It was Roger’s birthday on Sunday and we popped round in the morning with a present. It’s not easy to get him to accept a gift: in the past I have managed an enamelled coffee pot to replace his, which had sprung a leak, and once I made him a new red flag with which he could warn traffic when he was bringing his cows home for milking and needed to get them across the road. This year it was Markus who had the perfect idea. Roger’s transistor radio had got stuck on the wrong station and, in order for him to hear the Mass which is broadcast on Sundays by the local radio station, he was obliged to go outside to sit in his van and listen on the car radio. He has been doing this for some months now, all through the bitter cold of February, and Markus decided it was time to recycle our portable radio. Roger was (discretely) pleased with his gift, and after the regulation pastis we said goodbye – he was off to lunch at his cousin’s.
As we scrambled down the short cut over the bank we realised that a group of about a dozen people were milling about interestedly in the courtyard. It was a family, en route for a get-together in Empurany, involving more than a hundred people, and this group had stopped at les Sarziers so that the patriarch could show them ‘our’ house, where he was born. The inverted commas are because we have always felt that we are simply custodians of a place which has had a long history before we came, and will probably continue its life long after we are gone. Over the years various people have shown up and told us about their memories, living here as the children of tenant farmers. In this way we have learned about the animals they kept, the crops and vegetables they grew, how the water supply worked, and how hard it was making a living on poor, dry soil, enduring long freezing winters and baking hot summers.
This family were delightful, and so grateful to be shown around. Michel had lived here for just one year, from 1939 to 1940 when he was sent away to be brought up by a relative as the family had grown too large for the farm to sustain all of them. He told us that he came back to visit his parents from time to time and showed us photos of himself as a toddler sitting on a rug in the courtyard with a sibling. He remembered the wine barrels in the big cellar and was delighted that they are still in situ (although unfortunately now empty!) We have long wondered who was the Marius who carved his name into the kitchen window sill, and it turns out that it was his uncle, who worked locally as a builder.
It was a lovely visit, and he thanked us with a gift of a bottle of vin de noix and reproductions of a little watercolour painting that he had made of the house.
Just a few weeks ago, at the reception after Carla’s concert, I got talking to a lady I had met just once at a friend’s house, who worked as a district nurse here in the 1960’s, braving the twisty lanes in all weathers in her 2CV. I could see that she was very struck to find herself in our kitchen, and she asked me if I knew anything about the last people to live here before us. Indeed we do know that the family left after a tragedy – first the father died and then the son fell ill with terminal cancer. It all came back to her then, it was she who had come daily to care for him in his last months. I showed her his room and she gazed around, her eyes full of memories, it was a very moving moment.
On a cheerier note – the widow and daughter moved only a little way away, down closer to the river, where the family still owns a little land, on which the daughter has a mobile home. Years ago she stopped and asked to have a look at the house and garden and told us that what she loved most was the little medlar tree which grew by the Doghouse, she even confessed that in the winter, when the fruit had bletted, she sometimes came up and picked some if we weren’t here.
We told her of course that that was fine, but after she had gone we were left in a quandary. The medlar tree was seriously in the way of plans we had to reorganise, but now we simply could not cut it down as we had intended, without planting another somewhere else! We hastily bought a sturdy specimen and installed it under the garden wall where it continues to thrive, producing masses of fruit every year. Personally I’m not a big fan of medlars, so I do hope she still comes up foraging for some in the winter!