February 1, 2013
Imagine this: You are running along the road at dusk, your mind is elsewhere – in the future, in the past. Maybe you are in Africa, as the red sun takes a bow and the dust clouds of your footfalls rises in small silent puffs. Maybe you are running through vineyards in France, the pink-tinged sky and dinner calling the tractors home. Maybe you’re in Canada and the veneer of ice and slate gray sky had warned you to stay home. But you didn’t listen, because you are in the past, and in the future.
Wherever you are, you are not where you should be and that last look over your shoulder, that unseen dip, or rock, trips you up and you are flying like a long jumper in slow motion, into a gaping hole. Road works, a ditch, an excavation you hadn’t seen but which feels familiar.
You feel a searing fear and in your shock feel everything rushing to an end. Your heart hammers, your breath comes in winded rasps.
Then it happens: Life comes flooding back. You take stock. And this time you know it is important to acknowledge what has happened.
Last time you clambered out of that ditch and didn’t pay attention. Today you will learn the lessons of that dark, confined space. Learn the difference between physical limitations and spiritual bounds.
So here is the inventory: This hole is not so very deep and one of the sides is climbable. No-one is around to help pull you out but that is a good thing. You can take as much time as it takes.
You may be cold, you may be wet and muddy, but nothing appears to be broken. In truth you feel a small, slow flame flickering somewhere deep and safe.
You may have skinned your knees and your shin. Trace your finger around the white pink graze on your knee.
“Thank you knee, for breaking my fall.”
Look at your barked shin. Feel the pain of the unaccustomed exposure of flesh to air, the ruched skin that will soon shrivel and die.
“Thank you shin, for giving me physical pain I can understand, something to pull me into the present.”
Now make a plan. Dark is descending. Clamber out of that hole. You feel strangely energized. Something upsetting has happened but the world has presented you with a concrete set of circumstances, right here, right now, to navigate.
Feel the blood coursing through your veins, your breath flowing in and out. Feel the wet mud on your skin and be in the moment. Feel your human condition.
Now make your way home and feel your limbs loosening up and the strength of your sinews.
Open your front door and inhale the scent of your life. Pick up the school bags and hang them up Straighten the small boots flung haphazardly and be thankful for the feet that wear them.
Now strip in the bathroom and examine your body for bruises. Turn this way and that. You see, it is not so bad.
Step into the shower and feel the healing water flow through your hair, rivulets of warmth running over your temples, whispering kind words.
Carefully wash your superficial wounds. Now step out of the shower and dry yourself. Pat yourself down, steam still rising off your skin. Now put on a soft bathrobe and your most faithful slippers and start to turn outwards. Don’t be afraid. Unfurl.
Make a cup of perfect tea and make a mental list of blessings. People you love, small pleasures. Feel the ache in your chest and thank it.
“Thank you Ache in my chest. It is ok. You can nestle there next to my heart. I will take care of you.”
And now that you have honoured your pain, made it as comfortable as can be, go out into the world. Into the present. Be of Service. Be Kind. Listen with your Heart. Use your hands for Good. For Healing. For coaxing Life into the world. For stroking. For writing.
Use your arms for hugging, for holding close, for defending. Use your legs for taking purposeful steps forward. And when that scar on your shin is nothing but a silver line, trace it sometimes with your finger to thank the pain that has helped you. And let that dull ache in your chest be a constant reminder of the gift of Love.
January 12, 2011
I am sitting in the food hall of a large shopping mall in Toronto.
It is highly unlikely that I will know a single person elbowing their way through the sales.
And yet. And yet, as I sip my coffee my eyes snap onto one borrowed face after another. A spark of recognition ignites in me and is extinguished just as quickly, when the curve of the eyebrow is wrong, the purposeful stride doesn’t fit, the blank returning look is foreign.
The old man with the Greek fisherman’s cap is surely related to Avril, the 80-something artist whose door I once photographed.
And the man just sitting at the next table, he has the hairline of a Serbian mercenary I once met. But that can’t be so, because he sits with a diminutive Vietnamese woman, I think his wife, who once sold banana fritters to me as a child in Harare.
The gaggle of retired Portuguese men are close relatives of the hunters sipping their coffee and red wine after a misty, autumn boar hunt, in the woods behind the village.
And the woman who was ahead of me in the queue, her hair lacquered just so atop her rotund form - she is kin of a kind-hearted chocolate addict who watched helplessly as her daughter was whittled away by anorexia a world away from here.
And at the next table, the energetic elderly woman has the hands of the woman who made a crib for my firstborn.
I move aside to make way for a newcomer to the Portuguese gang. This one sports a French beret that used to hand on the hook in Monsieur Fauth’s hallway.
The cocky walk of that young man over there is Matthieu to a “T” – before he cut his hair off and lost his swagger, sobered by years of unemployment.
