The Postgraduate House-Cleaners

Posted on: 25 April 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Our ex-pat in France visits some ex-pat friends to organise the music for their wedding.

We find ourselves plagued with mice at the moment – despite or rather because of our two apologies-for-cats, who bring them in from the Great Outdoors and then let them go inside the house as sport for the dog.

On the way to Penny and Kevin’s to discuss the music for their forthcoming wedding, I phoned up the local farmers’ co-operative to see whether they had some mousetraps in stock. But just to show that a foreign language doesn’t get any easier after 20 years of practice, I asked for clapettes rather than tapettes. Tap-dancing shoes. Conceivably, my impersonation of the Nicholas Brothers might send every mouse fleeing from the house, but I think traps are surer.

So I pulled up at the house in La Roquette with a bag full of Mephisto mousetraps, my notebook, pen and (sigh) reading glasses. Penny Tink is to marry Kevin Brazendale. Eight years ago, having fallen in love while owners of almost adjacent cottages in Alton, Hants., they talked each other into retiring from the mainstream to south west France, where Kevin had close friends.

Appropriately enough, Penny has just passed 60 and is now in receipt of her sole pension income: a princely ₤70 or so per week, courtesy of HM Government. Like many supposedly “retired” people over here, they’re not. They’re far too busy renovating their lovely old house and generally devising means of financial support.

Presumably Penny never thought she’d end up cleaning houses for a living. She was lecturing at the University of Surrey and half way through a doctorate on Orientalism in English literature when they upped sticks. Kevin had also abandoned a doctorate, and worked for many years as a motoring journalist.

After initially living off the income from their properties in the UK, they concluded that the distance made it impractical to manage things properly. So they sold up and invested the money in two local houses, which serve as gîtes for the holiday market. Hence the cleaning roles.

60! As a young child, I believed that this was the outer limit of human life. What if they wanted me to base the soundtrack for the reception on Max Bygraves and Bert Kaempfert? But I reminded myself that I was only seven years away from the landmark. They, too, would have been young during that “pop-tastic” epoch when I was a wide-eyed pop-picker.

I settled on the sofa with Dolly, one of their five plump cats – mostly “gifts” from villagers who surely figure them for soft touches. Our conversation skirted the musical legacy of New Orleans before drifting (as it often does out here) towards mutual experiences of displacement.

Kevin, the ex-bachelor, misses being able to drop in at the local pub towards the end of an evening for beer and bonhomie with the regulars. Penny lamented that she hasn’t been to the theatre for eight years. Tenancy in a foreign land for both, however, is largely positive. “I love the fact that things still seem novel,” Penny told me. “I was driving around this weekend and thinking, I love all this even more now than I did eight years ago.”

She can say this even though both are still contending with serious illnesses, which have tested their resolve and the reputation of the French health system. At such times, geographical displacement – from family – must have been particularly acute. “But there’s also this thing of quality time,” she explained. “My children and grandchildren have told me they’ve gained more in the last eight years from being able to stay with us and spend proper time together.”

The family will all gather for the forthcoming wedding. As will their large and (Penny stresses) classless circle of European friends, who have mobilised for illnesses and wedding preparations alike to demonstrate their affection for the couple and the bond that binds this disparate community.

Removing Dolly, I went home with ample thematic musical ideas. Before bed, I set one of the traps behind the fridge. I know. In the words of song, “Comes a mouse, well you can chase it with a broom…” But say I managed to remove them humanely; the cats would only bring them in again. And when rodents start to nibble at your kiwis, it’s time for drastic action.

Mark Sampson, April 2008

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