Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Fifteen

The following year, spring was full of contrasts. We left Gatwick in warm and brilliant sunshine to arrive in a cool, wet and very grey Toulouse. Philippe came to meet us. In spite of his knowing every short cut from airport to station we just missed the connection and by the time we reached the farm, it was late and still raining.

‘You can’t open up the house tonight,’ said Claudette firmly. ‘You must stay here.’ The farmhouse was warm, the soup was gently bubbling on the stove and there was a rôti in the oven. We didn’t argue.

In a chair in the corner, watched over by Grandma, sat a tired but contented Véronique with twelve-day-old Océane-Elodie in her arms. Océane, it seemed was the latest fashion in names. Elodie had been added to placate the priest who would christen her. Véronique explained that at one time all French babies had to be given the name of a saint which, I supposed, must account for the vast numbers of Anne-Maries and Jean-Pauls. At that moment, as if to prove it, Jean-Michel came striding in. He greeted us, then confidently took the baby, laying his cheek tenderly against hers. The likeness between them was already marked.

‘Go and have a nap,’ he said to his wife. ‘I’ll see to her.’ It was clear that he was going to be an expert on babies as well as everything else.

We unloaded the various cheeses we had brought from England: Double Gloucester; Wensleydale; and Cornish Yarg, and unwrapped the selection of smoked fish from our favourite fishmonger. As if on cue Grandpa appeared, his nose already twitching.

‘Ah, bon, le poisson fumé,’ he smiled as he came to shake our hands.

‘Ça va Papi?’

He shrugged. ‘Oh…à mon âge…vous savez?’ But he didn’t look any different. There was the sound of the returning tractor and a few moments later Raymond walked in, his face a little rounder and red with the rain.

‘Ah, I see you’ve brought the rain with you,’ he grinned.

‘No,’ we said. ‘It was warm and sunny in England.’

‘I don’t believe it!’

During supper Raymond complained about the latest regulations from Brussels.

‘I’m afraid this year Bel-Air won’t be the house in the sunflowers,’ he said.

I was disappointed for it was three years since we had had the joy of sunflowers in le grand champ, which stretches down towards the village.

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘New regulations,’ he shrugged. ‘First they encourage you – then it all changes.’

Now it seemed that in order to grow sunflowers he would have to leave fifteen per cent of his land en jachère – the dreaded set-aside.

‘And, with all my animals, that’s impossible,’ he said.

With over sixty head of cattle he needs every available meadow for both hay and, after the wheat, straw. Although I would miss the sunflowers I was glad not to be surrounded with sad fields of set-aside. Left to fill with thistles and other weeds when half the world is starving, they are a constant reproach. Certainly the local farmers, although not slow to appreciate being paid for doing nothing, prefer to see their fields full of a good crop of something edible. They have little time for ‘les gens de Bruxelles’. As Madame Barrou said to me recently:

‘What do they know? Les technocrates! One came round to Monflanquin. He said to this farmer I know, “Que c’est beau votre champ d’avoine.”’ She grinned. ‘Et vous savez…c’était fèves!’ What a lovely field of oats – and you know what? – it was broad beans!

As far as Mme Barrou was concerned this summed up the entire Common Agricultural Policy.

We slept soundly that night on a soft bed with hard linen sheets and next morning Raymond took us up in the van to Bel-Air. It had stopped raining and the air smelled fresh and sweet. There were bright blue patches beginning to appear in the banks of racing clouds. The wheels churned up through the muddy track, and the path round the house was still lined with nostoc commun, green and slippery, but marguerites and love-in-a-mist bordered the meadow bright with buttercups. The cuckoo was loud in the wood and Claudette had already planted pansies in the pots on the porch. We were pleased to see that in each room there was a neat power plug. The electrician had worked well. We would be able to bring the word processor down in the summer and, more importantly at the moment, we could buy an electric fire. The most simple things which we take for granted in London are here a luxury and consequently much more appreciated.

