111. The Palace

Part 2 of the 'Life of Eleanor Dearborn' series. (Previously.)

AFTER ARRIVING IN FRANCE, Eleanor Dearborn moved to Paris, which is where we met. I was living with twenty or thirty others in an eighteenth century palace attached to a public park next to the Bois de Boulogne - it was always impossible to know exactly how many of us there actually were. We called it the Palace. It was said to belong to a branch of the Rothschilds, that it had been abandoned following the Nazi invasion of France, that the Nazis had used it during the Occupation, then the Americans following the Liberation, and that it had lain empty and deserted for decades, until student squatters had taken it over in the 1970s. In the beginning, the walls were tumbledown, the floorboards rotted through in parts, with rat infestations underneath. There was no heating, no hot water or sewage, but somehow the first generation of occupants patched it up as best they could: they brought in cats, they installed boilers and unblocked chimneys, so that by the time I moved in it had been a squat for more than twenty years. The Palace had its highs and lows but, almost miraculously, for all its imperfections and inconveniences, it somehow functioned creakily like a self-propelled, self-regulating antique mechanism, thanks to systems put in place by earlier generations of residents that had later been taken over and perfected by subsequent generations, all watched over by two long-term residents, Michel and Fabienne, who were the Palace's grandees, acting as the final arbiters of all disputes and disagreements. And occasionally the Palace could be wondrous. For one thing, it was too big even for thirty people. We each had our own rooms, each one of which was ornately decorated. Most of them faced south and in winter on clear days sunshine flooded my room through the day. By this time, the cats had eradicated the rats and all but taken over the place. They were the true occupants, their ever-growing colony presided over by a succession of imperious matriarchs. And in summer we spent most of our time in the adjacent park. Eleanor Dearborn and I met on campus - we were both studying translation and interpretation. We immediately got along, swapping books and clothes and records. She needed a place to live and I introduced her to the collective, who invited her to move in. We talked constantly, as friends do, although conversation with Eleanor Dearborn could be difficult as she didn't like to gossip, whereas I love to gossip - in fact I believe gossip is the highest form of conversation, because most of what we know of others we learn through gossip, whereas Eleanor Dearborn believed gossip was the lowest form of conversation, which I thought was prudish of her, and a sign of small-town origins, although I can't say much about Eleanor Dearborn's origins as she never spoke of them. She was very serious about her studies and rather than gossip preferred to talk about translation and interpretation, a field which overflows with unresolvable problems and dilemmas that Eleanor Dearborn liked to turn endlessly around in her head like a Rubik's cube. Neither of us had many friends, so despite her disinterest I could not help but pass on to her every little detail about my love life, which needless to say was eventful, but she didn't seem particularly interested in men at all, on account, she told me, of an agreement she had made with a man she had loved in Canada, a man whom I believe was called Raoul. She seemed to think she was under some sort of obligation to this man, and I told her she was mistaken, that as far as anyone could tell there was no agreement with Raoul: she was free, I told her, in fact Raoul had set her free, but she was adamant that she was beholden to him for one obscure reason or another. One Friday, as I was recovering from another heartbreak - my life at the time was studded with them - Eleanor Dearborn suggested we go away for the weekend. Precisely why we went to Deauville I can't remember. Perhaps Eleanor Dearborn said she had always wanted to go there. We borrowed a car and drove north of Paris to the port, which gives me shivers just thinking about, it's such a gloomy place, in my memory at least, which is just as unreliable as any memory. But all memories hide a truth in them, even if it is in plain sight, and in my memory Deauville is a gloomy place, and every time I remember it I imagine it in black and white, like an old film - a Truffaut film, ideally, but more likely a film by Henri Clouzot, the kind of film that leaves you feeling distraught. Because we hadn't booked anything, we knocked at the door of the first hotel we came across, an old hotel in the centre of Deauville which, we later surmised, seemed to be officially closed but which was nevertheless still unofficially taking guests. Everything in this hotel was ancient: the beds were lumpy and creaked at the slightest movement. The furniture might have been lifted from out of a Flaubert novel. Hot water came out of a boiler in the bathroom that, despite having been installed