Charente. France has never seemed more appealing.
Photo by Candia Dixon-Stuart. All Rights Reserved.
Carrie met me in Costamuchamoulah, award-winning cafe, to regain her
emotional equilibrium, so sorely tried after a Bank Holiday with the
How is your mother-in-law getting on with her mobility scooter? I asked,
mentally focussing on the noun: balance.
Oh, she’s had a couple of parking tickets, but she said that an average driver
will lose over a hundred days in his or her life, looking for a parking space, so
she hasn’t got that kind of time left to waste.
Carpe diem, I nodded.
Carrie picked up on the Latin, but subverted it by commenting:
Oh, yes, she still takes her fish oil every day. It should give her at least
another hundred days to obstruct the highways. Last week she was
reprimanded for trying to corrupt a warden by offering her a swig from
her hip replacement flask. She claimed that she had just been trying
to cheer her up.
Ah, Ginevra.., I sighed. What’s a hip replacement flask?
Oh, it’s the aluminium one she bought online when we confiscated the old
pewter and horn one.
(Ginevra in her glory days. Prohibition not a problem.)
Oh, right. But have you heard from Gyles’ sister, Victoria, recently?
Oddly enough, now you come to mention it- yes. Only this morning. She says
that the weather in the Charente has been awful recently. I think she must
be homesick as she included this poem in the letter.
Carrie rummaged in her designer handbag and took out a folded piece of paper.
Read it, she said.
HOME THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD
By the eight species of forget-me-nots
remember England now that May is here:
doleful importunity of ringed doves;
primrose coronets shade coy violets.
Deep blue skies with scudding clouds;
pink candyfloss of cherry blossom;
hedgerows cobwebbed by fluffy Old Man’s Beard;
daffodils trumpeting Spring’s arrival-
their nodding heads encourage shyer buds.
Coral quince and resplendent redcurrant,
fronds of forsythia, magnolia
grandiflora and stellata’s waxed flash.
Lambs in aspic slither onto dry straw.
(Orphaned siblings tugging at rubber teats,
held teasingly by triumphant children.)
Brides step out in their soft satin slippers.
Kingcups clustering by water meadows
where cygnets float and moorhen chicks zigzag.
Bluebells burgeon in butterfly-rich haunts.
Cricketers clean and linseed oil their bats.
Not to be in England now May is here
is to forego the birthday of the year.
Robert Browning, only not, Carrie muttered.
Gyles Brewer-Mead called in to see his mother, Ginevra, just before her bedtime. She was ninety-three, but managed fairly well with the help of her carer. Lately they had had to contact another agency, as her previous live-in assistant, Ola, had gone to live in Normandy with Jean-Paul, a widower whom she had met during Suttonford’s twinning exchange. Jean-Paul had been billeted with the ladies. Gyles thought he’d drop by unannounced, to see how Magda, the new helpmate, was coping.
Gyles! Help yourself to a ‘Dewlap’, his mother said.
No thanks, Mother. I’ve got to go home and help to check the boys’ prep. Have you had a good day? How is the new carer doing?
Oh, Magda? She’s all right. Pretty strong. This afternoon she carried two cases of ‘Dewlap’ and a couple of bottles of ‘Jane Austen’s Secret Tipple’ all the way from ‘Pop My Cork!’ and she didn’t even need the shopping trolley. Mind you, she didn’t know who Jane Austen was! I read her ‘Northanger Abbey’- just to put her in the picture with a bit of Gothic before Hallowe’en. It took all afternoon. Actually, she didn’t know what Hallowe’en was either. She asked if it was like Walpurgis Night. Wrong time of year, I told her.
Maybe that’s a bit stretching for her, Mother. She’s only been in England a couple of weeks and the form said that her English was basic, or foundation level.
Well, that’s why she’s here: to learn! said his mother, draining her glass and looking around for a re-fill. At any rate, she knows how little tonic I take, so I’ve no complaints as yet. Oh, by the way, I have had two letters today- both from France- and a package.
Oh, from whom? (Gyles always was somewhat pedantic, his mother thought).
One was from your sister, Victoria. She complains about having to use escargot mail. But I’m not getting Skype at my age.
How is she? (His sister lived with her partner in the Charente and sold cloudy mirrors and rusty garden furniture to make ends meet.)
In Cloud Cuckoo Land, comme d’habitude, said Ginevra.
And the other one? From anyone I know?
Yes, from Ola. She’s moved into Jean-Paul’s converted bakehouse. They sent me a lovely bottle of ‘Calvados’. We drank it while we were studying ‘Northanger Abbey.’ Ola says Jean-Paul loves line dancing, vide greniers-apparently that’s French for car boots- and they adore Monster Truck races. It’s so cultural out there. I’ve seen those Monster Trucks on that programme with Jeremy Clarkson.
I didn’t know you were a fan of ‘Top Gear’, mother.
Well, I really only like Richard Hammond, she pronounced. You know how one shrinks with age, so he’s more my size. They call him the Hamster, you know!
Really? Gyles was always amazed at his mother’s undiminished mental capacities.
