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House-Sitting

 

Is it possible to know a cat much better than to know its owner? It is a question I found myself asking quite recently as I prepared to cat-sit once again for a friend of a friend in Paris. I had been doing so for the last four years, and on each occasion I never once saw the person in whose flat I was staying. She lived in the 11th arrondissement, not far from the famous cemetery Pere Lachaise, or, to phrase it a different way, where many of the famous are buried: from Jim Morrison to Edith Piaf, from Chopin to Proust. Each August she would go away for several weeks, and I would rent out my own flat in Edinburgh for the month of the festival, and look after hers for three and then go somewhere by the sea for about ten days, usually in the South of France. The money I made on my own flat covered the travel expenses and also the accommodation in the south, and so it was as if each year I managed to get a free holiday, a holiday I could not otherwise have afforded on my income as a night porter.

Maria, my friend had always told me, had only one stipulation: that the person cats-sits alone. She couched this in terms that suggested it was for the well-being of the cat, but perhaps I might have mused over whether it said more about her own need for well-being. Maria was the owner of small art gallery situated in Oberkampf, about fifteen minutes walk from her apartment. It was of course closed while she was away, but I was once walking with Julia, the flat-owner’s friend and who I had met when she studied for a year in Edinburgh, and asked Julia where exactly it was and she took me down an alleyway and showed me the building: she said that Maria mainly specialised in recently deceased artists, occasionally those who died young; mainly those who died in their elder years but who remained little known throughout their lives even if they were well-respected. I looked in the gallery window and saw one or two paintings by the entrance. They were obviously by artists different from those paintings I saw on the walls of her flat.

Her apartment wasn’t actually a flat but a small house. It was at the back of a block of flats and had its own garden, and many years before would have been the accommodation of the concierge who looked after the entire block. It was on two floors, but was a very small space. There was a kitchen and dining area downstairs, and a sitting room study area upstairs, and a mezzanine bed above. It was cramped but cosy, dark in the morning before the sun moved south westwards, but usually quiet. Some might even have claimed it had the eerie feel of a mausoleum, and I couldn’t help but sense that feeling was exacerbated when I thought that some of the paintings on the house walls were by dead artists, and when in four years of looking after her flat I had never seen her once.

Yet the previous summer when I had stayed it looked as if I might have got to meet her, since she was leaving the very afternoon that I was to arrive. Julia had suggested to her perhaps it would be nice if we all met for a quick coffee and she could hand me the keys directly, instead of through Julia, or by leaving them taped to the inside of the letterbox, but it was then Maria admitted to a peculiarity, and one Julia had never known to be so. She said that in the ten years that her friend had been allowing people to look after her house, her cat and her garden, Maria had never once met any of the people staying there, and it was then Julia realised that she had only given the house to friends of friends; never to friends.  It was possible of course that this had nothing to do with Maria’s intention: simply that all her friends left Paris during August, and friends from elsewhere were taking their holidays by the sea or in other countries also. Yet Julia’s remark struck her as a revelation, and as revealing an aspect of Maria’s personality as any she had glimpsed.

It was on this occasion when I asked Julia to tell me more about her friendship with Maria. She said they had met about fifteen years earlier when they were both at one of the elite and specialist schools in Paris, the grandes ecoles, a school with an entrance exam that had them reading some three hundred books before sitting it. As Julia worked her way through the books she tried to absorb but could barely understand, she was surprised when whatever she put in the exam met with the approval of the examiners and she was accepted. One of the first people she met at the school was Maria, and they both shared a feeling that they shouldn’t really have been there at all; that someone must have got the exam papers mixed up, and somewhere in Paris there was a very bright person attending a less august college as a consequence. If many people attending Ecole Normale possessed a sense of brilliant entitlement, both Maria and Julia felt a sense of guilty fortuitousness. It was not the feeling the institution wanted to instil in people, and yet that was what throughout their years they insisted upon believing. Both went on to sit what was called the aggregation, an exam that would allow them to teach at university level, and both failed. Julia went on to become a translator and interpreter; Maria worked for a few years in business, saving up to start her own gallery.

