french revolutions

We're making the move back to France to open the best b&b in la france profonde


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Into the Great Wide Open

Last week we bought a ‘new to us’ tent. It’s a behemoth, a sprawling octagon of whatever tents are made of these days and guy ropes and tent poles. It won’t fit in our garden so we’ve never put it up – we tried and managed to splinter a tent pole. Still, it was useful practice in seeing whether we could fold it up and ever make it fit in what suddenly looked like a quite pathetically small bag again.

I don’t know why we own a tent – actually we own two tents, the other is on the growing pile of ‘stuff I’m going to put on ebay/flog at a car boot sale/put in Friday Ad’ – I can’t stand camping. Ever since a formative pre-teen experience when camping with my parents I’ve loathed it. So I’ve watched the rise of glamping with the deep scepticism reserved for those who have pumped up an airbed in a thunderstorm.

But I reckoned without E, one of my school run mums, whose personal mantra “it’ll be a good laugh” has gradually wheedled its way through my natural suspicion of anything outdoorsy. E claims she only does glamping – her tent has a carpet FFS – and so I’m part owner of not one but two tents and am about to go camping for the May Bank Holiday.

To be fair, my first experience of adult camping wasn’t half bad owing to E and her husband supplying everything and the kitchen sink.  It was freezing, yes, and our tent was draughty – first rule of buying a tent GET A SEWN IN GROUNDSHEET – and taking a table lamp for lighting was a trifle camp (not to mention the unwitting burlesque display I gave the neighbours getting ready for bed) – but our son absolutely adored it. He was running around with a headtorch on shouting “this is the best night of my life – EVER!!!”. Faced with the choice of being good, nice parents and letting him repeat the experience or being miserable bastards only concerned with our own creature comforts, we’ve reluctantly chosen the former.

So we’ll be spending our bank holiday weekend in a field at Knockhatch – predicted temperatures: high of 11, low of 8 (I’m packing thermals and insulated walking boots). We don’t know how to put up the tent and we haven’t fixed the splintered pole because we don’t know how. We do have an electric pump for the airbeds – second rule of buying camping equipment GET AN ELECTRIC PUMP BECAUSE FOOTPUMPS ARE USELESS – and 2 gas stoves on the rationale that we can cook bacon and eggs on one and brew coffee on the other (I’m checking the nearest takeaways). We now have LED camping lights. Everything for our 2 night stay will just fit in the car – just. But only if we don’t take any clothes.

Actually this is a trial run for a little idea I have of slinging the tent in the car come the summer holidays and meandering down through France to take a look at Montmorillon and surrounds. In my dream, the weather is balmy and the tent is a breeze to pitch, we find nice, cheap restaurants and picnic on baguettes and rilletes and wine, the air is fresh and we wake with the lark. Of course we don’t need to book into a hotel because the rain has been widdling down for 3 days straight and we’re cold and dirty and miserable. Of course we find our dream property at the end of it. Well, there’s a first time for everything.

This has never, ever been my experience of camping. I know that everything – let alone clothes – will not fit in the car. I know we’ll be blowing up airbeds in a thunderstorm and trying in vain to secure the flysheet in hurricane force winds. I know there’ll be arguments and sulks and storming offs (and that’s just the adults).

But there’ll also be a 7 year old who has the “best holiday of my life – EVER!!!”


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What I Won’t Miss About England

I won’t miss the thoughtful dog owner who allowed their hound to crap on our driveway so my husband stepped in it as we were corralling the kid into the car for Saturday swim lesson.

I won’t miss the dogshit strewn pavements and the fact that, owing to cuts, the street sweepers no longer follow the refuse lorries and I’m constantly picking the detritus of junk food out of my front garden.

I won’t miss the seagulls – those filthy flying rats and their assault on any untended rubbish bag, stray duckling or car in their vicinity (and everything is in their vicinity in this town).

I won’t miss the old git who told me to keep my dog under control and threatened me with his stick when the dog tried to make friends with him a little too enthusiastically.

I won’t miss the bullying at school and the parents kicking off in the playground.

I wont’t miss the daily battle for pavement space between the buggies and the mobility scooters.

I won’t miss a Government that has launched a full on attack on the most vulnerable on society whilst it allows money to filter upwards to its cronies – and I won’t miss the way that most of my neighbours simply don’t seem to care.

I won’t miss working for an employer that chronically undervalues me.

I won’t miss being a little bit cash rich and chronically time poor.

