It’s Monday again and time to continue my summer story. Once again I am in excellent company with Jeanne McKay providing her beautiful illustrations (that are incidentally selling like hotcakes!) and Heather Robinson helping me with the editing.
In case you have missed the past episodes of this summer sequel, you may like to know that:
in part one Catherine learned of a mysterious inheritance in the South of France:
in part two despite her husband’s reluctance she travels to France alone to discover the house that is now hers,
in part three she begins to understand that her great uncle Paul, who left the house to her was also a respected painter and artist
today is part four, and Catherine will finally read the letter that Paul left for her and take some big decisions.
It was arranged that the taxi would return her to Fécholles later in the afternoon, so that she could take her time.
At the little bank it proved surprisingly easy to access the vault and within a few minutes she was out the door, clutching Paul’s letter tightly in her hand.
There was a small park not far from the bank with a bench in the shade. She sat down and breathed deeply before opening the envelope and pulling out two handwritten sheets of paper. The sprawling handwriting was the same as in the travel journals.
If you have come this far, you are curious enough to want to understand what this is all about … I’d be glad about that, thank you. I realize that it must have come as a shock to be contacted by my notary and that you must have a lot of questions.
First, let me explain our family situation. My father (that would be your great-grandfather) was a kind man. He did well in life, he loved his first wife (your great-grandmother) but he was very lonely after she died and he married again, to my mother. He was a good husband and a good father but my mother was always jealous of his first love and did everything in her power to prevent him from seeing his daughter, your grandmother Louise.
My mother’s jealousy caused a rift in the family that never healed.
You and I did meet once. You were a very little girl and there is no reason why you should remember me. The occasion was a Christmas party at your parents’ house. Your mother wanted to patch up the family situation but it didn’t go well and so was never repeated.
My father died when I was young and my mother passed away quite soon after, leaving me well provided for but an orphan at the age of 23.
I wanted to escape the atmosphere that I had grown up in and I came to Europe in 1927. I traveled all over the continent before settling here in the South of France. I lived in Avignon for a while and then moved to Callianes, which has been my home since 1935. My life has been a good one, rich in encounters and friendships but I have never married. Today, you are my only direct family. From what I saw of your parents home that Christmas, I believe that they were good people but they lived modestly. I hope you don’t mind me saying that. It always seemed unfair to me that I inherited so much from my father, while your side of the family received so little.
My life has also been full of art. I love to paint and am fortunate that I have been able to live well from my work. One of my greatest pleasures has been helping young artists develop their craft. I had an agent for a while but that is a story for another day.
So Catherine, today I leave you my home in Callianes and all that is inside it. There are no conditions, no words of advice. You are free to dispose of everything as you see fit. I am confident that you are a good person, like your parents and that you will make the right decisions. And if you come to love the South of France as I have loved it then maybe that is a more precious gift than my home.
Yours, in friendship,
“Oh my word!” Catherine sat back against the bench and looked absently across the park. Paul’s gentle words had brought tears to her eyes. She was touched by the generosity and humility of the letter but the more that she understood about her inheritance, the heavier the responsibility felt. “It’s all too much Paul…the beautiful house, your being so famous and…what about all of those paintings? What am I supposed to do about those?”
It began to sink in that the situation was even more complicated than she had thought and that she would be here for a while. She needed to get organized. Big decisions would have to be made and the best person to help her would be her husband, Bob. Somehow she had to explain to him the urgency and magnitude of the situation.
“Well, if I’m staying a bit then I’ll need some new clothes.” Her suitcase seemed to be full of all the wrong things. She wanted to fit in more, to blend in with the crowd and with her stretchy jeans and clunky shoes that would simply never happen. She found a little clothing store and looked through the dresses hanging on a rack. She felt too shy to try anything on and was about to walk out but a sales girl appeared with such a lovely smile and even spoke some English. An hour later, Catherine emerged wearing a cotton dress in a soft flowery pattern that buttoned up the front, a pair of ballerina flats in dusty pink and carried a bag filled with two more dresses, a skirt and several shirts and tops. She felt quite dizzy with excitement at having made so many new purchases all at once and in such a different style to her normal clothes. But somehow there was logic to this extravagance, as if she were slowly assembling pieces in a puzzle and that the puzzle would only make sense once everything was just right.
Feeling a little more French, she walked further down the road where she stopped at a parfumerie and treated herself to a new lipstick, in a shade of soft pink.
With time to spare before her taxi returned to collect her, she decided to do some more people watching from the comfort of a café terrace. She found the ideal spot with parasols opened beneath tall sycamore trees. She was going to order a ‘grand café au lait’ but looked around at what other clients were drinking and opted for a Perrier with a slice of lemon instead.
