On a hot Sunday in August, Nathalie, Antoine and Bénédicte take you to an open day at a local château, a grander house than the one in Trouville that you have fantasised about. You have seen it before, cycling through the little valley which it dominates. The grounds are at their seductive peak, and the wait outside the wrought iron gates before you and the rest of the rabble are let through them only serves to heighten the gap between the inhabitants’ and the visitors’ lives, and the undertone of envy which is the proper mood for the paying public to assume. A high red brick wall blocks off a view of the house; unnecessarily protective moats of black, still water lie before the wall. To the right of the main driveway up to the forecourt before the house is a formal pattern of paths cut into mattress-soft, manicured and pea green turf. Behind the house, the drawing room view is of a fountain, whose structure is rippling with muscular limbs, and beyond it a lake which stretches the length of the grounds.
The house itself does not soothe the eye, but throws the sun back at you. Beneath the sweep of an external, horseshoe staircase, you find that coolness, undaunted by the heat of the day, which is particular to a mixture of thick stone and shadow. The heat minimises the already occasional efforts at conversation. Inside, apart from the basement kitchen, it is as airless as if you were dressed in the clothes of past centuries. A guide marshals a score of you from room to room. You can take or leave the four-poster beds and writing desks, even those that may have seen intrigue, or were slept in or sat at by minor members of the aristocracy for one night or day two centuries ago. But the guide herself hypnotises you with her wide eyes, and the beautiful, expressive rasp of her bourgeois French. She is perhaps the same age as you, and her legs are as tanned as yours below her silvery green shorts. The fix of her hair and the measured palming of her gestures hold you spellbound – everything about her exudes coolness. After a while you lose the thread and sense of what she is saying and hear only her voice, reciting what may be commonplace formal French but which for you has the intoxicating colour of poetry whose meaning has been sacrificed to sound and is all the more expressive for it: the undulating modulation, the roll and crash of the ‘r’s, the enunciation as precise as the pain a needle stimulates. You feel oxygen-deprived, faint. From a first floor window, the gardens are resuscitating, part-shadowed by the house, and to cool yourself, you swim with an imaginary fish along the course of the lake.
When the tour finishes and the group disperses over the house and gardens, you remain to listen to her answer the questions the antique-curious are asking. More than anything in the world at this moment, more than the most refreshing swim, or the sudden appearance of an old friend in the room, you would like to have her attention, feel her speak that voice to you, even in English, for surely she has the gift of languages, and how could she not turn your drab and colourless language into rainbows of sound? But because it is what you would most like to happen, it will not do so. And given that it will not do so, you cling to the idea of returning alone next Sunday, yet knowing that in seven days’ time, the same intoxication and fear will combine to paralyse you once again.