I am so glad that so many of you seem to be enjoying my summer story about Catherine, who discovers that she has inherited a house in the south of France. Today is the third chapter.
I am particularly fortunate to publish in the company of Jeanne McKay, whose beautiful illustrations highlight the tale perfectly. Jeanne tells me that many of the paintings are already sold, so if you are interested in anything from today’s story, be sure to pop over to her blog I Dream Of and contact her straight away!
I am also grateful to Heather Robinson who is keeping an eye on the text for me – and proving again what a great thing the blogging world can be
I hope you enjoy this latest chapter, thank you for reading
A loud noise woke her and she sat up with a start. She looked around her, trying to work out where she was and then it all came back to her. The sunshine was bright and she was still sitting in the chaise besides Paul’s desk. His sketch books were lying on her lap and at her feet. She started picking them up as Jocelyne came bustling into the room “Oh mon Dieu, vous avez passé la nuit assise ici! You spent the whole night ‘ere? Antoinette went to see if you need anything at the ‘otel this morning and they said you were not there, so she came and tell me. I let myself in, I hope you don’t mind but I was worried about you.”
“ Thank you Jocelyne, that is so kind of you. I started reading Paul’s travel journals last night and I must have just fallen asleep.”
“Come into the kitchen Madame Catherine. I shall make us some coffee. I still ‘ave ‘alf an ‘our before I go to the work.”
Catherine stretched and put her shoes on. She blinked at her rumpled reflection in a mirror as she walked towards the door and then joined Jocelyne in the kitchen.
“Jocelyne, this house is just so incredible…I can’t really believe that it is mine. The thing is…I hardly knew Paul. He was the half-brother of my grandmother. Did you know him well? Is there any way you could tell me something about him…please?”
“Ah oui, Madame Catherine, of course. Monsieur Paul was a kind man and very generous. You know I grow up in this little town and for as long as I remember Monsieur Paul is in this ‘ouse. He makes ‘is beautiful paintings and he ‘elps some people in the village who ‘ave problems, everybody love ‘im. At his funeral, the ‘ole village was in the church and all the time we were asking ‘ow come there is nobody from Amérique ‘ere for Monsieur Paul’s funeral?”
“Well,” replied Catherine, “I don’t know but he must have been out of touch with his family in America for some reason…so we couldn’t have heard about his funeral. I didn’t even know he was an artist.”
“Ah bon!? ‘Zis is amazing, you know people come from a long way to buy Monsieur Paul’s paintings and they are even in museums ‘ere. We are very proud to ‘ave such a famous artist in our village.”
Catherine didn’t know what to say, she felt embarrassed to know so little about her relative and benefactor, so she turned the conversation to a more practical note.
“Jocelyne, I want to stay here for a while to understand more about Paul.”
“Ah, very good Madame, shall I tell the ‘otel you will be come?”
“No, thank you, Jocelyne. I think I would like to stay in this house. I will find a room and make up a bed. I really want to learn more about Paul and what made him live here in France.”
Jocelyne smiled and clapped her hands together as if in prayer. “This is very good Madame Catherine, I am ‘appy for your decision. And I do not work every day at the notary, so if you wish I can ‘elp you a little.”
“Thank you. But please, first of all, just call me Catherine and then tell me where should I start in the village?”
Jocelyne smiled, pulled open the window and waved her arm towards the gate. “Zat is easy Catherine, le marché! Today is market day. There can be no better way to start!”
Catherine looked out and saw that the village square that had been so empty yesterday was now filled with brightly coloured stalls covered with red and blue parasols.
After their coffee, Jocelyne helped Catherine turn on the water heater and check that there was hot water running in a small bathroom on the ground floor. She showed her where to find a couple of soft towels and then promised to stop by in the evening after work. Catherine showered quickly and picked out some clean pants, a simple shirt and some comfortable shoes from her suitcase. She found a wicker basket in the kitchen and walked out the door to discover the market.
As she passed through Paul’s gate, the market noises became louder; she could hear people chatting and laughing, calling out the prices of their wares. From the edge of the market square, she realized that each stall emitted its own delicious perfume – from the rich smell of ripe melons to the tempting waft of roasted chicken, to the fragrance of sweet strawberries. Added to this, the vendors displayed their goods so beautifully, luring clients in, persuading them to come closer and to buy. Catherine heard herself say out loud, “This is a paint palette, no wonder Paul found his inspiration here.”
She was able to buy a few things for her meals that day and was surprised that everyone did their best to understand and make themselves understood, despite her lack of French. Once her basket was full with bread, apples, strawberries, ham and some cheese, she took a seat at a little café in a corner of the square. She listened to the clients around her and when the waiter approached, she smiled and said, “Bonjour…a coffee, um…a café, please?”
