Fast forward fifteen years.
Life happens. Births, deaths, marriages. Job changes. Retirement.
We bought a house in Wales, and that needed renovation. The house in France got left out all this time. Plans to retire over there changed. Grandchildren arrived, we were needed.
Finally we had a bit of money saved up and could do something about the house.
We hadn't been to the house for quite a while, but it was all right, I'd checked on Google Earth and it was still standing.
Actually when we got there finally, it wasn't too bad. It had in the French fashion shutters on the doors and windows, and we'd left them closed up. There was a bit of dust, and some of the packets of food in the cupboard were a bit the worse for wear - we had expected to be coming back in a month or two's time. Our cans of baked beans exploded when we opened them, but other than that we were fine.
The thing was that even before we'd left the place, it had been a bit basic. We'd never managed to get the central heating going. In fact the boiler was so old the instructions were in Egyptian heiroglyphics. The little gas water heater gave out after the first couple of years, so we had to boild kettlefuls of water, pour them into a bowl and use a jug to pour warm water over ourselves in the shower. But the final straw was the outside toilet, or karsi in familiar parlance.
The karsi was actually a normal-looking affair at first glance: however instead of a water tank, it had some strange sort of cylinder affair, which seemed to work on the mains water pressure. The water in that part of Normandy is actually fairly soft, but over the years a certain amount of limescale does build up, and it did so in the pipe taking water out to the karsi. The pressure dropped, and the flush stopped working. We were reduced to carrying buckets of water out with us. We built up muscles.Of course, after a long time of no visits, the first problem when arriving was not actually carrying out the buckets of water, it was getting through the jungle of brambles and perennial sweet peas to the sentry box in the first place. We habitually arrive late in the evening, in the dark. On the first recent return we had difficulty even getting the back door open for the ivy that had grown over it; then we had to get through the gauntlet of vegetation. It grabs you round the ankles, trips you up, but after a drive down from the ferry you have no choice. Anyway, you get used to the middle-of-the-night stagger out through the undergrowth, in the rain, half asleep. You don't actually like it, but you do get used to it.
Then the shower started to leak from under the porcelain shower tray.
And the light switch for the shower room? Well, my husband used to keep a rubber glove nearby for when he needed to switch the light on. Apparently there used to be a factory just up the road. When it was demolished there was a certain amount of recycling of odds and ends. At one time nearly every house in the village had one of those switches fitted somewhere in it. And every one was live.
So, there we were in the summer of 1999 with the keys to an empty house.
Well, naturally we'd brought a car full of stuff with us: a couple of Z-Beds (remember those), a camping stove, some pots and pans and crockery. The basics. I ate my first meal there sitting on the stairs.
We had thought to get really into the French country life there. What we found was that our next-door neighbours on one side were English. There were several more English families either living there permanently or with holiday homes around the small village. In fact it seemed at times as if every resident of Hampshire and his dog had bought a nice little house in France. Lovely, sociable people all. We played "Spot the English Car" in the supermarket car park.
After just a couple of days we went back home. Our task was done.
On our next visit we found out about the depots vente, places people take their unwanted goods for sale on consignment. They are wonderful places to rummage around, and we do love to rummage. In a short time we had a whole bedroom suite in the old French style, carved wooden doors and headboards and all, and a buffet or two-storey sideboard. And a fridge. We think that they must have been the property of an old French family, inherited with a house and not wanted by the younger generation. We wanted them though, they were perfect for our old cottage.
The only problem was getting the stuff home. The fridge and some smaller stuff came from nearby and went in the back of the car, but the sideboard and bedroom furniture were from further away. Not to worry, though; the depot vente will lend you a van if you leave your car with them as security.
It was a rather old Renault Master. It didn't have power steering. But me, I'll drive anything. So we loaded up and I drove this very heavy left-hand drive van with a steering wheel the size of the London Eye back to our house. At one junction I actually had to have two goes at getting round the corner. Luckily the roads in France are less busy than those in England, and I got back without enraging any French drivers.
Which is where we ran into problem no 2. The buffet was so heavy - solid wood - that I couldn't even get my end of the smaller top half off the ground, never mind up the four steps to the front door of the house. Our next-door neighbour came along at that moment, the French side not the English side. Did we need help? We certainly did. They carried the purchases in for us. What lovely people.
Problem no 3. The divan base of the bed is too big to get around the spiral staircase to the rooms upstairs. Solution: simple. We use the small room downstairs as a bedroom. No more problem.
A nearby furniture shop had some second hand things, a bed settee, table and six chairs. Gradually the house filled up. Cheap electrical appliances and a few more things from home, and we were living the good life over there.
We looked at a few houses throughout Normandy in the spring of 1999, and each one was - how shall I say it - different, but that's what happens when you haven't got a lot to spend.
There was one which, officially speaking, had no toilet at all. When we got there we found of course that there was a little hut perched over a drainage ditch, about which nobody was very specific. Also the house consisted of two buildings which touched at a corner but were otherwise unconnected, so that to go from living rooms to sleeping room you had to go outdoors. The current owner was obviously very proud of her little house, though: she had newspaper down on the floor of the living room so we wouldn't sully it. We didn't go very far in, as the room was stuffed as full as it would hold with china ornaments and knick-knacks and we were afraid of breaking something.
Then there was the one which was built in cob, or mud and straw to you and me, where you could see daylight through parts of the walls. What was worse to my sensibilites though was the way they had covered over a beamed ceiling with lambris, a sort of pine board cladding. Following exactly the contours of the beams underneath.
Then there was the one with the shower in the middle of the kitchen. I mean, in the middle, where normally you'd put a table, there was a shower cubicle.
And the one where all the furniture was piled up on tables and cupboards. "Don't worry," the agent said, "it's only flooded twice in the past twenty years."
Finally we got to our last town. As on most stops before, we found that the house we had been interested in had been sold months before, but they had some others we might be interested in. Apparently this was not an unusual ploy over there, where they would get you in the door with a picture of a neat little cottage which matched exactly what you might want in a holiday home, and then showed you the properties that were actually for sale, which looked nothing like your dream.
"We've just had this one come on the market," the agent said, showing us a picture of what looked like a dark little stone cottage. It was a sad story. The old couple had had a large family, and the last child, a son, was a little slow. All the other children had moved out, but he stayed on with his parents, and worked odd jobs hedging and ditching for the local council. Finally one day the council offered him a permanent job. Excitedly he cycled home to tell his parents, and was hit at a local pinch point by a car driven by a seventy year old man, and died. The parents couldn't face driving past the scene of their son's death every time they went to the small town nearby to do their shopping, and wanted to move away.
I have to say it wasn't a prepossessing house from the front, but when we went inside it had nearly everything we were looking for. It had a shower room of sorts, a couple of bedrooms, a reasonable kitchen/diner, in the French manner. Admittedly the toilet was outside in the garden, but not too far from the back door, and there were a few outbuildings that came with it, and about three quarters of an acre of land. It was the best of those we'd seen on that trip, it ticked the boxes, and it was immediately habitable if you weren't too fussy. It grew on me. The back view was better than the front view.
We bought it.
Doreen lives in the empty bit in the middle of Wales, where since her retirement she has taken up writing. She says it's better than working any day.
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