It is definitely time for another post about our French neighbour Serge. When I mentioned him in a previous post several people demanded he make another guest appearance – like Tom Selleck in Friends. Only without the tache. Or the good looks. Or previous existence as Magnum PI. But you wanted more of him anyhow!
We first met Serge on our second visit to La Maison Blanche. We had been shown around the day before by Patrick the estate agent after what we assumed had been a ‘big lunch’ for him. His face was shiny and the colour of red wine and his demeanour, suitably ‘relaxed’. But as the house was little more than a derelict shell, Oliver Reed could have shown us round and established that only a pair of idiots would buy it, so Patrick had little to do other than hand us the key and mumble ‘tres grande’ a lot.
The next day, we drove back for another look at the outside. To gaze wistfully through the gates and decide if we had the stomachs and the funds for such madness. Or so we thought. No sooner had we pulled up outside than Serge popped up with a ‘spare key’ which he’d been keeper of like Gandalf for probably twenty unoccupied years. He insisted we go in for another look and raved in French about the sheer majesty of e place. “C’est la Maison pour Le monarch de la village” he insisted which Pete rather liked the sound of. And once we finally moved in, we insisted that Serge keep a spare key and he has had that key ever since, as we never asked for it back.
In the years since he proved to be an absolute god send. He’s dealt with flood, famine and plagues of locusts for us. Well actually, flood famine and plague of mice which he called us at 5am English time to tell us about. “Les souris, les souris” he shouted down the phone. “Ou?” I replied “PARTOUT!!” He yelled back. Along with our friend Sarah Bird (who we were able to phone and have a slightly less hysterical conversation with, in English) he went in, laid poison and in a couple of days time they were all gone. In my head they all left to set up a new home somewhere else, like in Watership Down as opposed to them all staggering off to die in our barn, a slow, uncomfortable death by poison like a Poirot character! Or that episode of Midsommer where the murderer force fed his victim poisoned pasta!
Serge speaks no English whatsoever (why should he?) and because he is such a help to us, we have him for lunch or dinner at least once each visit at which I use my good, but not fluent French to discuss topics from Briitsh Royals (he is obsessed with Diana, William, Kate so we have that in common – we talked for hours one lunch a year and a half ago about fact Kate ‘pas enceinte’) to the French economy (to be honest I leave that to Peter and listen for when he gets back round to something like Prince Albert of Monacco and the bride qui courir!) I really must get Serge a subscription to Paris Match.
Serge lived with his mother who was so old that several times when we went there for lunch we suspected she had died at the table – turned out she’d just fallen asleep during the salad course. She was 89 years old and Serge had never left home. His brother and sister are both married with children but for Serge, the last twenty years had been taken up caring physically and emotionally for his mother. Even if he popped over to visit us, she would stand at his (and her) gates across the street and wave her walking stick shouting for him like that old woman in ‘allo ‘allo who used to see ‘ze flashing knobs’.
We entered his life at a time when caring for his sick, aged mother really had become his life. And each visit, as we arrived he would run over grinning as if the circus had come to town (in many ways it had!). Nowadays he always gets up early to make sure our fires are lit before our arrival and even restocks our woodpile which we have tried to offer him money for but he blanches in offence because we are ‘les Amis’…
And so, when the phone went in our London home around this time at 5am in the morning we assumed our house had encountered some sort of natural disaster. Instead it was a sobbing Serge calling with the news that his mother had died. He had wanted us to be some of the first people to know and Peter tried to say all the right things but at that time in the morning we didn’t even have the computer switched on to google translate ‘we’re so sorry for your loss’. Desole seemed the best answer…. But we hope that despite few intelligent words in our non mother tongue – Serge would know that we were genuinely sorry. And we knew what a momentous thing this was for him. A strange mix of sadness but also a freedom he had never known. No more staying home in case his mother needed to eat, bathe or even pay a visit to the toilet. The world was now his oyster – at the very least SW France was his oyster. But what do you do when you can do anything? It’s like some sort of Stockholm syndrome – as much as you hated being so confined – once you have unlimited freedom you’re almost afraid to take it. I wonder if Serge even has a passport.
And on our next visit he broke down in tears at our arrival and got out the order of service leaflets from the funeral and filled us in on how his brother and sister are not speaking to him because his mother had left him the house in return for all those years of sole care (and having spent a bit of time with her we have to say he’d earnt those bricks and gardens) and we asked what his plans were now. And he didn’t really know. So he seemed to just carry on as normal. Cutting down wood in his forest, tending to his amazing garden which provides us with loads of great fresh veg and pretty flowers.
He says that he has plans now – he may even travel to London. But I don’t think he will. I think he will stay in the house of his mother until he dies too. Tending to his garden and making us lovely cakes and les merveilles (french donut type things – delish) But maybe I’m wrong and when we go back this summer Serge will have dyed his hair black, started wearing cravats and announce he is going on a world tour. But then WHO would look after our keys?….