By: Joy M. Lilley
The house came with the job; if you could call it a house. To my horror, a part of the place near the back had no roof at all, and a load of buckets and basins scattered around to catch the rain. Of course, the house did have potential, since it was massive with five bedrooms and three bathrooms, but, the place was so neglected that I couldn’t help but wonder what must have happened to the chap who used to live here. Dad’s predecessor by the name of Henry clearly failed to please the residents and we were fascinated to hear the stories from those who knew him.
When we met some of them, no one had a good word to say about Henry. They were making a number of points directed straight at Mum and Dad. These points could be summed up as, “He was really bad, you better not be like Henry.”
All of this took its toll on Mum. A couple days went by and Mum’s positivity make-up from the car ride needed some reapplying. She was short with Dad, and most of the things she said were about how dirty the house was, or how unsafe it was, or how he should have done more research. She was short with all of us. I said to her one night, “Hey Mum, I really miss home. Do you think I could call James?” She replied, “Maisie, join the club, alright? We don’t need any extra complaining, it doesn’t help anything.” And she walked out of the room.
Then one night she snapped. I could hear them in their bedroom. The walls were thin in this structure we called a house and the sounds carried very well.
“What the Dickens are we doing in this place?” asked Mum. “It looks as though it’s not been lived in at all. How can you have brought us here to live?”
“You know full well the reason we needed to come here and I don’t intend going through it with you anymore,” Dad said, defending himself. “Anyways, think of the potential for the kids. They’ll be bilingual, with loads of opportunities for their future.”
“Don’t give me that, you old fool! Maisie will probably get married young and as for Dan, well, God only knows what will happen there. He doesn’t seem to have any purpose. He never talks about the future or what he wants from life, except for moaning about leaving England. Surely we haven’t brought them up so badly that neither of them have any ambition?”
“Julia, please. Keep your voice down. And they are young. Have you forgotten what it was like to be young? All the hormones going haywire and the restlessness that goes with it? They’ll settle down—give them a couple of years over here and I think you and I will see a vast difference in the pair. They shall have a far better future and opportunities to look forward to than you and I ever did.”
“We shall see about that. I have my doubts. It wouldn’t surprise me if we wake up one day to find Dan has left and gone back to England without a word. I think there must be a woman behind his desire to return. You know what he’s like when it comes to women. Reminds me of you when you were a young man.”
“Yes, and he’ll have a new girlfriend in a week. And if you say he’s like me as a young man, well, who knows, maybe he’ll meet his Julia over here. Boys marry their mums, they say. I’m told that there are a number of good schools around here where the children can carry on where they left off back home. So, they’re not going to suffer because of the move.”
Dad was determined to make Mum understand. He began to make inquiries about the schooling available for us. He found that the nearest higher educational establishment was in Ribérac and was called the Vocational High School Armaud Daniel. It was some 13 kilometers from where we were to live. Maybe going to school would start to bring some sense of order and routine to our lives.
A few days after our arrival, we were invited to a meeting of the residents, many of whom were pensioners and would have no idea about schooling for young people, unless they had Grandchildren. We later found out that this was a gathering greatly applauded and laden with hyperbole. Everyone had their chance to speak about their properties; what was right and what wasn’t. This was our first introduction to what we hoped was going to be a better life than the one we’d left behind, where they would get to know us and we them. It was meant to be a convivial gathering, where drinks and food was served and everyone expected to join in the conversation, both in French and English, bearing in mind that many residents were English. I couldn’t help but think they were just showing off. And taking the chance to complain more about Henry.
“We had so much trouble before with Henry, and how he let us down, with all his lies and troubles. He would tell us what he thought we wanted to hear, and about what he had worked on while we were away and then, when we returned, we’d find he’d made virtually no changes.”
The people from number four then started their list of criticisms.
“He had children just like you,” the lady said.
I took offence at that, since I was now sixteen—hardly a child.
