55 years of marriage
my dad falls asleep
before we cut the cake
My mother has angina, osteoporosis and Raynaud’s Syndrome. On the telephone her voice sounds broken, but she doesn’t know why.
I am moving 1,000 miles away from my parents at a time in their life when they could need me more than ever.
My mother will die before my father. Even though he is almost deaf he will move around the house listening for her. Sometimes he will call her name, then wait.
Moving house is no.5 on a list of stressful life events. I don’t think this includes moving to another country where you don’t speak the language, and so many ordinary things you’ve taken for granted – making phone calls, getting house and car insurance, or keys cut, knowing that the words you need to get through the day are already waiting for you to call on them – become small mountains to conquer, or at least to begin ascending.
top ten stress busters
get enough rest and sleep
reach out to others
achieve a good work life balance
eat a healthy diet
seek professional help
I draw myself
a happy face
The light here continually surprises me. It illuminates ordinary things: edges of buildings, reflections in shop windows, my hands. This is what getting old means, I think, when I look at them. But maybe if I could magnify the skin I’d see the life I’ve lived filling every fissure and wrinkle. I have been lucky.
the golden belly
of a gull
sun along the shore
even the grey cockle shells
It has taken me thirty years to return to the sea. Here, on the Côte d’Azur, the water shifts through a palette of blues and greens, unlike the sea along the coast of South Wales, that steadfastly maintained its shade of gunmetal grey regardless of the season.
My parents still live in the house where I was born over fifty years ago. When I go back, I return to the place where I took my first breath of salt-air.
an egret’s feather
in the pages of my book –
a drift of snow
I remember the hard winter of ’63. I remember standing on the sofa in the front room staring out at the falling snow: Chrome Avenue, its pavements and gardens all hidden. But who is watching this little girl in the plaid pleated skirt with all her weight on her finger tips pressed onto the back of the sofa? If it was a true memory wouldn’t I only see the view through the window? How much of my past is invented, imagined?
The peaks of the Alpes Maritimes are still scattered with snow, while on the beach at the end of the road, people are pick-nicking playing Frisbee, taking their first swims of the year. The bakery is now open every day of the week until the end of September. Each morning the pavement tables are full of baskets of croissants, white china coffee cups, women with small dogs, couples on holiday content to just sit and stare out to sea.
The maçon has knocked a hole in the wall of the dressing room to make a second bathroom and the 1st floor landing is flooded with sunlight as it has never been since the house was built over a hundred years ago, and, from where I am at the top of the stairs, I can see through to the window at the other end of the room, out to the leafing plane trees, the rough trunk of the big palm. Plaster dust swirls in the air in front of me, to move forward I have to step over bags of rubble, past the shattered edges of brick, but none of this matters when light unexpectedly greets you.
our English neighbour
complains about the rats
wisteria in bloom
Three sad and beautiful things:
• a stray, pregnant cat at the autoroute rest area
• the smell of the sea mixed with the smell of jasmine
• the sound of the word echantillon.
under the bed our sandals
press toe to toe
Bags of rubble accumulate at the side of the house. Half a dozen at first, then a dozen, then more that turn the corner of the house and are stacked along the roadside wall, until we run out of ground space and they’re piled on top of one another, and we stop counting. Sacs à gravats – thick, black plastic bags we bought at Castorama and heavy, white woven sacks the maçons brought with them – full of hollow clay bricks from the dividing walls we’ve knocked down, chunks of rock from the false windows we’ve opened up, broken floor tiles, wallpaper of every thickness and material and design, from every decade of the last century, metres of shattered wooden moulding, every length of old wire and stretch of iron pipe that ran through each of the four storeys. The flesh and bones of the house stripped out.
portraits of strangers
in the corner of the attic
someone else’s dust
When we take out the fireplaces and their chimney breasts I keep hoping to find a reminder of the people who have lived here during the last hundred years: a coin, a shoe, something secreted away. There is only old iron, sooty terre cuite and stone. These are the things that held up their lives, not what they added to decorate it.
I examine the two framed pastel portraits signed by an Italian artist. The woman wears a blue dress; her face is flushed and smiling. The man is bearded, in a jacket, waistcoat and cravat. A watch glints from his pocket. What happened to them? Were they happy here? Were they kind to each other? Did he hold her and tell her that he loved her? The way Tony holds me and tells me not to worry?
• the kitchen units will arrive and there will be no floor laid in the kitchen
• we will not have a bathroom by the time we move in
• the new windows will not fit
• we will fail the diagnostic test by Gaz de France
• we will run out of money
• the roof will leak
all the puddles
I step in
The maçons dig up the old tiles on the kitchen floor, hack away at the concrete screed beneath and come to damp sand.
When my parents moved into their house on Sandfields Estate in 1957 there was no garden, just sand pegged out with fence posts. Only dunes separated them from the sea, 200 yards away. My father brought in topsoil and turf. Over the years he dug in compost and manure. Today their garden flourishes with potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbages, runner beans, soft fruit, but if you dig deep enough you still find the sand. The grains bury themselves in the quick of your nails.
almost a ‘local’
the neighbour’s ginger cat
The people who live at Le Grillon, another of the few original houses that remain in Avenue des Chênes, invite us for an aperitif on Saturday lunchtime in order to introduce us to some neighbours. ‘In France, an aperitif is always at midday,’ Madame tells me on the phone, and we make sure to appear by 12.10 at the latest.
Only two other neighbours are there and the six of us sit in a circle handing around a plate of thinly sliced brioche spread with liver paté. They tell us about:
• the unpleasant neighbours
• tourists parking right outside their gate
• the neighbour who shot himself in the foot trying to kill a rat
We tell them about:
• the walls we have knocked down
• the windows we have opened up
• the plans for our house-warming – la crémaillère – at the end of the year
Just before two o’clock there’s a noticeable shift downwards in the briskness of the conversation and our excuses to leave are quickly accepted.
A week of sun and rain. The season hasn’t settled yet but there are lots of women, usually in pairs, who walk past the house to the beach in the late morning, and back up towards their apartment blocks at the end of the afternoon. They wear brightly coloured, long-sleeved beach tops made from some sort of voile that flutters around them in the breeze but still modestly covers their bottoms. Mostly they speak Dutch or Norwegian and I imagine a whole country of middle-aged, northern women living together at the top of the steep Sentier de la Vertu.
‘bikini line’ slips down
my list of things to do
While I am scraping thick vinyl off the lounge walls, Tony takes a break from filling holes with colle universelle and plays the piano. The piano is the only piece of furniture in the house, the only piece we bought from the old proprietor, and, while it needs tuning, when Tony plays I can feel the house breathing, as if music is what it’s been waiting for. He plays the theme from ‘Love Story’.
When the movie first came out in the 70s my older sister went to see it with some friends and came home with tears streaming down her face. I laughed at her standing in the kitchen and sobbing but when I went to see it the following week I was the same wet wreck and cried for days afterwards. Where do I begin, to tell the story of how great a love can be… A girl who loved Mozart, the Beatles, and me… Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Song lyrics, script, cliché – but as vivid in my memory as any real experience. At thirteen, I had never imagined there could be such sadness, that life could be so unfair.
This is a love story too. A love story with a house that came to be ours through a whole string of coincidences. And here I am with my couteau à grattoir and my décolleuse standing on a stepladder scraping walls back to their original surfaces. And there is Tony closing the piano lid. And on the other side of the French doors the sun spatters the terrace through the leaves of the plane trees. And Tarek, one of the maçons, comes in and says, Madame, j’ai fini la cuisine. And here is our first floor laid. A blue tile, aged with ochre and cream, called La Douce France.
the evening’s last shimmer