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  • Published: 21 January 2020
  • ISBN: 9781743484272
  • Imprint: Penguin eBooks
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 352

Riding With Giants

Extract

I

Only One Attempt to Turn Around

Our destination was four kilometres from the village of Hommes, 210 kilometres south-west of Paris, and half a planet away from Sydney, Australia. La Petite Briche is a tiny village in a remote part of rural France, where – for reasons I didn’t understand – my mother had purchased one of only three buildings that made up the micro-town. She was proud to tell me it had once been part of something quite grand, part of a brave social experiment, where a man she described as France’s Henry Ford had attempted to build his agro-utopian dream. That was in the nineteenth century, and it had failed, so by the time she bought it, it was just in time to save it from crumbling. With her partner, Frits, they had worked with a team of local artisans to restore the house to better than its former glory. I am one of four children, and as two of my siblings had visited and not reported very positively, until that time I had never even vaguely considered coming here.

My mother and Frits had come from Australia to help us settle in and were waiting for us. Ever safety conscious, she had made me promise I would arrive during daylight hours, as the roads get icy after dark. That evening’s unspectacular sunset was now about four hours ago.

I was moving to La Briche in an aluminium Land Rover with nine large bags and two cold seven-year old girls. I had left late that morning and stopped too often. We’d stayed the night before with my sister in her holiday house, in a snowcoated village in the Alps. I blame my sister for the slow start; she decided to tell me exactly what she thought of my predicament just as I was saying goodbye. I was, she made it clear, ‘in deep shit’: my life must be pretty bad if I had to move half my children to ‘nowhereville France in the dead of winter’. I rarely agree with my sister, even when I know she is right. I just listened, waved confidently, and then started driving, turning up the radio in the hope different words would fill my head.

En route, I shared with Elsa and Madison everything I had learned from Mum and Frits about our destination. It wasn’t much. I taught them that petite means small, and distinguishes our little house from the area, called La Briche, and the larger Le Ch̑ateau de la Briche in which we wouldn’t be living.

I told them what I knew about the man who built it all, making it sound as romantic as I could. He was a man from the age of steam trains, born in a house with dirt floors. His name was Jean-Franc¸ois Cail, which I mispronounced, calling him Kale, as I hadn’t learned yet that the French use plenty of letters just for their looks, and it was properly pronounced ‘ky’ as in ‘Kyle’, but without the ‘l’.

What few years of schooling he got were enough to put his parents in debt. As was the custom of the time, to pay off the obligations he was sold off as an apprentice. A tireless worker, he completed his training as a boiler-maker, progressed through the ranks up to foreman, and became an inventor, factory owner and international industrialist. He became possibly the richest self-made man in France in his time, living in one of the biggest houses in all of Paris. When he reached the top of society, La Briche was his attempt to extend the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to France’s poor rural communities. Feeling that the girls weren’t much interested in early Industrial Revolution history, or the origins of social mobility, I told them that our house was built 150 years ago, pretty sure that in all their lives they’d never been in a house that old. Few buildings in Australia of that age have survived either the termites’ determination or the developer’s bulldozer. I added enthusiastically that our house had once been a school for the youngest workers. In retrospect, living in a ghost-filled schoolhouse isn’t a selling point for most children. I tried my best to hype Cail’s experiment, but in my rear-view mirror I could see the girls were finding the description of ‘child labourers’ unnerving, and ‘industrial farming’ correspondingly boring.

What the girls did like was that I told them Cail had been a friend of Eiffel’s and his name was printed on the side of the famous tower in Paris (which was true) and that Cail had supplied the steel with which it was built (which turned out not to be true). I’d later learn that Eiffel’s tower was made of iron, and it wasn’t Cail’s. The girls made me promise that we’d visit what was possibly the only place they knew about in France. A father under pressure will agree to anything his daughters ask for, and I made a firm commitment on the spot to plan a trip to la tour as soon as we were settled in.

The girls’ main passion in life was playing with other children, so none of this mattered as much as finding out who lived nearby. The buildings of the former school had been divided between three owners, my mother being the most recent arrival. One house was owned by an intellectual French couple, and the other owners were a family of musicians: orchestral (parents) and electronic (their adult child). When the households weren’t fighting among themselves, each group was doing its bit to reinvent La Petite Briche as a sanctuary for artists and musicians. The girls listened to all of this and only asked a couple of questions which I did my best to answer.

