Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air. – Pablo Neruda
A house made of red Picardie brick, but painted white, stands detached in a cleared plot of land in the Lys Forest, the second largest one in France. It was built in 1931, before the soldiers came again. She had been with her husband but not with him when he went to supervise the final shutting up of the house. Plotting the route in her mind from The Hague to Rotterdam to Brussels to Paris to Gouvieux.
“This is what the house smells like. Like this. After only one month,” he shakes his head, handing her his jumper.
Tears smart her eyes as she thinks of the house shuttered and closed to the freshness of the woods. Nothing left except what could not fit into the removal van. Mould will eat the carpet upstairs and the walls will cry with condensation. She wants one last time to stand in the now emptied spaces. To close her eyes and hear, at first, the traffic that always passes too fast. But, beyond that, the rush of the River Oise. The woodpecker in the oak trees. The red squirrels tight roping the electrical wires. And, deeper still, the ungodly creaks in the attic at night time. She sees herself going down the stairs again, reliving what maybe wasn’t a dream, down to the bottom of the stairs where a young woman, not unlike herself, had been waiting. This ghost pushes against a bricked up wall, where a door used to be, leading to the garden. This spirit tries to tell her something but no sound comes out. She dissipates, a lost girl… Ici il ne se passa strictement rien…This she had read on a plaque poking fun at all the historical plaques seen throughout France. But it’s not true. The stories we do not know speak truth. The stories that history passes by have consequence.
I wrote that in the summer of 2014 after relocating to The Netherlands from France. In 2011, my husband and I bought a house in Picardie. It was the first property I had ever owned. I was so houseproud, a keen housekeeper, a relieved homemaker. I made that house shine. So, when we had to abandon it after the sudden liquidation of the company my husband worked for, I was distraught. These past two years, I have tried not to think of this abode but it nonetheless comes to me in my dreams.
Come to me in my dreams and then
By day I shall be well again!
For then the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.
My husband and I have been forced to put it on the market and I could barely sit still on the difficult passage there this weekend. I fidgeted on the wet grass as my husband worked hard to open the stubborn door. Turning off the heating had caused the floors of the kitchen to swell. I waited until he’d opened all the shutters and windows before stepping across the threshold. It was as I expected, mould had started to infect the walls and carpets. A bee’s nest lay discarded by the chimney. It was bad but redeemable. And my daughter running through it brought more chi back.
“Do you remember this place?” I asked her
But she went straight to a toy stroller we’d left behind. She’d used it when learning to walk. My daughter was conceived here, the labour pains starting in the dead of night, my water had broken as I brought in clothes from the laundry line. She was brought here days later from the hospital. Here was where she first smiled at me.
And the lady arriving to help us sell it made me feel better. She had contacts who would clean the garden and freshen the house.
“This house is strong, it has…” she fumbled for the English word
“Caractere?” I suggested
“Voila! N’inquietez pas madam.”
As she drove us back to Chantilly train station, I looked back to a house I knew was there. I would often linger outside its gates. It had been long abandoned and I had never understood why. Today, I do.
On the train to Paris, the train stalled. It would be stuck there for 2 and a half hours. It goes without saying that we missed our connecting Thalys train to Rotterdam. My husband and I locked eyes. What brought the stifling unease was that the same thing had happened on the way out of Rotterdam too. We had been left for the same amount of time outside in the cold for a replacement bus service. The conductors simply told us there had been an ‘incident’ on the tracks. Staying safe from an’intruder’ is the word my daughter’s school uses to explain why the children have to learn lockdown procedures. At Paris Gare du Nord, we were kettled amongst a backlog of passengers also affected like us. At one point, I was simply trying to prevent my daughter from being trampled. I found a safe spot and she tried to play with a French soldier who didn’t notice her, he was too busy scanning.
“Why he don’t want to play with me?” my daughter asked
“He’s working, he’s doing his job,”
He walks out onto Rue de Dunkerque. I’d seen the trailer for the new movie Dunkirk just the other day. We had seen the military patrolling that morning, at twilight, around Paris Gare de L’Est. They passed softly underneath the World War One painting in the station. We finally got on a train and it was every man for himself. And unbelievably, we all had to get off again at Antwerp. A driver had decided not to show up for work.
“Sit wherever you want or can,” a weary member of staff told us.
I got separated from my husband and called and called his phone.
“C’est une erreur madame,” someone said on the line
I found him in the canteen.
“Why is some stranger answering?”
“He must have the same number as me and it’s connecting because we’re passing through Belgium,”
All of us on that train, the French, Dutch, Flemish and English speakers…we were a testament to one another. Concerned, helpful but when something derails, it becomes Tower of Babel, no matter how much the powers that be profess the cohesiveness of the European project.
We walked to our house in Holland as the church clock struck one time.
“I’m scared Mummy,”
I simply picked her up because I am too. For now, I focus on returning to England.
“What about Brexit?” someone had asked me
“There will be no European Union to Brexit from,” I said back
Adieu La France, bonjour tristesse.