2005: Here since March, it's now the beginning of May. I have spent months on the phone calling local contractors. Two came round to have a look, muttered disparagingly at the damage, and I never heard from them again. I am now on my own – though helped, fortunately, by Nicola, an English woman in the village. Finally, we've managed secure more local workmen…
Like a Mad Max movie, they arrive. Two white trucks swerve across the lawn, a motorcycle follows. Cars pull in. A French Smart car, then a beat-up Renault that parks under the chestnut trees, the driver (the cavalier Monsieur Bruni, see a previous story) unaware that he’s crushed my only bed of white irises.
But I am ready for them, standing at the front door like a valiant chatelaine, greeting the troops who’ve come to commandeer her chateau. I have croissants, a thermos of coffee, plus a bottle of Terre Ochres, a rosé, bought for 3.50 euros at the village shop. To be opened at the first sign of things going well; though, possibly, it will be opened no matter what.
M. Boudet, the plumber/electrician, comes with his two sons: Christopher, the elder, the more serious of the two, and David, a skinny, long-haired twenty-year-old, owner of the Suzuki motorbike and an angelic grin. With them is their uncle, also an enthusiastic smiler. Astonishingly, they get to work immediately. Suddenly their orange extension cords are snaking down the hallways and the big drills start. The speed is incredible: chunks of plaster and tiles fly. They attack the walls like a gang of professionals tunneling through to a bank vault next door.
Over the next three days, more workmen arrive.
A heavy-set man appears in the back garden rising dramatically over the top of the incline on a big yellow digger. “Here?” he shouts, “or down there?” At Nicola’s request, he has come to carve out a trench for the septic tank, the fosse. Where would I like it? I have no idea. Forgetting that there are no sewage pipes in the country, I wasn’t aware that I needed one.
Another man, a Mr. Smout, is waiting inside to install equipment for British SKY television. It supplies English programs, feeds from CNN, MSNBC and, most important for my husband, American sports. Mr. Smout, an Englishman who lives in nearby Puycelsi, needs to secure a dish to the roof, then run connecting cables inside the walls to the attic. “Please co-ordinate with M. Boudet senior,” I say.
Elated by the activity, I float around the house in a kind of misty-eyed reverie. Progress. Incredible!
That is, until I hear shouting from the roof. It’s Mr. Smout telling M Boudet senior—and not for the first time—that he needs his wires connected immediately. M Boudet, who works fast but at his own pace, isn’t thrilled about an Englishman telling him what he needs, and certainly not in that tone of voice. And Mr. Smout, a man from the British school of get-a-move-on-mate, has little patience for the working foibles of the French. “Dee-pechez voo!” he screams, with his retaliatory Anglo accent. “Bloody hurry up!”
I hear my name called—Madame Lew-ees, echoing across the trees. But I’m already heading for the magic circle (my name for the faery-like rounds of ancient box hedges, part of the chateau’s original parterre).
A place that will become, as difficulties arise (and they do), my sanctuary. A refuge from these men who I’m not sure I can control. Of course, I should have stayed in the house to referee the argument. But I’m trying to avoid M Boudet after our run-in yesterday about the radiator pipes.
A few decades ago the chateau’s original chimneys were knocked off the roof. The flues are also blocked ( something else I didn’t notice when I bought the place), so I’ve decided to install central heating. “Where will you run the pipes?” I asked M Boudet innocently. Considering how many channels had been opened up, I presumed they’d be hidden somewhere inside the walls. But then there was the question of the tiron. This is an iron pipe that runs across the floor upstairs and secured on the outside of the house by pairs of crossed iron bars. Something I’d imagined could be easily removed, except that it’s literally—and rather alarmingly, I learned—holding the entire house together.
It lies below the windows, running through all three bedrooms, and M Boudet saw no reason why it couldn’t stay there. “I’ll just lay the radiator pipes behind it,” he said smiling. He has the small boy’s smile – winning, unchallengeable.
“You can get somebody to build a long wooden box to hide them both," he said. "Once it’s painted, you’ll hardly notice it!”
Amusing. Of course I’d notice. And he knows it. Still, I wasn’t up for arguing this early in the game. Instead, I tried to politely show M Boudet (aware that French artisans are sensitive about their work) how inconvenient it would be. Positioning myself in front of the tiron—allowing enough room for the so-called “wooden box,” I leaned across to open the window. This I could just about manage. But when I tried to reach the latch holding the shutter in place on the outside wall, it was impossible. “Imposs-ible!” I said, in my most demonstrative French...that is without jumping over the imaginary box and onto the windowsill—which I pantomimed, but obviously didn’t do. Smiling now, or, rather, grinning like a waiter, I explained that I would need to “close the shutters to sleep” – particularly since M. Gomes, the plasterer, was now insisting he had to put up false ceilings because of the damp, so that hanging curtains was more or less OUT OF THE QUESTION!
There was a silence. M Boudet didn’t attempt to reach the shutter latch himself. I was obviously much taller. And not wanting to risk spoiling our camaraderie, or interrupt the momentum—the noise of hammering and drilling going on in the rest of the house—I left it at that. But he wasn’t happy. He walked off muttering – something about "rich Americans" – shaking his head. So, obviously, I’d have to bring it up again.