An occasionally regular series charting a seemingly endless search for the perfect maison familiale. You can catch up on previous installments by typing Vendre dit into the search box if you are so inclined.
I have to take a deep breath and cast my musty mind back more than three years for this part three. And there are, appropriately three parts as it turns out.
It was the beginning of Winter and we had flown from London for a fleeting visit to this place that had welded itself to our collective heart. We had much to do. We were to be interviewed by the Mayor of Champs sur Tarentaine to see if he would agree to marry us. He did. So we then booked lunch at the very nice restaurant just outside the village. It was a lovely lunch, followed by an in depth discussion of the arrangements for our Wedding Feast. To take place in the garden (under the pretty, rustic awnings if it was too cool or too sunny) and to consist of a wonderful array of food (mostly what Madame dictated since our English notions of Wedding Fayre where frightfully outré) with delicious wines aplenty and beautifully decorated tables. We sat and chatted with our very good friends and discussed the invitations which she insisted on designing for us and he explained the etiquette of the vin d’honneur mariage at the Mairie immediately following the ceremony. All was glowing rosily in our world. And fired up with our joie de vivre and the sure knowledge that we were entirely unassailable in our love-bubble we rang an immobilier in Aurillac and asked if we might see a house he had on his books. He was called Eric.
We arrived at Eric’s office and Eric was no-where to be seen. We took our seats and I glanced at my mobile. A hysterical note from a daughter indicated that I needed to send her money. I did this instantly and seemlessly on my iPhone and congratulated myself on my epic grasp of modern technology. Whilst cursing the downside of raising children on ones own which is that when they are in need there is only one point on their compass. We waited some more and eventually Eric surfaced. During the wait, his glossy assistant had gleaned that we wanted somewhere with a decent patch of land but that it would be a maison secondaire so needed to be reasonably practical until we collectively retired. She had punched this information emphatically into her computer and not for the first time in my life, I marvelled at how it can possibly be that some women are able to maintain a perfect manicure and type whilst I need never bother with polish unless chipped and distressed become nail haute couture. We christened Eric, Eric the Fish on account of the Monty Python sketch in which Michael Palin wants to buy a licence for his pet fish, Eric and the shop-keeper is also called Eric. He’s an halibut. Eric lives with a dog called Eric and a cat called Eric. And so it goes on. Anyway Eric the Fish bid us follow him out of town to view the house.
Now it should be noted that our friend Eric (not Eric the Fish) is a motor cycle cop. In fact he is known as Eric Motard. That means Eric the bike-cop. Eric had assessed the house we were going to see with a single sentence – ‘I know that place … I often have a speed trap almost outside it’. Eric is a hero. Later, at our wedding all my daughter’s will fall in love with him and announce he is a French Bruce Willis. Eric keeps tropical fish.
We sped out of town behind Eric the Fish. Two Brains was tangibly agitated behind the wheel, convinced that we were going to meet Eric Motard and his speed gun at any moment. Imagine the embarrassment. Our Gendarme friend Philippe (you may recall that all our friends are called Philippe. Except Eric) had the ultimate embarassment when he was stopped for speeding in his own village. Twice. At the time he was the station sergeant. On a particularly nasty bend we spied the house and beyond it a layby into which Eric the Fish shimmy-ed adroitly somehow avoiding a speeding truck bearing down the road in the other direction. We creeped and peeped, took a deep breath and our lives in our hands and turned across the road to a white-faced halt next to the immobilier. He waved nonchalantly at the house and said there is a garage underneath but it would be madness to park in it given that this is a route nationale and known for it’s accidents. He didn’t seem to think this fact might in any way put us off. We walked down the road, backs glued to the bank and staring death in the face. We dutifully entered the house which was clearly a maison secondaire for a family with teenaged or young adult children who took advantage of the skiing just up the road at le Lioran. The basement garage was full of snow boards and skis and it was all very sportif. The house itself was an interesting patchwork of purples, puces, violent ocres and magentas interspersed with the occasional and presumably strategic accent piece in lime green or scarlet. Not to my personal taste but châcun a son gout. It has to be said that the views out over the valley were beyond magnificent notwithstanding the road between house and view. But we explained to Eric le poisson that really we couldn’t live on such a fast highway, even if it was not our fixed abode. That we have five young adult children and the idea of letting them stay, go into town for a night out and negotiate the road in high spirits was unbearable and that as nice as the elevated garden was you would need to have your mountain goat Boy Scout or Girl Guide badge to get up and down those steps in the dark. He suggested we follow him back to his office to discuss. We should have sneaked off into the yonder the other way but being polite and English we did as bidden.
He said he had two houses that were just the ticket. No pictures of either because they were new on the market but we would be foolish to let the opportunity slip. We went and had lunch in the town. Aurillac is the prefecture or capitol of Cantal and very lovely …. small with only 28,000 population but beautifully formed and very artsy with strong bias to music and in particular, jazz . We chose a restaurant quite badly and managed to attract an extraordinarily surly waitress who told us the menu du jour was finished and then proceeded to serve it up to several tables who came in after us but what she did deign to serve us was very nice if twice the price. It happens.
