Barns, granaries, stables, workshops, stranger’s hall, fit for the boundless hospitality of Crowland
Chris Marsh saw a faded blue P for parking and pulled in to the empty car park. He stepped out of the air conditioned car and was suspended in the unspeakable heat. The tarmac sizzled and the air shimmered. The cooling fan in the Golf kicked in, and somewhere above his head a muffled church bell rang. It was half past noon according to the screen on his phone and the place seemed deserted.
The motionless air was hissing with the sound of grasshoppers and the cloying scent of honeysuckle was everywhere. The fan on the Golf’s engine continued to blow for several minutes. Chris looked around for a shadier spot to park, but there was none: this improbably small car park was it.
He’d stopped just in front of the church. The sign welcoming visitors to the village had said it dated from the 12th century, and even the little Chris knew about architecture was enough to confirm this. A rough arch framed the door, which was of old oak and open halfway. His eyes struggled with the contrast between bright sunshine and the dark interior, but it didn’t look as if there was anyone inside.
He walked into the church, just in case, removing his sunglasses as he stepped through the door. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust, but it didn’t appear that anybody was there. The interior of the church was cool though, so he sat down on a heavy wooden bench for a few moments. Apart from a few rows of these benches, the place was plain: nothing special, apart from a triptych of stained glass windows featuring some kind of horrific mediaeval scene, and some kind of shrine or crypt to one side, in the transept. He turned his eyes away from it without taking in the details.
Chris pulled the directions from his pocket and read through them again.
He’d driven past the entrance to the Hermitage a couple of times, failing to spot it. The part of the house that faced the road was blank, low, almost windowless, and its driveway approached at such an angle that it started a hundred metres or so further down the road, at what at first appeared to be a wide open gate to nowhere in particular. There was no house name, no useful sign; he only knew it was called the Hermitage because of the piece of paper in his hand. The first time he had driven past, he had gone all the way through to the village centre and out the other side, which didn’t take very long. Turning around in a field entrance, he had crawled back through the village, looking for something, anything, to indicate where he was supposed to stop, or someone, anyone, to ask. There appeared to be nobody about: no mad dogs, no Englishmen. So after looking in the church and finding no-one there, he’d left the village again, retracing his route, and turned around in front of yet another gated field.
Third time was the charm: the surface of a swimming pool caught the sun, and Chris glanced over at the open gate with an American-style post box positioned next to it. It stood at the end of a fairly steep driveway of white gravel and grass that led down to a complex of white buildings. Chris pulled the Golf over to the entrance and read the name on the post box through the insect-splattered windscreen: Famille Price. An English name, which was not surprising here on the edge of the Dordogne, and was the name on the printed sheet of instructions that lay crumpled on the empty passenger seat beside him. Hermitage was a misnomer, he thought. The place wasn’t anywhere near humble enough, but perhaps it had been built on the site of an old retreat.
Selecting Drive, he let the engine idle as he drove cautiously down the slope, and then steered around the sharp hairpin at the bottom of the driveway into the wide, empty, parking area. There was room for several cars: Chris appreciated that he was likely to be sharing this place with others. He manoeuvred the car – with some difficulty – so that it was facing back towards the end of the driveway: reversing out of here would be a nightmare if there were other cars parked there.
It was approaching one o’clock: probably the worst possible time to arrive anywhere that wasn’t a restaurant or café. He’d stayed overnight in a motel near Macon, leaving just before six in the morning, and driving straight through, with just a couple of short stops, each one warmer than the last. When he’d set out, he’d had it in mind to stop somewhere to eat, but in the event his obsessive need to arrive on time – ahead of time – had taken over. The instruction sheet had warned against arriving after six in the evening, in case the holder of the keys was out.
Chris reached back into the car for the instruction sheet. The Golf’s fan cut off abruptly, and the engine began to tick as it cooled. He lifted his sunglasses from his eyes to read the fine print, wincing at the glare from the sunlight on the paper.
While the name on the post box is PRICE, you will need to call on Barbara Cooper, who lives in the village, to pick up the key. Barbara will be looking out for your arrival, but if she doesn’t see you, knock at the door of her house, which is “BELLE EPOQUE”, with the green door, about 400 metres towards the village centre.
He looked around. The buildings were at the edge of the village, facing across the countryside, not overlooked at the rear. There were at least three separate entrances in the main building, and the tallest of the sections reached – just – up to street level, presenting a view, Chris assumed, from the upstairs bedrooms onto the road. The parking area was concealed behind a stone wall, peppered with plant life, that supported the steep driveway. Taking a few steps back up the slope, Chris soon lost sight of the Golf, and a few more steps concealed even the bike on top of it. He’d been reluctant to leave the bike unattended, even going as far as taking it into his motel room the night before. He decided it would be okay: not visible to casual passers-by.
