The lowering late summer sun causes a shadow from the Tangerine House to seep across the small back garden. By the end of September, it will have reached the fence line and the garden will not see sunshine, other than a thin sliver in the morning and late evening, til next March. For now, the Verbena bonariensis, Gaura linheimeri and Persicaria flower in sun, with daily visits by hummingbird hawk moths. The Rudbeckia I brought with me from the Little House by the Big Wood flowers profusely although not as tall as usual – even they, robust and cheerful in heavy clay soil, need some help occasionally in the form of manure. I need to seek out the farmer again and practice my French.
I’m in the last throes of handing over a voluntary role to two women that I’ve done on my own for the last eighteen months. I’m glad I did it, focus-giving and new software-learning that it was, but it was taking up the equivalent of half a working week and for a voluntary role that largely consists of sitting in front of a laptop, enough’s enough. It has not gone unnoticed that blogging fell by the wayside as a result and much else seems to have been lain aside too, not least my weekly visit from the lovely lady who screams “I’m French, I’m French!”, purely by the way she dresses just so.
By the 7th September it will have been four years since I first pitched up in the Small Country and I have done much and undoubtedly changed somewhat. Joe Brown has commented on how my taste in cheese has developed from basic cheddar to all manner of cheese I eat, rind an’all which would not have happened before. Apparently, I also speak more with my hands than I used to, with the occasional request received to put at least one hand on the steering wheel when I’m driving. I have, with cheese a likely contender at least in part, increased in size. Other reasons for basic weight gain is lack of physical exercise; indeed, there have been periods of weeks when I haven’t picked up a garden tool, my nails have remained earth-free and pristine and much as I don’t mind being on my own, I dislike walking on my own in the middle of nowhere to get a bit of exercise and there is much nowhere to be had here.
I have, however, recently acquired a garden project. It’s across the border in the land of gummi handschuhe and polizei and owned by friends who, for one reason or another, have neglected their large garden which is now an overgrown tangle of brambles and seeded Hornbeams, some of which are taller than I. It is, essentially, a paid gardening job but I have made it clear that if I choose to turn up for more than three hours a week, this is my choice and therefore not chargeable, my reasons being I’ve missed having a veritable ongoing gardening task and, larger of belly and derriere I may be, but thinner of arms and untoned thighs I also am. “Trust me”, I wrote in an email, “you’d be doing me a favour by letting me loose in your garden for all sorts of reasons”. I miss my biceps and firm abs and I’m sure Joe Brown does too, purely because their presence indicates I’m regularly outside and doing physical work and am therefore happier. I think it’s fair to say that if I’m happy, Joe Brown usually is too.
Joe Brown’s health was rubbish for a fair while in the last eighteen months or so, requiring stints in hospital owing to alarming weight loss which startled me every time I saw him first thing in the morning but I’m glad to say, he’s much improved. The surgery he had on his back improved things too but he’s of the opinion this is more to do with the regular sessions of physio he had afterwards, the cost of which was almost negligible given it’s heavily subsidised by the health care system (living in one of the top three richest countries in the world has its benefits, trust me). His parents are ageing, (a ridiculous statement as, aren’t we all?), with Mrs Brown becoming alarmingly stick-thin in the last year and has now been given a terminal diagnosis. We hold our breaths and brace on that one but Joe Brown has just organised for a bouquet of flowers to be delivered to The Browns’ hotel room where they’re celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary for the weekend. She’s feeling better than she was as, six months ago, she wouldn’t have wanted to leave the house.
Chat Roux has grown into a healthy, robust cat which is something of a surprise given his runty start after being abandoned in a cardboard box outside the door of a dog refuge across the border. I’m sure half the village knows the orange cat, frequently to be seen hunting in the field and, of late, he seems to be The Only Cat in the Village due to house-moves, age and a weasel attack. There are, I know, other cats around but these are farm cats – shady creatures across the way who Chat Roux wisely avoids. We often cite him as a bit stupid but actually this is isn’t wholly fair – steering clear of shady cats aside, he’s certainly sharp enough to know within an hour or so when we’ve gone away rather than just out and will go and whinge at our neighbours who’ll have a key to let him in and fill his bowl.
By the 7th September, we’ll be theoretically half way through this stint in the Small Country and I’m acutely aware how fast the time is going and how much I have not done. “I don’t want to get in the car as we leave and feel I’ve wasted the opportunity of being here” I’ve said to Joe Brown on many occasions and I certainly feel that’s the case at the moment. I spent an evening having dinner with friends in the city a few weeks ago and realised it was the first time I’d been in the city of an eve. In four years. This is nothing short of pitiful and embarrassing. There is much to learn, see and do and I don’t think learning a software package and developing an appreciation for three year-old comté quite cuts it.
