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Meet Madame Morere

by Jane Shortall

 

On the first floor of our house in the medieval village of St Lizier, a tiny village in the Ariege which is in a remote and little known part of France, the two rooms facing on to the street had floor to ceiling windows, heavy wooden shutters and small wrought iron balconies. Apart from the views of the Pyrenees, announcing that the Spanish border was not far away, to me the little house was like a small Paris apartment. From the street it looked modest, as lots of French houses do. Indeed one of our earliest visitors, a very rich Irish person from a now very rich Ireland put it bluntly "it looks poor".

But then another visitor, a woman with lots of imagination, adored the house and thoughtfully said, "Well, well, who ever knows what splendours lie behind these old French front doors?"

As well as having beautiful windows, both rooms on our first floor had typical sleek French panelled doors. One room had a fabulous big black and white veined marble fireplace. This became a superbly elegant dining room with the walls and window frame painted entirely in white, a massive mirror hung over the mantelpiece and a splendid, multicoloured centre ceiling light fitting. One of those typically French fussy pieces; a large ornate thing that works so well and looks correct in French houses, but would look ridiculous, over the top and out of place anywhere else. Our table and chairs from Ireland fitted in superbly, being made from dark, rich oak wood.

All the room needed now was a curtain for the long, elegant, Paris style window. But not just any curtain. Not for this window. We were after all living in a Plus Beau village and the room looked out onto the street. I had in my mind a vision; I knew exactly how I wanted the finished room to look. I could see masses of translucent, creamy white flowing fabric hanging from a black pole, its folds just touching the floor. And for daytime being hooked gracefully back to one side, with the folds creating that look, graceful, stylish; my very own little bit of Parisian chic.

But I am useless, totally and utterly hopeless, at this kind of thing. I never finished the wretched sock we were supposed to have knitted in junior school back in the dark ages. I loathed the stupid things we tried to make at those boring classes during early teens. I wanted this curtain to be exactly right, not some makeshift, sad little job of mine. I hadn‘t a clue where to begin.

So, ready to murder the French language yet again — nobody here speaks any English — I crossed the little street, went up some flower bedecked steps and rang a highly polished brass bell. Taking a big, big breath, I enlisted the help of Madame Morere, a lady who knows every single thing there is to know about the organisation, running and decoration of residences, whether apartments or houses, city or country.

She lives in Paris for most of the year and comes to her house in the village every few months. An expert on French chic, she understood exactly what I had in mind, curtain wise, for my little house. She came over and looked at the room, said yes, yes, but of course, that was just what was needed. Together we would see to it, and quickly. There seemed to be no problem. It appeared it could all be arranged and the curtain would be up in a trice. She knew the very place to go — we would go soon and arrange everything.

In double quick time I found myself sitting in Madame’s large comfortable car being briskly driven north to the town of St Goudens to her favourite fabric shop. She had taken the measurements of the window herself, using her very special old wooden ruler and written everything down in her notebook.

I quickly got the hang of things and was soon turning over massive bales of fabrics, thinking, and more importantly, talking Parisian drapes. I found exactly what I had in mind, white gauzy, delicate fabric with a shimmering silver panel about a foot from the floor. Madame agreed it was a splendid choice and she confidently ordered the amount needed, assuring me that yes, there would be plenty of folds.

I paid for the stuff and then, obviously losing the plot somewhat, I left the material on the counter and asked the sales lady approximately how long it would be before my wonderful white and silver curtain would be ready. Madame Morere looked at me as if I had taken complete leave of my senses and, using extremely rapid French, I got the gist of it as she told the sales lady that naturally she was the person who would be making up the curtain.

We shook hands all round, were wished Bon apres midi by the sales lady, left the shop delighted with life and went for a drink at a small cafe next door where we discussed house style. Not for the first time did I sit back in the afternoon sun of southern France, stretch my arms and legs in the heat, and ponder on the appalling and dire existence in this country that had been predicted for me by some Irish friends who seemed to know such a lot about French living. That horrible life and all those frosty people I would have to deal with, who would enjoy making everything so very difficult for me. Ah, yes.

Madame took the delicate material away and the work began. In a few days she called to say everything was now ready. She asked had we put the curtain pole up yet? Yes Madame, we had. Had we an iron? Yes Madame, we had. "I am on my way" replied the great lady.

The floors in all the main rooms were wooden. Larry had done fantastic work bringing them back to their original splendour and they were quite beautiful, the different coloured grains of the ancient wood now visible after his endless cleaning, sanding and varnishing. Madame, a true respecter of peoples’ homes and the work they put into them, arrived with her ladder. Tied around each of the steel four ‘feet’ was a little white towelling shower glove, a protection for wooden floors.

Larry naturally tried to take the curtain from her, intending to go up the ladder and attach it to the hooks; they were quite high up. He received a very gentle movement indicating that he should step back. Up the steps of the ladder Madame flew and, having expertly attached the curtain to the hooks, hopped down and proceeded to arrange and re-arrange the fabric so that it fell absolutely correctly. Then she stood and looked at it for ages, head on one side, head on the other side, eventually deciding it did not quite touch the floor in the way she wanted it to. Up the ladder once again flew the sprightly seventy-four year old, where she proceeded to re-do the whole process.

Madame then asked about the iron. The fabric was incredibly delicate. I would never have attempted ironing it. I thought it was fine and said so. She asked me to set up the ironing board and iron. But oh dear. She looked first at the board, the cover torn in a few places. She then picked up my rather basic iron, examined it, said 'oh, non, non, non,' and asked me if I actually used this? ‘Well, yes,’ I said, ‘I do,‘ adding ‘but in fact, I very rarely iron anything."

Putting both her hands up, palms upwards, she gave a little sort of shiver and shook her head, then hurried down the stairs and out the front door. She arrived back carrying her own board and a huge, almost industrial, impressive looking iron, both items naturally in perfect nick, and began the laborious and skilful task of working with that frighteningly delicate fabric.

"Voila, Jane!" I heard at last, and, going to the door of the room, saw that the splendid Madame Morere, with her vast expertise and that peculiar French attention to detail, had indeed brought, just as I had wanted, a true touch of Parisian chic to our delightful — if poor looking from the outside — village house.

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