He quickened his pace and walked back up to the road, sweating by the time he reached it. The street was still empty as he turned right and walked towards the centre of the village. There was no pavement, so he hugged the left hand side, so as to be facing any traffic. There was no traffic. The air hummed with insects and the flies seemed to be attracted by the taste of his sweat. Pausing opposite the rentals, he took them in from street level. It was no wonder he’d missed it the first time. From the gate to the first building there was a good fifty metres of hedgerow, then a short stretch of tile-topped white wall, and then the upstairs part of the first cottage. There was a D97e mile marker right next to the house, which appeared from this angle to be only the same height as the wall. The designation D97e was an indication of just how isolated this village was: the road didn’t even have its own designation, but was just a spur off the actual D97, that ran for just a few kilometres, cutting a corner across some farms.
The house, from this angle, really didn’t look like anything much: certainly not like a place that could accommodate four different groups of people. The tiled roof reached so close to the road that – had he been on that side of the road – Chris might have cracked his head on it. There was no guttering: any rain that fell would simply flood off the red tiles onto the tarmac. There were two dormer-style windows in the roof, shuttered against the bright sun. Further down, there was an even lower section of roof, with a low wall next to it, offering a view across the garden to another building. There was a shapely fig tree, surrounded by bushes, and – next to one of the outbuildings – an incongruous palm tree.
He continued down the road, past the blank white face of another house, and towards the square church tower in the miniature village centre. In this deserted village on an empty road, he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. Opposite the church, behind a low wall with a messily overgrown hedgerow, was a house, also shuttered against the sun. But these shutters weren’t white like most of the others. Chris glanced at the sheet of instructions again: he supposed this sun-faded turquoise might pass for green in some people’s eyes, or in different light. There were red geraniums to the left of the gate, overgrowing the post box. He pushed them aside and read the name: Mme Cooper.
He opened the gate and walked into the shady courtyard. It was hard to determine which door to knock upon. Everything was shut up against the midday sun. In the end Chris chose the most likely candidate for a front door and tapped upon it. A dog barked on the other side: a small, yappy one, from the sound of it. Then a woman’s voice shouted the dog down.
‘Quiet, Springer! That’s quite enough of that. I’m coming, bear with me,’ and with that, Chris heard bolts being drawn back, and the door opened, releasing a stale boiled suet kitchen smell. Chris stepped back from it.
Barb Cooper was a large woman in late middle age. She had short grey hair and sharp features. Her face was sunburned, the skin on her nose peeling. She was wearing a generous white tee shirt, with stains down the front of it: various spillages caught by her enormous bosom. Below her waist was a pair of loose slacks. Her dirty feet were bare. A small brown dog scrabbled on the tiled floor behind her.
‘Hello?’ she said.
‘Chris Marsh,’ he said. ‘I’m here for one of the cottages down the road? The flat, actually.’
‘Ah, yes, you’re early,’ said Barb, sounding surprised. ‘Bear with me,’ and with this, she quickly disappeared behind the door, emerging moments later with a jangling set of keys, and wearing a floppy sun hat and flip flops on her feet. ‘Let’s get you in, then,’ she said, stepping through the door and pulling it closed behind her. The dog tried to follow. ‘Not you Springer, stay there. Stay!’ She latched the door.
Chris led the way back to the road, still empty, still baking in the sun. Emerging from the shaded courtyard of Barb’s house was another shock to the system. They crossed the road and walked back the way Chris had just come. The grasshoppers sang. Barb adjusted her hat.
‘So I said you’re early,’ she said. ‘People usually rock up around four. Did you drive all night? Come far? How many in your party? You’re not the one who made the original booking, are you? The flat is very small.’ She sounded concerned.
‘Just me. No, I stayed in Macon last night,’ Chris said. ‘Drove down there from London yesterday.’
In truth, this was not a holiday he could have afforded in normal circumstances. At this peak season, in this particular part of the world, the best he could have hoped for was a pitch on a camp site. But here he was, nevertheless.
‘Macon is hardly on your way, is it?’ she said, with a shrewd look.
‘No, well. The part I missed out was a side trip I took to deliver something.’
‘Oh.’ Barb seemed to lose interest. Chris smiled to himself. It really had been a big diversion, and he’d quickly regretted agreeing to do it. Still, that business was behind him now.
