The strapline to this blog is ‘a rootless writer takes root’. I have moved house a lot in my adult life, it is true. 25 times in 28 years. Not any sort of plan just circumstance conspiring. Another day. The story will reveal itself when it is ready. That’s how it works – no planning just a perculation that results in a story being ready for the telling.
And this story is prêt à porter … instantly packaged and ready to take off the shelf. In our search for our forever house, we have looked at many. And there are almost as many stories. But this one. This one refuses to wait.
The house, a Manor built in the early 19th century with a bit over a half hectare of land (not really enough for us but the house looked so pretty that we were enticed) is not far from here and enjoys the most stunning views across to the Monts du Cantal and the Massif de Sancy. It has a rudely large barn and a lovely orangery. It also has a pigonniere. Pigonniere (dove houses) are always described as ‘jolie’ here and I have no idea why. The house belongs to an elderly man (now in his 90s) and his daughter who lives abroad. This is normal under French law. When his wife died he will have inherited 2/3 and his daughter 1/3. If there were 2 children the house would be divided into 4, 3 into 5, 4 into 6 and so on – 2 parts for the surviving spouse and the children get 1 part each. It is a simple equation and in theory protects the living parent for the rest of their days ensuring they always have a home. This particular old fellow is in nursing care (we know not, and it is irrelevant, where) and the daughter wants to sell. All reasonable. And the house is lovely. Very, very tired but lovely. A huge main room, a panelled dining room and the oddest kitchen with a vaulted, but quite low, ceiling and no windows giving the air of cooking in a submarine. Despite finding various stuffed birds and animals stashed in a walk-in cupboard the size of a small bedroom, I was already planning the alterations to make it our home. Upstairs many bedrooms – small, as is the norm in these kinds of houses, and a variety of particularly eccentric bathrooms. This is France. Taking the many littles and turning them into fewer biggers and a bit of judicious plumbing – hey presto bongo – a very acceptable upstairs. Up again to a cavenous attic – big enough to accommodate a small commune. There lay a dead Coal Tit, its small body swollen as a precursor to dessiccation, wings outstretched and its tiny head held proudly stiff as though stoically resisting the inevitable. I have a life-long fear of dead birds – the result of Jane, our au pair telling me there was something magical waiting for me if I walked the length of a hosepipe which stretched from the drawing room windows round the entire house to the kitchen window, at the age of 4. I was always inquisitive and gullible. Still am. Anyhow, the something magical was actually a dead blackbird, his startled eye shining accusingly at me and his beak so yellow that I found it difficult to eat an egg yolk for several weeks to come lest I find it crunchily lurking there. But I did not let this poor departed bird put me off. We were really rather warm to the house.
We remained warm as we descended to the cellar through a tiny door, down treachorous steps to find what appeared to be The Bismarck skulking there. Closer examination revealed this rusted monster to be a boiler. How on earth they got it down there I do not know. The cellars are large, I grant you but the access would challenge a Hobbit. I can only deduce that it was a case of building the boat in the basement but it is clear that it will be far more difficult to remove. As one surely must. I should tell you that the cobwebs in this house are lustrous. The Bismarck has not sailed for some time.
Outside I wondered idly why the lawns had been ploughed to provide not one but 4 large potagers (vegetable plots) growing all manner of good things but when we walked into the palatial barn, the triple- decker hutches housing high rise bunnies began to give a clue. And the three sheep in their little field eyeing us with a mixture of fascination and fear. And the back yard with its pretty old stone dove-cot and its large population of hens, turkeys, ducks and guinea foul plus plentiful pretty, and no doubt, tasty pigeons. The wall of freezers gave another clue. A clue to a small-holding that seemed to be at odds with the lovely fountain, stone sculptures and other accoutrements of manorial life. It was like walking into a French version of ‘The Good Life’* – Tom and Barbara having annexed Margo and Jerry when their backs were turned. As we walked back towards the orangery, I noticed a car draw in and park next to the gate house (part of the purchase). A woman snuck out and dove deftly into the door of the cottage. This acted as a cue for the agent to casually tell us that the dependance was inhabited. We looked in the orangery and I gleefully imagined not just working in there but also the fact that my sculling boat would rack easily in such a large space. In passing, I asked the Two Brained one what the agent had said … I thought I had misheard. My French improves but his is far better than me after nearly 35 years living here part and full time. I hadn’t. The gate house is inhabited. And on further questioning, not by transient tennants.
