The Moulinards had inhabited the old stone hilltop house for centuries, eking out a hard living among the sun-baked boulders. They were peasants. In the winter of 1962 there was one Moulinard left. Henri: old, alcoholic, feeding the furniture into the fire for warmth. A delegation of relations came up the hill to persuade him to go into an old people’s home. When they’d left, old Henri took himself off to a large oak tree and hanged himself from a branch, dangling there for several days before being found. The house passed to a Marseille butcher who sold it on to an English couple who asked us to house-sit last week while they went on holiday to Austria.
We were three: Catriona, me and my 10-year-old grandson, whom I hadn’t seen since Christmas. He had lengthened considerably in seven months, his teeth were falling out, and he was addicted to watching TikTok videos on his secondhand smartphone. Otherwise he was the same good-natured, humorous chap. His catchphrases were ‘pretty decent’ and ‘10 stars’. After skinning his grandad at low-stakes pontoon, he added a new one, which was ‘bollocks’. Chef: ‘How’s your soupe au pistou, Oscar?’ ‘It’s bollocks, Grandad.’ Chef: ‘Je vous en prie, monseigneur.’
Outwardly the stone house and rocky courtyard is little changed since old M. Moulinard’s last bender in the kitchen. The interior is modernized, however, with bathrooms and lavatories, tiling and rugs, old books and English country-house furniture, excellent wifi and sliding screens to keep the insects out. One wonders what the toiling Moulinards would make of it all if they could revisit their home today.
From the house a rocky path winds through a bamboo grove to a swimming pool with a retractable cover operated by the turn of a key. I delegated this task to Oscar, who performed it each morning with a sort of solemn awe as a large square of cobalt blue appeared amid the parched garrigue. All very different, it was, from the crowded, fractious flat above a hairdresser’s in Newton Abbot where he normally lives.
In the stinking heat of the day we alternated between the pool and the shaded poolside hammocks. In the water Oscar perfected triple front flips and Grandad his front crawl. In the hammocks, Grandad studied YouTube videos demonstrating freestyle arm technique and read about the Welsh attack on Mametz Wood and Oscar watched TikTok videos and manipulated his loosest tooth with a forefinger.
The strangeness of the insects flying about our heads had to be seen to be believed. The first sign that a horse-fly had visited your leg was a trickle of blood. There was an old stone fountain where honey bees came to drink. Many were ambushed with shocking violence by a resident gang of Asian hornets. As a pastime, and with great trepidation, Oscar and I netted these dangerous buggers and stamped them to death. Another pastime was laying on mattresses beside the pool after dark to watch great balls of fire arching the western sky. It was the annual Perseid meteor shower at its peak. The larger, slower ones — on my life — were audible.
Lovely it was to live out of doors between the cool dawns and the short dusks wearing only swimming trunks, to play lamplit pontoon on a marble table outside in the evenings, and to fall asleep next to an open window under a single sheet and an electric fan. And in the mornings my sleepy grandson appearing and opening wide to show us another hole in his head. And my then having to explain that alas the tooth fairy had lost all her reward money gambling at cards the night before. After a still-warm croissant and strawberry jam, what a pleasure it was to toddle down through the bamboo grove to turn the key that slid back the pool cover and take a running jump into the cold blue.
Such was the perfection of the ancient house and swimming pool and the wildness of the countryside, and the untenanted geography glimpsed between oak and olive, that it sometimes felt too good to be true, out of reach, undeserved. But I had looked forward to seeing my grandson for several months and felt very glad in spite of that. Apart from missing his cat, Kiley, whose sleeping portrait was his screensaver, Oscar was glad also.
We lost track of time. Every day was another cloudless longest day. On or about the fifth morning, however, after breakfast, my oncologist rang to say that my last blood test results showed that the cancer had returned. Not half an hour later, Oscar’s mum rang to tell him that Kiley had suddenly died. She was only four. ‘Bollocks,’ said Oscar. But a running jump into the deep end of that marvelous swimming pool made us both forget our troubles almost immediately. It was surprising.