Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Two

It was on the 14th of July 1989, the two hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, that I signed the contract for A House in the Sunflowers, my first book about our house in south-west France, but the manuscript might well never have been finished if I had not developed acute sciatica in the spring of that year. I had had the odd problem with my back for several years. I suspect that lifting heavy stones to make our first terrace at Bel-Air was the original cause, but a visit to the physiotherapist, a painkiller or two and a few days rest had always done the trick. Not this time. Unable to walk more than half a dozen steps I tried various remedies but, as May turned into June, the improvement was imperceptible. How I longed to go to France, but what could I do if I got there? And there was always the chance that the next treatment might find a cure. If I couldn’t make my usual spring visit, at least I could write about it. If it never got into print it would be a family record. Immobile in my study in Clapham I wished myself across the Channel and the great plains of northern France, across the Loire and the Dordogne to the peace of our other home overlooking the valley of the river Lot. By the end of June the manuscript was finished and sent off to my agent.

A few days later Clive Allison of Allison and Busby rang me to say how much he had enjoyed reading it and that he would like to publish it the following spring. Surprised and delighted, I felt that at least something had been achieved through all those hours of sitting still and signing the contract on the 14th of July seemed a good omen. But I was to learn much about what was to me, this new world of publishing. Within weeks, Clive Allison had been replaced by Peter Day who fortunately, seemed equally enthusiastic. He wanted some photographs of Bel-Air, as many as possible. Exactly the spur I needed; sciatica or not, I determined to go. As we made our preparations I realised how many steps there were between wardrobe and suitcase. Last-minute shopping was out of the question as was our usual summer three-day sightseeing journey down through France.

‘We’ll put the car on the train as far as Brive,’ said my ever solicitous husband. ‘Then we’ll be there well before the 29th of July.’

This was the day I had been desperate not to miss. Philippe – Raymond and Claudette’s son, who had been a brown, skinny thirteen year old when we first met him – was to be married to the most beautiful girl in the next village. I lay on my bunk on the journey from Boulogne to Brive, in the Dordogne, regretting all the places we were whizzing through while Mike, more sensibly, enjoyed the passing kilometres that he didn’t have to drive. As dawn broke we joined the sleepy-eyed who stumbled from the train and I had to breakfast from a convenient luggage trolley as the splendid new dining room was too far down the platform for me to reach.

What a joy to drive out into the French countryside as the sun appeared. It seemed so long since we had last come. I feasted my eyes as the steeper roofs of the Périgord flattened out into those of the south, and brilliant fields of sunflowers told me that we were nearing home. But the irrigation lakes were low, the grass verges like pale straw, and I wondered about my garden.

At last we climbed the dusty track to Bel-Air. The parched fields shimmered on either side and Raymond’s plum trees seemed to crackle in the heat. The garden was, as I had feared, like a desert. Everything was desperate for water, even the plants on the porch which Claudette usually tended. The shutters had been opened for our arrival and there were flowers and wine on the table but, as I hobbled from room to room, it became clear that Claudette’s usual brisk sweep through had not happened. Of course – the wedding! She would have been trying to get everything done on the farm to leave the following week clear. I was lucky to have the house opened up at all.

C’est le mariage!’ She smiled apologetically as she welcomed us down to supper as she always does on our first evening. I climbed carefully from the car and moved slowly across the courtyard. Raymond’s jaw dropped.

Mais…what’s the matter with you?’ he demanded.

La sciatique,’ I replied.

He threw up his hands. ‘Oh malheur!’ he cried, and I reckoned that just about said it.

Grandma and Grandpa, both over eighty, came to greet us as if almost surprised at their survival of another winter and it was wonderful to sit down together once more and ladle out Claudette’s vegetable soup. Slices of her pâté de porc were followed by a savoury rice pudding, made with milk, but containing sliced courgettes and scraps of ham and with a topping of breadcrumbs and cheese. Next came a dish of roast chicken with sautéed potatoes and a green salad. We were still catching up with all the local news as we ate a great dish of strawberries, then handed round the coffee while Claudette fetched the obligatory jar of prunes à l’eau de vie.