They had reached the driveway and started down it. ‘Yours is the first door, actually,’ said Barb. ‘Flat’s up the stairs. Used to be the back door, but they blocked off the main house and so that’s your entrance. Actually, the house isn’t really blocked off. It’s just a door. Locked. You’ve got a toilet and shower on the first landing, and then the flat is at the top. You’ll probably want to lock the top door when you have a shower, but people usually keep the bottom door unlocked so callers can come up. With your bike, you might want to lock it, or lock the bike. Small kitchen, one room, with a convertible.’ She didn’t say what was convertible, and Chris frowned, thinking about it.
As they reached the bottom of the slope, he noticed that there was now a second car in the parking area. Two women were standing next to it, watching them descend the drive. ‘Looks like we’ve got company,’ said Barb. ‘More early risers, looks like. I’ll see you in and then deal with them. Hello!’ she waved at the women. ‘Barb Cooper. I’ll just sort Chris here out and I’ll be with you if you bear with me.’
They reached the first door and Barb paused to sort her keys. ‘Just one key for you,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a spare of course, if you lose it. Don’t lose it.’ She handed it over, then immediately took it back to unlock the door.
Noticing that there was some space under the stairwell, Chris said, ‘Is it okay to store my bike under there, do you think?’
‘No skin off my nose,’ said Barb, handing him back the key. ‘There’s enough shelter outside for when it rains, though.’
‘It’s not the rain, it’s just that it was quite expensive.’ He felt embarrassed to say it, but it was true. The bike had been a ridiculous indulgence, the kind of purchase that screamed mid-life crisis.
‘Oh, well, under there then. After you.’ She indicated the stairs. Chris climbed up. On the first landing, they paused to look into the bathroom. Barb already seemed to be out of breath.
‘We’re on a septic tank here,’ she said, indicating a red cardboard package on the back of the toilet cistern. ‘Which means you have to put a sachet of this into the toilet once a week. I put one down this morning, so it’ll be next Saturday, if you remember. You’re here two weeks, aren’t you?’
‘That’s the plan,’ he said.
‘Right. Onwards and upwards,’ she said. Your hot water is on a separate system, so you won’t get a blast of cold water if someone runs the tap in the house below. Granny flat they call it, though God knows whose granny could get up these stairs.’ They reached the top landing. Barb was breathing hard as she pushed open another door.
She was right. The flat was small, but Chris had known that when he booked his crossing. There was just one room, with a coffee table and sofa bed (that was what Barb had meant by convertible, he realised), television, and a few bookshelves. There was a shuttered window on one side, the side facing the road, he assumed. There was another window opposite, this one not shuttered, with a glorious view across the countryside. The separate kitchen area was behind a breakfast bar. There was no table, so it looked as if most meals would be eaten at the bar. Barb noticed him looking and said, ‘If you want to sit at a table to eat, there’s a barbecue area out the front. You’re free to use that. There’s a bigger barbecue and a garden set around the other side, for the main house. Just replace any charcoal you use. Now.’ She fiddled with her bunch of keys again, pulling off a flat round thing attached to a key ring.
‘This,’ she said, waving it at him, ‘is what you need to shut off the pool alarm. It’s a safety system. If the pool is disturbed without this being engaged, a siren goes off, loud enough to wake the whole village. There’s a magnetic plate next to the pool, and you put this on it.’ She handed it over. ‘Before you get in the water. There’s a shower, too, which you must please use before getting into the pool. Wash off the suncream. Keep the water clean. Horrible oily coating on the pool, otherwise. Outside shower is cold water, I’m afraid, although the first blast is sometimes warm from what was in the pipes. Anyone staying here can use the pool. Now. The convertible sofa is your bed. Sheets are underneath the seat. You’ve used a convertible before? You sort of pull at it from underneath. Cooker is electric. You won’t need the heating. I put the fridge on this morning. There’s no freezer, but there is an icebox in the fridge. You might get a wifi signal here from the main house – code is on the fridge door. I left you a jar of fig jam there, home made, and some of the sauce I make with my tomatoes.’ She indicated the jars that were sitting on the breakfast bar. There was a bottle of red wine there too. ‘The wine’s… from the Prices,’ added Barb, slowly.
‘Thanks,’ said Chris, a little overwhelmed by the information dump.
