An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
The previous owner of the house was a photographer of some talent. He could make the silkiest purse out of a lady pigs ear, of this I am certain. When we looked at his wonderful images on the numerous websites that carried Maison Carrée to her adoring public eager to stay for a few days and sample the delights of his culinary skill as well as the comfortable and welcoming interior she offered, we never once worried about wall coverings. Downstairs was pristine white and upstairs had some sort of nice neutrally wallpaper. When we arrived to view what turned out to be the Wreck of the Hesperus, one of the stand-out moments was the realisation of what that nice neutrally wallpaper actually was. Not wallpaper in fact. Not fabric. Nothing so outré for our Monsieur. Nay, nay and thrice I say nay … he’d gone a whole new road – a positive Route Nationale, a Motorway, an Interstate Highway. I can imagine the sprightly conversation he had with himself inside his head:
‘What shall I cover the upstairs walls with?’
‘How about floor, old chap ..?’
‘You genius! Floor! Of course – floor is the way forward for these walls. And shall we perchance wallpaper the floor?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Obviously not. That is an absurd notion’.
And so it was. Laminate clip together floor. But not just any laminate clip-together floor. Oh no! This was laminate clip-together bargain basement, below economy starter range floor. The floor that the salesman guides you too first before pointing out that absolutely anything at all that you choose from here will be better, even spending tuppence halfpenny more and thus securing himself an extra portion of fries on the commission he earns. That sort of laminate clip-together floor. And it had been slathered all over the walls. Look closely at the top picture …. do you see what I see?
Having done as bidden by the kind M. Terminateur so that his crew could busy themselves ridding our roof of those pesky vrillettes we occupied ourselves as best we could, whenever we could (remember it’s a four hour round trip from North West to South West tip of le Cantal on winding backroads descending and scaling deep gorges and negotiating tight épingles (épingles de cheveux being hairpins) and though I am presently living in the land of mahusive distances and ludicrously cheap fuel, I honestly think it’s a stretch for a daily commute that you aren’t getting paid for. I was polishing the staircase for entertainment one day when there was a thunderous crack followed by a thud, and a whisper later, a riotous crash. I dropped my bottle of special wood oil and rushed up the stairs (killing the chances of the oil drying to a gratifying sheen in the process) to find HB² looking frankly irritatingly smug. He had taken a crowbar and jemmied a generous sliver of the offending floor from the wall and underneath looked rather interesting.
He proceeded to slice his way through both the front bedrooms and the back one – the one with it’s cleverly placed shower delivering to a spontaneous auditorium at the back of the house for the ladies of the village, should he decide to give of his famed full frontal peep show once more. I’m considering selling tickets if we get desperate enough that we need extra funds. By lunchtime the walls were fully delaminated and revealing the secrets of their pre-veneered days. My nerves were in shreds because this stuff was razor sharp and entirely rigid. Two Brains clearly should have been wearing a helmet but instead favoured an interesting series of movements that echoed accurately St Vitus Dance to avoid being brained or scalped by the merest slither of a second. We had a car full of laminate to take to the lovely man at the déchètterie with the enviable view. After two p.m. Obviously. This is rural France and everything stops for lunch. For two hours. It took multiple trips in Franck our trusty unalluring but reasonably priced car and a deep and meaningful conversation to ascertain whether this vile material computes as wood. It doesn’t. It is to be viewed in the same way as a carnivore regards nut cutlets. It simply is not meat. Nor indeed wood.
Meanwhile back at the ranch The Brains was eulogising over what had been uncovered. Previously we had paid scant attention to the one unplastered wall on the stairwell merely having a cursory discussion over whether we should give it too a smooth finish. But in that deluge of lethal laminate everything changed. It was akin to the moment in Carl Sagan’s Contact when Jodie Foster sees the universe with fresh eyes from a beach somewhere out ‘there’ that she has landed on after being lunged through space at a squillion miles an hour. In the comedy shower-closet bedroom are exposed the same glorious planks, cut by someone with an eye for rigidly even lines that rivals my mother’s. By way of explanation – my mother is a wonderful letter writer but has always shunned the slip of lined paper popped under the page to guide the pen evenly approach and consequently, although she commences elegantly (even now in her mid-eighties) she rapidly starts to wander at an angle so that by the time she reaches the bottom of the page she is writing at a 45° slope. It’s a foible that no-one ever mentions, but all notice. These walls were clearly made by a kindred charpentiere. They are of tongue-in-groove construction, about 9″-10″ wide and slender. They slot together very well sporting the odd large flat headed nail to complete the perfectly rustic and rather naïve effect.
