During the last years of my father's life he lived in Brittany, in a charming but somewhat run down French farmhouse which he had purchased on impulse two or three years prior, with the intention of doing some renovations and selling it on.
My father's name was Jess but the locals preferred to call him Mad English for a variety of reason which will become clearer later in this article. He was a touch eccentric and had absolutely no skills whatever that might be loosely termed as useful in renovating a farmhouse in Brittany.
Dad saw the advertisement in the Immobiliari's window in Morlaix and was hooked from the moment he saw the place. It consisted of a familiar French layout, a two storey cottage with shutters and an attached longhouse with rooms which could have been used as bedrooms. All the bathrooms were ghastly and the kitchen failed description but he was in love with it and with Brittany and had to have it. My mother had an immediate fit and told him there was no way on earth she was going to allow him to buy it.
The sale completed three months later and we all flew over to France on the ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff to view Dad's latest venture in property development.
The property was huge, thirteen acres of farm pasture divided into four massive fields, some of them full of horses. Nobody could tell us who owned the horses, only that they were not ours. (Well obviously.) A stream ran past the front of the house and a most attractive wood full of bluebells lined the edge of the adjacent field, making a sort of enclave.
The plumbing was unspeakable and the fire smoked like the very devil. Jess was transported into rural delight every time he heard a moo or a baa and got on everyone's nerves and we were all pressed into slavery getting the place cleaned up. We stayed for some days but in the end we all had to leave him to it and return to school, jobs and home back in UK.
Left alone, Jess set about restoring his little kingdom with pleasurable enthusiasm. His routine was fixed in the early days and he seldom changed from it. I have not mentioned that Jess, among other things, was a car enthusiast and owned a rather splendid Rolls Royce, plus two Jaguars which he kept stored in the barn. Each morning Jess would climb into his roller, still wear his pajama trousers and an old woolly cardigan, a denim hat which he used to protect his thin scalp from sunburn, and a walking stick with a duck head for a handle. He wore tennis shoes to complete his ensemble, and off he would go to the Boulangerie to buy his bread for breakfast.
Breakfast was to Jess the most important and delicious meal of all and regarded by him as his kick kick start for the rest of the day. His approach to breakfast was enthusiastic and he enjoyed almost all breakfast foods, with the exception of muesli, which he thought was an aberration, along with the cuckoo clock and in his opinion the Swiss should be shot for inventing both.
The Rolls would rumble along the French country lanes, the sun roof open to the elements, Jess singing selections of Welsh choir music. Occidentally the car would start to kangaroo when Jess tapped his foot on the brake pedal in tempo with the music and he would stop outside the Boulangerie, tooting and waving to the passersby, most of whom smiled and washed back. Jess would return the same route, with his daily supply of bread adding to the collection of old breadcrumbs on the leather seat next him and a French newspaper he could not read because he could not understand French, tucked into the door panel.
The renovations began in earnest when Jess employed a team of local workmen to dig an intense trench to improve the drain of the house and make it possible to run a bath. The house was filled with dust, Jess spent most of his days sweating and arguing with the work and working himself into an asthmatic trauma. Jess's asthma suits were rare but disturbing. Everyone loved him to distraction, since his ability to turn even the simplest task into a major disaster, and nobody wanted to see him struggling for breath due to the worsening of this terrible and disturbing affliction. He carried around with him an inhaler to relieve the worst of the symptoms, usually in his baggy trouser pocket. One memorable evening, when a crony of his had shown up with a new girlfriend in tow, they had retired early (naturally) and left Jess watching satellite television. An hour or two later, when Jess tried to use his inhaler, he found it empty, impatently shook it once or twice, then threw the empty canister into the fire in disgust.
The explosion rocked the cottage and sent half the chimney stack flying onto the patio. The errant husband upstairs came flying downstairs, pulling up his trousers as he went, thinking his wife had discovered his dalliance and showed up to surprise him. Jess looked at him inquiringly and said, 'Explosion? What explosion? '
I received a call from Jess one day not long after this incident. He needed some help, he said. He was unable to look into his address book to find the telephone number of the man next door and could I do it for him, he said. Alarm bells began to ring, why could not he look into his address book and why did he need the number, I asked?
Apparently it had begun that morning when he decided he fancied kippers for breakfast and was disappointed to remember he had forgotten to defrost them. So he hooked the kippers out of the freezer and put them in the kitchen sink which he had filled with water (do not ask me why he did that, it's Jess we are talking about here).
While the kipper was defrosting, he decided to pass the time by creosoting the wall of the barn. He trotted off to the shed and got out a bucket, filled it with creosote and began to stir it. In the process of leaning over the bucket, his spectacles fell off his face into the creosote. He now could not see very well but managed to stagger back to the kitchen, holding the bucket and the creosote with his spectacles in it. He spilled some of the creosote onto the kitchen floor in the process of trying to fish out his spectacles with the barbecue tongs, and then tried to wash the spectacles in the sink, forgetting it was full of kippers.
He wanted to know two things. Could I please ring Jean Paul next door to ask him to take Jess into town for an eye test and new spectacles, and did I know how to get creosote off the barbecue tongs?
The work progressed quickly and soon the farm was looking more like a park. Jess purchased a small tractor with a variety of useful attachment, such as a harvester, a roller, a trailer and a mowing machine. He spent hours each day riding along on his tractor singing, turning his acres into lawn. He planted thousands of daffodil bulbs along the ridge which separated the house from the little stream, and we were rewarded the following spring to see a fawn dancing around on a carpet of gleaming daffodils.
The drain was actually dug, by a local bulldozer driver who my three year old daughter solemnly informed me Grandad had named 'dickhead' and we were all able to have proper toilets and baths and a kitchen that worked properly. Jess had absolutely arrived.
More Jess stories coming shortly …