The phone suddenly burst into life with a jolt of energy, and picking it up, I heard a distant voice asking, “Susan? Susan? Is that you? I think I may have found something………”and my heart gave a lurch of excitement; the dread I had been feeling for a week lifting tantalisingly off my chest. There were more words on the other end of the line, but I was already gone, drifting back to France and the sound of cicadas.
With five children at school and a house to pack, we’d decided it was Roddy’s turn to go house-hunting. We’d all lived in France before, and we knew what we wanted this time, going back to a country we loved so much. So we’d drawn up a check-list of things that were vital to the purchase, along with a second list of things that would be ‘nice’. We’d already chosen the area, the Charente Maritime, since the prospect of living in France’s second sunniest region appealed to us greatly and we also wanted to be within fifteen minutes of the coast and not too far from a year-round airport. The seaside, figs, lemons, olives, grapes and melons drifted in and out of our conversations as we discussed the move, and there was much muttering about beach life and coastal marshlands.
Roddy knew La Rochelle well from a previous life spent amongst boats, and so he packed a small bag one late June morning and I drove him to the airport as we discussed gardens, rooms, schools and resources. An hour later I was driving back home, chagrined I was not going myself, but confident enough he would find something from the list of properties we had booked to see.
Except he didn’t.
For five days, he drove his little hire-car back and forth across the region, and down dusty little coastal roads by the sea. He sent nightly reports from a remote chambres d’hôtes via intermittent internet, his iPad growing hot each night as we discussed properties seen and discarded, and he slowly whittled down the list of appointments till there were none left. He called me on the evening of the fourth night in some disarray, and we discussed our choices. There was nothing to be found that matched our list of requirements; certainly not for the budget we had in mind, anyway. Each house he visited had some heinous problem with it; whether it was its isolation, or lack of schools, the distance to a town or distance from the coast; there was always something out of kilter. He did find one house that seemed ideal, and yet when he rang two days later for a second viewing it had gone, signed away the day before. It was a bitter blow. We talked late into the night as our dreams grew dimmer and dimmer.
The morning before he was due to leave, he parked his car by the Place Colbert in Rochefort and in desperation went around the estate agents once more, reaching out along a few streets in each direction, carefully picking up the weekly magazines in the rack outside each door. Then, settling himself into a chair at a café, he ordered a coffee and set to work. It took him but an hour to cull through the properties and by the time he finished it was nearly lunchtime and he still had nothing to show for his efforts. Looking up, he was surprised to see an agency on the far side of the square he had obviously missed. Paying for his coffee he set off across the cobbles.
After an initial greeting the estate agent quickly gathered some particulars of properties that fitted our parameters. Two of them, Roddy had already visited, and his heart sank as he scanned the others. As he did so, the agent fussed with a notepad, and then he looked up; “I have something else, but I don’t have any particulars for it, I’m afraid. It came on the market two days ago and we have already had someone to see it. Would you like to have a look, maybe next week? It is just within your price-range, and it is in a village, as you want.”
“Yes,” laughed my husband, “but it will have to be today!”
The man across the table scowled at the difficulties this was going to present, but he was different to all the other agents one typically meets in France, and he was highly motivated and a keen business man; he picked up the phone and made a call, and then asked, “This afternoon, after lunch?”
It was at this point that I received the message I had been hoping for, a simple text which read;
“FOUND SOMETHING POSSIBLE WILL CALL LATER XXX”
What Roddy had not told me was that it was in a village, it had a large garden, outbuildings, grapevines, a fig tree, and the village had a school and a boulangerie. It met just about all of our requirements, but appeared to belong to a very old lady, and his heart quailed at the thought of finding something in a perfect situation that might be in complete disrepair – all for an asking price that would leave little change from the budget for much more than a new coat of paint.
Piling into the agent’s car at the appointed hour, the pair of them sped southwards across the ancient salt marsh towards a church tower far away on the horizon. A short time later they rolled down a dusty sunny street in a small village, and then came to a stop at a huge pair of gates, covered in ancient peeling paint. As if by magic the gates slowly opened to reveal an old gravelled driveway bordered with hedges, and a garden beyond that stretched as far as the eye could see; towering over everything were tall mature trees and birdsong echoed in the great green cathedral-like space. The gates finished opening with a clump against their stops.
Roddy told me later that he’d known instantly this was to be our home. As he stood there, the shrubs to his left buzzed with bees and a swallow-tail butterfly curled its way across the driveway to a herbaceous border.
The house belonged to a family that had been there for generations. The old woman had gone to a nursing home near Paris, and the interior was in a time warp. In one room, upstairs, a shelf groaned under the weight of every Paris Match ever printed, and in corners books stood in stacks, covered in dust. In the attic, boxes of scientific journals going back a hundred years lay ready for serious study, and each room seemed to live on a different level, steps leading up and down like a rabbit’s warren of dark and shuttered spaces.
The outbuilding turned out to be the old farm manager’s cottage, complete with a kitchen and bathroom that has been untouched for decades. But despite the long grass and unkempt appearance, Roddy knew this would be a wonderful home for a large family. The garden even came with a sun-dappled set of childrens’ swings – a proper set, proud and tall with room for three siblings.
After a frantic night of phone-calls, photos sent via the internet, discussion and more time on Google Earth, I put the choice in his hands, and told him it was his decision, and the next morning he rang the agent and made an offer. The agent then made some phone calls, obviously very much on the ball. It was the old lady’s son in Paris who was handling all the details though and the answer came back just quickly; it was refused, with the warning that only the asking price would be accepted.
More frantic phone calls followed between Roddy and myself, and then he nervously put in our revised offer of the full sale price. The reply came back within half an hour to say it had been accepted and there would be papers to sign that afternoon after lunch. At half-past two, as Roddy sat at a desk in the agent’s office, scrawling his signature across the contract, the phone on the table rang. It was the people who had seen the house first, a day earlier, wanting to put in an offer; but they were too late, the ink had already dried on the sheet of paper under Roddy’s hand. It had been a close call too fine to contemplate.
Two hours later, Roddy drove back to his chambres d’hôtes in a daze, a copy of a power of attorney in one hand, the sale papers in the other, and two weeks to pay the deposit. When he rang me, the children whooped with excitement and my eyes grew moist with elation. We were going back to France.