Grand Tours: All sweetness and enlightenment

Writers and their adventures in literature: in France, Rumer Godden learns the painful price of gluttony

Margaret Rumer Godden was not quite one year old when her family moved from England to India, where her father ran a steamship company. Godden lived there from 1907, returning to England to teach, aged 20. In the 1930s she married and travelled between India and England writing her first book, 'Chinese Puzzle', in 1936. She had two daughters but divorced in 1941 and found herself penniless in Calcutta. Godden ran a school in an Indian hill town, produced herbal teas and wrote to pay off debts. She remarried in 1949, focused on writing and in 1958 published 'The Greengage Summer', from which this extract is taken. Unlike much of her work, it was set in Champagne, France, not India. Godden was awarded the OBE in 1993 and died in 1998, aged 90.

* * *

On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did. Hester of course was quite unabashed; Will - though he was called Willmouse then - Willmouse and Vicky were too small to reach any but the lowest branches, but they found fruit fallen in the grass; we were all strictly forbidden to climb the trees.

The garden at Les Oeillets was divided into three; first the terrace and gravelled garden round the house; then, separated by a low box hedge, the wilderness with its statues and old paths; and, between the wilderness and the river, the orchard with its high walls. In the end wall a blue door led to the river bank.

The orchard seemed to us immense, and perhaps it was, for there were seven alleys of greengage trees alone; between them, even in that blazing summer, dew lay all day in the long grass. The trees were old, twisted, covered in lichen and moss, but I shall never forget the fruit. In the hotel dining-room Mauricette built it into marvellous pyramids on dessert plates laid with vine leaves. "Reines Claudes," she would say to teach us its name as she put our particular plate down, but we were too full to eat. In the orchard we had not even to pick fruit - it fell off the trees into our hands.

The greengages had a pale-blue bloom, especially in the shade, but in the sun the flesh showed amber through the clear green skin; if it were cracked the juice was doubly warm and sweet. Coming from the streets and small front gardens of Southstone, we had not been let loose in an orchard before; it was no wonder we ate too much.

"Summer sickness," said Mademoiselle Zizi.

"Indigestion," said Madame Corbet.

I do not know which it was, but ever afterwards, in our family, we called that the greengage summer.

"You are the one who should write this," I told Joss. "It happened chiefly to you." But Joss shut that out, as she always shuts out things, or shuts them in so that no one can guess.

"You are the one who likes words," said Joss. "Besides ..." and she paused. "It happened as much to you ..."

I did not answer that. I am grown up now - or almost grown up - "and we still can't get over it!" said Joss.

"Most people don't have... that... in thirty or forty years," I said that in defence.

"Most people don't have it at all," said Joss.

If I stop what I am doing for a moment, or in any time when I am quiet, in those cracks in the night that have been with me ever since when I cannot sleep and thoughts seep in, I am back, I can smell the Les Oeillets smells of hot dust and cool plaster walls, of jessamine and box leaves in the sun, of dew in the long grass; the smell that filled the house and garden of Monsieur Armand's cooking and the house's own smell of damp linen, or furniture polish, and always, a little, of drains. I can hear the sounds that seem to belong only to Les Oeillets: the patter of the poplar trees along the courtyard wall, of a tap running in the kitchen, mixed with the sound of High French voices, of the thump of Rex's tail and another thump of someone washing clothes on the river bank; of barges puffing upstream and Mauricette's toneless singing - she always sang through her nose; of Toinette and Nicole's quick loud French as they talked to one another out of the upstairs windows; of the faint noise of the town and, near, the plop of a fish or of a greengage falling.

'The Greengage Summer', by Rumer Godden. Copyright of The Rumer Godden Literary Trust. The book is currently out of print (some copies are available on Amazon). A new edition will be available next year from Pan Books, price £6.99.

Follow in the footsteps

Raise a glass

The home of the world's favourite celebratory tipple lies 90 miles north-east of Paris, centring on the cities of Reims and Epernay. It is possible to visit many of the cellars, including Moët & Chandon (00 33 3 26 51 2020; www.moet.com) which runs hour tours price €7.50 (£5), including a glass of fizz.

Getting there

French Travel Service (08702 41 42 43; www.frenchtravelservice.co.uk) offers three nights b&b in Reims during August from £279 per person sharing, with return rail travel from London Waterloo.

Comments