Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Eight

Sitting with my feet in the pool I watch as the maize in the great field is cut a month early. This wonderful summer for swimmers has been a disaster for many farmers. What promised in late spring to be a bumper crop will now yield no fat, golden cobs but must be crunched and munched into silage. The new machines on loan from the farmers’ Coopérative, as brightly coloured as children’s toys, toil up and down, whining like angry and persistent insects. The trailer lorry moves parallel with, but just slightly ahead of the combine, catching the shreds like breakfast cereal, which spout forth in a high sweeping arc. Fortunately what little wind there is blows from the north-west so none of it will be carried as far as the pool.

Only the top leaves of the maize are still green. The flowers droop like desiccated tassels and, as the rows are cut, brown dry tunnels are left behind. Up come the harvesters again. Dust swirls as they turn in formation and the diminishing square of maize in the middle of the field is eaten up five rows at a time by the silver bullet-like cutters on the front of the combine. The trailer full, it moves off with its pea-green load. There is a moment of silence until Raymond trundles across the field on his old tractor with a battered high-sided iron trailer. The combine costs too much to be left idle while the smart lorry is emptied. They begin again.

My eldest son Adam arrived with his lady Caz. I fondly watched the mother-to-be of my first grandchild swimming lazily in the pool. As I listened to them happily talking bird nonsense to Biggles, and making plans to return as a family the following summer, the prospect of yet another generation to enjoy Bel-Air gave me great happiness.

The wall now finished, we went to the nursery for plants to make a screen along the top of the bank. Laurels, quick growing and evergreen, seemed an obvious choice but, not wanting a uniform row, I interspersed them with a vibernum tinus and an elaeagnus ebbengei, a shrub with which I was unfamiliar. The nurseryman pointed out the attractive leaves which were glossy green above but silver underneath. I did not discover until several years later that in late September, it bears tiny hidden white flowers which fill the air with perfume. I bought a dwarf conifer. I also couldn’t resist a magnificent pampas grass but neither could I make up my mind exactly where to put it. For weeks it sat in its container as we moved it from one place to another.

M. Duparcq returned to pave the rough concrete surround of the pool with a smooth crazy paving called locally pierres d’Allemagne. I have no idea if they do in fact come from Germany but the irregularly shaped pieces contain intriguing fossils, and they were considerably cheaper than more conventional tiles. My ambition was to somehow blend this blue rectangle into the garden and these stones, when grouted with the same cream cement as the wall, made a harmonious whole.

Claudette came up to invite us for Sunday lunch. She had the kind of gleam in her eye that means one of her specials. As usual we arrived promptly at midday. We were pleased to see Roland’s father, l’ancien inseminateur turned beekeeper, and his brother, l’ancien garagiste, and their wives. Aperitifs were unusually prolonged because Houpette, Philippe’s hunting dog, had disappeared and Willy, ‘le Yorkshire’ was also missing. Exactly who had led whom astray was a matter of heated debate, but it was clear that there was no question of lunch until the miscreants were caught, especially Willy. The hunting dog, it was thought, might find her own way home.

The next guests to arrive, on learning the news, disappeared again in all directions. There were phonecalls, much throwing up of arms and recriminations. Willy ‘le Yorkshire’ had been a present to Véronique, the daughter of the house, from her new fiancé, Jean-Michel, a striking young man with black hair and deep set eyes of a startling blue. At last Véronique returned with a disgusting Willy – muddy, fur tangled and unrepentant. Everyone yelled at him. Apparently he was up at Bel-Air. I was only thankful he hadn’t fallen in the pool. Houpette slunk into the courtyard a few moments later to be given a good roar at by Grandpa and, at last, we sat down to lunch at an unheard of 1.30 p.m. The weeks of continuous heatwave had made even soup redundant. We began with a huge platter of cold fresh salmon, large prawns, and both tomatoes and eggs farcies. The dish was decorated with wedges of lemons and it was these which caused the most comment.

