Here we are at the seventh and last instalment of my summer story. A huge thank you to everyone who has followed along each week and left me such encouraging comments.
Here is how the story has played out since July:
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
in part four, Catherine finally reads the letter that Paul left for her and takes some big decisions.
in part five we watch Bob discover the house for himself, and see his wife in a new context.
in part six things get romantic when they are stranded in a shepherds hut on the mountain just as a heavy storm breaks overhead
and today we will learn what they decide to do with the house ….
Later in the morning Bob and Catherine walked back down towards the village, leaving behind them the mountain shelter, the oak trees and the never ending view. They walked slowly, sometimes holding hands, stopping now and again to talk. There was a lot to discuss.
“You know Bob, when I first received that letter about inheriting a house in France, I got all excited and I could see us starting a new life out here. And now I am here…and of course the house is even better than I could have ever imagined and there are all those paintings…but you know what, I’ve realized that you can’t just slip out of one life and into another. Or at least I can’t.”
“Yeah, replied Bob, “I think I feel the same way. I’m not saying I could never live here but there is no way I’d want to go home and tell the kids goodbye because, ‘Hey guess what! We are moving to the other side of the world’. ”
“Exactly! And supposing we did move here and in a couple of years our first grandkids are born. We’d hate being so far away.”
They turned and smiled to each other, relieved. It was obvious that the same thoughts had been going through their minds, even though they hadn’t discussed the subject so honestly up until now.
“OK,” said Bob, “so I just have to put this out there…do you want to sell it?” “Oh my gosh, no, no!” Catherine replied. “This house and the connection to Paul…it all means so much to me.” Bob put his hand on his wife’s shoulder as if to steady her. “Good, then we are agreed. But…if we say that maybe we’ll come here to live one day or maybe we’ll just come here from time to time, we still need to find a way to make the house live again and to honor Paul’s memory. It’s clear we have a responsibility to do something with those paintings but honestly, I have no idea how to go about that.”
“I know, I mean obviously we can’t just leave them up there in the attic. We need some sort of advice…You know, maybe this is the right time to go back to the notary. He wasn’t very friendly the last time I saw him but hopefully he or one of his colleagues could help us find someone to talk to about this.”
They were in the village by now and as they turned into the market square, Catherine spotted a woman and a man standing outside of Paul’s gate. “Oh look, there is Jocelyne, you know the lady from the notary’s office? I wonder who she is talking to?”
As they drew closer they could hear that Jocelyne and the man were talking in French and they were looking at Paul’s house as they chatted. They turned towards Bob and Catherine.
“Bonjour Jocelyne,” said Catherine. “Jocelyne, I’d like to introduce my husband, Bob…”
Jocelyne smiled broadly “Ah, vous voila! Bonjour Catherine, bonjour Monsieur, I am so ‘appy to see you ‘ere. I come to ‘ze ‘ouse to see if everything going good and I find Monsieur Shilbair ringing ‘ze bell on ‘ze gate.”
Catherine smiled and put out her hand, “Monsieur Shilbair? Bonjour, nice to meet you.”
Jocelyne explained, “Monsieur Shilbair used to come here very often, he was student with Monsieur Paul.”
“Oh really? This is wonderful! Jocelyne, I have so many questions for him. Do you think you can translate for me?”
The man laughed. “No translation will be required, I’m American. How do you do? My name is actually Richard Gilbert but Jocelyne has always pronounced my name with her lovely French accent! I was passing near Callianes and I thought I’d stop off to see how the house was these days. It used to be such a lively place when Paul was alive. There were always so many people coming and going. It seems strange to see it looking so quiet.”
“Well, please, come inside and have a coffee with us, if you have the time that is. This is Bob, my husband. We’d truly be delighted.”
Jocelyne excused herself, explaining that she had to go to work and would come around again soon. Catherine and Bob opened the gate to welcome Richard into the house with them.
Coffee was quickly made and the three of them sat down at the table in the garden to talk about Paul. “You know, your great uncle was a remarkable man and so modest! The only reason I can make a living from my art today is because Paul gave me the confidence not only to paint but also to sell my work. And I’m not the only one, I know artists in Italy, in France, in the States who would all tell you the same thing. Paul had a true gift as an artist but also had a very practical mind. Believe me, most art schools don’t teach their students about the commercial side of the art world. His presence has really been missed.”
“But how did he teach you? Did he give classes, were there a lot of students here?”
