I STOOD OUTSIDE the wooden gates, the dull buzz of jetlag pressing against the back of my eyes. My misspelled sign was still on the wall: “La Rêve.” How symbolic, I thought, pushing open the gates.
In the middle of the courtyard was a haphazard heap of sisal carpets, king-size mattresses, wicker chairs, down pillows, lamp shades, books, art prints, chests of drawers, duvets, blankets, mirrors, drapes, and laundry baskets—a hideous reinterpretation of my three-week shopping spree. A framed picture of our little family lay water-stained and fractured near the bottom. Every stick and fragment was mildew-freckled to a uniform shade of brown. A few of the edges had turned black with mold.
It smelled like death—the death of a dream.
I fumbled with the old brass key in the lock of the kitchen door. It opened and a wave of brown-scented air washed into my nostrils. I saw that the walls, a freshly painted white when we left, were now patterned with mildew spots. The cabinets, the stove, the refrigerator, and the sideboard were streaked with ugly stains.
I opened the door to the laundry room and peered in. The sides of the boiler were bent and hanging, a tangle of pipes and wiring spilling from its guts. The wooden floor was warped and strewn with mops and odd metal parts. A barely audible drip, drip, drip, sounded from somewhere in the room, but I couldn’t locate the source. I closed the door.
More items were piled in the master bedroom, perhaps in hopes they could still be salvaged. I removed a metal ladder from the shower, revealing a rust stain on the concrete floor. The glass panes of the French doors had gone nearly opaque with caramel-colored residue.
In the salon, the canvas-covered armchairs were no longer white but multiple shades of umber. Water had condensed on the tongue-and-groove ceiling and was now falling in droplets from the wooden beams. The marble-top writing desk that came with the house was tipped on its side, one of its drawers pulled out and lying capsized on the wet floor. To describe the scene as surreal would be an understatement.
What am I going to tell Eileen? How can I put this so she won’t lose all hope? Don’t worry, it’s not that bad? These things happen all the time? Together we’ll get through this? It’s only money?
I went back to the kitchen. By some miracle, neither flood nor fog had seriously damaged Monsieur Babineaux’s table and chairs. A little paint and polish would probably set them right. Small favors, I said to myself.
Just then I felt something welling up inside me, a slowly rising tsunami of self-pity. There was nothing else I could do, so I did it: I sat down, put my head in my hands, and cried. I didn’t stop for what might have been five minutes, but felt like an hour.
A sharp knock at the door brought me back.
I wiped a sleeve across my face and stood up. I could see a cloud of white hair shimmering through the dimmed window panes of the kitchen door. It belonged to our expat British neighbor, Christine Johnson. She was holding what appeared to be a pie.
“I thought you might need this,” she said, cradling a pale yellow cheesecake covered in paper-thin lemon slices. “I can only imagine what you’ve been going through. Sod’s Law, isn’t it? You just finish decorating your house and—poof! Here,” she said, handing me the cheesecake. “Peter will be along as soon as he puts away his bits and bobs.”
Footsteps crunched in the gravel courtyard. Peter poked his head around the doorjamb.
“How are you getting on, young lad?” he said. “We were concerned. We saw water flowing out across the lane and wondered, What could be causing that? We didn’t know if we should bother you, so we called your house managers. I must say they took a bloody long time coming out.”
I told him I didn’t even know we had a boiler.
“Don’t worry,” said Christine. “It’s not so bad. These things happen. You and Eileen will get through it, you’ll see.”
“It’s only money,” said Peter with his Yorkshire accent. “Any road, the insurance company will cover it.”
“In future,” said Christine, “why don’t you let Peter and me keep an eye on your place. We’ll tell you if we see anything.”
“Right,” said Peter. “Like a van backing up to the house with four guys and a flashlight!”
We sat together in the mildewed mess of a kitchen for nearly two hours, and I can honestly say that I’ve never laughed so hard. I agreed to let them watch over the house, just as they had for Dennis. I gave them a spare set of house keys on the condition that we pay them a monthly fee.
“Oh no, no,” said Christine. “No. We wouldn’t hear of it. What are neighbors for? This is what people do—they help each other.”
I spent the night at the Johnsons’ house, where the heat was working and the walls had no mildew. They regaled me with stories of the village—the secretive neighbors who grow marijuana, the hardworking farmer who is buying up the fields, the hotel owners who want to retire, the doctor who wants to learn English, the rich family that fights over money, the winemakers who barely get by. They related the saga of Dennis and Le Rêve—how he later bought the adjoining property to keep it from being developed, and then tried to grow grapes on it. The experts said no, the soil wouldn’t support it.
They told me their own stories, too, from their days in England to their decision to live in France. How at first their property was nothing but a mud-covered hill with a ruin of a house and a huge hay shed. Then Dennis came along and bought his own ruin just down the lane. What they saw together was a lot more than a couple of run-down farms in a has-been hamlet. They saw a couple of run-down farms with million-dollar views.
Eileen had said something like that before I got on the plane: “Look, it’s just a lot of furniture. Furniture can be ruined, and furniture can be replaced. What can’t be ruined and can’t be replaced is that view. It’s the reason we bought the house. We’ll always have it.” That’s my wife.
The next morning the Johnsons arranged for a flooring specialist to come out and measure Le Rêve for new carpets. The insurance company instructed me to replace all the damaged items and keep the receipts. I thought I might as well start on the floor and work my way up.
Bad day? Have a slice of Christine’s lemon cheesecake
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