After making the bed and unpacking we tried to start the 2CV which we keep in the barn next to the house. It is in fact Raymond’s barn but as he only uses the middle section to store hay we make use of the rest of it. We bought the car second hand from Ruth Thomas when it became too small to transport her grandchildren, and it is a great favourite with my sons. It usually goes like the proverbial bomb. Today, however, it refused to start at all. Once more we were thankful for the telephone. M. Meunier, le mécanicien, said he would pop over after lunch; it was probably nothing serious. He was right. He simply pulled the rubber pipe off the carburettor, sucked hard, made a face as he spat out the petrol and quickly refixed the tube. The car started first try.

‘I thought it was that,’ he smiled. ‘It’s because it hasn’t been used. You’ll be able to do it yourself next time.’

Nicole, la belle gymnaste, was selling tickets for a dance to raise money for the tennis club. Mike is not keen on dancing but as Raymond is a marvellous dancer and quite capable of satisfying two partners I went with them. He has a natural sense of rhythm and can dance anything from a jive to a paso doble. It was just an ordinary country hop with children dashing about – such as one might find anywhere in England – except for the menu. There was a general scurrying back to the tables as the steaming tureens of soup were carried in. This was followed by salmon with an avocado sauce. Then we ate braised rabbit with vegetables. More bread was cut to mop up the gravy. The wine, the local vin de table, was unlimited. A delicious brie was followed by great slices of apple flan: and we’d only paid 100F each for the ticket.

We danced till 1.30 in the morning and then the goodbyes were protracted. I didn’t get much gardening done the next day but Raymond was up at his usual hour. Just before lunch he came round the side of the house carrying a sprouting conker. Its straight stem bore two bright little green leaves.

‘Regardez Ruth,’ he said. ‘C’est joli. Would you like it?’ He held it tenderly in his rough, dirt-caked hands. ‘But be careful where you plant it,’ he smiled. ‘It will grow very tall.’ I foolishly put it in a pot until I could decide and, when we returned in the summer, it had dried out and died.

The day we arrived I was surprised to find a letter pushed underneath the front door. It was from an English woman who had enjoyed reading House in the Sunflowers.

‘Oh yes,’ said Raymond. ‘I saw her come. She was on a horse,’ he added.

‘On a horse? What was she like?’ He shrugged.

‘Well – how old?’

He thought hard. ‘Un certain âge,’ he said at last.

When I finally accepted her invitation and rang, the woman of un certain âge turned out to be seventy-seven. Not that anyone would guess. Ursula Hutchinson is remarkable, growing old extremely gracefully and making a happy life for herself in my part of France. British television has often of late shown programmes of English people living in France whose lives have gone from one disaster to another. Ursula’s is a triumph. When her daughter and son-in-law and three of their seven children decided to come to France, Ursula thought that she too, would start a new phase in her life. She sold up, bought a rambling property with plenty of land for her two horses, and set about improving her French. She is slim and boyish with long legs and a wonderful grin. She is a great-grandmother and also the oldest woman competitor in endurance riding in France, and the corridor in her house is lined with rosettes. The last time I saw her she had recently celebrated her eightieth birthday and was at that moment in training for her next forty-kilometre ride that coming weekend.

Driving back from taking our student son to catch the London coach from Cahors, we later met another English couple making a great success of living in France. They had fallen in love with a derelict ironmongers-cum-junk-shop in the centre of Catus, a small town not far from Cahors. We too stopped in our tracks to look at this strange, balconied building, its walls painted with fin-de-siècle figures. The previous owner was Armand Lagaspie, poet, painter, and nightclub singer. He had lived much of his early life in Paris where he had illustrated the songs and poems of Aristide Bruant. Returning to Catus, he took over the family business which gradually changed from an ironmongers to a collection of anything which took his fancy. He lived to be ninety and kept a daily record of all the happenings in his town. When he died in 1963 he left everything to his daily help who was herself very old. On her death the place had to be sold, literally, lock and stock, if not barrel. Not many people were eager to take on this task but for Paul Garner and his partner Hazel, it was rather like us with Bel-Air – love at first sight, or, more dramatically in French – un coup de foudre. Since then they have spent many hours sorting out the contents and poring over old documents. Paul and Hazel, or Noisette as she is called by the locals, run an antique shop and small restaurant combined and are very happy. We were the only English people eating there that evening and have since taken Raymond and Claudette. The combination of good cooking preceded by browsing through second-hand bits and pieces is irresistible. If you are in luck you may even eat your meal to the strains of a pianola.

