Maitre Legrand's office that morning was even more crowded than Monsieur Detroit's (the estate agent) had been when we exchanged contracts. I was a good five minutes early, but even so I managed to arrive last, to find an assortment of chairs from baroque to bentwood arranged theatre style in front of Maitre Legrand's imposing desk. I was ushered to my place in the front row of the stalls by the modern French equivalent of Uriah Heep. Seated to my left, on the opposite side of the aisle, were Monsieur and Madame Erlanger (the vendors), while on my right was a nondescript lady of indeterminate age. She introduced herself, but she was so immediately forgettable that I cannot for the life of me remember her name. It might have been Hermione, Hydrangea or just plain Mary. I gathered that she was English and was there to act as my guide and interpreter. Behind the Erlangers was Monsieur Detroit, while sitting behind me was another man who might have been dragged in off the street for all I know. He was never introduced to me, nor was his function explained. Uriah Heep sat on Maitre Legrand's right to pass him the papers as they were needed, while to Maitre Legrand's left sat his secretary. I didn't manage to fathom out quite why she was needed, but perhaps Maitre Legrand did nothing unless she was present to record the proceedings.
Maitre Legrand started the proceedings by clearing his throat in a particularly French way, though if I was asked to explain the difference between the French way and the English, I would have to admit defeat. It just sounded particularly French at the time. It was his responsibility as a representative of the French state to see that everything was done according to the book. This involved reading aloud what seemed like the entire Old Testament. I gathered that he was actually detailing the past owners of the land, from whom Mrs S and I would derive a good title. There was a little difficulty as he started becoming a little impatient with the interpreter. After every couple of paragraphs or so, he would stop so that she could provide me with a translation. But Maitre Legrand must have been in a hurry to get to a lunch appointment, because he started reading again before the previous translation was complete. This meant that the interpreter failed to hear everything and had to ask for bits to be repeated, which made Maitre Legrand even more impatient.
Eventually, Maitre Legrand finished reading and it was time for me to say "I do", or something similar. After that, Monsieur Erlanger had to sign each one of several hundred sheets, affirming aloud with each signature that the contents of the page were true and correct. I had to do it twice: once for me, and once as attorney for Mrs S. Maitre L handed cheques to Monsieur Detroit (his firm's commission) and Monsieur Erlanger, the latter being quickly grabbed by his wife and stuffed into her handbag. I was handed three large bunches of outsize keys.
I had read all the books and magazine articles, so I knew what would happen next: we would all decamp into a bar and celebrate the completion of the deal, during the process of which Monsieur Erlanger and his wife would become my bosom friends and come over to cut the grass for me every week (except that we don't have any grass).
Well, I don't know about all those authors, but it didn't happen like that for me. Maitre Legrand and his secretary hurried off to their lunch engagement. Monsieur Detroit positively raced back to his car. Monsieur Erlanger stomped off frowning, with the walnut scurrying along three paces behind him, clutching her handbag to her chest as if it contained the crown jewels (though I don't suppose France has any crown jewels). Uriah Heep wrung his hands and vanished into the basement. The unknown man who had been sitting behind me lit a cigarette and strolled off down the street with his hands in his pockets, whistling cheerfully but tunelessly. The interpreter, whatever her name was - I wish I could remember it - coughed delicately and vanished in a puff of smoke. Actually, it was exhaust fumes from her car which had been parked right outside the office. So it was that I was left standing on the pavement, alone, and with three enormous bunches of outsize keys hanging from my left hand. My right hand was half outstretched as I was fully expecting to shake hands with everybody before going to the bar. In fact, I had shaken hands with nobody. And I couldn't even call Mrs S on mobile as she was incommunicado in the school library. What a let down!
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