No, sorry, there are no other children, although some of the adults do speak a bit of English.

What also helped was telling the girls that ‘grandmother Janet’ would have a warm meal prepared for our arrival. It was now hours since the first time they’d asked if we could stop for dinner. Their grandmother lives in Perth, and all of Western Australia is significantly hotter and drier than where we were heading. The state is almost five times the size of France and is the least densely populated state on the planet. Why my mother – a former high-school science teacher, Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year, and left-leaning social campaigner – and her new life partner Frits Steenhauer – a retired accountant, steel-bike rider and even further left-leaner – had chosen this isolated part of rural France for their holiday home was a question of the girls that I couldn’t answer.

My map showed La Petite Briche as an H-shaped marking in the middle of some woods, off an unnamed dirt road, almost equidistant from three small villages: Continvoir, Rillé and Hommes. My task that day had been to find this triangular needle among the hayfields, in the dark, after driving the width of the Republic. The autoroute had a top speed of 130 kilometres an hour, my car not much over 100. The French drive on the right, but my car was English and left-hand drive. It did have rudimentary heating, which we had to augment by all wearing our ski jackets and wool hats. It had no GPS device, which I had made up for by getting my brother-in-law to print a few pages off Google Maps.

The sheets had blown around on the passenger seat but appeared to have done their job and I found what I believed was the correct juncture off the D749. I couldn’t be sure as the intersection was completely free of any signposting. I drove down what I hoped was the correct road, a narrow dirt track that headed right and promptly disappeared into a thick forest. Mum’s email had said I must stay on the road for a kilometre and that if I saw the end of a giant old barn, I’d gone too far. At a speed not much more than walking pace, I carefully navigated the smartest route through the ankle-deep potholes.

After a brief section inside the belly of the forest, the canopy of branches opened and we were surrounded by fields, well-lit by the moonlight. The left was mostly obscured by thorn bushes as tall as the car’s roof. To our right, stood a partially harvested and now blackened crop of sunflowers, their heads all drooping down at the same angle. They resembled a vanquished army of thin, sad soldiers that I imagined were frozen in the act of retreating from La Briche.

After a full day of motorway driving the suspense was high and there was silence in the car. As much as a two-tonne Land Rover can creep, we were moving stealthily. As we approached the only house on the road we were suddenly greeted by two large and loud dogs. They were the size of small horses, looked prehistoric, bred to a genetic recipe that had been perfected when they hunted mammoths in these parts. Unkempt, wire-brush scruffy, they each had a set of wraparound teeth that looked like they’d been borrowed from a much larger creature. The hounds were barking apoplectically and hurling themselves against a fence so flimsy it looked temporary. We drove on slowly, the silence inside the car now more awkward than anticipatory, none of us sure of what to make of what we’d just seen.

After the farm house, the road got even worse, the potholes now large enough to swallow not only my shoe but also half my calf. By this stage I was convinced that artists and musicians could never live down a road like this. I’m sure the girls thought nothing good could live down this road at all.

I turned around, drove back to the intersection with the main road, and tried to dial the house on my mobile. Unable to get any coverage, I continued to retreat for a few minutes and pulled over to call again. Still unable to get any mobile coverage I raced another few kilometres, this time dialling while I steered with my knees. I was finally able to get a scratchy connection and, from what little I could decipher, I understood that Frits had kindly volunteered to drive down to the correct intersection off the D749, wait for us and guide us in.

I drove back and found him parked at the same turn-off I had just tried. He waved hello and gestured for us to follow him. I proceeded to accompany Frits up a full kilometre, past the dead sunflowers, the still-barking predators, the hungry potholes and to the gates of La Petite Briche.

As our cars turned in the gate, our lights cut through the surrounding forest, across the winter-cruelled grasses and provided glimpses of a grouping of pale stone buildings for my vehicle’s eager audience of three. Then as the road curved left, our lights swept cinematographically across the buildings until they settled on Mum’s house. La Petite Briche had made its slightlyless-than-grand entrance.