‘Ah! le vrai goût du citron,’ enthused the wife of le garagiste, for these lemons had a stronger, sharper and more perfumed taste. They had been picked but an hour before from Claudette’s own tree. It was now so large that the tub in which it grew had been mounted on wheels to push it indoors when there was the slightest danger of frost – not that anyone was thinking about frost as, outside, the thermometer rose steadily in the baking courtyard. We drank a very delicious Sancerre with the fish and then my eyes brightened as Raymond put a bottle of Vieux Cahors on the table. It is my favourite of all wines but one glass is all I can manage. Perhaps two.

‘What year is it?’ I asked. He shrugged.

‘The label has fallen off,’ he said, ‘but it’s about twenty-five years old.’

Plus!’ shouted Grandpa from the end of the table as Claudette carried in a steaming casserôle. I watched the beekeeper’s face twitch in every mobile muscle as the first waft reached his wide nostrils. His fleshy lips quivered.

‘C’est fait avec des pruneaux!’ he breathed. ‘Ah!’

‘Bien sûr,’ laughed Claudette, she knows his taste. This was a civet de lièvre, jugged hare, worthy of George Sand herself, with the added prunes which are so much a part of this region. More bread was cut to mop up the rich aromatic sauce, and various tales about the ravages of the drought were told. The beekeeper’s wife complained that her husband was mad. He had been off to his hives in the hottest part of the day. ‘Il est fou, lui,’ she cried. ‘It’s very dangerous.’

Her husband explained between mouthfuls that it was imperative to hose the hives. If they became too hot the bees would swarm, taking out the eggs and the queen to preserve them, and he would lose the lot.

The civet was repassed but we all knew that there was more to follow. The next course was magret de canard, fillet of duck breast cut into slices. This was served with celery hearts in a thin Bechamel sauce. Raymond opened a bottle of Burgundy and the garagiste and his wife told of their trip to Egypt that winter. Grandma looked doubtful. ‘Mais…vous avez bien mangé, là bas?’ she asked. Did you eat well?

‘Oh…pas comme ici, mais…c’est normal,’ conceded the garagiste. ‘But me, I don’t mind trying a different cuisine.’ Grandma looked unconvinced and the beekeeper gave his brother a sceptical look.

‘It’s part of the fun of travelling,’ laughed the garagiste’s wife. ‘I love being retired,’ she added. ‘When we’re at home I’m up at six to work in my garden and – best of all – there are no more meals at nine and ten at night – after his work was done.’

‘Qu’est ce-que vous voulez?’ said her husband. ‘When someone needed their tractor urgently you had to carry on.’ He smiled contentedly. ‘Now we eat at seven and work in the garden afterwards.’

Raymond looked pensive. There is little chance of his being able to retire and he prefers not to think of the future.

We sat at the table until five o’clock finishing the meal with Baba au Rhum, one of Claudette’s specialities, and strawberries. ‘These will definitely be the last of the season,’ she said. ‘They are being eaten by a cloud of wasps.’

At six we all came up to Bel-Air. Some swam; others played boule. The garagiste and Raymond rode up in the old car hooting loudly. It is a 1929 Citroën which belongs to Grandpa. It was hidden from the Germans in the barn behind the church. There it stayed for the next forty years until Philippe and my son Matthew, then teenagers, discovered it, and begged the old man to take it out and put it into working order. The original tyres were pumped up and it was the garagiste who got it going. Now it only does short journeys but everyone vies to drive it. It has the original plate with Grandpa’s name on the back and was, I imagine, the envy of all the young men of the district when new. Grandma once told me that she had several suitors when she was a girl, but that her brother had encouraged her to marry Grandpa, ‘Parce que c’était lui qui avait une voiture!’ Because he was the one with the car.

