SIX DEGREES INSIDE
‘Home - a gathering place for family and friends to join together in laughter. The one place you will always be surrounded by those who love you. A place or feeling of belonging.’ - Unknown.
‘I went for a meal in a Cuban restaurant the other day and ended up with Castro-enteritis.’
Quote of the Day and Simon’s offering above. I like them both.
Days 13, 14 & 15 post-op.
Six degrees centigrade in our bedroom with a brisk north westerly blowing from the outside, right through the gaps in the ‘temporary windows’ which are fashioned from plastic sheets and gaffer tape. Gaffer tape doesn’t stick to stone.
Six degrees is the same temperature the inside of my fridge is set to, to give you some kind of idea.
Minus four outside.
The dressing is off - huzzah - and the nurse says I’m moving well. I certainly feel like I want to and should be doing more. The indolence of lying around after the back surgery is becoming a tad tedious.
I resolve to start practising singing again, as that’s something that has completely slipped off the radar over the last month. Perhaps I will be up to my 30 minute lesson next week with Vicky O’Neill, my Cheffe de Cœur (musical director/conductor) of the two choirs I belong to, who also takes me for my singing lesson?
As the dogs and I set off for our last walk of the day around the plum orchards, I try my usual practising method of vocal exercising while walking. It becomes apparent very quickly that surgery + singing + walking is not producing the usual desired effect. One month‘s lack of proper vocal practise means my range has reduced and my voice sounds raspy and slightly off key. Practising my sliding scales, I’m all over the place. The other vocal exercises aren’t sounding as they should either. Nevertheless, I walk very slowly in an effort to get all the right muscles working everywhere at all the right times.
It’s not happening and I get back from the walk tired, cold and irritated. Bugger! My throat seems if anything, slightly sore. Not such a brilliant idea after all. Too early I think. I’m now pretty certain I could not do a lesson at all so will plod gently at home on with limited exercises, if nothing more.
In addition there’s a bit of a seepage thing happening again in the trouser department. The state of the (uri)nation.
Perhaps I was being a little ambitious.
Another gaspingly chilly day dawns. Minus five outside today. Six degrees in the bedroom again. A balmy 16 degrees in the living room with the wood burner blasting away.
Lovely Laura pays a visit, laden with gifts; a book for me to read, cottage pie and (sound the fanfare…) a coffee and walnut cake, no less!
Laura is a ‘new friend’, met by chance at a local production of Dracula by MADS, the music and drama society. One of those people you instantly like and feel an affinity towards, who has a warm open smile and a jolly disposition. She also likes a good sing so has joined one of the choirs I go to as well. Prior to today we have probably met three times, that’s all, and two of those have been at singing. Today, we spend several hours easily chatting and laughing about everything and nothing.
I’m an immigrant. I loathe and detest the word ex-pat as well as the mental images it conjures up. I’m lucky enough to be an immigrant that arrived here in SW France by choice, not by by being a refugee or out of financial desperation having to support a family on distant shores. We are fortunate indeed. Pre-Brexit too - even better.
As so often happens with immigrants, Laura and I begin to exchange tales of how we both came to rest in this beautiful part of South West France.
Her story is not mine to tell but I do have a capacious admiration for a woman who rides a motor bike.
For us? We didn’t plan to leave England at all.
Simon and I first came over to rural SW France on a works jolly to take part in a rammed earth wall building course. Wondering what that is? Exactly as described: building walls by manually ramming moistened earth together boringly, monotonously and laboriously. The end result is a beautiful, strong and shiny wall, with bulging biceps into the bargain. I wouldn’t do it again ever, ever, ever unless I had a hydraulic rammer. Mind numbingly tedious, dull, slow and fiercely hard work.
During that break, we were captivated by a deserted little farmhouse across the fields from our host. I dreamed of leaving the UK for sunnier climes but reality was that the timing wasn’t right, so nothing more happened.
Three years passed.
Our design and landscaping business was going from strength to strength. Along with that though, came less time doing what Simon and I both loved - the actual creation of gardens - and more time was required in the office, wading through admin, red tape, wages, employee admin, VAT. All the things we both loathed. At that time, we were both working ridiculously long hours, having just come through a nightmare patch with a group of patently unsuitable employees. Sadly, we both felt generally disillusioned with life running a small business in the UK.
Maybe we were simply up for a new challenge and change too?
