#8: Knee Deep in Gîte
From start to finish the renovations needed to open the B&B took about nine months, there was almost a year of French administrative tomfoolery before that but that is, frankly, still too raw a subject to broach. The team, made up of a local builder, a local architect, a local father and son plumbing/electricity firm and various other local artisans started well, and we were pleased we’d gone with people who all knew and liked each other. By the time it had been finished, exactly 24 hours before our first guest arrived, they were no longer on speaking terms and have vowed never to work with each other again. French builder types are as precious as British comedians apparently, one can only imagine how bitchy their Facebook forums are. But we were very happy. Well, Natalie was very happy, I don’t do ‘very happy’, fleeting contentment is about all I can muster and though I loved the place, I had what the mafia call, ‘a stone in my shoe.’ A niggly doubt, an irritation that, thanks to my ability to nurture these things, would become a full-blown crisis if allowed to grow.
If first world problems aren’t your thing, then stop reading now. The problem I had was with the swimming pool. I was very proud of the website I’d built for the place, especially the photographs, especially the photograph of the pool which made it look shimmering and inviting and classy. But a friend came round and held up the website image in front of the dilapidated reality, ‘how on earth did you manage that?’ He asked. It’s true, I’d done a terrific job. But like those photos of motorway service station breakfasts, it was tasty and inviting and nothing at all like the sad, forlorn reality. Something had to be done. We had already taken a booking for a gîte stay the following August, still some nine months away, and it was for a honeymoon so suddenly the startling responsibility of what we were doing hit me. I’d been holding the pool together for years like Scotty with his engines on the USS Enterprise, but it was already 10 years past its ‘end of use’ date and ’she was gonna blow’ as they say. Several thousand euros later and we got the pool actually looking like the photo I’d taken and my paranoia could rest easy for five minutes. It never really leaves you mind, for the first six months of being open I used to leave a light on in the kitchen of the B&B; one that I could see from our bedroom in the main house and I would get up three or four times during the night just to make sure it was still on and that therefore we hadn’t had a power cut. ‘You’re a fucking lunatic.’ Natalie said, half asleep one night, ‘the whole point with this is that you’ll rest more. Go to sleep!’
So anyway, if I’d been running a book on what would break down first, my own weak spirit and fragile mental state not included, I’d have said the swimming pool or the rural electrics and not the brand new, massively expensive, think over ten grand, fosse toutes eaux, that’s septic tank to you and me. Monsieur Souchet, who fitted the whole thing, is old school. Quick with a ribald quip and a seemingly endless font of mother-in-law jokes he nevertheless inspired confidence. ‘There’s a warning system,’ he said on the day it was finished. ‘If there’s an underground build up, or a blockage, this pipe will rise from the ground.’ He pointed at a grey tube bobbing about just above ground level, its red tip signalling potential danger. ‘The higher it gets,’ he continued, ‘the more serious the problem.’
It was the end of August and we’d been busier than we’d ever bargained for, so the warning tube rising up a few centimetres after another busy weekend was normal we reckoned. By Tuesday it was a metre out of the ground, a solid, rigid warning. Its red tip almost glowing in the evening sun. It looked like an angry dog’s erection and as such, signalled danger.
Souchet arrived and muttered something about it being August and had my mother in law unplugged the pump or something. I think that’s what he said, I was busy directing guests away from the foul stench area as they went out for dinner. I even took a call on my mobile enquiring about availability for the evening, and I went into full blown Basil Fawlty mode.
‘Hello, is that La Pause – Val de Loire, do you have a room free this evening?’
‘Yes, I suppose,’ I said, sighing loudly to try and put them off, ‘but to be honest we have a drainage issue, are you likely to be pooing much?’
Half an hour later I was wearing wellington boots, holding a luminous child’s fishing net and was manually clearing the ‘debris’ blocking our expensive human waste evacuation system. ‘This is blocked too,’ Souchet said, handing me a short, handle shaped connection pipe, ‘stick the hose on it and unblock it.’ You see, the thing about manual labour is that it takes a specific kind of mindset, a logical thought process that quickly determines that if I do A, B will inevitably happen. I don’t have that thought process. I put the hose to one end and got a showering, fetid face full of human ejectamenta for my troubles.
There are times when life just becomes too absurd, too farcical. I don’t pretend to cope with the cruelty of existence at the best of times but when you’re knee deep in tourist digestive output to the extent where you’re even wearing it facially like some kind of rejuvenating skin mask, it’s hard not to feel put upon. A young family walked past on their way to their car, parked out the front, and presumably out for dinner. ‘Bon appetit!’ I said, as if I wasn’t a man standing astride an underground sewage system with poo all over his face, ‘Breakfast at the same time tomorrow?’ They hurried past.
I personally think it’s a testament to my strength of character that I didn’t take the easy option at this point and deliberately drown myself in the tank, remaining forever a blockage to what should have been a foolproof system. A hideous allegory of my own careering imbecility and impotence. That I didn’t says much about the restorative qualities of a bucket of rosé to be honest. I felt deflated though, the B&B was supposed to ease the pain. By staying at home more I would be less stressed, less tired, less angry with the world. The truth is, it’s bloody hard work, my body ached and my mind felt numbed. Maybe, as Peachy Carnehan says in Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King, what I needed was to ‘find solace in battle.’
My phone rang and, showered, I could now pick it up.
‘Hi Ian, I know it’s Tuesday and this is short notice but are you available to perform at a private event in Cannes this Saturday? You’ll be staying at a five star hotel.’
‘Will they want me to clear their drains?’ I asked wearily.
‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that.’
‘Never mind, this Saturday you say?’ I pretended to mull it over. ‘Can I leave now?’
The ‘Monsieur So British…’ blog carries on from my two best-selling books, ‘À la Mod…’ and ‘C’est Modnifique!’ both published by Summersdale and available here. This blog will also appear as a podcast every fortnight. It’s here on itunes if you’d like a listen. they’re only 15 minutes long…
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