It was the day of all days, yesterday, Avranches being the reason we came on this journey to begin with. It had been one of those things: when man had first expressed a desire to re-visit the place, years ago, at first I hadn’t put two and two together, and had thought all the commotion to be about places he had visited in the North of France during a school excursion. A bit sentimental – much? And I had smiled, perhaps even a bit condescendingly, and wondered whether he’d take me to revisit all the places he’d been to with his school form. No, he had replied. Just France. And that had been the cue as to the seriousness of the whole project.
As it is, all in all and from that first moment, it took us four years to get here, to where we are now, looking at this amazing place. As man had whispered to me one night as he held me tight against him, Avranches was like his very own Hogwarts. A magical place, the place where he’d first glimpsed his own brand of wizardry.
As we made our way from Lassy, I had still asked myself whether he would be able to find what he has been looking for. Whether this would be it, the time that he would find something actually remaining from back when, something that would tell him it had all been there and hadn’t been a lie, that it had happened and all was as he remembered, that there would be some sort of continuity. Some sort of a stronger foothold for his mind wanderings of late.
I must confess that I’ve been apprehensive about all this, though silently so. About Avranches, but also of what this now suddenly exponentially amplified need of my He-Herder to wander through the past tells me of what is going on inside him. Having accompanied him in all his little ‘down memory lane’ trips since, as it’s turned out, our very first date, I know how painful it’s been for him not to be able to find the answers he’s been seeking. Worse still, to find that it has all gone, vanished, nothing left, not even the slightest trace: the buildings that no longer exist, witnesses to his family’s collective memory now erased by the reshaping of urban geographies; and the final abandonment, felt as almost betrayal, as one by one his family too passes in a similar magnitude of silence. As if life itself, or at least a big slice of it, has never really happened.
“It makes you wonder whether it has ever been there at all. Whether it has ever existed.” I had heard his soft voice, tempered by the anguish and upheaval barely contained inside, almost plaintive, one evening as we had returned home from one of those little exploratory trips into Birmingham, while still driving in the near darkness of the highway. It had been more as if he had been talking to himself, and in any case I hadn’t known what to say that wouldn’t sound trite or, worse still, patronising. There was raw pain locked in his words, and I had hurt for and with him.
Having made my own little peregrinations to some of my childhood places, though not so much as to see whether they were there and whether it hadn’t all been a bit of a dream, but to test how much of my early memories were true, I knew very well what he was going through, . As I had found those places, I had asked myself what it would have felt like not to have found them at all; as I had found them changed, I had wondered whether the pain of finding them didn’t equal that of not finding. Whether to find something changed is not in fact another kind of (just as painful) loss, prompting us just as much into mourning for what we’ve lost. Or another kind of betrayal, even. Nothing ever remains as we remember it, making little intrepid liars even of the photographs we so lovingly take as we walk through life.
Spaces are important to our identities, I think: they are part of what makes us as we’re growing up and as adults, in that they provide us with a much-needed anchoring, with a sort of continuity and identity. They shape us, in the same measure that we shape ourselves according to them. And, as time goes by, how many of us do continue to reshape themselves in what turns out to be but their own memory of a space in a certain moment in time?
The Lycée de Notre Dame de la Providence is an amazing, imposing old building, made in the same warm-coloured, beige-grey stone that you seem to find everywhere in Normandy. I didn’t know quite what I expected to find, but I know it wasn’t anything quite like this.
Of course, a lot of scenarios had played out in my mind. In one of them, we’d find that les Normands are as unattached to old things as les Angles seem to be getting these days, and the old place had been raised to the ground to make way for some high end development. I didn’t know what I’d do then, because I wasn’t sure how He-Herder would react to something so devastating.
Another possible scenario would be to find the building still there, but no longer serving as the school he remembered, it’s location and old architecture having been appropriated by something more in keeping with the times we live – a luxury hotel, some corporate headquarters. And that, that would have been the ultimate betrayal, though arguably not as devastating in his emotional Richter scale as finding it gone, and I had shuddered at the mere thought. He-Herder would have not taken it well at all.
A third scenario playing out in my imagination, perhaps the least damaging one, had been to find the school changed beyond recognition, its architectural value bastardised, the grounds mutilated, the whole ethos emanating from the place completely eclipsed – at least as he remembered it, or even had come to imagine it at a distance of forty years.
