I walked to Central Park. It had suddenly become warm and I was so jet lagged I thought I might faint. I found a place near the entrance to the park under a tree and collapsed on to the grass. Lying on my back, looking up at the big American sky between the leaves, I saw something hanging from the branches. It was a key. A key on a red ribbon that someone had hung on a branch and forgotten to take with them. I wondered if they had deliberately left it behind because they were never going to return to wherever the key belonged. Or perhaps they wanted to close a door on a chapter of their life and leaving the key behind was a gesture of this desire. There is always something secret and mysterious about keys. They are the instrument to enter and exit, open and close, lock and unlock various desirable and undesirable domains.
I had spent so much of my life peering into estate agents, searching for my very own domain, my face pressed against the window, along with the ghosts of other dreamers looking for homes we could not afford. Nevertheless, I believed that one day, when I grew up, I would earn myself the keys to a house of my own with honeysuckle and balconies. At the same time a mean little voice in my head was always saying: “This is not real, it will never be yours.”
Yes, I had spent a long time trying to have a more bourgeois life. Somehow it seemed hard to get one. My colleagues were always trying to be less bourgeois, but I wanted to move into the neighbourhood.
Bonjour, isn’t the air a delight here! Look at our country cottages with their tangle of pink climbing roses. Look at our dining table and its constellation of chairs, look at the art on our walls, our pergola, our salad bowls and oriental poppies, our Victorian porcelain and wildflower meadows. Look at this slice of buttered toast next to the modernist lamp. Look! Look at you looking on Instagram! Here we are, setting off on our country walk with Molly, our sweet-natured Burmese python!
If real estate is a self-portrait and a class portrait, it is also a body arranging its limbs to seduce. Actually, I couldn’t work out why real estate wasn’t flirting with me more intensely, its swooning eyes making me all kinds of offers I couldn’t refuse. After all, I was at last able to live from my writing. As I lay beneath the abandoned or forgotten key in Central Park and started to think about all this, it was too depressing to linger on the real and pragmatic reasons for still living in the wreck of the London apartment block.
I had started writing in my early 20s and was first published age 27, though my plays were performed throughout my early 20s. It has been immensely powerful putting words into the mouths of actors, but it was hard to pay the bills. I thought about the writer Rebecca West, whose books had brought her enough wealth at 40 to buy herself a Rolls-Royce and a grand country house, or estate, in the Chiltern Hills. At the age of 40 my second daughter was three months old and I was experimenting with how to make dhal (very cheap) from a variety of pulses and lentils. While Rebecca West put her foot down in her new swanky car, I was figuring how to combine spices and whether it would be better to serve dhal with rice or learn how to make roti and other Indian flatbreads. Yes, it gave me such pleasure to see how the dough bubbled and puffed up in the frying pan and to simmer butter and strain it. Later I went on to make paratha, much trickier: it required pleating the dough. I couldn’t believe it. I was making delicious dhal and rotis and parathas to feed my family and I was writing through the night, familiar with every car alarm that went off at four in the morning. At the same age, Rebecca West was parking her new Rolls-Royce in the grounds of her real estate and Camus was receiving the Nobel prize.
Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.
Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)
I was with Rebecca West some of the way, but not with the blackened foundations. If you are not wealthy, you do not want a catastrophe in which your house burns down. My wok! My little lamp fringed with white pom-poms! All the same, those invisible years raising our children and getting to grips with all those parathas were some of the most formative years of my life. I didn’t know it then, but I was becoming the writer I wanted to be.
To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language. Anyone who thinks deeply, freely and seriously will move nearer to life and death and everything else we pass on the way. Any cleaner getting up at dawn to sweep offices, railway stations, schools, hospitals, will be familiar with this sort of thinking.
She knows she has to be stronger than her most fearful thoughts, stronger than her exhaustion. It is likely there are many people who hear and see her, though she might not be visible on Instagram, but that doesn’t stop her from thinking big thoughts. Thought is language. Avoiding thought is language. I once taught a writing class just looking at the words Yes and No. We agreed that a sign on a gate that reads No Blacks, No Jews, No Gypsies is the most impoverished language of all. The signs on public swimming pools in the 1970s were interesting texts, too. No Diving, No Petting, No Eating, No Splashing. Why not put up a sign that just says No. No. No. And what would happen if we were to flip the sign? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Yes. I wanted a house. And a garden. I wanted land.
