Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Nine

On the fifth of January my first grandchild, Thomas Joseph, was born. He was two weeks early, surprising us all – and very beautiful. My sister, an experienced grandmother, rang with salutary advice. ‘Remember, he’s not yours!’ she said. The importance of this new life, and the love and security with which he was surrounded, contrasted horribly with the nightly television images. Distraught women and babies were suffering, on both sides, in the obscenity of the Gulf War. I could not bear to listen to the endless male chorusing of missile deployment, nor watch the grey-faced men in suits file in and out of conference chambers. I am not exactly a rabid feminist, but I became increasingly angry.

As if to soothe the insupportable, London was suddenly buried under a duvet of snow. The twigs in the garden were candy-flossed and still it fell, relentlessly, softening every urban angle. Concerts were cancelled and traffic noises were miraculously hushed, until the inevitable thaw turned the roads once again into black, tyre-gripping filth.

In early spring the advance copies of A House in the Sunflowers came thudding into the porch. I sat up in bed and read it from cover to cover and I couldn’t wait to get back to France. We flew from Gatwick to Toulouse and then by a fluke – the train was late – caught an instant connection and managed to do the whole journey in three and a half hours. Although it was early April the weather was glorious, reaching eighty degrees by midday. Raymond came to meet us at our little station. Everyone was well, especially Grandpa who stomped in triumphantly from the fields with a kilo of mousserons, a tiny wild mushroom that grows in a ring. Grandma too seemed in fine form and a summer diamond wedding more and more likely. But there were other celebrations in the air.

‘Come and look,’ said a smiling Claudette. She was preparing a cradle. It was the very same one that she had slept in as a baby and had used for both Philippe and Véronique. She was re-covering it with new fabric for her first grandchild who would be born in a few weeks. But that was not all. Véronique, who in those early days when we had first begun work on our derelict house had been a plump little ten-year-old, was to be married at the end of August. This was going to be a very full summer.

The next day we had hardly got the plastic covers off all the furniture before Raymond rang up. ‘Bonjour.’


‘Ça va?’

‘Oui – ça va. Il y a quelque chose?’

There was a pause. ‘C’est-à-dire…’ Raymond always begins this way when he wants a hand with something. But in fact we were more than ready to go down to the farm the following day to help with the bottling of two hundred and fifty litres of wine. The best quality red from the local Cave des Sept Monts, it had been put into the famous old oak barrel with the taste of Vieux Cahors four years earlier; each year since then it had been taken out, the barrel washed, and the wine replaced after a careful tasting.

We arrived the next morning to find the scene of activity, not as we had expected in the long, narrow wine-scented cave which runs underneath the full length of the farmhouse, but outside in front of the old barn. The lemon tree pushed out to enjoy the sun was ablaze with fruit. In front of the tree, eleven large dustbins stood in a very straight line. A couple of dozen crates were lined opposite them. In between was a row of chairs. The reason for the somewhat formal organisation was soon apparent as Jean-Michel, the son-in-law to be, strode round the corner wearing a large plastic apron and carrying a selection of long handled bottle brushes.

‘Bonjour tout le monde,’ he grinned. We had already noticed that there is nothing he enjoys more than setting up a new system. We wondered idly how this would go down with Grandma whose answer to many of my queries in the past was always ‘c’est notre système,’ but she seemed to be content.

The bins were full of dusty bottles in soak. ‘I’m afraid we just haven’t got round to washing them yet,’ laughed Claudette. They had to be rinsed inside and out, scrubbed, and then filled with a sterilising liquid, before being upturned and left to dry. With more than three hundred and fifty bottles to do it took all morning. After lunch we went to taste the wine. Was it, after all, worth bottling? We agreed that it was even better than the last lot. The next day we spent the morning crouched in the cave in our primitive assembly line. Not for Jean-Michel, Grandma’s old system of lining the bottles up on unsteady planks on the beaten earth floor to be corked. ‘Mais non! Mais non! We’ll put them straight into the crates,’ he announced. ‘It will save hours!’ He was absolutely right. It was my job to fill each bottle from the great barrel. The others worked so fast that I didn’t bother to turn off the tap between each bottle. I found my own ‘système’ to change hands and niftily place each succeeding bottle under the tap only spilling, I thought, the occasional drop. But when I took off my socks that night there was an overpowering smell of red wine.

We left our share of the bottles in Raymond’s cave because we were in the process of deciding to change the location of our own. When we had first begun our modest collection of wine, supervised and encouraged by Raymond, we had used one of the outside former pigsties as he had suggested. It faced north, and in it we had reassembled every old wine rack that we could find and fixed them to the uneven walls. It had served us well. But now we had plans to make our chai into a family bedroom and the wine store, being next door, would make a very convenient shower room.