Shockingly, our accountant who had been partly instrumental in our decision that the time was wrong to move to France a few years previously, died suddenly at a very young age. It jolted us into realising that life indeed is very short.
We had recently won a fantastic job to design and landscape the grounds at the newly renovated pub run by the Henry Moore Foundation in Much Hadham and on the strength of this, had invested heavily in some very expensive new plant to speed things along and make things easier. To keep our tools and equipment safe we hired a lockable and secure shipping container for overnight storage during the job.
Simon and the team arrived at the beginning of the third week to find the back of the container had been almost completely sliced off with gas-fired cutting equipment. Everything that was left inside was damaged or melted by the high powered torch The rest had been taken, including the new and very expensive plant we had invested in.
It was so spanking new, I hadn’t yet paid for it.
For all the admin I had been raking through over the years, one thing I insisted on, much to Simon’s chagrin, was making sure everyone and everything was insured to the absolute hilt. Simon felt that possibly we were over insured. It cost us a small fortune annually.
Imagine my horror, when on making the insurance claim for the enormous loss, my broker told me we weren’t insured.
‘What?’ I gasped. ‘How is that even possible? We’ve been insured for tools and machinery since I started!’
’Ah, but as your kit was so expensive it had to be separately insured and you didn’t tell us you had bought it,’ he came back with. ‘If it was on hire, you would have been covered but as you own it, you’re not.’
Own it? Not yet. It wasn’t even paid for. That didn’t matter apparently.
It was then, about ten days after it was stolen, 30 days after taking possession of the plant, I made the payment for that enormous invoice. With nothing to show for it I thought ’No, this isn’t right.’
At the same time I organised a second, and not inconsiderably hefty payment. This time for two months hire of a machine and attachments identical to the one we had just had stolen from the same company that supplied the first one, I thought ‘No, this definitely isn’t right. Sod this for a game of soldiers.’
Wryly, I barked to Simon ‘Well, at least by hiring it we’ll be insured!’
So it was then, some three years on from our first visit, crestfallen and licking our wounds, we cashed in a favour owed to us by the landscaping friend from the rammed earth wall course - a very long weekend in his gite in Lot et Garonne, half an hour south of Bergerac’s vineyards. It was wonderful to be back.
Wandering round the beautiful bastide village of Villereal we started looking in estate agents windows, admiring the imposing stone properties for sale in their windows. ‘Just looking at prices,’ we affirmed to each other.
Before we knew it we had arranged to visit six properties over the following two days.
It was the beginning of June and we drove down a narrow road in the estate agent’s car. Five properties viewed and none of them were at all as we had envisaged.
There was one perched on a slope so steep it would have only been suitable for a mountaineer. The old lady that had lived there must have worn some kind of crampons to get to her potager.
Another truly beautiful property set in the middle of a field, with an enormous farmer’s barn not fifty metres away, jam packed with tractors, a combine harvester, sprayers, drills, ploughs, discs, you name it.
There was also a house that had caught fire previously with a massive barn attached, but that was right on a road.
Each and every one was not what we were after at all.
Overhung with oak woodland on either side, the dappled sunlight shimmered through a canopy of leaves as we trundled through the French countryside to see the sixth and final property. A strip of green moss ran down the centre of the entire length of the almost single track road. Simon and I smiled at each other and said how beautiful it was.
To my surprise, the agent slowed the car and turned to drive down through the short length of woodland on either side.
I knew right then and there that no matter what the house was like, this was where I wanted to live; at the end of that long, straight drive, at the bottom of the hill, in rural isolation with no immediate neighbours.
Simon urged me to be quiet and say nothing more. I was having none of it. I 100% knew that this should be ours. Sadly, it was a hefty 20% over our budget, a budget that we had only set ourselves that very morning.
Walking round the meadows and crumbling stone farmhouse I was even more certain that this was the place for us.
Next thing we knew, we had put in a cheeky, almost embarrassing offer.
It was all happening very fast indeed.
The vendors came back to the agent. Our extremely low offer had been declined.
Hearts sank. Reality check. Back to planet Earth.
‘But try offering another 1500 euros,’ suggested the agent.
’Really? Another 1500 euros? That’s not enough to make a difference surely?’
’Give it a go?’ the agent posed.
’Nothing to lose,’ Simon and I both agreed.
So it was that the vendors agreed. We had ten days to think about it and possibly change our minds.
Leaving France, we started to plan our new life in a foreign country: telling the children and our families and friends, selling the house and closing the business.