‘Now, if there’s nothing more, I’d better see to the ladies downstairs,’ she said, walking towards the stairs, ‘and you can get yourself unpacked.’ She left the room and Chris followed her as she took the stairs, slowly, holding on to the handrail. Outside, once more, the wall of heat was a shock. Chris wondered if he’d ever get used to the abrupt transition. The house had thick walls, and the interior had been relatively cool. For the first time, he now noticed the small patio just outside the door: there was a small round table, four chairs, and a rusty old kettle barbecue. Leaning in the corner was an umbrella emblazoned with the Miko ice-cream brand.
The two women were leaning against their car, a Peugeot 208, sunglasses on, heads tilted back to catch the sun. ‘Fig jam is good with foie gras, if you can bring yourself to eat it. Local speciality,’ said Barb, gesturing at Chris as she walked over to them. ‘Thanks,’ he called after her, heading off at a different angle to the Golf.
The metal surfaces on his car were extremely hot. Reaching up to unlock the bike and hoist it down, he burned the skin of his stomach as his shirt rode up. The carbon frame was also hot enough to burn his hands. Christ. The front of the bike was entirely covered in splattered insects: the forks, the head tube, even the underside of the down tube. His pride dictated that it would need a wash before he could ride it. He wheeled it over to the house, watching Barb and the women walking across the garden towards the second cottage, probably a converted barn, squeezed in between his granny flat and what he assumed had once been the main house. And there was a separate cottage, too, another outbuilding conversion. It was the one he’d noticed from the road, the one with the palm tree next to it. Barb was gesticulating at the taller fig tree.
Chris carried the two lighter bags up to the flat first, then returned for the heavy suitcase. By this time, a third vehicle had arrived, a large black 4×4, and was manoeuvring awkwardly into a parking spot. The two women were unpacking their Peugeot. Chris surreptitiously checked them out. The older of the two looked about 35, though she could have been in her 40s. She had an oval face with black bobbed hair styled with an artless parting. In her sunglasses, she looked somewhat severe, but now and then would smile and her face would transform, like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. She was wearing sandals, khaki shorts and a Breton-style stripy top. The other looked to be about ten years younger than her friend. She had an expensive-looking cascading mess of curly hair, with a few blonde streaks among the black. She had a high forehead and dark brown skin, a pleasant, open face, and was the possessor of a weirdly sinuous body shape. She was impossibly thin in the waist and yet curvy in the backside and boobs. She was wearing a black jersey dress and black tights, neither of which seemed quite appropriate for the thirty-five degree afternoon heat. She looked to Chris like some kind of animated film character, like Elastigirl from The Incredibles.
Returning for the box of food and condiments that was the last item he needed to transport upstairs, he noticed that the younger woman had, in between trips to her own car, removed her black tights and put on a pair of sandals. Chris gave her credit for at least admitting to herself that the tights weren’t right for this climate, but perhaps the women had had the air conditioning in the car set to chill. As he passed her, he gave a quick, friendly smile. Her mouth twitched in response which might have been a smile, or a sneer. Meanwhile, Barb was greeting the third group: a family of four, who were clearly destined for the main house. That just left the lone outbuilding, but nobody had arrived for that one yet.
After unpacking his bags and hanging his clothes in the wardrobe, Chris filled the washing up bowl with water and took it downstairs to wash his bike. He had left the maintenance materials in the Golf. Having fetched them, he propped the bike at the base of the steep stone wall, sprayed it with the cleaning detergent, then rinsed it down with a sponge. While he worked, he watched out of the corner of his eye as the two women finished unloading their car, and the noisy family began to unload theirs. The father was in his fifties, with wispy remains of blonde hair, wearing an open-necked shirt and a pair of unflattering cargo shorts, socks, and sandals. The mother was tall, athletic-looking, and blonde. Chris felt he’d encountered her type before, and his still-active professional instincts stereotyped her in his mind as a highly-strung suburban housewife. The older of the two children was a girl in her mid teens. She had a lot of curly brown hair, and while she was helping to carry things from the car, she was lost in whatever it was she was listening to on her headphones. The boy was seven or eight, and not helping at all, but running around the garden, yelling, while being yelled at in turn to stay away from the pool. Barb stood watching the scene, hands on her hips, for a few minutes, before turning and climbing slowly back up the slope.
The boy left the fenced-off pool area and ran over to where Chris was scrubbing dead insects off his bike.
‘Is that your bike?’
Chris bit back the sarcasm that was his first instinct and instead nodded.
‘Are you cleaning it?’
‘It was covered in insects.’
‘Is it fast? How many gears has it got?’
‘It’s as fast as whoever is riding it,’ he said, not adding that he wasn’t anywhere near fit enough to warrant such a machine. ‘Twenty-two,’ he added.
