The House in France a m e moi r
For Rebecca, Alexander, and Peter
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E v e ry s u m m e r f or a l mo s t t w e n t y y e a r s I would gather up my children and take them to stay with their grandmother in her house in France. There they would do the things that children do—paddle in the inflatable pool set up beneath an ancient lime tree, throw bits of baguette at the bloated goldfish in the village fountain, demand to be taken to the beach, swing in the hammock, and if they were really bored, push handfuls of gravel through the holes in the hubcaps of her car. But once they reached the age of reason, it was the “Drawer of Death” that fascinated them the most. Visiting this macabre mausoleum was something they would never have dared to do on their own. It was far too frightening, and precious for that, so its curator had to be persuaded to take them upstairs to the living room, settle them down on the sofa, and then slowly slide the drawer out so they could examine its contents together. Who knows why my mother decided to start her collection, but each summer there were always new acquisitions in her witch’s Wunderkammer to drive them mad with delight. The cabinet itself was something she had bought in the Friday market in Le Beausset, where, in among the sweet-scented Cavaillon melons, purple pyramids of fresh figs, courgette blossoms, and viscous green local olive oil, were a few stalls of junk: inky black cast-iron pots too heavy to lift; linen napkins as big as pillowcases, embroidered with swirly, illegible initials; a brass lamp in the form of a gently pornographic naked nymph, with a tattered pink silk shade; and quite a few objects whose purpose, and use, even the seller was at a loss to explain. On the shelves of the glass-fronted top of the cabinet were arranged
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The House in France
some conventionally pretty pieces of china, which of course the children had absolutely no use for. It was the drawer beneath that they were after. And no wonder. Who could resist a bird’s nest full of dead grasshoppers, or the pale-green-and-orange butterflies, shaped like miniature stealth bombers? The collection had begun innocently enough with a few furry bumblebees, a starfish no bigger than a thumbnail, and some translucent cicada skins; but then, over the years, altogether more intriguing creatures were added. A shriveled toad, a sinister black centipede, lizards, and scorpions all huddled together with the broken remains of a mouse’s skeleton. And there, hiding behind a snail shell, was one of the dreaded hornets, which had built their nest in the old olive tree and were capable, or so my mother always claimed, of dispatching a baby with a few strategic strikes. The tiny silver snake that I had found flattened on a dirt track in Sicily, and mailed to my mother in a cigarette box, lay alongside the corpse of a New York–size water bug that had met its maker behind my fridge in Greenwich Village and made its last journey across the Atlantic in a Ziploc coffin. United in death, they sat in their dusty Provençal tomb all year, to emerge only briefly into the daylight at the beginning of the summer, in order to terrorize Rebecca and Alexander.
i f i na l ly w e n t b ac k to the house six years after my mother died. I was too much of a coward to do it sooner. Living in New York made her death seem less real, and I could trick myself into thinking that if I just got on a plane and flew to Marseille, drove to Le Beausset, and headed up the hill, through the vineyards, past the old yellow schoolhouse on the left, I would see the cypress trees ahead, turn the corner, hear the click-clacking of the wooden beads, and she would emerge from the front door to greet me. She would be standing there in one of the faded cotton dresses that she only ever wore in France—not chic enough for New York or London, they lived in the house year round—and some old espadrilles. Her pale sapphire eyes would light up as soon as she saw me, and I could hear her voice inside my head telling me to come quick and taste the Brie—so runny its sides had to be shored up with little wooden sticks—she had bought in the market that morning. I kept this reassuring fantasy going for as long as I could, but gradually, as the pain began to fade, and after I
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had already survived (bruised but still relatively sane) the dismantling of her home in London, I knew the time had come. What is it about a certain house that allows it to take on, as if by some strange process of architectural osmosis, the precise character of its owner? How can a complicated, intelligent human being and an inanimate structure, stuffed full of random rubbish, resemble each other so closely that they might as well be twins? It isn’t something that happens quickly; in fact it usually takes decades, and it isn’t universal—sometimes it never happens at all. In my mother’s case the symbiosis was long established and deeply rooted. My problem with returning to the house was not just that it reminded me too much of her but that it also made me angry. How dare it be basking—stupidly, complacently, lazily—in the warm sunlight of Provence, when she no longer could? How could it possibly have had the ill grace to survive her? Surely it ought to have gone up in flames, like a dutiful Indian wife, on that dark dismal day at the crematorium in Golders Green? But once I actually walked through the clackety beads and into the familiar, cool, terra-cotta-tiled kitchen, I realized that I had gotten it all completely wrong. Instead of sadness and fury I felt oddly relieved to have come home to a place that knew me so well. I forgave the house for being alive. Standing there, I gazed around the room and realized that nothing had changed: In fact it scarcely looked any different than it had when we first moved there in 1963. The beams, the same shape as the tree trunks they were made of (the long dead builders had scarcely bothered to hack at them; maybe it had been a rush job, or perhaps they were just too tired) were still hung with old baskets, straw hats, dried flowers, and the odd bunch of dusty bay leaves, rosemary, and fennel. The loaf of bread, baked in the form of a wheat sheaf, that I had found in a boulangerie in Sainte-Anne d’Évenos, was still there on the wall; and the marble-topped dining table, bought from a man with one arm at a brocante in Toulon, still ran down the middle of the room, surrounded by rickety, rush-seated wooden chairs, just like the one in van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom in Arles. That first summer one of my stepfather’s many ex-girlfriends, an elegant blond lady named Alvys, had come to stay on her way to Italy, and had sat there at the table, with her chic tortoiseshell glasses balanced on her perfect retroussé nose, sewing a pair of curtains for the kitchen
