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The nearer of the two houses we had thought might be suitable was in a small village with an intriguing name that we thought translated into "Fleas' Blacksmith". We set off imagining a village populated by leprechauns or Cornish piskies and, as we drove, we amused ourselves by drafting advertisements for a gîte in a village with such an unusual name.
There was a long, straight hill leading down into the village, with a sharp bend at the bottom as the road rounded the church. We parked near the foot of the hill and walked on past an attractive memorial commemorating some obscure event in French history. Continuing round the bend, we saw on the other side of the road, opposite the church, the object of our search.
We knew from the picture we had seen at the estate agent's office that the house would never be pictured on a chocolate box, but the reality was even worse. It had presumably been a detached property when built, but at some time an inhabitant had blocked up and covered the passage between it and its neighbour. Whoever it was that had done it, he must have graduated from the Blue Peter School of Architecture as the construction appeared to consist of cardboard boxes and double-sided sticky tape, the whole having been painted over to match the rest of the house. And the fence was lying in several heaps just inside the garden, evidence that more than one driver had failed to see the chevrons warning of the bend and had veered off the road, coming to an abrupt halt just outside the front window.
There appeared to be a rather grand house just up the hill, but apart from that and the memorial, the house we were looking at fitted its surroundings perfectly. No self-respecting leprechaun would ever have set foot in this village! The 'green' was a patch of dried earth with just a few blades of yellowing grass. On the edge of this desert stood a bus shelter which was covered in fly-posters and which stood three inches deep in litter. There was another dozen or so posters in garish colours along the wall of the farmyard and the church looked too poor even for mice. We drove away up the hill without a backward glance, wondering if perhaps the village was really called "Blacksmith's Fleas". Either way, it now seemed more apt than intriguing.
If the house in "Blacksmith's Fleas" had been easy to find, we didn't need the powers of Sherlock Holmes to find the second house either. We drove into the village, and there it was, complete with a 'For Sale' board, which rather gave the game away. It was the end house in a terrace of four or five, decidedly uninspiring to look at, and situated at the poorer end of an attractive and well-kept, largish village. The bar boasted a crêperie, there was a boulangerie which doubled as a grocer's with a few tins on one shelf, a chemist and a post office. Oddly, we didn't find a ladies' hairdresser's. This is usually the first commercial establishment after the bar and the boulangerie, but there was no sign of one here. Despite this lack – or maybe because of it – we liked the village. It was a pity that the house was on the plain side and was at the wrong end of the village, but it appeared to be in good condition and currently inhabited. It looked the most likely one that we had seen so far, although when we saw two leather-clad bikers, one with pink hair, the other with purple, leaving the house next door, this did raise a question or two in our minds. All the same, we decided that we were rather looking forward to the promised appointment with Monsieur Detroit.
But before we could meet Monsieur Detroit we had a long drive in front of us, for it was on the next day that we were to travel up to Normandy to meet Clothilde. We set off with high hopes. None of the houses we had seen so far had possessed that special something, that atmosphere which sets off the chemistry and says, "This is it!". In any case, we were not really interested in buying a house in the Loire. Normandy was our objective and did we not have with us the details – sparse details admittedly, but details nonetheless – of three potentially suitable properties which we planned to view? At least one of them looked as though it could easily become one of the 'roses round the door' type of cottage that we both secretly had at the back of our minds.
That, of course, was before we had met Clothilde.
On our return to the Loire from Normandy, we reconsidered our requirements. I was still adamant that any house we bought had to be in a habitable condition; while I was prepared to redecorate and perhaps do a little making-good, wholesale renovation was most definitely out. The size of the ideal property remained the same, as did the preference for having the daily necessities of bread and wine in reasonably close proximity. On one thing we did change our minds. The River Loire is, to many people, the dividing line between the north of France, where the weather is much like that in Britain, and the sunnier south. And, perhaps surprisingly, property tends to be cheaper in the Pays de la Loire than it is in Normandy or Brittany. We redefined our search area to the Anjou area in the Pays de la Loire.
We approached our appointment with Monsieur Detroit with mixed feelings, wondering if we would be shunted off to a back office so that other wealthier (and more smartly dressed) clients could be spared the sight of two English eccentrics. We arrived a few minutes early and were advised that Monsieur Detroit was currently out of the office, but he would be sure to return at any minute. Which he duly did. On the stroke of the appointed hour, the door flew open, creating a gale-force draught which caused Bernice to fall spread-eagled across her desk to hold down the papers on which she was working. Monsieur D had arrived.