Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Seventeen

It was at the beginning of January that Claudette phoned us in London.

‘Are you doing anything special the week of February 21st?’ she asked.

‘No,’ we said, intrigued. Claudette never phones without a purpose.

‘Well – you see – it’s just possible that Véronique may be able to take a week’s holiday and she could look after Granny and Grandpa and – if she can – and if we can get a cheap flight – but it’s not certain you understand…’

We assured them of their permanent welcome and scribbled the date in our diaries; perhaps this time they really would be able to come.

Claudette had been for a brief weekend years ago, when Philippe, then fourteen, had first stayed with Matthew. Raymond, although always intending to visit London, had never managed it. He always talks with such pleasure about the few brief holidays he has had, when he has been able to leave the farm. He has spent the odd weekend in Paris and he is an enthusiastic sightseer. We knew he would find London exciting.

So many times we had said when crossing Waterloo bridge at night, as we admire the lighted buildings on either side reflected in the gleaming water, ‘How Raymond would enjoy this.’ As we stood on the balcony outside the Festival Hall in the interval of a concert and gazed across the river, looking at the varied skyline with the illuminated curves of the new Charing Cross station, we would repeat, ‘Raymond would love this.’ But with a mixed farm, with over sixty head of cattle to be cared for, and ageing parents, it never seemed to be the right moment to leave. Now, with an ever confident Jean-Michel, things were changing. Perhaps they really would make it.

Meanwhile I was deep in the throes of editing a play for a projected reading at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden in three weeks time. Rewriting, finding twelve actors generous enough to give me a whole day, sending out invitations, compiling a programme and a part for a narrator – not to mention twisting my agent’s arm to direct it for me – I must admit that Raymond and Claudette faded into the background. But once the reading was successfully over and we began to recover, we wondered if they would indeed come. We heard nothing. The weeks passed. On the Friday evening before the proposed visit we happened to look at the diary.

‘What a shame,’ I said.

‘I never really thought they would manage it,’ said Mike. ‘There’s always some last minute crisis.’

‘Perhaps we’d just better phone,’ I said. ‘To make absolutely certain.’

‘They would surely have been in touch before now if they were coming,’ said Mike as he dialled.

‘Mais si!’ Raymond shouted excitedly. ‘I was going to call you on Saturday. We shall be at—’ eventually we realised that it was ‘Heathrow’ he was trying to say, ‘at 8.40 on Monday morning.’

We spent the next two days cancelling appointments, spring-cleaning the guest room, trying to plan a programme and most important of all, shopping for food! At last they were really coming to London.

Being certain to reach Heathrow by 8.40 on a Monday morning meant getting up soon after six. We were somewhat bleary-eyed as we waited at the barrier, watching the passengers from the flight from Toulouse filing out. Some were instantly greeted by friends and there was a great deal of kissing. Neat businessmen in unmistakably French suits searched for strangers carrying pieces of cardboard with company labels. Children were reunited with parents. The flow of passengers became a trickle then stopped. Where were our intrepid pair? Was it possible, after all our frantic preparations, that they had missed the plane?

We hovered, uncertain what to do. But, at last our stragglers emerged, Raymond in an elegant jacket, Claudette following in a full skirt, little Victorian boots and a jaunty cap. She threw up her hand in a characteristic gesture.

‘On a eu un petit désastre,’ she cried.

They were full of apologies. Apparently in one of their soft-topped suitcases they had unwisely packed several bottles of wine, one of which had broken.

‘The best one, of course,’ cursed Raymond.

‘That’s why we’re so late,’ explained Claudette. ‘It was all over the carousel. We had to mop it up and throw the pieces of glass away.’

I wondered if anyone else had found their suitcases soaked in vin de pays de l’Agenais, but I didn’t enquire as we sped towards the centre of London, the car smelling like the Cave Coopérative at Monflanquin.

