6. Kerfontaine and Albert

During the 1970s and 1980s, Helen and I nearly always took our long teachers’ summer holidays in Spain or Italy. My memories of those Julys and Augusts are of heat, of the beauty of landscapes, of long lunches and late dinners with friends, of meetings and farewells at airports and railways stations, of visits to museums, churches and art galleries where I did my best to pay attention to the culture of previous centuries in temperatures which did not help that attention, of the exquisite pleasure of swimming in lakes, rivers and the warm Mediterranean, of lovely quiet, cool early mornings sitting outside a rented house with coffee while everyone else was still asleep.

In 1990, we bought a house and some land in the Morbihan, in southern Brittany. The place is called Kerfontaine. We have spent all our summers there since, and most of the shorter holidays at New Year and Easter.

Kerfontaine is a granite cottage standing in a hectare and a half of land which slopes down to a stream called the Ruisseau du Saint Sauveur, which later flows into the river Scorff, which reaches the sea at Lorient. The house is about twelve kilometres north of Lorient, in quiet countryside down a straight single-track two-kilometre road which ends at the front gate and becomes a track. It is secluded, but not remote. Cléguer, the nearest village with shops, is five minutes’ drive; Plouay, the nearest small town, with more shops, petrol, bars, restaurants and banks, is ten minutes’ drive.

The upper half of the land around the house has a lawn, a large vegetable garden, a meadow and an orchard. The lower half is a wood, whose trees are principally oak, sweet chestnut and beech. Such a substantial amount of ground requires constant knowledgeable attention. We had no idea when we bought the place who would give it such attention. Certainly not us. Luckily M. Peltier, the previous owner, a skilled gardener who had over a period of 19 years in his retirement created Kerfontaine as we saw it on a bright day in February 1990, but who now was growing too old to keep up with it, had foreseen the problem before we had, and introduced us that summer to an acquaintance of his: Albert Penhouët.

Albert and I were close friends for fourteen years. He worked at Kerfontaine almost every day, whether we were there or not. Over the course of a year, he spent far more time there than we did, and came to regard the place as his domaine. He had been a builder by trade, and in the early 1950s had built his own house, working every weekend and holiday for two years. It stood next to a road which now carried constant heavy traffic, and so Kerfontaine granted him peace, as well as an income to supplement his pension, and a challenge on a scale worthy of his exceptional talent as a gardener (and stone-mason; for example the fontaine of the place’s name was a muddy trickle straight out of the ground when he arrived; now it is a clear pool, a habitat for newts and frogs, surrounded by granite walls with flower beds let into their tops).

An event which I think contributed to M. Peltier’s decision to sell the place was the hurricane of October 1987, which tore through Brittany a couple of hours before it arrived at the south coast of England. It had left many fine mature trees uprooted in the wood. Although M. Peltier had chopped up the trunks for firewood, it was beyond his powers to remove the stumps, which littered the wood in a way which offended his sense of good order. The removal of the stumps was one of Albert’s first priorities. He blew them up, using home-made explosive — castor sugar and fertiliser — which he packed into a deep narrow hole which he had drilled into the trunk, and fuse wire he had obtained from a friend who worked in the dockyard supply store in Lorient. He told me not to tell his wife Rosa that he was doing this, but I knew that she knew. Sometimes I helped him. The method worked perfectly, with even the biggest stumps obligingly splitting into manageable pieces. The only worrying moments were when the explosive failed to go off. It was hard to know how long to wait before we could be certain that the flame in the fuse had already died, and could emerge safely from behind the tree where we had gone to hide. But there were no accidents.

Over a period of several years, Albert then replanted the wood with young trees which he had taken from other woods. Although this was technically stealing, he explained that the donor woods had long been abandoned by their owners, had become jungles where these saplings would never have come to anything, choked by the unmanaged growth around them. They would do much better in their new place. Once planted there, they needed immediately to be protected from the attentions of deer, who came in the early mornings and at evening twilight and would, left to their own devices, destroy every young tree in the place by stripping off the bark all round their thin trunks. So each new tree was protected with wire netting.