Via the voluntary organisation I am/was involved in, I’m putting together a stack of school supplies for Those Less Fortunate (richest country it may be but this carries the assumption that all parents are financially able to provide their children with all equipment for school, ranging from pens and pencils to paintbrushes, exercise and set books). This stack of unused and unopened ventures, nay, adventures, highlights the fact that it’s the start of the new school year even more so than usual and, as always, this brings an element of a new start. It’s four years on since I whispered “Are we here?” and, to a large degree, I have a clean slate for the new school year. Half the working week has been freed up, I have a new garden to find amongst the wilderness and even the study has been streamlined of overflowing shelves which makes me anxious (it just does). My French books are in a tidy line, new paper to conjugate verbs is in hand and I plan to work my way through the travel books we have of the Small Country and all three neighbouring countries and make a list of where I’d like to go, taking my new camera with me. All I need to do now is sharpen my pencils and polish my shoes.
Sometimes, a 5lb 3oz baby, conceived by accident, becomes a 5’9″ woman and turns 50.
The bread machine has become fussy about what flour it likes, seemingly, in order to avoid sad-looking deflated loaves, only a particular French brand will now do that I can no longer find in supermarkets in the Small Country. This necessitates another occasional trip across the border to stock up. Having done a local, fairly large supermarket shop yesterday, there was very little on the list aside from flour and vacuum bags. A kiss goodbye to a hundred Euros and any plans to spend the coming week on a ‘clean’, dairy-free eating regime having wandered past the cheese counter, we detoured, following the signs for an Italian shop.
This resulted in a packet of linguine that is possibly as long as I am tall and a late lunch at home of sliced tomatoes that yielded slightly when pressed, with equally soft, yielding puffy pillows of buffalo mozzarella followed by coffee and a biscotti or three.
A long, rather costly way round to realise that often, the simplest lunches really are the best.
The landscape changes somewhat if you head South across the border. Roads get longer, stretching out in to the distance, fields get larger with the earth likely being turned over by enormous machines in the early Autumn sun and occasionally you can come across stretches of sad sunflowers, heads bowed, their jobs done for the year. The sky looks huge.
The villages are not the same either, there is not the same tidiness to them as there is in the Small Country, with many houses looking somewhat tired and, in some cases completely dilapidated but clearly lived in. Hoes are leaned on, spanners dropped, brooms stop sweeping as an across-the-border car number plate is registered and met with a long, steady gaze as it passes. Even a small chat tigre will watch intently as you pass and leave the village. It could only be France.
The rural Lorraine region of France looks peaceful, sleepy on a Saturday afternoon Autumnal drive through it but if you look at the road signs it is apparent that there’ve been times when this was not so. Signs point ways to cimetières, both French and German, with hundreds, thousands of soldiers laid to rest amongst the gentle terrain and there are many whose names are not known. You can follow a sign which leads to a small memorial, surrounded by youngish trees which stand amongst strange lumps in the ground and you can look at old photos on boards which show you are standing where once stood the ‘Grande rue’ of a village. The strange lumps are the ruins of the houses, shops, church, the village détruit. There is more than one village détruit. War has left its mark here but the places to remember are tranquil, with a quiet dignity to them and it would have felt wrong to take any pictures.
If your eye is caught by a charming L’Epicerie next to a Cafe and you ask to stop so you can take a picture, you may have to wait patiently, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, as the door opens and a lady appears, gently holding the arm of an elder lady walking with a stick who is helped down the steps. You may be somewhat startled by the cheery “Bonjour” directed at you by the younger of the two and stumble slightly over your French as you try to say you’d just like to take a picture if that’s OK because it’s all rather charming. You may be surprised when she invites you in and shows you around, explaining that L’Epicerie and the Cafe is now one, offering bed and breakfast by her and her husband who’ve spent the last few months doing up the place. You may feel it would be an imposition to ask if you could take photos inside whilst cooing at the original woodwork, tiled floor, enormous fireplace, wooden bed frames and renovated bar where once the elder lady with the stick stood behind pouring beers and, surely, glasses of Rickard for the locals alongside her husband.
“She lives next door now” it is explained. “A widow for many years”.
You may later learn that this village was also détruit after the first world war but, unlike others, was rebuilt.
You will later be pleased that somebody else stepped in and took a couple of pictures whilst you cooed at bedrooms upstairs but was politely waiting outside as you thanked the lady for her kindness at the door. You may also be pleased that generally, somebody else’s pictures of that day were far better than yours and here for you to see.
