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Mia and Ben, an Australian couple in their early thirties, have relinquished one dream and embraced another, selling their Sydney flat and purchasing an old yellow house in the picturesque village of Cordes-sur-Ciel in South-West France. They soon meet sophisticated neighbours Dominic and Susannah, a British couple in their sixties who welcome them warmly but whose own relationship is in crisis. Mia and Ben are immediately star-struck and impressed by their lavish hospitality. However, things with Dominic and Susannah are not what they first seem.
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|Publisher:||W. F. Howes|
Read an Excerpt
Each night I wake before midnight and wander the house. Even after a week in France, my body clock is bound to the opposite time zone and I have become more familiar with the house in darkness than in daylight. My feet follow the same route each night but my thoughts take a less direct path, retracing the steps that led me to this place, never sure if I made a conscious decision or was swept here as a result of being untethered. I should be thrilled. France was always my dream. What’s not clear to me is how to live that dream in a practical sense. The attraction of a dream is its elusiveness; its elevation above the everyday.
When Ben and I arrived a week ago, we stayed the first couple of days in a nearby B&B, Le Bleu de Pastel, while we made our maison habitable. Long-haul flights are incubators for viruses and I soon felt the niggling throat, a thickening in the chest, every bone aching. Ben speaks almost no French so I had to accompany him to the various shops to gather essentials for the house, resisting the temptation of a soft bed in a dark and silent room.
Since we moved into the house, I have slept on and off all day, alternately feeling hot or cold or thirsty. Ben comes and goes like a faithful servant, waiting on me so sweetly. When I wake, it’s either to the reassuring hum of his signature snore or to delicate birdsong from the garden and I know he has drawn the heavy curtains to shield me from the bright September day outside.
From the tall, graceful windows of our upstairs bedroom we can see the village of Cordes-sur-Ciel. By day, a sepia cluster of medieval houses crowded on a hilltop, by night a circlet of lights, white and gold, like a necklace dropped carelessly from the heavens. A waning moon has hovered over its shoulder these last few nights. In the early dawn, the hill is wreathed in cloud that sometimes enshrouds the house as well, setting us adrift in a sea of white.
As I walk the hallways, the boards creak cold under my feet, my fingers glance off the wall for balance, feeling the texture of the wallpaper. The house is too big for us – four times the size of our inner-city Sydney terrace. Seen online from the other side of the world, this house was the fairytale mansion with its ornate wrought-iron gates, wide gravel entrance and elegant proportions. The stone walls of the house are painted in a soft yellow with shutters in a darker shade: primrose and daffodil, or maybe sunflower and marigold. The setting, in a rural lane at the foot of the hill with a huge garden encircled by dry-stonewalls, looked idyllic. All this at half the price of our terrace. We hadn’t planned this move. We had no plans. Ben made it happen. He did it for me. This was my dream, not his. He did it to save us.
My night-time wanderings have reduced the scale of the house to textures and details: the smoothness of the stone stairs, the burnished handrail, the cold metal lion’s head on the newel post, the pinpricks of diffused light through the frosted glass of the double front doors.
Each night I stand in doorways and stare into the dark rooms, seeing only the shapes of the furniture in whatever light the moon gives up, wondering about the lives lived here. There’s one room in particular that draws me, night after night. It’s there I stand the longest. I know I should be thinking about practical things but my thoughts are too scattered to even try.
In the early hours, the wind comes up. It slips under the front doors, rattles around every window frame and whistles up through the attic and I return to my bed.
This property was la propriété du défunt – a deceased estate. I think about the old lady who lived here, Madame Levant, who stipulated in her will that it be sold to a young couple. It wasn’t until we took possession that the notaire revealed this clause. We’re in our mid-thirties, not that old but not that young either. It seems we unwittingly slipped through a loophole. I believe that Madame Levant wanted a young couple who would fill these rooms with the sounds of children. That will not be us. That can never be us.
