Mad dogs and Englishmen
Although we had our trusty car we emigrated with, we soon realized one would not suffice. Living in the sticks in France is not quite the same as living in the sticks in England. At least that great institution the British bus, has been known to roll along lesser travelled roads and lanes, providing a service for those with no other means of getting around. Not so in La Belle France. Everyone there seems to have access to either a car, or a scooter. With Mark away for anything up to seven days at a stretch, I was finding it increasingly difficult to pre-empt all my shopping requirements, especially if we had bed and break guests staying in the gite accommodation. The nearest bakery was a couple of miles away, and walking there and back first thing in the morning, on a daily basis, supplying fresh croissants and pastries for eager visitors was wearing me, and the soles of my shoes, out.
We deliberated at length over what to buy, though the final decision was, not surprisingly, based on our budget. We reckoned we could spare about £500, and with our limited knowledge of French launched into Secondhand Cars For Sale ads in the local papers. It’s interesting to note that people the other side of the Channel have similar items they wish to dispose of for a little extra cash, and seem to spend as much time as us Brits, absorbed in the classifieds. Joining them made us feel more at home in our new surroundings. What we hadn’t reckoned on was the high price secondhand cars seemed to command in France. Our budget was clearly not going to secure me anything resembling what I had in mind.
Among the varied acquaintances we had made was a retired gentleman in nearby Jonzac town. Claude restored old cars, including some lovely Panhards from the 60s and some funky, if eccentric, Citroen vans, with the sides that resembled corrugated iron. He boosted his pension by hiring out his beloved collection, mainly to film and specialist companies. We would often visit his barn at the back of his house and drool over his latest painstaking renovation. Claude contacted us one afternoon to inform us that a friend of his had ‘just the car’ for us. Picturing myself as Lady Penelope, minus Parker, I quickly bought into the image of zipping around the French countryside in something delivering on the ‘wow’ factor. Naturally, we were somewhat expectant as we went to view it. After all, Claude seemed to know a good car from an ordinary one.
Neither of us was quite prepared for the sight which met our eager gaze as the old barn doors creaked open to reveal a 1983 Citroen Visa, nestled amongst the hay, cobwebs and junk inside his friend’s barn. We tactfully kept our faces in a pose of pleasant surprise, whilst inwardly hovering between incredulous and hysterical.
Clearly the car had not been called into service for some time, although Claude assured us he had given it ‘the once over’. His verdict: ‘sound and a good little runner’. Both statements we found difficult to believe.
All the seats had grubby chintzy covers on them, concealing even shabbier originals, and the covers, backed with a thin layer of sponge (presumably to enhance the comfort of all passengers) promptly disintegrated as soon as it was handled. The pièce de résistance though was surely the hatchback. Claude’s friend enthusiastically opened it to reveal a large piece of weathered wood, about 3 feet in length, that, when carefully applied, propped the hatch open, thus allowing easy access to load or remove shopping. Preposterous! The idea of anyone parting with money for that decrepit old banger was beyond sensible thinking.
We bought it!
I’m not sure something wasn’t lost in translation, and possibly there was a small degree of desperation in our purchase. Or perhaps we couldn’t resist the charm of Claude’s ageing mate, with his leathery skin and twinkling eyes. However, as we finally managed to negotiate exiting the barn and drove off down the country lane, relieved of our precious Euros, we attempted to convince each other we’d nabbed a bargain, and our new addition would in any case, make life infinitely easier on the travelling front.
Mad dogs and Englishmen does not only apply to noonday sun it would seem. ‘Les Anglais!’ as so many of the French referred to us, with a shrug of their shoulders and benevolently raised eyebrows, we certainly gave them plenty of fodder for their characteristic chats over an aperitif or two. Although, I have to say, despite appearances, our little Citroen was indeed a stalwart companion, even if a bit of a talking point when loading and unloading the hatchback. Nonetheless, at least we didn’t have to worry about the odd dent or scratch, inevitable when you own a car in France.
