It happened like this … an English family move to France, part 16. Happy days.
The top floor at Les Cypres became almost like the local youth club. I have always liked children. Children of any age, including teenagers, though in my teaching days there were plenty of moments I didn’t like them at all. William had zillions of friends, some from his school and some from the village. They poured in our front door, perhaps ten or fifteen of them at a time, and made their way up the two staircases to the top floor where all three children’s bedrooms were, plus a large living area/play room, two shower rooms with WCs and a spare room. The kids that came from the village must have been awe-struck at first, though it didn’t occur to me at the time. The kids from the school were rather more accustomed to large houses.
Rules about kids and cigarettes
I had to lay down a few strict rules about alcohol, cigarettes and noise. William taught them all to drink tea the English way and at some stage in the evening, as Bruce and I sat infront of the TV, I would be aware of some clattering going on in the kitchen while one kid or another made fifteen mugs of English tea. And then, an hour or so later more clattering as the empty mugs were brought down again and stashed in the dishwasher.
We kept out of the way, but if one of the kids spotted me he or she would say a polite “bonsoir Madame“, perhaps even come and shake my hand or give me a bisou. If we went out for the evening I supplied several packets of pasta and jars of pasta sauce, and all these teenagers would crowd in to the kitchen and eat. It was almost always cleared up. Well, their version of clearing up, which was OK by me.
The kitchen. There are a lot more copper pots hanging up now, and we have re-painted and changed the curtains since, but this is more-or-less how it is today. See part 12 for how it looked when we bought the property. We kept an ye olde worlde style to the room, with simple timber units and old dressers. Although one can juxtapose old with new, as indeed we have done in the house we now live in, this property would not have leant itself to it.
In the hall we had an electric bell for calling the children to come downstairs when required. One ring was for Pippa, two for William, three for Jake and a long continuous one for all of them. Actually, my book “A Call from France” was originally named “The Calling Bell” for just that reason. I cannot abide parents who scream up the stairs at their children, though in this huge house that would anyway have been pointless, especially if the kids had music on.
Our lives straightened out
As our lives straightened out, we were able to finance a few staff to help around the property. I had a cleaning lady called Francoise for years and years. She was a small, wiry woman with extremely short hair (very typical of French women in this area) She was a sex-maniac well in to her seventies, and would wear the most kinky underwear imaginable, all of which she would show me, whether in a bag or on her body. She was not a good cleaner, but she was punctual and relatively honest, and very willing. She could be very funny and we often laughed together. She got older and older and more and more daft, and finally I had to let her go. She had a kind of mental breakdown at the end and had to go to a phsyciatric hospital. I went to visit her several times and then I sent Christmas cards (even though the French send New Year cards rather than Christmas) and post cards for a long time, but never heard from her again.
Our gardener, Vanina, still with us today. I had gone in to the Town Hall in the village and asked the woman there if she knew of a man for the grounds – general small DIY, gardening etc – which she didn’t. As I left, this young woman, then about 26, caught up with me and asked “does it have to be a man?” I have since often joked that she is our best man here.
We also had Michel (featured in Part 7) and this chap, Albert. He was divorced with two children, a nice, gentle man, hard working, strong despite being no bigger than a tadpole, a bit too fond of the bottle. He worked for us for about two years I suppose till he got a position in Paris where the money was better and he could better provide for his kids. I helped him with his Court case for custody of his children who were aged about 6 and 9 I think. His ex-wife was an alcoholic and, poor thing, she killed herself before the case went to Court.
Albert sitting at our kitchen table. The French do not do cups of tea or coffee the way we do. If you offer a workman a cup of tea or coffee in France they will answer “… si vous voulez …” (if you wish). But all our workers took to our British ways and very soon expected tea and coffee breaks – which was fine. When everybody was at work on our own house, we all used to sit around that long table at lunch time, me and Bruce and four or five men, and I’d dish up soup from a big tureen and the men would hand the baguettes around. In the winter there was a fire blazing. They were comfortable, encouraging times.
I was far happier. Life took on a steadiness. We had plenty of work, the children were well, we had a few friends. We were not rich, but we were not poor. We lived comfortably, could afford holidays, and I enjoyed the freedom of having neither boss nor clients to pander to. The tenants kept me busy enough, as did the house and the children. Bruce always had plenty of work but no longer had to work on Saturdays just to keep us alive and, although we frequently put up with, or dealt with, complicated and stressful situations, we were street-wise in the French system and knew how to deal with things.
Where most people spend any money they may have on new kitchens or bathrooms, we spent ours on trips abroad. We had both been born and bred on the move, so to speak, and to this day I would by far prefer a trip to Burma or Peru than any amount of smart kitchen! This photo was at the Grand Canyon.
