The fields are planted with maize this year, and the tall stalks grow thick and green and let nothing through. I read that planting maize elevates the price of land, but I don’t know why. Three back copies of Le Monde arrived yesterday, and we fell on them and read all afternoon: another frail cease-fire between Israel and Gaza lasted only hours before the rockets and bombs began again. The price of land planted with maize went up. A hundred other things happened in the world, and all we had to do was read about them and be grateful to be here, sitting in the late afternoon sun, talking and then silent, drinking tea.
The swallows began to swoop and dive above us as the afternoon became evening, and the light was golden on the trees down by the river. Paul pointed out the Chasselas grapes on the vine growing green and small close to the house wall. In the vegetable garden, the deer have eaten the lettuces and begun on the chard, but they don’t bother with the courgette flowers or the basil.
We ate our dinner outside at the white tin table. “This needs painting” said Paul, wiping it for a first dinner of the year out of doors. We ate moules, with salad and cheese and peaches, and drank his rouge de Touraine, and Anne told us of lunching with a man whom she had known in America forty years earlier. “He was in love with me, but I was in love with someone else.” So we sum up the dramas and catastrophes of our lives, the loves and non-loves. The person who comes towards us in the present, lined and balding, is never the young man who paid court to us all that time ago. But, says Anne, “He said he would recognize me anywhere, because of my smile.” And she smiles again, at the memory.
My hosts are not my original hosts in this place. Years ago, it was Paul and Elisabeth who brought me here, fetched me from the slow train that came those days from Tours, brought me to stay here with my notebooks and pens and books on George Sand. Now it is Paul and Anne. Yesterday, on his computer screen, Paul showed me the photo of Elisabeth, younger than I had ever known her, slim and shiny-haired in a pale blue sweater. A beautiful photo. A beautiful moment. His hand on the mouse, eyes on the screen, he said, “Looking at these photos makes me feel young again.”
We are not young, but we have these memories, these flashes of insight–-a photo on a screen, a swallow curving down against a wall, the light on those trees by the river–-that have made us who we are. So many times, in this little room with the terra-cotta floor and the rough cement walls, the lingering cobwebs, the mousetrap in the wardrobe, the same blue-painted wardrobe, the same bed, I’ve sat at this same table to write, on a chair that could have doubled for Van Gogh’s bedroom chair, searching in my mind in the rich silence of midday in the country for the right word, the right sentence, the story that will take me somewhere. Now, I have almost given up on the urge to get somewhere; the story doesn’t go anywhere new, any more than the river flows to a new place. It simply grows deeper, or shallower, according to the weather and the time. I simply want to get the place down, to show it on the page, to hint at what we live through in these frail passing hours, to attempt to show, and share, a moment in a lifetime. Moments.
Moments in three lifetimes as we spend these days together: Paul coming slowly back from the vegetable garden in his blue work pants, stained at the knee, a bunch of parsley in one hand, his old hat on the back of his head. Anne in the kitchen scraping carrots for lunch. I–-who offered briefly to scrape carrots and then escaped–-sitting at my table in the cool of these walls. The church bells in the village rang at noon and then stopped. Two relatives came in a red car and picked up a parcel. The deer have eaten the salad leaves, so there will only be a small salad for lunch. The sun moves around the courtyard, and the hollyhocks still look as if they are playing Grandmother’s Footsteps and will begin to move only when we have stopped looking. As will the whole world, when we have stopped looking, when we are no longer here.
Yesterday I walked down—past the orchard, past the potager, through long grass that until this year was always scythed—to stand beside the river Creuse, which runs deep and full and brown these days, filling the space between its banks. Two blue canoes passed me, the children and adults in them hardly needing to paddle to move downstream. The water carries you here. I think often of this river and how hard it is to swim upstream, how effortless and dangerous to be carried down. I think of it when I think about life. Is the solution simply to let oneself be carried downstream, to go, as people so often say, with the flow? Here, the flow will carry you past fallen trees with their sharp branches, and cliffs where there is no beach on which to land, over hidden rocks, under a bridge, past the remains of a Roman villa, and to the village of La Guerche, where once I paddled in a canoe with my new husband. Now the canoe rests on its side in the barn, because nobody has the energy or the will to take it out for an excursion, and the way down to the river, where I used to swim thirty years ago, is thick with nettles and wild grass.
