“That was fun,” smiled Martha, climbing into the passenger seat of the bright red BMW X4.
“Wasn’t it just,” agreed driver Lottie, starting the engine. “Not keen on the French carols, though.”
Martha shot her an astonished glance. “But, apart from ‘Nouvel Né’, which is absolutely lovely with that haunting tune, the only other carols we sang in French were ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’. And they’re just France’s versions of traditional British carols.”
“But that’s what I mean,” explained Lottie, reversing rapidly out of her tight slot, without looking, which made Martha cringe. “They’re simply not the same in a foreign language.”
“We can hardly expect the French contingent of our Worldwide Friendship Club to make all the concessions, now can we,” said Martha reasonably.
‘Worldwide Friendship Club’ was a bit of a misnomer. The vast majority of members were either British or French, with just a handful of other Europeans and one South African. But Martha supposed it didn’t hurt to be ambitious.
“As it is,” Martha continued, “six of the nine carols we’re singing are English.”
Lottie gave one of her characteristic snorts in response to Martha’s reasonable remark. Snorts were her vocal version of the French shrug in that they came with a practical endless variety of meanings. This latest one clearly implied ‘that’s six too many’.
Martha knew it was pointless trying to argue further when Lottie was being so very Lottie, so she sat back in her luxuriously soft seat and reflected on the last hour and a half. The Worldwide Friendship Club, under the capable if relentless leadership of chairperson Belinda Parsons, was organising a carol service in Boussiex for Friday in the modest but beautiful St Claire’s church. The Club had decided that a couple of rehearsals – today and Thursday – would be a good idea so that at least some of the French attendees at the service would be familiar with the English carols, and vice versa. Lottie had joined the WFC back in March, and had badgered Martha into doing likewise until she finally relented a week ago.
Martha wasn’t really a club sort of person, but Lottie seemed to enjoy herself at WFC functions so that was a good recommendation. However, Martha’s main motivation was mercenary. She was about to submit her demand for French nationality, given all the unnecessary uncertainty and mess that Brexit was creating, and membership of a society or two would look good on her application. For the same reason she’d also signed up to a handicrafts club in a nearby village and had started turning up to listen in at municipal council meetings. She had initially felt very guilty about doing so for such selfish reasons, but she had since soothed her conscience by assuring herself that her membership fees were doing the organisations involved good, and her mayor and councillors had been delighted to actually have an audience for once. Plus she was benefitting. She’d met some lovely people in the two associations, and was picking up a lot of fascinating village gossip from the council meetings.
She was roused from her musings by Lottie’s sudden outburst of, “But I really don’t see why we need to have a Scottish piper at the carol service.”
“I think it’ll be rather fun,” countered Martha.
“There’s nothing Christmassy about bagpipes,” snapped Lottie. “It’ll ruin the atmosphere.”
“But he’s only going to be playing outside, near the Christmas tree in the square, until the service starts,” Martha reminded Lottie of the arrangements. “And I dare say he’ll play carols.”
“He’s not even a member of the WFC,” protested Lottie. “And I thought the Scots were more about New Year anyway.”
Martha was of the opinion that people of any nation were surely allowed to indulge in more than one festive celebration, but she chose not to voice it for the time being.
“And they have that haggis festival in January as well,” Lottie ploughed on.
“You mean Burns Night,” Martha corrected her mildly.
“That’s the one, with that poem about mice and men and plans going googly, or whatever.”
“You’re muddling up ‘Address to a Haggis’ with ‘To a Mouse’. And it’s ‘schemes o’ Mice an’ men
gang aft agley’, not plans going googly,” Martha persisted patiently.
Lottie, of course, snorted. “Both versions are daft. And what sort of person writes poems about meat and vermin anyway?”
“You’re very knowledgeable about Scotland all of a sudden.” Lottie shot her an annoyed sideways glance.
“My grandmother was Scottish,” Martha informed her.
“Huh. So that’s why you like the bagpipes so much,” concluded Lottie. “Mind you, the French members didn’t seem that impressed. They seemed to be saying something quite rude about them. Sounded a bit like ‘unicorn mucus’.”
Martha sighed and wondered, as she frequently did, how her friend could have lived in France for so long but picked up so little of its vocabulary.
“They were saying ‘cornemuse’. That’s French for bagpipes.”
“That’s a silly name,” declared Lottie. “In English it says exactly what the thing is – a bag with some pipes stuck into it. It ought to be ‘sac… sac’ something in French.”
“It is. A ‘musette’ is a type of bag, and ‘corne’ is a musical horn, amongst other things.”
Lottie muttered something about know-it-alls. Martha smiled to herself.
“You’re on the committee,” Martha reminded her friend after a few moments. “Couldn’t you have voted against the idea?”