“Well, he usually had three of four artists staying here at a time. We painted together nearly every day, sometimes in his studio, often outside en plein air. Evening meals were always spent together and that was mostly when he would coach us to think about our careers and earning a living from our art. Every once in a while he invited other artists to come and teach a specific technique but most importantly, this house attracted gallery owners like bees to honey. That’s actually how I first sold any of my paintings, because Paul put me in touch with a gallery owner who came down from Paris looking for new artists.”
“So, did you pay for this teaching?” asked Bob, always thinking of the practical aspects.
Richard smiled, “Paul was one of the most generous people I have ever known. We didn’t have to pay anything for studying with him but he expected his students to pull their weight around the house and in the garden…we even grew our own vegetables. You know I was very young then. I was grateful to him but it’s only with time that I have understood just what a generous man he was. A lot of budding artists never make it because they don’t have adequate support. Today, I try to help a couple of art students when I can but giving the occasional lesson isn’t the same thing as living under the same roof and learning each day alongside other artists.”
They continued chatting for a while and when Catherine offered Richard to stay for dinner, he accepted enthusiastically. During the meal, Catherine explained how she had learnt about her inheritance and how so much seemed to have happened in just a few weeks time.
“So, now we have to work out what we are going to do with the house. We don’t want to sell it and maybe in the future it will become a family home for us but for now we want to find a solution that Paul would have liked and….”
“Wait! I know what we have to do here!” Bob interrupted. “This house should become an art school…”
Catherine and Richard stared at Bob. “Really?!” asked Richard and “Of course!” cried Catherine simultaneously.
There was a short silence as each of them turned the idea over in their minds and then the questions and the ideas started fusing like fireworks…“Who would teach…How many students?…How do we choose the candidates?…How do you pay the teachers?…What about the house maintenance?…Can we ask Antoinette to stay?….”
“All of these are great ideas,” said Richard, “but it still requires financing. I’d be happy to help in any way that I can but I’m sorry to say I don’t have much spare cash that I could invest in the project.”
Catherine and Bob looked at one another. “Richard, there is something else you need to know and maybe you can give us some advice about. Would you mind coming upstairs?” They led Richard up to the painting studio on the top floor and showed him the canvases and paintings stashed away in the room and attic. Richard was taken aback by the number of paintings. “I had no idea about these…when I painted with Paul, we never came up here, we used the studio downstairs. These are worth quite a lot. If you are willing to part with some of these pieces, well then, I’d say that your financing issue is solved!”
There was another silence while the value of the paintings was sinking in and swimming around their heads, then Richard said, “I’d like to introduce you both to Alain. He studied with Paul a long time ago and they were friends throughout their lives. He is older than I am and his career took a different turn. He is an authority on art in the South of France and he has been curating an art museum in Aix-en-Provence for the past ten years. He has been talking about retiring…he’s a good man, this project might interest him. And if it doesn’t, he’d certainly be able to advise you about the paintings.”
They talked until long after dark and Richard seemed grateful for the invitation to stay for the night. “Maybe I could take the room I always used to use, the small one on the first floor?” he asked.
The next morning, while drinking his first cup of coffee, he called Alain. Catherine and Bob couldn’t understand his conversation on the phone because he spoke to Alain in rapid French but they could tell that the tone was friendly and positive.
Richard put down the phone and smiled, “Looks like we’re having lunch in Aix!”
The city of Aix-en-Provence was flooded in warm sunshine as they parked their car and walked through the paved streets to the museum. They were charmed by the wide avenues and tall elegant buildings that retained the true character of 18th century Provence even in an urban setting. The museum was located on a small stone square with shade beneath four plane trees. While they waited for Alain to come down from his office, they toured the small exhibition of impressionist paintings and were surprised to find one of Paul’s pictures hanging on a wall alongside paintings by Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase.
Alain arrived and the introductions were made. It turned out that he spoke good English and they followed him out of the museum and through the town to a little restaurant on the Place des Trois Ormeaux, talking all the while. Alain was very knowledgeable about the history of Aix and with his commentary the streets came alive as they walked.
Once they were settled at their table and had each ordered their meal, Richard explained to Alain how Catherine and Bob had come to Callianes and then let them explain their idea for the art school. Without giving too much away, Catherine let Alain understand that there were paintings by Paul that had never been seen by anyone and that while some could be donated to museums, others could be sold to finance the school project. The more they told him, the quieter Alain became.
Catherine finally came to the end of her tale. “So that’s about it Alain. As you can see, we have a great project on our hands but we need someone experienced beside us to help make the right decisions, to help us deal with galleries and museums and to help structure the school.” She paused and Alain looked from her to Bob to Richard, waiting to hear what was coming next. Bob stepped in.