Raymond looked at me with concern. ‘Have you been to a doctor?’ he asked.

‘Too many,’ I sighed, recalling the useless cortisone injections, the massage, the acupuncture, and all the manipulations.

‘You should try la guérisseuse,’ he urged.

La guérisseuse?’

Oui, Madame Orlando.’

‘What does she do?’

‘She just touches you. Elle a le don.’ The gift. Madame Orlando, it seemed, was a faith healer.

‘She’s very good,’ encouraged Raymond.

Grandpa nodded. ‘C’est vrai,’ he shouted.

Ça depend,’ said Grandma. ‘She didn’t do much for my back…’

‘Oh,’ Grandpa shrugged. ‘At your age…’

‘She’s not as good as old Léon,’ insisted Grandma.

Another healer? Les guérisseurs it seemed, were commonplace.

Claudette spooned the prunes into our still warm coffee cups. ‘Yes, it was old Léon that cured Marianne…You know…Roland’s daughter.’

I was surprised. Roland, Claudette’s second cousin, is a teacher of gymnastics and not, I would have thought, someone to trust his daughter to a faith healer.

‘What was the matter with Marianne?’ I asked.

‘Elle avait un zona,’ said Claudette.

‘It took him over half an hour,’ said Raymond. ‘But all she had afterwards was a small round mark on her chest and no pain at all.’

A search in the dictionary told us that Marianne had been cured of shingles, but as it appeared that old Léon had since died, he wasn’t going to be much help to me.

‘Mind you, he was a strange old man. He treated you in his dirty garage,’ said Claudette, wrinkling her nose. ‘And he never wore anything on his feet but his old slippers.’

Madame Orlando, it seemed, was more à la mode.

‘Une belle femme,’ said Raymond enthusiastically. ‘And she can’t do you any harm.’ This seemed to be the trump card of the faith healer. ‘She works from seven in the morning to seven at night – and’ he added, his eyes gleaming, ‘il faut être en forme pour le mariage!’

As it was only a week and a half before the great day I rang for un rendez-vous the following morning. If Madame Orlando worked a twelve-hour day, she could surely fit me in somewhere. Although I could not walk, driving was, fortunately, not a problem, and I must admit I was curious. I went the next afternoon. Her house was impressive. A picture window looked over a well-watered lawn sloping down to a hedge of conifers. There was a car park sufficient for half a dozen cars and a notice on the door said SALLE D’ATTENTE ENTREZ. I obeyed. It was a very hot day, but the lowered blinds made the room cool and shadowy. After about ten minutes, during which time I could hear faint murmurings from a neighbouring room, a door opened. A woman came out carrying a child of about four, clearly paralysed, her head lolling backward. The woman was followed by Madame Orlando herself who stroked the child’s cheek, saw them off into the blazing sunshine, then turned to me.

‘Entrez, entrez,’ she said.

‘Une belle femme’ indeed. Almost six feet tall, she wore a brilliant blue shift and her red hair was drawn back from her face in a heavy bun. ‘Quelle chaleur!’ she murmured, steaming gently. With her pale skin, as if untouched by the sun, she was like a large and voluptuous magnolia. She led me into her treatment room and sat behind a desk on which were many books, some I noted, on homeopathy. She wasted no time on the taking down of lengthy particulars. She listened as I explained my problem.

‘Pull up your shirt,’ she said calmly, rubbing her hands together and coming to sit beside me on a stool. For a few seconds she massaged the base of my spine very hard with her thumbs then simply laid one soft, hot hand against my back and, on learning that I was from London, asked if I knew La Didi?

I was puzzled. ‘La Didi?’

‘La jolie femme du Prince Charles!’ she enthused in her deep, breathy voice.

