Welcome back for part two of my summer story. Thank you to everyone who left a comment after reading part one last week, your response was overwhelming, and not a little worrying … I just hope you like this episode as much!
Jeanne has provided some beautiful illustrations again this week, don’t forget you can contact her if you wish to purchase the originals.
The notary was young. That was her first surprise. She had imagined this moment so many times over the past few weeks; seeing herself in a charming old office, with patina walls and high ceilings, and a wise looking, handsome French notary unfolding a handwritten document and handing her the keys to her house with a seductive smile.
Instead of that, the notary looked about twenty five, was visibly uninterested in Catherine’s inheritance and in the place of a beautiful, old, handwritten document, he hit a button on his computer keyboard and printed out a copy of the will before her very eyes.
“Voila, Madame.” His accent was heavy and not very easy to understand, “Zis eez ze paper zat gives you ze ‘ouse. Pliz, you will sign ‘ere, and ‘ere and ‘ere… zank you.” Catherine signed the paper and handed it back to him. “And zis is anuzzer document for you from Mister Gates. It eez an envelopp and in ze envelopp, zair eez a key.” Catherine turned over the envelope. It was sealed with an ink signature sprawled across the envelope flap. She looked at the notary questioningly.
“Zat is right, Madame, it eez ze signature of Monsieur Gates, he want me to give you zis key, and to tell you zat eef you take it to ze bank in Fécholles, zair eez a letter waiting for you zat will explain everyzing.”
“Fécholles? What is that?” The notary sighed, “Fécholles, Madame, is ze closest town zat has a bank with ze safe boxes for ze clients, it is one hour from ‘ere… And now, Madame, eef you ‘ave no more questions, zen I suggest zat we meet again in one week and eef you wish, I can ‘andle ze sale of ze ‘ouse”
“Thank you, Monsieur…um,” she searched for his nameplate on his desk, “Monsieur Delabarbe. Yes, I do have questions. First of all, I’d like to thank you for handling this inheritance and for contacting me. Now, I wondered if you knew much about my great-uncle, Paul Gates?”
“Non, Madame, I know nuzzing. Now ‘ere is ze key to ze ‘ouse, you will find it quite easy, it eez number two, on ze place du marché, zat is ze market square. Voila. It eez five minutes from ‘ere. I believe my secretary know ze lady who cleans ze ‘ouse for Monsieur Gates, maybe she ‘elp you more.” And with that, Catherine was led to the door and unceremoniously dumped at the secretary’s desk.
Here at least she got a smile: “Don’t pay attention to ‘im Madame, he is always like that at first. ‘e will be more friendly next time. My name is Jocelyne, if you need something, you are welcome to come to see me.”
Catherine smiled back, relieved to find a pleasant face and someone who spoke better English. “Thank you, Jocelyne, that is nice to know. I’d be grateful if you could tell me how to find the market square?” Jocelyne drew a little map of the town, indicating how to get to Paul’s house.
As Catherine walked through the quiet, cobbled streets of the little village, checking the street names and finding her way to the market square, she could feel her heart beating faster and faster. She still knew nothing about the property that she had inherited and still didn’t understand why Paul had left it to her. Maybe Bob would be right, maybe it was just a ruin and she’d be on the first plane back home…
She turned the corner onto the market square and paused to take in the charm. A sandy-coloured open square, lined with houses, with iron seats dotted around the edge, and large shady catalpa trees in purple flower overhead. There was no market today. In fact, the village seemed eerily quiet, the wheels of her suitcase sounding even louder as they wobbled their way across the uneven paving stones.
“Number two, now where is number two?” Her eyes scrolled along the limits of the market square, as she searched for a small door or a broken down wall… “Number 8, number 6…I can’t be far…” She walked slowly along the narrow road that ran around the square. There were tall houses with blue-green shutters, smaller houses covered in ivy, a large iron gate but she couldn’t find a number two. She walked back and forth several times, before coming to a halt, with her suitcase beside her. “Why can’t I find number two, this must be the jet lag”
She felt a tap on her shoulder and spun around. Standing before her was the secretary from the notary’s office, accompanied by a tiny lady wearing a flowery apron.
“‘’Ere we are, Madame, I have brought you the ‘ousekeeper of Monsieur Gates. I think it is a good idea if she ‘elp you open the ‘ouse. ‘er name is Antoinette.”
“Well, thank you, that is very kind but maybe first of all she could tell me where the house is! I can’t find a number two anywhere.”
The two women spoke quickly together in French and then laughed, “But you are ‘ere, Madame, this is your ‘ouse!” They brandished their arms triumphantly and pointed to the gate behind.
Catherine’s jaw dropped. She let go of her suitcase and walked slowly up to the tall, ornate iron gate. Peering through the bars, she could see that across the courtyard was a beautiful and rather big house with many windows, all with their grey blue shutters pulled shut. The ground in front of the house was covered in a very fine gravel, there were several large pots containing plants positioned along the façade and a wisteria vine weaving its way around the iron balustrade at the window above the front door.
The vision of the house left her speechless, standing and staring. She turned to the secretary and to Antoinette murmuring, “This is the house that I have inherited?!” “Oui, Madame, this is the ‘ouse that Monsieur Gates used here in Callianes. Come, let us open the gate and you can see inside.”