“Alain, we know that you were a good friend to Paul and that you are an expert about his work and are well-connected. Well, we’d like to ask you if you’d be interested in working on this project with us?”
Alain looked surprised and then his blue eyes seemed to become a little watery. “You know Catherine, your great uncle was one of my dearest friends and also a role model for me in my working life. He was a good man whose name as an artist is highly respected. It would be an honor to be part of a school that continues his work.”
….. Epilogue …..
Three years have passed since that lunch in Aix-en-Provence and we are back at Paul’s house. It is a sunny day and the wisteria is in flower again, just as it was the very first time that Catherine saw the house…the windows are wide open, there are tables and chairs laid for a meal in the courtyard and we can see Antoinette moving from one table to another, placing small vases of flowers in the center of each, humming contentedly as she goes.
A head pops out of a window on the first floor. “Bob!”, calls Catherine, “time to get ready honey, they’ll all be here in less than an hour.”
Bob appears from behind the house, walking beside Alain and Richard. Between them they are carrying a huge zinc tub, filled to the brim with ice cubes. They joke together as they place the tub carefully in the shade to one side of the main door of the house and start pulling bottles of wine from cardboard boxes and placing them upright in the ice.
From the kitchen window comes the delicious smell of ratatouille and we can see the silhouette of someone busy preparing the meal…the front door opens and two young men carry a tall wooden easel out from the house and place it beside the gate. Stood up on the easel is a hand-painted sign:
Catherine appears at the front door wearing a pretty dress and open-toed shoes. “Bob! Please go and get changed, we need to be ready for our guests!” As Bob places the last bottles of wine into the ice and Richard collects the empty boxes, Catherine moves towards the tables with a list in her hand. Jocelyne hurries in through the gate. “Bonjour Catherine, at last I am ‘ere, pliz, ‘ow can I ‘elp you now?”
“Oh hello Jocelyne and thank you, I would love some help with the seating plan for the lunch. I‘m in a bit of a flurry since the mayor is coming and the notary and all of these big galleries. I so want today to be a success for the school and a way to say thank you to everyone who has helped us over the past couple of years.” She shows Jocelyne the list and at the same time empties a bag of handwritten name tags, folded and ready to be placed in front of each plate. “I really want our guests to make the most of each other. I have asked the art students to spread themselves around the tables, so there are one or two seated at each but some of the other guests would be better if we guide them a little bit. Let’s see…Monsieur Ferrier, he is the nice young man from Sotheby’s who helped us organize the sale of Paul’s paintings last year…I would like him to be seated beside Alain to talk about plans for the school and also beside Marie-Sophie, you know she is one of the teachers here and she is so pretty, I am sure that they would hit it off!”
“Now for this table, let’s place Richard alongside the gallery owner from Texas. She has flown in especially to see the show and to look for new artists…in fact let’s put our two most promising students at the table with them…now, for our table…”
Bob brushes past her and leans over to kiss her cheek. “Isn’t this a great moment? I can’t believe that everyone is going to be here, even your notary!”
She kisses him back and smiles. “Yes, it’s just a shame that the kids couldn’t get back this summer. I would have loved for them to see how well the school has done…come on Bob, get going, you have to look your best for the mayor…and I need to see if everything is ready in the kitchen…” Catherine heads inside but Bob hovers in the courtyard, glancing at his watch.
Just then a taxi pulls up outside the house and he grins, then signs to the passengers inside the taxi to make no noise. He hurries over and helps everyone out of the car. When they are all standing just inside the gate, he rings the heavy bell loudly. From indoors they can hear Catherine exclaim, “Oh my gosh, don’t tell me the guests are already here!” She emerges from the house looking flustered but immediately stops short, her mouth open…
The small crowd at the gate yells, “Surprise!!”
Bob is standing surrounded by their children and with two little babies in his arms. Loud squeals of delight are heard as Catherine realizes that both her children are there, dropping their suitcases and swarming her with hugs and kisses. “Oh my goodness! What is this? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?! And you brought the grandchildren! Oh this is wonderful!”
The rest of the day is a blur of happiness, of lively conversation, of admired artwork and even a couple of sales. The house is complete, it is more than complete, it is starting a new life full of joy and creativity…just as Paul would have wanted it to be.
And on the mountain above the village sits a shepherd’s hut…not much has changed inside, not yet, but above the fireplace hangs a half-finished painting of Paul’s house in Callianes and on the bed there is always a neat pile of blankets and pillows…just in case someone needs a place to be with someone special.
If you missed part one of this story you can catch up here,