The dogs were far less mad than us humans, and Simba and Louis refused point blank to even get into the Citroen, either the boot, or when tempted with even greater luxury, onto the chintzy covers adorning the back seat. I’m sure there’s a lesson there, for another time.
I could be frequently observed, cruising along the lanes early in the mornings to buy provisions at the bakery; air-conditioning in operation – in truth, all windows fully down; hair blowing in the breeze, or rather whipping my coiffure into a bee hive, and thanking God for all our blessings. It was certainly quicker than previous hikes, and actually, quite pleasant to go out without the dogs. I was often lost in wonderful memories of travelling down many French country lanes, with Matt safely in the back, singing away to my heart’s content.
Pools of light
One of the deciding factors in buying that particular house in France, when we considered moving, was the lovely saline swimming pool in the grounds. Nestling at the rear of the long dining hall it was surrounded by grass and the four and a half acres, dotted with huge chestnut trees, we initially thought it promised a wonderful resource to assist Matt in recovering strength in limbs that had not been properly used for many months. And we felt it would be a huge bonus for visiting families, with sick loved ones.
Being there without Matthew, the pool served as a constant reminder that things had not gone as we had hoped and prayed for and I think it took on proportions of the elephant in the living room for both of us. We put off opening it that first year, until it became an urgent matter of timing. Lifting the winter cover, it became clear we knew absolutely nothing about servicing and maintaining a pool.
Armed with my extensive French-English dictionary, I called in the experts, who transformed the dark, green, uninviting waters to a perfectly stunning clear blue in a couple of days. They left, explaining what I should do over the next twenty four hours, intimating that after that time, our pool would be ‘ready to dive’, which seemed to be their entire knowledge of the English language. Mark was away while all this was going on, and the weather was already warm. The early May sunshine felt like a balmy summer.
Eager to test the waters, as it would be another two days before Mark’s return, I decided to overcome my feelings of ‘what-ifs’ and loss, and get in the pool. Swimming was one of Matthew’s favourite sports and he was exceptionally good at it. I would undertake as many lengths as I could manage in celebration of his past achievements.
As I entered the pool down the built-in stairway – diving not being one of my specialties – the water felt exquisitely cool and soft. My eyes filled with tears with no warning and it took all my resolve not to scuttle back indoors in defeat. Dipping my shoulders under the water and heading towards the deep end, I purposefully recalled to mind the many fun times we had enjoyed on holidays, as a family. Weightlessly floating, I sincerely felt as if I was being supported there by some giant hand that held me, tenderly, lovingly, until such time as strength and purpose returned.
It was on a return trip from the deep end to the stairway, as I turned my head to one side to breath between strokes, that something caught my eye behind and to the left of me. It appeared to be a stick-like object, suspended vertically in the water and heading towards me, somewhat resembling a miniature submarine periscope. In the next split-second, my brain registered it wasn’t either of those. It was most definitely A SNAKE!
I am not renown for my athletic abilities, though I think I probably broke a few personal bests that afternoon, exiting the swimming pool. When I dared glance behind me, it only fuelled the fear I was fighting to hold in check, and whilst I cannot swear to it, I think I came close to walking on water. The snake – a viper, or ‘vee-per’, as the French say, speedily reached the edge I had hovered over seconds before. Thankfully it could not negotiate the smooth side to advance any further and I left it lamely trying to get a hold on the slippery tiles of the pool wall.
Grabbing only my towel, I performed a worthy sprint to our neighbour’s house. They were English, and fortuitously at home. In fact, the owner had sold us the house, and built himself a smaller residence next to our place. His partner accompanied me back to the pool, armed with a net and large sack. My adversary was still where I had unceremoniously left him, and in a remarkably short space of time, was safely imprisoned in the sack, awaiting his fate. I didn’t press for further details, suffice it to say, he was not given a wave at the gate and future invitation to call back for tea anytime soon!