Albert was an indefatigable and perfectionist vegetable gardener, immediately impressed by the possibilities offered by a potager the size and proportions of a hockey pitch, surrounded by a neat laurel hedge which protected young plants from the wind. From 1991 onwards, the potager produced vegetables in industrial quantities: French beans, carrots, turnips, beetroot, peas, lettuces, radishes, endives, tomatoes, cabbages, cauliflowers, onions, shallots, cucumbers, courgettes, gherkins (for pickling), leeks, potatoes. Of all these, Albert’s favourites were the two last. He admired the leek in that, once planted in the summer, it would grow and stand all autumn and winter in the ground, in all weathers, in fact preferring a cold winter to a wet, mild one, and could be cut as needed. It posed no storage problems. In late summer, he would cut the tops of his young growing leeks two or three times with a pair of shears, to encourage them to fatten.

Size mattered with Albert, and nowhere more so than with his potatoes. He would plant about 30 rows of potatoes every year at Kerfontaine, in addition to the smaller but still substantial quantity he planted in his own potager at home. Although of an organic turn of mind as a gardener (the fertiliser he put on the potager was either animal manure, wood ash, leaf mould or a mixture of fish meal and seaweed which we bought in sacks locally), he always sprayed his potatoes. Otherwise, he said, blight was certain. When harvest time came in August, the big question was: how big are the potatoes? If he were disappointed by their size, it was in vain that I pointed out to him how sweet was the flavour of the smaller potato; that small potatoes fetched a higher price in the shops than did large ones; that baby vegetables had become all the rage. For him, a small crop was a poor crop. He was never happier than when pulling six or eight large potatoes, each filling the grasp of his hand, from one plant.

For two years, I helped him lift the potatoes, using the tool specially made for that task, which has, attached to the bottom of the wooden haft, a double-ended metal piece. One end is rectangular, to pull away the earth of the raised potato beds from around the plants; the other is triangular, to ease the potatoes from the earth and the roots of the plants, and to raise them to hand height. Once in the hand of the harvester, the potatoes were put either into the wheelbarrow (these were the large potatoes, to be admired), or into one bucket (these the medium-sized potatoes, to be regretted but still consumed by humans), or into another bucket (small potatoes, to be flung disrespectfully into that bucket and destined to feed pigs and chickens). But I accidentally cut into too many potatoes for Albert’s liking. ‘Tu fais trop de frites,’ he said. I should think the number of potatoes where I made frites in the course of the three-day harvest was never more than twenty, and these could of course be eaten immediately, so there was no wastage, but it was too many for Albert. From 1993 onwards, to my relief, I was relegated to the task — pleasant, with regular breaks — of pushing the wheelbarrow full of large potatoes up to the cellar at the back of the house, where two stalls had been made ready to receive them, one for his share and one for ours. We divided all the produce fifty-fifty.

The size of our share of the potato crop, and that of our share of the apple harvest, which was waiting for us when we went to Kerfontaine after Christmas, the apples having been picked by Albert in late September and stacked in the cellar in dozens of boxes, were the most striking examples of the absurd situation we had got ourselves into by having such a productive garden and such an enthusiastic and beloved gardener. Albert had grown up and lived his life sharing the belief, correct for obvious economic reasons once but now declining amongst the young, even in the countryside, that self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables was a great good. Here we were, London apartment dwellers, utter city types, a childless couple, suddenly producing fruit and vegetables almost as if we were market gardeners, carting them back across the English Channel, risking my back carrying sacks and boxes up to our flat (no lift) with its small kitchen, fitted carpet and central heating, and becoming tedious in trying to palm the produce, delicious as it was, off on to any friend who would take it.

In 1995, we halved the problem by putting one side of the potager down to grass, with roses, dahlias and gladioli at the bottom. But the surplus was still excessive, and Albert’s productive desire undiminished. We eventually achieved a solution only by deceiving him; the one time I did such a thing. There is a nation-wide charity in France called Emmaüs, founded by a priest, which does excellent work in helping recovering alcoholics, drug addicts and others who have lost their way to rediscover a purpose in life. They learn craft skills, for example in the repair of furniture. People give unwanted goods of all kinds to the Emmaüs centres. They are sold there at very reasonable prices, having been repaired or reconditioned if necessary. At weekends, the centre a few kilometres from us is crowded with bargain-hunters. One day when I was there, I asked if they accepted food. They did indeed, having about forty people to feed every day.

