24th – 25th April: The Long Goodbyes


(Mark Sampson) #1

Little by little the chateau I 'guard' is reverting to its original French ownership. I've never researched its history, because the building doesn't interest me that much; more the inhabitants. It's a big late 19th century seigniorial statement that sits grandly on a bluff above the village where the peasants lived and maybe kow-towed to the aristocrat who commissioned it.


I think it was conceived as a hunting lodge. I quite like to think that the peasants revolted and commandeered the pompous chateau, but I think the march of time just gradually overtook it. Over the decades, hard times befell the manor and/or its lord(s) and it became a centre de vacances for all those young French children, like Le Petit Nicolas, who even now get sent off each summer to a colonie of their peers.


One day, wandering around the outhouses which were due to be part 2 of the renovation project, I came across a big box of small children's boots. You can read that both ways: boots for small children and small boots for children. In any case, there was something a little sinister about it. Almost like stumbling upon a hoard of personal effects at a concentration camp. My disquiet wasn't helped by finding an old shower block in the woods.


The whole caboodle was bought by some property developer from across the water, who had come from Australia to settle in an exclusive village in Hampshire. My ex-neighbour here showed me a double-paged spread in his Daily Mail one day. It was all about this guy and his wife and their dream of owning a French chateau. We conjectured that he must have paid for a journalist to come over here and write some PR fluff to attract buyers.


If so, it certainly did the trick. The property market was at its zenith back then and he sold five of the nine conceived as part 1 of the renovation project at silly prices. My ex-neighbour met the man and told me that he needed someone to look after the place, because the young woman from the village beneath the chateau had 'left'. Since I was looking for some kind of regular income source, would I like him to effect an introduction?


It was a bizarre kind of meeting, because we made up a doubles team for a game of tennis with my neighbours on their private court (which they'd had blasted out of this limestone scarp slope). Warning bells should have rung when the pot-bellied white-haired man turned up in a pure white kit with not one but two racquets. He played to win, unlike our gracious hosts. It was clear that he thought of himself as some kind of latter-day Lew Hoad, his boyhood hero. Unfortunately, he didn't play at his best and Ro next door, who was an accomplished tennis gal, returned his serves with stylish ease. The man's temper got worse and worse. He even blamed the surface of their court for his poor display. He had to be Australian; someone British would never be so ill-mannered as to blame their hosts' tarmac.


Nevertheless, I gave it a try. But it didn't take too long to discover just how odious a couple he and his unctuous wife were. They were described by my friends, the Vincents, who have just taken leave of their apartment, as the iron fist and the velvet glove. They retained one of the apartments for their own use. Inside it, there was a curious corpulent ornamental double bass, which came to symbolise for me the man's own seigniorial ambitions. Clearly he liked to lord it over others. He referred to the co-proprietors, who had bought his apartments at inflated prices and who then had the temerity to demand that the place be finished in accordance with the marketing blurb, by their surnames. The local tradesmen were all incompetent fools. And, despite the fact that he had bought a property in Europe, he intended to stand as a politician for the embryonic UKIP party. Clearly, in the immortal words of Fela Kuti, he considered himself some important trouser.


One day I witnessed the pair of them humiliate some charming Polish woman, who cried on my shoulder after the assault. I waited for my pay cheque to arrive in the bank at the end of the month and, at the end of another horrible telephone conversation with the man – who always adopted the tone of some Victorian public school headmaster addressing some errant pupil in his study – I told him to mount his bicycle and pedal off to parts unknown.


It all of course ended in tears. The usual sorry tale of greed and overreaching ambition. To this day, for example, the three luxury duplexes under the roof have remained unsold. They'd make great second homes – for a family of dwarves. Instead of making smaller apartments with generous ceilings, the architect and the lord of the manor (who ended up in court when their business relationship ended up in a messy divorce) pinched the headroom for a second floor in which you'd be constantly bashing your head on the low-slung beams of the compressed ceilings.


