Friday, 20 January 2012

Hopeland (Notes from Corsica) 11. Don and Marie (part two)

We arrived early the next morning to get a good view of the house’s exterior. What Don had described as ‘A Cima’ was in fact the highest point of the village, a huge outcrop of rock that was home to four privileged dwellings. With our backs to Calvi, the Adams’ house was to the lower left. On three levels, the ground floor remained a mystery, but we could make out the familiar stairway that led up to the front door and the main body of the house, which, in keeping with the character of the village, was grey, square and characterless. Brown shuttered windows mapped out the two upper levels beneath the flat roof terrace where we’d sat the previous evening. Attached and to the right, a small two story house which was itself connected to a taller building made from a type of stone walling known locally as ‘Pierre’. On the highest point of the outcrop was a handsome detached property, modern in design but again made from ‘Pierre’.
“That’s the Parisians’ place. Don’t see ‘em, don’t know ‘em” Don had snuck up on us. “I’ve just been to the local bakery for croissants. Always bloody burnt. Luckily we don’t need bread; Marie bakes it fresh every day. The other tall house belongs to Jean-Jacques, ‘King of the Castle’. Nice enough chap, he does our insurance for us, but never stops tinkering. We were once the tallest house here, a full 360-degree view from the top terrace. He asked me if we minded him building up ‘un petit peu’. Next thing I know we’re living next to a bloody lighthouse,” he jutted his jaw at the recently completed fourth floor.  “That little house between him and us belongs to Titin and Lucy. Titin’s a bit of a local celebrity, a sculpture he is, though he’s never sold ‘owt as far as I know. Says he does it for himself; art for arts sake if you like. He keeps his work where he makes it and where he can see it, right outside his front door. Come and have a look.”
We shuffled down from the rock to an open area that served as an outdoor gallery for Titin. There were grim faces everywhere, austere character studies with an almost religious simplicity that was oddly compelling and absolutely in tune with the environs. Some stood alone whilst others were carved into the rock itself. One study bore the title ‘Pasco Pauoli’; only Titin knew the identity of the others.
“The locals call these figures ‘menhirs’, they remind me of gargoyles”, muttered Don, looking over his shoulder.
It did feel like the ancients were leering us at; you could almost hear their voices whispering, “Bugger off and leave us alone.”
Entering the house Don turned on us.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking, home made bread and freshly ground coffee; we’re an Estate Agent’s dream. But this isn’t the ‘hard sell’, honest. This is just us, everyday.”
“You’re a lucky man Don,” I ventured.
“Every bloody day” he beamed, putting both thumbs in the air.
“Now then, let me show you around. This is the lounge with two rooms off. This, a bedroom,” he opened a door onto a small room, functionally decorated, “and here’s the bathroom”, pink again.
“And this is where we spend our mornings” he said throwing open French windows. We stepped onto a lower terrace that looked upon the mountains. I strolled to the edge of the terrace. Through the branches of a fig tree I could see a tiny chapel below. Directly to our right was another terrace.
“Neighbours. Never used,”
To our left jasmine grew over scrubland and a tiny old ruin that sat above an archway, the one that had kept the Vikings at bay.
“They say that one of Napoleon’s big knobs used to live there, a General I think,” said Don eyeing the meager pile. “Must’ve all been short arses. That jasmine is Marie’s pride and joy. She planted it when we moved in and tends to it like it was one of her grandchildren. That’s a whiff of heaven.”
Marie drifted out, all chiffon and cheese clothe, bearing a laden tray.
“Come on now, try the bread, Don bakes it fresh every day.”
Next to me Don shifted in obvious embarrassment.
“It’s the only thing he cooks, besides the fish he catches,” that lovely chuckle again.
“Alright, it’s a fair cop, I’m a baker of bread” confessed Don “it’s not bloody easy either. Corsican flour knackers my machine, don’t know why. We have to bring flour in from Lancashire when we drive over. Confuses the hell out of French customs. They’re convinced I’m smuggling some illicit powdered drug. They all get ‘Mothers Pride’ stuck up their know it all noses. Cocaine my arse!”
“Language Don” chided Marie, pouring coffee that looked as strong as her Gin and Tonics. “I’m sure it won’t surprise you that a lot of the flour here is made from chestnuts.”
We glanced up at a pair of squawking hawks that swooped playfully above us.
“Go on my son” shouted Don as one dive-bombed the other. 
“I love those birds. Could watch ‘em all day. Go on my son!”
“It’s a quiet life up here,” explained Marie.
After breakfast she gave us the grand tour.
“As Don’s already shown you this floor, I’ll take you up”
In single file we scaled those rickety steps again and walked into the dining room.
“We tend to spend our evenings up here. There’s always a nice breeze” she said opening more French windows that overlooked the lower terrace and that view, again. She pushed herself through swinging galley doors that led onto a tiny but well ordered kitchen.
“Corsicans spend more time eating than cooking, so kitchens tend to be bottom of the totem pole, space wise”
