You pass a château; it belongs to the village at the end of your journey. You come to a church, and turning left, find yourself in front of a bar and shop combined. A woman is standing on the steps, and two children turn about on their bikes. She calls to someone inside as you stop before her to ask for Monsieur Drouet’s house. To your surprise she knows your name. The young man who then appears and grasps your hand turns out to be Monsieur Drouet’s son. It seems he will take you to the cottage. He puts a helmet on and scooters up the road, having indicated that you should follow. The girl and the boy also follow on their bikes, so providing you with a welcoming cavalcade. The procession turns left at a junction, then stops abruptly when the scooter turns in up a driveway on the right, where the two outriders fall away. This cannot be the cottage, for its roof is more intact than you have been led to believe yours will be. After the scooterist has gone inside, a woman past middle-age comes out, and with great friendliness introduces herself as Madame Drouet. You are struck by her voice, which has both the playfulness of a child and the joviality of a not discontentedly ageing mother. She in turn fetches her husband, and it is he who escorts you to your new home.
By a path through an orchard, and past run-down wooden outbuildings, the cottage is not more than thirty metres away, standing in a garden of sheep-munched grass and randomly scattered apple trees. In one corner there is a fenced-off vegetable plot. On the far side, in the fence running along the road, there is a rusting, white-painted gate. Trees line the bank beyond the road. Though a small man, Monsieur Drouet looks physically strong, and is as quiet as he seems powerful, with well-worn, leathery skin and a canny but bashful face. He is very much like one of the old boys with whom you worked on the farm – the village man the world over, the semi-independent paysan.
Half of the storm-damaged thatch is covered with black plastic sheeting held down by strips of wood nailed to the structure of the roof – you notice this, looking up, before you take in the cottage as a whole. Some of the sheeting has torn, and flaps gently in the summer breeze, revealing the gash in the thatch, like a cross-sectional diagram. Monsieur Drouet eyes it with detached concern, and you eye it with detached surprise. The cottage is long and one room thin. The thatch droops low over the white walls and burgundy-coloured wooden beams. There are three doors along the front, one a back door to the right-hand room, the front door to the left, and another still further left, presumably to a shed.
The key won’t turn in the lock. It takes all Monsieur Drouet’s wiry strength to open the front door. As he does so, you puzzle out his dialect to mean that he’ll oil the lock for you.