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Authors: Ruth Silvestre

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For days afterwards all one could hear were sounds of hammers and saws. Adam and Mike mended our roof, replacing all the broken tiles. The chimney had to wait until the winter as M. René was working every daylight hour. Although this was our first such
experience, sudden local hailstorms are not unknown in the region. Grandpa told us that when he was a boy the church bells would be rung and farmers living on high ground would try to fire rockets into the storm clouds to prevent them spiralling upwards and then, as they cooled, falling as hail. More recently, they had experimented with hiring light aircraft to attempt to disperse the clouds but, as this was expensive and not particularly successful they finally gave up the struggle to control the elements and settled for insurance. ‘But they only pay me for one harvest,’ said Raymond. ‘It’s taken me fifteen years to get that orchard so beautiful. Now look at it. No amount of money can compensate for that.’

‘I’m sorry to have to bid you farewell without the light in my eyes,’ he said to Adam the following day, as he and Cas left for England. The violence of the storm had sorely tested his normal stoicism and had stunned us all.


Whenever the weather kept us indoors we got out the hat box. As we gradually sorted out those letters which were in one piece a cast of characters assembled to intrigue us, Alphonse and Delphine, Henri Mauriac, Fernand, Clothilde, who were they all? Matthew was interested in a small, faded photograph of a soldier in a red velvet frame, the number 20 clearly visible on his collar. He stands proudly, his epauletted shoulders
squared, a cigarette deliberately poised between thumb and forefinger. He thought this might be Justin and was proved right when, at the bottom of the box, we found a certificate of good conduct from the 20th Infantry Regiment which, the date of birth being November 26, 1866, had clearly belonged to Justin, although it seemed that he had been christened Jean. Here was his description; 1.67 metres tall with brown hair and eyes, an oval face, a long nose and a pointed chin.

We found a touching letter from a child to her Grandfather, presumably old Sieur Pierre Costes, written in 1911 and signed Esther. ‘Of course she’s Esther Blanc now,’ said Grandma casually.

‘She’s still alive?’ This was unexpected good luck.

‘Very much so. She’s eighty-three now but she partners Grandpa at whist every other Thursday. You should talk to her. I’ll arrange it.’ A few days later Grandma and I were eating sponge cakes and drinking sweet white wine with Esther Blanc in her little house in the next village where she has lived since she was born. Her mind was sharp but like many old people, she leaped from the past to the present and back again without warning and she spoke so fast that I found her difficult to follow.

She did confirm that the photograph was Justin. ‘There were three brothers,’ she said. ‘My father, Célestin, was the youngest. They were all born at Bel-Air and their mother died in childbirth, it would have
been a girl.’ She looked with affection at the picture of Anaïs and her son, which I had brought with me. ‘Ah what a good woman she was,’ she said. ‘I remember her much better than my Uncle Justin of course, she was
.’ She explained that she had been far too burdened with looking after her own aged parents and those of her husband to care for her Aunt and cousin when they grew old. Then I realised that this, of course, was
la nièce
of whom Raymond had spoken when he had told me about the life annuity agreement with which he had acquired Bel-Air.

This summer Mme Esther came up to visit our house which she had not seen since Anaïs’s funeral in 1963. As she stepped through the door she smiled delightedly round her. ‘
Ah, vous avez gardé le buffet de ma Tante et sa table
,’ she murmured, rubbing her frail hand across the surface, given an extra polish for the occasion. ‘This house was always spotless,’ she said firmly. ‘
Ma tante
was most particular.’ She looked approvingly at the photograph now hung on the wall. I offered her white wine or tea with lemon. Surprisingly she accepted the tea and ate a rock-cake with obvious pleasure. She found it good and as she ate she remembered a story her father had told her about himself and his two brothers being woken in the night at Bel-Air by the glow of a huge fire, a barn burning not too far away. Terrified, they called their father but he was not at home. It was then that they discovered
from their nearest neighbours their father’s habit of waiting until his boys were asleep before setting off across the fields to visit his mistress at a distant farm. Mme Esther chuckled. ‘That was the night they got found out.’