This region of France is also known for its mirabelles, small plum-like fruits which ripen late July to early September. Golden yellow, they become slightly flecked with pink as they ripen and are often made into tarts, jams and brandy. Villages are, it seems, surrounded by mirabelle orchards which I suspect are privately-owned. Late summer will find what looks like whole families sitting amongst their trees sorting fruits before setting up stalls at village edges selling their wares whilst they can. The mirabelle season is short and what is not sold by the roadside will appear in supermarkets. A tip-off from my French teacher as to a particular place to buy them had me knocking on a door in a small village, watched over by a wizened lady stacking wood in to a trailer across the road. With no answer to my knock and no phone response to the number I’d been given, I found myself in the midst of a typical French conversation between neighbours which involved a Gallic shrug of “But I am French” when I asked if the wizened lady could slow down because I am English, shouting down a hallway by another, being barked at with machine-gun French as a phone conversation was relayed and finally, a motion to “Suivez-moi” in the car. This resulted in squelching my way between rows and rows of mirabelle trees in a huge orchard, their fruits already dropping on the grass and coming across a whole family shaking trees and sorting fruits before returning to the car with a bagful, supposedly of three kilos but was likely nearer eight. It cost 3 Euros. A further, impromptu trip a couple or so weeks later resulted in four kilos, carefully weighed by a dour lady who only smiled once as I helped her push up her garage door to fetch her scales as she pointed out “Vous êtes plus grande“.
The flavour of mirabelles is more subtle than plums but when eaten fresh has the same slightly perfumed taste that wanders up your nose. Leave four kilos in a bag in a warm kitchen overnight and the sweetness will hit you in the morning. Jam-making, like anything that involves lots of stirring, is hugely therapeutic, particularly when it’s been necessary to wash, halve and stone what seems like a million fruits. Left to macerate for a few hours in sugar, the heating, frothing and stirring can commence, surely the whole point of the exercise. Wondrously, the colour changes, turning amber and then darkening to orange.
I am not, in fact, a great jam-eater (batch 2 proved I’m not a great jam-maker either as I left it to go past its setting point and resulted in a too-hard, chewy jam) but there is, and will continue to be, something thoughtful, very mindful as I spread it liberally on toast or weekend croissants and think of dilapidation that the French carry off so well, charming L’Epiceries, elderly widows, but-I-am-French ladies, suivez-moi sons and hundreds of people whose villages were destroyed and thousands of sons who never made it home.
– we went to a small-ish summer barbecue at friends, the number of nationalities present were about twelve.
– on a balmy early summer’s eve, we sat on our terrace drinking champagne with four friends before wandering down the road to the restaurant for astonishingly good food and, unusually for this restaurant, astonishingly slow service. The restaurant is the only ‘public’ place in the village. There is, in fact, no shop in the commune (equivalent of a UK parish council).
– Big Bro and his wife came to stay for a few days. Given that I’d never hosted Big Bro in my house before and Joe Brown hardly knew either him nor his wife, I was a tad nervous. It was all rather mighty fine despite the changeable weather but excellent planning on my part meant that the wettest afternoon was spent at a private wine tasting followed by a tour of the cellars, headed by the chap who runs the winery who was possibly young enough to be my son. Interestingly, when I asked if he’d noticed a problem with pollination due to reduced number of bees, I was told that vines aren’t affected as they’re wholly wind-pollinated.
– Joe Brown and I did a day-long road trip on a fiercely hot day, as much as possible using the road winding along the Mosel river in the ridiculously fast, air-conditioned car. This was a good call on his part and one of my most favourite days since being here.
– I narrowly missed the birth of a calf in the field at the back of our house. Lots of mooing and broken waters heralded the arrival but after an hour of no further progress I thought I had time to walk down the road to post a letter. By the time I came home, there was a pure white, still slightly steaming calf in the field, complete with wing nut ears. It was up and wobbling around within half an hour. Three days later, the other cow produced a beige calf overnight. They’ve become good chums and often canter round the field together playing chase in the cool of the evenings.
– over dinner one evening, my neighbour announced she would cut her forthcoming holiday short by a couple of days when it became apparent we were both away at the same time and neither of us would be at home for cat-duty, both her and mine. Her husband was clearly horrified by this, particularly as this was partly so she could look after le chat roux who’s Belgian.
– le chat roux, usually only absent for an hour or so, went missing. I would like to say I was quite chilled about this, confident that he would return home, but I was not. Convinced he’d come to harm or was trapped somewhere, I wrung my hands, looked forlornly out of the windows, pitifully called his name as I walked round the small village and knocked on neighbours doors to see if he was perhaps shut in their garage. It was only after I’d compiled a ‘DISPARU!’ notice, in two languages no less, to print and stuff through letterboxes that the little orange git returned home, apparently none the worse for wear.
– I’ve bought shoes; heeled black sandals, strappy red wedges (a first for me) and sling backs, the colour of which can only be described as fuck off pink.
– after a seven month sabbatical, purely on the basis of laziness on my part, I’ve resurrected my French lessons with the lovely French teacher.