The place changes, and we change in it. We age, the grass grows thick, the deer come to eat the lettuces because putting up a fence is something nobody wants to do. We stop interfering with the processes of the world. We don’t build deer fences. We float downstream. But the house doesn’t show its aging in any way that looks like entropy. It has stood here since the fifteenth century, and it keeps its place in the world, it will not decay.
At lunch, Paul says that he finds it reassuring to live in a house that has been here since 1450 or thereabouts, decades before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. The cellar where Paul bottles and stores his wine (the last batch a Sauvignon Blanc that he says is for his funeral) dates from the twelfth century, as does the place where I sleep and write, the former pigsty. There have been people living here for longer than we can imagine; as Paul says, it will all go on, we come and we go, and the place remains.
I too find this reassuring. I sit on a deck chair in the late afternoon and look out over the yard and the garden and the fields beyond, notice the slight movements of the poplar’s leaves, the tangle of pale-yellow butterflies in the buddleia, and the crumpled-tissue faces of the hollyhocks. Occasionally, a car goes by on the high road behind the retaining wall. There’s a shimmer to these afternoons, summer just beginning—announcing itself, as Paul says. He goes back indoors to read his immense Russian novel, deep in the old armchair by the window. It’s too hot to work. Nothing that needs to be done that urgently. Decades, centuries of work have taken place here; but the family who lived here and farmed the land before he and Elisabeth moved in were called the Faineants (do-nothings).
We read, we talk, we sleep, we eat. The preparation of food: the market, the supermarket, the old car in which Anne and I bring home the big plastic bags full of food each day. Lunch in the cool, sitting at the long, scarred table that has always been here, that belonged to the Faineants. The house smells of old fires. The walls are impregnated with smoke. The windowsills are feet deep and hold teapots, bottles, bunches of wild flowers, dried grasses, nuts in baskets. Bats leave their droppings in the back corridor. Outside the downstairs toilet door, a swallow nests in a high angle of the wall. On the inside of the door, there’s a poster depicting a soubrette with an amazing bust and a naughty grin offering a bottle of La Roche Posay water against a background of steam trains. Spiders live in the corners, to Anne’s dismay. Mice live in the roof. One year a family of kittens was born in the attic over the main bedroom and at night they danced and chased each other till Paul had had enough. Anne and I sulked about the cats’ fate for days, but he is a countryman, unsentimental about animals. In the downstairs bedroom, however, his granddaughter, Apolline, has a cage for the rabbit she brings from Paris in a basket, and the room still smells of rabbit dung. Human life here depended on the animals, the cows and horses in the barns, the hunting dogs, the watch-dogs that barked in the yard at strangers’ approach.
Anne and I take bicycles in the late afternoon and ride between walls of maize with the sun beating down. The agriculture around here now is not pretty: where there used to be sunflowers and wheat-fields, now there is endless maize. We turn back, come down into the yard, stack our bikes in the old stable as if they were horses. Between here and the big house, a young couple has come to live in one of the farm buildings. They are here full time, they are changing the use of the place; big agriculture ignores them, they have a house they have rebuilt themselves, a field, a kitchen garden with tomatoes already ripening on the vine and fat courgettes turning into marrows under the leaves. We visit them and see their bee hives at the edge of the field, their young ewes huddled in the shade under a tree, pretty young sheep with narrow brown faces and ears, all clumped together in a patch of shade. Pierre sits under a lime tree near the house, sorting bulbs of garlic. Yes, he says, he is here full-time now, he is both house-builder and small-holder. Christine, in the vegetable garden, gives us a salad for our dinner. They are the first of their family to leave town and move here, going back to the old ways, a few sheep, a run of hens and three roosters, bees whose honey I have been eating for breakfast. In this countryside where the villages have lost their shops and cafes and only foreign tourists come to buy houses, in the middle of the huge fields of maize and sunflowers and rape-seed, they are beginning again. Christine still has a job in Poitiers, though she lives in this environment of ecologists, green-voters, and country-dwellers. She is on the local council too.