Back at Chez le Fish promptly at 2:15 we set off and I could not begin to tell you where we went. It seemed to take an age but eventually we arrived in a tiny hamlet. We entered a small, rather dark house midst an explanation that it came with about a hectare of land on which the owner kept a couple of goats a cow and some poultry. And possibly a horse and donkey. How you can have any misunderstanding over the latter, I silently pondered as we walked straight into the main piece to be greeted nervously by a stooped very elderly man standing pointedly poking a weak and clearly freshly laid fire. ‘I did as you said’ he said to The Fish and to us ‘The fire makes the house much nicer. That’s what he told me’. The Fish (who it should be noted looked rather uncomfortable and had some sort of coughing siezure as this nugget was being imparted) had clearly told him that if he lit the fire all of a sudden the house would take on fresh and beguiling personality and we would be possessed of a passion to buy it. I’m surprised he hadn’t told the poor soul to bake a fresh loaf and grind some coffee beans as well. It was a sorry little place. Jaded and neglected like it’s sweet old owner. He told me he was a widower. His wife had died a little while ago and he had continued as best he could (I don’t know how old he was but I would guess either side of eighty) but now all he wanted to do was move to Toulouse where his son and daughter were. They were too busy to come and see him but if he could sell, he could move near them and then he would be happy. I walked quietly round the house and said his wife had pretty things. She did. Very few but they were pretty. He said he missed her still but it was time to move because he now struggled to cope and it was a long way for his daughter and son to come and see him. And they were busy. He told me this over and over as though by referencing them enough times he might magic them up. If we’d had the money we would have bought the house then and there and driven him to Toulouse and found him a place where he could be warm and cosy. Near to other elderly people and people that might deign to talk to him. I was not convinced his daughter and son would have time to spend time with him even if he was next door but maybe I surmise unjustly. I felt hollow when we left because I knew we could not and would not buy it and I wished I hadn’t put him to the trouble of lighting his fire fruitlessly. As I’m very afraid it will always be.
The Fish then escorted us to his other gem. The most bizarre house I had ever been inside though now I know it is not at all out of the ordinary. Being a beady eyed bird, I spotted instantly that this was a décès (deceased estate) the clue being in the assertively placed post-it notes in sundry lurid colours on all the furniture and fittings presumably being code for the various beneficiary’s spoils. The house was positively cavernous. It was reached by a path that a toddler could traverse in two steps. In other words it fronted directly onto the road – it was in a small and rather disconcertingly quiet village. It had a sort of brooding silence. We imagined that the garden which was about an acre must all be to the rear. It felt rather Kafkaesque inside. Arrow straight corridors with several doors either side all opening onto seemingly identical rooms. Square, wallpapered by a latterday lunatic and gloomy. Obscurely it had two kitchens one on either side of the corridor. Both completely kitted out identically to include twin past-their-sell-by and quite possibly extremely dangerous old cooker, huge chipped enamel sinks with rusting taps, ancient cupboards (not lovely antique cupboards you understand, more hoary unsalvagable cupboards) bow fronted vintage refrigerators each big enough to store a body and formica topped metal table and chairs. This mysterious arrangement was not explained and we were too polite to ask … We were not, however, too polite to ask to see the garden. ‘Certainly’ said The Fish. ‘Hop in your car and follow me’. ‘No. The garden. We just wanted to see the garden.’ ‘Yes – it’s about a kilometre down the road.’ This was our first experience of a phenomena which is commonplace in France … terrain non attenant where you have land but it doesn’t join your house. Sometimes it’s in several different locations but none of them ajoin, let alone surround, your house. I had visions of lovely leisurely lunches on a long table under the trees and wondered at the sheer logistics of planning such a meal in your two kitchens. In fairness, the reception rooms though sombre would wake up and smile with some care and there was a sweet little parlour that would make a cosy office and there was running water though it was unclear whether hot water was a consideration. But no cellar which is odd in such a once grandiose place. And to take coffee in the garden would require a thermos flask and to take a glass of wine would require a cool-bag. Or alternatively a footman in full livery, obviously, to push his trolley down the road and convince the invisible neighbours that the English really are all mad dogs.
PS: When we returned to the restaurant that was catering for our wedding party less than a month before our big day Madame had never seen us before in her life and had no record nor recollection of taking the booking AND unfortunately was now catering for a bit of a do – another do taking the entire restaurant and garden and couldn’t possibly fit us in. That she also lost the Mayor’s dinner booking for himself and several other frightfully important local dignitaries did nothing to salve the sore. But that is another story ….
By the way, the title is Aramis to Athos and d’Artagnan in Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ because this is a story of three and I have always rather agreed with him.
And another thing: When I am writing stories of houses for sale I think it a matter of decency not to feature photos of the actual places. Therefore, the pictures illustrating each story are just that – illustrative. All taken by me, of course. However, as it happens one of the buildings featured in Aurillac is for sale … it’s an ancient presbeterie and has a beautiful courtyard garden probably best suited to conversion as flats. In case you were interested in a bit of light property development in le Cantal ….