Apparently, what is thought to have occurred is, the newly uncovered and cleaned pool had lured the creature (as it would others over the course of time) to come and drink, swim, play, or whatever snakes do in pools. It had probably fallen over the side, into the water, and been dragged into one of the filter bays dotted around the edge, equipped with one-way trap doors. Only my noticeable weight (!) in the water had caused enough disturbance to open the flap, thus releasing the only poisonous species of snake in France, to terrorize my afternoon swim. Such are the pitfalls of emigrating to a distant, uncivilized place known as the Charente Maritime. If only I could say it was my singular brush with the wilds of the French countryside, sadly it wasn’t, as will later be revealed.
Driving into town the next day, I was reflecting on my experience, and whether I would ever be brave enough to get back into the pool even with a rigorous check of all filters, when it occurred to me that I had bravely survived over two months in France, much of that alone, and yet the loss of Matt had not caused me to die of a broken heart. I did not feel brave, I could not see light at the end of my tunnel of grief, though I did feel there was a force greater than myself, giving me strength to get up each day and carry on. There were occasional pools of light, sparkling across my consciousness from time to time, making me feel bravery comes in short sharp doses, probably just enough to get you over the next hill, around the next bend, or out of the next swimming pool.
Les tournesols – Turn to the sun (Turn to the Son)
Finally it happened! Though there was an air of anticipation long before we were rewarded with a particularly poignant sighting. We had been waiting for the promise to be fulfilled for months. We were together, driving through the narrow lanes to our nearest town – a smallish affair, though still equipped with its own Chateau – to visit the weekly market and sample some great local produce. As we rounded a bend in the road, we caught our breath almost in unison. There they were, standing tall and seemingly looking straight at us, with what I imagined to be smiles upon their radiant faces. At last the sunflowers – les tournesols – had arrived! I felt an overwhelming desire to jump out of the car and press their intense yellowness to my face, to reassure myself they were real and not some painting. They were real – it made us cry.
We had enjoyed so many wonderful holidays together in France as a family, and our particular favourite time was when the sunflowers were in bloom. The sight of them brought back such joyous memories of precious times with Matt, but the recollections were bittersweet. We were back in France, and he wasn’t. Countless times a day I told myself, and God, that I didn’t feel like doing this alone anymore. The sunflowers made us long to hold the beauty of our son in an endless embrace, to press his face to ours to reassure ourselves he was real and not some figment of our imaginations.
Often we could be found poring over photos of Matthew, seeking comfort from brief memories of distant halcyon days, but we both knew the ache inside would remain as long as we are unable to hold him in our arms. Our son was much like many other boys, but to us he was unique and exceptionally special. I am constantly inspired remembering his sensitivity to others, his love for the unloved and his big, compassionate heart that championed the underdog and sought justice.
The sunflowers strewn on his coffin the day we laid his earthly body to rest, and those placed since by dear friends on his grave in what now seemed like a faraway time and place, were a symbol of all we felt God wanted to accomplish in France. The smiling, uplifted faces of les tournesols reminded us that God was still in charge of this seeming maelstrom of events and that He had promised us eternal life. At the centre of the pain that swirled around us endlessly was the knowledge that we would one day be reunited with Mattie, hold him in our arms and see his captivating smile. Our faith gave us indescribable joy of an inheritance that makes winning the lottery like a grain of sand on the shore. By contrast, day to day survival was an arena of conflict.
Truthfully, we needed every ounce of our faith to sustain us in those early months in France. On the practical front, our house in England remained unsold despite reducing the price, and although we were indebted to Mark’s mum, Mary, for generously loaning us some money to move, the sooner it was sold, the sooner we would be able to repay her and begin the vital renovations needed to turn Canaan into the Retreat we had planned with Matt.
Mark was settling back into work at British Airways but we still had the mortgage on our English property as well as all the living expenses in France to meet. Our special allowances from the government ceased immediately upon Matthew’s death and we discovered that my small pension didn’t go very far when it came to a cavernous old farmhouse and outbuildings with a raging thirst for savings. We were still heavily reliant on our church family back in England who continued to provide us with a monthly allowance, though we knew that couldn’t continue indefinitely. In the day-to-day running and restoration of Canaan, unexpected bills frequently occurred and we were very much living hand to mouth as the saying goes.