It’s interesting how one changes. What only a few years earlier would have sent me in to a frenzy of irritation or worry, was now water-off-a-duck’s-back. With the tenants I saw every kind of scenario possible, from flood of tears to wild temper, from drunken rantings to abject terror. I was able to leave the tenants behind not just physically, when I drove away, but mentally too, so that their troubles didn’t weigh on me and the troubles they caused me weighed even less. I wished them well, of course, but I did not take my work home as it were. Crucial if you do not wish to go mad.
Troubles and worries vary enormously according to what you are accustomed to. Stress is relative. What is a problem for one person is not so for another. One thing I learnt, and it is something I have taught my children, is that whatever the problem is, this time next year the chances are you won’t even remember it. We had been through a lot of stressy scenarios and, although of course we didn’t want any more, we were better equipped to handle any that came our way. From time to time I want to exclaim to a friend “is that supposed to be a problem ?!!” … but I don’t. Because for them it is a problem, sometimes a real one, but I have already been there and done that …
Social workers and social cases.
I got to know the local social workers (who, oddly enough always had some kind of a defensive attitude towards me, as though they needed to stick up for the tenant when there was in fact no need to) and made my way in and out of the social system, helping people apply for the various aids available to them (as is the case all over Europe, even now, so many were barely literate), even making phone calls for them and setting up meetings.
Sometimes tenants moved out after a short time, others stayed for years. One old gent died there in his flat and it was only when I noticed a bad smell that the poor old thing was found – I called les pompiers in and they had the gruesome job of dealing with it. The smell lingered for weeks and the son, a man living in the north of France, caused me a lot of problems because he thought he could get a “free” flat somehow by trying to move in when my back was turned.
Another case was a very young couple whose baby died. Both were extremely slow-witted (that is probably not the politically correct way of saying it? I mean no offence! But if you think about it, it only means that their wit was slow – which it was – even though they were actually nice people) and under “tutelle” which is a very good system in France where a knowledgeable and competent person is put in charge of the slow-witted one, and the latter knows to do nothing without a go-ahead from the other. It works well. But this young couple didn’t have the sense to contact anybody when the baby appeared to sleep all the time; it didn’t occur to either of them there was something the matter. At the inquest (which I attended in solidarity for the couple) the woman even exclaimed quite crossly that she was hardly going to wake the baby if he was asleep. They had three more children in quick succession, and a nigh-on permanent social worker with them. It is very sad – probably good-hearted people but so lacking in sense that all they could perform were basic animal functions. Does that sound mean ? I am not being mean, just telling it how it is.
My days were spent viewing potential new properties, seeing the tenants about one thing or another, raising my children, running our home. I did the book-keeping for the business and paid Bruce’s men on Fridays. Money was a constant juggling act. Sometimes we were left, after paying the men, with just a fiver for ourselves. Yet we always pulled through, paid for things, never borrowed.
Our social life
We had people over to dinner at odd intervals, and from time to time we were invited back. We went away a lot. At every opportunity we loaded the caravan and set off, frequently within France, but usually over the border in to Andorra or Spain. We went to England at least once a year and looked up our friends and sat in cosy Sussex pubs with them … the homesickness that had never really left me surfaced, then died away again, only to re-surface later, up and down, back and forth …
Having said that, if somebody asks me where I am from I usually reply that I was born in South Africa and that I have lived all over the place. That is odd, because I was homesick for England, for Sussex, for my old friends – things that bore no relation to my years in Africa. Perhaps that is precisely why: I did not really know where I was from and hankered after a base that I thought I had found in Sussex, and that had now gone.
My father on the beach at Marennes, preparing for an oil sketch, George at his side. I cannot say that my father had any specific talent for painting, but he produced lots of pleasant little oil-on-board pictures, harmless and quiet representations of what he saw. Hey, he was a doctor, not an artist. I loved what he drew.
The children tested us with lots of teenage trauma problems. Family came out to stay and went away again. My father came frequently because my mother was doing the St Jacques de la Compostella walk with a friend. Those were precious times with my old daddy, a doctor, but keen on drawing and painting. Just this morning somebody asked me at what stage I started writing and drawing, and it was around then, sitting on the beach with my father, that I picked up a biro again – after years and years of not drawing – and started to scribble little sketches.
I sigh at people who say “I haven’t got time for …” because we all have time for whatever we really want to do. Say you don’t want to alott time to this or to that, say you do not wish to fit such-and-such in to your schedule, but don’t say you haven’t got time. I had not fitted drawing in to my very hectic life; it had been an unimportant aspect of the things I liked to do or not do. But once I started scribbling again I found I really enjoyed it, and I produced lots of little water-colour pictures to go with stories I had told the children when they were little – bunnies and birdies and chickies – that sort of thing. I also did a large collection of sketches on the islands in the summer months – simple water-colours of hollyhocks climbing the old stone walls of island buildings, blue skies, hazy sunny days. Quite often the owner of whatever I was sketching would ask to keep it. The rest were lost in a storm. A great deal of stuff was lost in a storm.
This was 1999. On 28th December 1999 we were in England celebrating Christmas and New Year.
By midnight we had lost almost everything we owned.
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