“I can never make it to the committee meetings. They’re on Saturdays,” explained Lottie, “so I can’t go because of work.”
Martha frowned. “But I thought you didn’t work on Saturdays.”
“Of course I don’t!” Lottie sounded appalled at the very idea. “But I’ve been slaving away from Monday to Friday so I’m not going to give up my precious weekend for silly meetings.”
There wasn’t an answer to that, only questions such as “Well, why did you put yourself up for the committee in the first place?” and “So why don’t you resign your position and let someone who can spare an hour or two one Saturday a month take your place?” Martha, however, knew better than to give voice to those. She made do with rolling her eyes and pulled the conversation back from such dangerous territory.
“You’re not the only anti-bagpiper, by the looks of things,” she mused. “Did you see old Matisse’s face when Belinda made her announcement about the Christmas bagpipes? A perfect balance of shock, horror and fury!” She chuckled at the memory.
Lottie laughed out loud. “He always looks like that! He strikes me as a sour, mean-spirited old git, but I may be warming to him a little now that we have a shared hatred of Scottish musical instruments.”
Lottie swerved to avoid a hedgehog that had suddenly launched itself at full trot into their path, meaning they rounded a blind bend on the wrong side of the road, but fortunately the road was deserted, other than themselves.
“Actually, the bagpipes might not be the worst thing about the carol service,” she confided, once she was driving on the correct side again.
“Oh come on, our singing wasn’t that bad!” protested Martha with a forced laugh, which she hoped would cover the sound of her heart thudding.
“I don’t mean our singing. That was really rather good, apart from Horace, the growler. And as you obviously heard, Matisse has an amazing voice. I do love a nice, deep bass. No, what I mean is that Belinda told me earlier that that she’s just booked a Spanish couple to do a flamenco dance the service. Really lovely young people, apparently, only been here a month or so and want to get involved in community things. But seriously, flamenco dancing? In a church?” Lottie couldn’t summon up a snort that could convey precisely how appalled she was, so she made do with dramatic and dismissive hand gestures, making the car swerve and Martha’s heartbeat temporarily soar again.
Belinda had made the decision unilaterally, something she did rather a lot, and something which other members of the WFC grumbled about when their chairperson wasn’t around. But Belinda was in charge, and had been for four years now, and frankly no one else wanted to take on the significant workload that went with the post. So they left her to rule the roost. Belinda’s husband, Horace, had held the equally unpopular position of treasurer for the same length of time.
“I love flamenco.” Martha actually wasn’t a particular fan but she couldn’t resist winding Lottie up, just a little bit. “It’s associated with religious festivals and rituals, so I dare say there’s a Christmassy version of it. And did you know that UNESCO recognises it as a cultural heritage?”
“Well, I do now,” snipped Lottie. “I suppose you’re also going to tell me that Dutch clog dancing is a UNESCO wotsit too so we should ask dour old Gerrit to do a number between ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. And while we’re at it, why don’t me and you do a quick Morris dance before the final blessing?”
Martha knew she should but she couldn’t stop herself from laughing. Lottie in full-on grump mode could be very funny.
“Bagsy be the one with the hobby horse,” she chuckled.
Lottie’s annoyed expression resisted for a moment then morphed into a smile. “No way, I’m having that. You can make do with bells on your knees and hankies to wave.”
“I’d rather have sticks than hankies,” said Martha.
“Tough,” riposted Lottie. “You could do too much damage in the church with them. You might behead one of the crumbly old statues or take out a stained glass window! It’s hankies or nothing.”
“Big hankies then,” bartered Martha.
Both women laughed.
“You know, I think I might actually suggest a Morris dancing session as an activity for next year,” said Lottie.
“It would be fun,” acknowledged Martha, “but it would confirm the French in their view that the English are crazy.”
“They already know we are,” smiled Lottie.
“Excuse me,” riposted Martha. “Philippe doesn’t think I’m crazy.”
Philippe, a senior officer in the local gendarmerie, was her French beau. A family friend for years, he’d always carried a candle for Martha but it was only recently, more than three years after she’d been widowed, that he’d plucked up the courage to act on his feelings. A series of brutal murders that had appeared to centre around Martha had brought the two firmly together in the summer.
“Of course he does,” teased Lottie, “but he still loves you. How’s he getting on in Norway? I still can’t believe you didn’t go on that ski-ing holiday with him.”
“Well, you should because I’ve given you my reasons enough times. One, he booked the holiday with a group of friends, all male, a year ago. Two, it’s cross-country ski-ing, which is a well-known form of torture. The appeal of ski-ing downhill is obvious, but ski-ing on the flat has nothing going for it whatsover. Three, my leg isn’t up to any sort of ski-ing at all.” She’d been hit and injured by a car driven by the man behind the summer’s murders.