– the summer flies have arrived in the small country and seem even more numerous than previously.
– I had an appointment with a gynaecologist (anything to do with down there isn’t dealt with by a general doctor). I have never seen a more Gallic-looking man in my life. His profile must, I’m sure, be stamped on a coin.
– I sewed a cushion cover. Believe me, this is noteworthy, really it is.
– I sat on the terrace with a friend I’ve known for over thirty years drinking far too much champagne late in to the night and the small country showed her just how good their storms can be. A couple of days later, we sat in a sunny cafe in the city square drinking coffee and listening to a string quartet in the bandstand a few feet away playing The Dying Swan. There are many sublime moments in my life and this was up there.
– after a couple of afternoons spent sitting in the garden, barelegged, I have freckled knees. I’d forgotten this happens.
– on a perfectly still, breathtakingly clear night, I stood in the garden and saw three shooting stars within a couple of minutes.
– I saw an exhibition of photos and had a hankering to pick up my camera more often.
And now? Now Joe Brown and I are imminently heading to London to watch a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Afternoon tea is also planned. Rest assured, fuck off pink sling backs will be packed.
The wood anemones sparkled in the low morning sun through the trees as I drove through roads that cut through the forests across the border. The heavy mists had lifted and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. I’d rolled out of bed just as the light vaguely stained the curtains that morning, made a packed lunch and, after dropping Joe Brown at the bus stop, had headed for the motorway, heading North East. Traffic had, at times, slowed due to the heavy greyness hanging over the Small Country but, once across the border, the sun began to shine through the grey gloom and speed ensued. The road surface on some of the autobahns leave a lot to be desired, in places as bad as those in Belgium, causing the tyres to fill the car, my ears and head with never-ending long wails of agony and it was a relief to finally turn off at an exit and leave the demented banshees behind. As I neared my destination, I twisted and turned along roads with rising rocky crags on one side of the road and rivers running through the drops on the other.
By 9am I was parked and sitting on a treatment table, jeans in a pile to my side and the room filled with a number of clinically white-coated women, the number of which was difficult to keep track off as they kept appearing and disappearing through the multitude of doors in to the room. There was little talk other than from one nurse who spoke a little English. To an audible gasp by the nurses, the door opened and a man walked in. This was who I’d come to see and the reason I was half-dressed. After a cursory look at me, followed by a vague handshake and equally cursory look at a clipboard waved in front on him, he held his hand out into which magically appeared a large syringe with which he began to jab in to my leg in an apparently wholly random fashion, all the while talking to the nurses who flapped about around him. I have no idea what he was saying, my aptitude with German pretty much runs to ‘rubber gloves’ and that’s all (gummihandschuhen, should you ever need it). Having indicated that I should roll over and continuing to jab for a while, he then circled one finger in the air without looking up. I rolled back over and had a long wavy line drawn on the lower half of my right thigh with green felt tip.
“This” he said in English, tapping the felt tip on my thigh, “this will be removed”. He then vaguely shook my hand and left.
Medical compression stockings are not the easiest things to put on, believe me but so I did and I was sent away and told to walk for half an hour, no less, and come back at 2pm that afternoon. I half-wobbled down the stairs with tight legs, passing the waiting room filled with people who looked equally tight-legged, sitting with their feet up on stools placed in front of the chairs.
The clinic sits in the middle of a small town which, in itself, is perched half way down a craggy decline with a river running at the edge down to the car park. The main street is filled with cafes and shops that sell clothes, the likes of which would not be out of place in a British Sunday morning market – all appliqué, glittery tops and Stevie Nicks hemmed skirts that hang on wire coat hangers. The footfall of the town seemed to consist primarily of elderly people who could well have also been wearing medical compression stockings, many of which were walking with either sticks or zimmer frames. There are thermal baths nearby and Joe Brown tells me that this would be a popular pastime for the more senior of Germans who apparently have a bit of a thing about “taking the waters and cleaning the tubes”. I filled various tubes of my own with a squashed packed lunch eaten in the car and zwei cappuccinos sipped whilst sitting on the terrace of a deserted cafe in the hot sun, overlooking a large pond, complete with swans.
Medical compression stockings are shockingly difficult to remove, believe me but at 2pm, the whole process of white-coated, gasping nurses, Herr Doctor sweeping in and randomly jabbing my legs was repeated and I was told to come back next week.
“Two more sessions next week” said Herr Doctor and, tapping my thigh, continued “and we will do this at the same time when you have the correct paperwork”.
I drove home, running the gauntlet of the wailing banshees on the autobahn which nearly caused me to not take advantage of the lack of speed limit thereon, with toes curled over and, whilst driving, trying to smooth the stockings further down my shins to give them room to move.
