They took possession of the house in the middle of the night.
Any other family would have seen it as a new start. The first morning of a new life – a new life in a new town. A rare moment that shouldn’t take place in the dark.
For the Blakes, however, it was a moonlight flit in reverse: they were moving in as discreetly as possible. Maggie, the mother, went in first, tapping her heels on the steps to scare away any lurking rats. She went through all the rooms, ending up in the cellar, which appeared to be clean and to have the perfect level of humidity for maturing wheels of Parmesan, or storing cases of Chianti. The father, Frederick, who had never felt at ease around rodents, allowed his wife to go ahead. He went round the outside of the house holding a flashlight, and ended up on a veranda piled high with old and rusty garden furniture, a warped pingpong table and several shapes that were almost invisible in the darkness.
The daughter – Belle, aged seventeen – went upstairs into what would be her bedroom, a square, southfacing room looking out onto a maple tree and a bed of miraculously persistent white carnations – they looked like a constellation of stars in the night. She turned the bedhead to the north wall, moved the bedside table and began to visualize the walls covered with all the posters that had travelled with her over so many years and across so many borders. Belle’s mere presence made the place come alive. This was where she would henceforth sleep, do her revision, work on her movement and posture, sulk, dream, laugh and sometimes cry – all the things she had done every day of her adolescence. Warren, who was three years younger than her, checked out the nextdoor room without any real curiosity; he had no interest in views and harmonious layouts. All that mattered to him was having a supply of electricity and his own telephone line. Then, in less than a week, his complete mastery of the Internet would enable him to forget the French countryside, and even Europe, and provide him with the illusion of being back home, on the other side of the Atlantic, where he came from, and where he would one day return.
The villa had been built in 1900, of Norman brick and stone, decorated with a checked frieze across the façade, and festoons of bluepainted wood along the roof, which also had a sort of minaret overhanging the east–west angle of the house. The wroughtiron curlicues on the entrance gate made one want to visit what looked from a distance like a small baroque palace. However, at this time of night, the Blakes couldn’t have cared less about the aesthetics of the place, and were only concerned with its comfort. Despite its evident charm, the old building couldn’t conceal its shabbiness, and was certainly no substitute for the little jewel of modernity that had been their home long ago in Newark, New Jersey, USA.
All four of them now gathered in the drawing room, where, without a word, they removed the dust sheets which covered the armchairs, sofa, coffee table and asyetempty cupboards and shelves. Inside the redandblack brick fireplace, which was big enough to roast a sheep, there was a plaque depicting two noblemen wrestling with a wild boar. Fred grabbed a whole lot of wooden knickknacks from the crossbeam and threw them into the hearth. He always wanted to smash useless objects.
“Those fuckups forgot the TV again,” Warren said.
“They said they’d bring it tomorrow,” said his mother.
“Really tomorrow, or tomorrow like last time?” asked Fred, just as worried as his son.
“Look, you two, I hope you’re not going to attack me every time there’s some object missing in this house.
Why don’t you just ask them.”
“The TV isn’t just some object, Mom, it’s our connection to the outside world, the real world, outside this crumbling shack in this rat hole full of peasants we’re going to be lumbered with for years maybe. The TV is life, it’s my life, it’s us, it’s my country.”
Maggie and Frank suddenly felt guilty and couldn’t answer. They didn’t even challenge his bad language. They realized Warren had a right to be homesick. He had been just eight years old when events had forced them to leave America; of the four of them, he was the one who had suffered the most. Changing the subject, Belle asked what the town was called.
“CholongsurAvre, Normandy!” Fred replied, making no attempt at a French accent. “Think of all the Americans who’ve heard of Normandy without knowing where the fuck it is in the world.”
“Apart from our boys landing here in ’44, what’s Normandy famous for?” asked Warren.
“Camembert,” the father ventured.
“We used to get that at CagnessurMer, but we had the sun and the sea as well,” said Belle.