Our short spring holiday flew by. We made a quick trip to see M. Lecours. He had been too busy to start our roof but yes, he would definitely do it before we came back in July. As we had just paid the electrician we were quite glad that we didn’t have to pay him as well. He promised to be as careful as possible with my plants round the house. I put little wigwams of sticks round the roses and the clematis and tied labels, saying ‘Attention s’il vous plâit’.

It was our last Sunday.

‘Come down to lunch tomorrow,’ said Claudette.

We protested. ‘It’s our turn.’

She shook her head. ‘Philippe’s friend will be here with his wife and little boy – the one he did his national service with – from l’île de la Réunion.’ She laughed. ‘You can’t do lunch for fourteen and three babies. You’d never get them all in.’

It was true.

‘Well, at least let me do the soup and the dessert?’

She reluctantly agreed and I set to work to make a great quantity of vichyssoise and then a tart with fresh oranges. It is a simple recipe but looks attractive and tastes wonderful. A square of thinly rolled out, puff pastry is pricked all over with a fork, leaving an inch border. A layer of marzipan laid on the pastry is then covered with fine, overlapping slices of thin-skinned oranges. When it is cooked the pastry rises round the edges to form a rim and the marzipan melts into the oranges. A quick glaze with melted apricot jam, a flash under the grill and it is ready.

It is quite a feat bumping down our track in a 2CV with a tureen of soup on one’s lap, but it was eaten with relish. Then we all enjoyed the first asparagus of the season. Next came a galantine de volaille which was served with mousserons, then a green salad. Obviously Claudette had decided to make her usual rum baba whether or not I was going to bring a dessert. It was just as well. Although they loved the taste I was dismayed to see every one of them carefully removing the peel from the orange slices. We are so used to eating marmalade it had never occurred to me that they might be reluctant to eat cooked orange peel.

We spent what was left of the afternoon sitting out in the courtyard in the spring sunshine admiring the children. Clément played with the three-year-old from the Island of Reunion, who was already learning English, and the new baby was passed from one to another.

It was an afternoon of celebrating new lives, while back in London, another life was coming to its untimely end. I had a message that evening to say that David’s partner Charles had just died. I walked out by the pool where he had so enjoyed to swim. I remembered him as Matthew and I had last seen him in the London Lighthouse just before we came away. He was still very beautiful although incredibly thin and pale. His long hair cut because of the dreadful nightly sweats, he smiled, ‘My mother has been longing for me to cut my hair for years.’

He was very calm and said that he was quite content because he had reached middle age. He was just thirty-five.

Towards the middle of June, Raymond rang us to tell us that M. Lecours had kept his word and had begun work on our roof. ‘What is the weather like?’ we asked, looking forward to leaving London as soon as we could.

‘Perfect,’ said Raymond. ‘Hurry up and come!’

It was also perfect in July when we arrived, but everyone was still talking about the damage from the recent violent storm. There had been torrential rain and the local papers were full of pictures of disastrous flooding.

What about Bel-Air? ‘You’d better cover your eyes,’ said Grandma sadly as she handed us the key.

‘Oh, we’ve swept out all the water,’ said Raymond, ‘but…’ he shrugged. He then explained that the storm couldn’t have come at a worse moment. M. Lecours and his son had just finished taking all the tiles off the first section of the roof, which covered our bedroom with its pretty, new chestnut ceiling. Before leaving in the evening they had lashed down a tarpaulin which would normally have been sufficient to keep out any rain. No one had anticipated the strength of the storm or the hurricane force wind which, as well as blowing M. Lecour’s tarpaulin away never to be found again, lifted whole rooves from barns and blew down trees and scaffolding. Hay crops had been ruined and vineyards all but destroyed. We drove up to Bel-Air not knowing what to expect.