And yet, and yet…

This morning I took the dog for a walk to the local recreation ground. The sky was brightest blue, the sun warm and the sea breeze welcome not arctic. The groundskeepers were out mowing the wicket, the boundary marked, the nets out ready for the cricket season. Old men were playing bowls on beautifully tended greens. The blossom trees were laden with blooms like a go go dancer’s frilly knickers (thanks for the simile 5 year old me) and the dog was bounding around joyfully with his doggy pals – Gucci and Minky and Smudge. I exchanged pleasantries with fellow dog walkers on the wonderful remodelling of the park. We strolled to the beach and walked down to the wide strand of sand that unveils itself at low tide. The sea sparkled as I threw stones for the dog to chase. That gorgeous Modernist masterpiece that is the De La Warr Pavilion sat proud and gracefully monochrome. It was a beautiful morning, a beautiful walk. ‘Glad to be alive’ was the descriptive cliche of choice.

This is actually a rather nice place to live – we have the Pavilion of course, the Lighthouse Cafe so beloved of Keane (you can walk the Keane trail and visit Strangeland if that’s your thing), an independent record shop (they have some pretty good CDs at the moment – I know, I sold them), a great butcher just round the corner. If I want to cook Hungarian or Afro-Caribbean/Asian food I can visit two local specialist food stores. There are plenty of great charity shops (let’s call them retro shall we?) and a greengrocers and two decent bakers and a fishmonger. We have a farmer’s market every Friday and a French market twice a year. We still have a local library. The new play park and the fountains on the prom are brilliant for kids. There’s a beach (we even have sand at low tide) and a train station that let’s you get out to Eastbourne or Hastings or the fleshpots of Brighton. London is accessible. Heck you even get from our front door to Paris in under 4 hours or take the Tunnel to France that’s 30 miles down the road.

So, taking redundancy and the lack of opportunities and our dissatisfaction with our lives here out of the equation, why on earth would we want to go anywhere else?

It’s not just the better education and health service, not even the better (and cheaper) quality of life. It’s not just the cleaner pavements or the fact that you can take a dog just about anywhere. It’s not even the sense of unfinished business that has nagged at me for the last 8 years, calling me ‘home’.It’s the opportunity to enjoy the good things together, to have a proper balance to our lives. For our son to know his father as more than a 5 minutes before bedtime dad. To sit down and eat together as a family more than once a week. If we could do those things in this house, in this town, perhaps we’d stay. But to keep our heads above water, we both need to work – and that’s no family life for any of us.

Moving to France won’t be a magic bullet – it would be stupid and dangerous to think so – but it might just be what my son calls a ‘magic plaster’ – something to soothe the little hurts of never having enough time together.


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1903 STARS & HANDLEBARS

 109 years before the Sun newspaper gave away cut out and stick on Wiggo sideburns, the riders of the 1903 Tour de France were collectively rocking the finest facial hair seen in the peloton.

The history of that first race is told well here but here’s something to ponder: the average speed for the 2,428 km was 25.679 km/h – that’s like me riding from my house to Beachy Head in an hour (yeah, right) and then maintaining that same speed for another 94 hours. Like riding 6 Classics back to back, and not the 200+ kilometres of today’s races but the 400+ km of Bordeaux-Paris.

The first lanterne rouge was Arsene Millocheau who finished 64 hours behind Garin. That’s nearly 3 days slower – and remains, incontestably, the biggest margin between the winner and the last placed man in the race.

But just imagine it – getting on your bike outside the Au Reveil Matin one early July morning and riding into the unknown…

1904 THE TOUR DE SCANDALE

15 years before the Black Sox scandal rocked Baseball, the Tour de France was hit by a scandal of its own – the first of many (starting as it meant to go on, perhaps). But whilst the Chicago White Sox cynically colluded with organised crime to fix the 1919 World Series, the cheating in the second Tour was far more prosaic. Hot favourite – and defending champion – Maurice Garin takes the train and is stripped of the win in December 1904. In fact, the top 4 finishers on GC are all investigated and banned, handing victory to the Tour’s youngest ever winner, 19 year old Henri Cornet (race rule 3 stated that all minors needed written permission from their parents to ride).