The green felt-tipped vein in my right thigh, which I just thought showed up so much because my legs are so lily-white, was dealt with by phlebectomy, i.e. it was removed because it was pre-varicose. This was paid for by the health care system. Presuming the jabbing of Herr Doctor was not as random as it looked, the spider veins, zapped using sclerotherapy, will fade. Four sessions at a total cost, which I paid for, of 292 Euros and, for the first time in probably a decade, I may consider the option of wearing a knee-length skirt and go bare-legged. Believe me, I’ll find this rather astonishing.
Also? Medical compression stockings are far easier to get on and off if you use gummihandschuhen.
… there is more mistletoe on the winter-bare trees than I’ve ever, ever seen anywhere else.
… when seasonal pruning of roadside trees is done, the prunings are piled up into a series of bonfires a couple of inches from the main roads and set alight with petrol.
… huge trees growing inches from the road are not cut down on the grounds of health and safety, a white line is painted round the trunks that show up in the dark.
… car indicators aren’t used much here and if they are, it’s occasionally advisable to not believe the indication.
… roundabouts are a fairly new phenomenon here and are used as if they’ve never been seen before.
… white plastic bollards by the side of winding roads up steep hills are cleaned – by men wearing high vis jackets and using buckets, mops and cloths.
… speed cameras aren’t really used here but the police sometimes lurk with their speed guns. It’s possible, however, to look up on a website where they’re going to be over the proceeding few days.
… it’s possible to have a leisurely breakfast, go out for a drive, criss-crossing your way through three other countries and be home in time for afternoon tea and cake.
… there are houses painted the colour of highlighter pens. I’m serious.
… the average property price here, irrelevant of colour, is over 500,000 Euros.
… the population is half a million. Nearly half of those are, like us, ex-pats.
… it is advised that an annual blood test be carried out. This, the doctor told me, “may highlight any problems early which can be dealt with before they get more serious”. This sort of pro-active malarky can be hard to take in sometimes.
… when prescribed daily iron supplements (see above), they may come in the form of individual glass vials, the top of which needs to be snapped off. I feel like I’ve morphed back to a bygone time.
… when buying glycerine at la pharmacie for cake-icing purposes, you will be asked how much you want, the quantity of which will be decanted from a huge glass apothecary bottle into a tiny glass bottle and labelled, handwritten. Bygone times again.
… it is impossible to buy any form of painkiller anywhere other than a pharmacie.
… it is possible to buy large apothecary bottles, 20.00 Euros for eight, from flea markets.
… the locals are likely to be able to speak three languages, often switching between them mid-conversation. This is both maddening and hugely impressive.
… when in waiting rooms, whosoever joins the room will say hello as they enter and goodbye as they leave.
… it is highly likely you will be greeted as you enter a shop, probably asked if you need any help and if you advise you’re just looking, you will be left alone. I repeat, you will be left alone to browse.
… there is not a Starbucks on every corner in the city. There is not a Starbucks. This makes me happy.
… there is a supermarket which supplies various fancy restaurants which is also open to the public although not over the lunch period. The supermarket shuts for lunch.
… by and large, on the whole, generally, women are more well-turned out and better groomed here than in Blighty.
… vet bills are considerably cheaper than in Blighty. This is just as well given Le Chat Roux seemingly requires weekly trips for various ailments or afflictions.
… there is an annual potato festival.
… the old, now unused railway line which passed through our tiny village, complete with tunnel, has become a well-kept cycle path.
I pressed End Call on my phone and dropped it in to my pocket, having finished a conversation with one of my sisters that two weeks previously I’d never given any thought that I would have. Pulling my black raincoat around me against the cold winter wind of 2005 as it whipped round the building – the coat that this sister said made me look frightening to old ladies and children as it billowed out like a cloak as I marched along – I walked back through the automatic doors, pausing out of a recently-acquired habit to squirt anti-bacterial gel on my hands, and made my way to the lifts. As I stood waiting for one of the four to arrive, it struck me that none of the people bustling around me knew, they had no idea what my story was, why I was there.
The lift doors opened and I stepped in after a few others, people who took no notice of the black-clad woman standing amongst them. Just as I pressed the button marked 8, the doors started to close and a woman appeared in the quickly decreasing gap holding a carrycot. I held my hand against one of the doors which hesitated then slid open again. She stepped in, wafting further cold from outside into the lift. “Thank you” she murmured.
The doors closed and the lift ascended, various people chattering, carrying flowers, a balloon, bags. There was a ting, we halted, doors opened and people stepped out. Once the doors closed again, it was just myself and the carrycot-holding lady left as we began to slowly drift upwards in our box. I looked downwards, vaguely glancing at the contents of the carrycot. Babies don’t normally hold much interest for me but, at that moment, I wanted something to focus on. What I saw shocked me. Nestled amongst the white blankets and under a pink, beribboned woolly hat was a face, a perfect little face – two closed eyes, symmetrical half-moons of dark eyelashes, a small bump of a nose and a rosebud mouth. Slightly pink-tinged cheeks. It was a tiny, tiny face, her whole head seemed little bigger than an orange.
