I am in France at the moment and the other day, as always when I am back here, I went back to the village where we used to spend all our time as children, when we were back in France on our periodic holidays from Australia. The beautiful old house where we used to live has been highly important to me not only personally but as a writer too, so today I thought I would republish here a piece I wrote a little while back, about the house and its place in my imagination.
The good-fairy house
The very year I was born, my parents, who were then working as expatriates in Indonesia, bought their first house, with the help of my paternal grandmother Marie-Louise Masson. A few months later, as a sickly baby, I was left with her, for the sake of my health—and stayed with her till I was five years old and my parents took me with them to Australia.
La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as my parents named their French house(after my father’s wealthy French-Canadian ancestors’ manor at Terrebonne near Montreal)was at the time a large, beautiful but damaged late-eighteenth house, with crumbling seventeenth century outbuildings, in a south-western French village called Empeaux.
It wasn’t common at the time for people to buy a country house so far out ‘in the sticks’ , especially when it was in such bad condition. Not only would the house need restoring from top to bottom, but there was massive work to do as well in its enormous overgrown garden, dotted with ancient trees including a rather sinister yew and a magnificent elm planted by one of Henri IV’s advisers, as well as fruit trees. (The garden was so big everyone called it ‘the park.’ ) Well, nothing daunted, my parents set to work, devoting a large part of their expatriate salaries to pay a succession of masons, tilers, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters and other local tradesmen. Slowly but surely, and with the help of much cash, the house turned from Cinderella in rags to beautiful princess admired by all. And it became our family base, our French base, to which we returned every two-three years, for two-three months. We loved that house. In its warm, enchanted space, everything was extraordinary. The house was full of stories: some sad, like that of the heartbroken young man who’d hung himself in one of the bedrooms(haunted, it was nevertheless a beautiful room, and a great family favourite); some scary, like the well in the garden where a witch had been thrown, long ago; some touching, like that of the old gentleman who tapped at the front door once and told us how he’d spent his childhood in the house(I still dream about it, he said); some amazing, like that of the elm tree which because of its origin featured in the heritage of France(named a National Monument, it died, sadly, in the Dutch elm epidemic of the 1980’s).
The old wooden stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar smelled of the earth. In the storage antechambers that ran the length of each main room, there were lots of things to discover: the Indonesian baskets full of Balinese dance costumes in red and gold and green and gold, with their assorted jewellery made in gilded leather decorated with bits if glass; a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including one made of Canadian wolfskins; a wicker cradle with my aunt Geneviève’s lovely 1940’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and the big pottery and glass jars where in the winter goose and duck confit slept under layers of fat, for it was so cold in those unheated antechambers that they might as well have been fridges. In the ‘park’ we ran riot, screaming, running, climbing the fruit trees to gorge ourselves on cherries, greengages, figs..And sometimes we’d take our bikes and go off for hours exploring, in a freedom that we never had in our Sydney suburb. As my mother still says, that house had a soul. The soul of a good fairy, despite the many terrible stories associated with it. It was a house that welcomed its people, which did them good, especially children. Grown up now, we regret it greatly—for our parents sold it in the late 1990’s—but nevertheless our memories are not bitter, but rather filled with the joy of having known so well a house which so enchanted our childhood. And for myself, I know that not only did La Nouvelle Terrebonne greatly enrich my childhood memories, it has forever become a part of my imaginative DNA as a writer.