The rocks glow red above the sea, embers of the day’s heat below our balcony at the Hotel Marie.
Down here on the southern rim of the country, out of the mistral’s slipstream, the evening drops like viscous liquid: slow and heavy and silent. When we first arrived, the stifling sultriness made sleep impossible; night closed in like the lid of a tomb.
Now, in the few hours I do sleep, I dream of all we have left behind: the hamlet on the hill and the whispering trees. Then, with a start, I’m awake again, remembering.
Until it happens to you, you don’t know how it will feel to stay with a man who has done a terrible thing. Not to know whether the worst has happened or is yet to come; wanting so badly to trust him now.
We cannot leave France so, for want of anywhere better to go, we are still here. When we first settled in, it was the height of summer. In shimmering light, sleek white yachts etched diamond patterned wakes on the inky blue playground and oiled bodies roasted on honey-gold sand. Jazz festivals wailed and syncopated along the coastline. For us, days passed numberless and unnamed.
As the seasonal sybarites have drifted away to the next event, to a more fashionable spot for September, or back to the daily work that made these sunny weeks possible, we have stayed on. At this once-proud Belle Époque villa built on a rocky outcrop round the headland from the bay of Cassis we have found a short-term compromise. Mme Jozan has stopped asking whether we intend staying a week longer in her faded pension. The fact is, we are. No doubt she will tell us in her pragmatic way when our presence is no longer acceptable.
We eat dinner at a café on the beach. How much longer it will be open is anyone’s guess. For the past few nights, we’ve been the only customers.
We hardly speak as we drink some wine and pick at olives. Dialogue is largely superfluous beyond courteous replies to the waiter.
Dom does try. ‘Did you walk today?’
‘I always walk.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘Up into the hills.’
I walk in the mornings, though sometimes I don’t return until mid-afternoon.
We go to bed early, and then on to places in our dreams: places that are not as they really are. This morning, in the shallows of semi-consciousness, I was in a domed greenhouse, a ghost of itself: glass clouded with age; other panes shattered, glinting and ready to fall; ironwork twisted and corrupt with rust. No such edifice exists at Les Genévriers, but that was where I was.
In my dream, glass creaked audibly above my head as I stood mending bent iron shelves, frustration mounting as I failed repeatedly to straighten the corroded metal. Through broken glass the pleated hills were there, always in the background, just as in life.
By day I try not to think of the house and the garden and the hillside we have left behind, which ensures, of course, that my brain must deal with the thoughts in underhanded ways. Trying is not necessarily succeeding, either. Some days I can think of nothing else but what we have lost. It might as well be in a different country, not a few hours drive to the north of where we are now.
Les Genévriers. The name of the property is misleading, for there is only one low-spreading juniper, hardly noble enough to warrant such recognition. There is probably a story behind that, too. There are so many stories about the place.
Up in the village, a wooded ten-minute climb up the hill, the inhabitants all have tales about Les Genévriers: in the post office, the bar, the café, the community hall. The susurration in the trees on its land was their childhood music, a magical rustling that seemed to cool the hottest afternoon. The cellar had once been renowned for its vin de noix, a sweet walnut liqueur. Then it was shut up for years, slumbering like a fairy castle on the hillside, and prey to forbidden explorations while legal arguments raged over ownership in a notaries’ office in Avignon. Local buyers shied away, while foreign bidders came, saw and went.
It is more than a house; it is a three-story farmhouse with a small attached barn in an enclosed courtyard, a line of workers’ cottages, a small stone cottage standing alone across the track, and various small outbuildings: officially designated un hameau, a hamlet.
‘It has a very special atmosphere,’ the agent said that morning in May when we saw it for the first time.
Rosemary hedges were pin-bright with pungent flowers. Beyond, a promenade of cypresses, prelude to a field of lavender. And rising at the end of every view, the dominant theme: the creased blue hills of the Grand Luberon.
‘There are springs on the land.’
That made sense. Three great plane trees grew close to the gate of the main house, testament to unseen water; they would not have grown so tall, so strong without it.
Dom caught my hand.
We were both imagining the same scenes, in which our dream life together would evolve on the gravel paths leading under shady oak, pine and fig trees, between topiary and low stone walls marking the shady spots with views down the wide valley, or up to the hilltop village crowned with its medieval castle. Tables and chairs where we would read or sip a cold drink, or offer each other fragments of our former lives while sinking into a state of complete contentment.