Over the last few days, the house explored in the dreaming hours has become more familiar to me. I feel a growing affection for the odd creaks and sighs and shifting shadows. The dawn breeze seems to slow and thread itself through the house as if enfolding us, and no longer buffeting against us.
Today I woke to sunlight, the curtains pushed open. I have slept through the midnight hours and woken in time to see the pattern of morning sun as it falls on the Turkish rug beside the bed. After days of darkness and shadow, the colours seem bright as precious stones – sapphire, ruby, emerald and topaz – and the sky outside a wash of translucent blue. It’s time to join the land of the living. Or, at the very least, my husband.
Susannah Harrington stands in front of her full-length mirror and inspects herself from all angles. She’s chosen a dark-blue sundress that complements her eyes and highlights the last traces of blonde in her hair, disguising the undergrowth of grey stealthily taking charge. Long and thick, it’s still her best feature and a welcome distraction from the fretwork of lines encroaching on a face once considered by many to be beautiful. Although thickened with age and lacking its former pertness (everything seems to need shoring up these days), this dress flatters her figure.
She pulls on a cream cardigan. Takes it off. Drapes it over her shoulders. Tilts her head left and right, adds a smile and is satisfied it achieves the casual élan she desires. Lou-Lou and Chou-Chou sit at her feet and gaze adoringly at her reflection in the mirror. ‘Does Mummy look pretty?’ she asks, kneeling to bestow a kiss on each of the pug’s soft little heads. ‘Not as pretty as you, my little poppets.’
Susannah has been planning to visit the new arrivals as soon as courtesy allowed. Just over a week has elapsed, which seems about right. This afternoon she and Dominic will summon whatever tatters of charisma they still possess (something they’d once had in spades) and make themselves known. Of course, Dominic knows nothing of these plans and strategies and his cooperation can never be relied on.
In the interim, she has discovered that the new neighbours are an Australian couple with the endearing name of Tinker. Mia and Ben Tinker. Young enough to be the Harringtons’ offspring but Susannah hasn’t wasted a moment worrying whether they will find anything in common with a couple so much younger – she will make it work. One simply needs to take a real interest in people, since almost no one does these days.
She hasn’t actually spied the Tinkers themselves but, passing on her way to the village, she has noticed the property is a hive of industry. The pair of evil-eyed billy goats that guarded the place have disappeared. Their droppings, which had long encrusted the front steps, have been scrubbed away. A van from a furniture store in Albi was sighted earlier in the week delivering appliances and mattresses. A telephone technician from Orange had been there practically every day, quite an accomplishment in itself, given the procurement of any kind of trade or service is at best torturous and at worst impossible.
Susannah puts on her glasses and peers into the mirror to apply her lipstick. Sadly, even her mouth, once so generous and giving, is beginning to look mean-spirited: the corners tending to droop, giving her a begrudging look. It’s as though something inside her is receding, becoming diminished. Loneliness has a way of surreptitiously telegraphing itself like a disagreeable illness. There’s something faintly repellant about it. That’s not something she wants the Tinkers to pick up on. So, today she will play the part of the interesting, sophisticated older woman. The only role left to her now.
When she and Dominic first arrived in Cordes, a year ago, a veritable flotilla of friendships had sailed their way. They were just the sort of fresh ‘interesting’ new arrivals that established expats welcomed. Several of them were involved with the town theatre, and she had envisaged a quiet resurgence of her acting career. But one by one those friendships capsized. Now it’s just her and Dominic again, alone with each other.
In the living room, the man himself is engrossed in the latest issue of Decanter and reluctant to be roused from his armchair. ‘Who are these people?’ he asks, without looking up.
‘Darling, the yellow house on rue Albert Bouquillon, I told you . . .’
‘With half the trades in the Tarn queued up outside. Probably Russian mafia.’
‘You’ve always wanted to see inside the house, you said . . .’
‘Yes, but why today?’ He glances up from his magazine briefly as though he’s on a deadline to finish it. ‘And why are you all dolled up?’