During the winter we had drawn many plans. A chai is a small barn attached to the house, usually north-facing as it replaces a cave underground. It is left earth-floored and it is used for storing the wine, and anything else which needs to be kept as cool as possible. The highest wall in our chai adjoining the house is some twelve feet tall and reaches up into the attic. The roof then slopes on down dramatically to meet the outside wall which is only just over five feet high.

When we first saw Bel-Air on that hazy, hot day in the summer of 1976, it was along the length of this low wall that the original wine barrels, by then sadly rotted, had rested. Eight massive barriques, they were propped up on heavy, rough timbers. The chai at that time had been stuffed with cobwebbed museum pieces of farming equipment. During our first summers we were far too busy making the interior of the long derelict house habitable, to bother with the chai. When we did eventually begin to work on it we had our one and only real disaster. As we had carted out primitive winnowing machines, rakes, grinders, bed warmers and weighing machines and stored them in Raymond’s barn, we had realised what a lovely space we now had. It was about seven metres by seven, the floor was beaten earth and the walls were a metre thick, and of rough, unplastered, beautiful stone, except for the high wall which had once been very crudely rendered with earth. The reason for this was, we guessed, that there were several rather large cracks in it. We decided that it might be a good idea to have just this wall cemented, at the same time as he did the floor.

Our friend, M. René, the elderly maçon who had already done a great deal of good work for us at very reasonable prices, wrote on a board on the high wall CREPIS CE MUR and we left that summer confident that this would be done. It took me several years to get over the trauma of opening the door of the chai on our next trip, to find all the beautiful stones covered with cement, and the high wall untouched, the board still on it. There was no possible way of changing it. It has occurred to me, over the years, to wonder whether in those intervening months, something, perhaps a broom, had fallen sideways over the written instructions, and it had looked like PAS CE MUR. I’ll never know.

M. René had retired. We had found someone else to eventually ‘crépis ce mur’ and the chai had now become a general junk room. With all that space, it was alarming how much rubbish accumulated. If we divided it in half, we now reasoned, we could still have an adequate store room, as well as our proposed family bedroom. We already had three bedrooms. This would make a fourth and we have never used the attic for accommodation. Bel-Air looks small from the outside but it is rather like the Tardis – deceptively large inside.

The sunshine continued. We arranged a rendezvous to introduce our gentle giant M. Duparcq to M. Albert. We decided that, rather than have two rooms with ceiling heights varying from twelve to five feet, we would divide the chai from east to west and use the lower end for the bedroom. The high wall would be more use for storage and, at the far end, M. Duparcq would build a separate, all important cave for our wine. We ran down our stock with pleasurable abandon, and carefully removed our remaining, dusty bottles from the ancient pigsty, storing them temporarily in our dark corridor.

While we were planning our new room, Claudette, as well as preparing for the new baby, had already begun to make a garland for the wedding still some four months ahead. It was to be a chandelier of paper roses, and was taking shape, suspended from a metal arm on a tall wooden stand in the inner room at the farm.

‘Is the stand especially made for that?’ I asked, imagining it to be a family heirloom.

‘Oui – mais c’est Jean-Michel qui l’a fait,’ said Claudette with obvious pleasure. In the coming years we found there were few things that Jean-Michel could not do, and his boundless self-confidence was seldom misplaced.

We worked in the garden every day. The grass we had sown made a green haze round the pool terrace. The laurels had all survived, and grown, and the pampas grasses were putting out new green fronds. We planted lavender and rosemary bushes. My bottlebrush shrub still looked as though it had not made up its mind, but the lagerstroemia that Ruth Thomas had given me, and that I had planted in a south-facing bed protected by a pine tree, was covered in bright green buds.

We were invited to the farm for Sunday lunch. Grandpa and Jean-Michel had been up early to fish in the lake by the château, and had returned triumphant with enough trout for everyone. We had the first and only meatless lunch we’ve ever eaten with the family. Soup was followed by a giant leek tart, and then the trout rolled in almonds, a salad and, finally, a flan, a stiff cream with caramel on top. A meal without meat was not to Raymond’s taste but I had the impression that Claudette was eager to get back to her paper roses.