During those first three years staying at Maria’s place I never gave Maria much thought; in the first two there had been another woman consistently on my mind, someone with whom I’d split up only a month or two before my first year house-sitting in Paris, and the very circumstance of which made me ask Julia if she happened to know anybody in Paris who might be interested in a swap. She said she didn’t but did know someone who always went away during August and would allow people to stay in her house in return for looking after the cat. I said that would be wonderful and off I went. But, especially that first year, the trip wasn’t about discovering Paris but escaping from Edinburgh, escaping from thoughts and feelings rather than generating new ones. The second year I still hadn’t eradicated my ex-girlfriend from my mind, but at least enjoyed the city, and it wasn’t until the third year in Paris that I began to go out at night, and on a couple of occasions took someone back to the house.

The person I took back, an American girl who had been living in the city for a couple of years, seemed almost as interested in the flat’s owner as she was in me, and, alongside Julia’s comment about Maria never renting to friends but only friends of friends, her curiosity instigated the sort of questions that I started asking myself this fourth year in the city, and where Julia for the first time told me about Maria’s past. Up until then I had known far more about the cat than its owner; entirely understandable I suppose since I was its guardian for three weeks a year. I knew her habits, her likes and dislikes, even her family history, and I suppose this is what we might call active knowledge; the sort of information we need to know for practical purposes. However my interest in Maria would surely pass much more for passive knowledge; I didn’t need to know anything about her for the purposes of my stay in Paris, yet increasingly I seemed to want to know more about this woman.

This was especially so during that third summer when it would have seemed more likely for us to have met than not to do so. In previous years she had left a few days before, and a close friend had fed the cat until I arrived. This year she again left a couple of hours earlier, and so it added to the mystery of who she might be. It was perhaps as a consequence of this near meeting that I quizzed Julia about her, and also flicked through some pictures that were not especially hidden on one of the bookshelves. Often we think we have no impression of someone we have never seen but have heard about, until we meet them or see a picture of them, and consequently in our surprise or disappointment realise we have created a picture of them that is surprisingly vivid as a feeling because of the reaction we have when  we finally see their face.

I think I saw Maria as a willowy, dark-haired plain woman, with stringy hair and perhaps glasses. The colours she wore were browns and beiges, occasionally black and grey. Instead what I saw in pictures that must have spanned her late teens through to the last year or two was a woman of colour and style. It might seem silly that I had never looked in her cupboards, but why should I: I respected her space and didn’t want to snoop around in it? Physically she may even have been beautiful; perhaps even more so as she got older, even though some might have noticed the laugh lines developing around her eyes and saw that she was losing her youthful bloom. I saw instead someone who seemed to be absorbing more of people’s feelings, someone who was becoming more empathic as she aged. I would have looked at the photos a couple of days after Julia and I had talked about their time at university, and it would have been about a week after that when we met up again and I asked her further questions about Maria.

In between these meetings with Julia, however, I saw again the American I had slept with several times the previous year. I had emailed her weeks before arriving in France, but she didn’t reply until a couple of days after my meeting with Julia. She was still in Paris, would be going to the south of France in a couple of days’ time, and could meet me for a tea in the afternoon. Everything in her e-mail made clear that she did not want a sexual affair, and any feelings I might have been able to resuscitate were killed by the tone, but maybe they were never really there anyway: she was someone who always seemed, unlike Maria and Julia, to have taken her education for granted, and graded people accordingly. I remember a comment she had offered after she had woken up, made her way down the ladder attached to the mezzanine, and then down the creaking spiral staircase to the kitchen, and saw me making some coffee and putting the croissants I had just bought on a plate. I was her bit of rough, she said, and it was then we talked about her own educational background; also a bit about mine. She had studied at Brown and did her PhD at Columbia, and announced that she had no doubt she was in the top 2% intellectually in the States. I said as a joke I might have been in the top 2% in my country for all I knew, and she said that surely it was undoubted in her case: hadn’t she been to two of the top schools in the country? I suppose she said it humorously, but I also felt in her attitude there was a confidence that wouldn’t have been in Julia, and probably not in Maria either.

The American and I met in a cafe not far from her place, in the fourth arrondissement in front of the church in St Paul. After we had introduced ourselves and after she ordered in perfect French, and conducted a brief conversation with the waiter that showed her command of the language, I asked her if she remembered our discussion the previous summer where she talked of being in the top 2%. She said she did, and added that maybe she said it without enough irony to replace the apparent lack of humility. I was surprised as she said this and noticed a slightly haunted look on her face that I didn’t feel, as no more than a brief lover, that I had the right to enquire after. But where a year before I think she would have told me nothing, even as we lay in bed after having sex, this year, over no more than a coffee, it seemed like she wanted to offer intimacy entirely lacking the previous summer. She explained to me that she always thought her intelligence would save her; that her capacity to think ahead in so many situations could surely be applicable in love also, and that throughout her twenties (she was now thirty three), she would have numerous lovers, a handful of boyfriends and one or two near engagements, but she had finished them all, aware, she reckoned of the warning signs that would protect her feelings from catastrophe. But around eight months earlier, last November, catastrophe started indeed to strike.