‘Just humour me, please. It’s a beautiful afternoon. We can take the dogs and walk down.’
With an exasperated sigh, Dominic puts down his magazine, slugs his drink and pushes himself out of his armchair. ‘I gather there’s an expectation that I will also don my finery for this auspicious occasion? Who are we playing? Bogart and Bacall?’
‘I’ve laid out a couple of suggestions on your bed. Come on, we need to get out.’
‘Suggestions? Alternatives, you mean. I have no need whatsoever to get out. You’re imposing your need on me.’
Susannah smiles. Today her benevolence works. With a commensurate amount of huff and distant mutterings, he changes his clothes and breezes out the front door, leaving her and the dogs to follow in a slipstream of expensive eau de cologne.
Rue Albert Bouquillon, despite its illustrious name, is a narrow country lane. It runs parallel to their own road with their house set back behind the Tinkers’ property, down a gravel side road leading deeper into the countryside. It could be accessed cross-country via ploughed fields and a small wood, but the road is more reliable and a pleasant stroll.
Thankfully Dominic’s mood improves as they walk. Today is perfect for their visit. A golden afternoon, typical of late September in South West France, the sun just beginning its descent beyond the hill, the air soft and shadows lengthening – if only one could add a soundtrack to these pivotal moments in life. The dogs are excited to be out and off their leashes. They run ahead, stopping now and then to glance back, making sure they are not alone. Quite the family occasion. There’s every reason for optimism.
As they approach the house, Susannah once again admires the gracefulness of this sleeping beauty, now being brought back to life. The tall wrought-iron gates that culminate in a fanciful knot of curves and flowers and leaves; the wide front steps dividing the perfect symmetry of the building and the lovely little Juliet balcony above the front doors with double shuttered windows either side. It’s been empty so long, it still has the neglected air of an abandoned property, like so many in France these days.
Mia Tinker opens the door to them. Wearing workman’s overalls, dark hair cropped short, she’s petite and lovely in the careless, unselfconscious way of young women everywhere.
She seems a little pale and disoriented but explains that she’s been unwell and this is her first day out of bed. Nevertheless, she’s welcoming and delighted to meet English speakers and fusses over Lou and Chou in the manner of a true dog lover. Susannah suggests they come back another day, but Mia is insistent they must come inside and meet Ben.
Susannah’s first impression of the interior is of its understated beauty. Facing west, the gilded afternoon light floods the vestibule, illuminating the intricate floor tiling, the elegance of the curving stone staircase and the splendid high ceilings. No showiness, just perfect bones.
‘Always been curious about the interior of this place,’ admits Dominic, looking around. ‘You’re both Australian, then?’
‘Yes, we are.’ Mia smiles. ‘Escapees from the colonies.’
‘We love Australians!’ declares Susannah, over-compensating with, ‘So down to earth and super friendly. Super people!’
Ben comes down the stairs, solid but fit and strong looking, an archetypal Australian male to Susannah’s eyes. The sort of man in whom you can still see the boy. With a cursory wipe of his grubby hand on his shorts, he shakes their hands enthusiastically. ‘Welcome! English speakers. Excellent.’
‘We’ve brought you a welcome gift,’ says Dominic, handing Ben a bottle of wine. Although he’s appreciative, Susannah can tell that this young man has no idea of its value. Admittedly, neither has she, but would hazard a guess that it’s over the hundred-euro mark, knowing Dominic.
‘We were so pleased to hear the new owners were anglais – not that we make a habit of seeking out expats, of course. We’re not those sorts of expats,’ says Susannah, already annoyed with herself for gushing.
‘You may know that this style of house is what’s called une maison de maître: the master’s house, or perhaps more commonly called a villa these days, a more opulent style than the village houses,’ explains Dominic. ‘They can run to eight or ten bedrooms or more, with extensive grounds, orchards and stables.’
‘We think five is more than enough,’ says Mia with a nervous laugh.