Before arriving, I’d only seen an artist’s impression of our destination. The previous tenants of the schoolhouse, artists Ian Chapman and Vicki Parish, had spent an enjoyable year living in the house when their son Bryn was six years old. Ian’s pencil drawing had clearly been an idealised rendering: like a portrait where the subject has the right bone structure but none of the wrinkles. His drawing was black and white, which certainly matched the monochrome of what we were seeing, except that now the windows of Mum’s house emitted a golden glow. In one, I could see the edges of warm red curtains and guessed that would be the kitchen where I knew she would be hard at work.

My father had been a great man, but around the house he was never a great help. My mother had raised four kids while simultaneously looking after his every need. After a long day of work by his side, she’d often been left to feed (clean up after, wash and so on) countless large groups.

Despite arriving after 9 pm, we were greeted by a threecourse meal of leek soup, stew of rabbit, roast chicken (prepared in case the girls didn’t like lapin), two types of green vegetables and a brown loaf fresh from her bread machine. Within moments of stepping in the door, two bewildered girls – hair tightly smushed to their heads after a day under warm hats and with eyes wide with hope – and their dad – hands still ringing from eleven hours of driving and eyes bloodshot from the same – sat happily, semi-conscious, and began to silently absorb one of Janet’s famous warming feasts.

Frits had participated in dinner’s preparation only as a spectator, and he was therefore the only one of us with a full store of energy. He is rarely short of something to say, always something helpful, even when you wish he wouldn’t be. He started by asking about our drive, how my sister and her family were, and was clearly heading in a direction that was off limits: where was the rest of our family and what were their plans? I share my mother’s deep commitment to avoiding difficult subjects, so I flashed my eyes at her so that she’d change the subject. An expert in the art of keeping that which is not said unsaid, she directed Frits to a conversation line that she knew would keep him going: the house’s renovation and the surrounding villages.

Starting with the story of the table we were at – hardwood rescued from somewhere in the project, legs made by a local steel worker, a design based on something found amongst the rubble when digging out the basement – Frits carefully worked his way through the renovation of the house. Mum added the helpful side comments of who had done the work (‘an incredible young woodworker from Nantes’), whether the thing could hurt us (‘be very careful on the slippery stairs’) or if we could hurt it (‘which means you must switch it off if you go away for the weekend’). If I’d been taking notes, I could have built a safety manual for living here. If I’d been sketching, I would have had almost enough to draw construction plans. But what I think they wanted us to hear was a love story, a relationship between two people and an old house.

When Mum or Frits talked about this place it was impossible to separate the work done from those who did the work and from the context of the work. Through the stories of friends, and the settings of various movies, I imagined European renovations to be torrid affairs, always enthusiastically commenced, pursued out of love, physical attempts to rebuild oneself or a relationship, but never without the project tearing down all those around it before it’s completed. The work here had been done no less passionately, but perhaps more pragmatically. Between the two of them they had a clear vision for the purpose of the project, a focus on the quality of the work, and an appreciation for the integrity in the process.

In the renovation, the cost of a job or a part was always a product of that thing’s function and its quality. Frits was born in the Netherlands, and frugality was just one of the stereotypes of the Dutch that Frits wore effortlessly. Here, he shopped almost exclusively in the brocantes, the local second-hand markets. The colours in his sweaters dated them from at least two decades ago. He could tailor any old part to another use, recycle kitchen tins into useful metal strips, cannibalise one bicycle to rebuild other ones.

His modest collection was kept under the house, and he was already kindly encouraging me towards a time when I could ride them as often as I wanted. Not that he was beyond a little polite competition: he knew that in any triathlon of thrifty purchasing, bicycle repair and road racing, he had me completely outclassed.

Frits had taken over the introduction, and wound us outwards in concentric circles of explanation. Next came his overview of the surrounding buildings of La Petite Briche: who lived here, who visited, their names, all information thrown out quickly, punctuated by his pointing in a direction that was useless for us as it was deep into the night’s dark. There seemed to be the usual type of neighbourly tension in most directions in which he pointed, all of which I offered to stay well away from.

The next ring out was the larger La Briche, its ruined industrial-sized barns, the grand chateau under its own renovation, the pathways that were once the farm’s private network of railway lines, all of which was the vision of the one industrialist. Frits had his own take on the man he also pronounced as Kale. His rail locomotives were the fastest on the continent, but their first use was to supercharge the first wave of consumerism. He won the respect of Napoleon III, and when the self-proclaimed Emperor needed help to defeat the Paris Commune of 1870, the first such populist uprising of its type, Cail turned over his cannon-making factory free of charge to the Emperor. Further away, his patented method for processing sugar was responsible for extending the colonialisation and slave trade of the Caribbean.

