I thought you may like a story to read during the summer, and I have imagined a tale about a woman who could easily be a friend. The idea is that I post an episode each Monday until … well until I get to the end!
I am thrilled that my friend Jeanne Mckay of I Dream Of has joined me on this story, and accepted to illustrate the tale each week with her beautiful watercolors.
You may like to know that Jeanne will be selling the originals of the illustrations, you are welcome to contact her for details.
I am also very lucky because the gifted Heather Robinson at Lost in Arles, has helped me editing the text. Merci mon amie!
As Catherine slipped into the taxi outside the railway station at Avignon, she was surprised to hear herself sigh, loudly. Since she left her home in the Midwest, caught her flight from the States , and then the train through France, she had been travelling for over 20 hours, it was good to feel she was nearly at her destination. The relief was tangible; her shoulders relaxed and the nagging in her stomach subsided. Surprisingly, she was overtaken with the feeling that she was coming home.
And yet here she was in a country she had never visited, surrounded by people talking in a language she couldn’t understand, and she was alone; she knew nobody within thousands of miles. How could she feel so comfortable? So much had happened to change her life in the past month.
When the letter had landed in her mail box six weeks earlier, it took her a while to decipher its message. It was written in French, she was addressed as Madame and not one single sentence made the slightest bit of sense. She attempted to read the pages with a dictionary and then switched to a translation site on the computer but neither method gave her the slightest bit to go on.
In her local town there was a woman who gave evening classes in French. She found her telephone number and called her, asking if they could meet.
The woman turned out to be French. Perfect! Marie-Claire was her name; she was about the same age as Catherine, married to an American and she had lived in the States for many years.
The two women chatted for a bit in a coffee house. After a while, Catherine pulled the envelope out of her handbag, saying “Marie-Claire, I wonder if you could help me understand this letter… I don’t know who it is from or what it is all about.”
She slid the piece of paper across the table and watched as Marie-Claire perched her glasses on the end of her nose, and started to read.
“Now let me see, it is from a notaire – that would be a sort of French lawyer – he is in the South of France in a little town called…Callianes. Alors, what does he say? “Hmmm…Chère Madame, je vous écris pour….” She paused with a quick glance over her glasses at Catherine, then read on until she gasped out, “Oh my goodness!”
“What is it Marie-Claire?”
“One minute, please ….let me be sure…je vous écris….l’honneur de vous annoncer … veuillez croire, Madame….” Here she looked up with a sharp intake of breath, clapped her hands before blurting out, “Yes, Catherine, it seems that you have inherited a house in the south of France!”
“What?! But I don’t know anybody in France, that can’t be right!”
“Well, the letter says that a Monsieur Paul Gates passed away three years ago and that his papers have taken a long time to finalise but that he has left you a house in his will. The notaire doesn’t give you much information but asks you to contact him or to come to his office.”
“Who in heaven’s name is Paul Gates? And how can I contact this notary man if he doesn’t speak English and I definitely don’t speak French?!” They went on to chat for a while about ‘who?’ and ‘why?’ and ‘what next?’ and as they parted, Marie-Claire repeated that she would love to help in any way that she could.
At home that evening, Catherine couldn’t stop thinking about the letter. When Bob came home from work, she planned to tell him about the surprise but he didn’t seem to be in a very good mood and she didn’t want him to spoil her anticipation.
Bob was often in a bad mood these days, distant and uncommunicative. The more he shut down, the less she wanted to share with him. It was a vicious circle. It was just the two of them at home now that their children had flown the nest. There were no grandchildren yet and their kids were busy and far away. Their life had become dull. She had tried to talk to Bob about starting a new life and doing more together but communication was difficult. It seemed that all the fun had gone…They had spent so many years looking after the family and keeping the home ticking over and happy that they had forgotten to take care of themselves and their relationship.
They both had their interests, beyond his work, Bob played golf and watched sports on the TV, she liked to patchwork and she painted a little. But there was no spontaneity and they were stuck in a rut, living under the same roof but each keeping to themselves. Part of her longed to ignite their old flame, to fall in love all over again, to rediscover a new passion. But each time she caught herself thinking about her and Bob getting close, she’d glance at herself in the mirror, critically eyeing her outline that was a little heavy these days and sigh, “Ah… who are you kidding?”
When she woke the following morning, she immediately thought about the letter and the name ‘Paul Gates’. She waited until Bob left for work, then went upstairs to the spare bedroom and pulled down the old family bible from the top shelf. It was a big book, heavy and sweet smelling. Inside the front cover, she recognised her grandmother’s handwriting carefully listing the family tree, traced back through five generations.