“When nobody was here, the children used the tennis courts and swimming pool,” the lady went on. “We don’t want yours to develop that habit. It just makes for additional work. What’s more, Henry would never repair any damage his children caused.”
Then the rather more up market couple in number two, Mr. and Mrs. Loader started moaning:
“We were just flabbergasted by the way our lawns were cut,” the husband told us. “You’d have thought the man had used a rotovator instead of a lawnmower. We never had such trouble with our gardener back in Islington.”
At this point, Dad asked, “Can you tell us why Henry is no longer here? It seems that you must have put up with him for a considerable length of time.”
“Yes,” said the lady from number two. “And the need for him to go to hospital came at a most inappropriate moment, as we were just about to have the matters aired publicly. It was at that time Henry was taken into the hospital with a serious bowel condition. Therefore, Mr. and Mrs. Loader agreed to visit him in the hospital to suggest that we must have help in some form or another, as the place had begun to look uncared for and that was in only two weeks. ‘After all, Henry,’ I told him, ‘we don’t want the complex to go to rack and ruin.’ He was very upset and only agreed to go, after a suitable financial release settlement had been made. He said he would leave Chez Mouzy when he was released from the hospital. After all, his family was now grown up and left home.”
Mum, my brother, and I sat listening intently to all of these horror stories. Mr. Banagee, who lived in number 6, did not complain about a thing. He was happy here and he wished us well in our new home, work, and school.
I must say, I felt sorry for poor Henry. After all, his illness was more than likely the reason for his neglect.
We found out that Dad’s job would entail:
Care of the swimming pool.
Cutting the grass.
Making sure the complex was safe and secure. (Apparently, there was a large contingent of gypsies in the area, who were renowned for stealing anything they could lay their hands upon.)
Watering gardens when their occupants were not in residence.
Maintaining the complex driveways.
Overseeing the wear and tear of the tennis courts.
Tree-cutting and gardening, where necessary.
This was a considerable list for just one man to manage, plus, he had the responsibility of looking after seven houses when unoccupied.
For all this effort, he was to be paid the grand total of 600 Euro per month. Not much for 2010.
Mind you, Dad didn’t appear to be put off by the residents and their awkward ways of demanding things.
“You know, I feel that you may have had a rather difficult time before, but, I think you will like us and find that if we say we’ll do something, it will be done and done properly,” Dad said addressing the residents.
“Well, thank goodness for that,” commented the man from number five. “Of course, you will be on a trial basis for the first three months, and if at the end of that time we are unsatisfied with your quality of work, I fear you will be let go.”
I was mortified to hear my parents being spoken to in this way. How rude and disrespectful these people were. However, Dad seemed to be taking all this capricious nonsense in stride. Dan said little, however, I found all this attitude to be far beyond my family’s interpretation.
“My wife will be happy to help if anyone would like housework done,” Dad told them. “I believe some of your homes are let out to visitors, so, if you would like her to do the changeovers, she will be more than happy to do it.”
I froze as I had heard nothing of this from either Mum or Dad. But I guessed they must have discussed it previously and used their offer to impress the residents. I can’t imagine Mum agreeing to this and it must have taken all the effort in her body to look pleasant as these words came out of my Dad’s mouth.
Another thing we learned that night: We had no idea of how cheap the wine was in France and red, white, and rosé was imbibed freely by the residents. Our drinking habits, by comparison, left much to be desired but, to be fair, it didn’t take long before ours began to mimic theirs.
The evening continued with more revelations and curses about poor Henry’s previous misdemeanors, but, as the company drank more and more wine, the evening softened and we felt happier and more welcome.
But still, we wondered, what were we going to do about our dilapidated home. It really was a disaster zone and a dangerous one at that. Dad called a family meeting to make a long list of what the priorities should be. Our Dad was such a caring, thoughtful, timid man who loved us all very much. I wondered at times how he put up with Mum, who always seemed to be finding things wrong and who had a unique interpretation on negativity.