I knew enough to be careful accepting all of what Frits offered – a politically distorted lens has a great impact on how we see distant objects. Some things were more objective, like the elevators that I’d take the girls up at the Eiffel Tower; others pure fiction, such as when Jules Verne wrote that the Nautilus was also built by ‘Cail and Co’. As grand as his life became – and it must have been pretty grand as his Parisian residence is now an office building that fits a couple of hundred employees – he never forgot his roots. He chose this part of France to apply the best technology of the time – steam, steel and rail – combined with a vision of allowing the rural poor to participate in the great acceleration of the Industrial Revolution. At a time when more than half of the population was engaged in agriculture, La Ferme de la Briche, ‘The Farm at la Briche’, was the Silicon Valley of Ag.

Where we were sitting, La Petite Briche was his accompanying social experiment, something that we would now call CSR – corporate social responsibility – that was equally ahead of its time. It was a radical program to reform wayward young men through the application of family support, work training and education. If more detail was needed, Frits pointed out that classes were once held in the very room in which we were now eating.

‘What happened to him?’ one of the girls asked.

‘Died,’ Frits answered.

‘Young too,’ added Mum. Neither comment seemed particularly helpful to my goal of softening the girls’ arrival.

In the next ring out, in the mini-universe according to Frits, were the surrounding towns: the three villages of about a hundred people each, one with the school, one with a pharmacy and one with a restaurant. In the middle, somewhere, was a bicycle factory. Dotted through the geography, like human landmarks, were the key people we needed to know. Bubbly Corrine the pharmacist, retired Air France stewardess and French teacher Marie-Franc¸oise, beautiful Aimée the school teacher, and hardworking Colette and brunette Lorent – both to be found from 9 am at the one local restaurant. Mum just rolled her eyes at most of this but did agree about the school teacher.

Frits painted a picture of a tight community, of people who would help each other, and, now, us. It was a story full of history, of colourful characters, of materials of stone and wood, water and earth, of cheese and old bicycles. A world that seemed to have the economic structures left behind by the steam age. For anything else, such as discount retail, to buy anything made from synthetic fabrics, or to fix an iPhone, we’d have to leave this galaxy and go about an hour south to the towns on the Loire river.

I was happy not to have to say anything, but knew I was missing important details. It was the type of introduction where wisdom is dropped by those before you, but you walk over it as you try to keep up with them. Where you know what you’re being given is important, but not what to do with it. There were important names I knew I wouldn’t remember (‘Corrine will solve anything medical that comes up’), information that is essential but you don’t know it yet (‘open six days a week but closed every lunchtime’), and valuable advice that wouldn’t become clear until I’d already learned it myself (‘the lunch menu is exactly the same as dinner, but half the price’).

The geography of the region continued to be given with fingers prodding in the direction of the thick darkness, and the information flowed as quickly as the wine. I accepted another glass of the red (‘cabernet franc is the only wine they are allowed to grow here’), ate the rabbit with thanks (‘it was market day today in Continvoir’), and let the information slip past me.

Nobody from our side of the table was in much of a mood to talk, so we agreed to discuss everything important in the morning. As soon as dinner was inhaled, we said goodnight and I took the girls upstairs to find their room. I was reassured that the house’s heating was on, and warned again about the slippery stairs. I didn’t feel I needed a fourth warning about walking upstairs from my mother, but as we began our ascent I understood her insistence.

Thanks to 150 years of use, the steps now slope down and away from the wall to which they seem only tenuously attached. In the house’s recent renovation someone had thought it a good idea to polish them to ice-rink smooth. Mum made me promise that the girls would always wear rubber-soled slippers when in the house. I had them in our bags and committed to retrieving them first thing in the morning, thinking that, frankly, crampons would be more useful. I could have done with a few additional warmth providers for the girls and a toothbrush or three, but I was sure Madison and Elsa could finger-brush their teeth and sleep in their long underwear that night.

Mum and Frits had arrived from Australia two days earlier to open the house and turn on the heat. Frits’ Dutchness means his definition of ‘the house is warm’ is not the same as mine – and certainly nothing like that of my girls. They’d grown up with an American mother whose version of a warm house has heated floors that give the underside of your feet a tan.

