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I've always believed reaching 40 makes one middle-aged, 60 is old and 70 is ancient

A friend was telling me about visiting a large country house the other day – the third bought in France by an English couple I vaguely know, not far from me.

As he described it, I realised I'd been to the house soon after arriving here.

Left to rot for years as the family bickered over its sale, it had finally come on the market. I visited it then with a woman who thought it could be a good buy as she roamed around the region seeking perfection. The skeleton was superb: a once-fine maison de campagne with a small formal garden leading on to an overgrown potager and a grand lawn, now a jungle.

Two enormous barns abutted the house. Beams soared upwards to pink tiled roofs where pigeons and dormice held sway. The house was of the kind people dream about finding and reawakening.

Peering through the windows and walking through the hallways was a chilly, hair-raising experience, but there were no ghosts, only a sense of the past – good and bad – and the hopeful awareness of a different future.

When old people die and families quarrel over who gets what and when, all stays in situ. This is the French way.

So, the old man's boots were still at the side of the bed, the old woman's conserves lay on cobwebbed shelves, wine bottles filled a worm-ridden cave and newspapers lay next to the fire, ready to be twirled into firelighters.

Tall cupboards concealed Sunday-best clothes on wire hangers with distintegrating lavender bags to keep away moths and other insects.

In the barns, cracked leather halters for precious horses long gone clung to rusting hooks. Hoes and rakes listed against the grain sacks that now make good money as cushion covers in online second-hand shops.

Time had stopped as the children in their own dotage argued about a house that had quietly ceased to care. It had the potential to be magnificent but the money needed to make it so was frightening.

I returned to Las Molieres semi-fantasising about that other house, its beautiful stone walls, formal passageways and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Then I clicked on the central heating and got real again, shuddering at the thought of the old man's boots, the old lady's confits that had survived her passing and that nobody cared enough to remove.

It pleased me to know that, finally, this couple had bought the lost house.

The barns were destroyed in our famous storm four years ago, so the couple were left with the main structure and struggled to work with it while trying to sell their other house. Thieves stole the new tiles and wood they'd stacked up in the renovation. Month after month they dropped the price of their old house until at long last they sold it.

Together they've begun the enormous project of dragging the forgotten beauty back to life. The friend who visited it was almost enthusiastic in his praise – a rare even, since he firmly believes his house is the finest he knows.

But it wasn't the description of the newly-laid tiled floor, the shut-off enfilade rooms now filled with light again, or the wooden floors sanded and relaid that made me stop his descriptions.

"Wait," I said. "You're telling me they have a 10-year plan? But they're old. They could drop dead tomorrow." The husband is well over 70 with the usual bits and bobs going wonky as they often do over the age of 60.

He has a 10-year plan? My friend looked at me with some distaste. "You are so ageist, it's frightening."

God, it's true. I have always believed that reaching 40 makes one most definitely middle-aged (35, if I'm honest). Anyone pushing 60 is simply old and 70 is bloody ancient. I don't care if they look fantastic, swing off the chandeliers, still have sex (yeugh), dance like Beyonce and come out with nonsense such as "age is only a number and mine's unlisted". (OK, I have an embroidered cushion which says that but it doesn't mean I have to believe it.)

The simple fact is that unless we all live to 120, 60 is not middle-aged. I can say that being - well, being what I am. Old. Ish.

I have to admit though that most of these expats astonish me with their blind determination to refute the figure on their birth certificate.

Instead of pondering upon past sins and preparing to meet their maker, they're re-roofing wrecks, tiling bathrooms, sweating over vegetable gardens, churning cement mixers, climbing up ladders with plasterboard and spending their last years in a frenzied outpouring of physical labour.

In between they swallow prodigious amounts of wine, throw parties, even grow their own weed (oh,yes – some do) and often behave as disgracefully as 20-somethings in Kavos.

All this I can follow – happily be a part of, though not the physical labouring, obviously – and just accept, being a very badly behaved geriatric. I'm in awe of those with 10-year plans for ancient houses. What fabulous optimism. What denial. What hope.

But please just admit being old and bloody fabulous. Not the new middle-aged. It's more than enough.

cookfidelma@hotmail.com

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Beauty

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