The letterbox to our french house is, like most french letterboxes, fixed to the gate or railings facing over the road. On a sunny day, fetching the letters is a pleasant amble across the garden, tiny key in hand, to open it up and retrieve the contents whilst on rainy days the letters sit there the majority of the day until a brave soul risks the raindrops to go and collect them.
Our postman is a miserable man, at odds with the world, and despite many a cheery bonjour and a little bit of chitchat on our part, he remains resolutely a man of grunts – jabbing his finger on his computerized tablet where we should sign for parcels if one arrives as if he’s convinced we are foreigners without a word of french between us, and only miming exaggeratedly will do. Every time I take his stylus to sign, I say, in perfectly reasonable french, ” oh, would you like me to sign just here”, and every time a grunt, a few more jabs of the finger, and the next time, a repetition of the entire process.
I’m thankful though that despite this depressing state of affairs, not all our mail is boring and cheerless. Sometimes newsy letters and postcards come our way which give us the motivation to pick up the key to go and empty it.
A couple of weeks ago a quite extraordinary letter arrived in our letterbox. In the typical french cursive script, an elderly lady had put pen to paper to tell us how she’d discovered quite by chance that some English people had to come to live in this house, and how she wondered if she could pass by and pay a visit during the month of September on the occasion of her sister’s birthday. With the letter she included a photo of our front steps and it was evident that as a young girl she’d had a close connection with the house.Without hesitation we replied that they could come together the following Thursday.
And so it was that at precisely 3 o’clock in the afternoon the doorbell rang, and outside on the pavement stood three elderly ladies holding a bouquet of roses and three jars of homemade jam in a little wicker basket.
It was a lovely sunny day so we sat at the garden table whilst the younger of the three sisters told us how they, and their elder brother had been born and grew up with their parents in the house that they rented until the owner had decided he wanted to move back in himself.The owner in their day was none other than the elderly gentleman from whom we’d bought the house four years ago. The sisters had fifteen years of happy memories to share, and a handful of photographs of them taken over the years in various places in the house and garden. Their father had even stood on the balcony of the house watching the allied planes flying over Rouen in the Second World War and seen the terrible bombardments with his own eyes whilst the rest of the family took refuge in the shelter with their neighbours at the end of the garden.
We gave the three sisters a tour of the house, and at frequent moments they exclaimed in equal measure at how nothing had changed, or how doors or walls had moved position, and shared little anecdotes as they passed from room to room.
Inevitably, as we returned to the garden table for a cup of tea, we hatched up a plan to retake all the photos again, same sister, same location, same pose, and by the end of the afternoon we were in fits of giggles manipulating arms and legs round waists and shoulders, sitting, standing, reclining, and even with the correct tilt of the heads!
At last the final photo of the youngest sister leaning out of her old bedroom window on the top floor,
-“you know the way”, said “husband a la maison”, and she catapulted herself up the two flights of stairs with all the spriteliness of her fifteen year-old self.
Eventually with a sigh the sisters prepared to leave, and as they did so, the youngest sister explained how, at the age of fifteen, so disappointed to be leaving the house she’d grown up in so happily, she had, in a fit of passion decided to take a small part of the house with her as a momento. Running to the washroom in the cellar she’d pinched the enormous metal key from the lock and hidden it in her pocket.
She gave a wistful smile and drew the very same key out of her bag and ceremoniously handed it back to us, happy that four more children were growing up and enjoying the house just as they had,
..and that the spirit of the house was just as before.
Seventy-two years after it was last turned in the lock, the key is back home, bringing with it a wealth of incredible memories.
What an absolutely fabulous story!! Would have loved to have seen the new version of the two girls in the garden, the little one mugging for the camera. Dad watching the bombers in WW2…wow…if houses could talk.
I kicked myself because we took all the new photos on their camera. I didn’t stop to think at the time, although we took the one with exchange of the key. I have their address and an open offer to stop for tea at their house one day. Perhaps they’ll give me some copies of the new photos when I do.
That’s a wonderful story. How often would anyone have a connection to the past completely out of the blue like that? We lived in an old house in Sydney for a very long time, but never really managed to find out very much about the former occupants. I was charmed to read about your experience.
It was a fabulous experience and wonderful to share their memories and envision the house in another time.
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Love this! How very kind and thoughtful of you to recreate some of their photos in the present moment. And that they brought roses and homemade jam. Priceless! Would this happen in any other country?
It was such a moment of hilarity. Before they came I had been thinking of making a very typical English Cream Tea with scones. I didn’t get time, but now I wish I had, we could have tried their jam on the scones and had a thoroughly french english fusion moment- that’ll have to be for another time!
I love your story for a variety of reasons, including the wonderful memories, new attachments and fabulous stories, but also because in our first French house we lost the key to our cellar. It was huge, like yours, and we could not believe for a moment that we could have inadvertently thrown it out, but still went through our bins and combed the house for it. Still missing, I consulted locksmiths and we then visited brocantes and vide-greniers in the hope of finding just the key…no luck. In the end, the wife of the village mayor came to my rescue and came with me firstly to purchase a whole new lock and then to help me install it. What memories!
What memories indeed! We also had another missing key for our conservatory. We searched and searched for the big old key, neighbours cane in with their own spares, but the door from the conservatory to the garden remained resolutely stuck. In the end my husband sawed through the lock bolt. Fast forward a year and idly playing with the front gate and house key ring, he put one of the gate keys into the conservatory lock- and would you guess…it turned just like a knife through butter. We’d never thought to try the keys already accounted for. So now we have the key but no lock bolt since that was cut off in order to open the door. So now instead of being resolutely locked, the door remained resolutely open!
Don’t you just love the idea that it was your village mayor and his wife that resolved your key problem. That definitely makes him worth voting for!
What an incredible story! In all my years in France I have never heard of such an un-French display of neighbours like these!
Funny isn’t it, the french are not normally openly outgoing in this way- I think that our non-frenchness may have allowed them to behave out of the box, and ask for something not normally socially acceptable.it was a heartwarming day for all of us without exception.
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