The brilliant spring sunshine had advanced all the crops but, alas, the warmth did not last. An icy wind blew in from the north. It shrieked through the keyhole and, once again, we had to hang the blanket inside the front door. Raymond looked increasingly worried as the temperature dropped. There was no cloud cover at night and the plums, already set, were vulnerable. Each night the thermometer fell a little lower, until the dreaded minus six degrees was reached. The morning before we left, I understood why they use the word grillé for severe frost damage. The tender, light green buds on my lagerstroemia were now blackened and shrivelled, but more serious was the damage in the orchards and vineyards. Raymond dashed away the tears when we went down to commiserate. Some of the plums and vines would recover but, with the expenses of a wedding in the offing, it was not the moment for such a disaster. Grandma crept quietly into the kitchen. She shook her head.

‘Ah oui,’ she said. ‘Quel drôle de métier.’ It’s an odd way of making a living.

Back in London there had been no frost. My garden was a riot of spring flowers. The book came out and I began the usual round of promotional radio interviews. It was a somewhat déjà vu situation, Peter Mayle’s second book having come out two weeks previously, but I was both surprised and pleased to receive many letters from people who seemed to prefer mine. I also got a good notice in The Observer.

Claudette rang to say that she too, was now a grandmother. A son, Clément, had been born to Corinne and Philippe. The next week she rang again to ask me if, in the summer, I would sing an Ave Maria at the wedding. I was happy to do so but wondered who would play for me. I found a lesser-known setting by Franz Abt that I had learned many years before, and which had a fairly simple accompaniment, and I started to polish it up.

Still in London, scouring the junk shops south of the river, we were collecting together odd bits of furniture which might eventually fit into the new room, and planning a route, when Mike went down with a viral infection of the ear called labarynthitis. The symptoms were most unpleasant; unless he was horizontal, it was as though he was continuously sea sick. Our efficient GP soon had the nausea under control, but the virus left him feeling very debilitated. I rushed up to SNCF in Piccadilly and was agreeably surprised to get a last minute booking to put the car on the train. So once again we left London and the next day were on the road from Brive at dawn and looking forward to a summer full of promise.

As we drove up the track to Bel-Air, Radio Monte Carlo was blasting out of our new family bedroom. M. Duparcq bent his head as he came out to greet us after, mercifully, switching it off. That apart, there were no disasters this time. Our chai was neatly divided. In the bedroom there was a new window space looking north up the meadow to the wood. A doorway had been cut leading out to the shower room to be, and M. Albert had already done the necessary plumbing, ready for us to choose a basin, shower and bidet. At the far end of the storage section was our new, purpose-built, wine store. Cool and dark, it only awaited racks and bottles.

M. Duparcq was busy finishing the bedroom ceiling. As it was directly under the roof tiles he had insulated it with glass fibre between the beams. Because of the lack of height at the lowest end, we had rejected an all-over false ceiling, and asked him instead if he could fill in between the curved and primitive beams with thin strips of tongued and grooved. This he had done and, although it looked handsome, it had clearly been a long and tedious job. But M. Duparcq is nothing if not stoical and, we were, of course, paying him by the hour.

It is always exciting to see a space transformed. I was already furnishing it in my mind’s eye. The only object from the past still in the new bedroom was a tall, heavy but rickety cupboard which had always been there in one corner or another. It was black with age and dirt but it would never quite fall to pieces. When Mike suggested, on numerous occasions, that we might give it a helping hand, especially when he was dragging it into yet another position, I always insisted that one of these days I would strip it.

‘Huh,’ he would scoff, as we propped the corner up on a couple of bricks and leaned it at a crazy angle against the wall. But as far as I was concerned, it had always been in the chai, it had belonged to Anaïs, and I was keeping it.

One year we arrived to find that a feral cat had had four kittens in the bottom of it, and I surprised the skinny mother carrying in a baby rabbit. I pulled a face, imagining that I would eventually have to clear up the remains, but the kittens left nothing, not even a scrap of fur. They gradually got used to us, and although the mother cat would never come near, the kittens would approach for food, hissing and spitting all the while. I only managed to touch them when they had their heads in the bowl, and their tiny spines would quiver with fright. After three months they were healthy and strong and able to fend for themselves. There are always cats around and they do help to keep down the mice.

I took another look at the cupboard. It was very old but perhaps, with a bit of repairing, it might make a sort of wardrobe…in any case I didn’t think I could persuade my husband to move it yet again. It looked as though cupboard stripping, as well as Ave Marias, might be on my agenda for this summer. We left M. Duparcq and walked under the porch and into the house. There was the usual jug of flowers on the table, two jars of jam, and a bowl of eggs. Through the living room and into our bedroom, we pushed open the door to the south-facing rough terrace that I made so many years ago. It was covered in weeds as high as my waist. Startled lizards skidded off the stones. Insects buzzed in the heat. Shading our eyes we looked across the big field, le grand champ as Raymond always called it. It was a solid green, with thick stems and huge heart-shaped leaves and, here and there, flashes of a golden yellow that announced the beginning of the most spectacular crop of all – the sunflowers.