Anyway, she continued, they’ve asked me over in the New Year when it’s their turn to offer hospitality to us. They say the oysters are aphro…I was going to say Caribbean, but that’s not the word I want.
..disiacs, supplied Magda who now entered the television room.
You see! I thought that ‘Northanger’ would improve her vocabulary! Ginevra crowed. Magda, you’re going to help me on the ferry and with the steps up to the coach, aren’t you?
Simples, said Magda.
Well, that’s a few months from now. There might be a lot of water under the bridge by then, cautioned Gyles.
They don’t have a bridge over the Channel, silly. Oh, stop being such a spoilsport, said his mother. You and your sister are provided for in the will, so I intend to go out on a high and, if I spend it all, that’s my prerog..
..ative, supplied Magda.
Right. I want to regret rien.
Indeed, said Gyles, rather taken aback. We wouldn’t want you to stint yourself or to have to take equity release on your property in order to live comfortably.
But Gyles, that’s just what I’ve done! What do you think has been paying for my drinkies and carers?
Gyles was shocked. He would have to break it to Carrie. If anything happened to the old girl they might have to send the boys to one of the perfectly respectable academic comprehensives in the area and Tiger-Lily would have to leave St Vitus’ School for the Academically Gifted- not that she seemed to value her opportunities. She was more interested in fake tan as far as he could see.
I think I’ll have a ‘Dewlap’ after all, he said, sinking into the pouffe.
Bottoms up! said Magda.
Carissima’s nose had developed. Not in a Pinocchio sense, but as a metaphorical wine calibre detection proboscis. No more Jacob’s Creek for Carrie and her family, though it had served Gyles and herself well, as upwardly mobile thirtysomethings. Now that she was moving inexorably towards the Roaring Forties, she wanted all her neighbours to note that she was a customer of Pop My Cork! which was the Suttonford wine merchant of choice for Yummies who followed Jancis Robinson. That was not to say that she didn’t sometimes backslide and buy in bulk in the Co-op, hastily transferring the bottles into her all-concealing jute shopper with its slogan: Suttonford- no plastic here! Yes, Carrie was very concerned to re-use her husband’s plastic card as much as possible and she congratulated herself on her eco-friendliness.
Every month or so there would be a wine-tasting at Pop My Cork! and rare roast beef rectangles the size of postage stamps would be arranged on metal platters alongside Matzo crackers and, if one was lucky, a local trout which had been cooked in a fish kettle. Everyone would gather round the sawdust-filled spittoons, looking knowledgeable, even though it hadn’t been so long since they were draining the old Mateus Rose, Buckfast and Asti Spumante, not to mention Liebfraumilch, as if their student days would never end. It was amazing what a few package holidays to the Med. had inspired. Now they were frowning and ticking every third variety on the comment sheet provided.
The local red-beaked vicar strode in, still wearing his collar, like an appellation endorsement, rather than a vocational symbol.
Saving the best for last, I trust! he guffawed, helping himself to the largest piece of roast beef he could spot and temporarily stationing himself beside the door where the plonk was placed for the non-aficiandos. I suppose I might be asked to come up higher, he laughed, rapidly working his way along the trestles to the rare spirits and expensive liqueurs and forking a generous portion of trout onto his paper plate. It’s the Wedding at Cana all over again.
Just like the viticulteurs in deepest Charente, Carrie intoned, polishing off a VSOP cognac. When we visit Gyles’ sister, we take an empty plastic container and have it filled up via a siphon by a relative of the Hennessey family who is practically her next door neighbour. It’s what the locals do and it only costs eight euros.
Yes, and six for the locals, muttered Gyles. Sometimes he found his spouse a tad pretentious. How much is this one, Carrie? He swirled the nectar round and swallowed it, instead of expectorating it as he should.
Twenty pounds a bottle- thirty eight if you buy two or more.
Put me down for a dozen, he said, nodding at the sales staff and moved on to the harder stuff. Christmas is coming, so maybe we should stock up on some of the less usual post-prandials.
What about your mother? Carrie asked. Look at this: ‘Jane Austen’s Secret Tipple.’
Rather tame for the old bird. Probably too old-maidish and somewhat acidic. And I’m not talking about the booze! Anyway, you know she favours ‘Dewlap Gin- for Grandmothers with Attitude.’ But I’m not keen on encouraging her, ever since she called out the paramedics because she couldn’t get the top off a bottle. She was reprimanded and told that she shouldn’t be calling the services out, unless it was an emergency. She replied that it had been and, anyway, if she had fallen while struggling to open the bottle, she might have broken her hip, which would have cost the NHS an awful lot more.
She’s evil, said Carrie, running her finger lingeringly round the neck of a fine claret. But at ninety three, she’s probably entitled..
..to what? Cirrhosis of the liver?
Well, she doesn’t need a spare one now, does she?
Oh, okay. I’ll take a case of ‘Dewlap’ too, Gyles said, indicating that it should be added to his growing cache. Who knows? It might finish her off.
I’ll drink to that! Carrie slurred her words a little.