by Linda Razzell
CHAPTER ONE: OMENS
And I don’t want to see any flies in my bedroom, dead or alive!!!!!’ read the latest in a series of imperious emails I’d had, a few months into our third assignment in the south of France as itinerant animal carers.
‘It’s a bit much’, I grumbled to my husband over a quick coffee on the terrace.
‘I don’t mind the dogs and the birds and the gardening. I don’t even mind sweeping the tennis courts. But now he thinks I’m a chamber maid. And the vacuum cleaner doesn’t work.’
He wiped the sweat off his face. It was a scorching day. He’d been into town to change a tractor tyre. Again. It was a fifty kilometre round trip.
‘Nothing bloody works. The strimmer won’t start …’‘And there’s the pool robot …’ we both spoke together.
It was a sore point. We couldn’t even cool off in the pool until we’d hand scooped the leaves, rubbish and dead frogs out of it.
The list of non functioning equipment was endless. The pool’s backwash, which would have had to defy gravity by working uphill, the plumbing in most of the six ensuite bathrooms, the pump for drinking water in our accommodation,
which had never recovered from a power cut in spite of our efforts to mend it. In fact the whole place was a bit of a sham, including, we suspected, the owner, who we called Mad Bob.
‘It’s fake’, whispered my husband when we first arrived.
Mad Bob was bustling about making tea. ‘Stone cladding and particle board’. He was right. Every time Mad Bob opened a cupboard everything shook like a stage set. ‘And it looks like a brothel’. I didn’t bother to ask him if he’d ever been in one.
A gallery ran round three sides of the enormous salon, as Mad Bob called it. There was a raised dais at one end, ‘where the madame would sit’. It only needed a honky tonk piano. The huge room was dominated by a fireplace we could have played table tennis in, and the three sofas arranged around it still left plenty of room for indoor football.
We wouldn’t have been there at all if The Cat had had his way.
Usually an excellent traveller who slept his way through any journey, on this occasion The Cat had point blank refused, howling, digging his claws into the car seat and ‘planting’ in a most un-Cat like way. I had given in and let him sit on my lap but that hadn’t pleased him any more than the soft mattress and new catnip mouse in his carrier. After making a few restless circles he was sick on my legs, so he’d been banished to the floor, where he lay, moodily growling every time we went over a bump.
The Cat was an animal of unusual intelligence who was not prone to carsickness or random behaviour.
I thought back to the last time I had seen this kind of reluctance on his part. It was the day we left London for our new life in France. Once we decided we were leaving, everything happened very quickly.
We got married on my sixtieth birthday, let our house with surprising ease, and distributed our surplus goods to anyone we thought might like them.
My children thought we were mad, but nevertheless my elder son agreed to drive us to Calais to pick up the hire car.
The appointed day dawned and by six thirty am his LandRover was filled to the roof with what we considered our necessary possessions. He inspected our
packing. ‘Mum’, if you’re taking all this, one of you will have to stay behind‘.
Thus followed a heart wrenching process of choosing which of our ‘necessities’ would go back with him.
‘And where’s The Cat’s carrier going to go?’
Where, indeed? And more to the point, where was The Cat?
This hour of the morning would normally have found him asleep on our bed. I checked. Not there. I rattled his biscuit box. Nothing. A small group of neighbours had gathered to wave us on our way and they dispersed, looking under the bushes and shrubs in our garden, calling and whistling. Then someone spotted him on the second floor windowsill of the empty house
next door. How he got up there is a mystery.
The whole street was awake by then. Someone fetched a ladder and my husband climbed up it. It didn’t quite reach. He and The Cat appeared to hold a conversation while the rest of us held our breath.
Suddenly The Cat leapt lightly on to my husband’s shoulder and together they wobbled down the ladder.
Possibly The Cat felt there had been insufficient consultation, my husband suggested. It was true that we had done a pathetically small amount of research about our destination, a village in the Languedoc Roussillon in the
south west of France.
There were vineyards. The sea was not far away. Nor were the Pyrenees. It was autumn and we expected to pick up work looking after farms and small holdings. Lambing work would be guaranteed during the winters.
It was after our second winter that the assignments dried up. It was Spring and we didn’t have anything booked. Something Will Turn Up became our optimistic mantra. And it did.
