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Authors: Ruth Silvestre

A House in the Sunflowers (19 page)

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The sunflowers burned almost black and were harvested leaving a field of stalks which Raymond chopped all day in a swirl of dust. The following day, while he began the plum harvest, we decided to begin working on the west terrace with M. René. The more we looked at the state of the timbers of the porch roof the more sensible it seemed to replace them when we raised the dangerous beam. Clearly when
le charpentier
had originally done the whole roof twelve years previously he had either run out of enthusiasm or money by the time he had reached that end of the building. Now that the old prune oven was to be used as a studio it was essential to make it watertight and dustproof. We looked up at the smoke-blackened
triangle of crumbling rough-cast at the very top of the wall. That too would look so much better if we cleaned it off. Now we realised that we should have done all this work before tiling the floor.

We bought £80 worth of new roof timbers,
chevrons et voliges
, rafters and laths. We laid a plastic sheet over our brick-tiled floor and then covered it with the new wood. The demolition began. I soon realised just how heavy Roman terracotta roof tiles are, as I helped to remove and stack them. The old worm-eaten roof timbers made another stack of firewood and then we jacked up the heavy beam until the tallest of us could pass beneath it. As we began to tap away the dirty rough-cast the handsome stones beneath emerged. As we worked down the wall we uncovered the hand-cut stones of an early archway. We repointed the stones with a cream cement and then M. René and Le Barbu rebuilt the roof.

They started before eight-thirty in the morning, worked until midday when M. René drank an aperitif, and then disappeared. They began again at two and worked until eight. When I brought them lemon tea and biscuits at five they accused me of teaching them bad habits, but they drank the tea. There was a slight problem next day when they replaced the tiles. For some obscure reason they each began at opposite ends. This did not matter with the underneath, stop tiles, for they lock into place, but the curved canal
tiles can be overlapped as little or as much as one wishes. It was Mike who realised that there would be a problem when they met, or rather did not meet, in the middle. I went for a walk while he pointed this out as tactfully as possible and we helped them begin again. ‘
Impeccable!
’ said M. René happily when it was finished. And it was.

 

My sister and her husband arrived for a week with enough clothes for a month, not sure what weather to expect at the very end of September. The plum machine shook the last tree, folded its wings and hibernated. The last few plums which fell to earth stayed there as Raymond busied himself with greasing the
montecharge
, the elevator, and dragging it out of the barn. He cleared the ground around the base of
le crib
, the tall, narrow cage in which the corn cobs are stored, the grain being stripped later. The harvester and driver arrived the following morning, and the elevator was positioned so that the cobs would drop into the end of the crib. I went down to the edge of the field of maize to watch the first cut.

High in his cabin the driver grinned and waved. The wide machine, scarlet against the blue sky, had four glistening steel rockets on the front. The driver lowered his sights and charged. Four rows of stalks ten feet tall went down like feathers and the cobs were stripped. When the machine was full the back rose up
to disgorge the golden shower into a waiting trailer which in its turn carried the load and tipped it into the base of the elevator. The cobs flowed upwards to tumble at the top into the cage. Raymond was everywhere, the first section almost full he ran up the ladder to rake the piled cobs flat and lower the first roof section to protect them, then down again to attend to the machine which had stopped. Something was jammed. He threw the motor into reverse and restarted it. ‘Could someone pick up those?’ he pleaded, pointing to the cobs which had missed the crib. Someone could. It made a change from lifting roof tiles.

The first section full, the elevator was repositioned and all the loose grain underneath had to be shovelled into a sack. Someone else, my brother-
in-law,
volunteered. ‘What a pity you don’t have any chicken,’ shouted Raymond as he hauled the elevator into place and switched it on to propel another yellow stream upward. Tractors and trailers trundled to and fro. Everything was motion until without warning the elevator stopped again. Now it seemed it would only work in reverse. What to do? My sister and I, not in the least bit interested in machines that don’t work, sat chatting, while the men, including the combine driver, held conference. Various remedies were suggested but in the end they reversed all the wiring and once again the corn cobs clattered to the top where Raymond leapt about with his rake.

