We have a gardener, Philippe, who comes once a week. He lives in a ruin a little way down the cliff, which he is carefully and sensitively restoring using traditional materials and techniques. Philippe is in his late twenties, single, tall, slender, beautiful, hard-working, ambitious, educated, courtly, gentle, speaks good English and has a ponytail and a plaid leather bracelet on his tawny wrist. Catriona thinks he’s an oracle, as well as beautiful, and goes to him for advice on practical matters of every sort, as if she thinks that if we were all dominos I’d be a double blank and Philippe an ivory-backed double six.
He stepped in for a gin-and-tonic the other day. Catriona’s oldest girlfriend was staying. Also Catriona’s youngest daughter. The three of them received him in the living room. I was upstairs in bed, ill, but could hear everything. Confronted by these three Glaswegian women trying to rein in their vivacity, Philippe was undeviatingly polite and the conversation remained well within the bounds of respectability. So the three women adroitly got him on to their next favourite subject, which is babies. Yes, Philippe adores babies too, we discovered. In fact he’s the marrying kind and he simply can’t wait to have babies of his own. No, alas, he hasn’t found anyone yet.
Detectable beneath the three Glaswegian women’s baby talk, however, was the hilarious conviction that if Philippe ever got them on their own he could do whatever he liked to them, their total ruination not a problem. After he’d left, they waited until his lovely long legs had taken him out of earshot and shrieked for joy. Catriona’s oldest and best friend seriously claimed that she had almost wet her pants.
Three weeks ago Catriona bought a ‘Magic Hose’ to replace the existing sun-hardened plastic one. Turn the tap on and the hose fattens and trebles in length. Catriona is strangely excited by this and turns the tap on and off sometimes just to cheer herself up. If I’m around when she’s playing with the hose, her conversation will include something about Philippe. But there’s no doubt about it, when fully tumescent the hose is a magnificent tool: it doesn’t tangle easily; it penetrates to the bottom of the garden; and the jet is powerful and satisfying, especially to an elderly male user whose prostate isn’t what it was.
So I gladly took on the job of giving the plants a nightly soaking after the spring drought. Pointing the hose at each plant in turn made me notice for the first time what a marvellous variety of exotic plants we’ve inherited from the previous owner. There are tropical palms and giant aloes of a scale and wellness that I’ve only ever seen before in five-star hotel foyers. The house is entirely covered on one side by yellow banksia and on the other by flowering jasmine and honeysuckle. I added secateurs to my repertoire, then potting compost, then experimentally sowed a few packets of bought seeds. One thing led to another, and I’ve changed overnight from a myopic old git to a young keen-eyed apprentice gardener.
But Philippe’s word is still writ. ‘Philippe says he wants to plant a lavender bush there,’ says Catriona as I’m patting compost around an aloe I’ve promoted to a sunnier spot next to the house. ‘And Philippe says it would be a good idea to broaden the sitting-out area by taking out that oleander.’ ‘But me and that oleander are like that,’ I plead, showing crossed fingers. One day I noticed that our beloved herb garden had been cleared out and I mentioned this to Catriona. ‘Philippe is going to put a pond there,’ she said. ‘But first he wants to raise the wall to prevent small children falling in.’ ‘The mosquitos will love that,’ I said. ‘Philippe is going to stock it with mosquito-eating fish.’ ‘Oh? How clever and sensible of him.’
One night Catriona showed me a shortcut up the cliff from the village. It led through a steep, narrow cobbled street of ancient houses, some of them crumbling ruins, silently picturesque in the bright moonlight. She pointed to the front door of one of them. ‘That’s where Philippe lives,’ she said reverently. The house was a romantic’s dream. I said how surprised I was that women weren’t queuing around the block.
Then my stay came to an end and I returned to Devon. Next day Catriona sent me a video taken just after I’d left. She and her best friend and her youngest daughter were partying in the living room. They were holding their drinks and dancing to Paolo Nutini, singing as they danced. The camera appeared to be held by someone who was very tall. The three of them looked extraordinarily happy. ‘Celebrating my departure?’ I texted back. ‘And who is that holding the camera by the way?’