It must have been about fifteen years ago – it was a year after I left the army to make writing my full time vocation – when I decided to relocate for two weeks to a small cottage in Fontenoy-le-Château in the French Vosges. The cottage was advertised in a national newspaper and recommended for its peaceful surroundings.
It was located at the end of a terrace in the village, next to a gloomy canal surrounded by trees. It was at least thirty degrees centigrade and the scenery reminded me of an impressionist painting. This was the place where I would finally start writing my debut novel.
The small cottage had two floors, contained just the essential furniture and had a two-by-two meter terrace at the back. This was overlooked by a steep rock face oozing water, which kept the house damp all day in spite of the heat wave. The front room had a window which I opened immediately. I constructed a desk by moving the table under the windowsill to enable me to write.
The first night I didn’t sleep much. Three times I took my torchlight and got out of bed to check that I wasn’t being burgled. I didn’t sleep a wink, I lay stock-still clutching my torchlight and listened for any noise: creaking, squeaking, scraping sounds, they could only come from another human being.
The next day I was too tired to write anything. I did manage to go out and buy two bottles of excellent French wine, to help me sleep that night. That worked. The second night I slept soundly.
My writing holiday therefore only started in earnest the following morning. I settled myself at my ‘desk’ in front of the window. It was not until that moment that I realised that my cottage was the only inhabited house in the terrace; inhabited by me. The rest of the terrace was firmly shut up.
During the following days I wrote like someone possessed and drank myself to sleep in the evenings. After a day or two, the villagers began to notice me. More and more, wandering locals passed by to cast furtive glances and check out the fool who occupied the cottage.
I got the suspicion that I was living in the last house of the terrace that was still inhabitable. Maybe the last occupant had finally died and was only found after three weeks. At least the passersby gazed at me as though that was the case. As I now also drank during daytime, their faces all looked peculiar.
One evening I noticed a lot of lights through my window. My first thought was, oh heavens, they have started funny lights as well! But it only turned out to be the 15th of August, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and villagers had lighted hundreds of candles on the other side of the canal. Songs in honour of Mary were sung and drifted in through my open window. This made me feel a bit better.
I wrote for two weeks in my cottage. During the night I had restless dreams. You will probably not be surprised when I tell you that I had to throw out all my notes afterwards. You couldn’t make any sense of it.
The only thing that survives is just one picture postcard to my literary girl M who I had met earlier that year during a creative writing course in Amsterdam. She recently made an appearance in my novel Engel.