“How old is she?” I blurted out.
“Six days” the lady answered. Her voice sounded small, she sounded tired, she sounded worried. Her face was pale, her hair frizzed by the cold and rain outside. “She’s a bit small” she continued. “She was a bit early. My first, I’m rather terrified by her, I didn’t think she’d be this small”.
“How much does she weigh?” I asked, my disbelief that a human could actually be so small and live – breathe in and out without the need of being surrounded by starched uniforms and bleeping machines.
“I’m not sure what she weighs now but she weighed 5lbs, 3oz when she was born”. I laughed out loud. The frizzy-haired lady looked at me quizzically, clearly laughing at her baby’s lack of baby-bouncing weight was not what she expected.
“I was 5lbs, 3oz when I was born” I explained. “At six days old, my mother apparently put me outside in my pram to get some fresh air. It was winter and she told me she’d had to brush the snow off my pram before she brought me indoors”. The lady audibly gasped and almost mouthed “My God”, my reaction having been exactly the same when my mother told me what she’d done with her newborn fourth child. Both myself and the new mother looked down at her child, undoubtedly musing on the idea of putting something so small, so tiny, so vulnerable and precious outside in the snow completely shocking. “You were fine” my mother had said at my outraged shock at her more than blase behaviour “You had lots of blankets, you had a hot water bottle wrapped up with you. Did you no harm”.
“Clearly did you no harm” said the frizzy-haired lady and I was conscious of her looking at me, really looking at me, starting at my shoes and slowly upwards to my full height of 5’9″.
The lift tinged again, slowed to a halt and the doors opened at floor 8. I gave the mother and child one last look and with a small smile stepped out, caught in a throng of people who’d just spilled out from other lifts as they hesitated to look at the signs pointing ways, signs I had no need to look at and signs I would not see again.
“Thank you” said a voice behind me. I turned, not sure if the words were directed at me. The frizzy-haired lady stood in the lift holding her tiny baby girl in her carrycot in one hand, her other hand holding the lift door open. “Thank you” she said again. She smiled. She looked brighter. “I feel a bit more reassured having seen you. Thank your mother as well for me”. I opened my mouth but there was nothing there. What could I say? How could I explain?
“I will” I said just as the doors closed on her and she disappeared. I turned and went to join my eldest sister who was gathering up various belongings so that we could leave once and for all, leave the hospital where we’d watched our mother draw her last breath half an hour ago.
The November mists have descended upon the Small Country, just as they did this time last year, cloaking the countryside in ethereal ghostliness. The car headlights snake their way through the gloom on our morning drive up the hill through the trees to the main road for Joe Brown to face the white-knuckle ride to work on the bendy bus so I can have the ridiculously fast car for the day. Sometimes the strength of the sun is sufficient to burn the mist off by mid-morning and a couple of weeks ago, on a perfectly clear day and a perfectly clear, straight German autobahn with its lack of speed limit, I tried testing just how ridiculously fast it is. I think the car laughed in my face when I got sweaty hands and lost my nerve but I certainly drove faster than I ever have before.
It’s over a year since I arrived here and much has happened and much has not. Progress with learning French is, I feel, timorous due to my seeming lack of ability for concentrated study outside my one-to-one lessons and I’m being a rather timorous beastie about joining in with the two social groups I’m a fully paid-up member of. I know not why. As is apparent, I have blogged little.
I would have thought I’d have had much to say about our trip to New York at the end of June to which we travelled first class but I did not. I said nothing of the wonders of turning left as you step on a plane rather than turning right and there was no mention of the amount of walking we did in a city that seriously doesn’t sleep, any more than we slept in the hideous summer heat in a sweltering hotel room. The only shoes I found comfortable were a pair of pink flip flops. We sweated our way round the usual tourist spots, putting our hands on the names of people who were felled, on the spot where they were felled. We ran our hands along bannisters in a building which was the first building thousands of people came to from far, far away decades ago to start a new life in a new country. We sheltered from lashing rain which cooled the city for an hour or so, by which time my feet had turned cheap flip flop pink. I took a multitude of mostly crap pictures, Joe Brown’s were better.
The three cows were taken away from the field out the back of the house some time after we returned but, it must be said, the farmer was astonishingly gentle about it, leaving the open trailer in the field for a week and daily trying to coax them in with food rather than forcing the issue. We missed their puffs and wheezes as we sat in the late summer evening sun on the terrace after they’d gone.
