March: Changing the Guard


(Mark Sampson) #1

Spring has been hovering around these parts over recent days like a hesitant guest and on Saturday morning there was a renewed spring in my step when I handed over my keys to the nearby chateau. I have been a guardian, chatelaine, keeper of a considerable bunch of keys, call it what you will, for nearly a decade now. Yet the ceremony was not tinged with sadness. I came home feeling a few pounds lighter – physically and figuratively – and shared a ceremonial cup of coffee with my wife and daughter.


In truth, things have changed for the worse over the last couple of years at the big house on the bluff. My gainfully occupied wife – who had one of her rare samedis libérés this last weekend – has been urging me to give it all up and knuckle down to the business of creating a best-selling masterpiece She doesn't realise how hard it is. Much easier to procrastinate by means of little jobs in the deluded idea that you are doing something useful and topping up the family coffers.


The rot set in a few years back as gradually the English proprietors sold up to their French counterparts. Nothing wrong with that, in principle. Some of my best friends are French et cetera, and it's right and proper in a way that the building should be restored to its countrymen and women. It's just that the new owners of the individual apartments, almost without exception, are seeking to rent their property to holidaymakers over the summer months to recoup their annual charges.


This has complicated things. Previously, the Brits owned their apartments because they wanted to holiday in them during the summer. Consequently, they tended to come for a few weeks in August and for the rest of the year the place would be deserted. This meant that I could potter about with all my keys once a week in autumn, winter and spring, and twice a week in summer – the second visit providing an opportunity to don my headphones, empty my head and listen to music as I pushed my vacuum cleaner gently up and down the king-sized pool, with nothing but pH levels to concern me. Money mainly for old rope.


The rot was compounded by the decision of someone at AGESSA, the body that assesses and demands social charges from writers and artists, that I could no longer count my work at the chateau as the work of a writer. I had claimed for some time that, because I wrote a weekly inspection report and translated e-mails and such like, my work as guardian could sneak in under a writer's umbrella. And frankly why not? It makes life so much simpler.


However, those who have experienced the reality of self-employment in France will know that one of the barriers that holds back the entrepreneurially minded is the absurd notion that you can have only one string to your professional bow. Hence all the familiar problems in the construction industry, because a plumber can't tile and an electrician can't plaster and so on. Jacks of all trades like my Dutch friend further down the crest have to hush up their flexibility. Customers may know, but not the authorities.


Anyway, it didn't wash for 2014 and beyond, so I had to set myself up as an auto-entrepreneur purely for my work as a guardian (even though, farcically, I am registered – at the suggestion of the helpful woman at the office – as an 'editor', which smacks surely of a return to Square 1). Whereas before I was charged around 15% for this work, I am now assessed for social charges at almost 25%. Since I haven't put up my hourly rate since undertaking to guard the chateau, I suddenly found that I was losing a quarter of my income at a stroke. Rather than standing still, I was going backwards. Time to get out.


Particularly since I am now in receipt of a small monthly stipend as a former employee of Her Majesty the Queen. The strength of the pound against the euro has made this well worth having. However, the smart money is now on a dramatic devaluation of sterling in the currency markets, which could see parity with both the euro and the dollar – or even worse. Whereupon, I might have to re-evaluate the situation. God forbid, I may even have to paddle up river to Andros and make jam.


Now that The Daughter has got her heart set on a course of study at Brighton Art College following her recent successful interview, I may have to make a lot of jam. Fruit juice, too. The Good Wife is under the orders of her nearest and dearest to work less not more, for the sake of her health. Besides, spring is trying hard to get its foot in the door, so I need help in the garden. The grass is looking like a shag-pile rug (where it hasn't been dug up by our inquisitive Terrierdor). One man went to mow, but couldn't do it all.


Talking of plumbers and Terrierdors, I wish I'd had a (video) camera primed the other day. Had I been able to capture it on film, it would have gone viral and we'd have become a dot.com millionaire overnight. It was one of those really dismal days that have been a feature of this post-Christmas warm-wet-winter-with-westerly-winds. The earnest young plumber from down the road was working at the building site on the far side of the Dog's Meadow, helping to transform the Parisians' embryonic pool house (or pullewce, as our intermittent neighbour pronounces it) into a temporary holiday home. I was standing by our front door, on the phone to my sister, looking ruefully at the rain. Then I spotted the plumber looking rueful on our lawn. I cut short my conversation and went to see what appeared to be the problem.


It turned out that he'd made the mistake of playing with Daphne, who visits the building site from time to time in search of soiled tissues. She'd grabbed his plumber's wool and run off with it. Believing it the Game of the Century, she was resisting all his entreaties. Then I spotted our dog with a great bunch of the wool clamped in her jaws. Being the same colour as her fur, it looked like she'd grown the kind of bushy beard commonly sported by an eccentric peer of the realm. Laugh? Well, it probably doesn't sound that funny without an illustration, but I nearly burst a pipe.


Daphne! I spoke firmly to the pup and she put it down immediately, an exemplary but uncommon display of obedience which gladdened my heart. With profuse apologies, I retrieved the bunch of shaggy wool and rendered it unto the plumber – who may even have used it later that afternoon when mending a tap in this house. The one that was fitted with a spare egg cosy several years ago lest someone should try to turn it on.


That tap's another long-running to-do struck from my list. I'm hoping that, with spring on the way and without the guardianship of the chateau, there will be more time for all those similar niggling little jobs. There's a new cat flap to fit, for one. After a special showing of Suffragette at the local cinema to mark International Women's Day (and having ducked out of the subsequent discussion, which probably dragged on into the early hours), we got back to find that Daphne had thrust her head through the flap once too often. It lay on the mat outside and a howling wind blew through the house. I've effected a temporary repair with super-glue, but the prognosis is not good.


In preparation for the changing of the guard last Saturday, I sat down on Friday afternoon in our reading area and tackled another long-standing job. After years of chucking them all in a relegated rucksack – and then wasting far too much time trying unidentified keys in locks – I collected all the keys that the new man would need on one handy if oversized ring. Each one attached to one of those plastic tags that they sell in places like Brico Depot. Each one labelled with the number of the apartment and the name of the proprietor. A beautiful job, though I say it myself.


I should have done it years ago.