"Non!" said my wife, leaning back in her seat with her arms folded.
It didn't take a degree in body language to realise she was on the point of walking out, but Clothilde, the French estate agent, appeared not at all disturbed at the prospect of losing a sale. She jumped up from her chair and rushed out of the office for what seemed the forty-seventh time. It was probably only the seventeenth time really, but by now both Mrs S and I were becoming just a little disgruntled. After all, our appointment had been with two English-speaking gentlemen, or so we had been told, not a female who's command of the Queen's English was no better than even my almost forgotten 'O' level French.
I really felt quite sorry for the poor woman because she seemed to be suffering from a version of St Vitus' dance. At any rate, she kept springing out of her chair to disappear either into the main office to make and receive phone calls, or into a different office where, she assured us, another English couple was just signing to buy a property that had gone on the market only that morning. It may have been that she was trying, in an oblique way, to tell us our budget was too small for her to bother with us, and we had better buy something – anything! – quickly or someone else would snap it up. But this property, which we didn't like and which happened to be 20% over our budget price, was, she insisted, ideal for us. On the other hand, the two which in our temerity we had suggested might be suitable were quite obviously no good. In fact, Clothilde had said point blank that these two were not for us. So who were they for, I wondered. And why was she so keen to push the more expensive, ugly house? Could it, by any chance, belong to a friend or relative?
There was another thing that was niggling me. The English feeder agent had told me that he had advised the French agency of all our requirements – budget, number of rooms and so on. So why had we been asked those questions again that afternoon? And what about the houses we had specifically asked to see, the details of which had been sent to us by the English agent? Had they really all been sold in the two weeks since our appointment had been made?
All the same, in a perverse sort of way I was quite enjoying myself and taking some pride in playing the game in what was, I assumed, the French way. If we were planning to buy a house in France, I reasoned, I had better get accustomed to doing things à la mode française.
But perhaps I had underestimated Clothilde's body-language reading ability. It was at this point that she produced the details of a house which had gone on the market that very morning and which was bound to sell quickly. "Bien sur, c'est pour vous," she assured us.
Our eyes glowed as we studied the details. This was just what we had hoped to find: a small cottage on the Cotentin peninsula, situated in a reasonably small village with all the important amenities such as a bar and a boulangerie. Clothilde assured us that it had a new roof. Even the price was just within our budget, although it would leave the money for renovation more than a little tight. Clothilde showed us on a map where the village was, and we agreed to follow her in our car in order to view this most desirable property.
We had parked in a large public car park nearby and, having described our car to Clothilde, we set off to wait for her. She was to drive her car round to us so that she could lead the way into the depths of the Normandy bocage. After twenty minutes or so we were beginning to lose faith, but eventually Clothilde arrived, presumably having taken another batch of phone calls and having sold two more houses before condescending to show us what was almost the cheapest property on her books. Either that or she had lost her way in the 200 yards from her office.
I do not consider myself a slow driver, but I do like to think that I will usually arrive at my destination in one piece and without leaving too much carnage in my wake. Not so our Clothilde, who must have had dreams of being a champion rally driver. When she managed to find her way out of the car park, after driving past both exits three times, she took off like a cat with a tin can tied to its tail. And I was driving the tin can! We screeched our way up and down hills and round hairpin bends with complete disregard for anything that might be coming the other way. As we passed through villages all that could be seen of us was the cloud of dust hanging in our wake like a sandstorm in the Sahara.
Now, Mrs S has mastered (should that be mistressed?) many skills. She can produce a three-course meal out of practically nothing in the blink of an eye and she can clean a paint roller better than anybody I know. But a road map and the wiring diagram of a space rocket could be one and the same as far as she is concerned, so you will understand that I was just a little surprised when I realised she was following our route on the map. I was also just a little sceptical when Mrs S announced that we were on the wrong road. Surely Clothilde knew where she was going? But then I groaned, remembering that she hardly knew the way to a car park two hundred yards from her office. I resigned myself to a long journey.
In the fullness of time Mrs S was proved both correct and incorrect. We were on the wrong road for the village Clothilde had marked on the map, but the house was in a completely different village from that one. However, the real village seemed attractive enough if rather sprawling. It had the promised boulangerie and not just one, but two bars! We followed Clothilde into a narrow lane, rounded a tight corner into an even narrower alley, and pulled up. In unison, we breathed sighs of relief that our torment on the road was finished.
When we had recovered enough to look beyond the bonnet of the car, we saw in front of us our dream come true. We gazed, first at the house, then at each other. All the books had said it couldn't be done. The people we had spoken to had said it couldn't be done. The sort of cottage that we wanted just could not be found at a price we could afford, especially in Normandy. But it looked as though we had proved them all wrong – and at the first attempt at that. In front of us stood an old house built in the local stone which glowed a soft pink. A climbing rose carried a profusion of blooms and a honeysuckle practically smothered the door.
Our hopes, alas, were soon to be dashed. The first thing I noticed on entering the house was a ladder. This was propped artfully against the edge of a hole in the ceiling and provided the only means of access to the first floor. Still, there were only three rungs missing and although it looked a bit worm-eaten, there should have been no problems with termites in that part of France.
The gaping chasm in the kitchen wall was, Clothilde assured us, just a crack in the plaster. A crack in the plaster? I could see straight through into the barn on the other side! In fact, I could put my whole arm in and shake it all about. It seemed to me to be a little more than a mere crack in the plaster. And why, if the roof was new, could we see daylight streaming down?
"Oh yes," confirmed Clothilde, "it is a new roof. You will see it better from the back."
We did. The back roof of one of the barns was indeed comparatively new, but the rest was just about to fall off. When it did, it would join the remains of one of the upper corners which had already given way. Repairs had been carried out, probably by a blind bricklayer who had used ordinary bricks to plug the hole in the wall built of the local stone. The butler's sink projecting into the garden from the rear wall, filled to the brim with nauseous green water, did little to improve the ambience.
Clothilde completely failed to understand why we were not prepared to pay a small fortune for this putative rival to Versailles and Fontainebleau. We left her deep in discussion with a neighbour about perfidious Albion and the failings of the entente cordiale as we began our 200-mile journey back to the Loire, determined to cancel the second appointment with an estate agent in Normandy.