Jane Lambert dreamed of living in France and finding a French lover, but she’d never been to France before, couldn’t speak French, had no money and was confined to a wheelchair. She was sixty-four years old.
Disabled through polio that struck when she was pregnant with her fifth child, Jane Lambert had already survived the traumas of a runaway husband, losing her five children to the care system and ten years in hospital and rehab centres before her French dream took hold.
When she retired from teaching Jane was determined to follow her dream. Encouraged by a clairvoyant who told her she might one day inherit some money, Jane searched for (and found) a will listing her as one of the beneficiaries. She found a house in France she could afford to buy (a derelict cottage at the ugly end of the Loire Valley) and she put her ex-council flat in Ealing on the market. When prospective buyer Deb Hunt turned up—five months too soon—Jane persuaded Deb to move in rather than lose the sale.
In her mid thirties, a bemused Deb found herself sharing a flat with a woman in her mid sixties with a taste for whiskey, opera and wild oats, a talent for organic gardening and a flirtatious approach to men. Intrigued by such a colourful flatmate, and jealousy of Jane’s easy way with men, Deb kept in touch. Dream Wheeler is the result, following Jane’s adventures over the past twenty years.
The derelict house Jane bought had no kitchen, no bathroom and was built on a flood plain. Being confined to a wheelchair was nothing compared to the challenges she faced with French plumbing, plagues of mice, lack of finance and the bitterly cold winters of Loire Atlantique. Undeterred, Jane dyed her hair orange, tied herself into her wheelchair and began digging the empty field at the back of the house. She was delighted when Deb visited and, in a linguistic slip-up, told her conservative neighbours that she had moved to France hoping to have an affair with someone. ‘It improved my reputation no end,’ said Jane.
Over the years that followed Jane taught herself French, made friends in the village and found a small band of children willing to help with gardening in return for English lessons and pocket money.
Finding love at 67
At sixty-seven, Jane put an ad in the local paper, hoping to find a French lover. When that didn’t work she began answering ads instead, and she embarked on a series of disastrous blind dates. One night she had a call from 72 year-old René, an arrogant ex-Parisian who flirted outrageously on the phone. Jane invited him to stay. After the passionate success of their first weekend René cooled off, but Jane refused to give up. When René was admitted to hospital Jane went to see him every day, and she pursued him relentlessly, using hospital visits and picnic invitations to woo him. When he was discharged from another bout in hospital, Jane invited René to stay to recuperate. He never went home again.
René died after ten tempestuous years together and Jane’s last gift to him was to make sure he died at home. ‘He was the love of my life,’ she said.
Jane is now in her mid 80s and still living in France. In an age dominated by financial failure her approach to life is simple – make the best of what you’ve got; if you can’t afford it don’t buy it; slow down; plant trees; and never, ever, under any circumstances, give up on your dreams.
Dream Wheeler by Deb Hunt, will be published by Anvil Australia on 19 August 2013, price £8.99 in paperback original