Having, in the past, dug out pernicious weeds in an area the size of the whole garden here at the Tangerine House, as well as doing the same at the allotment I had in Blighty, even I couldn’t believe how much hand-wringing and bitching I did when digging relatively small flowerbeds here but, in my defence, I’ve never come across such shite, heavy-clay soil. I fear for the survival of some of the plants given that they’re facing a Small Country hard winter in waterlogged soil that will undoubtedly freeze solid. I started walking past the enormous pile of manure at the end of the village and staring at it wontonly.
Joe Brown has blatantly said in the past that he would have difficulty being in the house with my sisters and I for any length of time – the phrase used was “a cauldron of women” – so, during his fortnight stint of business trips at the end of September, Sister Two came to stay for a long weekend, bringing her impossibly neatly-packed bag, flips flops that don’t dye her feet, shorts and perpetually lightly-tanned legs. A fellow gardener, she poked a fork in the rock solid, as then un-dug and sunbaked lawn, and laughed at my misfortune. This tells you something about Sister Two. Her casual enquiry as to what temperature I wash the bedlinen tells you something else about her and the fevered manner in which I cleaned the house before she arrived probably says something about me too. We drank cremant in the unseasonally hot garden – she in her shorts and me with lily-white legs covered – and watched the birds of prey hanging in the air high above the tree line beyond. We mused on manure and my reticence at speaking with the gentle farmer, fearing inability to make myself understood. We drove in to the city, something that took me ages to conquer the fear of doing – this from a woman who, years ago, would drive in to London in a car whose ability to make it to the end of the road was highly questionable. We walked down to the old part, which is a World Heritage site, ambling along winding valley paths lined with narrow houses and, surprisingly, vegetable gardens. Tiny lizards scuttled near our feet on the ancient walls. We had lunch at Le Fromagerie, a shop that Joe Brown and I came across a while ago, the smell of which hits you as the doors slide open. As we slid in to our seats, I leaned forward and told Sister Two she was in for a treat and indeed, she was. We lunched on glasses of red wine and platters of breads and different cheeses, slicing slivers from each others plates and comparing favourites. I think we were at our table for well over an hour before winding our way past the Royal Palace and across the busy city square which, a month or so later, heralded its own royal wedding, stopping at a cafe which serves coffee at its best. Sister Two simply nodded at the first sip of her double espresso. No more words were needed. As we drove home, we cruised round the village and spotted the gentle farmer.
He had no manure at that time but explained in a mixture of French and, surprisingly, English, that his neighbouring farmer did have and the pile I’d been coveting was, in fact, horse manure.
“C’est mieux, non?” he said as I explained why I needed it. Indeed, yes, horse manure would be better than cow for heavy clay soil.
“Ah, oui” he continued, adding that he’d seen me in the village and that I was “a strong soul”, a phrase I think is the local equivalent of “a sturdy girl”, a phrase bandied around our family for some years, the reason for which is Sister One’s daughter, as a robust toddler in her pushchair, was deemed by a Bahamian to be “a sturdy girl”.
Sister Two and I drank more cremant chez moi that evening whilst we made an enormous fish pie and planned a river trip the following day but regrettably the scheduled sail was cancelled and Sister Two was flying home later that day. On the way to the airport, she pointed to our right and observed “stick-on cows” in the field across the way. She’s quite right – a herd of cows in the distance look like they’ve been stuck-on the landscape, cows close up do not. Have a look next time you see a field of cows in the distance and you too will now point and say “stick-on cows” I’ll be bound. I shocked myself by getting a bit weepy at the airport as I waved goodbye and came home to an empty house, with an impeccably made spare bed and leftover fish pie I picked at later.
A week or so later, after many wanders round the village which takes all of five minutes, I finally found someone in the farmyard at the end of the village and stated my desire for “le fumier”, apologising for my poor French. The wizen-faced man I spoke to pointed me in the direction of another man who I approached, picking my way across the muddy yard.
I pretty much skipped up the road towards the Tangerine House some while later, partly because I was on a promise of a pile of manure being delivered over the fence the following day but also because, as the wizen-faced man wandered across the yard towards our conversation, he gestured towards another man who apparently spoke some English and the farmer I was speaking to replied:
“Ce n’est pas nécessaire, c’est bien”. My French was seemingly sufficient.
Joe Brown returned home as the sun lost its heat and, with it, our joie de vivre seemed to dissipate. We both became lethargic and a tad dull, not helped by the shocking news that a work colleague of his is possibly facing not being around to witness his eight and ten year-old sons’ voices breaking. This outrage of life happens, I know, but it seems particularly cruel to happen to an infinitely kind, gentle giant of a man who looks capable of ripping out fully-grown trees with his bare hands.
