So this is the house that one day my wife might inherit, though the chances of that happening while we’re both young enough and fit enough to (a) make it habitable and (b) enjoy it seem to be rapidly diminishing.
We occasionally fantasise about this place because staying in my in laws’ house for even a few days, summer or winter, is becoming such a drag that I’d rather stay at home. Back before we had kids, my wife’s parents would go away for two weeks in the summer, leaving us to house sit (water the garden, feed the animals). This was great, and it was possible to properly relax. With Elisabeth’s old man hanging around all summer, however, it’s complete misery. When she was younger, my wife’s father would actually hit her (or threaten to) for reading. Even now, he sarcastically refers to me as an “intellectual” because I like to read books when I’m on holiday.
So, anyway, there’s this house. It’s very old, and my wife’s great aunt Simone lives there. Over a year ago, Simone had a series of strokes and has been bedridden ever since. She needs round-the-clock care, and in any sane universe the family doctor would have ensured she got it, in a hospital or care home. But because my mother-in-law foolishly promised the old lady that she wouldn’t end up in a home, the doctor has left her to it, in spite of the fact that, all these months later, my mother-in-law has basically had to leave her husband (bar a few hours in the afternoon) in order to move in with the old lady.
Now, Simone never had any children, but she had a couple of sisters. This house is on a bit of land you might call a smallholding. It’s probably big enough that you could do a Tom and Barbara and live self-sufficiently. The house has three downstairs rooms (including kitchen) and three bedrooms. There’s an upstairs storage area. A modernish bathroom has been tacked onto the back. Attached to the main house, there’s a barn, which has at least three sections, and which link together and to the upstairs storage. There is, in short, a lot of storage space. As long as I’ve known my wife, Simone has been living in the three rooms downstairs, and nobody – but nobody – was allowed to go upstairs, of which more below.
An insane English person might propose to convert the barn into habitation, but no French person would consider it. It has stone walls and a tiled roof, but the inside consists of massive oak beams, all of which are rotten. My idea would be to completely gut the interior and build a new, modern, wood-framed house within the stone walls. No French person would consider such a thing – any builder would quote you way more than it would cost to build a brand new home. It’s just not the done thing.
In recent years, Simone made noises about inheritance, and signed the house over to Elisabeth’s mother, on the understanding that she could go on living their until she dies. She’s in her 90s. My mother-in-law said then that she would give the house to my wife when the time came. On the occasion of the paperwork, we were invited to look upstairs.
For Elisabeth, this was very exciting. She frequently dreamed about “going upstairs in Mané’s house”, and now we were actually allowed to go. I had my video camera on me, and started to film the tour, but the battery went flat – domage!
Anyway, it was a brief tour, about five years ago, and all we saw was three very cluttered old bedrooms with heavy, old-fashioned furniture, ugly decoration, and primitive electrical connections. Around the same time, Simone arranged for a new gas central heating system. The whole family has a downer on wood as heating fuel (too much hassle), even though they have a barn that is stuffed full of 40-50 year-old firewood.
This theme of things being 40-50 years old will recur.
After her strokes, nobody expected Simone to live for long. In a hospital, I suspect, she would have been allowed to quietly slip away. With my mother-in-law’s care, she’s thriving, even though she can’t move, speak, or feed herself. In fact, her blood pressure and pulse are all perfect. She could go on for years, and has in fact survived more than a year.
This left us in an awkward position, because the only thing that made my in-laws’ house vaguely tolerable was the presence of my mother-in-law, who could mitigate the effects of my father-in-law’s rudeness and misery. This year, we were so fed up that my wife decided to go and start decorating one of the upstairs rooms in Simone’s house. We could stay there, she said, or my mum could sleep in it instead of on the camp bed downstairs. If nothing else, next summer, we could pitch the tent in the garden and use the toilet/shower in the house.
Auxelles Bas is much quieter and more pleasant than Plancher Bas, which over recent years has attracted a lot of new residents from Belfort, and the associated traffic. Auxelles is further up the mountain, on a much narrower road, and is a much more attractive place to stay. The garden of the house is vast: there are fruit trees, flower beds, lawns, small fields, and even a well (without the safety feature of a wall/cap).
This was all a bit awkward, because my in-laws suffer from a little bit (a lot) of that OCD/clutter thing that you see on the telly sometimes. They visit flea markets and buy junk, and they never throw anything away. There are stacks of margarine tubs, bottles, jars, cupboards full of coffee cups, glasses, and there’s even a 6-foot high glass cabinet full of souvenir teaspoons. Their house is bad enough, and Simone’s house is more of the same – with the added wrinkle that Simone’s clutter dates back to the days when she shared the house with her two sisters, Angele and Anna, and their mother. During the last war, there were German soldiers billeted there, and there have been various husbands, including one who hung himself in the barn. All the men are dead, Angele died many years ago, and Anna (who lived with her son in her final years) died not long ago.
As we started to clear up the clutter in the upstairs bedrooms, shifting stuff around so my wife could pain the walls, we started to unpack the history of the house, and in particular the sad, short marriage of Angele and Charles.
Charles was a soldier, and he moved around a lot. He was in a relationship with Angele, who was much younger than him, but they didn’t marry until his military career was over. They got married, and moved into the back bedroom (we’re already calling it the Red Room, because of its colour scheme), but Charles was dead within a year. Angele simply abandoned the marriage room, and moved back into her mother’s bedroom.
Elisabeth thinks Angele was a bit simple, from what I can gather.
Anyway, rooting through the cupboards and drawers, we came across shocking evidence of just how short this marriage was.
Item: white wedding shoes, worn once.
Item: sugared almonds (traditional at French weddings), still in presentation box
Item: a full set of shiny cutlery (wedding gift), still boxed.
Item: calling cards, printed with the names of the married couple, still boxed
Item: Brand-new forty-year-old torch, boxed
There was an electric blanket on top of a wardrobe, still boxed, several other obvious wedding gifts, unused and still boxed, and small remnants of Charles’s military career, including a couple of boxes of tiny photos, showing him in various parts of the French empire.
We also discovered plentiful evidence of the bootleg liquor cottage industry that used to run on the premises (including one full bottle of the clear eau de vie they call goutte, stuff made from mirabelle plums that’ll make you go blind), a couple of boxes of sweets, and a pristine, immaculate, vinyl record player – an item that was used just once a year, at christmas. There were about a dozen 45 singles, including several by Petula Clarke, who was always big in France.