She sat reminiscing for over an hour while I cursed my inadequate French and wished she would speak more slowly. She did try but after the first sentence she would forget and the words would tumble out at ever increasing speed. I had found a letter in its black-edged envelope which she had written to Anaïs in 1919, the year of Justin’s death.
Je n’ose vous dire ces mots qui sembleraient cruellement ironiques et vides de sens: Bonne année
, she had written. Mme Esther re-read her own words after so many years and wiped her eyes. ‘Ah madame,’ she said, ‘there are many sadnesses in life, are there not? I too lost my husband with cancer and also my daughter. My son too has been ill but, thank God, he is getting better,’ she smiled.

A car turned into our drive and a child’s footsteps ran up to the porch. It was Mme Esther’s daughter-
and grand child come to fetch her. The old lady hauled herself stiffly out of the chair to embrace the small brown-limbed girl who stood gazing round the room sucking her finger. In her striped T-shirt and luminous trainers she blew away the shadows of the past and jolted us back to the present. ‘This is my Natalie,’ said her grandmother proudly. ‘I have four
grandchildren, they keep me young.’ Together we walked to the car and before leaving she turned to look at Bel-Air. ‘
Ma tante
Anaïs, she loved this house,’ she said firmly, anxiously almost. ‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve always known.’

The next summer, having been spoilt by the flight to Toulouse but needing a car in France, we sought ways of making the journey less arduous. At six o’clock one evening we put the car on the train at Boulogne, ate a picnic, slept peacefully all night and awoke refreshed to breakfast in the station buffet at Brive, in the Dordogne, at five o’clock. All that remained was a few hours of leisurely driving through glorious countryside in the early dawn.

We had always previously avoided the town of Rocamadour, knowing it to be like any shrine in the
tourist season, crammed with visitors and charabancs. Now we took a chance and, slipping in quietly before seven, found it deserted. Alone we climbed the great stone staircase where thousands of pilgrims have passed, some on their knees to expiate a crime, and found at the top, by great good luck, a friendly woman who was just about to clean the chapel of the Dark Virgin. We stood, the three of us and the vacuum cleaner, for a few moments of silence before the simple wooden statue with her compelling smile.

This was the first summer that we really began to notice the northward march of the sunflowers. Previously confined to Van Gogh country they had already begun to move west to the valley of the Garonne. Now we saw their huge green heads in bud in the Dordogne, oddly out of place in this region of sombre valleys and castled crags. As we drew nearer to our village we saw that some of our neighbouring farmers had also planted
les tournesols.
We wondered about Bel-Air. Normally we would have known what Raymond had planted that spring but, determined that the danger of having a second home and never going anywhere else must be avoided, we had taken our early holiday in Crete.

As we drove into our village we stopped to greet Mme Barrou who was weeding yet another crop of carrots. Proferring the back of her muddy hand through the car window she beamed, ‘
Eh alors, vous
êtes arrivés…très bien
.’ We discussed the weather and the crops. No, she hadn’t planted sunflowers, she was waiting to see how the others got on. We started to go. ‘
Attendez, attendez
,’ she yelled, and two large bunches of carrots fell onto the back seat of the car.

Raymond had one field of sunflowers to see how they yielded but it was ripe wheat which covered
le grand champ
in a sea of shimmering bronze. At the side of our track, waiting for the combine harvester to arrive, lay the long green container for the grain. ‘When will she come,
la moissoneuse?
’ we asked.

‘Demain ou après-demain s’il ne pleut pas pendant la nuit
,’ Raymond answered, looking anxiously at the sky. I could see no sign of rain. The night was hot. The thermometer on our porch read 79 degrees when we went to bed, but by the next morning pale clouds drifted across and there was the sound of distant thunder. The smell of grain was sweet on the stormy air for
had started early and we knew that as long as the rain held off she would trundle back and forth until the field was finished. Happily all the corn was harvested before three nights of heavy rain were each followed by brilliantly sunny days. The earth steamed, growth was so rapid as to be almost visible, and the distant fields of sunflowers changed from a golden flecked green to a blaze of yellow.