‘Time’ changes ‘place’, I had told him one night as a gentle, loving admonition, as if he hadn’t already known it in the flesh. And then I had shown him pictures of my home town from when I had roamed its streets as a teenager, in return for the revelation of the few bits and pieces of Avranches forty years ago that he keeps carefully stowed away. It wasn’t much, and very little to go by: a few bits of paper, his diary with entries for his time in France (incredibly sparse, my He-Herder has definitely never been much of the writer…), the travel consent form.
He had smiled, and shared a few more snippets of memory, impatient and frustrated that he was unable to remember any more. He’d pulled his laptop on to the bed, and shown me the few photos he had taken back then, rationed as both film and the developing had to come out of his pocket money. Then I had pulled my laptop: Let’s google it. And I had. We had found something, but not what he wanted to find. We wouldn’t have had, without him being very sure of all that much. Is this it? I had kept asking. Do you remember anything like this? Not that sure, he kept answering. Could be… I’m not sure… Oh, I don’t know… Hold on, I remember that bit!!! Elation and victory interspersed with so much more frustration and defeat. At the end of it, I still hadn’t had any clues as to what the school might have been like, or why it had left such an impression on twelve-year-old He-Herder.
And he still hadn’t found the school on Google Maps.
About a year or so to that night, the Lycée de Notre Dame de la Providence celebrated its centenary, and finally became “google-able” — thus entering the realm of things that exist because they can be found online. But by then we had moved on to the “we’re going to go visit” and the “let’s see how many miles” and then the “let’s plan this carefully” phase. I don’t think either of us had, not even for a split moment, another thought about googling it once more.
And then the most amazing thing happened. As we got to Avranches, He-Herder started looking at things with new eyes. I remember this bit here, he’d whisper with a little spring in his words and his step. And I remember this bit, we used to walk this way… And as we’d driven up the ramp he had remembered so well but we had been unable to find on google maps, I, forever his navigator, had asked insistently: Is this it, honey? Do you remember this? And him, forever not so sure… until a last turn, when he had exclaimed triumphant, triumphantly: This is it, this is it, yes, I can remember all this, look, this is it, and you can see Mont Saint Michel from over there… Where, I had asked, not knowing, not seeing what he could be referring to.
But there wasn’t time for any of that, then. In front of us was the most magnificent drive, trees lining it up either side, a little roundabout halfway through, main entrance to the left, gardens and the most impressive view of Mont Saint Michel to the right. Anything else would have to wait its turn. Imagine being taught in a place like this, I thought to myself. Just imagine, and imagine having that view in your everyday school life… I could. And I happily did.
As we got out of the car and I had looked at my He-Herder, I realised that his expression had totally changed, and a kind of happiness and serenity that I have rarely been able to see in him in al our life together had replaced all the lines of sad worry I have been detecting on his face for the last few years, whenever he thought I was not looking all that closely.
Time, however, hasn’t changed this place — at least not on the surface of things. It has about it an air of serene permanence, and although it is a quite grand and imposing building, it does not seem to have the kind of austere and forbidding, intimidating, almost oppressive feeling we’re used to in the architecture of buildings destined for the Catholic Church. Even in the quietness of a mid July afternoon, when all teaching has ended for the summer and the place was virtually deserted, it was easy to imagine it full of talkative, lively youngsters going about the things all youngsters go about when they’re released from their daily doses of formal education.
When a little breeze flew by, I swear I could almost see He-Herder himself when he was a lad, wearing his polo shirt and his shorts, his knobbly knees, his cheeky grin and his short cropped hair shooting bright red sunbeams into the afternoon, darting down the stairs and towards this other, dark haired, equally cheeky and similarly attired lad. I had blinked and looked up the lane, but he hadn’t been there after all.
We expect much will have changed inside, though: classrooms modernised and made tech friendly, dorms redecorated and made more millennium-like (if they’re still there). But that’s not what counts so much. I think He-Herder will still be able to see through all that. I believe that if he happens to walk into his old dorm again, he’ll be telling me all about how it was in his days, and that the image he’ll still lovingly see in his mind’s eye will be that of ‘how it was back then’. That he’ll be walking along corridors and stairs and hallways, and feeling exactly that.
We’re going round next year again to find out, though. In June, while the school is still open. So that He-Herder can finally have the rest of his memories back, and alongside them some very real magic. After all, this place was his very own Hogwarts.