Lucien Pothier had finished 2nd to Garin again but now received a lifetime ban – at the age of 21 he was out of the sport for good. But why? The official communique of the Federation Velocipedique de France  states contravention of rules 5,6,7 & 8 of the Tour which state:

5) All types of bicycles are allowed on the condition that they are driven solely by muscular force

6) Trainers, soigneurs and other followers are forbidden

7) No support cars of any type – any rider with a service car will be disqualified

8) The rider must stay with his bike and cannot receive assistance of any type

In these days of ‘sticky bottles’ and ‘magic spanners’, where bikes are scanned on the start line in the wake of the does he, doesn’t he ‘Cancellara has a silent motor in his bike’ rumour and there’s a flotilla of following vehicles and an armada of support personnel, these rules seem absurd. But that view reckons without the steely will of the ‘Father of the Tour’ Henri Desgranges.

Desgranges believed that the ideal Tour would finish with only one rider, the coureur supreme. He believed in the self sufficiency and discipline of sport – suffer and sweat! – he most emphatically did not believe in collusion or team work. Desgranges would look at the 2013 Tour and despair at the rest days, the massages, the team support – though perhaps not the caravan. He invented a sport – bike stage racing – to find a solitary superman. Instead, he set in train the event that would lead to the development of that most curious of sportsmen – the domestique, with little hope of individual glory, his job only to support his leader.

And what of Lucien Pothier who would be that superman? He was banned for life for being paced back to the peloton by a team car (a piece of tricherie for which he was fined 500 francs). The ban was later limited to 3 years and he was at the start of the 1907 Tour, but he abandoned on stage 4.  He would never win the Tour de France.

1905 HIGHS AND LOWS

Bref, les ris, et l’amour

Et la toute-puissance,

Les plaisirs les moins courts,

Plaisirs de la science,

Tout ca ne vaut pas le Tour

(Franc-Nohain L’Auto, 19 July, 1905)

Highs: the Tour discovers the mountains – Ballon d’Alsace, cote de Laffrey, col Bayard; at 17 years and 3 months Martin Soulie becomes the youngest rider ever to finish the Tour (he was 12th)

Lows: the infamous stage 1 tack attack – 125 kilos of nails were spread across the roads between Nancy and Besancon causing widespread chaos – Dortignacq punctured no fewer than 15 times. Police traced the purchase of the nails to a Parisian shop but the culprits were never found. Some things never change – remember similar scenes in the 2012 Tour?

The tacks may have punctured tyres but they couldn’t puncture the race. Desgranges may have declared “The Tour de France is finished and it’s second running will also be its last” but changed his mind and decided to start a crusade to rescue cycling – fast forward to 1999 and another “Tour of Renewal” in the wake of the Festina affair. Scandal and rebirth, the endless cycle on which the soap opera of the Tour is firmly based.

The 1905 winner was 24 year old Louis Trousselier – Troutrou to his friends and ‘le fleuriste’ to the cycling press on account of his parents owning a Parisian florists. Troutrou was supposed to be doing his military service – instead, he was pedalling round France en route to winning the race. It’s rumoured that he gambled away all his prizes and lucrative post Tour contracts in a game of dice, declaring that he could always win them back next year. He never rode as well again.

 1906 RIDING WITH THE BLACK DOG

“When champions stop, there’s no one to be with them, so it’s particularly hard to go from climbing a podium to facing the grind of daily life. It’s not surprising that they go into the abyss.”

The list of professional cyclists with depression is a long and largely tragic one. Some, like Obree and Wiggins, have overcome and gone on to greater things but many – Pantani, Vandenbroucke, Claveyrolat and Jimenez to name a handful – never escaped the black dog and ended their days as suicides.

Rene Pottier, the ‘first king of the climbers’, was the only rider in the 05 Tour to pass the summit of the Ballon d’Alsace without having to get off and push his bike. In 1906 his domination was complete – he again won on the Ballon d’Alsace (by 48 minutes), took 5 of the 13 stages (4 on the trot including a 220km solo breakaway into Dijon) and secured the overall victory with a win on the final stage into Paris. Troutrou fought manfully to retain his title – “il petait le feu” – he was farting fire but it was Pottier’s race. The unofficial ‘King of the Mountains’ had slaughtered the opposition and stood triumphant on the top step of the podium in the Parc des Princes.

6 months later he was dead.

His mechanic found him hanging from the hook used to store his bike. His brother spoke of his being unlucky in love. There were whispers that his wife had started an affair while he was away riding the Tour. The real reasons for his suicide were never established. Perhaps, like so many others after him, he simply got tired of riding with the black dog always on his wheel.

1907 /8 THE MARK OF THE LION

We used to have a family friend who insisted on pronouncing Peugeot ‘Pegwatt’. Drove me up the wall. But regardless of how you pronounce it, Peugeot le marque au lion dominated the early years of the Tour de France.