The grass on our lawns was three feet high and there were poppies round the pool and lace heads of cow parsley. The clematis, a Jackmanii, scrambled its purple stars to the roof. A rather weedy tree mallow had blossomed into a triumphant mass of pink. The small, bright green laurels had doubled in size and, behind them, a few roots of a yellow daisy that I had hurriedly heeled in before leaving the previous summer, had spread along like a bright golden-haired chorus line. The sun shone, the air was sweet, and it was very good to be home.

We unpacked the car, no kitchens this year, but plants for the garden, a tub of flat white paint for the new walls, and a travelling cot for Thomas Joseph. We hung up our clothes and, as always, I found garments in the wardrobe that I had quite forgotten I had. We began to carry out the garden furniture but then sat on it and simply admired the view. M. Duparcq finished for the day, bade us ‘Bonsoir’ and bumped off down the track in his van. We dragged ourselves indoors, made the bed, the linen still smelling of the lavender I had put in the trunk last summer, and went down to the farm for supper, as we always do on our first night of the holiday.

The next day I saw Grandma as she walked slowly up through the fields. She quietly turned the corner by the pond and examined the sunflowers, as she passed along the track, stick in hand. She had come to inspect the garden. We did the tour together. She remembers everything that she planted for me in the early years, the climbing rose, the peony which I hardly ever see in bloom, and the tiny pine tree that she uprooted in the wood and brought down to us, now eight feet tall. We sat talking for a while about the coming diamond wedding celebrations.

‘Eh oui, c’est du travail,’ she said. It’s a lot of work. ‘Mais, pour soixante ans…,’ she smiled almost disbelievingly. For sixty years – ‘qu’est ce-que vous voulez…’ And then she went off in a sort of dream. It was already very hot and, although she said she was quite capable of walking back again, when I announced my intention of going down to collect Biggles, who had been en pension at the farm during the winter, she gladly accepted a lift.

Once we had installed Biggles in his summer quarters outside the front door, and arranged my geraniums and other plants that Claudette had been overwintering around the top of the well, we were eager to get the cover off the pool and swim. We siphoned off a residue of water on the top of the winter cover, and then pulled out the stoppers on the heavy, water-filled, inner tubes. This was a job for bare feet, as we walked up and down on the tubes, trying to squeeze them flat. As the sun-warm water gushed out, there was much protesting from resident green tree frogs. They leapt in all directions when we began to pull the empty tubes out and roll them up.

As we turned back the cover, we stared in dismay. The pool was as green as the frogs. When we had left at the end of April, we had set the pump to filter the water for an hour, night and morning, as instructed. What had gone wrong? There had always been those who had warned us. ‘Swimming pools…’ they had said ominously. ‘Nothing but trouble!’ Were we about to prove them right?

We telephoned Claudine. ‘Oh là là!’ she said. ‘But it’s nothing to worry about. Leave the pump on all the time, add the shock treatment of chlorine and, in twenty-four hours, it will be perfect.’

We certainly hoped so. The family were arriving at the end of the week. We followed her instructions but, twenty-four hours later our pool was if anything, even greener. We rang again and, that afternoon, M. Bourrière’s engineers came. They lifted up the green plastic lid and peered into the hole which housed the pump and the filter and, frequently, a large grass snake which seemed to like the warm, dark interior. The pump was fine, they said.

‘Well just put fresh sand in the filter.’

They seemed very confident. They hauled an industrial vacuum cleaner out of their van, and ran the lead back into the house. But when they tried to suction out the old sand their faces fell. The fine sand through which the water is filtered had become a solid block. They looked at one another. They pushed back their caps and scratched their heads. They had a go at tapping it with a hammer, but it was set like concrete.

‘What could it be?’ we asked.

They shrugged, mystified. The only thing they were sure about was that they would have to take the whole thing away. As they loaded the soldified filter onto their van we wondered how long we were going to be without a pool, but they promised to come straight back with a replacement. We weren’t very pleased with the pool, but we certainly had no complaint about the service. An hour later back they came up the track. No sooner was the new filter in place than, to our great relief, the water began to turn paler and cloudy and, by morning we once again had a clear sparkling blue pool.