It was a glorious afternoon. The grass was very long and everything looked well watered. M. Lecours and his son were on the roof, but it looked as though they had almost finished. An engine was chugging away and a small, very rusty crane towered over our house. Apart from a few broken tiles and chunks of cement in the flower beds it all looked its normal overgrown self. Inside it was a different story. There were long dirty streaks where the water had run down our bedroom walls and the ceiling was badly stained. All the grouting between the cream floor tiles was black and my white rugs were filthy. Fortunately I always cover the beds with plastic sheets before leaving and the brown stains trickling down them showed how necessary they had been. My heart sank at the hours of cleaning up there was to do. It seemed ironic that we had decided to have the roof done to prevent small leaks!

Luckily we had no visitors due for the next two weeks so the other bedrooms were free. We went outside and looked at the roof. The dips and sagging had all disappeared. The long slope of the roof was even and the cement edging was very neatly done. M. Lecours and his son took a break and came down to join us. They were very affable until, while discussing the storm damage, we casually mentioned the word insurance whereupon they became very sheepish and soon went back to work. The next day they both appeared side by side like a double act. They lit up and shuffled their feet. It would, they eventually said, puffing away, be far better if we were to claim on our insurance for the storm damage. We thought about it. It was clear that either they had no insurance or had forgotten to pay it; we would never know.

‘We’d better decide what to say,’ we said.

‘You can say,’ said M. Lecours, instantly more cheerful, ‘that the wind blew off the ridge tiles and…you had to get them replaced at once.’

‘But won’t he see that we’ve had the whole roof done?’

‘Probably not. But if he does you can say that once we’d started it was clear that the whole roof needed doing.’

‘Do you think he’ll pay for a new chestnut ceiling?’

‘Who knows? On verra.’

He wouldn’t – of course. The insurance man was sympathetic. Yes, it had been a terrible storm. They would pay for new rugs and repairing the ridge tiles and for the chestnut ceiling to be sanded. M. Lecours laughed when he heard the last item. ‘I’ll give you a good estimate for that,’ he said. ‘I’d like to see him sanding a whole ceiling. It would break your arm.’

Having sanded a single beam I knew what he meant. I consoled myself with the thought of the insurance money as, on my hands and knees, I spent two days scrubbing each line of grouting between the floor tiles with bleach. The chestnut ceiling will never look the same. We have got used to it and now as the chestnut darkens with age the marks blend with the natural wood grain and are less worrying.

On Sunday Granny and Grandpa were going on a coach trip with the troisième âge, which meant that Raymond and Claudette were free. (I presume pensioners are called the third-agers because they are on their third score of years.) I had had a call from Sophie O’Neill, another successful transplant from England. She has an Anglo-French bookshop in the small town of Montcuq and had run out of copies of my book. A customer wanted to take one back to America the following week. Did I have some I could bring?

‘Come on Sunday,’ she had suggested. ‘It’s market day.’

It was a chance for us to take Raymond and Claudette out, something they always enjoy. We get a running commentary on every cultivated field we pass.

‘Slow down, Michel,’ Raymond will often shout in order to make a closer examination.

Montcuq was crowded. Not only was it market day; there was yet another market down under the trees, a once-a-year occasion. It was my first experience of vider le grenier. Like a car boot sale without the cars, it is literally ‘empty the attic’ day. I bought a very dirty, brass-framed, Moroccan mirror for 60 francs and we wished we had come earlier. Sophie O’Neill’s shop was bright with fine watercolours her mother paints and full of French children buying and bringing her drawings they had done. She has fluent French, a very good range of new books and a flourishing second-hand section.

‘Where can I take my neighbours for lunch?’ I asked.