‘My bike’s got twenty-seven gears,’ said the boy, pointing over at the black Audi he’d arrived in. There were several bicycles on its roof. Chris didn’t need to get into a competition about whose bike was better.
‘Uh huh,’ he said. He stood up. He suddenly felt very much like going for a ride. There was nothing better after a day in the car than to get out on the bike, blow the cobwebs away with a quick blast. He wouldn’t go far. Just loosen up a bit, and get away from the noise of people unpacking. And the boy’s questions, which he didn’t feel like answering.
It was still unspeakably hot, but Chris generally enjoyed riding his bike on a hot day. It was of course more sensible to head out early in the morning, but he wasn’t averse to an afternoon outing in the heat. He walked the now clean bike back into the entrance of his flat, and took the stairs two at a time. After a quick stop in the toilet, he went to the wardrobe and pulled out a pair of bib shorts and a lightweight jersey. He undressed quickly, pulled on the cycling clothes, then went back down the stairs, barefoot, carrying his cycling shoes, a water bottle, and his phone. He twisted his phone onto its holder, and pushed into the shoes, sitting on the bottom step. He then carried the bike outside again, locked the door, pushed the key into the zip pocket of his jersey, and pushed the bike up the slope walking gingerly on his silicone cleat covers. He didn’t look behind him, but felt eyes on his back as he walked. Perhaps the boy, perhaps one or more of the others.
At the top of the slope, he slipped the cleat covers into his back pocket, wheeled the bike across the D97e and climbed aboard before remembering that he needed to be on the right hand side of the road. There was nobody around to see his mistake. He pushed on the pedals and took up the correct position, on the same side as the house. The first of the dormer windows, he realised, was the one to his flat. With just water in the bottle, he only intended a quick spin, just to loosen his legs, generate some wind resistance, and ensure that the bicycle was undamaged. Listening for any untoward noises from the mechanism, he wobbled off towards the village centre.
The bike was a new one, and Chris was still getting used to it. Cycling was the new golf, so they said, and he’d been riding a road bike for a couple of years now. He preferred it to golf: it was (for him, at least) a more solitary activity and there was less chance of getting stuck in a bar with a club bore. In fact, while he had considered joining one of the many cycling clubs in London, he’d discovered that solo cycling suited him best. He ducked out of group rides, and didn’t sign up for any special events. His recent travails had left him with time on his hands and a little spare cash, so he’d invested in a new carbon road frame, and had sat in the bike shop feeling faintly embarrassed as the salesperson took him through the custom build options.
He tested the shifters as he built up speed on the narrow lane through the village. The village seemed to be slightly more awake now. There were one or two people on the square in front of the church tower, who stopped their conversation as he swished by. About a kilometre outside the village, there was a left turn, but it seemed too early to start a loop, so he rode on for a few hundred more metres, where another left turn called to him.
This side road was rougher, peppered with potholes, but the bike absorbed the worst of the bumps. The lane descended a hill towards some woods. The surface smoothed out a little, and Chris lowered himself into a more aerodynamic position. He passed a farm on his right, but by now the wind in his face was making his eyes water, even behind his sunglasses, and he couldn’t see much detail.
At the bottom of the hill was a T-junction. Chris paused, feeling the heat in the air momentarily, then turned to the left. Another T-junction, and another left turn, and now the road began to climb back up another aspect of the hill he’d just descended. He could see the tower of the church in Lusignac ahead of him. His legs began to burn with the effort of climbing, and he clicked into a lower gear.
This was fine. He’d covered just a few kilometres in about 20 minutes of easy pedalling, which was what he’d told himself was sensible. Passing a copse where the road formed a triangle, he headed back up the hill, past another farm, and up to a narrow lane that led back into the village, emerging between the high walls of two houses, one of which turned out to be Barb’s. Chris paused, breathing a little hard, at the junction to look around, then drank some water, and turned to the right, freewheeling back to the gate of the Hermitage. He began to sweat. It felt good.
Walking the bike back down the slope, he noticed that a fourth vehicle had arrived: a Mercedes SL Roadster with Swiss plates. He couldn’t see who’d been driving it. It was time for a shower, so he unlocked his door, hid the bike under the stairs, latched the door behind him, then headed up.
Something Chris had seen as he paused at the junction for a drink finally registered. He checked himself on the stairs to think about it. Looking left, towards the church, he’d noticed a priest – in a long black cassock – wearing a cappello romano hat, the wide-brimmed hat sometimes called a saturno because of its resemblance to a ringed planet – who appeared to be cracking a whip outside the church doors.
The Wake Knot by RF McMinn is available in paperback or for Kindle. Links below: