THEY’D TAKEN OVER a week to drive from Lake Garda, moseying into obscure glacial valleys (he liked poking around) and staying at joints frequented by Europeans who walked in the Alps. This house, the house she’d booked in the Périgord, was to be their real holiday – real in the sense that they intended to do the fabled nothing. No thing. Historically and, more times than she would have liked, hysterically, they had not been good at holidays.
Paulette, the owner, with eyes that Carol remembered from children’s stories (‘the farmer’s wife had eyes like brown buttons’), bounced along the path between her own compact, dormered house and the smaller cottage where they were to stay. Smiling, talking, gesturing, only stopping for breath to swing open the door and let them in. Her expectations danced past them.
Carol was the first to enter, so neither Paulette nor Stephen saw her face the moment she saw the vases. Silk flowers splattered the room. Two massive arrangements at either end of a sideboard, something smaller in a china jug on the mantelpiece, another on a side table. In the kitchen, nodding tangerine peonies sat on top of the refrigerator. The bathroom had daffodils. Floral wallpaper covered every wall and ceiling. The upholstery was chintz, the cushions botanical needlepoint.
She could not look at Stephen.
‘I couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings,’ she said later when Stephen, wild-eyed, asked her why she’d been so full on about the place ('gush' was the word he used). But Carol knew a house-proud woman when she saw one, and she had calibrated the anxiety behind Paulette’s smile with precision. (If she’d been asked to calibrate her own precision, without any false modesty she would have replied 'breathtaking'.) A lot of people, she guessed, would not have been able to hide their shock and dismay as they stepped over the threshold and found themselves in une forêt des fleures artificielles with nursing-home chintz. Dismay must have irradiated that room to toxicity by now.
She shouldered the blame. Stephen, the smart and patient internet shopper, would have viewed more than the first four houses offered. But Carol had been slack and impatient. How different could another six be? Or sixteen?
It was true that the phrase ‘furnished in very French style’ had caused a tremor of doubt in her. After they’d sent the deposit, several times in the dead hours of the night when she woke and wondered about these things, she tried to imagine exactly what ‘very French style’ meant. Perhaps, subconsciously, she had known exactly what it meant but preferred to be optimistic rather than enquire further. Wish fulfillment? Laziness, probably. Or lying. That was what Stephen called it. Lying. Her entire approach to life involved lying to herself and to everyone else. It was his view that she didn’t know when she was lying.
In fact, the internet hadn’t lied; it was indeed furnished in very French style, a taste perfectly in tune with the single woman who had furnished it in the early 1960s.
So now there was no point in looking at the flowers, or at Stephen; the house was shining with clean – 'refulgent' was the word – and it was comfortable. Besides, they’d paid for the first week in advance.
‘Beaux! Belle! Bonne!’ she’d cooed, widening her eyes and raising her hands. ‘Oh! Yes! Vraiment!’ Oh yes, vraiment gushing. In nervy moments, gush fell upon her with the grip of OCD. But Paulette, whom Maupassant would have described as 'a dumpling of a woman’ (later they knew just what shape and size of dumpling because of the very French style elastic corset/bra configuration she hung out to dry by the side of her house), seemed to love Carol’s gushing and relaxed into trilling charm.
A few days later Carol discovered that the exquisite sheets on the bed were from Paulette’s trousseau. She’d embroidered them herself with complicated motifs and that finicky pulling-through of linen threads just above the hem where the sheet turned back. It had a particular name, and she’d been taught to do it herself in sixth grade. Drawn-thread embroidery? A young woman’s hopes were embroidered into those sheets, each one shaped into a miniature formal work of art. Carol tried to imagine the work involved. She imagined the eternal nights by the fire, when there was no TV and conversation, were a series of grunts. She imagined entire hamlets snowed in. And, with no great imaginative effort at all, she could smell the animals locked in for winter under the house. Only sentimentalists and idiots called that romantic.
‘Madame, you are an artist,’ she told Paulette, who accepted the compliment with the gravity and sincerity with which it had been given before tripping back along the path to her own house.
‘The first thing we do,’ said Stephen, dropping his nifty silver Italian case (wheels, handles, hidden extras) on the mushroom-fitted carpet in the bedroom, ‘is get rid of all this junk.’ Carol flinched. ‘Junk’ felt like an insult and betrayal not just of Paulette, but of all women. She held her tongue by flattening it against the roof of her mouth. They were fast workers and in half an hour the flowers had been put in one collection on the sideboard and all the knick-knacks – a word Carol, doing a complete and cheap reversal (inconsistency, another of her problems), had come to love because of its almost perfect onomatopoeic properties – and doilies had been stowed in the drawers.