I tentatively suggested to Albert that we might give a little of his delicious produce to this good cause. Although his political views were republican, in the French sense, emphasising the solidarity and égalité of all citizens, and although his habitual social instincts were generous, he was not keen on becoming a vegetable-growing charity worker. So we fell into the habit, on leaving Kerfontaine at the end of a holiday loaded to the shock-absorbers with fruit and vegetables, of making a short, furtive detour to Emmaüs, there to unload about nine tenths of what he had stacked so carefully into the car, to the great gratitude of the workers on the reception desk. I felt my moral status, as we drove away, to be mixed. Albert never found out, thank God.

He loved to graft trees, as well as plant them. He had regular success with apples, pears and plums. He would transplant a wild tree from a donor wood, and let it establish itself for a couple of years. Then he cut the trunk clean off about a metre from the ground, and made two incisions in the exposed wood with a short sharp knife. Into each incision he introduced a cutting from another tree, whose reputation for producing large and tasty fruit was already established. He surrounded the site of the operation with grafting mastic, easily available from gardening shops in the country. Then he squeezed the trunk tight where the cuttings were in it, bound it with heavy-duty sticky tape, and secured the tape with strong thin string. ‘On va voir,’ he said. ‘Rien n’est sûr.’ But about three quarters of his graftings of these trees worked. He tried exotic variations: two different kinds of apple grafted on to the same trunk, or even an apple and a pear together.

The one tree which he never managed to graft was the sweet chestnut. This tree is ubiquitous in Brittany, and valued as much for its excellent carpentry wood as for its fruit. Albert thought no garden complete without at least one grafted chestnut, and he made careful and repeated efforts to graft them at Kerfontaine, using a special mastic, but always failed. He said it was difficult, délicat. He thought he didn’t have the flair for it. At last he gave up, and I see from my diary that on 3 January 1999 we went and bought tall, already grafted chestnuts from a garden centre. We put them into deep holes, surrounded by good rotted leaf manure and with stout supporting posts, amid much philosophical musing about how they would be there in 200 years’ time, ‘après que nous sommes partis’.

Albert was always happy when he was doing something practical with me, his paysan moquer, which means, half French half Breton, something like ‘educated townie peasant’. When he mowed the lawn, the meadow and the orchard, I emptied the lawn-mower box when it was full and walked the wheelbarrow to and from the grass heap. One summer we built a flight of concrete steps down the side of the wood, to make it easier to descend to the stream. We carried the sacks of cement down to the bank of the stream, and made the concrete on a square of plywood, the stream providing the water and sand. We poured the concrete from buckets into the long descending series of shuttering which Albert had made, starting at the top. One winter he created an entire new hedge up the other side of the wood, using laurel cuttings taken from another hedge by the lane. He had planted the cuttings out for a season. I handed these to him one by one from the wheelbarrow. He stuck them into a trench of leaf-mould and peat which he had set into the top of the bank marking the boundary on that side. I should think there were about 200 of these, and every one took.

It was a ritual with us that when I arrived at the beginning of a holiday, we would walk the whole place, slowly and deliberately, commenting on every feature, and in particular on things that were different since last time: clearings, cuttings, plantings, graftings, growth. He was the genius of the place; his hand was everywhere.

Albert loved the humour of the chance event. One day he went to his usual barber for a haircut. The barber also sold fishing tackle, penknives, waterproof hats and other accessories for the outdoor male. The shop was unexpectedly closed. There was a notice on the door: Fermé à cause de l’ouverture. This was a reference — which the barber had taken it for granted that his customers would understand — to the opening of the fishing season. Albert treasured the phrase.

