"My name is Mme Valencourt. Either you can make an appointment for viewing at a later date. Or—you can come with me now." She held up a red lacquered fingernail. "Vous avez de la chance, madame. You are very lucky."
"Mais oui, madame."
Penelope could only guess what this stroke of luck might be as she was ushered straight out of the office and into a shiny red Mini Cooper that matched the nails. Perhaps she shouldn't have drunk all that delicious rose. It had made her bold.
"We must hurry," said the estate agent, driving off at speed. With no mercy for other road users, they shot through the narrow streets and out into the countryside, past orchards brimming with snowdrifts of almond blossom. The first acid-green shoots were showing on the gnarled stumps of vineyards. Here and there, men in the fields were bent double in intensive contemplation of crop and soil.
They swerved violently. Penelope clenched her seat belt in one hand and gripped the door handle with the other, her foot instinctively moving to brake as they overtook a Mercedes into the teeth of an oncoming tractor.
Apparently oblivious to the cyclists and tourists who lay scattered in her wake, Mme Valencourt kept up a businesslike conversation in which she established Penelope's credentials as a buyer (clearly satisfactory), history of visits to France, marital status and happiness with the divorce (also apparently satisfactory), and former career (distinct glimmer of respect). The car swept up narrowing roads into the Luberon Mountains, away from the chic villages so beloved of French cabinet ministers, their mistresses, and Paris Match photographers and into a landscape of holm oaks and pines.
As the road became emptier, Penelope's heart rate eased slightly.
"La belle Provence!" announced Mme Valencourt, as they swung onto a potholed track that skirted a wood of scrub oak and spiky juniper bushes. Past a rusted tractor standing in an unkempt field, she stopped the car in front of a stone archway and gestured.
"Voilà. Le Chant d'Eau. The name of the property is The Song of the Water. It is an old farm."
Penelope's gaze followed her companion's manicured finger.
The property was decrepit. A couple of substantial outbuildings were suffocating under thick ivy. The two-story farmhouse itself was built of pale stone in the traditional style. The wooden window shutters were flaking lavender-coloured paint. Several were hanging askew. Penelope could just picture the way it could be renovated. A lovely summer sitting room, with a terrace for dining under the stars. No, stop it, she told herself, don't get carried away. Her affected seriousness about buying was only to ensure that she wouldn't be patronised.
But...a run-down farmhouse in Provence, she mused, as the door was unlocked with a large iron key. Think what I could do with it!
The dark hall smelled musty and mousy. Penelope caught her breath. Mme Valencourt skittered ahead on her high clacky sandals. Half walking, half feeling her way forward, Penelope followed. In a room that was revealed as a kitchen, the estate agent unlatched the window and pushed open the shutters with a painful creak. Light flooded in, illuminated the dust that dredged every surface.
The house had clearly not been lived in for some time. Penelope tried the light switch, but nothing happened.
Mme Valencourt opened the back door. Penelope caught her breath for a second time. The rear of the house looked out high over the Luberon Valley, which opened in a wide panorama before her. Close by was Saignon, like an enchanted fortress on a cliff. In the valley stood the town of Apt. Farther off, the large red monolith of Roussillon, and beyond it the famously beautiful village of Gordes standing proud on its rocky outcrop. On one side the mountains of the Petit Luberon range stretched away to the Rhône, and on the other, just visible over the hills, stood the bare peak of Mont Ventoux, with its seemingly snow-covered limestone summit.
"See, madame, you are lucky! This is not on the market yet. You are the first to see it."
"It's lovely." Penelope could hardly breathe now. The setting was incredible.