She smiled. ‘Ah…go to the Hotel de Quercy in Lauzerte,’ she said. ‘It’s under new management. Don’t be put off by the outside. It’s quite shabby. But the food is by far the best around – and not expensive. You’d better book,’ she added looking at her watch.

We telephoned from the shop, made our way to Lauzerte, a half-hour drive, and found a restaurant to which we have returned many times.

Lauzerte is a larger Bastide than Monflanquin. When we first saw it twenty years ago much of it was derelict. Now, in the summer months at least, it flourishes. People from many other parts of France as well as Americans, Dutch, and English have discovered its timeless beauty, poised high above a fertile plain. The Hotel de Quercy is not up in the trendy part of town. It sits, set back slightly from the road as it begins its steep climb. That first morning it certainly did not look very promising. Not at all the kind of place one would eagerly stop at for Sunday lunch except…perhaps the more discerning traveller might sense the bustle and occasional glimpse of a white coat through an open door of the kitchen at the side. If the car window were open a waft of something delicious might alert the appreciative nose.

Up the steps, through the reception hall and into the dining room, passing a table of patisseries and cold cabinet of desserts on the way, one’s expectations begin to rise. The dining room is simple with no more than thirty covers. There is a real welcome from Mme Bacou and it is immediately clear that the chef is not content with a run-of-the-mill menu. As we began to read Raymond looked very worried but Claudette was excited. I think we ate the 90 F menu that day. I remember that after the soup we began with a galantine of sweetbreads with raisins which absolutely melted in the mouth. Then we all chose something different and tasted each other’s dishes. I had turbot on a bed of wild rice with an assortment of vegetables and after the cheese, a charlotte du Cointreau with bitter oranges. Even Raymond was won over by the end of the meal. It was all as beautifully arranged as the most expensive nouvelle cuisine but happily, more copious. People in this part of France have hearty appetites.

The wine we chose was a Cahors from the Château de Brel de Fargues and it was so good that after lunch we got out the map and went for a dégustation. This is quite a popular Sunday afternoon activity and it is hard to find anywhere more attractive than the rolling vineyards of the Lot Valley. Cahors vineyards are among the oldest in France, dating back to the Roman occupation. The dark wine of Cahors was adopted by the Greek Orthodox Church as its communion wine and it was chosen to be served to distinguished visitors by the Tsars of Russia. As other regions began to prosper it fell out of favour and many vineyards were completely destroyed by the frosts of 1956. Now, largely thanks to M. Pompidou, it is making a deserved comeback. It is made with a mixture of Merlot, Tannat and Auxerrois grapes, the latter giving it its distinctive bite.

La patronne at the Château de Brel made us welcome and explained that they age their wine en fut – in the barrel – for two years, before bottling. We bought a few bottles and then Raymond started off on a quest to find a certain wine producer that he had known as a child.

‘It’s called Domaine de Lavergne,’ he said. ‘It’s got to be somewhere round here.’ He told us of trips years ago with his uncle to fetch more of a very special Cahors to top up la perpétuelle. Une perpétuelle, he explained, was a smaller barrel which was put down at the birth of a child. After a certain time a little would be drawn off each year and some more added. In this way it never got too old but never tasted new. After many detours with Raymond turning his head from side to side and squinting up at the hillsides he suddenly shouted ‘C’est là!’ Sure enough at the top of the lane was the sign. Lavergne.

A dog barked furiously as we approached. It did not look very promising but eventually, a woman with rough grey hair and a weather-beaten face silenced the dog and came down the steps to meet us. She turned out to be the daughter-in-law of the former patron who Raymond had known. ‘Ah oui, le Pépé,’ she said sadly. ‘Il est mort – mais – how kind he always was.’

She began to reminisce about those early days. Originally from Italy, she had found life hard when she first came, having to learn how to tie all the grafts with raffia. ‘But le Pépé – he would always show me the best way to do everything, to avoid aches and pains, you understand.’

She led us into the cave which was very small and cool. Raymond sighed and looked round nostalgically.

