So, it’s eight years to the day today since Les Fragnes became ours. And Chris and I have broken a record. Up to now, the longest we’d lived in the same place since we got married was seven years. We had two years in Cramlington, Northumberland, then four years in Hartlepool, Cleveland. Next came three years renting Harry’s House in Waterfall, Co. Cork, followed by seven years at Killountain, Co. Cork. After Ruadhri’s arrival we ran out of space so we rented a house at Shanvally for almost a year while we built our house at Finnis, just outside Bandon in Co. Cork. We spent three years in that beautiful spot before upping sticks and coming out to France.
Phew. About time we stopped moving about. But whether we will move again, well, who knows. We never dreamt we’d leave England for Ireland, let alone move to a third country. We’re true Europeans.
Since we’ve been at Les Fragnes, we’ve filled the fields with animals and the lakes with carp, done up two shabby houses and coped as best we could with living in a foreign language. It’s probably been the most interesting years of our lives, but we’ve never been bored anywhere. I think we’ve always seized opportunities that have come our way and made the most of wherever we were. We’ve enjoyed bringing up our three kids, in three countries in Benj’s case, and two in Caitlin and Ruadhri’s. They’re well and truly Third Culture Kids.
So, back to the 28th June 2006. Here’s an extract from my book Heads Above Water about what happened that fateful day…
The first thing Chris and I did was remarry. Well, sort of. We changed our marital regime. The French see English marriages as being en indivision in nature. This means that if one of you dies, your spouse gets half of what’s left and the kids (or other relatives if there aren’t children) share the other half between them. Not really the best idea. So we took on the communauté universelle regime. Now whichever of us lasted longer got the lot, ideally to fritter away merrily before the kids could get their hands on it. Perfect. That process took half an hour or so and cost about four hundred euro. That’s probably more than we spent in total at our original modest little wedding back at Westerfield in 1986.
We went out to check on the kids, who were reading happily in the waiting room, while the rest of the cast arrived for the sale ceremony. First came M and Mme Petit, the vendors. They had inherited Les Fragnes from some relative or other and had been letting it out for the last forty years ̶ to M and Mme Leblanc, who were the next to arrive. They were giving up their right to be tenants so that the owners could sell to us. They therefore had to be there to sign all the documents too. Nic, our translator, rolled up next. He was a beanpole of a man, with short grey hair and a friendly face. So with us, Philippe and Nigel and the Notaire, we were all assembled. There were slightly suspicious hand shakings and cheek kisses, a lot of nervousness, and then proceedings got underway.
The sale took ages. The Notaire read out every page of the long, long Acte de Vente document, which Nic, sitting behind us, concurrently translated and quietly whispered into our ears. Then I got up and initialled every page and finally signed the last one, the first to commit to this crazy enterprise. Then Chris, then the Leblancs then the Petits, and then the Notaire. Phew. By now we’d sent the two eldest kids off with money to buy magazines and ice-creams in town, and brought Ruadhrí in to fidget and snooze on my lap. Events go on for a long time in France.
And then, momentously, Les Fragnes was ours. The huge keys were given to us. Happy handshakings and cheek kisses all round, no nervousness anymore on the French side but a hell of a lot more on the English. We staggered to the nearest café for a stiff drink before packing up the family and driving back to our farm. The first thing we found when walking round the buildings was that about a square metre of wall was peeling away, just under the roof of the tallest house. That hadn’t been like that back in December. Could this be why Nigel and Philippe had kept us from poking around too much before the signing ceremony? And going into the houses, we discovered that the hunting club had ripped out the heating range, the lighting and the ceiling i.e. the few redeeming features. To Benjamin’s disappointment, the girlie calendars had gone too. We later found most of the hardware dumped either in the green lane alongside our property, or in the woodland beyond the dam wall of the big lake. Quite why they’d gone all the effort to perform this piece of mindless vandalism is a puzzle. We hope it wasn’t aimed at us. I think it was more a protest against the vendor for vending. But we were the ones who lost out. And talking of the big lake, it wasn’t many days before we realised it was fishless. Despite our request to the contrary, the fish had been removed and flogged. That felt extremely personal and was a massive blow.
That evening we were tired and despondent and now terrified by what we’d done. Chris inspected the dodgy wall and realised fully for the first time that the houses were built of mud and stones. And that was it. The hovels of Les Fragnes were just one step up from mud huts, basically. Now, we’d had a sort of survey done. They don’t really have them in France, but you can get a builder or architect to take a look at a property for you and give his or her professional opinion on the state of the place. We’d used a builder recommended by the immobiler. He typed up a little report which stated firmly that the buildings were sain et sauf i.e. safe and sound. Yeah right, we thought now. But tough. Under French law, there’s no comeback. If you buy a house and it falls to the ground next day, tant pis. Too bad.
We set off to the motel in Montluçon where we had booked rooms for that night, gloomily certain that all three buildings we’d just bought would collapse during our absence. We cheered up a little over a hearty supper at Buffalo Grill, but tortured ourselves again through the wee small hours in the stiflingly hot hotel, where it was impossible to sleep anyway, even without having possibly made the worst mistake of your life. However, hope springs eternal, or maybe it was simply the jolt of caffeine to the brain, but after breakfast we felt positive again.
And positive we’ve stayed – more or less!
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