Early on in our acquaintance with Albert, Helen and I were invited to a wedding one summer Saturday. It had been a magnificent year for onions and shallots. Every day for a week now, Albert had put his harvested brown beauties out to dry in the sunshine once any dew had left the grass, hundreds of them in dozens of flat wooden boxes. I had brought them in at nightfall. On Saturday afternoons in spring and summer, Albert looked after another, much smaller garden. When he left Kerfontaine at 11.45 on this Saturday morning to go for his lunch, he put the boxes out in the sunshine, but strongly advised me to bring them in before going to the wedding, just in case there was a change in the weather while we were away. I forgot about this advice, and when we came out of the house three hours later, dressed in wedding-guest clothes, and I saw the boxes, I looked at the sky, which was an impeccable steely blue with not a cloud to be seen, and listened for the wind, of which there was not a breath, and decided to chance it.

After the ceremony at the mairie, we went to a school hall nearby to drink a vin d’honneur. After the vin d’honneur, we had a twenty-minute drive to the restaurant. Some clouds were crossing the sky, I noticed.

Once you are stuck into a long celebratory meal in France, there is really no way out of it. Course followed course in leisurely style, and proceedings were slowed further, once the wine had begun to have its effect, when people got up to sing songs and tell stories and jokes between courses. The wine must have had its effect on me, because my vanity allowed me to be easily persuaded to sing an English folk-song for the company, which, though I say it myself, stopped the show. There is a charming tradition at weddings in Brittany (and perhaps in other parts of France too) that if a singer has particularly pleased the party, all the members of the other gender, from oldest to youngest, queue up to kiss him or her. Pleasant as it was to be embraced by so many women and girls in such a short space of time, I noticed with concern that the room was growing dark. The lights were turned on. As I sat down, outwardly flushed with my success but inwardly deeply concerned about the well-being of several hundred onions and shallots, there was a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder, and a downpour. The electricity was cut off for about half an hour, and candles were brought out. I thought of driving home, getting the boxes under cover, and returning to the party, but I knew that to leave now, even temporarily, while my profile was so high, would be a regrettable social gaffe.

The rain continued steadily for the rest of the evening. At about two the following morning, I stood on the lawn in my elegant clothes and surveyed the wreckage. A whole season’s efforts come to naught because of my fecklessness. I went to bed racked by guilt.

At daybreak, beautiful weather resumed. Soon after seven I sat down amongst the boxes with a pile of new kitchen cloths, of which fortunately we had a good stock. (I had asked Helen whether I might put her hair-dryer to an unconventional use, but she had refused the request.) By lunchtime I had dried every single onion and shallot with individual care. The sun was beginning to get to work on them again, but the soaking they had taken was too profound to be disguised in the course of a few hours. I knew that Albert and Rosa were likely to come down in the afternoon, not to work, it being Sunday, but because, quite rightly, they often came for a turn on Sunday afternoons, enjoying the place like their own private Fontainebleau.

When they arrived, Albert was initially impressed that I had thought to put the boxes out for the day. But I confessed the truth immediately, deeply apprehensive about how he would receive the news. So far from being angry or scornful, he was seized with a mirth which caused him to laugh uncontrollably for several minutes as he handled a few samples of the abused produce, and which continued to overtake him periodically for the rest of the afternoon and for weeks afterwards. ‘Toi, en smoking, devant la catastrophe!’ he would repeat, mock-heroically. And the image and the phrase became a motif of our relationship, the borrowed English word perfectly representing the difference between us.

The onions and shallots were none the worse for their experience, and lasted until the following Easter.

In August 2003, Albert discovered that he had cancer of the oesophagus. He had never smoked in his life, but in his 40 years as a builder, much of which time was spent working on the reconstruction of Lorient after the war, he must have inhaled a lot of dust, including asbestos dust. Perhaps that caused the cancer. At the end of September, he went into a clinic near Lorient for an operation to remove the cancerous section of his oesophagus. The surgeon pulled up his stomach, that elastic organ, and sewed it to the lower edge of the remaining healthy part of the oesophagus.

I had been with Albert for three months that summer, since we had gone to Kerfontaine at the beginning of July, two weeks after I had taken early retirement from my job at Channel 4. He continued to work at Kerfontaine until two days before the operation. At the end of his last day, having put all his tools away, he said, ‘Maintenant c’est tout propre avant mes congés.’