It was a rare, glorious February morning and wisely we decided to make the most of it with a quick tour of London. Raymond ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at the white stucco buildings of Kensington and Park Lane and, as we crossed and recrossed the Thames in brilliant sunlight, at Big Ben, Parliament Square, Buckingham Palace and Victoria. Everything did look impressive, especially the river. Raymond was as enchanted as we had hoped.

That night we took them to the Festival Hall. From our favourite seats in the choir they enjoyed the London Philharmonic playing Tchaikovsky and Sibelius and, in the interval, did indeed exclaim at the view from the balcony. Raymond also exclaimed next morning at the sight of six fat pigeons on my lawn.

‘Regarde! Claudette, regarde!’ he shouted, leaping up from the table.

‘Mais…c’est pas des pigeons – c’est des poules – oh là!’

He decided that the first thing he needed on this holiday was a map. ‘Then I shall learn all about London,’ he declared optimistically.

The sunshine of the previous day did not reappear for the rest of the week but nothing could dampen Raymond’s enthusiasm. Map in hand we began with a visit to the Museum of London and as we later climbed the steps of St Paul’s it began to snow. That evening I cooked baked gammon with parsley sauce, jacket potatoes and lots of vegetables. Raymond would have none of the sauce.

‘Gôute-là, au moins,’ pleaded Claudette. At least try it.

But he enjoyed the meat and ate half a loaf with the vegetables, and the other half with the cheese and apple crumble.

On the following morning I had an engagement that I had been unable to cancel, so Mike thought that they might enjoy a trip to Harrods’ food hall. Apart from the shock of finding foie gras from Germany on sale, this visit turned out to be one of the highlights of their trip. Before they set out Mike was rather surprised when Raymond asked if he might borrow a briefcase; not exactly something one would normally associate with Raymond. It was soon apparent however, that this visit to London was not to be all pleasure and sightseeing. As Raymond loaded a pile of leaflets and brochures for France Prune and la Cave des Sept Monts into the briefcase he explained that he also saw his visit as an opportunity ‘de faire un peu de publicité pour notre région’.

As they left for Harrods, Mike, all too aware that he lacked any skill as a commercial traveller, but that he would have, inevitably, to act as interpreter, wondered just what lay ahead.

In the food hall they marvelled at the variety of foods, and hunted high and low until they found, at last, les pruneaux d’Agen. But they were horrified at the price. Now all they had to do, said Raymond, was to persuade Harrods to buy them from their local cooperative. Mike had no choice. After several deep breaths he found a sympathetic sales assistant and explained the situation, Raymond beaming encouragingly. Next Mike spoke on the telephone to the assistant buyer, translating all the while to an eager and anxious Raymond. He explained that without an appointment it wasn’t possible to meet a buyer, nor without the previous sending of samples. Raymond shrugged and pulled a face. But they would be very happy to see some brochures. A triumphant Raymond fished in his briefcase and handed them over and Mike thanked the assistant and heaved a sigh of relief.

‘Très bien,’ cried Raymond flushed with success. ‘Now, Michel, we must find the wine buyer!’ And it began all over again.

When I joined them later my husband looked a little weary. Raymond was in fine form. He had left wine brochures in a branch of Oddbins, and in Harrods. In a local shop, while trying to buy les puddings de Noël, as presents for the family, they had actually found prunes from their own cooperative. Later Mike described to me his experiences in Marks and Spencers in Chelsea, where Raymond had, at first been unable to find any dried fruit at all. On enquiring, an assistant had led them to a less than prominent position. Raymond had clapped his hand to his head. ‘You must tell her, Michel,’ he said ‘they’ll never sell them here! They need to be properly displayed. Over there in the centre!’

