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‘Shade, too, can be inhabited.’
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

PART I

From the window of a hotel room in Paris: a view of rooftops, the brown river, a cobblestoned street, one corner of a scaffolded, burnt-out church. It is a morning in March 2020 and the air holds a breath of warmth. The sky is a pale, hopeful blue.

Normally on such a morning, a morning that is chilly but nevertheless heralds the first hint of spring, the street would be almost crowded, the mood bordering on flamboyant, as the first hint of spring is more a cause for celebration than spring itself. But this morning, from this window, just three people can be seen in the street.

Two women walk side by side, each carrying brown paper bags of groceries, each wearing a blue surgical mask. A small child strides out ahead of them, stopping every now and then to gaze with curiosity at the cobblestones, as if the cobblestones are marvellous, as if the cobblestones possess some secret that will any moment make itself known.

The window through which this scene is being viewed is tall and graceful with a suggestion of something lacking, an almost imperceptible narrowness to the design that suggests, perhaps, that generosity must be tempered with humility. Its glass is clean, flawless except for a crack running from the lower left corner towards the centre, a crack that looks like a lightning bolt—not the zig-zag representation of a lightning bolt, but a real one. It has a real lightning bolt’s meandering beauty and unwavering sense of purpose.

The air inside the room is without a season. A temperature gauge, hidden somewhere in the room or in the innards of the building itself, ensures this. The chilly air from outside comes in through the crack in the window, just a little of it, seeking warmth; the neutral air from inside the room wafts out through the crack in the window, just a little of it, seeking adventure. In and out the air goes, in and out.

There are two people in the room. A woman in her sixties stands at the window. She has just taken in the view as I have described it: the two women in the street, their brown paper bags of groceries—from the top of one protrudes something leafy, from another a baguette—the child striding ahead of them full of curiosity and an easy confidence.

The woman at the window has long, greyish-silver hair streaked here and there with black; it looks like the remnants of a fire, soot and half-burnt logs arranged into something smooth and almost pleasing. The sunlight streaming in the window highlights the tiny lines that fan out from the corners of her eyes and around her lips.

The sunlight streaming in the window highlights the tiny lines that fan out from the corners of her eyes and around her lips.

The other person in the room is me, Marie-Hortense Fiquet Cezanne. You may recognise my last name. Yes, that Cezanne. The French painter Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) was my husband. Arguably most famous for painting apples, he painted my portrait far more times than he ever painted apples. Twenty-nine times to be exact. It is March 2020 and I am here, in this hotel with the woman with the silver-black hair and the lined lips, in the city where I worked as a bookbinder and an artist’s model over a hundred years ago, where I met my husband and gave birth to our son, and where I spent backbreaking hours sitting for my husband as he painted my portrait, while the sky slid by through the window, blinking day, blinking night. The birds in that sky were always happy. As I sat, I had thoughts—such as this observation about birds—that never made it into any one of those portraits.

My husband used to say that if he couldn’t find in himself a feeling for a part of the subject he was painting, then he was compelled to leave that section of the painting blank. In the portraits of me there are many blanks.

I am here in Paris; I keep reiterating this. Do I fear that any moment the fact might be taken from me? The city where I lived from the age of eight, on and off, until my death in 1922. My grave is here, in Père Lachaise Cemetery, where in summer the trees are weighted with brightness and children play hide and seek among the headstones.

But I am not interested in graves; I am not interested in death. At least, not as much as I am interested in the woman standing beside me at the window, who draws from me a strange desire that glitters and tumbles like a ball in a game, just out of reach.

The woman is a writer. She is writing a novel about me. The novel is in its early stage, ‘the scrappy notes and bits of magic stage’, she calls it. She is compiling the scrappy notes and bits of magic on her laptop, and almost every day of the nearly three weeks that we have been here in France she has added to them.

The first two weeks were spent eight hours’ drive south, in Aix-en-Provence, the town where my husband grew up and where he lived and painted for most of his life. The writer rented an Airbnb with a view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the stark, brooding mountain that sits just beyond the town, a mountain that my husband painted thirty-six times in oil and forty-five times in watercolour.

You will notice that I like to keep count. I’m not sure why, but there has always been a kind of contest in my mind. A contest between me and the mountain, a contest between me and the apples, a contest between me and Cezanne himself—for he painted his own portrait even more times than he painted mine. I never enjoyed having my portrait painted; I found the sitting tiring, tedious and mostly thankless work. Added to that, my husband was a slow painter; his brush would hover in the air for twenty maddening minutes or more as he looked from me to the canvas, from the canvas to me, attempting to find, or feel, his way to the next brushstroke, while outside the window the birds flew or sang or slept.