Seeing that Catherine was stuck to the spot, the secretary delicately took her suitcase, while Antoinette slipped the key from her hand and deftly turned the lock on the gate. There was a loud creaking as it opened and as Catherine followed the women into the courtyard, she could smell the wisteria wafting on the air. She whispered, “I think I am in heaven,” but nobody heard her. Antoinette had hurried ahead and was unlocking the front door, while Jocelyne pushed the gate shut and pulled the suitcase up to the house. Catherine felt dazed. She had only ever seen this sort of house in films. She stood in the middle of the courtyard trying to take it in, vaguely aware that Antoinette had opened the main door and was moving from room to room inside opening the shutters on the windows.
She walked up to the front door and crossed the threshold. The house smelt of lavender. Entering a large square vestibule, paved in deep red coloured hexagonal tiles, she saw that there were doors leading to the right and to the left while straight ahead a winding staircase beckoned upstairs.
Antoinette and Jocelyne were talking together as they moved from room to room, pushing the shutters open and letting the light stream in. Catherine couldn’t speak. Leaving the hallway, she walked into a wide living room, furnished comfortably with a fireplace on one wall. There was a desk on one side with a view through the tall window and over the courtyard. Jocelyne smiled, “Ah … this is where Monsieur Paul liked to sit, because ‘e see the market from ‘is desk.”
From the salon, Catherine passed into an elegant dining room and from there into the kitchen. A simple, long wooden table ran down the centre of the room with a wide bench on one side and a mix of wooden chairs along the other. At the far end of the kitchen there was a deep stone sink with an old cooking range beside it. The middle of the longest wall was dominated by a huge fireplace with a pile of small logs stacked neatly against one side. Doors at the far end of the room opened onto the side of house, and Catherine could see a narrow stone path leading down into what must have been a little potager and herb garden, with a rose bush climbing over a frame in the center. The potager didn’t appear to be planted, but somebody kept it tidy. It all couldn’t be more perfect.
Jocelyne and Antoinette were talking to her in a mix of French and English but Catherine didn’t hear a word. She wandered around the ground floor of the house, her mouth slightly open as she gasped at each new surprise. Once all the shutters were open and a gentle breeze was moving through the rooms, the secretary and housekeeper took their leave, promising to come back later on.
After a couple of hours of wandering through bedrooms and salons and hallways, pausing to look at paintings, picking up books and peeking inside cupboards, Catherine checked her watch. It was breakfast time back home. She walked outside, sat down on an old iron chair in the middle of the courtyard and dialed Bob’s number on her phone.
He picked up immediately, his gruff voice asking, “So was I right? Is it a wreck?” Catherine felt tears rolling down her cheeks. She was deeply touched by the beauty all around her but also tired from her journey and pleased to hear his voice, even if his question could have been gentler.
“Bob, honey,” She tried to control her voice, “No, this is not a wreck, this is the most beautiful house I have ever seen. Oh Bob, I wish you were here with me. You wouldn’t believe it.” The tears were running faster now and the words caught in her throat.
“Cath, Cath, are you ok? I can’t hear you very well, has something happened?”
Catherine took a deep breath to control her voice, “Yes, Bob, something has happened. I think this may be a new beginning for us both. Bob, you and I have never been anywhere even remotely like this in our whole lives. Please, oh please, Bob, will you come out here and join me?”
“Ah, come on Cath. You’re tired from your trip…You know I have a lot of work going on right now, I can’t just jump on a plane and head over to France.”
They talked for a while and Catherine tried to convey the beauty and magic of Paul’s house and the charm of the little town but words were insufficient to describe such a place to someone who had never ventured much outside of his own backyard.
After their conversation, she returned to the house, opened her suitcase and instinctively pulled out a comforting shawl as the sun was beginning to set. In the kitchen, she noticed that Jocelyne had been back and left a loaf of fresh bread and milk, along with a packet of coffee on the table for her. Besides the provisions was a card bearing the name of the only hotel in the village.
Catherine smiled, grateful that someone was looking out for her. She knew it would be sensible to go to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep, but the house! How could she walk out and leave the house when she had only just found it?
She opened the kitchen cupboard and found a glass. She was going to pour herself a glass of milk when she noticed a bottle of cognac on a higher shelf. Yes, something a little stronger would be a good idea.
Her small glass of cognac in her hand and her shawl around her shoulders, she walked back into Paul’s main salon, with his desk facing the window. The chair in front of it was wooden with a tapestry cushion to soften the back. In the centre of the room there was a long chaise with a small table to the right, the walls were hung with many paintings. The fireplace was on the wall facing the window with two small armchairs pulled up close. To the right of the desk were tall bookshelves. She searched for switches and turned on a couple of table lamps. The room lit up with a warm intimate glow. Catherine’s eye was drawn by a row of identical books with a handwritten number on each spine. She could see that the pages were uneven inside. She pulled out a volume that was marked ‘38’ and let if fall open near the middle. The book appeared to be a travel journal, each page covered in ink and watercolour sketches with italic notations all around. She flicked through, then hauled another from the shelf and another.
Carrying the small pile of books to the chaise, she pulled her shawl closer and put her feet up, unaware of how dark it was becoming. Paul’s writing was sprawling but easy to read. He described the people he met, the meals he enjoyed and told some amusing anecdotes. In the company of Paul’s sketches and personal notes, she took a journey through the South of France at a time when it was still uncrowded, a golden age, when the Côte d’Azur was an elite playground for the rich and beautiful.
She turned the pages slowly, feeling like she was enjoying a conversation with this older relative. She smiled and said out loud, “It’s a shame I never knew you, Paul, I think we would have gotten along very well.”
If you missed part one of this story you can catch up here,