That said it did seem that God’s provision miraculously appeared when we had a desperate need, though never in advance of one, which I personally found difficult to adjust to. I like to have something ‘put by’ for emergencies, but apparently God doesn’t agree with me. He seemed more interested in teaching me to trust Him on a daily basis. My biggest problem, it seemed, was my inability to learn quickly!
During the first twenty-four hours after Mark flew back to England to begin his work shift, I would often slip over the precipice into oblivion, too self-absorbed in my grief to even want to see or speak to anyone – not that that was a huge problem, living in the back of beyond with no English- speaking friends around. On one such occasion, I was walking the dogs on a familiar path, which was just as well as I could not see where I was going for tears, when I wiped my eyes, took a break from bending God’s ear bemoaning my life, and noticed a piece of thin green plastic on the ground that had formed the shape of an icthus. (The icthus is the simple sign of a fish that Christians used to identify each other during persecution in the first century. It is still widely used today – often on the back of cars, worryingly all the more noticeable if the occupants are exceeding the speed limit!) I stopped in my tracks, walked around the plastic symbol, viewing it from all sides and realized that it was only noticeable from exactly the direction I had approached it, from all other angles it was hidden by stones and grass. A seemingly unremarkable incident perhaps, but it served to remind me that God loved me, unconditionally, continuously and wholeheartedly, and was with me as He promised. Even when I couldn’t see the way ahead for crying.
To illustrate what I mean about timely provision, a remarkable incident occurred shortly after I saw the fish. When we bought the property, the main farmhouse had only two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. It was always our intention to convert the attic above the old dairy, which is now the main dining room running along the back of the house, into another two bedrooms and bathroom to accommodate family and friends, leaving the separate accommodation free for paying guests and families in need. Funds were limited but we commissioned a local builder to begin the work. It soon became apparent that complications with the septic tank drainage and ‘extras’ were pushing the price up beyond the modest budget we had. So we made a prayerful decision to forego the additional bathroom at that stage, convincing ourselves that the existing one was more than adequate and anyway, family and friends could swim daily in the pool – and shower there afterwards too.
In spite of careful economising, the bill was still scary, whichever way we held it up! Mark returned to England to work and also sell anything we still had that wasn’t nailed to the house there. In the meantime, we transferred all the funds we could raise and prayed it would be enough. It wasn’t. Here in France it is a serious offence to write a cheque without adequate funds in your account and we had no overdraft facilities. The morning I was to write the cheque for all the work, I received an e-mail from an old friend from British Airways, informing us that she had undertaken a fund-raising event in memory of her friend who had died of a brain tumour the same year as Matt, and she wanted to donate a third of the proceeds to Matt’s Canaan Retreat. The money we received just a few days later was sufficient to cover the bill and buy much needed new beds and some outside furniture for our expected guests that summer. What a wonderful lady – what incredible timing, we were so grateful to all the British Airways staff who contributed. And what an amazing God – to Him be all the nail-biting glory!
With each new achievement, however insignificant, we wanted to shout it from the rooftops. We will never be able to thank everyone personally for what they did for us when we embarked on our crazy adventure. We certainly couldn’t begin to acknowledge all the words of encouragement, phone calls, cards, emails and working visits many people paid us. I just hope that in reading this you are able to see your name miraculously appearing on the page and know that your generosity of heart kept two very ordinary people determined to see this vision through.
We were extremely privileged to live in such a beautiful place, and as we welcomed visitors throughout that first summer we saw them also benefit from the peace and tranquility at Canaan. It didn’t appease the pain of life without Matthew though we knew, as his parents, that what we were setting out to achieve would certainly win his wholehearted approval and bring a sparkle to those beautiful blue eyes that we missed so much.
