The House That Laurie Built (from Ribbentrop's Chair)
THE HOUSE LAURIE BUILT
“In my family we’ve always found the world’s air hard to
breathe; we arrived hoping for somewhere better” (Salman Rushdie, The Moore’s Last Sigh).
Last night I slept badly, so I got up early. The wood pigeons are already ranting but the sunflowers in the fields are still stooped in the half-light.
Yesterday the lorries came and all night we were kept awake by the loud lament of the dairy cows in the neighbour’s sheds.
I sling the kettle on and grope around for coffee. After breakfast Brian will carry on painting green and yellow mountains (his current obsession – although the land around here is perfectly flat) and I’ll stick my hands into a cold mess of cooked damsons and filter out the pips between my fingers before boiling the fruit into jam. This will take hours, but I have plenty of time. The same songs are playing on the radio as yesterday and the day before. “Take me to Church”, “I’m Homeless”, “When it all falls down”, “We are not of the world”. Typical maudlin French taste in English pop music.
We’ve only been away for a couple of weeks but I’m already missing our children and grandchildren. I’m afraid if we stay away long enough they’ll get used to not having us around. I don’t want them to feel that way just yet.
Every year on arriving here I am shocked to find the ivy creeping further up inside the barn and to catch in the mirror the wrinkles advancing across my face. One day we’ll wake to discover we’ve been so busy we haven’t noticed our hearts have been eaten away and all that remains is deadwood and ivy.
The longer I spend in the countryside, the further my pulse slows. Although rural space and the gentle pace allow time for respite, here I am also confronted by the raw intensity of my emotions. The countryside is a relentless measure of time, whereas the city – with its fast fixes and two-cheek kisses - always suspends my disbelief in magic.
This old farmhouse in Anjou is rich with time. Time lies in deep pools all around us. It laps around my ankles as I wade from room to room. Time hangs in heavy curtains across my sight. It presses against me as I step through its folds. Time seethes around the two of us and the furniture in this room and will swallow us up if we stand still long enough.
The house was built in the early 19th century. According to my brother, ”the stone used in its construction was plundered from an old chateau in Vraire of which no trace remains. If you stand in the small upstairs bedroom you will see inscriptions in the stonework outside the window made by the men who cut and
carried the stone, along with those of several generations of occupants. In ‘Jean’s’ bedroom downstairs is the old bread oven”.
It was a sad heap of stones when they found it, but Laurie and Catherine have restored the stonework and built oak floors and a staircase and cut skylights into the hayloft, which is now a radiant bedroom under a raftered roof. A great beam hewn from a single oak, once the mast of a ship, shoulders the weight of the upper floor. An elaboration of tenoned, pegged posts and trusses supports the sagging pantiled roof. Stone fireplaces yawn into the high-ceilinged rooms. One of Jean’s paintings - a view from a Tuscan hill of sun-paled buildings and dark cypresses piercing a greying sky - hangs above the fireplace in the living room between
black iron sconces which mirror the shapes of the trees.
The solid spine wall once separated the human from the animal occupants (they kept each other warm in the winter) and sheltered the farm’s wine press. There was once a vineyard of chenin grapes but now the farm animals and vineyard have gone and the wine press crouches in the dark with the spiders.
Small squares cut through the stone walls of the upper rooms frame views of the surrounding fields – sometimes wheat combed into whorls by the wind and in rare years such as this, ranks of sunflowers turning their heads around the clock. Sunflowers have one-eyed, open faces and as there are no hedgerows parcelling up the landscape it can be disturbing to see 700,000 of them all turning to stare at you at once.
The territory now consists of two acres of brambled wilderness from which an orchard of fruit trees is being slowly and carefully being unpicked. Apples, pears, quinces, greengages, elderberries , blackberries and yellow, orange, red and purple Mirabelles fall to the ground in fragrant rotting heaps when no one is there to eat them, although as soon as visitors arrive they gather up this bounty to take home.
Behind the orchard surrounded by a tangle of sloes and bulrushes is a large pond which, in rainy seasons, teams with small carp and edible frogs. A family of foxes has taken up residence in the undergrowth.
At night a lone owl keeps watch in the shadows of the barn and if you get up early enough you can catch the rabbits springing around the pockmarked meadow. During the day geckos race across the plaster walls in the baking sun and in the evenings sloping shadows chase bright green snakes across the paving. Under the trees the warm earth hums as it decomposes.
Like the sea of vegetation which surrounds it, the farmhouse seems to have grown up from the ground in a vegetable manner, sending roots into the chalky soil, and I suspect it will decay in a similar way: gracefully. It never asked to be resurrected and longs to be reunited with the earth. The rubble walls disgorge stones quicker than they can be replaced. Acid yellow lichen blooms on fallen roof tiles and ivy pokes its fingers through the mortar joints.
Here on a bookshelf, Jean, sits the plaster bust of a medieval girl with downcast eyes and an introspective smile once modelled by you as an art student in the Musee des Moyen Ages. This bust used to sit on your dresser in Paris next to the photograph of your luminous Aunt Vera. Your books are at home here; picked up and pondered over by your cousins, whose French isn’t very good. Political theory, philosophy, art. Three tomes of Gulag Archipelago (in French) are piled up as a doorstop in an upstairs room.
Here is evidence of your true nature: “Les Grandes Amities” by Raissa Maritain, “Histoires d’Amour de l’Histoire de France”, “Dominique” by Eugene Fromentin, from “Les Grands Romanciers des XVIII et XIX Siecles”. We are happy to have inherited these facts, these fictions, these feelings and take pleasure picking out passages. Laurie has discovered your secrets, hidden for years between the leaves of your books:
tiny watercolours of people you loved, poems in your own hand. Did you want us to find these? They seem too personal, too private. The immaculate conceptions of a virgin.
Your wardrobe still exudes the sweet, resinous scent of your father’s pipe tobacco and the cigarettes you used to smoke, end to end. Great smokers, the Avadises.
Although you never came here, Cousin, you reside in every inch of the house and its wild acres, and one by one we’ve succumbed to the charm of this place and have started to paint and draw and write songs and stories here.
Now all our family can enjoy pigeon and rabbit stew and oysters carted from the Atlantic coast - country food you ate here in the Loire when you visited Jean Claude in Tourraine. We visit all the chateaux in the region as you once did, and drink the soft Anjou wines.
I applaud my brother in his metaphysical battle to preserve the home he has built for his forefathers: like a Dogone tribesman honouring his ancestors; creating special spaces for them in his home. How well did
Laurie really know you, Jean? It doesn’t matter. He has inherited the same romantic nature. He has called the bedroom downstairs “Jean’s room” – an invitation for you to return.
However even as Laurie lovingly points and plasters and shores up this old house and the memories it protects against the relentless march of time, mice gnaw at the fallen fruit in the empty garden and the crumbling
limestone dissolves gently into the earth. Every year the faces in the photos on the walls slowly fade in the sunlight and this book never gets finished.
Here, in the cool house stroked by the river wind, the rupture of purple plums on the tongue and the sting of blue-veined cheeses while satisfying our senses, make us conscious of the watchful eyes of those family faces on the walls. There are those we knew and loved and those we loved but never really knew. The touch
of their bodies is still imprinted on the artefacts around us. I crave their embrace, the sound of their
There are also ghosts of the living – those who visit this house when we are absent – whose paths cross ours too rarely.
Yesterday the lorries came and all night we were kept awake by the loud lament of the dairy cows in the neighbour’s sheds. Their calves had been taken away.