Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Twenty-One

Les Fostaires left for England and the weather stayed fine for the next two weeks. We went to Toulouse to collect my cousin David, very frail now and needing a wheelchair, but still determined to come for what we feared must be his last visit. Tristan could not accompany him because his passport had been suspended in some battle with the Home Office. If he left England he would not be allowed to re-enter. David spent much of his time resting but still kept an eagle eye on the garden. In the cool of the evening he walked slowly up to the new vineyard. He was pleased to see that all the plants looked sturdy, some already bearing their very first grapes. We went out to lunch almost every day, to all his favourite places; Bonaguil, Monpazier and Villeneuve-sur-Lot. One afternoon he was very tired and unwell. He quietly disappeared and slept for many hours then, as the sun began to slant lower through the trees, he suddenly appeared with his Missal and his glasses. It was a beautiful evening, still and warm, the sky intensely blue.

He stood for a moment looking down across the great field to the distant valley.

‘Would you like me to celebrate a Eucharist?’ he asked. He had never done this before. A little unsure, we fetched as instructed a glass of wine and three small pieces of bread on a saucer. We each read a lesson. David spoke the familiar words in a strong, clear voice that earlier had been faint and breathless and this simple act, without the normal trappings, became at once vivid and unforgettable.

There was such a magnificent harvest of plums this year, due in part to the new watering between the trees, the system put in place by Jean-Michel, and protected from invisible rabbits by Grandma. The branches hung low with the weight of fruit. There were just so many plums that, although officially retired from harvesting them since the arrival of Jean-Michel, Mike and I joined all hands to clear the ground before the giant umbrella could be unfurled. A lavender carpet under the rows of small trees, the plums were so large they looked like heaps of violet eggs laid by some great exotic bird. We were to harvest over 120 tons of plums that summer – 240000lbs of fruit, which, when dried, would become 30000 kilos of prunes. It is Raymond’s principal source of income and not one plum is left. The last, and most neck-aching job of all, is the tapping of each last plum off the tree with a very long bamboo cane. Raymond and Claudette were clearly delighted with this year’s crop, the best ever. But, like all farmers, as though reluctant to tempt providence, they hastily compared it with other disastrous harvests when very late frosts had decimated the yield.

At the end of the week they came up for lunch. I made a creamy soup with carrots and lentils and an hors-d’oeuvre with avocados and tuna, bottled by our Spanish friends. Then we ate chilli con carne which Grandpa had in fact ordered, but although I had made it half strength, he still found it just a little too hot.

C’est très bon,’ he said, wiping his face. ‘Mais…c’est un peu trop fort!

After salad we ate ice-cream and a totally out of season Xmas pudding which I had saved.

Ah le pudding de Noël!’ they all exclaimed. They are really getting the taste for it, and think it a great pity to only eat it once a year.

We got out the old wedding photographs of 1933 which I had been lent. There is nothing that starts such a chain of reminiscing. Grandpa put on his spectacles and Raymond borrowed Mike’s, the better to peer at the rows of wedding guests of long ago.

Oh là! C’est le Père Laurence.

Non!

Si! Regarde. C’est le même visage.

C’est bizarre. You have to jump a generation. How like his son he looks!’

Petit à petit…you can sort them all out.’

‘That was Madame Delbert. She was always complaining. A pain here – a problem there.’

Grandpa laughed. ‘You know what they say.’

Raymond grinned. ‘Celui qui se plaint tout le temps – c’est celui qui vit le plus longtemps. Those who complain the most – live the longest.’ And Grandpa capped it by saying it in Occitan.

Lou che fai touzor piou piou. A cho lou che mai biou.

They identified Madame Esther, Sylvie’s grandmother, and her great grandmother, la couturière. She wore a dark dress much decorated with delicate white piping, no doubt to advertise her expertise. Both she and her daughter were apparently wonderful gossips.

‘Anyone who went to the dressmakers,’ said Grandma with a smile, ‘would soon know all the news of the region.’

They began talking about the various plots of land owned by the wedding guests. Some were fertile, some less so. That reminded Raymond of a relative who had ‘une petite prairiè’ which was adjacent, not to his own house, but to that of a neighbour. Although the hay was regularly cut and baled he never declared it and was piqued to find that one year he received a demand for tax for cultivated land. Off he went to Perigueux to plead his case with the Inspector, who said ‘I’d better come and see for myself.’

Sûrement!’ agreed Lucien, ‘Whenever you wish, but…you’d better leave it till the end of July because…I have to take my wife away for a cure.’

Unfortunately someone, the neighbour perhaps, had already sent to Perigueux a photograph of Raymond bailing the hay the previous year. Lucien was alarmed when he had a sudden call from the local Inspector announcing that the departmental Inspector was in the region and would be calling on him in an hour or two.

Pas de problème,’ lied Lucien, who then telephoned Raymond to come and get the rest of the hay – immédiatement!

All was not lost however. The prairie was some way up the hill, the house at the bottom. The Inspector arrived. Yes, he would be glad to try a glass of something special. To Lucien’s delight he turned out to be a fellow Rugby enthusiast.

Raymond chuckled as he remembered how he had collected up the last few bales while the two men had discussed every Rugby match within living memory, drinking a glass between each one. At last the Inspector had looked at his watch, cried ‘Mon Dieu! Is that the time. I must fly!’ and had disappeared.

A few days later I had an unexpected visitor. Mme Ducrois brought her sister to visit Bel-Air. I had met Mme Ducrois at Véronique’s wedding. She had been very interested to hear where we lived. She remembered cycling up to Bel-Air with her sister, when they were young girls.

