Post image for Grand-père’s garden

Grand-père’s garden

March 17, 2011

During the 1930s and 1940s, my grand-parents were living in a big rambling house in Boyardville, on the island of Oléron. This is where I was born and where I spent many holidays after the war years. I even spent a whole year there while doctors and surgeons were trying to put my parents right after the onslaught of the war.

At first, there was no electricity and water had to be lifted out of the well situated five steep steps down in the garden. The only tap in the house was at the bottom of a little ornate enamel cistern, no bigger than a watering can. The cistern was fixed on a vertical wooden board fastened to a wall in the kitchen, hanging over a matching little tray that collected the used water. Grand-mère used to fill the container with well water and I could wash my hands, being careful not to be seen to waste a drop. I loved letting the water trickle all the way down my arms. I used to squeeze the cube of carbolic soap so hard that it jumped out of my hands and went flying in all directions. Grand-mère turned a blind eye because, in the end, I had the cleanest hands in the house.



Grand-père loved gardening. He’d taken over almost the entire garden, with the exception of one big oval area near the house, near by the well, which was the part reserved for Grand-mère’s flowers. The ground was very sandy and no one on the island grew a lawn of any type. Sandy paths ran the full length of the large rectangular plot between very neat raised vegetable beds lovingly tilled with good quality well manured top soil. In the long growing season, watering the plants was a twice-a-day chore, no hose pipe then, watering cans had to be lowered in the well time and time again.

The garden was entirely walled in except for a wooden gate leading to the driveway. We were warned of visitors by a loud bell on a spring rigged up on the gate itself.  Right at the end of the garden, grew an enormous fig tree laden with fruit in the summer. My brothers and I would climb up the tree and gorge ourselves till our stomachs couldn’t cope anymore. Sometimes, we took our children’s magazines there and read in the shade, often falling asleep on a precarious platform we’d rigged up on the  lowest branches when it was too hot to do anything else.

Halfway down the garden, at the end of a well trodden path, was the one and only privy, a little windowless brick building with a tiled roof. It was built over a cess pit and consisted of two little rooms back to back with a wooden floor and a large fixed wooden box in each. In either room, you had the choice of three holes where to sit, each hole a slightly different size to suit the user and with a wooden lid. I was always terrified at the thought of dropping the lid down below! In fact, the whole contraption terrified us as it felt that one day one of us with small bottoms would disappear down there, never to return. The smells, the flies, the spiders, the cold draft from down below………….we had to steel ourselves to go and we always used to do so “en famille” for reassurance.

The supply of paper used to hang on a string by the door, newspaper squares meticulously cut, which Grand-père always read before using, just in case he’d missed a bit of news. It was quite light in there because, although the doors were made of oak, the fierce sunshine had dried great big gaps between the slats. Hardly worth locking yourself in, anyone could reach the metal hook latch inside by sliding their hand though those gaps. We always tried to use the toilet in daylight, going at night meant carrying a candle in a jar. Fortunately, we had an enamel toilet bucket with a lid in all the bedrooms for night use. Every morning, we had to do the slops, a very noisy and quarrelsome affair.

Apart from growing cherries, pears, peaches, apricots, apples and soft fruit, Grand-père grew all sorts of wonderful vegetables. Right next to the privy was the thriving asparagus bed and next to that, enormous artichoke plants. Then there were peas, beans, carrots, herbs, leeks, cabbages, tomatoes, lettuces…………..through the year, and more than enough for our needs.

However, the big bugbear was, and still is, that the island was riddled with termites! Termites rarely munch on live plants, they prefer dead wood, especially if a little damp. Grand-mère used to push old broom handles or sticks into her flower bed (carnations were her passion) and every morning, she would pull them up and shake them into a bucket. Dozens of squirming ghostly termites fell in and much expurgated cursing would be heard. For some reason, if she forgot the precaution, the next morning, the entire bed of carnations could well have keeled over. She had her own private war against the dastardly insects and kept a vigilant eye on any sign of their activity.

Grand-père was not just a keen gardener, he also loved shooting and catching eels with his cousins at the week-end. He subscribed to the “Chasseur Français” magazine. Grand-mère used to get impatient with him reading it for hours on end. Eventually, he took to reading it in the little house in the garden which he regarded as a sacred place for privacy. One day, he disappeared down the garden path, armed with his newly delivered magazine, Grand-mère raining warnings on him that lunch time was near (he was always very punctual for his twelve o’clock lunch).

Grandmère and Grandpère

Grandmère and Grandpère

That day, 12h00 went by, then 12h15, Grand-mère was furious…another occasion for expurgated cursing. She finally resolved to go and draw him out of the dreadful place. As she approached the privy, puffs of sandy dust rising under her impatient feet, she could hear a muffled sort of cry for help coming from that direction. She quickened her step, her fury fast turning to wonder. She pushed her hand through to reach the latch in the door and was met with an awesome sight she would never forget. The termites had got the better of Grand-père, they’d chomped enough of the wooden supports to allow the floor and box of the privy to collapse into the cess pit. Grand-mère being a diminutive lady could not manage to help him out of his predicament and she had to summon the neighbours who roped him out of there. Countless buckets of water, scrubbing brush, carbolic soap, cursing of the non-expurgated kind……

After that, poor Grand-père was the butt of many jokes for a long time but he could laugh at himself too and I dare say that his popularity in the village gained by it. Soon after this episode, mains water, electricity and mains drainage came to the village, and the little house in the garden was turned into a shed. Grand-père installed light and brought an old armchair to his sacred place so that he could take refuge from the demands of house duties….and to enable him to read his magazine in peace.

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