In the morning I go down to the river, my shoes getting wet with the dew. The grass is long, the nettles grow up to the edge where the cliff falls away. The river goes by like mercury behind the trees, a flash of bright water, on and on. The river-water smell is a mixture of mud, grass, something metallic, cool depths.
I go down to the river to know its different moods in different lights. In the afternoon it is thick, brown, lazy on the surface, violent in the depths. There’s a quiet slap of water on stone. Dragonflies swoop down to it, like those that dived like little helicopters, between the buildings of the courtyard as we sat out last night at sunset. Sitting outside, we watch the light change, the glow fade. Ten o’clock and it’s still light; at eleven I come down here to the former porcherie to sleep, and the sunset lingers in the night sky. Transitions, phases, slight changes, settlings under eaves and in the dark places under trees: the closer you look, the slower you go, the less you try to do, the more you see. Life is what moves in the shimmer of the poplar leaves, the sound of the river water, the small splashes of the current, the circling of insects in the warm air.
Last night a swallow flew into the kitchen and darted from wall to wall until Paul opened a window onto the open fields and she could see light and depart. The dark blue, the curve of the swallow’s wings: arrowy, exact, never colliding with anything, a radar we can’t fathom. We opened the window and let her go.
Heat grows in the yard. I cross it, mid-afternoon, wading through flowering grasses, through the hum of heat. The hollyhocks seem to watch me go by. Today, the thermometer stands at 31 degrees Celsius (nearly 89 degrees Fahrenheit); further south it is even warmer, a hot red-brown on the map. But this old stone house refrigerates and consoles. I go upstairs to Paul’s library to get paper, and the wide room is cool as a larder. People lived like this for centuries, in rooms that protected them, salved their skins after the heat of work outdoors. Paul comes up from the vegetable garden where he has been weeding, sinks into the leather armchair and falls asleep. His gait and gestures reflect the movements of countless men before him as they returned from toil and heat to a house that offered relief. We have forgotten so much.
Now all of us are used to being called old. What are we doing here? We talk at meals about families, memories, books, politics, and we sit in silence afterwards and let the ancient messages of the house inform us. Or so I think. You are here now, it tells us, as thousands were here before you and thousands will come after. You move through these rooms as you move through life. It all goes on, as the river goes on and the fields grow crops and the insects circle in the summer air. There isn’t a story; or, it is all the same story. Nothing much changes. Wars come and go, armies trampling the land. Paul’s grandfather saw the Prussians arrive in 1870; his father was arrested by the Nazis in 1941. A Gestapo officer is in the doorway, he is taking your father away. Other unfathomable tragedies: your little sister, two years old, drowned in the pond.
The copies of Le Monde, read and refolded, kept for rereading, lie around on the tables and the sofa. The news is there in black and white: Israel has struck Gaza again Hamas has refused the ceasefire. On the radio generic voices intrude with their interpretations of news from the wider world.
But last night I went into the big kitchen where Anne was breaking eggs for an omelette, and the sound that filled the room was Poulenc, a piece for flute and piano. The music took me back to my great-aunt’s house in 1944, a refugee from the Second World War, hearing my cousin playing Mozart on the piano, knowing, though I was only two years old, that all, for the moment, was well. The vast comfort of old houses, at the center of things.
I think of Michel de Montaigne, who didn’t lock his house doors even though in his century marauding mercenaries were roaming the countryside where he lived. Better to risk being robbed than to lock your doors, he thought. Better to live with the air coming in and out and history passing your door, and the occasional stranger, homeless vagrant, or even occasional robber, coming in. Better to know that it is all temporary: you are here and then gone, and your presence only weighs as much as that yellow butterfly alighting for a moment on the hollyhock beside the door.
We long for both, we are at home with both: stone walls, fleeting butterflies; the ancient room and the swallow darting through; decades passing in the blink of an eye; grass grown up where there was a clear way down to the river; bees in their hives where there have been no bees for a hundred years. Change and sameness. The unexpected and the familiar.
Perhaps I’m done with writing stories, making up what happens. Perhaps the only thing that really happens, and is worth saying, is that we were here.