Talking about the past in my last ‘Tao of Scrumble’ post started me thinking about the many adventures The Artist and I have shared.
In the autumn of 1996, when we were living on the mainland, one of my colleagues offered us a short holiday on his smallholding in Brittany, in exchange for a lift there and back. Naturally, we jumped at this chance to escape from the stress of city life.
My friend and his wife were planning to open a spiritual retreat and, while he commuted back and forth across the Channel a couple of times a month, she lived there permanently – along with a hutch full of rabbits (destined for the pot); some chickens and a somewhat stroppy goat, who was later exchanged for a more amenable puppy.
Relaxed by several glasses of Kir – white wine mixed with Crème de Cassis – we had to agree that this was the ideal location for getaway breaks from the pressures of modern living.
‘The air is definitely rarer here,’ I told my hosts, after I’d woken feeling lightheaded three mornings in a row, ‘it must be the lack of pollution.’ The Artist agreed. It was only when we decided to buy the ingredients of our nightly cocktail, so we could continue the tradition at home, that we made a significant discovery. Crème de Cassis wasn’t simply blackcurrant cordial – as I’d naively thought – but a highly alcoholic liqueur. So, when the cock woke us up with his crowing we were, in fact, still drunk from the evening before. Maybe that explains what happened next.
Our hosts told us that they’d picked up their sizeable property locally, for about a tenth of what an English estate agency would have charged for it. So, one day – just for a laugh, on the spur of the moment and even though our friends insisted it would be highly unlikely – we decided to see if there was anything available for us. To our delight and their surprise a ring-bound file in the local Notaire’s office delivered up not one, but three sets of suitable details and – after the customary long lunch – we set out to view these country cottages.
The first had been empty so long that there was a mature tree poking out through the rotten roof. We didn’t even bother to look inside but, as we tried to drive off, an old man blocked our path, offering to sell us a nearby ‘house’ for 20,000 francs (about £2,000.)
‘La maison’ turned out to be nothing more than one large room, with a bare earthen floor and tattered lace hanging from the window frame and mantel. It felt overwhelmingly sad and neglected. The old man assured us there was a small garden but this turned out to be accessible only through a bramble-filled patch behind an adjoining, similar dwelling. When we said, ‘Non, merci,’ as gently as possible, he reduced the asking price by half – but, even at that unbelievably low figure, we could not be persuaded and left him standing forlornly in the middle of the lane.
We couldn’t even find the second house on our list, so – after several wrong turns; loop-de-loops and our friends nearly coming to blows over her navigation and his driving skills – we persuaded them to abandon the search and head for the third, where Lorraine, the Notaire’s daughter would be waiting to show us around.
As we tuned the final corner and the property came into view, a shiver ran through me. In front of us, set in it’s own grounds, was a ‘longere’ – a traditional long-house, consisting of a two rooms on the ground floor, with a granary in the loft above them and a long stable to the side. A lean-to wood-store was situated at the end of that, with a hand-drawn well in front of it. Although there was evidence of an ancient electrical circuit, now disconnected, there was no water supply to the stone sink in the corner of the kitchen and no sanitary arrangements whatsoever.
Despite these drawbacks, it had a welcoming atmosphere. To me it felt unaccountably familiar, like home. The Artist, however, is not one to be swayed by sentimentality, (just one of the reasons we work so well together.)
‘I’m not paying what they’re asking for this!’ he whispered, as he helped me climb up a rickety metal ladder to the granary.
‘How much would you then?’ I asked, not quite believing that we were having this conversation. What had started out as a bit of a diversion was suddenly becoming quite serious.
‘I’d offer them half.’
‘You’re crazy! They’d never accept that – it’s an absolute steal as it is!’
‘Well, that’s my final offer – take it or leave it!’
‘That’ll be a ‘Non,’ then.’ I was relieved and regretful in equal measure.
But, when we came back down to earth, Lorraine soon wiped the smirks from our faces. In immaculate English, she informed us that the owner was an elderly lady, who had moved to a care home several years earlier. Concerned that the structure would deteriorate further than it had already, her family was anxious to sell and would be willing to accept an offer. She suggested that, if we were interested, we open negotiations at half the asking price.
‘Don’t say anything right now,’ she cautioned, ‘in French law a verbal offer is legally binding. Take time to consider and let me know.’
We returned to base and set out the pros and cons on paper. But making a list didn’t help.
We’d been handed the opportunity to buy a dwelling for less than we’d spend on a second-hand car. But it was sorely in need of tough love to restore it to a habitable standard.
The house and surrounding plot of land were sizeable – there’d be more than enough space for both our requirements. However, it took an overnight sea journey and an hour or so on the road to reach it.
While the idea of designing and building a home together was thrilling, we’d need to continue working in England to fund it, a project management nightmare.
After we’d been going round in circles for some time, our host interrupted, with the welcome news that dinner would soon be served.
‘You’ve made up your minds, then?’ he said.
While we’d been debating whether we would be fools if we passed this bargain up, or even bigger idiots if we took it on, The Artist had started doodling on the back of our discarded list. Now I could see that he’d drawn a plan: a large kitchen/dining area in the existing living space; a bathroom and separate toilet at one end of the barn; L-shaped seating looking on to a giant TV at the other; a mezzanine sleeping platform above.
‘And that’s just for starters,’ he said, adding a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses to the coffee table in front of the sofas. ‘First thing tomorrow, well make that offer.’
‘Ok,’ I said, holding back my enthusiasm for once, ‘but what if they don’t accept it?’