The moment the last ball had been hit at Wimbledon, all of us upped sticks from SW19 and headed south to France. The family’s grand old private villa had been a wedding present to my female boss, for one of her early marriages. It was nestled on top of a cliff a few kilometres from the Italian border with a magnificent panorama of the Mediterranean and all along the coastline towards Nice.
This was a truly multicultural, blended family which, due to several previous marriages, meant the children spanned in age from 3 to 23 and from Portuguese/German to Italian/Irish with some Swiss, American and British blood thrown in. European football tournaments were tricky times and on entering a room you never knew which language you might be facing. Day to day we settled on an Anglo-German mix. Except during the long summer in France, when we employed a Franco-Italian hybrid to ease communication with the influx of Italian cousins, from just over the border.
My male boss, if ever he fell on hard times, could buy a red suit, fashion himself a beard and easily find work as Father Christmas. Throughout the business pages he was renowned for his ruthlessness, but I only ever saw a jolly, enthusiastic, gourmand of a man. I did believe the business press. In the days when the Internet came through a cable and existed only on laptops in offices or studies, my male boss had a problem opening an attachment. He was starting to get frustrated and I opened my mouth to offer to try to help, his step daughter caught me with a sharp flash of a glance. The flash said NO. I assumed she knew what she was talking about so I closed my mouth and didn’t offer help. Over the next few hours the frustration built to rage. My boss resolved this by demanding his head of IT flew the 1,500 miles from head office to come to him to open the attachment.
My female boss was the essence of demure; she’d been popping out children since her twenties. Calm and confident, she felt no need to throw her weight about. She adored men as much as they adored her and she was always married. She entered marriages with her own money and left marriages with no bad feeling. All her former husbands were frequent visitors, not just to see their shared children, but to have a game of tennis or to stay for dinner.
This particular year we discovered various new things had come to entertain us in the usually comfortably unchanging world of Cap Ferrat.
First of all there was a new tennis coach, who the girls liked and the boys compared unfavourably to the pervious coach. Phillipe had once won something famous and had now gone to live with his daughter in Melbourne. The new coach, Marc, was a sociable chap and after the evening lessons on the courts at the top of the garden he would stop by the kitchen to pass the time of day with me. If I wasn’t too busy with dinner I would join him on the terrace beside the kitchen. In common with most French men he thought talking to a chef was a bit special. They seem to view it as though the pilot of the aircraft came out of the cockpit and walked down the aisle to talk to you, and you alone, about how the flight was for you. He liked to question me on how I was to prepare the ingredients I was serving at that night’s dinner. He’d often nod in approval.
Most socialising with staff or hanging out with the children took place on this little terrace, occupying a rare flat area beside the kitchen and up against the neighbour’s fence. In the heat of the day its shade, provided by a selection of lemon trees and a haphazard arrangement of jasmine plants, was in big demand. In the afternoon teenagers would gather at the simple wooden table and chairs to eat ice lollies, hassle me for beers (from the secret stash) and discuss plans for the evening. All of us would read stories to the younger children on the terrace. That summer the youngest’s favourite character was Bob the Builder. The older children, the Anglophone staff and my bosses would play a friendly game of one up man ship in our dramatic reading of Bob the Builder books. We would outdo each other with sound effects, over the top facial expressions and silly voices for Bob, Wendy, Dizzy, Spud and all the others. When we wanted a more active form of competition we would put on races with the radio controlled cars of the youngest boys. Race tracks would be marked out by the children and the older ones would engineer obstacles out of kitchen knickknacks, and cardboard boxes fished out of the recycling crate. None of us were above sabotaging our rivals and there was absolutely no thought of letting the little ones win. In this gladiatorial arena wins and losses were taken in good grace and only guests ever stormed off with a lost temper. The rest of the house might have been formal with Monets and Matisses on walls, however here on the kitchen terrace, the atmosphere was as relaxed as a campsite birthday party.