And still the excitement continued. The layout of the house, and we had assumed the original layout, was a small landing with doors at right angles to one another. One into a bedroom with a square double doorframe through to a further room and the other into Peeping Tom’s Joy – the room with the freestanding shower in front of the window. But taking the cladding off the walls had revealed a door from PTJ into the back bedroom. This poses new questions about how we lay out the upstairs. Our thought process is fluid and a teeny bit erratic so this revalation just adds a zesty new spritz to the operation.
On the other side of the wall were further, piquant delights – loose hessian overlaid with several layers of historic wallpaper. A couple of florals, a groovy grey linear embossed which immediately took me back to the dull horrors of my childhood and my favourite, a sort of squarial pattern each square containing a picture – a flowerhead here, a windmill there, there again a boat, and even the makings of a medieval town. I wonder about the person lying in bed looking at the pictures – I wonder if they had ever travelled from Marcolès and whether they dreamed of getting on that boat and searching for treasures in far-off lands. In fact we know that a very tall Russian lady lived in the house for decades last century – maybe she was put in a boat to cross the sea or maybe her journey escaping White Russia as a small child was overland. Either way it must have been arduous, gruelling and not a little frightening.
I am reminded of another house long ago and far away in England. The girls and I lived in the grounds of the, by then closed, only Jewish Public School in the country (US readers Public School obscurely means Private School in England). Carmel College. There was a house called ‘Wall House’ which was perfectly invisible except for a front door with a letter box. In it lived a very very grand Russian lady of advancing years who wore astonishing velvet and brocade ensembles which cascaded to her ankles and conjured up vivid reminders of an age so bygone that I never knew it. She invited me to take tea. I was seated on a glamorous and very upright silk upholstered chair. She called out in Russian and clapped her jewelled hands smartly whereupon and instantly in the corner of the room a shabby bundle of cloth shifted revealing a remarkably decrepit and faintly moth-eaten man. He bowed and moved into the kitchen from whence he returned after a pause during which she and I continued a rather formal and resolutely non-probing conversation, bearing a silver tray complete with very ornate fine porcelain teapot and guilded and delicately painted teacups with their dainty matching plates on which were slices of terrifically inebriated fruit cake. He served us sombrely and then went back to his corner, disappearing like the Psammead into his quicksand of sheets. I suppose he had been with her all his life. The world is full of surprises and some of them are quite uncomfortable.
Anyhow, there was a statuesque Russian lady for many years in Marcolès. Hold that thought. Particularly the height. Because the other curiosity hidden behind the disgusting veneer is a series of oval holes. You might remember there is one that casts down on the stairwell from the privy giving it an air of anything but privacy. But there are more. Some have been boarded over and some stuffed with newspaper. But why? They are reminiscent of those holes you stick your head through on an English Pier and have your photo taken as a pin-up girl in an eye popping bikini or a muscle-bound man in striped bathers. The odd thing is the height of them. If you wanted to stick your head through them you would have to be a VERY lanky lady indeed. I imagine they were crude internal portholes to let some light into the middle of the house but I rather like the image of a Frenchman on stilts, complete with compulsary moustache peering through various cut-out holes just for laughs.
PS: When I arrived back after taking the very last load of the offending clip-together laminate flooring to the dump (and we have kept a plank as a grim reminder of the way it was) the elderly couple opposite were arriving back from a toddle out. They meandered across the street and asked me how it was going. Oh, really good I regailed them. We’re progressing well with the clear out of all the dreadful things – can you imagine, he had cheap laminate flooring on the walls. Lunacy – he was clearly mad. They nodded in that slightly absent way that polite people have and took their leave. As they opened their front door, I swear I could see laminate flooring on …. the walls. Just another oh bugger moment and a further reminder to self to keep thy big mouth shut.
The bonus is entirely to indulge my mother and the child-me that she raised – she used to play Johnny Mathis to us on the gramaphone in the drawing room on rainy days amongst so many other 45s of Unicorns and Doctor Kildaire, Nellie the Elephant and Dusty Springfield and Ferry Cross the Mersey and Doris Day, as we puzzled our puzzles, stuck our fuzzy felt and honed the skills required for taking tea with grand ancient Russian ladies by making our own tea party for the teddy bears. Those halcyon days when I didn’t question her lack of ability to keep a straight line when writing her comments on my report cards or the milk order because she was just simply ‘My Mummy’ ….
If you enjoyed this you might like to catch up on previous installments by typing Coup de Coeur into the search box in the side bar. The more the merrier at this party – so much more fun that way.