I said that I didn’t want her to say anything she might feel uncomfortable with later on, and she explained that such were her feelings of discomfort several months earlier, that the notion that detailing the events now could cause her much pain would be absurd. She said that she fell into the cliché of falling in love with a brilliant man, except that the man wasn’t especially brilliant, apart from in one area: she knew of no other man who had such an astonishing capacity for intimacy. She knew of many men who could seduce with their charm and many others with their looks and others still with their intelligence. She had slept with all of them and more than survived: she felt augmented by their attention. But with Michael, an Irishman who had been living in Paris for fifteen years, it happened to be none of these things, but he had the ability to make the world around you disappear. He might be with you for ten minutes or ten hours, but time stood still and worries faded. The chores one promised to do, the work that needed to be done, the swim one planned to have, all faded from the mind, and for the first time in her adult life she didn’t feel this nagging sense of anticipating her immediate future. What she also noticed, though, was while she could feel this intimacy with Michael that she had never felt with anyone else; she also knew that Michael possessed this gift for intimacy and could consequently create it with many people.  Sometimes when they were in a restaurant together, he would say merely a few words to the waitress and he knew he had created complicity with her, knew that of the many customers he had served in the weeks, months or years she had worked there, few if any customers had created this intimate space so quickly.

Not only did she find she was no longer working as she usually would, she also was feeling increasingly jealous, and believed that since Michael was so good at generating intimacy, why would he stay with her when he could easily be with someone else. As she paused I asked her what it was that Michael did; how did he find the time since it sounded like he was spending so much of it with the women he happened to be seeing. Not at all, she exclaimed: Michael would often say quite suddenly that he had to go and work, and she never knew whether he was lying or telling her the truth, though she knew he was a portrait painter and painted many of the wealthy in Paris. He claimed they would often ask him to work on their portraits at various times that suited them but not always him, and while he would sometimes leave the mobile switched off, or tell them that he was working on somebody else’s portrait, he liked to make himself as available as possible, and once admitted that sometimes he felt a bit like a family doctor, except that they would usually come to his studio rather than Michael going to their house. They wanted more than their portrait painted, he supposed, they wanted also to feel a quiet complicit intimacy with the painter, and that was what he provided; perhaps more than the lifelikeness his technical skills offered.

But after several months she knew she could not be with this man anymore, and knew this especially when she heard rumours in one of the cafes they would frequent that Michael didn’t only paint the women (his clients seemed mainly female) but also slept with them: that he was much more, she said sardonically, a doctor of love. She decided to end the relationship and was surprised that Michael so readily concurred, and then for the next couple of months she would try phoning him, waiting at cafes hoping to see him, and buzzing up at his flat. Whenever he saw her he simply said the decision was hers and closed the door or walked on. It wasn’t until only a few weeks ago, not long after my e-mail, that she started working again, and she hoped that the trip she was taking at the end of the week, would bring her back to herself.  Afterwards she would probably return to the States, maybe returning to Paris now and again for short stays, but not to live. I asked her where she was going on holiday, and she named a place in the south of Turkey she had heard was great for relaxing: the specific place she was staying in had yoga classes in the mornings, film screenings in the evening, healthy food for breakfast and dinner. As we parted she hugged me more warmly than she ever had when were in bed together, and said the talk had really helped.

While walking back to the flat I wondered if out of the affair with this man she had found proper intimacy that she had always ignored, and now, having found it and lost it, sought it in small ways with others, including now with me. I believed she had become a much nicer person, but by that did I mean no more than that she was now basically vulnerable? Rather than making me think especially of her, though, it made me think all the more of Maria and I knew the next time I met up with Julia I would have further questions to ask.

It was a couple of days later that I invited Julia and her boyfriend for dinner, and I was pleased when she said that he wouldn’t be able to make it so that I would have far more of an opportunity to ask her about Maria. As the morning rain looked like it had completely cleared, I set the table outside, lit a candle, put the sauce on a low heat, boiled the water for the pasta and awaited Julia’s visit with an utterly absurd feeling of anticipation. It is as if I wanted to create an intimate atmosphere not between Julia and me but for the purposes of finding out more intimately about Maria’s life.

