We set out at 7am for the drive to meet Francoise at the old house near Clermont. The landscape changed from wooded hills, pastures and farms to wide plains with volcanic mountain plugs on the vast horizon. I’m so looking forward to seeing Francoise and the possibilities of the day ahead. After a rendezvous (“Bonjour, bonjour!! Quel plaisir de te revoir!!”) and lunch with elderflower beignets for pudding, curiously delicious, we drive in convoy to the house in a hamlet.
Waist-high grasses conceal the garden. Swathes of cobwebs dress the windows. Shutters hang off their hinges. We walk into a large conservatory with frayed linoleum flooring. The room is piled with boxes, furniture, paintings, trunks full of sheets, bags of passementerie. Graham goes to sleep in the back of the van, and the sensitive process of working through the house begins.
Cascades, piles and stacks of the old, dusty, mice nibbled, corroded and musty. I pick out gilded curtain ties, ribbons, candelabra, a wormy walnut coiffeuse on elegant cabriole legs. The remaining pieces of a once vast 19th century set of porcelaine, white with gold leaf trim and family initials, are brought out of a large dresser. Handed down from mother to daughter, mother to daughter over the years.
In the house we confront walls packed with bookshelves, all brown and faded yellows, books stacked horizontally, books stacked vertically, all under a heavy covering of dust. Any furniture that hasn’t rotted in the stables often has Irish wolfhound teeth marks on lids and arms. Each room was staggeringly unexpected in its abundance of objects and décor – a bedroom draped in curtains and painted in purple, another completely in shades of aqua with ancestral portraits. I feel a strong need to hold the former owner in utmost respect as I lift things off hooks and wrap them in yellowed newspaper.
Up rough wooden steps into the attic. Here is a landslide of bags and fabrics, curtains, clothes. A curled, faded photograph of a proud young woman riding side sadle in top hat, tight buttoned jacket and long skirt. A cream coloured Paris hat box with red trim and red ribbon announced “Pas d’élegance sans chapeau.” A dusty bunch of lavender still gives of its perfume when disturbed.
Francoise and I agree we should really be wearing steel capped boots, boiler suits and dust masks to tackle the job properly! We perch on packed bin bags in front of a huge armoire (How did they ever get it up here??) and one by one, take out the monogrammed linens, yellowed with years of being folded away.