Eighteen-and-a-bit years ago, pushing 40, tired of England and keen to spend more time with my daughter, who was growing up in France, I packed in my job, left London and moved to the Vosges mountains in the east of the country. It was an idyllic spot: a little stark, vaguely unkempt, full of dark forests, crystalline lakes and gnarled locals with chainsaws in their sheds and bulldozers in their gardens. When they weren’t turning trees into firewood, they were digging out ponds – or possibly graves. In the second world war, they told me, there had been a murder near my home; the killer had buried his victim in a cabbage patch. But I digress.
Home was a draughty stone shack a couple of miles from the nearest village, down a dirt track flanked by spruces and silver birch. My nearest neighbour was a three-minute walk away, and when the birches were in leaf you couldn’t see another house. Indoors, I was plagued by dormice, and a shrew once dropped from the bedroom ceiling. Outside, there were red squirrels, buzzards and small animals that ran and squeaked in the undergrowth all day long. Sometimes I would open my front door to find a doe and her fawns cropping the lawn. I fell hard and fast for the Vosges.
From dawn to dusk, I was happy as a pig in muck. I spent most of that summer reading in a deckchair under a favourite spruce, sheltering from the sun. Nights were more complicated. Unless the moon was up, they were dark, dark, dark, although you might just glimpse a bat flittering against the Milky Way. I learned to recognise a few constellations, and to tell a planet from a star. In the woods that surrounded the house, deer would bark at each other into the wee small hours, setting off farmers’ dogs. Occasionally you would hear the clash of antlers, and anywhere you shone a torch, eyes would flash back at you.
If you have spent most of your life in the city, the countryside can be a noisy, spooky place. It takes while to work out what is making those noises, or to accept that you can ignore them. I would hear rustling in the bushes or footsteps in the lane and think of axe murderers and escaped lunatics.
Rationally, I knew I was at least as safe as I would have been in town. But I would still find myself channelling Sherlock Holmes’s take on the countryside: “You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”
Once indoors, I could never decide whether to close the shutters and make the place more secure, or leave them open so I’d have some warning if someone was lurking outside. On the other hand, that would mean that anyone who passed by would know I was alone …
I put a baseball bat by the door, without seriously – I think – expecting to need it.
Then, one sweltering night, that fear just went away. I had decided to remain outdoors, watching the shooting stars and making the most of what little breeze there was. As one glass of Côte du Rhône turned into seven or eight, I stopped being spooked by the snapping twigs and rustling leaves. “Probably just a boar or a badger,” I would tell myself, reaching for the bottle again. During 10 years in France, I saw precisely one of each.
I finally turned in well after midnight – and woke to discover that, for the first time in my life, I hadn’t locked the front door. Anyone could have just turned the handle and walked in. Without even realising it, I had finally accepted I was not going to be murdered in my bed. There was nothing to be afraid of. Except for red wine hangovers.