1905 the Double with Trousselier and Aucouturier

1906 the first 4 riders were on Peugeot bikes

1907 The domination continues – the first 5 riders on GC rode Peugeot

1908 The domination of Peugeot- Petit-Breton is complete as he becomes the first rider to win the Tour twice (and the first 4 riders are again on Peugeot bikes)

All in all, Peugeot won the race 10 times – not bad for a manufacturer who made their first bike, a penny farthing Le Grand Bi, in 1882.

Lucien Petit-Breton ‘the best routier in the world’ became the first rider to win the race twice – though Maurice Garin maintained to the end of his days that he deserved his 1904 victory.

1908 was the last in an unbroken run of French victories – les jours de gloire were at an end. 1909 would see the end of the French stranglehold on the race and the rise of a new manufacturer to challenge the mighty Peugeot.

Turns out Peugeot was founded by  Jean Pequignot Peugeot – and Pequignot does sound awfully like ‘Pegwatt’


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100 Years – 100 Tales from the Tour

UPDATE: 100 Tours 100 Tales now has its own blog! Find my tales from the Tours at 100tours100tales.wordpress.com

I love Gerard Holtz in a totally guilty pleasures way – his spiky grey badger cut and cheeky grin has enlivened many an edition of Velo Club for me over the years. And now he’s beaten me to it, releasing Les 100 histoires de légende du Tour de France which is obviously topping my ‘must read’ list.

Except that my 100 Tales will be quite different, I’m sure – for example, I’m currently obsessed by the fine facial hair sported by those magnificent coureurs who undertook the first Tour in 1903, pedalling off into the unknown.

So my Tales from the Tour will be a very personal take on le grand boucle – personal anecdotes (from the 80s onwards, obviously ;)), things that strike me as amusing/stupid/of some interest, quotes and images. I hope you’ll enjoy my insights and that some of them at least are things that make you say ‘well, I never knew that’ in an amused/bemused way. I know many of you are greater historians & statisticians than I could ever hope to be but that my take will at least add to your understanding and enjoyment of what remains – for good or ill – the greatest cycling race in the world.

Stay tuned for my tales from the first 10 years – les jours de gloire – when France still ruled the wheels and the Tour moved from its infancy as a promotional device to the behemoth it is today.

 


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‘The Flavour of France’

I made raie au beurre noir  this evening. It’s a simple, deeply savoury recipe that elevates the hunble skate wing to something rich and deeply satisfying. Any book on French cooking will have the recipe but this evening I turned to one of my charity shop finds and was transported to a perfect France through the marriage of simple black and white photos and clear, quick recipes thanks to the Chamberlains and their little gem ‘The Flavour of France in Recipes and Pictures’.

Immediately a plan formed in my brain – I would visit every one of the 215 locations and cook every one of the 215 recipes in situ. Cooking the book blogs are one of my guiltiest pleasures – I particularly loved the guy who cooked his way through the Fat Duck book, ingeniously deploying a rice cooker and probe to simulate sous vide and asking his butcher to vacuum pack everything. The ‘Chamberlian Project’ as I codenamed it, would be much simpler – just me, a recipe book, a batterie de cuisine, a decent camera, laptop, access to kitchens, places to stay and at the end of it all surely a book? A TV series? A film starring Meryl Streep? As the book is currently going for $445 on amazon.com I’d make more money selling it – if making money was the aim.

I love this little book for many of the same reasons I love ‘The Alice B Toklas Cookbook’ – I love the way their American authors are as hopeless as I am about a Utopian vision of France inextricably bound up with their love of its food. Alice & Gertrude toughed it out through the war of course slumming it on Crawfish a la Bordelaise  and Lobster, Chicken and Black Truffle Salad whilst the Chamberlains, after many happy years and culinary adventures in France, fled in 1939 and settled in Marblehead, Mass – coincidentally the  birthplace of Tyler Hamilton, the USPS cyclist and author of the extraordinary ‘The Secret Race’. Digressions aside, ‘Flavour of France’ and ‘The Alice B Toklas Cookbook’ are books you want on your shelf – and the latter on your bedside table as one of the most eminently readable accounts of the American experience in Paris in those heady pre war days of Picasso and Stein, Hemingway and the moveable feast (and the recipes are fabulous too).

So the ‘Chamberlain Project’ will remain an unrealised dream, joining the dusty but burnished pile of other dreams unrealised, but I’ll continue to share the Chamberlain’s passion for la cuisine de bonne femme. Instead of pursuing their culinary journey across France, I’ll be bringing it to my new kitchen – cooking simple, delicious dishes to nourish the stomach and, I hope, the heart.