‘We keep our wine five years en fut before bottling,’ she told us.

‘Do you still have the wonderful stuff we used to come up here for? Pour la perpétuelle. Vous en avez encore?’ asked Raymond.

She smiled, shook her head and tapped the side of her nose.

‘Pour la famille, Monsieur – vous comprenez.’

‘Bien sûr,’ said Raymond, regretfully.

She talked about the visiting wine experts and their advice. ‘My son says we have to listen, but…all this filtrage. As far as I’m concerned all the wine in the valley tastes the same. But up here, on the hillside…it’s still got that special difference.’

It was certainly very good with the distinctive tang of Cahors and we bought a case each. She gave us a complimentary bottle of the previous year and we took a glass of ratafia which she told us was unfermented grape juice mixed with eau-de-vie.

‘Vous vendangez avec les machines?’ asked Raymond. She shook her head.

‘All by hand, monsieur. The whole family and all our friends.’

She smiled up at him showing several gaps in her teeth.

As we drove away Raymond shook his head. ‘She used to be so beautiful,’ he said.

‘Eh, mon ami!’ laughed Claudette. ‘How long ago?’

‘Forty years at least,’ said Raymond with a wry smile.

As we drove home Raymond talked again about planting vines in the field below the wood.

‘You’d be able to see them from your front door,’ he said.

This would at least partly make up for the demise of the sunflowers, I agreed, but it seemed that there might still be intervention from the dreaded bureaucrats. Permission had to be granted by the Bureau de Viticulture at Bordeaux.

‘It’s not easy,’ said Raymond. ‘They’re very strict.’

He told us that he had already been refused once but a certain nursery man he knew who sold vines and was on the board of the bureau – or as Raymond put it, ‘Il est comme chez lui là-bas’, – was going to put in a word for him.

‘As he told them,’ said Raymond proudly, ‘my friend takes all his grapes to the Cave des Sept Monts at Monflanquin and they are improving their wine every year now. Remember…they’ve already won several medals at Paris. This is just the sort of conscientious producteur that we must encourage.’

‘So, you really think you’ll get permission?’

‘Sans doute,’ said Raymond happily.

‘Encore du travail’ – more work, said Claudette, raising her eyebrows.

It was the end of the first week of Musique en Guyenne in Monflanquin and there was a free concert of excerpts in the square. We were back in time to listen. Instrumental pieces by Gershwin and Mendelssohn were followed by one item from the choir. This year they were over a hundred strong and of eleven different nationalities. The final concert this season was to be a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Sent the music to learn at the beginning of the year and only coming together two weeks before the final concert, it inevitably takes several rehearsals to make an integrated sound. They ended this evening’s appetiser by singing the Hallelujah chorus. The audience wouldn’t let them go until they had sung it three times and, happily, they got better each time.

At the final concert of the whole work in the church on the following Sunday, the improvement was marked. This was an inspired and disciplined choir and the soloists were magnificent, especially the English soprano Judith Howarth. She sang as if illuminated and the packed church breathed with her. The young orchestra from Westphalia played as brilliantly as always under the baton of a conductor who might have been drawn by Ralph Steadman, and the applause at the end went on and on. People were genuinely moved.

Still in a daze, we came out into the night. It was very warm. Most of the audience went straight home but I needed time to recover. We sat in a café and ate ice-cream. Some of the young musicians came to say goodbye to the jovial patron. We had often seen them during the week eating great pizzas and mountains of chips. But they could not stay now as the coach was waiting to take them straight back to Germany that same night.

The patron hugged them. ‘A l’année prochaine, hein?’ he said, pinching their cheeks. ‘Play something,’ he pleaded suddenly. One of them took out his trumpet, walked to the end of the stone arcade and began. The sound was clear and haunting and, in the stillness, made a moment of inexplicable sadness, before they all hugged him again, waved, picked up their instruments and ran to catch the coach. Not for the first time we thought how lucky we were as we drove home beneath a sky full of stars.

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