Later that day M. Bourrière phoned. He expressed his regrets, and asked us if we would take a sample of the water to Villeneuve for analysis and bring him the results. This we did, and learned the reason for our problem. The great drought of the previous year had necessitated the local water company extracting water from deeper and deeper underground. As a result, this water had contained more than the legal limit of chalk. Our house is not far as the crow flies or, presumably as the water pipes run, from the water tower. We were well aware that our old geyser had needed descaling every couple of years because of chalky water. The deep pumping of the previous summer had done the same for our filter in a few months. Fortunately most of the chalk had passed into the old filter and we have had no problems with the pool since then.

We spent the last few days before the family arrived in a whirlwind of house-cleaning, grass mowing and gardening. Raymond gallantly came up to help with his large cutter which he uses to clear the rows between the vines or the plum trees. It is very efficient, but I am constantly in danger of losing my toes, as I frantically guard some tender plant hidden in the grass edge. And of course once the grass is cut it still has to be raked and carted away. It was quite a relief to take a day off and drive to Toulouse to meet the plane and I was touched to hear my daughter-in-law say to her baby, as we drove home in the evening sunlight, ‘Now look out here, Thomas, and you will see your mother’s favourite view.’

Down on the farm, the tables were being laid for the diamond wedding celebration the following day. What had once been a primitive, open-sided barn next to the farmhouse had, over the years, been transformed into an outside dining room. The great diseased elms which had to be felled had been kept, seasoned, and used to remake the staircase which wound down from the attic. A smart false wooden ceiling covered the rough laths, the earth floor had been paved, and evidence of Claudette’s passion was everywhere. Plumbago cascaded from its pot, bougainvilleas vied with tall Chilean begonias, and there was every variety of geranium. I wasn’t sure about the wooden light-fittings which were another of Jean-Michel’s creations. He had fashioned them from old oxen yokes. Yet neither could I imagine modern fittings being suitable, and Claudette was clearly delighted with them.

It was a beautiful morning. Apart from the family there were twenty-five guests, many of them over seventy. Six-week-old Clément and six-month-old Thomas were introduced to everyone and behaved beautifully. Each guest had a heavy lined napkin, hand-embroidered with the grandparent’s initials, which Grandma had made so many years ago as part of her trousseau. Large as pillow cases, they only came out for very special occasions. We had brought the old couple a pair of soft cushions for a present but at the last minute, I had found a very happy photograph of them both, taken the previous year at Philippe’s wedding. I had it enlarged and stuck diamante all round the frame, and this seemed to delight Grandma. She stood it in a place of honour.

We began the meal with the most delicate consommé in which floated perles du Japon – a very romantic name for sago. Then Raymond’s eyes lit up as the great platter of foie gras entier was passed down the table. He served with it a delicious white wine from Alsace. Next came a mixed hors d’oeuvre of artichoke hearts stuffed with crab, hard boiled eggs and prawns. I watched Grandma. Normally she scurries about helping Claudette with the serving but today, wearing a silk dress, her hair carefully styled, she was very much the guest of honour and she clearly enjoyed it, eating twice as much as she usually does.

Not one, but two different civets followed; one the usual hare, the other beef, and my favourite wine – a Vieux Cahors – to drink with them. The pace of the meal was leisurely. We had the afternoon before us. Clément slept soundly and Thomas, after trying one or two mashed spoonfuls of various tastes, drank his milk and followed his example.

Grandpa reminisced with his old friend with whom he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for five years. As we helped to clear the table for the next course, the wives talked of hardships they had endured, as they tried to keep the work on the land going without their menfolk.

‘Ah oui,’ they nodded. ‘C’était dur.’ It was tough.

Claudette carried in a dish of slices of rôti de veau with the ubiquitous haricots verts, and Raymond proudly served a ’76 Pomerol which was greeted with much enthusiasm. Toasts were drunk to the old couple.

Grandma asked me to sing and I began with a song she taught me. ‘Le Temps des Cerises’ – Cherry Time. I don’t suppose Grandma knows or cares that it was written in 1866 by one Jean Baptiste Clément who, escaping from the defeat of the Commune, took refuge for a short while in London. He dedicated it to ‘la vaillante citoyenne Louise’, who drove an ambulance in riot-torn Paris. All Grandma knows is that it is a song of love and nostalgia with a haunting melody. I then sang the song they all know and which reminds me of her – ‘J’attendrai’. In all her sixty years of marriage the longest, I suspect, were with Claudette newly born, those five years that she spent waiting and wondering if Grandpa would ever come back from the prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.

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