“You didn’t have to ski,” Lottie ploughed on. “Just gone for gentle strolls in the snow and sipped hot chocolate by the glowing fireside of your log cabin.”
“Yes, I know I could. Philippe tried to persuade me to come along, which was sweet of him, but I didn’t want to intrude into a guys-only thing. He’d have felt obliged to spend time with me when he’d have much rather been snow-yomping with his mates, and I’d have ended up feeling guilty.”
“I wonder what this ‘feeling guilty’ thing is like,” remarked Lottie with a smile, but she was only half joking. It was a sentiment that featured only rarely on her emotional compass.
They turned into the drive that led down to Martha’s farm.
“Thanks for the lift, Lottie. I hope to get the Renault back before the Thursday rehearsal so I can get there under my own steam.” Martha’s ancient but usually ever-reliable car had decided not to start that morning. The garage had collected it for, allegedly, urgently dealing with, but Martha had had no further news of it since watching it disappear on the back of the breakdown truck. She knew better than to waste time and phone calls on chasing it up too soon. It would be ready when it was ready.
“Not a problem. Just shout if you’re still without wheels on Thursday.”
They pulled up outside the house, sending two of the half dozen farm cats skittering into the shadows, away from the rude and intrusive flood of brightness from the headlights.
“I won’t come in,” said Lottie, as Martha opened her mouth to invite her in for hot chocolate. “Got a bit of paperwork to finish up before tomorrow’s mammoth acte de vente.”
Lottie was never normally one to use a French word or term when there was an alternative in her mother tongue. However, there was no direct UK equivalent to the acte de vente, which was the final stage of the cumbersome but watertight house-selling process in France. All the parties concerned met at the Notaire’s office, where the lengthy contract was read through, word by word, and everyone got up in turn and initialled every page of the document. Even a straightforward one could go on for hours. But of course, things were rarely straightforward in France.
“How mammoth exactly?” probed Martha.
“Think herd of mammoths. No, more than that. Massive herd of humungous mammoths,” sighed Lottie.
“How come?” asked Martha.
“For a start, there are six vendors. Old Papa Champolivier was a widower so the property passed to his four sons and two daughters. They’d hardly spoken to each other for years, so naturally the bickering continued for a few more until they eventually agreed on selling price, solicitor and salesperson. Moi, obviously.” She flashed a proud smile. “One or other of them has rejected all the previous decent offers I got for them on the place, but I think finally common sense but most likely greed prevailed and they all accepted this latest one straight away. I hoped at least some of them might grant power of attorney to the notaire to sign the contract on their behalf, but no, they all wanted to come along in person. So, with me and the notaire, that brings tomorrow’s attendance up to eight.”
“Ah, but that’s not all. Whilst all the bickering about selling was going on, the place was let out to a pair of brothers for farming. So they’ll be there too, tomorrow, and their wives, to relinquish their rental rights.”
Martha nodded again. The same thing had happened when she and Mark had bought their farm, only in their case it was just the confirmed bachelor Monseiur Josset.
“And now enter the buyers. Four of them as well in the shape of two sets of Monsieur and Madame Dupont.”
“The men are brothers?” hazarded Martha.
“Correct. And, what’s more,” Lottie went on with a twinkle in her eye, “their wives are sisters.”
“Goodness!” gasped Martha. “That’s unusual, surely.”
“But what’s even more, the brothers and the sisters are both sets of identical twins.” Lottie beamed triumphantly at the bizarreness of her news. “You couldn’t make it up, could you!”
“Nope,” agreed Martha, impressed. “That’s definitely material for a gossip magazine.”
“So that’s sixteen of us all crammed into Maître Cognac’s stuffy office, and having to take turns to sign every page of the contract. Given how doddery half of them are likely to be, it’ll take ages. They’ll be diddling around with spectacles, having to take a rest halfway between their seat and the desk, then dropping the pen, then needing the loo between pages three and four and again between eleven and twelve… aargh! That’s why I need to get on with the paperwork I won’t have time to do tomorrow. Half the day will be spent at the office.” She groaned.
“Yes, but think of your fee,” Martha consoled her.
“True.” Lottie brightened. “I got a good price for the property. A very good one.”
Lottie always did. She really knew how to turn on the charm with the buyers and put the fear of God into the vendors so pretty much dictated terms to her own advantage.
“Well, I hope it goes as swiftly as possible for you tomorrow,” smiled Martha, patting Lottie’s arm and then, reluctantly, opening the door of the luxuriously warm car to brave the freezing elements outside. Her house would be warm enough, since she’d stoked up the fire before leaving it this evening, but there was a cold trudge and a chilly hallway to brave before she got there. “See you Thursday.”
“Ciao.” Lottie blew her a kiss, then did a high-speed three-point turn, showering the waving Martha with gravel and hoar frost, before flooring it back up the drive.