“Of course, you realize that I shall have to spend a great deal of time working around the residents’ requirements,” Dad said. “And, Julia, if you’re asked to start to work in the houses, there will be even less time to spend helping out in getting this place into some sort of liveable condition.”
“If I’m asked. Yeah, funny, I don’t remember being asked to do this by you in the first place,” she snapped back. “And I certainly don’t remember volunteering.”
Top of the list of to-dos with our house had to be the roof, where the whole structure had collapsed into the fifth bedroom. It wasn’t needed as a bedroom, but the difficulty was that the damaged roof section was pulling the still relatively stable part of the roof down on the far side. Dad spent what felt like ages trying to secure a date and time for the roofers to come and do the job. It made us realize that getting anything done over here, was a bit along the lines of ‘we’ll do it tomorrow.’ And that ‘tomorrow’ rarely ever arrived.
Eventually, the roofers showed up and it took them over a week to do the job. It cost a fortune that I know we didn’t have, and that was to do just about half of what was required.
“I shall need to get a bank loan for all the things that need doing here,” Dad said.
“Well, if that’s the case, then let’s get on with it,” Mum told him. “We can go down to the town today and see what the bank manager has to say. Seeing a load of foreigners walk in may put him off lending us money. To be honest, love, I think the place is too big for us anyway. Perhaps we should look for something a bit smaller around here. Something smaller but actually liveable. There does seem to be a huge number of empty places in the area.”
Dad ignored her comment and went on with his plan to go to town.
Everything was costing a good deal more than had been estimated and was much more expensive than back home. I became quite morose and Mother was constantly telling me to stop sulking and to pull myself together. That didn’t help one bit, in fact, it made me resent her and the place even more.
“You don’t need to make such a show of your distaste for what we’ve come to, Maisie,” Mum said to me. “Dad has a job at long last and you, young lady, ought to be pleased about that. Do you hear me? Look at me when I’m talking to you! Did you hear what I just said?"
“Yes, Mum,” I replied. “How could I not have heard? I think the whole complex probably heard.”
Dan kept looking at me sneakily, as if to say: ‘I’m right there with you, sis. Bloody hell, what are you and I going to do over here?’
After Mum stormed out of the room, Dan and I walked outside to get some fresh air.
“Way to go, Maisie!” Dan said. He patted me on the back. “You really showed Mum back there.”
“I didn’t mean to lose my cool,” I said. “But we’ve left all of our friends behind for Dad’s trumped-up job with discerning employers, who couldn’t give a toss about us. Those toffee-nosed snobs we are expected to kowtow to, won’t suit me at all. I just wish we had some friends here. Or someone visited us. I feel like sometimes you need what’s familiar to help you face what isn’t.”
“That was deep, Maisie, really deep,” Dan said. I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me or not.“
And believe me,” Dan continued. “At that meeting I wanted to punch all the guys there. And go jump in their pool. Take a swim. Take a leak, oh man that would be something, wouldn’t it! Would serve them right! I couldn’t stand the way they talked about us. Treating us with such disdain. I’m not putting up with that. But hey, maybe things will settle down when the house gets fixed up a bit more. It’s so awful, have you ever seen the like of it? It’s as though we were living in the dark ages. I tell you, Maisie, I for one won’t be staying over here unless the picture improves.”
“Dad did see this place before he moved us all over here, didn’t he?” I asked.
“Yes, I think so, but he didn’t give much thought to us, by the looks of it, did he? Does he really think that you and I will be able, not only to learn the language, but to get work? There doesn’t seem to be any work around here for young people anyway.”
“Come on, Dan, don’t be like that,” I said. “You know Dad worships the ground we walk on. Especially you. He’s done it to benefit all of us.”
“I can’t see much sign of that now, Maisie, and as soon as this next year’s done, I shall be off. I had just started going out with such a nice girl. She was very pretty and had everything in all the right places, if you know what I mean.”