On learning that I wasn’t exactly an intimate of ‘Lady Di’ she lost interest in me completely until the fifteen minutes were up and I paid my forty francs in cash.

‘Same time next week,’ she said, ushering me out past several more incoming patients. It was just as painful to limp to the car but I could still feel the heat from her hand several hours later. Perhaps she might do me good. I was ready to try anything and clearly la guérisseuse was very much a part of the local scene. It took me the rest of the week to unpack and sort the house out. It was infuriating to be so inactive. I usually spend the first few days in a positive whirlwind. And as for the garden! Mercifully it rained gently all one night and the following morning I did manage a little weeding, sitting down – a new experience. Not the best, but the only possible, position.

On the farm everyone was preparing for the coming wedding. At the last Sunday lunch with only six days to go everyone sat drinking their aperitifs and waiting for Corinne, the beautiful bride to be.

‘Always late!’ muttered Grandpa, looking longingly at the soup tureen.

Mike and I hadn’t seen her for nearly a year. At that time, although the official fiancée and a frequent visitor, she was always a little hesitant. The fact that she and Philippe had been sharing a flat in Bordeaux was not exactly approved of. There was a sigh of relief as the car turned into the courtyard and a very different Corinne smiled at us all. With a new and glamorous hairstyle she glowed with confidence and excitement. In an elegant red dress she made her entrance with unusual flair, sure of her lines and everyone there! Chattering non-stop she bestowed perfumed kisses all round and, led by an eager Grandpa, we moved to the table and the meal began.

After the soup we ate home cured ham with the first melons of the season and then Claudette served a couscous which was a new venture for her that year.

‘Mm, c’est bon, le couscous!’ said Corinne, her huge dark eyes sparkling, and we passed round a small jug of sauce made with harissa to make it even hotter for those who wished.

‘C’est le seul plat,’ announced Claudette firmly. Raymond looked up in dismay.

‘Aujourd’hui c’est le petit menu. On a trop à faire!’ she gave him a look. He made sure he took another helping. After the salad Grandma brought in a plate piled high with beignets, the small local doughnut, to be eaten with yet more strawberries. For once it was not recipes, but the details of the wedding that were discussed.

Philippe seemed quietly content and Corinne chatted enough for them both. The latest presents, including the carriage clock which we had brought from London, were opened and approved. She and Véronique, her future sister-in-law, pored over the table plan for the reception. Now, would it be suitable for that aunt to sit next to that cousin? Claudette wasn’t sure. Perhaps not. Grandma remembered some past difficulty. Names were rubbed out and others added. Now for the procession. How exactly should she hold her father’s arm?

Giggling, they rehearsed, while Grandma and Claudette tried to clear the table. Would the special make-up, which she would have done professionally on the day, hold up to being kissed by – her eyes widened at the thought – at least four hundred and fifty guests? The problems and the excitement were endless.

But even with an imminent wedding, work on the farm had to continue. In spite of a night’s rain the ground below the first few inches was rock hard. Water for irrigation was pumped up from a lake dug close to the farm, but every few days Raymond had to change the pipes in the field of maize as they only watered a section at a time. They were long and heavy and it was not really a job for one man. As the maize was already almost head high it was hot and dusty work but vital if the crop was to yield. In dry seasons in the past it had sometimes had to be cut for silage, the cobs not having developed.

While Mike helped Raymond in the broiling sun, I sat in the shade with Claudette and Grandma tying up sugared almonds in circles of white net with satin ribbons.

‘How many do we have to do?’ I enquired as the pile grew larger.

‘About a hundred and fifty,’ answered Grandma placidly. ‘One for each guest au repas. And I suppose we’d better do a few extra,’ she added.

The wedding breakfast was not to take place, I learned, until after nine o’clock in the evening.

‘Et le mariage?’

‘Two o’clock at the Marie. Two-thirty at the church,’ said Claudette.

‘And what happens in between?’

They looked at me in astonishment. ‘Why – le vin d’honneur of course. A reception for everyone from the two villages.’