decades ago, nevertheless was seemingly the bathroom's most recent modification. The brass candelstick holders in the dining room had decades of wax drippings accumulated on them. In short, as residents of the Palace, Eleanor Dearborn and I felt right at home. The hotel was run by an ancient gay couple, white-haired and hunch-backed. At first we had no idea they were gay or a couple, but it was something we deduced on our first night. It was around the time Tony Curtis died, and to mark the occasion Some Like it Hot was playing on television, dubbed into French. As it was the off-season, everything in Deauville was shut by nine o'clock, so Eleanor Dearborn and I returned to the hotel to find the two old men watching the film on a tiny television in the dining room. They had seen the film so many times they were able to recite the dialogue to one another, in French of course, which only added to the pleasure of watching that film again. It was at the moment in the film where Jack Lemmon announces his engagement that I leaned over to Eleanor Dearborn and told her that the old men, who were sitting in front of us, peering up myopically at the tiny screen, were probably gay. I watched them as well as the movie as they gleefully recited the funniest lines in sync with the film. I wondered what kind of lives they might have led in this tiny, gloomy tourist town, who might have been their friends and who might have been their enemies. At the end of the movie, just after the final line, which as everybody knows is "Nobody's perfect", Eleanor Dearborn leaned over to me and told me something that took me completely by surprise, a declaration of love, delivered awkwardly, stutteringly. My surprise must have been all too apparent because she stood up suddenly and ran out of the room. The old men, entranced by the film, didn't seem to notice. I assumed she had gone upstairs to our room, and I stayed downstairs, if only to give each of us time to recover from what had just occurred. When I did climb the creaky staircase to our room, I found it was empty. Eleanor Dearborn didn't return that night, or indeed the following night. I spent most of the following day reading a Françoise Sagan novel in bed. Many times I considered going out looking for her, but each time I talked myself out of it, telling myself it would be fine, she would return eventually. I went out for a walk in the afternoon but a cold northerly was blowing over the Channel and the tide was high and waves were crashing over the seawall. As I hate high tides - I hate low tides too, in fact I hate all tides, but especially high tides - I retreated back to the ancient hotel and the creaky bed and the novel. But I must have had a guilty conscience because on Sunday morning I went to the préfecture and reported her missing. The policeman on duty told me no crimes had occurred in the time she had been missing. He called the hospital but they hadn't seen anyone to match Eleanor Dearborn's description either. I drove back to Paris alone. It wasn't until midway through the following week that Eleanor Dearborn reappeared at the Palace, and then only briefly, saying that she had met someone or maybe a group of people - I can't remember which - in Deauville or perhaps near it, that she had decided on a whim to move there, to start her life afresh. She gave me no more details, but this wasn't unusual for her, due to her distaste for gossip. She said she'd had enough of her studies, she'd had enough of translating, she'd had enough of interpreting, that she didn't want to be a translator or an interpreter anymore, that the problems of translation and interpretation would never be solved, certainly not be her, and probably not by anyone. She told me there were no hard feelings, that she didn't know what had come over her, that I shouldn't take what she had said to heart, that she had probably drunk too much wine, that the movie and the old men and all our talk of Raoul and what she did or didn't owe him had probably gone to her head, and she asked me to forgive her, to which I replied there was nothing to forgive. Then she gathered her belongings together and said goodbye to Michel and Fabienne and the cats, and I walked her to the station and watched her disappear through the turnstile. I can't say what became of her because I had no more news of her except for a postcard she sent me a few weeks later from Deauville, or maybe St-Mâlo, saying things had turned out fine, that she was living on a farm near the sea, and that she was happy, much to her own surprise. I never heard from her again, which wasn't unusual, hard as that may be to believe now, looking back. It was a time of fleeting friendships, when our lives teemed with people, roiled with faces and names, countless faces, countless names, not to mention all the gossip that went along with all those faces and all those names. In my memory it all seems like a parade, an endless passing parade of half-remembered people, coming and going, coming and going like waves, or, if you prefer, tides, although of course I hate tides. I prefer waves.