Sitting in her chair with her delicious coffee before her, she watched the market square in front of her as if she were at the cinema. She was particularly interested to see how the women were dressed and how they behaved. Women of all ages were shopping for their fresh food. Nobody wore sports clothes or sneakers. They wore pretty dresses, open sandals, simple skirts with a loose shirt. They held baskets in their hands or pulled little trolley baskets on wheels. They walked tall, talking briefly to each other and to the vendors before moving on. She noticed that their hair was tidy, they each looked attractive but she saw nobody with heavy make up or painted nails. “That must be the French Chic,” she thought.
An hour later she paid for her coffee and walked through the market, then slipped back behind Paul’s gate, looking over her shoulder to see if anyone noticed her going into the house. While at the café she had devised a plan of action. The first thing she needed to do was to unpack her suitcase and make a small space her own. Although legally the house was hers, she still felt a bit like a trespasser, at best an unannounced guest and she wanted to remain discreet. She chose a small bedroom on the ground floor, just beside the bathroom where she had showered earlier. In her room there was a double bed, a bedside table with a lamp and beside the window stood a pretty pale upholstered chair with gold patina on the legs. On the wall facing the end of her bed was a long row of closet doors and here she found space to hang and pile her clothes neatly.
Everything in the house was clean and tidy, the garden was tended… how could that be since Paul died three years ago? She must remember to ask Jocelyne later on. For now though, she had more exploring to do.
Reading Paul’s travel journals the previous evening had given her an insight into his life and the sort of man that he might have been – someone curious, open-minded and generous. She had the impression that this big house had been a hub for artists – both local and from abroad. There appeared to be many more bedrooms than one man living alone could possibly need and once upstairs she discovered that each room was prepared as if permanently ready for unexpected visitors.
Catherine wanted to find out more about Paul’s work but although there were plenty of paintings hanging in the house, not many were signed and she couldn’t know which were his.
Fortunately, on a shelf in an upstairs bedroom, a thick book caught her eye, “Paul Gates, A Retrospective.” She opened the cover and read the subtitle, ‘Paul Gates – His work in Provence from 1940 – 2000’.
As she turned the pages she discovered Paul’s beautiful impressionist style paintings, many depicting villages in Provence, others of the rugged coastline of the Cote d’Azur. She looked more closely at the information on each painting and realized that many were part of collections housed in museums all around the world. She closed the book, with a feeling that the intrigue was thickening and continued her tour of the house.
The first floor was given over to Paul’s bedroom and bathroom plus a couple of supplementary bedrooms. Furnishings were muted, simple, discreet. There were piles of books on tables and more filling the bookshelves along the landing wall. She climbed a smaller staircase up to the second floor and pushed open the door. To her surprise this was not another bedroom but a painting studio with an overhead skylight window filling the room with a beautiful soft light. Beneath the skylight stood two easels, a couple of stools and shelves of paint tubes and jars with brushes standing on their end. On one easel was a half finished painting of a house; it appeared to be Paul’s own.
She looked through the canvases stood upright in a corner of the room. There were a dozen more paintings here, each one quite breathtaking. “Oh my,” Catherine whispered even though there was nobody near to hear. “Paul, are these all yours? Shouldn’t someone know about this?”
She noticed a low door on the wall to her left and pushed it open. The light slowly crept into the small dark room with a sloping ceiling. It was hot in here and too dark to see clearly in the room, so she returned to the studio and found a candle holder with a short stub of wax and some matches in the base.
With the soft glowing candle in her hand, she returned into the attic room. The candle flickered, then burned more brightly. Catherine gasped. On all four sides of this narrow, low room there were more canvases lined against the wall. She put down the candle and pulled out a painting. It appeared to be of a path in Provence, the light a soft mauve. A second canvas was retrieved – a church spire over terracotta roofs. Catherine’s heart was beating a little faster now. She lifted a stack of smaller paintings into the studio and returned to take a couple of big frames before blowing out the candle and setting the paintings up on one of the easels.
Each work was signed by Paul, some were framed, others were simply a roll of canvas. She sat down on a stool and contemplated her find. “Paul, if your paintings are in museums all over the world, then why on earth do you have so many stashed away up here?! These must be worth a fortune! Why have you left all of this for me to find, Paul? “ She stared at the paintings for a while, and sighed, “My friend, I think that it is time I read that letter of yours.”
She carefully returned the paintings to the attic room, shut the door and went downstairs. By the kitchen door, pinned to the wall was the business card for a local taxi service with ‘English spoken’ printed in red. She dialled the number and ordered a car to take her to Fécholles that afternoon. The moment had come to listen to her uncle.
If you missed part one of this story you can catch up here,