“We used to get it in Paris too, and that was Paris,” said Warren.
They all had happy memories of their arrival in the capital, six years earlier. Then circumstances had forced them to move down to the Côte d’Azur, where they had stayed for four years, until Fate had struck again, and they had ended up here in CholongsurAvre in the Eure.
They then split up to explore the rooms they had not yet seen. Fred stopped in the kitchen, inspected the empty fridge, opened a few cupboards, put his hand on the ceramic ring. He was satisfied with the layout – he needed a huge amount of space for when he fancied making a tomato sauce – he stroked the wood of the butcher’s block, the tiling by the sink, the rush seats on the stools, and picked up a few knives, testing the blades with his fingernail. He always began by touching things, treating new places as if they were women.
In the bathroom, Belle struck poses in front of a splendid, slightly spotted mirror in an ancient mahogany frame surmounted by a little mattglass roseshaped lamp holding a naked light bulb. She loved her reflection there. Maggie, for her part, opened her bedroom windows wide, pulled the sheets out of their bags, pulled the blankets down from the top of the cupboard, sniffed them, decided they were clean, and unrolled them onto the bed. Only Warren went on wandering from room to room, asking:
“Has anyone seen the dog?”
The ashgrey Australian Cattle Dog, christened Malavita by Fred, had joined the Blake family as soon as it had arrived in France. Maggie had had three reasons for adopting this little hairy animal with stickingup ears: she would be a popular welcome present to entertain the children, as well as a cheap way to buy their forgiveness and make them forget their exile. Thanks to her astonishing tact and discretion, she had easily made herself popular. She never barked, ate neatly, mostly at night, and spent most of her time asleep, usually in a cellar or laundry room. Once a day they thought she was dead, and the rest of the time just lost. Malavita led the life of a cat and no one could argue with that. Warren finally found her, as expected, in the cellar, between a boiler on pilot and a brandnew washing machine. Like the others, the animal had found her corner, and had been the first to go to sleep.
Life in France had not put an end to the breakfast ritual. Fred got up early in order to see his children go off with a full stomach, giving them his blessing, sometimes parting with some extra pocket money or an invaluable piece of advice about life, before going back to bed with a clear conscience the minute they were out of the door. At almost fifty, Frederick Blake had almost never had to start his day before twelve o’clock, and he could count on one hand the days when he had failed to achieve this. The worst of those particular days had been the funeral of his friend Jimmy, his companionatarms from the earliest days of his career – nobody had dared show Jimmy disrespect, even when he was dead. The bastard had chosen to have himself buried two hours away from Newark, and at ten in the morning. It had been a tiresome day, from beginning to end.
“No cereal, no toast, no peanut butter,” said Maggie. “You’ll have to make do with what I’ve got from the local baker – apple beignets. I’ll do the shopping this afternoon, so spare me the complaints for now.” “That’s perfect, Mom,” said Belle.
Warren looked peeved and grabbed a beignet.
“Could somebody explain to me why the French, who are famous for their patisserie, have failed to invent the doughnut? It’s not hard, it’s just a beignet with a hole in the middle.”
Halfasleep and already exasperated by the thought of the day ahead, Fred asked if the hole added to the flavour.
“They’ve learned about cookies,” said Belle. “I’ve had some good ones.”
“Call those cookies?”
“I’ll make some doughnuts on Sunday, and cookies too,” said Maggie, to keep the peace.
“Do we know where the school is?” asked Fred, trying to take an interest in a daily routine that had hitherto passed him by.
“I’ve given them a map.”
“Go with them.”
“We’ll manage, Mom,” said Warren. “We’ll even go faster without a map. We’ve got a sort of radar in our heads – you find yourself in any street in the world with a satchel on your back, and a little inner voice warns you: ‘Not there, it’s that way’, and you meet more and more shapes with satchels going the same way, until you all plunge into a sort of black hole. It’s a law of physics.”
“If you could only be so motivated in the classroom,” said Maggie.
