Gite landlady Susie Kelly accompanies a foodie guest to the Loire chateaux of Chenonceau, stopping at the chateau at Ussé on the way. I am up just after 6.00am to see to all the animals. The guests in Lavande have kindly agreed to keep an eye on the dogs until we get back. By 8.30am we are on our way to Fontevraud Abbey, 100 miles away. It’s a vast and splendid building with a fascinating history, but Brad is only interested in looking at the tombs and effigies of Richard and Eleanor. We’re out of there in half an hour and heading towards Chenonceau, 60 miles (100 kms) away. Brad, I have realised, is the historical equivalent of a train spotter. He isn’t bothered about riding on the footplate, he just wants to be able to tick off the numbers.
The day is still young, so I mention that if he is interested we will be passing very close to the château at Ussé, the epitome of a romantic French château, a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture set amongst formal gardens and claiming to have inspired the story of the Sleeping Beauty.As well as the splendours of the château itself, one narrow circular wing houses an exhibition of wax figures depicting the fairy tale. As we wind our way up the stone staircase we stop to peer through a small window at the baby Beauty in her cradle; a few more steps, another window – the evil witch pricking the baby’s finger; and at the top of the staircase the handsome prince awakening the princess with a kiss.
Maybe he’s a little tired after hiking up the steps, because Brad slows down as we take a tour around the gardens. For the first time he is doing more than merely adding a name to the list of places he has visited; he’s actually looking at details and commenting on them instead of constantly studying his watch.
It’s an hour’s drive to Chenonceau, by which time it’s mid-afternoon and all the restaurants are closed. We stop at a small supermarket where I buy a small bottle of sparkling Saumur wine, a couple of baguettes, some cheeses, and, remembering that Brad won’t eat fresh fruit, a bar of chocolate, and some disposable cups and plates. We shelter from the heat in a shady part of the gardens of the château, tearing open the bread with our hands, and squishing cheese into it. It’s a welcome opportunity to keep still for a short while. The nearby restaurant obligingly uncorks our bottle. Brad is uncertain about pouring good wine into a plastic cup, but other than drinking it directly from the bottle, that’s our only option. The whole idea of eating with our hands, from our laps, is a novelty and an adventure for him. Once he has overcome his initial anxiety about the hygienic implications, he enters into the spirit of our picnic. “This is how peasants eat,” he laughs. It isn’t the healthiest meal I’ve ever served, and it certainly isn’t up to the high standards that he usually expects, but it is a very pleasant interlude, and Brad is the most relaxed and chatty he has been since his arrival. I see him as a small boy trapped inside the body of an elderly and introverted man compelled to rush through life in case he misses anything.
To digest and celebrate the success of our meal, we stroll around the gardens of Catherine de Medici, and Diana de Poitiers, maitresse en titre to Catherine’s husband, and then we visit the interior of this prettiest and most feminine château. The relationship between Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici is one of Brad’s favourite topics, and he touches walls and doors where their hands may have rested, and looks from windows onto views that they would have seen. He isn’t in a rush, and we spend three hours exploring the rooms, and savouring the experience of occupying the same space as once the two women had done. We are lucky to be there on a day when the crowds are thin, and we can move at our own slow pace without being hustled.
By the time we reach home it’s after 10.00pm, we are both tired and Brad is leaving early the following morning. I make a simple omelette for dinner which he pronounces the best meal he’s had since he arrived in this part of the world. I am enveloped in an aura of pride.
Next morning I drive him to town to collect the car he has hired for the rest of his holiday. He is driving back to Paris for a couple more nights, before heading towards Bordeaux to visit some of the great names in wine, and to continue his quest for fresh culinary and historical delights.
I feel quite depressed as I wave him away, because I am conscious that his stay has largely been a disappointment. I am not a chic, slick, elegant woman; my house is not a tasteful château, and the food everywhere has mostly been crap. Having spent three days with him, I have realised that he lives very much in a world of his own, and despite all our correspondence over the last few years little of what I have told him has sunk in. In his mind I have been a cordon bleu standard cook living in a historic and stately mansion with peacocks on the lawn, and looking like Catherine Deneuve. I imagine how much he must have anticipated his visit, and how disillusioned he must be feeling. Poor little man.
Today cleaning lady Ivy arrives in splendid in scarlet harem pants and a matching bolero, her hair held back with a triangular scarlet chiffon scarf fringed with little dangling gold disks. She brings me a bin bag full of used clothing, as well as a battered cardboard box of various bits of china and old magazines. I already spend a silly amount of time clearing out unwanted junk, but she means well and I don’t want to offend her. I’ll take it to the charity shop next time I go to town.
Obsessively clean and tidy Brad has left no sign of his stay, and Lavande’s guests are here for another week, so she only has to organise Pissenlit for new arrivals this afternoon. In no time at all she’s finished and ready for a drink.
As she’s knocking back a glass of rosé, she notices my new earrings, and comments on them.
“How pretty. Very unusual. Where did you get them?”
Absent-mindedly I mention Brad, explaining that he had spent three days here. Her eyes widen.
How long have I known him? Is he disgustingly rich? How did I meet him? What does my absent husband feel about me having a male visitor? Had he given me any other presents? How old is he? Has he been married? What does he look like? Where had we been? What had we done? What did we talk about? Is he coming back? She hurls questions like a knife-thrower.
I’m amused at her blatant nosiness. I don’t know what makes me do this – I’ve never been any good at pretend – but I create a fantasy for her. I say Brad is a multi-millionaire with links to the Mafia. He wants to sever his links, and go straight, and plans to buy a château and convert it into an exclusive private hotel and restaurant. We have spent the last three days looking for a suitable place.
But the problem is, I continue, that once you’re connected to the mob, they won’t let you go. Brad is certain they’re watching him, and that he’s also under surveillance by the FBI. He sees his only way out is to quit the States and set himself up with a false identity in France, undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance. He has the money to do so.
I watch carefully for any sign that she isn’t swallowing my story, but her eyes are screwed in concentration, her lips are parted, and she keeps nodding encouragement.
He’s in his early 60s, I say, a big man, very fit, tanned. Her head bobs harder and harder and the little gold discs tinkle. He’s divorced, and we’ve been corresponding for two years.
Is there anything between us, she asks in a whisper. I open my mouth as if I’m going to confide in her, and then shake my head and bite my lip.
“I’ve already said too much – this wine must have gone to my head! But watch this space.” I wink.
“Everything comes to she who waits,” she murmurs.
She’s quivering with excitement, and I imagine she can’t wait to rush away and tell everybody who’ll listen to her. I’m a cow sometimes. Still, I think she preferred my story to the boring truth.
Extract from Swallows & Robins – The Guests In My Garden by Susie Kelly, published Dec 2013 in ebook and paperback by Blackbird Digital Books.