In the afternoon we went to Kenwood, where old friends, Pauline and Ip Wong were there to meet us. Their son Yan had stayed on to help Raymond with the plum harvest the previous year before going up to Oxford. Unfortunately our journey was held up by a demonstration by impoverished and disaffected students and by the time we arrived the house was shut. Undaunted, Raymond and Claudette enjoyed looking with farmer’s eyes at Capability Brown’s garden, even in February. We had a drink at the Spaniard’s Inn and then Ip cooked a Chinese meal. Raymond struggled manfully with les baguettes – chopsticks – but, like me, soon gave up. As all the food was unfamiliar he was more or less forced to try very small portions of everything but his worried look soon vanished and he came back for more – and more. Claudette wanted to buy ‘typically English’ presents and in a sudden flash of inspiration Pauline remembered the National Trust shop in the old Bluecoat School building near Victoria. It was very quiet and stuffed with just the sort of thing Claudette was looking for.

Unfortunately les Fostaires were away but other mutual friends joined us for supper the next day and we cooked an enormous dish of mussels and ate cold ham and chicken with various salads. Claudette was very intrigued with sticky toffee pudding and demanded the recipe. Raymond was very anxious to see an English farm, not easy in Clapham. Had we had more notice of their coming we would have been able to arrange it, as it was we just pointed the car next morning towards Kent and set off.

It was a grey, bleak day. We passed one or two large and prosperous farmhouses and Raymond seemed perplexed when we did not immediately turn into the drive.

‘Isn’t that a farm there?’ he cried.

‘Yes, perhaps, but…’

‘Aren’t English farmers very welcoming then?’ he asked in some surprise.

We were saved from having to try to explain by the sound of a tractor. In the next gateway an old bent man gave us a wave. I squelched across the yard followed by an eager Raymond and the next half hour was spent by two farmers happily cursing both arthritis and the bureaucrats in Brussels in equal measure, while Claudette, who had borrowed Véronique’s Camcorder, filmed a beautiful herd of Jersey cows. The old man was the farm manager for a widow with two sons, neither of whom wanted to be farmers: Raymond was sympathetic.

We had a pub lunch later at the Henry the Eighth at Hever where Raymond was horrified to find his baguette already buttered. He scraped off the butter as carefully as if it had been arsenic. According to Raymond, a real man of the South, it is the wretched and much disliked Normans who started the spreading of butter on everything.

‘Comme il est difficile!’ sighed Claudette. ‘They were just trying to do a bit of publicity for their region,’ we teased him.

Adam got us tickets to see Les Miserables that evening. It was a spectacular production and we thought that at least they would know the story. On the following morning my cousin David and his mother took them to Kew to see the millions of crocuses, which were donated by Reader’s Digest. Claudette sighed at the camellias in bud and wished she could have come when they were in flower. We had lunch in the orangery and spent the rest of the afternoon in the various glass houses, Claudette filming away and Raymond darting from one plant to another demanding translations.

‘Claudette, regarde!’ he cried. ‘C’est la plante qui donne le café!’ He was fascinated. He had drunk it every day of his life but this was the first time he had ever seen it growing.

On Sunday he wanted to go to Mass in an Anglican church. ‘As I am in England, I want to see how they do it, les Anglicans,’ he said. We took them to Southwark Cathedral. They were most impressed with the unhurried dignity of it all, the beauty of the singing, and not least by the serving of both bread and wine at the communion. I have found that the further south one goes in Europe the faster and more crowded the Mass becomes, but I have never seen the wine served.

Raymond had insisted on buying an English gigot for the Sunday meal. We had to compromise between serving it practically raw, as he likes it, and just pink for everyone else. Claudette got busy in the kitchen making un flan. We had more discussion about the difference between English and French ovens but she was very impressed with my eye-level grill, something she had never seen before.

While we were cooking, my sons took Raymond for a drink at the Windmill on Clapham Common. Before we all sat down to eat Claudette took cuttings of everything in sight and Raymond pruned the fruit trees in my garden and my son Adam’s. After this last meal with all the family, we marked everywhere that we had been on Raymond’s map. The next morning we were up early to take them to the airport. We were exhausted, but we were equally glad to have been able to return just a fraction of their wonderful hospitality. We could never repay the kindness they have shown us since that afternoon when we took our first drink together to celebrate signing the contract to buy Bel-Air.

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