So, as I write, I’m busy salivating at the prospect of cooking Delicieuses au fromage, saumon au vin blanc, fonds d’artichauts aux crevettes, canard aux oignons brules and 211 other delights for friends and family.

As for Alice B Toklas’ Hashish fudge? Nice as it is, I wouldn’t recommend riding your bike afterwards.


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Melons and Strawberries

We hit the local Continental market last weekend and returned with swag – tomatoes, garlic, strawberries and melons. The strawberries were Spanish but still sweeter and plumper than those from a supermarket shelf and the melons – ah the sweet, luscious melons of Charentes, ripe and juicy and fragrant.

OK, I accept that that last sentence has more than a whiff of the “ooer Matron, fnaar fnaar” about it. But what is incontestable is that Charentais melons are as good as it gets, the rough, scaly, green veined hide concealing the lush orange hued flesh inside. And now I’m channelling Nigella – can’t you see me fondling those melons in true food porn fashion?

The point of all this is that for seven years I went to local markets awash with the ripe, intoxicating, slightly over perfumed scent of Charentais melons – the pallets marked Soldive and Rouge Gorge meant something good for breakfast, or a light soup with crispy ribbons of local ham or the heady delight of a melon half saturated with Pineau de Charentes. I’d drive past fields that, from a distance, shimmered like oases but were actually covered with metre after metre of polythene on which sat the melon plants, writhing snakes of vine supporting the jewels of fruit. I tried growing them myself once and those three (count them) melons were as wonderful as any fruit I’ve ever eaten – they have a place in my taste memory right alongside the one perfect apricot that fell from the old tree into my lap and tasted as I always thought an apricot should – sweet, juicy, still warm from the sun – and has never done since.

The melons we bought from the Continental market didn’t quite hit those heights – how could they on a still cool Spring day on the south coast? Yet still, yet still…One was ripe to the point of bursting its skin, almost alcoholic in its intensity. Perfect for making the melon ice cream that is now tucked in the freezer – the most exquisite pale orange like an Arabian sunrise and the perfume…

I use Elizabeth David‘s recipe from ‘French Regional Cooking’ – Jane Grigson quotes it too, in her ‘Fruit‘ book.

GLACE AU MELON DE L’ILE ST JACQUES

Scoop out the flesh of one very ripe Charentais melon and pound or blitz with 4 ounces of vanilla sugar then heat briefly until smooth and the sugar has melted. Whisk 4 large egg yolks in a bowl until thick, pour in a little of the melon puree and stir then tip the whole lot back into the saucepan and stir over a low heat until you get a thin custard – it should coat the back of your wooden spoon. Cool the mixture and the juice of 1/2 a lemon (David also adds a glass of Kirsch but it’s not my cup of tea) and fold in 300 ml softly whipped double cream.

I let this ripen in the fridge overnight and churned in my proper Magimix ice cream maker but David’s recipe simply says ‘freeze’. She also recommends serving in a hollowed out melon shell (with lid) on a ‘bed of vine or bay leaves’ which would be, let’s face it, fabulously camp.

The other thing I miss at about this time of year is that herald of Spring and early Summer, the Gariguette. Now, the Kentish strawberry – before it was overwhelmed by the all conquering uniformity of the Elsanta – was a delicious thing and I thought I’d never taste better. Until, one day in Thouars market, that first Summer, my eye fell on a stall piled high with perfectly beautiful strawberries, laid with delicate precision in their punnets, emitting the most extraordinary smell – strawberries cubed, quadrupled – the way you always imagine that strawberries should smell. And the taste – sweet, scented, sorbet like. Once you’ve gone Gariguette, you never go back.

My Spanish strawberries weren’t half bad, and in their honour I knocked up a quick cheesecake:

STRAWBERRY AND WHITE CHOCOLATE CHEESECAKE

Bash up some biscuits – I usually use shortbread, and combine with a couple of ounces of softened butter then press this into the base of your tin. Now whisk together 300 g of cream cheese and 200 ml double cream until creamy and unctuous. Meanwhile, gently melt 200 g white chocolate and then gently stir in. At this point you can add some chopped strawberries and turn it the softest blushing pink – or you can spoon them on top. Now dollop the whole rich confection on the biscuit base and chill. Serve in small slices – or not, depending on level of greed.