‘Probably built for someone of note in the late 1800s; I believe it was in Madame Levant’s family for several generations.’ Dominic looks around, nodding his head approvingly. ‘Nice features. Very nice.’
‘We’re just about to stop for the day, will you stay for a glass of wine?’ asks Ben.
‘We really dn’t want to put you to any bother,’ says Susannah.
As usual, Dominic has other ideas. ‘Actually, now we’ve made it in the door, I wouldn’t mind a tour of the place.’
Since the Tinkers seem amenable, Susannah capitulates. ‘Oh, well, perhaps just a small glass of something. We truly only planned to pop our heads in.’
As they set off on the tour, Susannah notices how pretty the interior is. The downstairs walls are painted in a pale butter colour adding warmth to these huge rooms. It hasn’t been maintained in the few years since the old lady died but is in a reasonable state, lacking ostentation but not entirely austere. The front rooms are a formal dining room and a large salon, both with vast stone fireplaces that will be difficult to clean. There are bits and pieces of furniture left behind; Madame Levant must have sold off the better pieces. There’s a tatty crimson velvet chaise, various Louis XV-style chairs, the odd cabinet and side table scattered about and a formal dining suite that would easily seat a dozen for dinner. All have seen better days and none of it is worth very much in France. There may be a gem tucked away in a corner but most likely Madame had a dealer through the place some years ago. The parquet floors of the main salon need re-polishing; the blue jacquard curtains that dress the tall windows are faded, their gold tassel tie-backs hanging limp and thin as corn silk. What the salon lacks in grandeur it makes up in the aesthetic of its proportions.
Susannah takes it all in and makes the occasional comment about the views or the lovely light in each room. Dominic asks practical questions about the heating and plumbing. Ben admits that, since the weather is still so warm, they haven’t yet put the radiators to the test. Installing the internet has apparently been the main priority but he’s concerned about the electricity cutting out intermittently.
The rear of the ground floor has a long reception room with one entire wall of French windows that open out into the garden. The only furnishings are a refectory table and a variety of mismatched chairs. Off this room, a short hallway with a couple of small utility rooms, one being a butler’s pantry, the other a storage room that leads to a spacious kitchen in the north-east corner. The kitchen has the original marble worktops, polished timber cupboards, a smaller table and chairs and a combustion fire that will be cosy in the winter.
‘You’re very lucky to have an intact kitchen,’ says Susannah. ‘In France people pack up their kitchen and take it with them. Such a nuisance.’
Mia gazes around the room. ‘We love all this old furniture. Just the whole style of it. It would have taken us months to furnish the place.’
‘I expect you’ll get rid of a lot of it,’ says Dominic. ‘Other people’s junk . . .’
‘You never know what you might find in a house this age,’ says Susannah.
‘Hundred-year-old junk, is still, by definition, junk,’ Dominic points out.
‘Well, we’re not in any rush,’ says Mia. ‘We’re just exploring room by room.’
Having looped around the downstairs rooms, they come full circle to the entry vestibule, and continue up the main staircase to the first floor. Susannah picks up Lou and is touched to see Mia pick up Chou and carry her up the stairs.
‘So . . . when did you actually see the property?’ asks Susannah. ‘It’s been for sale ever since we arrived in Cordes a year ago.’
‘Actually, we noticed it four years ago. We came here to Cordes-sur-Ciel on our honeymoon,’ explains Ben. ‘We stayed at the B&B Le Bleu de Pastel for a few days. It was summer then and we came for a walk down rue Albert Bouquillon one evening.’
‘It was for sale back then. We loved the place; it seemed so sad and neglected. We came again in the daytime to get a better look but didn’t have time to arrange a viewing,’ says Mia.
‘Or even seriously consider buying it,’ adds Ben.
‘Then, earlier this year, Ben looked online and saw it was still for sale . . . we made an offer and . . .’ Mia shrugs as if she doesn’t quite understand what happened. ‘It’s as though it was here waiting for us.’