The (I must say at this point, very nice and very professional) immobiier asked if we wanted to see the gate house. He couched his question with the clear intent of assuring us that we didn’t. We did. It’s a whole house not a bike shed and represents a rather significant part of the deal. We had naively imagined that we could produce a passive income from this little house as a periodic rental either for holidays or for locals, the rental market being quite buoyant in our area. And certainly that when family and friends came to stay that it would provide independent living quarters which can be a blessing for all concerned. We asked him who the people were. And he told us (rather too quickly and smoothly) that they were the retainers for the old man. Living free of charge in return for looking after the house and grounds. For the past 40 years. We entered their little home and everything changed. This little huddle of humanity – an elderly couple, their daughter and her child were terrified. They were silently pleading with us not just to like the house but mostly to like them. I have seldom felt so helpless – all of a sudden I am faced with a family whose future could depend on my kindness because I have the wherewithal to buy this place. They were clearly upset that their dogs were letting the side down by barking. I made a fuss of the animals and told them not to worry. That I love dogs. The Bean was barking from the car which reassured them that I did not speak with a forked tongue but rather that I really do love canines. Even if I utter with a curious foreign accent and knit my words together clumsily. I dutifully looked around this humble, humble place – a poky main room, a tiny snug, a bathroom with a leaking roof and upstairs three squished bedrooms, each conjoined. All tidied and polished for me to see. The old man showed me a mirror he had stuck to the wall in the bathroom to improve it – one of those frameless affairs with double sided tape on their back. It was oval. The old lady took pains to tell me that they look after the house very well. There is no heating in the house. Just a wood stove. It is simple to the point of being primitive and it is clear that they support themselves by selling a rabbit or a chicken here, some leeks and a pumpkin there. All under the wire – we had noted that the sheep were not ear-tagged as is compulsary in all EU countries, not just in France. But it was the fear in their eyes. The burning desire to make a good impression on us. Us? Who the hell are we? Unwitting people who might take their destiny in our hands. They have the knowledge that the house sale will almost certainly mean the end of their everything. Tick tock goes the clock. The agent was happy to tell us that we could get rid of them with six months notice. I thanked them for being so kind as to let me see their home. Their home. I told them it was lovely, I made more fuss of the dogs and I walked away barely able to see let alone speak. But speak we did. Briefly to the agent. And we left. Neither of us spoke, though, much on the way home. Neither of us spoke much over lunch, or supper. Later we went to bed and it turned out neither of us slept much either, if at all.
We turned over and over and over again with possibilities to make it work. Could we let them stay and let them have a bit of the land to keep producing an income? Not really – the land is not enough for us to do what we want (we being in the lofty position of being able to choose to do something we want to do) let alone sustaining a small family as well with no other income. And they would need all of it to provide a living. That is clearly demonstrated now. Could we find them somewhere else to live? Well probably, but it would be a flat in the town and they would have no income and they have been used to the life of small-holders. And where would we put our sheep – theirs are filling the little field – three is as many as that little patch would take. Could we keep them on as our retainers? Hardly – we are really not people who see ourselves as feudal lairds even assuming we could sustain them as well as ourselves on retirement income which in the cold light of day, we can’t. My brain became tireder and tireder as it tried to work a solution. I felt about as useful as the little blown body of the Tit in the attic. Simultaneously the might of the combined brains of my husband were doing the same and getting just as far. Between us we managed the square root of nothing at all. And all the while I kept seeing their frightened faces. I can still see them. Beyond anxiety. Backs against the wall, desperate in their naivety to please the potential buyer because surely then the status quo will be retained.
We will not be buying the house but someone will. Someone who will, in all likelyhood, exercise the right to kick them out. And the old man who started this whole sad story with his good intentions will wither away none the wiser. Forty years ago did he think of the possibiity that he would be an addled old man dependent on care that can’t be found in the idyll that he created as his maison secondaire? Of course not. It seemed like a really good idea to allow a young man and his wife to come and take care of everything in return for a house. Forty years later, he exists somewhere, tended to by nurses, never imagining that the pair that kept things tickety-boo in his Cantal retreat are facing hell at the end of their lives. Samuel Johnson is often misquoted as saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Misquote or not, in this case it fits. Horribly it fits.
On the whole I would rather have lived the life I have lived, as disrupted as it has been, than the life they lived in their innocent content, assuming it was forever whilst all the while the clock was tick, tick, ticking away to the inevitable moment when the bomb goes off and in their twilight, they are evicted because they have no human rights at all. I may have been rootless but at least I have had some control over where I floated. These people are about to have their roots ripped out of the ground and they have no more defence than a dandelion in a border of roses.
PS: The title is a shameless steal from Somerset Maugham and is chosen simply as a question of the words fitting my text rather than any similarity to the context of his great novel.
*For non-British readers, ‘The Good Life’ was called ‘Good Neighbors’ in the USA.