I wouldn’t do this with Gariguettes – they need nothing but the tip of a lover’s tongue to enjoy at their best – but I might be inclined to bathe some Elsantas in red wine and sugar and chill well before serving, maybe even topped up with les bulles


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Three Funerals and a Wedding

The first funeral was my father’s.

The second was Janine’s, our neighbour Maurice’s copine. Cancer ripped through her in a few months. We sent the first daffodils from the garden but never visited, as requested. The village turned out when she died – even Pierrette who hated her guts. Albin, Maurice’s strapping, lovely boy, who I taught English and who split logs for me in return, stood alone in the midst of it, gangly and helpless. I remembered Janine putting condoms under his pillow the day he turned 16. We filed past her grave, threw clods of earth, and life went on.

The third…well, let’s rewind.

I grew up without pets. My dad had been bought up with cats, my mum loathed them. She leaned towards dogs, my dad hated them. Rabbits? Least said about my one experience with owning one of them the better. Fish fared no better. I yearned for an Old Enlish Sheepdog to share my room at Cambridge and walk round the Quad with (I dreamed big,though neither of these dreams amounted to anything). My Grannny’s cat would sit demurely on my knee then, at the merest sign of an affectionate stroke would turn and strike. My childhood arms were streaked red with claw marks. Cats were fur and evil, however cute kittens could be.

And then there was Tez. We picked him up outside the bowling alley near Epsom. He was 18″ high, black and white and all adorable. His sack of food was bigger than he was. We were looking after him for 2 weeks but, as we drove away in the soft top Peugeot 205 with his soft black ears flopping in the wind as he stood up proud and inquisitive in the back seat we all knew that 2 weeks wouldn’t be enough. Love at first sight doesn’t begin to describe it – even my dog averse dad was besotted. Soon we were finding excuses to look after him and eventually he stayed. When the France move was on he was jabbed and through the tunnel and off to the lanes of La Croix Haute. Years later we met his original owner again and explained that he had moved to France:

“I always knew that dog was destined to travel” he pronounced.

Fast forward a few years, past the first and second funerals. I’m walking Tez down our local lanes, at harvest time, the rumble of farm machinery in the nearest field. Suddenly, he stops and refuses to budge. I stop too – and listen. Faintly, through the rattle of engines, I hear a tiny, pitiful miaow and a minute kitten emerges from the corn. He is tabby with kohl rimmed eyes and he strolls over to where we are, unconcerned. We walk on. He follows, tail in the air, the cat that walked. And he continues to follow as we walk our usual route and go in  through the gate.

And that was how we found Eric.

The next day we all three set out for the morning walk and we all three stop in the same place, by the same field, and wait as another minute kitten emerges, this time from the ditch. He is tabby with a white vest and those same dark rimmed eyes. And now we are four.

The kittens were allowed to stay on condition of being barn cats – as if. Within days guilt and their sheer overwhelming cuteness sees them move into the sun room. Then the living room. Eric likes to roll around in the wastepaper basket and poke his head into things – my boots, a milk jug. Pascal is more placid, preferring a lap to curl up in like a furry comma. One day, when I’m up a ladder, painting the side of the house, I’m aware of Eric, that same unconcerned air, perched on the top rung at my feet. Until he loses his footing and manages to catch hold and swing, like a small furry gymnast. With that same insouciance – if he could have whistled, he would. I rescued him and we ended up at the vets which cost me 20 euros. I was nearly out of petrol in the middle of the great petrol station blockade. He was worth every penny. Eric the 20 euro cat.

Of course the third funeral was his. He was hit by a car and left by the side of the road. I couldn’t get to the vet in time and he died in the back of the car as I drove through Faye L’Abbesse. I pulled up in the square and heard him cough and go still. I wrapped him in his favourite red fleece and put him in a suitcase and howled with every spadeful of the hole that I dug under the willow tree in the garden. I couldn’t finish it in the end and watched as Maurice finished the job, howling with rage and the injustice of it.

Pascal stayed with us, sleek and placid and beautiful. Until we had to go back to the UK and he no longer had the comfortable lap and the titbits he adored. Maurice thought we were crazy, fou, that cats worked for you and fed themselves. When we came back, he’d gone.

Years passed – I met my now husband, we walked Tez together round the lanes, we sold our beautiful house. And Pascal came home – feral now, but still as sleekly beautiful. He’d come to the window, or perch on a garden wall, allowing us to come just so close but never to touch. It broke my heart. It still breaks my heart.

The wedding of course was ours – a June day of showers and warm sun. It shone down on us as I walked home from the church with my new husband and my little black and white dog.