A strange bird flew into the house. Panic stricken it beat its wings in a frenzy to escape and we opened
every door and window trying to assist it. Later as we described it to Raymond he said that it sounded like a quail. ‘If it was
la caille
,’ he grinned, ‘it would have been better to have opened the door of the oven.’ The next day we heard the quail’s strange ‘whoop whoop whoop’ call across the fields and he told us the old saying that the more times she repeated her call, the higher would be the yield of corn.

The old, clacking baler had been put away in one of Raymond’s many barns to become another machine
. After the combine harvester another new monster munched
le grand champ
in a tenth of the time, turning the straw into giant rounds, seven feet high, which waited solemnly to be collected. Raymond bought a great two-pronged
, which transformed the tractor into a dangerous stag beetle. He came up to Bel-Air to show it to Mike, clearly hoping for some moral, if not physical, support while he tried it out. Mike, always happy to drive a tractor and trailer, disappeared and I watched them working together, Raymond, with lowered
, charging the bales and once they were impaled, levering them up onto the trailer.

When the straw had been in small bales we had all helped to stack them neatly in the barn. We tossed them from the trailer onto a
, a mounting conveyor belt, which, as the stack grew higher, carried them to the top of the barn where Raymond
arranged them in neat row after row. Inside the barn the temperature rose as the sun-drenched straw filled every space. He took great pride in having his barns in impeccable order. Now it was quicker but much more difficult. When, after an hour of manoeuvering the massive rounds with
la fourche
, Raymond surveyed the tall, off-centre columns, his face was glum. ‘
Ce n’est pas aussi joli que d’habitude
,’ he said sadly, as he shut the barn doors. Other things were changing too. He grew no tobacco that year. It was partly the low prices the dealers were paying but also a matter of conscience. Grandpa was becoming frailer and worked less in the fields. He spent a great deal of time checking the fences and making sure that the cows had water.


We decided to convert our old prune oven on the west side of the house into a small studio. The hedgehogs had found another home and we stacked the wood in Raymond’s barn. Mike had taken early retirement and was increasingly busy writing and illustrating children’s books. Since all our visitors congregated just outside the front porch for breakfast and then moved gradually eastwards, we thought it might make a quiet haven. M. René, also now officially retired but happy as ever to earn
argent liquide
, came one morning for consultations bringing with him le Barbu, his new assistant. A Spanish Basque with a silvery beard a foot long, he had lived locally for over twenty years but
his French was so idiosyncratic that it took a great deal of getting used to. Although in his early sixties, le Barbu was lithe and energetic. He drank no alcohol and would work, apart from the usual two hour break at midday, from eight in the morning to eight at night with no sign of fatigue.

M. René was in the process of helping him to build a house which was almost finished. Le Barbu, having run out of funds, now worked for M. René who paid him, not in cash but in materials and labour. ‘Where is your house?’ we enquired.

‘Oh, not far from the Château,’ he said. ‘There was
une très vieille maison
there on the lane but it was a ruin – falling down. I’ve used a lot of the stones and of course I have to keep the old name. It’s called
La Cavalière
.’ This was an odd coincidence for on one of Adam’s early visits to Bel-Air he had roamed the countryside with a camera and the place which had most fascinated him, and to which he had later taken me, was this same ruin near the Château. I remembered the pear tree which grew through the roof. At supper one evening he described its haunted atmosphere to Raymond, telling him of a crumbling, ex-army greatcoat which still hung behind the door. ‘The last person to live there,’ said Raymond, ‘was a Polish refugee from the war. The house is called
La Cavalière
.’ But that was not all. We had recently managed to decipher the oldest documents in the
hat-box, finding that they pre-dated the Revolution and they concerned one Pierre St Antoine Laroque. In various contracts written in 1758, 1765 and 1768 he is reminded that he must pay
les impositions Royales
la rente au Seigneur
. The next document, written in the seventh year of the Republic and dated
le dix-neuf Prarial
, the new name for June in the Revolutionary calendar, concerns his son,
Citoyen Jean Roquer demeurant au lieu appelé La Cavalière
. Now, working with us at Bel-Air was le Barbu who had finally demolished everything except the name,
La Cavalière.