She smiled and remembered when her grandmother had given her this book, saying that it was now for her to keep the family record intact.
The lowest line of the genealogical list was Catherine and Bob with the three children listed below. Using her fingertip, she traced her way back up to her parents; her mother had been a single child, so no surprises there. Next was her grandmother Louise, who had a sister Jane but that didn’t help. Then a staggered line revealed that her great-grandfather, John Gates, had married again, two years after Louise’s mother had died. From his second wife, he had just one boy… and his name was Paul. Catherine smiled and said out loud, “Oh my! Here you are Paul! Monsieur Paul Gates.”
Catherine had no siblings or cousins to question about the family history. No matter how carefully she searched her memory, she couldn’t remember meeting anyone who was presented as the half-brother to her grandmother. Checking the family tree again to find Paul’s year of birth, she counted on her fingers – if he had died three years ago then he would have been 97 years old.
The prospect of inheriting a house in the south of France was hard to believe. She kept the secret for the rest of the week, thinking about it quietly, holding this little treasure inside her until she decided what to do.
After a few days, she met with Marie-Claire again and asked if she could write a letter to the notary for her. Together, they drafted a short note requesting further information and also whether the house was occupied or standing empty.
She copied out the letter carefully on her headed paper and when it was safely posted, she knew she had to announce the news to Bob. She waited until Sunday morning.
“Bob? I’ve had a wonderful surprise. I was contacted by a lawyer and it seems that my grandmother’s half-brother has left me something in his will.”
Bob buried his head deeper into the sports section. They had finished breakfast and while she cleaned up the kitchen, he always read the paper. Occasionally he’d call out a snippet of local news but on the whole, he read silently.
She wasn’t sure he had heard her. “I said that I have inherited something from my great-uncle Paul”.
He lowered his paper, “Oh, really? What did he leave you? A box of gold?” With a quick snort of a laugh he continued reading, visibly uninterested by the prospect of sudden and unlikely wealth.
“No honey, not gold. Much better than that actually…He has left me…his house in France.”
Now she had Bob’s attention. “Wait, what? A house in France. What are you talking about, Cath? We’ve never even been to France! This is crazy. It’s probably some crumbling wreck that can’t even be sold for anything. Just don’t get your hopes up, ok? That’s all I am saying.” Catherine chewed on her inner lip for a moment. Then, vexed by his reaction, and hurt that he made no effort to share her excitement, she made a rash decision. “Well I’m going. I am flying over to see it next month…Will you come with me?” She was surprised to hear herself blurt out those words so suddenly but not nearly as surprised as Bob.
There followed an uneasy conversation about cost, time and selfishness. The result was an awkward evening spent avoiding each other.
But once she had said out loud that she was going to France, the whole idea became feasible, obvious even. Tickets were booked, a couple of letters exchanged with the notary – which, while they didn’t give much more information about the property, at least galvanized Catherine into planning her trip carefully.
Five weeks and several coffees with Marie-Claire later, she caught a cab to the airport and boarded a flight to Paris, alone. She couldn’t remember the last time she traveled alone, and she felt excited and a little apprehensive, and she was unable to sleep on the long flight.
Marie-Claire had told her how to get from the airport to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, from where she could board a train south. She thought about arranging a stop-over in the capital – to at least visit the Eiffel Tower – but the south was drawing her like a magnet and she wanted to get there as quickly as possible.
She was very proud of herself for finding the train at the big, noisy station and gratefully sunk into her first class seat. During the couple of hours on the train she had a book to read in her bag but she couldn’t concentrate, there was too much to enjoy. The beautiful countryside that sped past the window transformed subtly as they descended from north to south and Catherine repeatedly shook her head in disbelief that she had done it, that she was actually in France…
A couple of hours later, as the train doors opened at Avignon, she gasped at the change in temperature. The sun was shining brightly and she realized she was dressed far too warmly for this part of the world. She struggled with her heavy suitcase out of the station to the taxi rank. Once seated in the back seat of the car, she stammered out a timid “Bonjour” and handed a piece of paper to the driver. He squinted at the scrawled address, muttering, “Ah, la rue Montignac, a Callianes, très bien Madame, on y va.”
The taxi driver seemed oblivious to the fact that Catherine didn’t speak a word of French. As they drove out of Avignon and headed into the countryside, he never stopped talking, waving his hands and apparently pointing out the local points of interest. Catherine didn’t mind, instead she watched the beautiful landscape slip past her window as if she were in a dream. Fields of lavender, rows of olive trees, and tiny stone villages grouped on hilltops. The longer they drove, the broader her smile ….she was nearly there, she was nearly at the place that would change the rest of her life …and in so many ways.
If you missed part one of this story you can catch up here,