I was happier at Les Cypres.
I was physically, if not mentally, considerably less isolated. It was only once we’d moved in that I realized just how much the distance between Tulips and everything else had added to my work load, just in sheer driving time. I hadn’t even been able to post a letter or buy a stick of bread without getting out the car and, worse, any form of entertainment or relaxation – beaches, restaurants, cinemas – were all miles away.
Les Cypres offered us more and at closer proximity. As the months flit by we tried a variety of things from jazz sessions to yoga, from archery to Amnesty International. It may be that we asked too much of life, but we were never able to become immersed in any way and remained permanently sitting at the edge. One of the things we got involved in was the village committee for saving the patrimoine – the local heritage – and we attended several village meetings where the restoration of an ancient bread oven was discussed. I suppose the problem was that it was not our country, not our village – hey, not even our language! – and we found it difficult to take any realistic interest in renovating a bread oven, not least because we had an ancient bread oven of our own.
I can’t say I actively enjoyed the proximity of the village shops or the supermarket in Arabor, but I was aware it was an advantage. St Sylvain , the village, offered the basic essentials, despite being closed half the time, and Arabor was at least a town with real live people around, if not very many. It’s funny how you just don’t see French people in the streets in a French town, the way you do in England.
On a Sunday morning, particularly in winter, Euan and I went to the supermarket in Bourcefranc, some five minutes in the car. Afterwards we walked on the beach. I loved looking out over the sea to the island of Oleron opposite, seeing the boats bobbing about in the estuary and the cars passing by over the bridge.
There is something undeniably exhilarating about walking along a beach, even in the winter when that wind whipped in off the Atlantic, searing like a knife through our cagoules and thrashing my hair into a tangled nest. We always parked at the eastern end of the beach, at that time little more than a dirt road and utterly stinking with seaweed and shell fish, and walked directly along the shore line as far as the little sailing club at the far end. We walked briskly, breathing deeply, trying to counteract the stress and strains of the punitive week we had terminated. Big Harry always came too and would charge along that beach barking and leaping through the waves. We still walk on that beach, quite regularly. Sometimes we see Big Harry’s shadow, his ghost, still leaping joyfully in the sand. Bernie joined the little sailing club in the summer and spent many a sunny day out in the estuary, sailing sometimes beyond the bridge and out in to the huge ocean.
Our move to Les Cypres coincided with my little estate agency fizzling out. That is the only way to describe it: it just fizzled out. That last summer at Tulips I had made many sales and had had clients almost every day; by the following spring it was over. At that time the expression “burn out” hadn’t been coined but, looking back on it now, I realize I was all burnt out. Competition was greater, of course, for the proximity of civilization also meant not only proximity of other agents but sparsity of properties available: the abandoned little farmhouses simply didn’t exist, people moved house less frequently, abandoned their houses never, and there was generally little of any interest on the market. My great strength as an agent had been that I was willing and able to drive around all the isolated little hamlets in the countryside, spotting the potential for British clients in the huge old beams and stone fireplaces, which at that time were the very things the French were abandoning. I had seen how to play the market. But it wasn’t just that: somehow the energy and enthusiasm had gone. The need to earn money kept my agency limping along for a while, perhaps six months.
“I’m not doing this any more,” I said aloud as I drove home one day, “I’ve finished.”
And that was it: I finished.
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