“Gross, I don’t want to know about your love life.”
“Why not? If you’d like, we can talk about your boyfriend James instead?”
“He’s not my boyfriend. Even if he was, that wouldn’t matter anymore.”
I felt my eyes well up a little bit with tears.
“Sorry. I’m just so, here, let’s go for a walk, get to know the place.”
We walked a few hundred meters in relative silence.
“Do you think they’ll let us ever use the swimming pool, Dan?” I asked. “If we asked nicely?”
“Oh, I’m going for a swim whether they want me to or not. I’m not asking nobody for permission.”
“Dan. Please don’t. You’ll get Dad in trouble.”
“Yeah, and? What’s the worst that can happen, they send us home? Sounds like a good plan to me.”
“Dan. Please don’t.”
As we continued walking, I looked around and thought how inspiring the place could be. I imagined with a few changes and money spent here and there, the place could be made to look quite splendid, instead of its current semblance of a pile of rubble. There were so many rooms, and we’d never had a scullery before. The bedrooms were huge, with those long Normandy-type windows, and I much admired the lovely Périgord rooftops. Their design was
stately and magnificent, shaped like a pyramid but with flat tops. The colour was stunning: a soft light brick orange with tinges of black here and there. A gentle breeze blew as we meandered out through the narrow walkway and away from the complex.
The day, although hot, was proving to be quite an adventure as Dan and I travelled down to the main road between the copious woodland on either side of the lane. We chatted away about everything and nothing.
As we walked across the main road to the other side we found ourselves walking down a progressively narrow lane with hedgerows about six feet tall. We could see the green hills beyond as the day was still now and the vista gin clear. There were a couple of dogs barking in the distance—talking to each other, I reckoned. I glanced at Dan as he walked in front to dash over to see what had moved in the hedges. He had the look of an Adonis, his body lithe and strong, this brother of mine. He liked to pretend that all of this came naturally, but I’m pretty sure he would do push-ups and crunches in secret. I was certain it wouldn’t be too long before he found himself a girlfriend who would fall desperately in love with him over here. That might change his mind about going back to England—I couldn’t bear it, if that did happen.
The lane became even narrower as we wandered and passed an abundance of better tended grapevines. I was beginning to think this was not such a bad place after all. I realised that Dan and I would have to make the most of it. The option of turning around and going back to England seemed less and less possible.
“You know, Dan, perhaps it won’t be so bad once we get to school and begin to learn the language and speak it better than we do now,” I suggested. “But I am missing James already. He said that he would come over to visit for the holidays next year. I know he didn’t want me to leave. He once said he wanted me to be his real girlfriend, not just a schoolboy and girl crush. I’ve always liked him, but not in that way. But now I wonder if I do. If maybe I always have?”
“So, he was your boyfriend, huh? Well, maybe it’s as well you’ve moved away from him. You can have a new start over here and you could even meet a Frenchman. Ooh, la, la. You know what they say about French kissing, don’t you? Doing that can’t compare with what the schoolboys do back home.”
“Oh, shut up! You’re the one who will likely get caught up with a French tart.”
“You mean the patisseries, do you?”
We goaded each other endlessly, when suddenly we came across a farm where a big black-and-white dog was creating havoc. As we moved nearer to the gate, we felt threatened and both of us stood as still as statues for fear of an attack.
“It’s okay. He’s tied up so he can’t get us,” Dan said.
The farmer came to see what all the fuss was about. At the sight and sound of his master, the dog stopped his racket. He was a beautiful dog; a bit like a sheepdog crossed with a spaniel, and he reminded me of Soukie, my dear dog from years back, who I’d raised and trained and fed all by myself as a little girl. Tending it on my own, was the only way I was allowed to have a dog. Soukie died after being run over, and that broke my heart. Hardly left my room for ages, except for school.
The good looking farmer approached us.