In the portraits I look unhappy, many people have said this, and I admit I am no Mona Lisa; in not one is there even the hint of a smile on my lips. In some I scarcely have lips at all. But don’t be deceived by this simple conclusion, even if it is true. There is a thrill to unhappiness that most people do not understand.

There is a thrill to unhappiness that most people do not understand.

During the weeks we spent in Aix, the manuscript grew and diminished on the writer’s laptop. Some days she pushed and frowned her way through paragraphs that were deleted almost as quickly as they appeared; on others the words rushed through her like light, and her fingers on the keyboard were scarcely able to keep up. As she wrote I stood by her side, gazing down at her silvery-black hair, feeling parts of myself break free and flow into some invisible sea that was beyond us both.

One morning she looked up from her computer and murmured, ‘It’s going to be alright, Hortense. It’s going to be a book.’ Through the window the mountain glowed dimly in the cold light. I was sitting across from her at the tiny kitchen table, for when I grew weary of standing by her side, I would sit to face her, watching the lines on her face as she wrote my story—lines configured around her features, sunken 9 between her bones. Lines that I thought might tell their own story, one day.

‘I should think so,’ I said.

‘What do you mean, I should think so?’ She looked amused, raising one thin brow.

‘I mean, you’re spending a lot of time and money to be here, in Aix—a place I detest,’ I added.

‘I know it’s not easy for you here,’ she said, and reached across the table to take my hand—or would have, if I had a hand to take, for I am a bodiless presence. I sit without sitting; I speak without speaking. Yet I have a voice; you, for one, can hear it, and so can the writer, at least some of the time.

She looked back to the screen then, her attention once again on the manuscript, on the words assembling and disassembling like rows of surf.

In Aix she spent the mornings writing and the afternoons walking on the trails near Mont Sainte-Victoire, stopping for long moments to stare at a tree, at a tuft of grass, at the mountain itself. On these walks a space opened between us. She strode out ahead; I lagged behind. I am more aware of this space now, days later, as I stand at the window beside her here in Paris and watch the two masked women and the child walk below us in the street. Nevertheless, it struck me at the time. It was more than a physical space; it was a space of feeling, a space that, I think now, pointed to some new understanding between us.

I remember her turning to me one day as she walked on a trail near the very foot of the mountain. There was a large pine tree behind her, and she stood in its dappled shade. ‘Hortense, come on!’ she coaxed, and I tried with all my might to make my way to her. I stumbled without stumbling; my muscles ached without aching; my breathless breath grew ragged. But all to no avail. The distance, and the shade cast by the tree, conspired to make her face a blur to me. I could not discern its individual lines. It was a face with no history that I could detect.

She would leave the house for these walks wearing a hat that had once belonged to her husband, who was dead. ‘Now where is Malcolm’s hat?’ she’d murmur as she readied herself to go out, searching first in the kitchen, where her laptop lay in repose after its morning exertions, then in the other rooms: the bedroom, the lounge room, the bathroom. The hat could have been in any of these rooms, as when she wasn’t sitting at her computer writing or lying on the couch reading or standing at the sink eating—she seldom sat to eat, she was too full of fidgety words—she was in the habit of drifting through the rooms with a demeanour that reminded me of my son when he’d walked in his sleep as a child, and in that state she would put things down in any old place. She is not forgetful—at least, not in the ordinary sense. She can, for instance, remember with remarkable precision the dates and events that punctuate my life. She has no affliction, as far as I can tell, except for a one-pointed attention to her own inner world to the exclusion of all else; once, she came across her hairbrush in the fridge.

The hat is a wide-brimmed, battered specimen made of felt, far too big for her—she could comfortably wear a beanie underneath. In addition, she dressed for these walks in pink runners, thick woollen socks, track pants, a woollen skivvy, a knitted jumper, a puffer jacket, gloves and a scarf. The first time I saw her dressed like this I laughed. ‘We’re in the south. The winters are mild. It rarely ever snows in Aix.’

She shrugged as she opened the front door. ‘It was summer in Sydney when we left.’

This is an edited extract from The Sitter by Angela O’Keeffe (UQP),  available now at your local independent bookseller.