At half past eight the other guests left for home and Raymond begged us to go down later ‘pour finir une belle journée’ as he put it. He went off to muck out the cows, and Claudette to see to her ducks, chicken, turkey, guinea-fowl, rabbits and pigs, while we watered our parched garden.

Thanks to M. Albert’s thoughtful suggestion, a length of hose had been laid under the pool terrace while it was under construction. Connecting joints had been fitted and, once the main hose was attached, we could now easily water the far side of the meadow. We discussed the next project, which was to protect the pool from the east. I wasn’t sure about another wall. We watered in our small laurels and moved the unfortunate pampas grass to yet another location.

At ten o’clock we were back at the farm, sitting outside in the courtyard. Claudette brought out a tureen of soup. It was the famous local garlic soup, le tourin, with which sleeping couples are surprised in the middle of the night, as were Philippe and Corinne on their wedding night.

But just who had they been planning to surprise tonight…us?

Raymond grinned and nodded. ‘We thought about it,’ he said.

As we ate the soup together we reminisced about the first time they had initiated us into this ancient custom. We had awoken from a drunken slumber to find half the village in our bedroom and an extremely alcoholic party being prepared in the room next door. Raymond retold the tale with glee.

‘Oui, c’était quelque chose…that was really something et…on a bien pensée pour ce soir,’ he said, ‘mais…’ he shrugged.

As it was on that night twelve years before, the moon was full, and I’m sure that it affects everyone but so, alas, does growing older. I have the feeling now that to bring le tourin is something that will be left for the young. We enjoyed the soup anyway, and lazily finished up some cold duck, as Claudette put jars and packages into bags for Philippe and Corinne to take home to Toulouse. Philippe works for a sugar company and seems happy enough but they come back almost every weekend and stock up. I didn’t envy them the journey down that long, hot road but they seemed unconcerned as, with kisses all round, they climbed into their laden car, Corinne wearing only a sarong over her swimsuit. Véronique and Jean-Michel left too with a subdued Willy, washed and brushed and with his hair tied up in a ribbon. The old people went off to bed in their little house at the far end of the courtyard, and we sat talking quietly until Raymond’s eyelids began to close.

We had six weeks of unbroken sunshine that first summer of the pool. Towards the end of August there was a sudden storm in the night and the first rain ran off the baked earth. The daytime temperature plummeted twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Raymond brought us a large sheet of plastic from Agrilot, the farmers’ store, to cover the pool and conserve the heat. For two days we piled on our sweaters, but, as always, it warmed up again.

We found yet another site for the pampas grass, dug a hole and filled it with water. Two days later the water was still there. Clearly the pampas grass would not thrive on top of a rock, and we were extremely glad that we had not chosen that site for the pool. We made a trip to Albi to see the marvellous Toulouse Lautrec collection and, on the way back, saw the solution for a protective screen for the east side of the pool – not one, but a glorious hedge of pampas grasses. We finally planted the one we had, and were about to go to the nursery for more, when friends arrived from the Dordogne.

‘We’ve got a huge pampas grass and we hate it,’ they said. ‘We’ll dig it up and bring it over.’

The next week we all learned how razor sharp the leaves are as we divided the great clump and heeled it in. It has been a great success since then, providing an impenetrable wind shield and a row of spectacular plumes.

The balmy days of September with their golden light were with us, and at last we received the call we were hoping for. Our dear friend Tony was well enough and determined to travel, and would arrive with Nan in two days time. We went to Agen to meet the train. After we drove up the track to Bel-Air – only a year late, as he put it – Tony went off with Mike to open a bottle. Nan had a quiet weep in the garden at the sheer relief of a visit she had thought they would never make again. Sharing our house with friends is one of the real joys of Bel-Air, and finding that it is a special place for them too, is a bonus.

In spite his self description as a ‘totterdemalion’ Tony was, in fact, his usual lucid self, full of verbal sparkle. The only sign of his operation was a slightly drooping eyebrow which had, temporarily, to be taped up. He found this less tiresome when I told him that that was what strippers used to do with their boobs.