The work on our new
began with deliveries of sand and gravel which M. René typically dumped in the least convenient place, right in the path of anyone wishing to unroll the hose to water the garden. There were two small openings in the walls of the prune oven, one where the chimney had protruded, which we filled, the other, a small window about ten inches square, covered in Virginia creeper, which we planned to enlarge. As we hacked down the creeper and dug out the roots, as thick as arms and with laterals ten feet long, we discovered that they had penetrated into the drain which took away the clean water. When we pulled out the solid, woven mesh we understood why the creeper flourished so abundantly and the bath water took so long to run away.

We bought a simple, ready-made wooden
windowframe and chose a section of an old oak beam for a lintel. We imagined that M. René would first knock out just enough of the wall to insert the lintel before enlarging the hole for the window, but nothing so simple. Le Barbu who, I then learned with some unease, was by trade a shepherd, pounded away with a crow bar until it seemed to me that there was a hole large enough for two windows. The pile of stones from the wall grew higher. Just as I felt that the whole structure might well collapse, they decided that it might be the moment to put in the heavy lintel, and with many a groan and cry they inched it up. Then the wiry little shepherd appeared to be supporting most of the weight on his back while M. René struggled with two well-worn adjustable props which he had clearly forgotten to check before this precise moment. ‘
Ah malheur!
’ he repeated, the sweat rolling down his fat red face. The corroded pegs were reluctant to budge. Le Barbu said nothing.

Each day they made an early start as by four in the afternoon the sun had moved round to beat on their backs. We noticed that M. René had begun to set the window in with grey cement and were glad that we were there. He cheerfully admitted that a cream colour would be more attractive and, unperturbed, drove off some eight miles to get it while we rigged up a tarpaulin to protect both them and the cement from the blazing heat. The window finished and the
rebuilt wall cemented we were pleased with the result. The other interior wall we decided to leave
pierres apparentes
like the one in our bedroom and we asked M. René about having them both sandblasted.

A few days later the machine and its operator arrived. Protected by thick gloves and a sort of diver’s helmet, inch by inch he began to clean the wall of the new
and also the high narrow pine doors which began to look very handsome. The following day he planned to do the wall in our bedroom. We had cleared the room by the time M. René arrived, bringing a large roll of plastic which he cut into lengths. He and Mike stapled them over the window and doors but unfortunately they missed a long, hairline crack between the door frame and the wall into the living-room. I was sitting at the table when the sandblasting began and after the first twenty minutes had become accustomed to the noise in the next room. The operator suddenly changed direction and down the whole length of the unsuspected crack a jet of sand blasted into the living room, covering everything, including me. In seconds the air was full of it, the room like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, but my yells were inaudible and it was not until I had run right round the house to the door of the bedroom that they stopped the machine. And the next day we were expecting guests! That night, by the time we had washed all the china on the dresser – each cup contained a tablespoon of sand – shaken out
every book, cleaned the cooker and every surface and swept about three feet of surprisingly heavy sand from our bedroom floor we were exhausted; but the wall looked good.

For the next two days M. René and le Barbu patiently pointed the stones with a cream cement leaving them proud, as asked, and we were pleased with the whole project. The new
had a splendid view. It now needed a floor and we planned to tile it with a terracotta brick which we would extend to cover the whole porch area – but that could wait until the following spring. We had to admit that we no longer had the same energy as when we first bought Bel-Air.

We lazed in the sun and swam in our friends’ pool. More new friends, this time an English couple, Ruth and Edward Thomas, had a house about two miles away. Extremely rich and even more generous, their hospitality was lavish and unbounded and they invited us and any of our friends to use their beautiful pool. We introduced Raymond and Claudette and this year Raymond has finally conquered a very real fear of water and begun to swim. After his first few strokes he laughed aloud for sheer delight. ‘
C’est incroyable!
Quelle sensation, c’est bizarre
,’ he said, shaking the water from his ears. ‘
Eh Claudette, regarde, regarde
,’ he cried, plunging in once more.

BOOK: A House in the Sunflowers
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