I found their room and, knowing that it was going to be a cold night, pushed the two single beds together, making a queen-sized pad for the girls to snuggle in together. One peed while the other brushed her teeth, then they swapped. They were fading fast, wobbling as I helped them undress, unable to keep their balance. I tucked them in to bed, encouraging them against the cold of the sheets. The long day and large dinner weighed heavily on their eyelids and they quickly fell asleep, passing out like two little drunks.

I left the door ajar, as promised, and got myself warmly dressed for bed in my room across the corridor. I found a toothbrush in an airline amenities kit in the bathroom, the type of thing that sensible travellers take from business-class flights for the benefit of their house guests. Thanks, Mum, I thought. I adjusted the mirror above the basin so I could see my face. I brushed vigorously and for too long, more for the warmth than the dental hygiene. It was a chance for one last meditation on the events of the day. Lost in my thoughts, I stood observing, but not understanding, the man looking back at me.

Without warning, Madison appeared in the doorway behind me.

She was crying, and muttering something in her unique combination of sense and non-sense. Madison is a sleep-talking sleepwalker, and she wasn’t abiding by Janet’s rules on appropriate footwear on the third floor. She continued to talk incoherently, but mostly she was just crying. I carried her back to her room, and decided to stay with her, hunkering down between her and her sister. For reinforcements, I pulled in the support-pillow Madi had brought from Australia. For a few years now she’d been virtually inseparable from a cream and brown soft toy that looked like someone had gently flattened a cow. Despite having udders, and going by the name Cowie, he was absolutely a boy.

One of my tricks to get her to sleep calmly had always been to sing made-up songs to her. We both know it will be tone deaf, melodically inconsistent and repetitive. But she loves them, and I think that part of the point is just how lame they are. While painful to others, they usually elicit a little smile, which seems to calm her. They always start with the same rhyme.

My name is Mad-i, and I love my Dadd-y,

The rest is improvised for the setting.

I’m in France now, and I am sleep-y . . .

Elsa glued herself tightly to my right, Madison lay on top of me, and my thin feet protruded from the bottom of the covers. Madison wet my chest with her tears, and, in her moments of coherence, kept asking why we were here. And why her mummy was not.

I still didn’t have any good answers to give her. I promised, promised, promised, to give her an answer at breakfast the next day. We’d have a ‘Janet omelet’, I added, knowing the promise of melted cheese and eggs would distract her. I didn’t know how to explain why her mother had taken off with her brothers to drive across Europe. Because I didn’t really understand it myself. Or what I had done to cause it. Nor how to explain why her dad had transplanted her and her sister from the warm comforts of a Sydney summer to a frozen French farmhouse in a European January.

Why are we here?

The logistics of turning around and heading back to Australia occupied my sleep-muddled brain. I had quit my job, against all the principles of persistence and responsibility I espoused. I imagined how foolish I would feel returning prematurely, just weeks into my widely publicised ‘year-long sabbatical’. I ran through all the excuses I could use – too cold, too French, bad school, bad food – and decided that any listener would soon reach the conclusion that I’d made a last-minute decision, too quickly and without enough planning.

They would be right, of course.

That first night was an epic battle. Elsa and I were woken countless times by Madison and her muttering. We fought constantly to get the covers right: pawing the down-comforter from one side of the bed to the other, and then throwing it off when one of us woke in a sweat.

We cuddled tight for warmth and security but kept rolling on top of the one next to us. The child at the bottom would shriek in claustrophobic confusion and blame the innocent sister.

Maaaa-di! Or El-sar! they would cry, the words stretched by the Australian accent – a lilt that is at its most pronounced when used in a whiny complaint.

The accused, feeling falsely so and woken once again, would scream her innocence. I’d accept the blame, rearrange the bodies, pillows and covers, and plead that we try to fall asleep again.

Our night was both a physical tussle for comfort and a mental struggle for an answer to Madi’s question. Our three bodies had tossed and turned, wriggled and twisted, interrogating a query that arrived with the accuracy of an angel’s arrow, the force of a child’s innocence. If only a four-word ask could be answered as succinctly.


Riding With Giants Peter Holmes à Court

A story about the nature of work, the science of bicycles and the wisdom of children.

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