He and Nan were delighted with the pool, but the rest of the meadow, bare, brown and stony, was an eyesore. If we wanted anything resembling a lawn, we would have to prepare the ground.

We collected as many rakes as we could find and, on the morning we started work, Raymond drove by on his tractor. That evening he thoughtfully trundled up again with a small trailer and carted away all the stones. We raked and sieved until we were exhausted, then went to buy grass seed. We weighed and roughly measured out the amount for each square metre, and Nan and I sowed it by hand, trying to scatter the seed evenly. Each day we watered it gently and prayed that it would rain after we had left.

We swam until October, covering the pool each night, and taking Biggles indoors as it grew dark. We covered his cage with an old cotton skirt. The only trouble was that he would hear an early morning call from a bird outside and from underneath his frilly cover would chirp and trill very loudly from the kitchen table, waking everyone up.

My washing machine had also been making strange noises all that summer and now refused to work at all. It was, in any case, very old. I rang M. Albert.

‘Ma machine à laver, elle est morte,’ I said.

‘Ah, c’est triste. L’enterrement c’est quand?’ When is the funeral? he asked in his gentle voice. He promised to bring me a replacement but the days passed and nothing happened. Twice I rang and spoke to his wife.

‘Oh là! Il faut lui tirer les oreilles!’ she said, sympathetic to problems with the washing. I don’t know whether she did pull his ears for me but, eventually, he arrived with a second-hand machine.

‘Try this,’ he said. ‘It seems a pity to buy a new one when you will be leaving it to the mice in ten days.’

The hoses on our old machine had often been chewed through by hungry rodents during the winter. I started on the first of many loads of washing. He stayed long enough to make sure the machine was working properly and, before leaving, invited us to lunch on the following Sunday.

We had often had aperitifs chez Albert when we were planning another plumbing venture or paying a bill, but we had never eaten with them before. We arrived at midday, bearing the obligatory plant for Madame, and sat down with one Grandpa, two great Grandmas, Grandparents Albert, their two sons and their wives, and six grandchildren. We were made very welcome. Home-made aperitifs were followed by slices of saucisson made by Great Grandma, and crêpes filled with ham and mushroom in bechamel sauce. M. Albert then left the table to help cook and then flamber the tournedos. Great sizzling flames leapt from the grill and the children shouted with glee. We drank a simple wine – there was no Vieux Cahors – but we felt honoured to be included in such a family gathering. We talked about our plans to divide our chai and make half of it into a family bedroom, and the possibilities of moving our cave, and making an adjoining shower room.

‘C’est pas difficile,’ encouraged M. Albert. ‘A l’année prochaine,’ we toasted, and to our hopes that we too would have a grandchild, when we next saw them.

It was time to begin closing the house. It always took several days and this year there was the pool to attend to. We had cleared the terraces. The guest bedrooms were already full of plastic tables and chairs and umbrella stands. We made a last trip to M. Bourrière for advice on overwintering the pool. It was fairly simple and consisted of draining the pump and filter, and adding extra chlorine and an anti-freeze and anti-algae product. We bought a winter cover of very heavy-duty plastic. It had slots around the edge into which we pulled sausage-shaped tubes, which we then filled with water. They became so heavy there seemed little risk of even the most fearsome wind being able to lift the cover.

I had one more visit to make before we left for England. Anaïs, so much a part of the spirit of my house, lies buried with her son in the churchyard, high on the top of the hill. I was relieved to see that the houseleeks that I had planted on her grave the year before had not only survived the drought, but had begun to multiply. I planted a few more, tidied the weeds, and stood for a moment looking at the superb view. It is a place of great peace. On either side of her are imposing family tombs, highly decorated. Her simple grave with its covering of the fat, green rosettes of semper vivum is, in my opinion, the most beautiful.

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