That was the signal to go. They all kissed each other, said they’d see each other at the end of the afternoon, and the first day began. Each one, for various reasons, held back the thousands of questions on the tips of their tongues, and accepted the situation as if it made some sense.
Maggie and Fred found themselves alone in a suddenly silent kitchen.
“What about your day?” he asked first.
“The usual. I’ll look around the town, see what there is to see, find the shops. I’ll be back about six with the
shopping. What about you?”
Behind that “oh, me” she could hear a silent litany, sentences she knew by heart even though they were never actually spoken: oh me, I’ll just spend the day wondering what we’re doing here, and then I’ll pretend to do something, as usual, but what?… That’s the problem.
“Try not to hang around all day in your dressing gown.”
“Because of the neighbours?”
“No, because of your morale.”
“My morale’s fine, Maggie, I’m just a bit disorientated,
I always take longer to adapt than you.”
“What will we say if we run into any neighbours?”
“Don’t know yet, just smile for the time being, we’ve got a couple of days to come up with an idea.”
“Quintiliani says we mustn’t mention Cagnes, we must say we came from Menton; I’ve told the kids.”
“As if that creep had to spell it out.”
To avoid a painful conversation, Maggie went upstairs while Fred made himself feel good by clearing the table. He could now see the garden in daylight through the window: it had a wellkept lawn apart from a few maple leaves, a green metal bench, a gravel path and a leanto sheltering an abandoned barbecue. He suddenly remembered his nocturnal visit to the veranda and its strange, rather pleasant atmosphere. He suddenly had to see it again in daylight, before doing anything else. As if there was anything else to do.
It was March, and the weather was mild and bright. Maggie hesitated for a moment over a suitable outfit for her first visit to the town. She was very dark, with a matt complexion and black eyes, and normally wore brown and ochre colours. Today she chose beige jodhpurstyle trousers, a grey longsleeved Tshirt and a cotton cablestitch sweater. She went downstairs, with a little knapsack over her shoulder, glanced around briefly, looking for her husband, shouted, “See you this evening!” and left the house, unanswered.
Fred went onto the already sunny veranda, where he detected a soft smell of moss and dry wood – a pile of logs left behind by the previous tenants. The blinds over the bay window made stripes of sunshine along the length of the room. Fred pretended these were rays from heaven, and entertained himself by exposing his body to them. The room gave onto the garden, but was protected from the elements and covered pretty well forty square yards. He went over to the dump in the corner and started clearing out all the old stuff cluttering it up and blocking off space and light. He opened the French windows and started throwing all the forgotten possessions of the unknown family out onto the gravel: a television set from another era, some plates and copper pans, grubby telephone directories, a wheelless bike and a pile of other objects, quite understandably abandoned. Fred took great pleasure in chucking it all out, muttering “Trash!” and “Junk!” each time he hurled a piece out of his sight. Finally he picked up a small greygreen bakelite case, and was about to hurl it out with the gesture of a discusthrower. But then he suddenly felt curious about its contents and, placing it on the pingpong table, prised open the two rusty fasteners and opened the lid. Black metal. Motherofpearl keys. European keyboard. Automatic return. The machine had a name too: Brother 900, 1964 model.
Fred now held a typewriter in his hands for the first time in his life. He weighed it as he had done his children when they were born. He turned it around, examining its contours and angles, and its visible machinery, which was both splendidly obsolete and strangely complicated, full of pistons, sprockets and clever ironmongery. With the tips of his fingers he stroked the surface of the keys – r t y u – tried to recognize them just by feel, and then with his whole hand he caressed the metal frame. He held the spool and tried to unwind the ribbon, sniffing it to see if he could smell the ink, which he couldn’t. He hit the n key and then several others, faster and faster until they tangled together. He excitedly untangled them, then placed all his fingers haphazardly on the keys, and there, standing in the pink light of the veranda, with his dressing gown half open and his eyes shut, he felt overcome by a strange and unknown feeling.