By JULIET BATES
Rooms with views.
The week The Missing was published was the week we sold our apartment in Paris. Apartment is perhaps a grand word for the tiny flat that we had lived in for seven years, we had no balcony, no lift, no proper heating, and for a time no hot water. We did have a room with a view, however, a view reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. From the bedroom one could see a narrow rectangle of garden, a line of poplars and beyond a six storey block of flats. This was a perfect view for someone like me who spent most of their time staring through the window trying to fathom out what the neighbours were doing. There was no sculptor, no songwriter, no Miss Torso as far as I could see, but there were probably several Miss Lonelyhearts and quite possibly a potential Lars Thorwald, the man who murders his wife and stuffs her into a packing case.
PARIS WINDOW HERE
For two of the seven years we spent in the flat, I sat at this window trying to write and then correct The Missing. It was for this that the apartment and its surroundings appeared in the book. The hotel in which Frances stayed on her arrival in Paris was just down the road. The Père-Lachaise cemetery was a five minute walk away, Ania’s shop was on our street, perhaps one of the dirtiest streets in Paris. And the courtyard I described outside Boris Dagarov’s apartment was our own: a small square where the concierge hung her washing out to dry, where Filou the cat slept on top of the rubbish bins and where the inhabitants of the apartment block stored their bicycles and Vespas.
In August 2009 we spent three weeks removing our belongings from the flat and marvelling at how we had managed to pack so much into thirty-six meters squared. But I think, even at that point, I hadn’t completely reconciled myself to leaving. For most of the time, I loved Paris, I loved the fact that one could walk out of the door and wander down the hill to the Pompidou Centre, or the Louvre, or the Musée d’Orsay. There is something essentially glamourous about the city, more so when one lives there. I liked feeling as if I belonged. But there were times when I hated living in Paris, I hated the fact that once one got to the Pompidou Centre one had to queue, or that sometimes one wasn’t permitted to see the exhibition at all because there were too many visitors. I hated the price of things (I have never enjoyed spending money) and I hated the noise, for there was never a second of silence, not even in the apartment. We signed the papers in September and I think by then I had got used to the idea of living somewhere less impressive than Paris.
We had purchased a piece of land on a hillside in Normandy, an old orchard with a few large but decaying apple and pear trees growing in soil which, we discovered later, was hardly soil at all just piles of flint. After years of looking for the ideal house we had given up and decided to build our own. We were fussy, we wanted space and light, we wanted somewhere warm, we wanted a garden, we wanted a view. The house would be of a simple design, a timber framed rectangle, the shape of the barn on the opposite side of the valley.
I suppose designing a house is like writing a novel, only more complicated. At first there are the sketchy ideas that are drawn in biro on the backs of old manuscripts. Then there are the plans, a little like a plot, This is followed by the details, will this door work here? What will we see if we place this window there? Then there are the rewrites, of which there were several for our house. I must stress that I was not not the architect, I landed the job of treasurer to the project, a task which I did not enjoy.
The construction began in late March 2010 and the house was completed in November. In that time, I learned to love being in the countryside again, I cycled down narrow roads lined with hedges, sat by the small river filled with trout, watched the apple blossom turn to fruit. I didn’t forget Paris, of course. We are just over an hour away from the city by train, and I like to think that our part of Normandy is the equivalent of the home counties, or even better, Connecticut or upstate New York. Our town reminds me a little of the small town in All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk’s wonderful highly coloured melodrama from the fifties with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. And I like to think that our house is like Rock Hudson’s barn conversion with its large windows overlooking a pond and snow covered hills. We have lived in our house for two months now, two months of the worst weather, but we have seen many things. There are a pair of wild boar who totter across the road at quarter past seven every evening, a black rabbit who has a burrow under the brambles at the bottom of the hill, a resident owl, and a kestrel that swoops down to the garden from time to time. I have a room of my own, a room with a view, of course, and I have started writing in ernest again. The novel advances little by little and I have plans for several short stories. I have also begun to dig the garden and I am hunting for soil in which we can eventually plant the vegetables. I can’t wait for the spring.