‘If we build it – they will come…’. I kept repeating that phrase over and over, unaware that French bureaucracy, is no respecter of persons, and completely unmoved by two enthusiastic mission-driven foreigners.
We made moves to set up a trust in Matthew’s name, thinking that it would only be a short time before we could maximize charitable status. Unfortunately the French legal system is very different to that of the United Kingdom and it proved to be a long and rocky road littered with frustration and delay. There is a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek film called French Kiss we had watched in our rush to embrace all things French. In one exasperating scene Meg Ryan is trying to obtain information from the concierge of the exclusive George V hotel in Paris. With a completely expressionless face and a tone that expects his reply to explain everything, the unmovable concierge says simply, ‘Non! Zis is ze George Cinq, Madame,’ thus discouraging any further discussion. That phrase ‘Non’, has become a catchword for us, to explain all things French that not only cannot be achieved – but also will not be achieved.
Undeterred, we decided to apply for charitable status in England in the hope that it would prove easier and cheaper, with no expensive translations of French contracts and complicated inheritance laws required. But although we had family members and friends willing to take on the role of Trustees, it was to be a considerable time before it was all settled satisfactorily.
We asked British Airways to give Mark a temporary part time contract on compassionate grounds but it was some months before it materialized. It meant he need only work alternate twenty-eight day cycles whilst still enjoying days off between each of his rostered trips. It seemed the ideal arrangement for us to spend some much needed time together, and to make headway with all the renovations for the holiday retreat. What we hadn’t allowed for, and which only became apparent latterly was how challenged we were trying to manage on half his usual salary. But we weighed that against an opportunity for more time together, to work through our bereavement, and decided it was totally necessary if our marriage was to survive the aftermath of Matthew’s death. Sadly we knew of far too many couples whose marriages ended in divorce because they could not move forward together in their grief.
The last eighteen months of Matt’s life had been an intensely traumatic time, as we nursed our extremely disabled son without a break, and we looked forward to an opportunity to speak to trained counselors. We found ourselves with more questions than answers, and though not harbouring unrealistic expectations, we welcomed an opportunity to talk them through. It was becoming apparent that whilst we clung to each other for familiarity and safety, the strain of the past two years still seriously threatened our relationship.
The days got steadily warmer as we got on with the work at Canaan that our limited funds would allow. Although busyness and common-sense prevented us from basking in the sun’s warmth all day, it felt oddly healing on our battered bodies and bruised emotions and we counted our blessings again at being in such idyllic surroundings.
During our regular early morning walks with the dogs we never became bored with the sight of field upon field of sunflowers standing uniformly in their rows, faces upturned in rapt attention towards their source of light and life. As the earth moved on its axis the oversized seed heads turned imperceptibly towards the sun. As evening approached, the yellow throngs gently bowed their faces and drew their petals slightly inward. With their thin stalks and big flowers atop, they reminded me of toddlers, whose perfect little necks and tiny shoulders support beautifully shaped, though seemingly overly large heads. As dusk turned into night, their silhouettes still remained clear to see: the sunflowers’ heads were humbly bowed, all facing east. They know the sun will be there in the morning, it always has been, always will be. Like them, we had to make sure we turned to the Son each morning. He had always been there and He always would be, we just had to remember that and trust Him.
These verses from II Corinthians 4:16-18 in the Amplified Bible were how I wanted to feel. I can only wait with an air of expectation that one day I will be strong enough to tell you it is so …
‘Therefore we do not become discouraged (utterly spiritless, exhausted, and wearied out through fear). Though our outer man is [progressively] decaying and wasting away, yet our inner self is being [progressively] renewed day after day.
For our light, momentary affliction (this slight distress of the passing hour) is ever more and more abundantly preparing and producing and achieving for us an everlasting weight of glory [beyond all measure, excessively surpassing all comparisons and all calculations, a vast and transcendent glory and blessedness never to cease!]
Since we consider and look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are visible are temporal (brief and fleeting), but the things that are invisible are deathless and everlasting.’
Boy, am I ever in need of all the help I can get!