by Clare Cavanagh
I was always ‘the baby’. From 15 months to 30-years-old, that’s what they called me. We met James and Annette in 1985 when my parents and aunt and uncle had booked a house in the Dordogne countryside in September. A late summer holiday but the leaves were still green and clinging to branches – just as desperate to hang on to summer as my family were. We had driven down and arrived in the late evening. The view was beautiful, the sun setting across the never-ending fields of golden hay bales, but they could not say the same for the house. The grass had been left to grow so high that I, who had only started to walk, would get lost in it. The inside was worse. Spider webs, dirty surfaces, dust on the floor. The darkness of the dusky evening was drawing closer and Mum began to panic. How would they be able to clean all of this before they put me to bed?
‘Oh, look at that baby!’ A woman with her hair twisted and wrapped up in a loose bun stepped towards them with a tall, heavy-built man behind her. ‘Can I have a cuddle?’ They all smiled, so grateful to have the distraction. They all shook hands and she introduced herself: Annette. ‘And this is my husband, James.’ Her Celtic accent sounded like a smooth melody. They explained the situation and Annette’s shock swept across her face as though she had stepped into the shade. ‘Oh you’re not staying here. Not with this little one.’
“I was always ‘the baby’. From 15 months to 30-years-old, that’s what they called me.”
Annette and James were in the area viewing a house nearby. They had moved to France many years ago (she was Irish and he was English) and they had purchased a number of properties over the years, mainly houses that had been falling apart that they could re-build with the intent of selling them. The problem was that they had become so attached to the properties, it was impossible to let them go.
‘We have a farmhouse a ten-minute drive from here. It’s the end of the season. Why don’t you just stay there tonight and you can make your plans in the morning?’ Annette suggested. The four visitors shared shrugs and agreeing nods. They weren’t in a position to start questioning who these incredibly kind strangers were. James suggested that he would drive Dad and Uncle Dave to the farmhouse to see for themselves and make a decision. Within thirty minutes, they appeared smiling widely as they got out of James’s car and into their own.
‘Wait ’til you see this place,’ said Dad, beaming. They drove us through the main gate to what awaited us all, mouths wide open in astonishment. It was like a castle. The main living area was entered into through the kitchen which was perfectly clean and welcoming. The wide hallway and living room area could be seen through a large cart wheel which had been built into the kitchen wall – a piece of design that had been chosen and completed by James himself, he told us as he put his hand on it proudly. There were five bedrooms, all unique and homey. My parents laughed – they could not believe their luck.
The next morning, James and Annette drove back from their home a few miles away and had breakfast with us. They chatted and laughed and when a few hours passed, they all sat outside on the veranda watching me running around the big garden on well-kept grass beside wild pink flowers. Annette insisted that we stay there for the rest of our holiday at no cost.
Every other year after that, we hired the farmhouse, bringing with us my grandparents and more aunts, uncles and cousins. We put on plays in the living room, chased each other with the garden hose, set up tents, watched sunsets together from the big window, and went looking for glow worms in the evening along dark paths with our excited faces lit up. We grew up and not everyone continued to join but the memories remained forever.
When I turned 30, I decided that the time had come – after years of procrastination, finally I was going to write. James and Annette heard about it and invited me to stay at the farmhouse for as long as I wanted. I took a flight, two trains and a taxi to reach the gate I had known from my childhood. The kindness of strangers is not just a fleeting leaf in late summer. It is a flower that will continue to bloom, always.
As I pushed the gate open, I could see shadows of them both through the glass of the kitchen window, her white hair piled up in a bun.
‘Annette, look! The baby’s here!’
Clare Cavanagh | @clarecavanagh1
Clare is a writer living in Edinburgh. She is currently writing her first book, a memoir entitled My Words Will Find Me, which won her a place at the WriteNow 2016 event (run by Penguin Random House), and also a place at XPONorth 2017 Pitch To Publishers event in June. She read one of her short stories at the That’s What She Said event (run by For Books’ Sake) in the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Clare is delighted to be a member of the Write Like A Grrrl community.
Photos (c) Clare J Cavanagh