‘I’d love to bring her to see you one day,’ she had said. ‘She lives in Paris but comes for the holidays.’ I had assured her of a welcome but by now I had quite forgotten about it.

The two elderly ladies were delighted to relive their girlhood. They chattered non-stop as they recognised familiar landmarks. They had grown up in the family home, a grand house about two miles away, now only used in the holidays. During the war they had been sent on their bicycles to buy eggs and rabbits from Anaïs, who by then was in her seventies.

‘This is where she kept the eggs in a wooden box…in here,’ said Mme Ducrois.

‘Goodness, how pretty you’ve made it.’

‘That’s right,’ said her sister. ‘This was her room. It was filled with bits and pieces. We were a bit scared of her,’ she giggled.

Oh…elle était gentille mais…she seemed so very old to us.’ This made them both burst out laughing.

‘She spoke a lot of patois…sometimes we didn’t understand her, did we? And those awful rabbits!’

Ils étaient terribles,’ cried Mme Ducrois. ‘I think they must have been semi-wild – or perhaps a special breed – but they had huge claws. We had to carry them home in our bag on the handlebars. Anaïs would tie their legs but they wriggled about. Didn’t they scratch our knees as we rode along!’

‘We loved to come up here,’ said her sister. ‘It was an adventure, but we hated bringing home those awful rabbits.’

They too looked at the old wedding groups with great nostalgia. Old photographs are very powerful and unlock many memories.

So many people remember Anaïs, although she died in 1963. They often talk about her coming down with her wooden wheelbarrow to carry her frugal shopping from the village. She then had to pull it back up the drive to Raymond’s farm, take the winding path around his first meadow, go through the wood and up along the edge of le grand champ to the pond. It is uphill all the way to Bel-Air. Occasionally her well ran dry and she would bring down a large container to get water from a spring outside the village. She would love to gossip, but would not stay long, in case her son complained.

She would invite Mme Vidal the shopkeeper’s wife to bring her small children up to catch frogs in the pond.

‘They had a lovely time,’ smiled Mme Vidal. ‘She was very kind. She gave me cuttings of her hydrangea. The one I then gave you cuttings from. You remember? Eh oui. The plants live longer than us.’

Anaïs’s son Aloïs was apparently jealous and, after the children had caught two or three frogs, he would beat the water with a stick to frighten them away, saying ‘That’s enough.’

The children would then tie one of the frogs they had already caught to their lines and jig it up and down calling, ‘Look Aloïs, here’s another!’ to tease him.

In 1955 the village at last installed a communal stone washing trough with running water. Anaïs was then eighty-four. She came down to the shop and stood in wonder at this modern phenomenon. Then, to everyone’s amusement, she grabbed a piece of someone else’s washing and scrubbed away for the sheer pleasure of it, saying, ‘Oh if only I had something like this up at Bel-Air.’ What would she make of my washing machine?

In three weeks’ time we shall be leaving London once more as we have done for the past twenty years to spend our summer at Bel-Air. Our children and grandchildren will join us in August. Already there are piles of books, packets of tea and jars of marmalade collecting in odd places. There are notes pinned up, instructions for those of the family who come to stay in the London house. I feel restless and slightly disoriented as if I am already half-way between one home and another. I know that the last week will telescope into a mad scramble of unfinished business but that when the car is finally loaded and we leave I shall feel a great sense of freedom.

We bought a long-derelict house which I like to feel was just waiting for us to arrive. With the changes which we have inevitably made we have still tried to keep its original style. Apart from the creation of a bathroom where there was once a staircase, we have made no structural alterations. When we go in the spring we have an annual debate about whether to add a window in the main room. When we return in high summer we remember why we shouldn’t. The shade and cool are then precious. The pool, which at first seemed so alien, has begun to blend into the garden and has given us all hours of pleasure.

We have had the great good fortune to have wonderfully kind neighbours, to be accepted into a community whose way of life we knew little about. We have learned a great deal. And there is still so much to learn.

I recently discovered the house where Anaïs was born in 1871. I have her school books which are endlessly fascinating, and I wonder where she went to school. Many children at that time had no schooling. It was not until the 1880s that state education for all was introduced – gratuite, obligatoire, laïque – free, compulsory and secular. I suspect Anaïs may well have been educated in a school maintained by a religious community. I have the promise of a chat with an eighty-three-year-old belle-mère who comes in the summer and will, I am assured, remember all she knows of local history. She is a Protestant and they have, I learn, a very strong oral tradition.

There is the ongoing research into the history of Bel-Air itself. With Sylvie’s help we have established that one François Costes, who was born elsewhere in 1758, once lived there; but there is much more to do. The latest discovery that there was once a church, St Nicholas, between us and the village, has us all excited. Raymond fancies a large ring of trees in the middle of a neighbour’s field as the original location but, until the sunflowers are harvested, we can’t investigate to see if the foundations are still there.

After the Revolution many churches were destroyed and the stones carted away and used to build houses and barns. Who knows, perhaps part of Bel-Air was built with consecrated stones? Our earliest and originally, I suspect, the only window, has a hand-cut stone arch and transom. There were once two wooden shutters studded with nails. Only one remains, the other having been long ago replaced with glass. Sometimes as I look around in the evening, I long for one of those cinematic transformations. How I would love to see Bel-Air dissolving from one shot to another, travelling back in time to show the very first people who stood in that peaceful spot, halfway down the long slope of the land, and decided to build a house.

In a few weeks time we shall finally turn up the track by the side of the orchard. As we catch our first glimpse of our wide and welcoming porch decorated with flowers by our neighbour and good friend, we shall once again be very thankful that they did.

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