The woman who is scanning the food court to pounce on any tidying up to be done is a copy of the mother of a girl I once worked with. A lovely girl, an only child. Her mother used to make her outfits of canary yellow and hand knitted cardigans until she surely had one for each day of our short winter. And then she married a wealthy man who whisked her off to Europe. I hope she has provided her mother with a long line of knitwear models. I hope her mother has found a way to take up her own space.
An Indian woman adjusts the blanket around her sleeping baby and the fall of her glossy locks makes her into Yasmine, my beautiful friend from university. I see her neat writing, her smitten boyfriend, their stolen meetings behind the curtains of her religion. They ended up eloping and have been happily married now for almost 20 years.
A slender woman with long blonde hair pauses, in a balletic stance before a huge tv. Just for a second. Then takes off again with grace, trailing the memory of Nathalie behind her like a gymnasts ribbon. My delicate, long-lost friend and mother of my god-child.
And there is Jeremy, my son’s friend; but wait, shouldn’t he be at university in Nice? Or in his old 2CV or asleep, because it is late where he is now.
And here comes the toothless woman who used to sit outside Chez-Annie and drink until she couldn’t stand. When she was drunk enough she would prevail upon people to buy her a drink “because she was pregnant”. To my knowledge this never induced anyone to buy her an alcoholic beverage. I told her once to change her strategy but she looked at me with pure venom for my pains. She was sixty if she was a day.
And there is Vincent! The pharmacist who made the mistake of having an affair with the wife of a ballistics expert. After (only just) escaping that predicament, he hooked up with a touring Russian ballerina and “kidnapped” her. They are still living in Zimbabwe, happily married. The search on both sides, long since over.
And there is a man wearing a dark blue jacket with a reflective stripe on it. It looks like a pompier uniform and reminds me of my husband’s beep going off and the race to the station, pulling on his jacket as he goes.
So even here in this throng of strangers, I am among friends.
January 7, 2011
So back in August, when we first moved to Toronto, I posted a blog about how I was going to write about all the interesting people I had brushed past or who had lightly touched me. That is what I said. What I meant was that I wanted to get to know said people, dip my hand in their pools and cup something to show you under my microscope. What an unpleasant thing to want to do. I realize now that this is not a good idea.
To really write something worthy of your time and theirs I have to strip my own bark off and be exposed enough to receive what they mean, not what they say. I need to be a conduit from them to you, not a waiter serving up hors d’oeuvres.
And I know I have been silent and it may seem as if I did not mean what I said. The main reason, or so I tell myself, is that I have been kind of busy settling into a new city, taking courses and writing a screenplay: that is what I say.
What I mean is that I am flooding myself with the busyness so as not to peel that bark off. And here is why: I seem to be drawn towards people with sadness behind their smile. Extraordinary people masquerading as ordinary and you just know that their stories will break your heart.
Here are some people I am not going to write about in the interests of cardiac health:
The old man who goes to Tim Horton’s every day and makes his coffee last for hours. He folds his hat neatly and stretches out the minutes with every small task. He hangs his threadbare coat on the back of the chair, he sprinkles sugar a little at a time into his coffee and then carefully folds the rest of the packet and puts it away. He counts out exact change into neat piles before going to order. He is painfully shy. He has a small tuft of white hair that sometimes escapes his attention and refuses to join its brethren in submission. He has holes in his shoes.
The woman who has run the coin laundry for 35 years. She tells you what to do and what not to do with every visit. She opens machines mid-cycle to have a squizz at what you are washing – small pink items usually, and alas no, they are not mine but belong to my 3 and 5 year-old daughters.
She is snappy and directive. She assails you with rapid-fire questions the minute you sit down with a book while your clothes are drying:
“Taking a quiet moment for yourself, I see?”
I nod as nonchalantly as possible.
She peers critically at whatever I am reading.
“Don’t think much of reading myself. Waste of time.”
“What are you having for supper?”
So I give in. I tell her what we are having for supper, who is doing what when, answer questions about not only my family but the neighbors downstairs. I have very little to offer on them as they are 3 Chinese students who are addicted to computer games and only emerge blinking into the light on rare occasions.
She knows a lot about me and my family because I have given in to her interrogations. I was shocked though when someone told her to mind her own business the other day. Actually told her to shut up and go away. You see I know two things about her: she was open on Christmas day and she cried when the girls made her some cookies.
And then the young woman I met the other day. I was sitting having a coffee at the mall during the just-before-Christmas frenzy. I was with my 3-year-old and she came and sat at the table next to us. Everywhere was packed and we were very close, I could have reached across and touched her.
In France she would be described as “Baba Cool”. She had a happy hippy feel to her and smiled a lot. I would say she was about 25. We exchanged small talk for a bit but then paused mid-sentence when a woman of a certain age walked past us. She teetered on impossibly high stilettos and seemed to be wearing a small tube of leather that could either be unzipped in the front or the back. We couldn’t help but smile.