In his haste Stephen clipped the flowered handle off one faience piece. It fell to the floor, scattering across the tiles. Carol let out an actressy ‘Oh!’ He winced for a second but then pounced on her, telling her to be practical; it was a rented place and rent included the risk of things breaking. If the owners didn’t want things broken they shouldn’t leave them around.
She saw his point, but for the entire two weeks she made sure they didn’t use the quaint, hand-painted old French-ware that she found in the kitchen cupboard. Each plate had the same motif: a couple facing one another. Courting, she supposed, because the man (bashful), in breeches, was holding out a bunch of flowers to the girl (demure) in a long blue skirt and apron. She would have liked to find a plate for herself and take it home, imagining exactly where it would go in her kitchen (on the shelf above the stove). But when she asked Paulette where you could buy them, Paulette did some adorable French thing with her mouth and hands, flipping a ‘Boh!’ into the shimmering Périgord air. She knew they were valuable, she said, and maybe, perhaps…well, perhaps if they went up to Limoges they could find something but, because everyone wanted old things these days, she didn’t think so. She really didn’t think so.
‘People pay a hundred euro for those little plates.’ Her dumpling fat trembled when she laughed.
‘I wonder why she leaves such valuable stuff in a rented place,’ Carol mused as they sat out under the bean tree on the white plastic chairs (so disappointing), admiring the tender, stupid faces and fat noses of the caramel-coloured calves beyond the fence. Did they have Jerseys in France? She would Google it tomorrow in the cafe. Paulette’s house, a budget house, did not include internet. How she had forgotten to check that, of all things, was still a spikey thing between her and Stephen.
‘Probably doesn’t know how valuable it is,’ he said, pulling the cork on a local red that he was rather keen to try.
‘Oh, she does,’ said Carol. ‘She knows exactly how much it’s worth.’ She glanced towards the immaculate standard roses that hedged the path between their house and Paulette’s. ‘Maybe she just doesn’t value it?’ Paulette had the air of a happy woman. (This turned out to be an illusion: the day they left they discovered that her husband was being treated for pancreatic cancer.)
‘Who knows?’ Stephen said. ‘Try this.’ He pushed a glass towards her and they saluted themselves and their holiday. ‘Here’s to the beautiful French country air,’ he said, raising his glass and lifting his eyebrows. ‘I am content!’ He put his hand across his heart and took a breath such that she, a reader of Keats, thought of the word 'draught'.
Being kind, Stephen offered to drive to Limoges if she really wanted to find something, but when she thought about it there was nothing she wanted. Well, there was. There was always something she would want, but she never knew what until she saw it. They’d put off buying new coffee cups for the past six months because they thought they’d find something perfect – something as fine as it was distinguished – in France, so they had reason to go. The problem for Carol was that she and Stephen did not shop happily together, although he tried, insisting that he was content to stand outside the shop and wait for her. Only a man who never shopped would say that. The pleasure of shopping was in the blank looking and the unexpected seeing. It didn’t work when there was a man waiting outside like an egg-timer. It never worked, despite the goodwill on both sides. So she said she was happy not to drive to Limoges.
The area was renowned for its use as a film set, and any French or American fairytale filmed over the past decade seemed to have been made there. Carol understood why: the soft, rounded trees, the sighing glades of chestnut and walnut reminded her of an extended monastery garden. And, curving peaceably through every vista, was the Dordogne. She had never seen such an amiable river.
‘Not like the Rhône,’ she told Stephen as they leaned over a bird-pocked bridge and gazed into the placid surface. ‘The Rhône frightens me. Don’t you think the Rhône wants to drown you?’
‘No,’ he said.
One of the many cinematic chateaux in the area had been owned by Josephine Baker, the American dancer who was perhaps most famous for dancing with nothing but a string of bananas around her boyish hips. And yes, a visit to the chateau confirmed that Miss Baker, as the curatorial paragraphs called her, was bananas. She had adopted children from all over the world with the intention of giving them the start in life that she, illegitimate and black, didn’t have. Eleven, was it? Some of her ideas were well ahead of the 1930s; she hired tutors for the children, so that they could retain their mother-tongue as they merged into her vision of the one big rainbow family in her castle in the French countryside. Everywhere in the fairytale castle there were pictures of Josephine Baker, and in every photo she had the same smile.