We were contacted by ‘Bob’, who lived in what he described as un petit coin du paradis in the Corbières. I loved the photos. A large country property; dogs, birds, a horse. Wild flower meadows. Swimming pool maintenance. A potager if we wanted to grow vegetables. He needed us at once.
My husband was doubtful.
‘Sounds alright,’ I said. ‘How hard can it be? A bit of mowing but there’s bound to be a tractor. Pools all have robots nowadays. And we’ll be able to grow our own food. Anyway, what’s the option?’
So we accepted.
The following Sunday we packed ourselves up into our recently purchased tiny car, and, towing its pram sized trailer, we set off northwards. With a reluctant Cat.
As we left the south, the weather changed. The sky became grey and menacing and an unfriendly, chilly wind bent the trees. The road wound between rocky crags and brown hills, reminiscent of old Westerns. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the TWANG and THWACK of an arrow hitting a tree. The sort
of place where you could imagine a posse of riders twirling lassoos rounding the next bend.
Instead, there was the teddy bear lynching. It hung high up from a branch of a dead tree, its neck looking as broken as a furry toy’s neck could look, suspended from a belt. My husband, who has a fascination for the macabre, pulled over
for a closer look. There was no one in sight and we hadn’t seen another car for a couple of hours. Thinking The Cat might appreciate a little stroll, I put him on his lead. But nothing could get him out of the car, the contrary beast.
There wasn’t much we could do for poor Ted. He was too high to cut down. What sort of person would lynch a teddy bear, I wondered. We carried on, mystified and thoughtful through this inhospitable landscape until we saw the bins and the mailbox marking the track leading to the house. We followed it up through dense woods, thickly edged with creepers and brambles. I measured one and a half kilometers before we rounded a bend and saw the house above us, on a little hillock. An imposing frontage with tall French windows. Eighteenth century perhaps?
The courtyard was lined with parakeets in cages, chirping and whistling. Mad Bob met us at the door, a short man in his fifties with a military bearing and a bristly moustache. Very English. He pumped our hands vigorously. ‘Cambridge. Sandhurst.’ An odd introduction.
A cream coloured Labrador with soulful eyes stood behind him. ‘Easter.‘ I must have looked puzzled. ‘Born at Easter. Puppy. Old boy now. Heart’. Mad Bob spoke in economical phrases, often finishing them with ‘ding ding ding!’ For
sauce, as it were, he liked to use French words.
There were half a dozen dogs of indeterminate parentage lounging around, scratching, or licking their privates. A piratical looking bunch. One, small and shy, with spaniel ears came and nuzzled my leg. ‘Two more. In jail. In the poulailler’. Why, I inquired. ‘Killed a goat. Yesterday. Can’t shut one up by itself.
Cruel.’ So he was an animal lover, then.
Killer dogs! Separate quarters for The Cat. How fortunate it was a big house. Except that I had misunderstood, and we were to be billeted down the hill, in the gîte. I remembered passing a dilapidated, slightly askew building on the way up. It transpired that Mad Bob had disagreed with the previous guardian on certain important matters, like the draping of floor length curtains in the salon. It was better not to share. So we installed The Cat in the gîte for his own good and left him moodily prospecting for mice.
Mad Bob gave us a good dinner that night, proudly displaying two freezers full of produce and the back kitchen shelves lined with jars of preserved fruit and vegetables. It had been a good year in the potager, ding ding ding! Manure was the secret. Plenty in the bergerie, it only needed barrowing up. There was a horse. I’d forgotten.
The next day was my birthday, the third of May. My son phoned to wish me happy birthday and he asked me what the weather was like.
‘Something’s falling from the sky …’ I looked closer. ‘It’s snowing!’ As I watched, the snowflakes became tennis ball sized. The view was disappearing fast. By lunchtime, drifting snow had blocked the drive, and it was still snowing
hard. Mad Bob’s departure for Paris was clearly off.
He phoned from the house. The snow had brought the nearest pylon down
and no one could get here to fix it. ‘Power out. Decamp. Ding ding ding!’
Decamping made sense. We struggled up the hill, towing The Cat in his carrier on a wheelbarrow through a snowstorm of elemental fury. In the great hearth the anaemic flames of a small log fire struggled for life. Obviously the chimney
breast was as fake as everything else. Mere scenery.