“Bonjour,” I said in my best French accent. Dan stayed quiet and in the background.
“Bonjour. Are you the people who have just moved into Chez Mouzy?” the farmer asked. “I’m sorry about the noise from Benny. He’s not only our guard dog but he’s also a very good sheepdog, to boot.”
“Yes, our parents are there now trying to get the place into some sort of order,” Dan told him. “It’s so run-down and part of the roof is missing.”
“Shouldn’t you two be helping them, then?” he replied in perfect English.
“Yes, but we were just having a walk to familiarize ourselves with the surroundings,” Dan said. “It’s very beautiful here.”
“Are you English?” I asked in a guarded way, for I didn’t want to antagonize the man who was to be our neighbour. I know I was still only sixteen, but my seventeenth birthday was not far off, and this man was very handsome and reminded me of a school teacher I’d known in the seniors. I’d had a massive crush on him and found it very difficult to concentrate on the lessons when he was teaching our class.
“Yes, I am from England. Would the two of you like to come in and have a look around?”
“Yes, please,” I said hastily.
Always in a hurry to jump in where angels feared to tread. I had heard that somewhere once and wrote it out in a journal of mine in the prettiest cursive writing that I could create with a beautiful scarlet ink pen. Mother used to say a far less poetic version when she’d say to me, “You will get yourself into a whole lot of trouble if you don’t start thinking before you act, my girl.” She was right. Driving aside, Dan was actually the more cautious one, me more of the risk-taker. He took after Dad more and me more after Mother. She was feisty, Dad timid and conservative. But I felt things maybe changing over here in France. Dan seemed more confident and aware of trouble and how to get into it than ever before. He was more prepared to take risks. Some of my confidence had taken a knock without James close by.
“Maisie, I hate to say this, but I think we should be getting back to help Mum and Dad out,” Dan added.
“Oh, come on, it won’t hurt to just have a quick look around now, will it?”
“That may not be so,” the farmer explained, “As this is a large farm and I have two thousand acres. But, come on in, you two. Just peek at the animals and the lovely landscape from the house.”
“Come on, Dan, half an hour isn’t going to make much difference,” I persuaded my brother, and in we went through huge, rusty, black austere iron gates at the entrance to the farmhouse. It was an amazing sight. A gigantic house, traditionally French, with three storeys, a central front door and three sets of large windows on either side of it, on every floor.
“This is impressive, Mr., what should we call you?”
“Just call me Ralph—Ralph Waterman,” the farmer replied. “I live here alone, as my wife returned to England. She didn’t take to the farming life and missed England so much that she decided to go back to the house we had kept.”
“So, you manage two thousand acres all by yourself?”
“No, not quite. I have a couple of local farm hands to help me with the few cattle and my multitude of sheep. They take quite a bit of looking after, what with the anti-fly treatment and the deworming. And, I can tell you it’s hard work running a farm.”
He showed us the cow sheds and could see numerous sheep in the fields below.
“The animals sleep out in the better weather and come inside during the winter months,”
“How long have you been over here?” I asked.
“It’s been about five years. The farm and equipment were being sold together and it was cheap. My wife Maureen and I had imagined that it would be an idyllic life, compared with the rat race we’d left behind in England. We both worked in the city, in London, and made plenty of money on the stock exchange. But, sadly, our life here together was not to be. Maureen couldn’t get her head around the intricacies of running a farm. She liked the peace and quiet but, that was about it. I told her that I couldn’t pack up and leave it now, as we would have lost too much money invested in the project. Just didn’t work out, but hey, that’s life sometimes. How about you two? What brought you and your family over here?”
My brother quickly proved that he still had a voice and piped up with, “Our dad was made redundant and, because of his age, couldn’t find another job like the one he’d had. He tried to find other types of work, but was unsuccessful and eventually he started looking in France, and now handles all estate matters at the complex in Saint-Severin. And, speaking of which, we’d better get back and help our parents out.”