As she sipped the cold water, her thoughts turned back to Bob and how she could persuade him to get on a plane and join her. Of course, the most obvious plan would be to announce a string of numbers: the size and potential value of Paul’s house, the information about Paul’s success as a painter and the number of paintings stashed away in the attic. But Catherine knew that was not the best tactic with him. As a couple they had never tried to make a lot of money. While the children were growing up they had lived in a comfortable but never ostentatious manner. Financial wealth was not a priority, health and happiness were more important.
The best idea would be to make Bob realize how much she needed his support and how badly she missed him. A glance at her watch told her that he would be getting ready for work now, she turned on her phone and texted him:
Bob sweetheart, it is hard for me to explain all that is happening here but things are not as simple as I had hoped. It’s not only the house, there are other things too. I really need a friend to help me sort this out and make some difficult decisions … and my best friend is you.
I know you are busy with work and I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t important but I’d love for you to see this house for yourself to help me decide what should be done. I need you. I don’t know if I can do this alone.
I miss you, Cath xox
She heard the soft ping as the message went through and she lay the phone down on the table. A few minutes later, as she observed two French women chatting over a drink at a table close to her, she gave a start when her phone pinged again and vibrated against the metal top of the bistrot table.
Difficult decisions? Hope everything OK?….checking flights…try to come before end of week…miss you too, Bob
Catherine couldn’t help but smile. Bob’s messages always made her think of those old fashioned telegrams. He was economical with his words but she knew him well enough to sense that he was pleased to read her cry for help. “Before the end of the week…well, today is Tuesday, that gives me a couple more days of exploring on my own and preparing things for his arrival.”
By the time the taxi returned, she had continued to watch the French women at the café and decided that Bob just might discover a new French version of his wife when he landed. She couldn’t do a full transformation but a couple of small changes could make a big difference.
Back at Paul’s house, Catherine was surprised to find the door ajar. She pushed it fully open and called out, “Is anybody here?” And then, “Bonjour…?” There was no answer so she warily walked through the hall and into the kitchen where the door to the garden was propped wide open. From there, she could see Antoinette on her hands and knees pulling weeds.
“Why Antoinette, what are you doing here?!” she exclaimed with surprise.
The French woman jumped out of her skin; she hadn’t heard Catherine arrive. “Oh mon Dieu, bonjour Madame. Oh excusez moi, je m’en vais, je ne voulais pas vous déranger, excusez moi….” Antoinette was gathering her tools and brushing off her apron as fast as she could and Catherine felt bad about intruding on her unannounced.
“No, non, Antoinette, please stay, s’il vous plait …” She looked around, at a loss for a way to make the woman feel at ease “ Do you want a coffee, un café? Um….Perrier?” Antoinette smiled and put down her tools, “Merci Madame, juste un verre d’eau”, Catherine looked puzzled. “Ohh?” Antoinette walked into the kitchen and picked up a glass then pointed to the water tap. “Ah water, yes of course, eau, please help yourself.” Catherine paused, then said more quietly “Oh Antoinette, I wish I spoke some French, I have so many questions for you. There is so much I want to know about Paul…was this house lively when he was here? Did he have friends and artists come to stay all the time? Was he tall, was he short, did he speak good French?…Oh boy, I sure wish I did.”
There was a short silence and Catherine turned to look out the kitchen door towards the garden. She felt frustrated at not being able to communicate and lonely; suddenly her shoulders dropped as she let out a sigh.
She felt a light hand on her arm and turned to find Antoinette looking up at her and smiling. “S’il vous plait Madame Catherine, sit down.” Antoinette pulled out a chair and motioned to Catherine to be seated. “My English eez …” she shook her hand in a so-so gesture. “But…Monsieur Paul?” Antoinette put both hands over her heart and smiled. “Monsieur Paul a good man.” Catherine nodded slowly.
The women spent the next two hours sitting across the kitchen table from each other. Between a smattering of English words on Antoinette’s part and many gestures, they began to understand each other nearly as well as if they were speaking the same language. Catherine learned how kind Paul had been when Antoinette became a widow and how he had provided for her in his will, then she finally worked out that the notary was instructed to pay her a salary to maintain the house and garden until the day it was sold or belonged to someone else.
When Antoinette left early that evening, Catherine took her into her arms and said, “Thank you, thank you…merci beaucoup…I understand so much more about Paul now…and the importance of this wonderful home.” She paused while she stepped back from Antoinette, with her hands still on her shoulders. Catherine had no idea about what she and Bob would decide to do with the house but she wanted to reassure the housekeeper. “You must not worry Antoinette. No matter what we do with this house, I hope you will stay to help me take care of it?” Antoinette smiled, “Merci Madame, vous êtes très gentille, very kind, like Monsieur Paul.”
Catherine watched as Antoinette left through the iron gate, then she pushed the door shut and turned around to face the vestibule with a smile on her face. Her talk with Antoinette and the fact that Bob would soon be with her made her feel peaceful.
“Paul, she whispered, I don’t know yet what we will do with your home but I’ll always be grateful that you entrusted its future to me.”
If you missed part one of this story you can catch up here,