After the operation, he went to a recuperation hospital, where I visited him for several days in late October. He hoped then to make a full recovery, although he was still very weak. On New Year’s Eve, Helen and I celebrated with him and Rosa at their house. In early March of 2004, he came down to Kerfontaine and planted onions and shallots — the first vegetables of the new season. Soon after that, he went to hospital for a check-up, to be told that there was a cancerous spot on his liver. Later, the cancer spread to his bones.

In the midst of all this, he and Rosa moved house. The house he had built 50 years previously had been compulsorily purchased by the state and would be demolished, to allow for the road outside to be widened to a dual carriageway. He and Rosa found a house on a quiet estate in Plouay, which they bought with their compulsory-purchase money. But he only lived there for four months. Even so, he began to clear part of the front lawn there, which he intended to turn into a vegetable garden.

The last few weeks of Albert’s life were miserable for him and for everyone close to him, particularly Rosa. The increasingly heavy doses of morphine and other pain-reducing drugs made him verbally aggressive and sometimes deranged, though there were also periods of quiet and lucidity. In the end, it became impossible to care for him at home, and he went into hospital about four days before he died. The last words he said to Rosa were, ‘C’est fini pour moi, mais tu dois être courageuse.’

He died on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of course a holiday in the Catholic countries. I remember him coming down one year to dig potatoes on 15 August. I asked him what he was doing working on a holiday. ‘Je ne suis ni croyant ni pratiquant,’ he replied, with emphasis on the two significant words, and carried on digging. Nonetheless, when I went to see him in the funeral parlour on 16 August, a crucifix stood at his head and a string of rosary beads had been entwined in his fingers.

As I looked at him (only the third dead person I’d seen in 53 years), I suddenly and certainly knew that no part of him had gone to another place, and either now existed or would in the future exist in some different but recognisable, transcendent form. That farewell meeting took me in a quarter of an hour to complete atheism, rather than the agnosticism I’d always maintained since emerging from my religious childhood, which had been based on the argument that it’s arrogant to insist that our present state of consciousness is the only one that exists.

The church at Cléguer was full for his funeral on 17 August. The priest, who hadn’t known him, had been properly briefed and spoke well about his qualities: his skill as a builder, his love of gardening, his loyalty to family and friends, the reliability of his word. The priest had to admit that Albert’s journey through life hadn’t brought him by way of the church very often. But, he said with deep sentimentality, ‘In these days just after the feast of the Blessed Virgin, perhaps we can say that Albert, like Our Lady, kept these things in his heart.’ Albert would have snorted, and been gratified at the turnout for his farewell.

Albert was my good, close friend for 14 years, and Kerfontaine has been and always will be associated with him in my mind. I wrote a few lines of poetry in tribute to him, which were engraved on a plaque which stands on the family tomb in Cléguer cemetery, where his ashes are. He could have been buried in the vault; there is room. But he wanted to be cremated. ‘Plus pratique,’ he said.

Rosa gave me admirably clear instructions for the writing of the poem. ‘Six lines maximum,’ she said. ‘There isn’t space for more.’ When we went to the undertaker with the text, she (a female undertaker) counted up the letters and punctuation marks, and worked out on her calculator that, at the standard rate of four euros per letter or punctuation mark, the bill would come to more than a thousand euros, including the cost of the stone. I said I was happy to pay that. ‘Non, non, monsieur,’ she said. ‘C’est trop. Je vous ferai un prix.’ She gave me a 30% discount.

Rosa and I picked up the plaque one Saturday morning in September, took it straight to the cemetery and laid it on the tomb. It was a beautiful bright day, and there was no-one else there.

Albert Penhouët 1931–2004

Ci-gisent les cendres d’un maçon, d’un planteur.
Les pierres comme les arbres poussaient sous ses mains.
Les murs d’après guerre du pays de Lorient
Les feuilles qui, grâce à lui, feront parler le vent
Un amour précieux qui dura cinquante ans
Lui rendent honneur.

I thought how chancy it is to have your words inscribed in stone. Suppose the stone-cutter, in a moment of inattention or perhaps unused to such a non-standard job, made a mistake just before the end? The only ‘mistake’ in this job is one that no-one other than me will notice. I put a hyphen between après and guerre, since the phrase is a compound noun. The stone-cutter left it out. I suppose the omission saved me four euros minus 30%.