This was the summer of Olivier the gardener and Julie the femme de ménage. Olivier, oh where do I start with Olivier? He must have been in his late twenties; he was a natural beauty, physically very fit, bronzed and had no idea what a fabulous example of the human form he was. Olivier reported for his work of organic gardening every Monday, Wednesday and Friday wearing a white t shirt, stone coloured shorts and ankle high walking boots. Often I would come across a female member of the household stopped in their tracks, gazing out of the window, a rapt expression on her face. This was the Olivier effect. The sight of his brown calves as he reached up to prune a wayward laurel bush made Michelangelo’s David look like a lump of cold, dead marble.
To parry this, the boys had their own eye candy in the form of Julie. Julie was a young mum who earned a bit of pin money cleaning villas over the summer. She would breeze up the drive in her clapped out blue Citroen and emerge fully made up, always in a remarkable outfit with perfect hair and nails. Julie had massive breasts which she would squeeze into very skimpy bras and accessorise with see through, frilly, low cut tops. This would be completed with either a tight short skirt or a tiny pair of shorts, which if shorts could ever be called ‘dressy’, would be ‘dressy’. As any structural engineer will tell you, when dealing with a heavy load that’s going to be put under continuous stress, you don’t want to mess about. Julie’s method of bra selection seemed to centre on thinness and shininess of strap, the maximum amount of colour clash between bra and top plus always considerable emphasis on all round flimsiness. Not fit for work was a phrase that had yet to be coined, but truly it is an idea that encapsulates every single wardrobe choice made by Julie. Each morning she started work immediately on entering the house and her dedication to cleaning was unparalleled. I once brought her the kitchen step ladder whilst she was cleaning one of the bathrooms. All the bathrooms had marble baths that could easily moonlight as toddler swimming pools. The other cleaners gave the baths a cursory flick with a cleaning cloth possibly including the favourite French cleaning product, a squirt of industrial alcohol. As I delivered the step ladder I stopped to chat to Julie. What I witnessed was Julie clambering into the bath to scrub, rinse, dry and polish each square centimetre of it. This, needless to say, caused every item of her outfit to strain at the seams.
On the first Monday of August, at 7.35am, I was woken by banging, followed by continued smashing and drilling. This was a surprise, since despite our frequent efforts we could never get French workmen to do any serious work throughout the months of July and August. All major building was forbidden by national law during that time and if extremely lucky you might successfully beg and get the electrician to come over if all the light switches happened to be live. This did happen one summer.
When I came back from getting the croissants and bread for breakfast the banging situation had developed. I found my male boss on the kitchen terrace. He had stationed himself on one of the rickety patio chairs and in full voice he was shouting over the fence at the neighbour’s workmen. He was not the gentle, slightly competitive, man I knew. I was aware of the rumours that said when it came to business or someone having upset him, he was aggressive and ruthless. Someone had upset him. Despite the fact that he could barely order a glass of wine in French, he saw this as no hindrance to telling the workman exactly what he thought of them in their native language.
Next to arrive on the scene was my female boss. Usually a late riser, seeing her before 9am was a bit of a shock. She looked out of place on the terrace dressed as she was in beautiful, soft pink, silk and lace nightclothes. She must have been woken either by the workman or, more likely, by the screaming coming out of her husband’s mouth.
My female boss, realising that arguing with her husband was futile, must have made the decision that at least he could insult them in grammatically correct French. What followed was one of the most entertaining interludes of my professional life. My male boss, with eyes bulging and sweat pouring down his temples would shout an insult in schoolboy French. On the ground below him, his wife was instantaneously translating the abuse into perfectly phrased French. Without looking at her, he would re-shout it over the fence. The phrase that is etched permanently into my memory is ‘one more bang out of you and I’ll come over there and stick that hammer up your arse’. Now I know how to say that in perfect French, I’m looking for an appropriate occasion to use it.