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The House in France
window. I looked at the faded ocher-colored fabric and remembered the precise moment, only a few days after she’d left, when my mother told me she had been killed in a car crash, with her lover, on a mountain road above Ravello. It must have been after nine o’clock before we (my husband, Peter; the children, Rebecca and Alexander; and my brother, Nick, plus his girlfriend, Stephanie—I had made quite sure that I was carefully cocooned for my rentrée) all sat down to dinner at the long marble table. The wine was a Domaine Tempier, cuvée La Migoua, made from grapes grown on the hills that surrounded our hamlet of the same name. The pâté de campagne, studded with pistachios, the Brousse (a creamy fresh goat cheese), and the sweet red tomatoes all came from the market. The basil grew in a huge, cracked terra-cotta pot out on the terrace, buffeted almost horizontal by the mistral, which had started up that morning. The mistral is a mysterious wind, a joker that gets its kicks by barreling down the chimney of the Rhône Valley, in order to drive the inhabitants of the Midi completely mad. The pharmacien in the village, a man with a tight, mean mouth, humorless eyes, and a neatly pressed white coat, told me years ago that it had a special penchant for odd numbers, so that “he” always blew for three, five, or seven days. Or, presumably, for seventeen or thirty-three or any other odd number that took “his” fancy. In addition to his fondness for certain numbers, the mistral is also the most appalling snob, tormenting only those who, like us, had the misfortune to live at the terminally unfashionable western end of the Mediterranean. “He” also used to be a godsend for anyone accused of a crime passionel, since defense lawyers regularly argued, with perfectly straight faces, that their clients had been obliged to murder their wives on account of mistral-related insanity. The wine was finished, the tarte aux pommes and crème fraîche had disappeared, and slowly, we made our way upstairs. My daughter was sleeping in my old room, on the curlicued, white wrought-iron bed that used to be mine, with its saggy mattress and antique quilt festooned with blowsy pink roses. And I found myself in my mother’s room. I could hear our neighbors next door on their terrace, squabbling as usual, the wife’s voice becoming louder and more aggrieved with every glass of her well-deserved (imagine forty-five years of marriage to him) vin d’orange, and, in the distance, some dogs started howling at the mistral. I gave up,
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got out of bed, and crept into the living room. The enormous blackened fireplace stared back at me like the entrance to a cave, and there, on my mother’s desk, was the paving stone, used as a paperweight, that had been uprooted from the rue Gay-Lussac in Paris during the événements of May ’68, and had been given to her, as a radically chic memento of those thrilling days, by our neighbor Francette Drin. Above the sofa hung a poster of a fraise des bois plant. Its heart-shaped leaves and thin etiolated stems spread languidly across the paper; the tiny, jewel-like, red berries shone in the moonlight, and there in the corner was a cross-section of its delicate white flower. Just like the drawings I used to do in biology class in school. The words “Deyrolle et Fils” were printed at the bottom, with the address, “46, rue du Bac, Paris VII.” My mother’s favorite shop in the entire world. Its ostensible business was to supply the harried teachers of France with the tools to help them impart their knowledge of the natural world to their uncaring students. But to her they were decorators. Stuffed tarantulas, jagged lumps of purple quartz, the life cycle of the flea (one of their smaller posters), the many stages of cheese making, ditto winemaking, an iridescent Amazonian beetle the size of a small dog, snake skeletons in all sizes: There was nothing they didn’t stock. As I gazed around the room, my eyes inevitably fell upon the “Drawer of Death.” Earlier in the evening, at the back of the old armoire in the kitchen, I had seen an earthenware jar, and when I looked inside I knew precisely what it contained. Very quietly I went downstairs, scooped a teaspoonful of the ashes into the palm of my hand, and returned to the living room. On the top shelf of the cabinet, beside a slightly chipped Limoges teacup, scattered with forget-me-nots and sky blue ribbons, I noticed a small cockleshell. Carefully emptying the ashes into the shell, I slid open the drawer, gently placed it in the bird’s nest, closed the drawer, and tiptoed back to my mother’s bed.
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a note about the author
Gully Wells was born in Paris, brought up in London, educated at Oxford, and moved to New York in 1979. She is the Features Editor of CondĂŠ Nast Traveler magazine for which she writes regularly from all over the world. She is married, has two children and lives in Brooklyn. This is her first book.
First published in Great Britain 2011 Copyright © 2011 by Gully Wells The moral right of the author has been asserted First published in the United States in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random house, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto Grateful acknowledgement is made to Sayre Sheldon for permission to reprint ‘Lines for Mrs. C.’ By V. R. (‘Bunny’) Lang. The photograph of Gully Wells at Oxford is courtesy of Cherwell No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews Every reasonable effort has been made to trace copyright holders of material reproduced in this book, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publishers would be glad to hear from them. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 36 Soho Square London W1D 3QY www.bloomsbury.com Bloomsbury Publishing, London, Berlin, New York and Sydney A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 978 1 4088 0809 9 (hardback) ISBN 978 1 4088 1988 3 (trade paperback) 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Printed in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc, Bungay, Suffolk