A week later, Joe Browns’ father called to let us know that Mrs Brown would imminently be going in to hospital.
“Private health care” she announced to me on the phone at the weekend. “I refused to let him cancel my health care when he retired” she added. Wise lady, Mrs Brown.
She had surgery on Monday and during an update phone call yesterday, Mr Brown recounted how a nurse explained that his wife had given her a seriously hard time earlier that day on the grounds of rudeness. Apparently, the nurse had, in an endeavour to reassure Mrs Brown how pleased they were with her progress, she’d told her she was doing really well “for a woman your age” and got severely reprimanded for her impertinence. She’s had major surgery. She’s in intensive care. She’s eighty-three. She’s a sturdy girl.
Also? There’s someone else living with us as of a month or so ago.
He’s Belgian and, obviously, a redhead. Le Belge Roux.
I put the key in the lock and the door resists being opened, swollen with recent rain, causing it to stick in its frame. As I push against it, I muse ruefully on why it couldn’t have sealed itself in its frame during the winter, thereby halting the freezing wind whistling round the edges and down the corridor towards the kitchen. The cloying smell of damp mixed with sickly sweet air fresheners hits me as I step in and I exhale loudly, the only sound in the house. It took weeks to clear the air of ‘fresh peach’ or somesuch, even after I took down the ghastly curtains which reeked of it and bagged them up in the attic when we moved in but I was never able to rid the smell of damp which pervaded in the study and bedrooms and I could sometimes smell the house 20 kilometres away when I was in the car as it clung on my clothes. Windows were opened timorously as there was a fair chance the glass would fall out in a welcome breeze. The ghastly curtains now hang again but there are no clothes hanging in the wardrobe. There is little furniture here now and none of it is ours. The house is empty.
I check for any post which is ostensibly why I still have a key and wander in to the study and am, as always, taken aback how gloomy it is. Little light reaches through the window. Outside the back door the lavender is in full bloom and I tut as I see that the small crab apple tree, awash with blossom a few months ago and recently showing a mass of tiny fruits, has been rather brutally pruned. It’s quiet, there is no clicking sound which came from the pair of breeding black redstarts which nested in a crevice in the barn wall and I hope their young all made it. Up the steps, the grass is long and looks more lush than I ever saw it before. The marestail has started poking its spiky leaves up through the gravel of the seating area again where my sisters and I sat and drank tea in the unusually warm early evenings at the end of March. The tree I planted is still there and I breathe a sigh of relief – this house is no longer my home, it’s nobody’s home at the moment but the A Vendre sign at the front an open plea by the owners that soon it will be. I’ll then no longer have a key and will not be able to check for post, a ruse really for my real purpose. The tree was the second thing I planted in this garden, my cat the first and it would be fair to say I had a huge problem with what felt like leaving him and hoping he’d be safe under his tree. I had, and still have, a huge problem with the fact that he’s gone.
“I think he’s gone back to Somerset” I told Joe Brown a while ago. “Well, I like to think he has anyway”. Back from whence he came, back to when he was robust and hefty.
I turn and leave, pulling the front door to and double-lock it. In the car, I drive in silence – no radio tuned to a French radio station to aid in attuning my British ears to another language, no music. I always drive away from the House on the Hill now in silence.
The Tangerine House sits in a small village a kilometre or two down a winding road which opens out to the valley as you reach the bottom. Bizarrely, it was the first house Joe Brown and I looked at when we came to the Small Country in December 2010, a month before he started his new job. I’d snickered at the very notion of potentially living in a tangerine house which was newly built and therefore not our style at all although we both almost reluctantly admitted we quite liked it. We rejected it largely due to the size of the garden which, compared to the garden in Blighty, looked pitiful. We have since learned that here this is classed as reasonable.
The walls in the living room are now white – tangerine on the outside is one thing, inside was not acceptable – and mid-morning, the sideways light causes a checkered pattern to appear on the walls from the marble tiles on the floor. The study has blinds to shade the bright light so we can see our computer screens. There are plants in the front garden, some of which came with us from Blighty which never got planted at the House on the Hill. I think I knew fairly soon I didn’t want to stay there. I’ve bought roses. I still sometimes find fine strands of cat hair, unmistakeably familiar with their tabby ring of white at the tip.
The windows are large and I spend time watching clouds scud across the open sky, of late dropping rain on distant villages before reaching here. In the evenings, we sometimes sit on the terrace with glasses of cidre, occasionally visited by a pair of black redstarts. Three cows of varying hues of gold mooch around the field at the back of the house, the open view beyond the low garden fence sweeping upwards. Westerly winds hiss through the dense line of trees up in the distance and it sometimes sounds like the sea. In the twilight one evening, Joe Brown mused that the snorts and puffing emissions from the cows could be mistaken for passing whales in a darkening green ocean.