With only one more trailer full to unload, the field a massacre of broken and twisted stalks and empty paper sheaths, the elevator once again hiccupped and was silent. Raymond cursed. It was almost dark. The only possible solution was to couple it to the drive of the tractor, itself twenty years old. As the final load inched its way up we heaved a sigh of relief. The last strip of sunset faded and we shivered in a sudden breeze which had a touch of autumn.

Supper for fifteen was ready at the long table, soup, saucisson, croque monsieur, roast guinea fowl, pommes dauphine and floating island, and we drank our ‘81 which we had matured in the famous oak barrel for four years. Inevitably Raymond told tales of the corn harvests
d’autrefois
and the communal stripping of the sheaths from the cobs. ‘We would all gather in the barn,’ he said, ‘a great crowd of us. We always ate sardines and bread and what
les
jeunes
enjoyed was finding the mouldy cobs, there were always a few, and we would daub our faces with them.’ He sighed.

Even as the farmers in this region of
la polyculture
group together to buy sophisticated machinery, as they enlarge and modernise their
coopératives
for processing their grapes and plums, as they change crops to take advantage of financial inducements, soya beans, strawberries and sunflowers replacing wheat and tobacco, their pride in the new is tempered by a real nostalgia. At local midsummer
fêtes
the old
and not so old delight in demonstrations of ancient machinery. Dressed in their best clothes they reminisce, seeming to enjoy being covered in chaff and dust as sweating volunteers hurl forks full of wheat into a snorting clanking steam-driven threshing machine. The very old laugh. To them even this is modern. They can remember machines pulled by oxen, a child following behind with an old saucepan to catch the excrement lest it spoil the wheat, and the great meals that were served afterwards for twenty or thirty harvesters, and always the best wines from
la cave. ‘Ah les beaux jours d’autrefois
,’ they sigh as they go home in their Volvos and Renaults and telephone the entrepreneur to see when the combine harvester might arrive.

Only
la vendange
still has something of the olden days about it, as we had discovered. The last grapes were to be picked on Monday and we would leave on the following day. All day Sunday while we closed the other bedrooms, covering the beds with plastic sheets and putting the linen and pillows in lavender scented chests, Claudette was cooking. She and Grandma even made two
tourtières
. It was not only the last day of l
a vendange
but the last harvest meal of the year. ‘And we shall be able to relax,’ said Raymond, ‘the grapes are for
vin de Pays, les Cabernets Sauvignon et les Merlots
. We don’t have very many and we shall be finished by midday. That will please Mme Barrou,’ he laughed.

Next morning as we were waiting to start we were introduced to a farmer whose land adjoins our own. I recognised him but I had never seen his wife, a sad creature with gnarled hands and cruelly veined legs. She was very shy and her French was difficult to understand. Eventually she told me that she was, like her husband, originally from Italy. He had been brought by his parents as a baby but she, without a word of French, had come when she was eighteen to be married. ‘I was so lonely,’ she said.

‘Do you remember Anaïs at Bel-Air?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she smiled, ‘she would wave to me but I could not speak to her. I could not make friends.’

Mme Barrou roared into the courtyard on her Solex as the bee-keeper,
le garagiste
and their wives arrived in an ex-Post Office van. Carrying our baskets we walked down to the vineyard and began. ‘I am getting past this,’ said the bee-keeper, puffing slightly. ‘I only come to pick these because they were planted on
les hautes tiges
, not so much bending!’

‘I love
la vendange
,’ said his wife, ‘you know that once it is in everything is done, and it’s not too hot to work.’ The air was soft and warm, the pickers as mature as the grapes and we worked at a leisurely pace. The bell for midday sounded from the church and Mme Barrou decided to go home to change her working dress before lunch. Walking back to the house I found it hard to believe that in two days I would be
back in London. We had been here for three months, our longest stay ever.

There were wonderful smells in the dining room. Everyone smiled in anticipation. As he passed me an aperitif Raymond whispered, ‘you will sing, Ruth, won’t you? It’s the last day. I’m warning you beforehand so you can think about it.’ He smiled
half-apologetic,
half-mischievous. It ruined my appetite but not for long. I knew the acoustics were good. If I were singing on some after-dinner engagement in London I would be outside waiting while everyone else ate, worrying about the state of the piano, the band and the microphone. Here there were none of these.