‘Uh-huh,’ Carol said squinting at a small photograph in the upstairs bedroom. ‘Poor Miss Baker. Manic.’ There was another photograph of her saluting General de Gaulle, who had just pinned a medal on her uniform for helping with the Resistance. A uniform? Why was she wearing a uniform when she lived in the castle during the war? Did she wear it throughout the war? Did the Nazis respect her that much?
‘Obviously,’ said Stephen.
‘Obviously what?’ She asked. ‘Manic or respected?’
He shrugged. ‘Both.’
They went through to the bathrooms, large, art deco things in dirty colours. ‘Mausoleums,’ muttered Carol. She frowned at them and wondered, again, why people admired art deco – surely the only time in the history of art when violet and deep green had been used together in its name. What did she miss? She had heard that there was a lot of fun in art deco because it had tried to ignore the Depression. But she had always failed at fun, as Stephen, post-doctorally qualified on the subject, enjoyed reminding her.
She also wanted to know what happened to all the rainbow children Miss Baker had adopted. What had their lives turned out to be after she’d lost all her money, the last husband had vanished into South America, and the castle had been sold? Downstairs, in the kitchen where they were all supposed to have eaten meals together (although the table seemed too small for eleven), there was an awful photograph of her camping in front of the main entrance after she had been evicted. It was the only photo she didn’t smile in. Carol looked at it for a long time. It upset her, although she didn’t mention this to Stephen, who was looking at the joins in the table and wondering if it was cherrywood.
The Josephine Baker chateau was filled with busloads of people. They often looked puzzled, although the women seemed happy enough to look at the costumes that Miss Baker, slim-hipped temptress, once wore. Carol and Stephen concluded they looked like something from a transvestite show. Except, unlike the average transvestite, she was tiny.
‘Another pint-sized woman conquering the world,’ Carol said to Stephen, who looked puzzled.
Carol was tall, and occasionally had an impulse to be unkind to miniature women.
‘Now, who was she again?’ Stephen heard one man ask his wife, in English.
‘A dancer,’ the woman replied, looking uncertain but sounding knowledgeable as she skimmed the brochure. ‘She was American. The French took her up. We should look at her bathrooms. It says here they’re special. Lanvin-inspired.’
‘Lanvin? And who’s he when he’s at home? Did they say we could get lunch here?’ the man asked as they left the room. Carol and Stephen, studying the costumes, caught one another’s eye. Lunch, something skipped at home, was a new pleasure. A new, French pleasure.
Under the bean tree that evening, Carol, her hair tucked up under a headband, asked Stephen what he’d thought about the Josephine Baker chateau.
He surprised her. ‘Interesting,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t known anything about her.’ Then: ‘Horrible bathrooms.’
‘Weren’t they. I thought she was tragic. Obviously mad.’ She smiled at a cow over the fence. ‘I came away repelled by her but also sorry for her. Not a good life, I imagine. But a good heart.’
‘You’d have to be fairly mad and fairly rich,’ remarked Stephen, pulling at one of the long beans that dangled on his hair, ‘to attempt a fantasy life on that scale. Can you actually eat these?’
‘I always thought she was some sort of sex goddess of her time,’ Carol said, ‘but she’s pretty unattractive, at least to contemporary eyes. It must have been because she stripped and at the time it was a big deal, stripping. Shows the line of sexual history perhaps.’
‘What?’ He was mild, sipping the local red. The price was unbelievable for this quality.
‘Well,’ she picked about in her thoughts for what she might mean. A bit like the young god throwing golden balls to stop Atlanta in the race, Carol liked to bowl around ideas and leave them for others to pick up. It was a habit that irritated Stephen. ‘Speaking historically, sexuality alters as much as anything else. What used to be wild is now normal. They’ve linked the now common practice of oral sex to this dramatic rise in mouth and esophageal cancer. In our parent's day you’d have to go to a specialised service to get oral sex. Now they offer tips in teen magazines.’
‘Tips? Are you trying to be funny?’ He gave her one of his rueful smiles, which always landed in her brain as 'grim'. ‘But what would I know about sex. Sex? What’s sex?’
She shut her eyes for three seconds. ‘You can’t eat the beans from the bean tree. I think you die. What do you want to do tomorrow?’
They went to Domme, the bleached stone village perched so high above the valley that it had been the ideal place to imprison the Knights Templar on their way to the Crusades.