“Oh, not to worry,” Ralph told us. “I may be able to come and give you a hand, and my brother will be over here soon for the summer. He’s a skilled craftsman in carpentry and roofing, what a bit of luck that is.”
“It was good to meet you both,” Ralph continued. “I must pop over and say hello to your family. Perhaps you all would like to come and have a meal here? Do you have a telephone in the house?”
“Yes, we do,” I said quickly.
“It’s a bit antiquated, doesn’t always work,” Dan said.
“Works just fine for me,” I said. “I can give you my mobile phone number. That would be nice, I’ll tell them that we have met our neighbour and that you would like to meet up with them.”
Numbers were exchanged and we hurried back to the mess we called a home.
“I think you gave him too much information about our situation,” Dan started. “He’s a stranger and you were telling him all of our business.”
“You’re one to talk. When you eventually opened your mouth, you said plenty. Don’t be so critical of me.”
The date was arranged after Ralph called us the next day. We were so pleased to be asked to go into someone’s home and to get to know a bit more about the country and its people. When the day arrived for us to go, everyone was excited and enthralled to be meeting a ‘gentleman’, or at least that was the impression Mother had of him, without even meeting the man. However, I think Mum was probably correct in deducing that Ralph was a ‘gentleman farmer’ from what Dan and I had told her.
Arriving after the ten-minute drive, we were welcomed in the most gratifying way. Effusive and genuine platitudes were conducted by us and Ralph. Mum had put on her best dress, but Dan and Dad had refrained from making much of an effort, for which I chastised them both. How could they be so sloppy?
As Ralph took us inside, we noticed the large, beautiful carved wooden inner front door, and the sight in front of us was nothing short of sensational. The room was old and smelled musty, but beautifully furnished in old dark-stained oak wood. The whole of the downstairs area was carpeted throughout with thick piled Persian carpets and rugs of all shapes and sizes. We had a glimpse of the splendour of them the first time we came. The colours were amazing; some multi-coloured and others thick, plain beige, the sort you want to sink your bare feet into. I was mesmerized by the place. We were not shown upstairs. Ralph said he would show us all of that when we came next time. I wondered if he was hiding something up there, he didn’t want us to see. But then again, my imagination always did run away with me. I could imagine me and James doing one of our Sherlock Holmes missions, sneaking up there to investigate what would turn out to be nothing special.
We ate and drank the dinner prepared by his housekeeper, Lauren. Drinking alcohol was becoming a bit of a regular habit with me and the family. It was a local custom new to us.
“I’m Ralph Waterman, late of the stock exchange back in dear ‘old Blighty’,” was how he introduced himself to my parents. He proceeded to tell them all about the reason why he and his wife had come here. I could see my mother fidgeting the way she always did when she wanted to say something yet was having difficulty getting a word in edgeways. Her anxiety was the result of wishing to know more about his private life. I was so relieved when she chose to keep quiet on that front and only asked about his farming activities and how he coped with all of the chores.
After this, we continued to eat and drink. When I looked at my watch, I couldn’t believe how quickly time had passed throughout the pleasant evening, in the company of this delicious man about whom I wanted to get to know more.
What was left of the evening went swimmingly, and although I still couldn’t gauge Ralph’s age, I didn’t think I was too young to have a ‘thing’ with him. As we left, he thanked us all for a fabulous evening and made a promise to be in contact again soon, and to help Dad with the roof when his brother arrived. When he kissed me goodbye on both cheeks, I thought he lingered a bit longer than he had done with my mother. He put his arms on my shoulders as he did it and I certainly didn’t feel like a kid. I felt natural and comfortable and I wished to be held in his arms longer. To look into his eyes. To return the kiss, but this time on his lips.
“Come on you two, you’ve got school tomorrow,” Dad said. “It’s time for bed.
Both Dan and I looked daggers at Dad for saying such a thing. He made us sound like we were still little children.