If I was a little worried that Julia might assume that the candles on the table were an intimate gesture, I was quickly put at ease by Julia’s comment that it was lovely: as though she were coming to dinner with Maria and not me: as she came down the back step and into the garden area and saw the table set, she noticed that it was exactly as Maria would have it whenever she invited her over. As we ate and drank I asked her further questions about Maria, and started with what I thought was a simple one, so simple that I was surprised I had never asked it before: where did she go when she went away each August? Julia said the answer wasn’t as straightforward as the question would seem to demand, but she knew also that it wasn’t that Maria would have expected her to keep it a secret. She would travel to various parts of the world and visit graves, sometimes well-known graveyards; sometimes graveyards in the city where someone well known was buried: for example Marx’s grave in Highgate; Borges’s in Geneva. I asked again what I thought was an easy question that would result in an easy answer: did she become fascinated by graveyards after moving so near to Pere Lachaise? Julia sighed, and then smiled wrily: it was again a little complicated. She explained that Maria moved to the area because actually her lover was buried there. We had finished the main course, and I said if she didn’t mind I would like to know more. I asked if I should open another bottle of wine. We had finished the one I’d opened before she came, and she said she would be happy to have tea, adding that she hoped I had made some cake: Maria always made a pudding. I said I had dessert but that I had cheated: there was a famous bakery next to Luxembourg Gardens and I had bought some cakes from there.

As we sat drinking tea and eating the variety of cakes, Maria explained that not only Julia but also her lover had studied for entry to the Ecole Normale. The exam was amongst the most arduous in the world, Julia reminded me: students spent two years preparing for it. Everyone would know that you were preparing to sit the exam, and the university would only take two hundred students a year: the pressure was astonishing, and she said the well-known social theorist Pierre Bourdieu had written that these Grands Ecole create an elite not too unlike those of the aristocratic past. To get into the university meant that you were a special citizen. The philosopher, Michel Foucault, on initially failing the exam, attempted suicide. She was offering this context she said not to say how brilliant she must have been, since she did of course go also, but to allow me to understand how much importance was placed upon getting in. Maria passed; her boyfriend didn’t – and a week afterwards he took his own life. It wasn’t even as if he took the institution that seriously, but he knew his family did, and that he would forever be seen by them as a failure.

Maria never took a single class, a single tutorial, a single lesson, a single tutor any more seriously than she would have needed to do to pass her exams and passed easily. Julia said they may have been the only two students there who didn’t insist on its immense import, and she could never read many of these august writers who had passed through the system, knowing how rarely it was that people would escape un-institutionalised. I asked Julia how she did so; since with Maria it made sense that anything which killed her boyfriend might be toxic to Maria. Julia said that they were amongst the few people from less wealthy backgrounds: they were aware that if they dropped out they would still be much more successful academically than any member of their family had been. For some reason she never felt that much pressure, and her friendship with Maria helped her put the place into perspective, and vice versa.

By the end of the evening I felt I knew Maria well and Julia also. I even knew my brief American lover much better than I had the previous year even though we had met only for a drink. The next morning as I got up and fed the cat I watched her for about twenty minutes, and realised that over the years I had watched her often and could understand much about her through her behaviour. I could not have done the same with Maria, even if I had been given the opportunity to meet her, yet I thought maybe we can observe animals with the concentration we cannot offer to humans because they do not yield histories, so they literally have nothing to hide. Humans however can be understood by the layers of history they possess, and each generation I feel keeps gaining more history than the one before, if we see history as the stories we accumulate by the different experiences we process. I suppose I could have accessed much of Maria’s history by looking through her things, by trying to find pictures squirreled away in the recesses of cupboards – there I am sure I would find pictures of that young man who took his own life and to whom Maria had forever since, Julia believed, been faithful to.

She had explained to me why she suspected Maria never allowed her friends to house sit, and never allowed anybody who did stay to come with a partner or a friend. The small concierge’s house she had bought near Pere Lachaise was both a sanctuary and, perhaps a little, a mausoleum. It was as though she wanted to let someone stay in at as if it were a hermitage, a place of spiritual retreat for the alone. As I packed my bags later that afternoon to leave for the TGV to the south, knowing that Maria would be returning only an hour of two after I left, I thought also that maybe I wouldn’t come back again, but perhaps it would be a good place for someone else to stay in if they were feeling emotionally vulnerable and in a state of quiet emotional recovery.

 

©Tony McKibbin