‘1107! You can see the graffiti written by the imprisoned knights in 1107,’ Carol read to Stephen from the guidebook. They had only vague ideas of who the knights were but Wikipedia gave them the basics. They were the richest knights, the best fighters, the ones who wore white mantels with a red cross. They’d seen them in every movie, every TV series since childhood and hadn’t realised who they were. What was doubly amazing, Carol thought, was that they were real and that they, these individual men, had scrawled their graffiti when they were imprisoned in Domme almost a thousand years ago.
‘So they weren't just celluloid fantasy.’ They were eating – she had a crepe, he an omelette – in a vine-covered restaurant right at the cliff edge, and so were able to look down the sheer side across the valley where the matronly river was dotted with canoeists. Canoeing puzzled her. It wasn’t a thing for impatient people. ‘I love the fact that they leave graffiti and not the grand images we’re expected to be awed by. It makes the world more…’ she stopped speaking, wondering which word to use: ‘possible’ or ‘liveable’. Did she, she sometimes wondered, have OCD about semantic precision? It often stopped her speech.
‘More…?’ He tasted his omelette. ‘Nice enough.’
She put down her fork. ‘History makes the world liveable. It makes you, well, it makes me see it as a series of individual lives. Scaled to fit. I feel involved in life, seeing them and thinking about them as individuals in this extraordinary process. All these lives lived and then, whoosh! They no longer live. Just like us.’
He wiped his mouth. ‘Like us? They weren’t really like us at all. Crazy zealots in fact. Richard the Lionheart was quite a piece of work when you look into it. Not the great and noble king we hear about from school history at all. All that barbarism done in the name of God.’ He paused. ‘Typical. And the Christians like to lord it over the Muslims. You have to shake your head.’
She murmured something that meant nothing. Then she shook her head so that it rattled. Pins fell from her hair onto the soft ground. She left them there. ‘And Eleanor of Aquitane wasn’t actually Katherine Hepburn,’ she said looking out across the distant landscape. He was studying the menu.
‘Are you having ice cream?’ he asked. ‘They’ve got that cassis. Let’s have two boulles to share – or would you prefer the nougat? You choose, I don’t care. Why can’t we get cassis at home? Is it another French thing?’
Afterwards, they walked down the main street to the car, and Stephen went to see if he could buy an English-language newspaper while Carol went inside a shop to ask about a blouse she thought she might buy for their daughter. In the dark back of the shop she decided it was too trashy – and made in Turkey, anyway – for their elegant daughter and turned to walk through the racks of clothes towards the sunny street. At the doorway, a woman pushed aside a curtain and ran out into the street adjusting a dress. Her husband was waiting outside. The woman was English, a few years younger than Carol. ‘What do you think?’ she turned and modeled the strappy dress, showing her newly burned pink flesh. From the shadow of the awning Carol saw him smile and nod at his curvaceous wife, joyful in a dress made for a slender young woman. Carol, calibrating with precision (again!), thought she saw the aghast behind the nod. Here was a good man who didn’t want to destroy his wife’s illusions, didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Carol, who had some experience of buying the wrong dress in the flush of holiday happiness (unfamiliar happiness made a woman overconfident), almost told the woman not to buy it – that she would regret it the minute she returned, that she’d never wear it again, that it was wasting her money.
She didn’t. It was not her business. And perhaps the happiness for the woman was in the purchase and the planning rather than the actual wearing. When she got back to London, or wherever, she’d laugh at herself and wonder what got into her. Or possibly who had gotten into that dress. She might even ask her husband how on earth he could have let her buy it. ‘Oh, darling…’ he would say, indulgent and vague.
‘Did you see the woman in the tight dress?’ she asked Stephen the moment they were further down the hill, out of earshot. She was struck, she told him, by the small and perfect drama.
‘What woman?’ He looked around.
‘At the shop,’ she explained. ‘Her husband was waiting outside.’
He shook his head. ‘Nope. Look,’ he flourished a bundle of papers, waving them like a flag. ‘They had The Times and the Guardian. Two crossies! And sudokus!’ He looked at her sideways and frowned. ‘What?’
‘Nothing,’ she said. She wished he wouldn’t snap at her in that prim way he had.
They walked on in silence and Carol considered herself. Was there, after all, any difference between sentimentalising long dark winter nights and seeing small and perfect dramas in every second encounter.
‘Listen,’ he said when they reached the top. ‘Let’s skip the museum. I thought we could go and look at the canoeists. It seems there’s some sort of race. Might be fun.’
She thought of Paulette, her plumpness, her smile, her air of being a happy woman. ‘Ok,’ she said. ‘Why not?’