Once the important trouser and his wife were ancient history, I went back as guardian to do what I could to extricate the co-proprietors from the mess that they were left. No one knows quite what happened to the fist and glove. They left a trail of debts and a lot of bad feeling when they fled (with their ornamental double bass and other effects, probably in the middle of one night when the gendarmes wouldn't be abroad). Their house in England was seen on the market for some exorbitant asking price. The consensus is that they went back to Australia, where I trust they have both been eaten by a great white shark.


Gradually, united by a common enemy and false promises, things were put right. Meanwhile, however, the bottom fell out of the French property market. The trouser's apartment was sold for a knock-down price to a delightful couple of Bretons to pay off some of the debts – and this created a certain amount of jealousy and ill feeling, particularly when the new couple started letting their apartment to holidaymakers in the height of the summer. Two more pairs of Brits sold up to natives at a significant loss. And the trésor public now owns two of the unsold (and unfinished) apartments in lieu of unpaid taxes.


Now the Vincents have gone, too. They're both around 80 now, so it's hardly surprising what with the long journey from the Home Counties. Over the years, they have delighted and exasperated me in equal measure. On one hand, their extreme privilege galls. As if accustomed to living with a retinue of servants all their days, they are both totally impractical and, not to put too fine a point on it, incompetent. I have been called out on a number of occasions to tighten a screw or nut or to push a trip switch with sufficient vigour to restore power. They are always effusively grateful, but there's always a slight lingering feeling of noblesse oblige.


On the other hand, however, they come here to read books and to enjoy the peace and quiet that the French experience has offered them. Edgar has become an author in his well-heeled retirement and his monumental tome on Nelson has become the Yale University Press's best-selling book of all time. The Good Wife and I have been invited on several occasions to the most exquisitely served dinners in their very tastefully appointed apartment. We have been plied with their hand-me-down books and both of us have enjoyed some of the most stimulating cultural conversations in 20 years of life in France. They don't make 'em like that anymore, and it's like we have revelled in the company of an endangered species.


On Saturday morning, I went up to read their meters for the last time, to meet the French couple who have bought no.9 and to say my fond farewells. I was a little bleary-eyed from the rare experience of staying up late the night before, but still getting up at six to let young bearded Daphne out to make pee-pee on the lawn. I'd been in my element, though: DJ-ing at a social event in Meyssac's foyer culturel and playing some of the best world dance music I could muster at short notice. As usual, though, I had to contend with someone intent on harrying someone trying to concentrate on pleasing the majority. She's a queer fish at the best of times, with a reputation for being waspish. In the end, she did my head in once too often and, losing both my calm and any residual command of the French language, I told her to be off with herself.


In the Vincents' denuded apartment, we all shook hands and behaved with much more propriety than I had done the night before. I smiled to hear Edgar go through certain items in his carefully measured and technically correct French, sounding unerringly like a dinner-jacketed BBC wireless announcer talking to the masses from Alexandra Palace. Elizabeth's own strangled attempts at French made me wonder what on earth she has been doing in almost 30 years of regular visits to France. Gardening and reading heavyweight books, I guess.


We went outside into the drizzle for the ceremonious reading of the meters and I got a chance to talk to the new owners. They're young and French and they live down south in the shadow of the Pyrenees. It's one of the most beautiful places on earth, so I wondered why they bothered with a second home in the Lot. It was just a coup de foudre, it seems. Madame never even saw it; just the video that her husband took on his phone. That was enough. Anyway, they seemed very pleasant and the Vincents were clearly content to be handing over to them.


And so I said my long goodbyes to the delightful antiquated tenants of Wildfell Hall. We promised to keep in touch and they vowed to come back to holiday in the area. It was all rather moving. Later, back at home, I just missed the telephone. It was Edgar. I listened to his amiable and stilted message. Both of them were terribly embarrassed, but they'd got to the Porte de Corrèze service station only to realise that they'd forgotten to shut the shutters in the bathroom. Would you mind terribly, old boy...? Ah, exasperating to the last. I'm really going to miss them.