‘You can just buy a house over the internet?’ Susannah is constantly dazzled by the scope of this new world.
Mia smiles. ‘You can find one, at least.’
‘It was kind of a spontaneous purchase. A mad experiment,’ says Ben.
Intrigued, Susannah wonders what the objective of this experiment might be. Obviously the beginning of a new chapter, but what happened at the end of the last one? ‘It was meant to be,’ she agrees. ‘Congratulations to you both.’
The upstairs bedrooms are decorated with floral wallpapers and dark furnishings from early last century but are wonderfully spacious with high ceilings and tall windows that look over the countryside of green fields, hedgerows and woods stretching off into the distance. The back bedrooms look towards the Harringtons’ property; the front ones have a perfect view of the village on the hill.
‘You’ve got an awful lot done in a short time. I’m amazed you even managed to get the EDF to connect the power so quickly,’ says Susannah.
‘We’ve had some help along the way. Plus Ben is a brilliant planner. He’s the master of the spreadsheet; nothing’s left to chance.’
The men go down to the basement to inspect the boiler and Susannah follows Mia to the kitchen where she sets about locating four glasses and a corkscrew, preparing to open the bottle brought by the Harringtons.
‘Oh, please, don’t open this on our account. I can duck home for a bottle of plonk if need be. Don’t waste it on us.’
Mia looks up in surprise. ‘I have other wine . . . I just thought . . .’
‘Dominic’s a collector, a connoisseur. Sorry – that sounds so horribly pretentious.’ Susannah gives an embarrassed laugh. ‘But truly, you should save it for a special occasion. Or a rainy day.
There won’t be rainy days. The sun will shine eternal. Take no notice of me.’ She pulls herself up short. ‘By the way, whatever happened to those awful goats?’
‘We still have them. They’re not so bad.’ Mia opens a bottle of white wine from the fridge and fills a bowl with water for the dogs, who are panting noisily.
‘I was always terrified of the beasts. Vicious horns. Someone left the gates open once and they terrorised the entire neighbourhood, eating people’s washing and chasing the children.’
‘They’re quite secure now. We’ve got them running on a wire up the back, eating up the grass.’
‘This is a nice big room – kitchen table’s not bad,’ says Susannah, pulling up a chair. ‘Mixed blessing, inheriting bits of Madame Levant’s old furniture. The French have rather odd taste in furniture . . .’ Susannah glances at Mia. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean . . .’
Mia laughs. ‘I do know what you mean. As I said, we like old things.’
‘You’re very enterprising and you obviously have good French, out buying fridges and beds and whatnot.’
‘I learned French as a child, but Ben is struggling. He’s been trying to learn; it’s not easy.’
‘He will, he’s young. You’re very practical, the two of you.’
Mia pours two glasses of wine. ‘I’m not sure you could call buying this place practical. I wake in the night wondering if I’ve dreamed it.’
‘I know what you mean. I had the same experience when we arrived. I wasn’t sure if I even liked the house. Dominic was mad about the cellar. I did love the swallows nesting in the eaves . . . sounds silly, doesn’t it? I’ve never told Dominic that, he would think it ridiculous. I just thought . . . they mate for life, swallows, don’t they. It seemed a good omen.’ Susannah abruptly lifts her glass in a toast. ‘Here’s to the great enterprise! Bon courage! ’ Their eyes meet as they clink glasses, and Susannah asks, ‘Have you met any of the other local expats?’
‘We really haven’t had a moment. I hadn’t thought of us as expats. Aren’t we migrants?’
‘I suppose you’re right. I’ve always thought of myself as an expat. I’ll never be French.’
‘So, would you move back to England?’
‘In a heartbeat.’ Susannah surprises herself with a brittle laugh. ‘Sorry. Take no notice of me. Of course not, we love it here. Besides, we couldn’t really afford to go back. Even if we wanted to.’
Of course she’d love to go home, and she wonders for the thousandth time if there will ever come a day when they can show their faces in London again.