My mother asked me to write about an object. The object I have chosen is a house called La Cigale.
La Cigale is French for The Cicada. A cicada spends most of its five years of life underground, emerging into the light for a week or so, to sit in a tree, lay thousands of eggs, and join in that famous chorus. The eggs drop to the ground, hatch, and the “nymphs” burrow downwards.
La Cigale is a tall, crumbling house, on the edge of a tiny hamlet in the Haut Languedoc called Lavalette. You go through the front door into a long thin sitting room, dominated by a huge old fireplace. Either up the steepest of staircases to the two floors above, or on through the kitchen and out onto the wide, stone-tiled terrace which looks over the valley. It’s partly covered by a bamboo curtain strung over iron bars, and strips of bamboo throw wavy lines of shade. The valley is a mass of trees. The closest are figs, tall and luscious, growing in the (a bit scary) neighbour’s garden. The smell of those fig trees, the wavy lines, and the sun’s heat on the tiles, send me into a quiet rapture.
Can a house be an object? Or is it too much a living thing? La Cigale is most palpably alive when you first arrive – alive with insects. Last summer we arrived at dusk, after a long journey of missed turnings, winding roads and carsickness. The house loomed, familiar but mysterious, all locked up. I went in first. Creaked open the blue-grey flaking shutters, wrenched open the door, and stepped into the buzzing, whining, scuttle-filled darkness. Took a breath and pushed my way firmly through the swathes of cobwebs. Wrenched open the back door, creaked open a similar set of shutters, and stepped out, exhaling with relief. The terrace was flooded with evening sun, but was that hail raining down on me from the vast, cloudless sky? Dark shapes, bullet-sized and shaped, but softish… And then one stung me.
The Lavalette wasps are long and elegant, only faintly striped. I know a little about cicadas, but nothing about wasps, so I’m amazed by their steadfast determination to build nests on the kitchen shutters. The human inhabitants are few in number – maybe 50, and mostly part-time – but there’s a Mairie in Lavallette, complete with Mayor. There’s also a chateau, which used to belong to a local family, who let neighbours come an use the swimming pool. Now owned by an English banker, it’s abandoned, the pool empty all year round. From the terrace of La Cigale you can see into the small cemetery: twenty-odd graves, the same two or three surnames.
Houses are alive with memories too… memories themselves, or just the objects that ignite the memories? Once the cobwebs are cleared and the wasps’ nests destroyed (for now) the odd homeliness of La Cigale emerges. Such familiar things, but from way back, in another life, another country. My sister’s schoolgirl sculptures, my artist aunt’s red apple, throbbing sultry as ever against its red backdrop. A heavy old desk, which once belonged in a study in a house in Camberwell. Upstairs, photographs. A, maybe 12-year-old girl? My grandmother, who had left life before I arrived. A grey old dog called Zoe, long dead (nowhere near as long as my grandmother). Oh, and there’s me! A former me – aged about five.
My sons laugh and laugh. “You were so UGLY!” I stare at the photograph. The features are familiar to me, but nowhere near as familiar as my own children’s. I wander around, looking, in a slow, mesmerised idleness, letting the house present its selection for this year. There are books everywhere, from Virginia Woolf to Dan Brown, and I run my eyes along their spines, thinking, as I do every time I come, “There was no need to bring any with me.” I open drawers and look in boxes. Objects within objects within objects. A “first aid” box contains three ancient Strepsils. Memories everywhere. Drawings, scraps of writing; the typed-out diary of my mother’s great Uncle Roland, written in the trenches, over the few days before his death on 1 July 1916. Up in the loft is the silk mandala I bought my mother in India. How long did I haggle or that embroidered strip of brown silk? Sitting cross-legged on plump cushions, silk draped everywhere. The shopkeeper sent out for chai. I remember dreaming of how much she would love it, revere it, even. Now the mandala is the cover for a half-collapsed side table. I’m vaguely offended – why isn’t it up on the wall, like that red, throbbing apple?
When I was a child we never returned to the same place for holidays. I loved the idea of it, holidays full of nostalgia and traditions. It was what families did in the olden days, and in books. The drawback, I realise, having brought my children to this same house summer after summer, is that the memories of the separate holidays – birthday meals, terrible rows, canoeing accidents – all blur into one. I pull out the Visitors’ Book, searching through the scrawls, for clues as to what happened when. It’s hopeless, though. I curse my former selves for only managing a date and “Lovely time!”
When I said La Cigale is crumbling, I meant it. You come down in the morning and there are small piles of ceiling at regular intervals across the floor. This is on account of the real owners – the squirrel-rats, who live in the voids, at least when there are humans around. They are rarely seen, but make a tremendous racket in the evenings, crashing and screeching in the most unsettling way. I’m afraid of the squirrel-rats. As well as memories, La Cigale sparks all my worst fears. I am terrified of driving along the steep, narrow roads that wind up to it, and of the beasts in the forest who caterwaul across the valley. My worst fear of all – well, I will face it tomorrow, when we head for L’Herault, the stretch above St Guilhem Le Desert. It is the most beauteous stretch of river, cold, green water flowing between great pale slabs of rock. Boys, including mine, climb up those slabs, fingers and toes cramming into tiny crevices. Higher and higher, up to rocky platforms, giddily high. And then they jump – or even dive. Whole seconds before they hit the surface. I can’t watch. I wish I didn’t even know. A few years ago, I overheard a conversation about a 12-year-old boy who landed on a rock, just below the surface. The conversation was in French, and the word “paralysé” comes into my head and stays there, at even the first mention of L’Herault. I see his mother in the hospital, sitting at his bedside, that slim brown useless body, tubes going in and out of it. “Si seulement,” over and over, down the hospital corridors. Si seulement, echoing down that gorge forever.
Though it doesn’t have to be like that. As I do my “lazy yoga” on the sunbaked terrace, I think of Matthew Sanford, one of the best and most inspiring yoga teachers I’ve had the privilege to encounter. Paralysed at the age of 14, from the chest downwards, he scoots around his students in his chair, wisecracking as he makes the most knowing of adjustments. Matthew is an Iyengar teacher. I finish my breathing and rolling, and go and log on to my emails. BKS Iyengar has died, at the age of 96. Nobody is immortal, of course. But I kind of expected BKS to be. I am moved, in a sad way, and I don’t really know why. An old, old man, who’d made his life a gift. A couple of emails down, a new blogpost from my mother, entitled Nobody is Immortal. No mention of BKS.
Much later, in the evening, amidst the din of the squirrel-rats, I climb the steep staircase, ready for bed. In the bedroom I find myself gazing again at the books in the bookshelf. I’ve already spend whole minutes perusing it, and have pulled out a whole pile of books. But it is only this time that my eyes are drawn to a volume on the bottom shelf: Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar. I seize it, elated, and read Iyengar’s living words, deep into the night.
I wake up wondering how such an esoteric title had got there, and how the house had managed to present it to me, on that day. I flipped it open. On the title page, in very faded ink:
With love from
Tamsin G xx