Back in the dining room a door led into another bedroom, the exact size of the one directly below.
“You’ve seen the top terrace already so why don’t I show you what’s on the ground level.”
We walked out of the front door and down to the street. Marie fumbled with her keys and opened a heavy padlocked door.
“This is cellar number one. We use it for storage; chairs, tables, all our beach stuff and, as you can see, we’ve got another fridge in here for wine and beer”
It was a vaulted ‘Cave’ about ten meters square with a tiny cobwebbed window that looked out onto the street. At the far end a tiny archway led into an even smaller room. “You could just about swing a cat in here” said Marie looking up. “I’ve never worked out what that is” she said pointing to a grisly looking object hanging like a limp dick from a hook on the low ceiling “but it’s been there for at least fourteen years. I refuse to touch it.”
 “It’s a bloody sausage!” Don had rejoined us. “Chacuterie. It’s what they put in Corsican ‘Caves’. That and wine.” He swiped out with a handy tennis racket causing the object to swing back and forth causing me to wonder whether they had jock straps in Napoleonic times. Maybe that was their undoing, their ‘Waterloo’. Where we had wellingtons and sandwiches, they didn’t have jockstraps. There must have been quite a bit of chaffing en route to Moscow.
“Are you all right lad?” Don was watching me watching the dangling gristle.
“Hypnotic, isn’t it?” I blushed.
“It’s a bloody sausage! Come on now, we’ve lost the girls”
Out onto the street again and down to another door that opened onto a shower room.
“I’ve just put this in myself. It’s where we wash the sand off from the beach; useful to have an extra toilet as well.”
Again, we exited onto the street and approached a glass door behind which the ladies rattled like a bag of bones.
“There’s not many can out talk Marie.” Don was impressed.
“We call this room ‘Cell Block H”. It’s a bit grim but sleeps two, comes in useful when the whole clan descends on us at once. It’s also where we send the naughty grandchildren. A bit like room 101, the threat’s enough.” Marie and Di appeared.
“Last and very definitely least, this is cellar number two,” said Marie who led us under an archway bordered by that jasmine. Its dirt floor made me think of it as a stable. There was no electricity.
“Watch your feet.” Don pointed down at scattered margarine tubs. “Rat poison!”
Marie gave him a withering look and continued, “I always thought that, if we did up cellar number one, this would become our storage room. As you can see, our neighbours have had the same idea.”
The cellar seemed to have become a dumping ground for all local bric-a-brac: unused tiles, a sewing machine, a tailor’s dummy, the tireless frame of a bike, a big red plastic fire engine, an old printer and a punch bag, enough to consume anyone on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Back up on the lower terrace Don wrestled with a bottle of rose.
“We’ve softened you up with coffee and cakes, now we’re going to get you legless again”.
Their plan was to sell up in Corsica and throw in with their children on a larger property “somewhere in the south-west of France, Perpignon way. It’s lovely down there.” enthused Marie.
“You get a lot of brick for your buck there” interrupted Don; “we want somewhere where we can spread outwards, not upwards. I must admit Marie’s got me sussed; the upping and downing around here is starting to do for me. Also by throwing our money at a place for our children we can avoid the government’s grabbing mits when we pop our clogs. There’s some good rivers to fish there as well. I love me fishing, want to get back to it, after all this ticker trouble” he tapped his chest. “I loved the early mornings on the river or out on the lake but found it harder and harder to get up and go. My GP had some tests done and the next thing I know I’m in for a bypass.”
“Here we go”, sighed Marie.
“I’m lying on my back with all these masked men and women looking down at me, doctors, nurses, an atheist telling me to count backwards.”
“Anesthetist” interrupted Marie.
“Anyway” he continued “there’s an anesthetist telling me to count backwards. I counted them instead. Eleven of the buggers. I said ‘if you lot get me through this, I’m catching you all a trout’. As you can see I survived and sure enough, when I was up to it... I went fishing.” He took a long sip of his wine.
“I stayed on the river until I’d caught eleven good ‘uns, one of ‘em a corker. I gutted them, froze them overnight, stuck ‘em in a black bin liner the next day and went round to the hospital. Marched into reception and asked to see the surgeon. They made me go round to the back door, but sure enough the doctor came. I shook his hand and thanked him for saving my life, told him I was a man of my word and shoved the bag at him. Should have seen his face; mask askew on his forehead, stethoscope around his neck, dressed up in green robes, his rubber gloves clutching my plastic bag,” he laughed, “I think he was grateful but he didn’t say much. I told that the big ‘un was for him, and to pass the rest on to his team, with thanks from Don Adams, then I turned on my heels and walked away. One of the best things I’ve ever done,” his voice cracked. Marie gently squeezed his knee.
“So” he coughed, “what do you think of our little house?”                                      

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