Coup de Cœur – Part Five: Perhaps he’d like to come inside
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
And so it came to pass that we had an almost cleaned out interior. One little thing kept bugging me, though. As hard as I tried, the floorboards in the grenier just refused to be clean. I swept them, mopped them, swept them some more and mopped them again and again but everytime I thought I had banished their dusty film so it came back. The thing is this. Sometimes even I can be a teeny bit unobservant. The me, who prides herself on having the most point perfect eye for detail can fail to see what is slapping me in the face with a leather glove and blinding me with with an eye-achingly bright light like a Gestapo Officer up close and far too personal. On the other hand it took The Myopic Brains moments to notice when he arrived on one of his famed flying visits from wherever on the planet he was saving stardust. ‘See those holes, darling? The holes in the charpente which you have so eloquently been likening to the ‘Bottled Spider’ image that Antony Sher conjured when playing Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. Those holes, my love – they are worm holes.’ This was an epic ‘oh bugger’ moment for us both. Up to that point we had been convinced that the house had no major issues and that it was simply a matter of stripping back and restoring and that the most taxing issue would be where to place the bathrooms.
Woodworm is a serious issue in any culture. I have yet to recover from my mother breaking the news to me at 23 that she had burned my doll’s house (a 1920s treasure that was home to my imagination during the decades of growing up and which I had assumed would house my dreams forever). It took me years to forgive her so perhaps those that are devotees of the idea of Karma are now looking sagely (and, perchance a little self-righteously) at me and quietly explaining that she, karma, is a bitch and will always eventually, and probably when you are least expecting it, bite you in the bum. In France the major issue is Capricorne or Longihorne as some will confusingly call it. Like turmites they will strip a house systematically and thoroughly and are impossible to get rid of. If you are infested with Capricornes there is no choice but to have all the woodwork replaced and even then, like all good terminators there is a good chance that they’ll be back. They are lethal. My husband is a Capricorn.
We called in to see the mayor. He pulled his phone from his pocket, twirled it idly in his fingers like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’, performed some sort of sleight of hand scroll of the screen with the finesse of a seasoned poker player and found us two numbers. Writing them extra carefully and clearly he looked at us with the heaviest and gravest of expressions and wished us heartfelt good luck and godspeed in our quest to get a verdict. His last words echoed in our agitated minds … ‘l hope for your sakes it is not capricorne for these would indeed be a severe catastrophe’.
Bug Man Number One was more local being only 30 km away rather than the 180 km trek that Bug Man Number Two would have to make and by good fortune he was able to rendez-vous at the house in two days time. We barely slept for those two days …. I convinced myself that if I had had the sense to recognise what the issue was a little earlier with my mop now propped in the corner eyeing me mornfully, all would have been well but since I was wearing the dunce hat and sitting on the naughty chair I had condemned the house and it would probably have to be burned like my dolls house. And the village would hate me because it is their emblem, their symbol. In fact any entente cordiale between Britain and France (tenuous at the best of times, let’s face it) would crumble and there would be friendly and then unfriendly fire. Probably a war. There was little doubt in my mind that I had brought about The Apocolypse. And it was all my fault. And The Bean. She’d been there all the time and she hadn’t done anything to help. If in doubt, blame the dog. So I did. But it didn’t help. My guilt was my straight jacket. I couldn’t eat nor sleep and consequently when we arrived for the meeting on a freezing cold February morning I had all the aesthetic appeal of mouldy baguette slowly decaying in a murky puddle. In truth distinctly less appeal than that. And a stomach that was growling and gurgling like a Grizzly Bear that has indulged in a barrel of rotten apples because although I was not hungry, it was.
The man in question let’s call him M. le Terminateur had the air of an unsuccessful travelling purveyor of quackery in the wildwest. Wire-rimmed spectacles, slightly stooped and with a long face that was, well … long. Slightly melancholy. And he carried a bag – bigger and baggier than a briefcase out of which he produced an archaic looking probe. He advanced up the two flights of stairs brandishing the prod before him, his expression the epitome of ideal had he been an undertaker – sombre, dignified, subdued. He spied the offending beam instantly and with no clues from Two Brains who was seemingly glued to his side, and poked it with aplomb. He then peered solomnly at the beam and turned to walk back downstairs. The twittering fool that was me almost fell backwards down the stairs in my haste to get out of his hallowed way. I managed to effect a perfect study of a grovelling buffoon as I silently implored him to give us good news. We gathered before him, we mottly three, The Bean, having grasped the severity of the situation, showed solidarity by prancing on her hind legs and adopting her most appealing expression. He delved again into the inky depths of his cavenous bag bringing out a piece of paper and a pencil. On it he wrote one word and then handed the pencil to my husband to write down our details which he already had but just to be certain, you understand, so that he could send us an estimate. It was only after he had left as stealthily as he had arrived (and after a total of less than 10 minutes in our house) that I dared to gibber at my husband to let me see the paper. The word written was Vrillette. I had no idea what it meant but I knew it didn’t spell Capricorne. I knew for now, my beloved is the only Capricorn of note in my life. And the weight of my guilt felt less tortuous. For now. I am a mother so I am, of course, hard-wired to guilt but nothing so extreme as the fear of having to torch the jewel of the village need trouble me for the moment.
