It’s symptomatic that our British neighbours are selling up after 20 years. That we shall now have French neighbours on either side of us seems somewhat appropriate.
‘Symptomatic’ because, over the course of the last five years or so – really, since our fragile and corrupt financial world imploded and since sterling took a nose-dive against a ‘basket of currencies’ – the influx of ex-pats from the U.K. seems to have been stemmed and even reversed. Just about everywhere, estate agents have the renovated properties of Brits on their books.
In the case of our departing neighbours, it was clearly not a financial issue. If you can imagine the trailer for the film of the Oscar-nominated drama: He was a retired chartered accountant who did quite well, thank you, in the City. She was a well-heeled heiress from solid Middle England stock. For 20 years, they lived half the year in England and half the year in France. But then one day… they found themselves grandparents. France seemed like a long way away from family life and their large garden was increasingly becoming a burden. There was nothing else for it, but to put their beautiful house on the market…
They’ve been here even longer than we have. Strangely, too, they made the same initial mistake – of buying in an apparent rural idyll where (it became increasingly clear) they shouldn’t really have settled. Like us, they moved further west and discovered a more cosmopolitan coin where they felt immediately at home. Nevertheless, they’ve somehow managed to avoid learning the language. Derek makes a valiant effort, but his phone message, for example, sounds like something that a man from the BBC Home Service might have recorded in wartime for our valiant French allies.
Their beautiful house-and-garden have always been high maintenance and, during the eight years or so that we have been neighbours – rarely actually seeing each other, but reassured by one another’s presence – they have spent less and less time here. So when Derek came round (in his charming thoroughbred fashion) to announce their decision to move back, we feigned surprise even though we’d long seen the writing on the wall.
After a little more than a year on the market, they’ve sold the house for near enough the asking price to another retired couple – from Lille, oop north. For the last month or so, they’ve taken time off from their grand-parental duties to come back and pack up. All through the recent tropical heat wave, they’ve been beavering away with boxes. Ever fastidious, Derek prepared a list of surplus items for sale, complete with French translations and precise dimensions. A kind of upper-middle-class yard sale.
Last week, I dropped round to check out their sole remaining rug – in the hope of finding something to replace the blue rug from Ikea in our sitting room, which has been systematically shredded by the dog’s claws. I found Derek ferrying stuff, reluctantly, from his immaculate cave to his trailer. He’d just misplaced his glasses, so I offered to help him look for them – only to be distracted by the contents of his trailer. I found an old wine box that I thought might come in useful for all those loose CDs that have lost their moorings and need to be re-shelved as and when.
Then his wife arrived and took me into the house to look at the sole remaining rug. I didn’t think that the colour scheme would quite go with ours, so I had to say ‘no’. Out of sheer curiosity, however, I checked out the two matching pine wardrobes and chests of drawers that represented great value and figured that, if I could just rationalise our recently re-organised our cave, perhaps with the help of our daughter, who’s currently living her own phoney war before the great adventure of higher education starts, then they might come in very useful. Thought bubble: I could store my work clothes, while Debs would have somewhere to hang the seasonal rejects from her everyday wardrobe.
She led me into the little maison des invités, the Wendy house that became our godsend for the winter months when we were constructing our new house here, and pretty soon I had said yes to a double duvet. Not that we really need a double duvet, but it looked far too good to chuck out and you never know when it might come in handy.
By the time we stepped outside again, Derek had found two unopened tins of some Cuprinol product for sealing wooden decking. Since I’d been looking at the startling prices of similar products in Brico Depot only the day before, I bit his hand off when he asked me whether I could use them. And what about that spray thing you bought for putting it on? his wife reminded him. So that, too, found its way into the pile of stuff I was amassing, like a lucky contestant in some game show, outside the door of their cave.
And then Derek invited me inside his holy of holies – and that’s when all the trouble started. I justified the badminton set, because it’s something that we had talked about for some time. As for the chapiteau… that sort of mini-marquee construction favoured by the rural French for al fresco bouffes: well, we’ve sometimes discussed the great notion of setting up a sound system on the front balcony for outdoor dance parties. It’s only really the possibility of rain that has held us back. And if the ants and badminton haven’t massacred our lawn completely, well we could always get hold of some old carpets and use them as a dance floor inside our new canvas disco inferno. So yes please, you never know when it might come in handy.
And this 12-volt battery charger? I don’t know if it still works, but it’s still in its box. Well, if it did work… you never know when it might come in handy. After all, I’ve already left the Berlingo’s headlights on at least three times since moving here. And on the floor of the cave was a whole array of old screw-top jars, containing carefully graded screws and nails and other handy nick-nacks. I’m coming down with screws and nails and assorted nick-nacks, but it seemed wrong to let Derek take them to the tip after all that hard work of grading and categorising.
And so it came to pass that I spurned a rug only to have to go back and fetch the car so I could bring back another consignment of stuff that may or may never get used. It’s the curse of the squirrel. May it never befall thee. My challenge now, should I choose to accept it, is to be sufficiently inspired by those assorted screw-top jars to organise my life and all its detritus more in the spirit of our departing British neighbours. They will be sadly missed.