Unaccompanied I sang the songs which over the years I have learned that they love, ‘
J’attendrai’, ‘Le Temps des Cerises’
and
‘Le Blé d’Or
’. I was sitting opposite my Italian neighbour and when for her I sang ‘
Santa Lucia
’ her eyes filled with tears. Claudette, passing behind me with the coffee pot hissed, ‘
Chantez “Granada”, Ruth
.’ Heaven help me! We had listened to ‘Granada’ sung with an expert flamboyance by José Carreras on television a few nights before. But how could I refuse? I would never have an audience like this in London. These are not well-to-do sophisticates out for an evening’s diversion. I look at their faces, their hands. Our backs ache and we have worked together, and they are kind people. I sing and am grateful for such an audience.

That night, as though they know we are leaving, there is a mouse in the bathroom and a tree-frog on the bedroom shutter. What will we enjoy in London? Our other home. Other friends and neighbours, a piano, the theatre, concerts and everything else that London offers. Carpets, central heating, good television and work, if there is any, will ease us through the first cold months of the new year.

As the days warm and lengthen we shall begin to think about returning to Bel-Air. We know that whatever happens in the coming year it will be there, tucked into the hillside, its head down against the westerlies, waiting to restore us all. The cats and owls will chase the mice in the attics which we leave open for the clean sweet air to blow through.
Les Bertrand
will telephone, ‘
il fait beau, le coucou est arrivé, vous venez?
’ And we shall begin making plans.

A la prochaine fois!

The author cannot claim to be an expert on buying property in France but the following information may be useful.

In France estate agents’ charges are higher than in England. Commission may vary between 4% and 10%. Usually the cheaper the property the higher is the commission. With good French, buying from the vendor directly may be possible but beware the farmer whose long-empty property awaits
un pigeon
, someone with more money than sense.

The choice of house is, of course, an entirely personal affair. ‘If in doubt, don’t buy,’ might be good advice. Article 1642 of the Code Civil protects a vendor against liability for any obvious defects so it is important to check for these and bargain accordingly. Water is metered, so a working well may be more than just a decorative feature.

Once a decision has been made, an agreement,
le compromis de vente
, must be signed by both parties
and a deposit of 10% paid. Once signed, both parties are committed. It is advisable to check all clauses with the
notaire
, who will act for both parties. This speeds up the process, but his fees are for the buyer to pay.

For any property classed as a ruin, or for substantial alterations to an existing property, a
permit de construire
is required. Before making drastic alterations, consideration of climate and prevailing winds may be wise. Most very old houses were built that way for a reason. In the South, in particular, before enlarging all the windows, it may be prudent to experience a day when it is 90°F in the shade. At least one cool, dark room may turn out to be a blessing.

Local rates and taxes vary but
Les Impots Locales
are divided into two parts:

Le Tax d’Habitation
, is based on the size and amenities, and a large proportion of it goes to benefit the local community. Automatically included in this is
Redevance Audiovisuelle
, a television licence. Opting out each year is necessary if you don’t have a television.

Les Taxes Foncieres
is a land tax providing funds for
La commune, le department, la region et divers organisms
!

If the track leading up to an isolated property is part of the
chemin rurale de la commune
, the owner is entitled to a free load of stones every two years.
The mayor will provide a chitty for the local supply. Getting on good terms with your mayor is essential. He, or she, will also provide a
permis de residence,
which is useful for bringing small items of furniture through customs. Good second-hand furniture is expensive in France.

Finally, if you have no French I would urge you to learn. It is a fascinating language, and imagine how much a French family buying a cottage in rural England would miss if they spoke not a word of English. I suggest that no matter how much they smiled, even the friendliest of locals would eventually tire of being addressed in French, however loudly, or slowly, they spoke.

And if, like me, becoming really bi-lingual looks like taking the rest of your life, what more stimulating way to spend it?

Bonne aventure!

BOOK: A House in the Sunflowers
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