a house for the summer. If we were going to live there year round we would have to make many radical changes which would inevitably alter the whole character of the house. When the weather gets as bad as this, we leave. It was tedious trying to pack up while at the same time having to dry sodden clothes around the fires but it was, it seemed, raining all over France. The first cobea finally opened and I picked it and took it down to Grandma. She was very intrigued as she had never seen such a flower before.

We decided to make the long journey home less irksome by treating ourselves to a night of luxury at the Hotel du Lion d’Or at Romorantin. Friends had told us of the old-fashioned comfort and the wonderful cuisine. What we hadn’t realised was that it had since upgraded itself to a Relais et Chateaux. We booked a room, closed the house and set off the following day.

After two weeks of chilly discomfort in overalls and mudcaked wellingtons the contrast was almost dreamlike. Emerging from a long soak in a sumptuous bathroom to lie on an exquisite bed and punch up the evening’s menu on the television before descending for an aperitif was just what we needed. We began to realise that the Lion d’Or had gone seriously upmarket but we didn’t care. Downstairs, after bringing us our drinks, the immaculate, black-coated waitress bowed low and spread a napkin on our laps for the eating of a minute wafer of beef fillet in a sauce with shreds of mint. A tiny vol-au-vent filled with Trompette de la Mort – a highly prized black champignon – was followed by a curl of smoked salmon.

The dining room, in pale blues and greens, was not large but calm and hushed. Waiters stood unobtrusively but missed nothing. When Mike accidentally touched his glass with his butter knife it was quietly replaced. I started with a risotto of wild rice with langoustines, flavoured with cardamom. Mike also had langoustines ‘rôties à la poudre fine d’épices douces’ which turned out to be cumin. Next I ordered turbot with deep fried shredded vegetables in celery salt, while Mike chose noisettes of lamb ‘au tabac de cuisine’ which on enquiry was powdered wild mushroom. They were both absolutely wonderful. The cheese board covered the top of not one but two trolleys. We didn’t really need cheese but we had been drinking a Gerwürtstraminer with the fish and hadn’t quite finished the good Bordeaux.

I had been told that the puddings at the Lion d’Or were fabulous and that there was the opportunity to have half portions in order to sample more. I am a pig for puddings but only if they are not too sweet. These were perfect. We shared a pancake filled with crushed raspberries, a spicy, dark chocolate ice-cream and a souffle of peaches cooked with redcurrants. I’m sure if I had the money to eat like that every night I would probably long for bangers and mash but it was a memorable meal.

I wrote it all down to send it in my next letter to Claudette and wished she could have shared it with us. We relived it all for the rest of the rain soaked journey home. We knew that when the Barclaycard bill came in, our night out was going to be expensive. What we could not have envisaged was its arrival on Black Wednesday. For us the pound had fallen at the worst possible moment and until, or if ever, it improved, it would certainly have to be a once in a lifetime experience!

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