‘Everyone?’

‘Well – I don’t suppose everyone will come but there will certainly be over five hundred people.’

With typical French practicality, the two families had already decided to share the cost of what was clearly to be a grand affair. The reception was to be held chez Corinne. Her parents were also farmers but, unlike Raymond and Claudette, they specialised in the growing of crops for seed, mostly leeks and carrots. Her mother also kept bees and sold honey.

‘They have plenty of land and such a beautiful garden,’ said Claudette wistfully. ‘Wait till you see. But of course,’ she added, ‘they have no animals. That makes all the difference.’

‘Ah, les bêtes,’ sighed Grandma. ‘Mais…qu’est que vous voulez?’ She shrugged her thin shoulders and counted out another eight sugared almonds.

Le repas, I was pleased to learn, was to be held at the Restaurant Palissy. The food would certainly be good and we would be looked after by my favourite waiter, the ebullient Monsieur Allo. He had apparently retired from his other job as the local postman, but was as lively as ever.

‘And the menu?’ I asked.

Claudette laughed ‘Oh…il ne faut pas le dire! C’est un secret.’ But she couldn’t resist telling me that one of the courses would be un rôti de filet de boeuf which, on the following morning, she would go to choose from her favourite butcher.

‘I know the chef at le Palissy will cook it to perfection,’ she said. ‘But I must make sure of the quality. You can’t leave anything to chance pour un mariage. Le vin d’honneur for the large reception after the ceremony was not in fact to be wine, but a choice between tropical fruit juice and unlimited rum punch. This would be made by Philippe and Corinne’s brothers the night before. To eat, there would be the usual nuts and nibbles, quiches and pizzas, and Raymond’s niece was providing dozens of hard boiled quails’ eggs.

As we finished the last bag of almonds and layered them away in a large carton, Mike and Raymond arrived from the field in the old van. Covered in dust and sweat, they washed briefly under the outside tap, downed a couple of cold beers and disappeared again, the van doors now bulging with a load of chairs and tables. These were to go to Corinne’s farm and all the owner’s names were written underneath.

The weather grew even hotter. The morning before the wedding there was an urgent telephone call. The father of the bride, who was to have delivered the cases of an ’82 Bordeaux, Chateau la Croix to the restaurant that afternoon, had instead to go to hospital for an X-ray. Mending a fence, the farmer’s everlasting task, he had apparently been tugging at some barbed wire with heavy pincers, when the wire had snapped and he had hit his nose.

‘Quelle catastrophe!’ said Raymond. ‘His nose may well be broken. I shall have to take the wine. It’s to go with le filet.’ His face lit up for a moment with anticipation, then resumed its worried look. ‘And there are the trees to go as well, Michel,’ he said. ‘Do you think we could get them in your car as it’s longer and we can open up the back?’

We turned into the long drive which led to Corinne’s farm. The garden was as beautiful as Claudette had described it. There were lawns shaded by trees and colourful borders interspersed with dozens of small bushes of lavender and rosemary. But that morning it was a scene of chaos. At least twenty people were running in all directions. Young men were unloading long wooden table tops from a lorry, others were sorting out a mountain of greenery piled outside the house and the father of the bride emerged at that very moment clutching a bloody handkerchief to his nose. His wife, an older, plumper version of her dark-eyed daughter, threw up her hands as she saw us.

‘Mon Dieu!’ she cried, climbing into the car. ‘What a time to choose. I have a million things to do.’ Then, as if realising that at least a little sympathy was required, she patted his hand and started the engine. ‘And imagine,’ she shouted as they drove off to the clinic at speed, ‘What is he going to look like tomorrow?’

Mike and Raymond loaded the wine into our estate car and Corinne’s brothers slid in two tall juniper trees on the top. These were to decorate the doors of the restaurant. They were so long that we had to drive with the rear door tied open and, squeezed in as I had to be, I was not sorry to be dropped off to try my luck once more with the large, hot hand of la guérisseuse.

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