Of course that was not the end of the story. When the estimate came through it was with an instruction that all the floor boards must be lifted leaving only a few to walk on. The men would come and inject the charpente and spray the poutres (beams) only when the space was prepared. We spent a total of 3 days working tirelessly together to get the rest of the do-it-yourself insulation out … I’d done my best but it was not good enough – the whole area had to be dust free. We wrenched up floor boards, saving what we could and ditching the worst and relaid them in a rather fetching patchwork but without nails which are themselves beautiful – long, crude, simple and mostly unsalvagable – to hold them. We brushed and we hoovered using the little lightweight upright vacuum cleaner that my mother had given me the year before. She is a little eccentric it must be said, and when I mentioned that I had left my wonderful hospital-quality, state of-the-art, all singing and frankly nifty dancing model with a friend in England and it felt a little churlish to ask for it back, she revealed that she had 4 hoovers. All brand new. None used because she also has a cleaning lady who has her own hoover. I chose a sweet little bagless number and drove back to France triumphant with her nestled in the boot of the car. This diminutive lightweight beauty has become one of my best friends. I feel very attached to her – she makes life so much more bearable not having to sweep all the time. A girl can only take so much Cinderella chimera after all. You will understand, therefore that my marriage nearly ended when it appeared that the brave little beast had died in action due to the sheer mass of dirt she was being expected to inhale. HB² had no comprehension that he had murdered my precious. Anthropomorphising household equipment is not in his remit. Fortunately both for him and for our marriage she had simply had a perfectly understandable hot flush but my grief did prompt him to go out and buy a cheap, cheerful and above all mighty macho and potent sucker-upper. My Little Engine That Could is back in the civilised confines of our appartment leaving Wild Bill to rule the wilds of Marcolès. And rule he did – spotless, dirtless and dustless in no time at all. We were ready for the coming of the bug-men.
We waited and waited. We waited some more. And then we waited. It is an often commented on fact that in France, if you aren’t actually breathing down the neck of the workman of choice they will repeatedly find other things to occupy them. These can be other money earning jobs or just propping up the bar and putting the commune to rights with their cronies depending on opportunity and how they are feeling that day. You do have to be prepared to get a little stern. Actually in our case, we have not experienced this tendency but it appeared that we were breaking our duck with this fellow. So we got stern (or to be accurate, HB² got stern and I supported him with dignity on the side-lines) and eventually the news came through that phase one was complete. I should explain that we leave a key with my heart-throb, M. le Maire so that our absence is not an issue if there is a need to access the house. Since vrillettes are all but invisible to the naked eye, I will just have to take M. le Terminateur’s good word that the operation had been a success. But we do now sport plastic tubes that look a little like rawl plugs all over the charpente. They are ugly and I dislike them and we will try and find a way to disguise them but I am not so churlish as to be ungrateful for the fact that they have saved the roof. That is good fortune indeed.
Whilst the coy little waiting game was being played out I continued to clear through the remaining cupboards. Nothing could have prepared me for finding a gun. I’m very scared of guns. I think that is a sensible approach. My good sense told me not to touch it – I became convinced that it was loaded and might simply go off at any moment. So there it stayed and I avoided going into the room it was in until The Brains returned some weeks later. He assured me that Wyatt Earp himself, Doc Holliday indeed and least of all Marshall Will Kane could do no damage with it because, darling, it is a toy. Which you will see from the photograph is obvious. I fear the delirium that our predecessor suffered from may be contagious.
PS: The title could only be stolen from Spike Milligan:
Today I saw a little worm
wriggling on his belly.
Perhaps he’d like to come inside
and see what’s on the telly
PPS: If you want to catch up on the previous instalments, simply type Coup de Coeur into the search box on the top of the right hand column and it will find them for you. Clever stuff so clearly not made by me!