Rain fell quietly and gently on the trees in the car park of the crumbling block on the hill. As I helped my daughter pack her suitcases that autumn, I knew epic motherhood was now moving into a new phase. I wondered if it was possible to be a matriarchal character who does not hold everyone hostage to her needs, ego, anxieties and moods. A powerful woman who is at the centre of a constellation of family and friends, yet does not conceal her own vulnerability, or mess with everyone else to get attention and empathy? I am not sure I have ever met her. I am certainly not her. How do we encourage, protect and nurture those in our care and let them be free? Parents do not give children their freedom. They don’t have to ask us for it. They will take it anyway, because they must. They are not our hostages, though I remember feeling there was some sort of mysterious ransom I was obliged to offer my mother in exchange for my freedom. Her children, if she loves them, are inside her, where they started life. It is a mystery to me to even write this sentence, never mind feel it to be true.
Yet in my unreal estate daydreams, my nest was not empty.
If anything the walls had expanded. My real estate had become bigger, there were many rooms, a breeze blew through every window, all the doors were open, the gate was unlatched. Outside in the unreal grounds, butterflies landed on bushes of purple lavender, my rowing boat was full of things people had left behind: a sandal, a hat, a book, a fishing net. I had recently added light green wooden shutters to the windows of the house. My best male friend suggested I add a septic tank, but saying goodbye to my youngest child was real enough for the time being.
My new apartment was a five-minute walk from Sacré-Coeur. In a way it was a version of my apartment in London because it was located on a hill in a building that was once grand but unrestored. The bells of Sacré-Coeur were ringing while I unpacked my suitcases. A fir tree planted in the grounds cast a shadow over the front room. It was eating up the light. I wasn’t sure that evergreen was a good idea. It would forever eat up the light. Perhaps on sunny days I could write under its boughs in the evershade, which meant I would have to buy a portable table that could fold up (like a flower) so I could carry it down the circular staircase. It had been hard to get my giant suitcases up this same staircase but the concierge had helped me.
The concierge went through the inventory of the things in the apartment for which I had paid a deposit: two cups, two knives, two forks, one cooking pot and a breadboard. There was a writing desk and one chair, two single beds in a bedroom that was smaller than the vast bathroom next to it. This bathroom did not have a bath, it had a tiny shower and big windows that opened up on to panoramic views of Paris. The inventory took a long time, considering there was not much to go over. The concierge sat on the one chair at the writing desk while I sat on the wooden floor because there was nowhere else to sit. He gazed at the empty walls, the biro poised in his hand, as if something momentous had been forgotten – perhaps a sofa, or a table and more than one chair? Downstairs, in the apartment below mine, I could hear the sound of an electric saw whirring. Ah, he said, yes, he had forgotten to include the plastic rack to dry laundry. At last we were done. When he left, I pushed the two single beds together and began to make my nocturnal throne. I looked around the bare flat. So this is what an empty nest looked like.
Bleak. Or was it just uncluttered, light and spacious? Even in 1949, when she was writing The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir thought it essential that women emancipate themselves from a life tethered to home and children. The domestic labours that fell to her lot because they were reconcilable with the cares of maternity imprisoned her in repetition and immanence; they were repeated from day to day in an identical form, which was perpetuated almost without change from century to century; they produced nothing new.
All the same, I decided to disobey Beauvoir and find a local Monoprix to stock up on plates and cutlery. I was superstitious about a home that lacked the most basic implements to gather new friends around the table.
A month later, I made my first ever bouillabaisse and invited the sculptor with the electric saw who lived downstairs to join me. She made little human figures from bread, rolling the dough in her hands and then pinching and tweaking it. When these miniature sculptures were perfectly formed, she ate them.
Never again did I want to sit at a table with heterosexual couples and feel that women were borrowing the space. When that happens, it makes landlords of their male partners and the women are their tenants.