“Don’t you just love people!” she said “They all have their story.”
I said that indeed I did love people but in the back of my mind was not sure I could show as much enthusiasm for all people.
“That is what I am doing” she said decisively, and picked up a notebook full of writing.
“I am writing everything I see”.
I didn’t want to disturb her so occupied myself with my daughter, my shopping list, my mundane thoughts. I glanced over at her and sure enough, she was writing as fast as she could, and smiling.
Just before I left she started to unravel a headscarf and readjust it. My heart sank. She was completely bald, the very specific kind of bald that comes with chemo. She retied her scarf, caught my eye and smiled. She picked up her pen and continued to write and in doing so exposed the vulnerable underside of her wrist. On it was a tattoo: it said “LIVE”.
But there are happy stories out there too. In fact, most of them are happy somewhere. Maybe the old man has overcome huge odds to be sitting in that chair at Tim Horton’s. I think he is Eastern European and how he came to be in Toronto is surely a story of triumph.
The woman in the laundry came out of extreme poverty and now owns two properties.
And my young friend reached across and touched me even though I had never met her before and probably never will again.
I wonder if you want to hear these tales patchworked together? I do believe that somehow the telling of them collects us together for a quiet moment to celebrate. To embrace what is means to be human.
A New Year bright with promise lies before us – lets fill it with wondrous things.
December 25, 2010
Here’s wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I hope to be finishing my screenplay soon and joining the blogosphere again!
September 15, 2010
Do you ever have one of those days when you just have to have a haircut? Now! As you clear space in your day and phone around for an appointment you can feel your hair growing longer and more raggedy by the minute.
I didn’t have to wait, after all I live in a big city now, in the pulsating heart of All Is Possible. I trotted across to the mall. I asked client services about salons and I picked the nearest one.
Turns out it was a hairdressing school, hence the wordy disclaimer I had to sign before they would let me through the door. For $9 dollars I could put my head in their hands. I decided to go for it.
A young woman with works of art on her nails and a purple streak through her hair asked me to take a seat. She also had a lot of artwork snaking its way up her arms but this did not put me off.
After a worryingly brief wait she announced,
“Who will see you now!”
There was no questioning lift at the end of her sentence.
“I don’t know,”
“I was hoping you would tell me,” was all I could muster.
She rolled her eyes and pointed at a small, muscular man dressed in black. Not fashionable black, you must understand, but a kind of a janitor’s uniform. He grinned at me and pointed at his name tag.
He was a bit short on the teeth front.
He led me to his work station and asked me to flip through some magazines. He looked hopefully at the dramatic cuts but I thought it best to stick with a simple trim of the existing arrangement.
“Everything is possible!” he said and led me to the basins.
Almost as soon as he got started I knew that this was not your usual shampooing experience. Icy water blasted me and ran down in rivulets behind my ears. His hands gripped my skull like a vice as if his fingers were looking for purchase to rip my scalp off. He went at my hair with gusto, until each strand must have been squeaky clean. After rinsing with the cold jets again he grabbed handfuls of hair and slowly pulled until my eyes were the same shape as his. It was excruciating. I hardly had time to be relieved when that stopped because the next thing his thumbs were pressing into my ears and he yanked my earlobes downwards.
I noticed a meek-looking girl opposite looking worried but was brought back to the present by small slaps on either side of my forehead and then quite a big one in the middle. Whack!
I opened my eyes to see Huu grinning and beckoning me to sit up. And I have to say, my whole head felt as if it was pulsating with energy. My scalp tingled and my eyes watered but it did feel amazing.
I couldn’t help but notice Huu’s hands. They were calloused. He had the hands of a farm laborer.
I looked around me at the other students. They were mostly young girls with exotic hairstyles and unconventional makeup. They were searingly trendy. There was also an effeminate young man with the skinny legs and lots of chains. He brought his hand up to his mouth and giggled a lot.
Huu became very quiet. He lifted strands of my hair and pulled them this way and that, gently, with none of the former violence. And then he began to cut. Hair flew in every direction. He cut in a spiral, working his way round me and the ever-increasing pile of hair. His scissors flew. He made me think of Edward Scissor-hands. I lost all hope. I was going to look like a spirally pineapple.
For something to read I picked up a course prospectus. They offered full time or part time courses for $9000! All these young girls I was looking at, the preened and the buffed, the young man with the nervous giggle, they had all convinced someone to hand over a small fortune to be here. And where did Huu get that kind of money from? He was clearly not awash with cash.
I asked him to tell me his story as he snipped and clipped.
Huu hails from Vietnam. He came to Canada when he was 11 with other “boat people” as they came to be called.
His father had been a middle-ranking civil service in the South Vietnamese government and by proxy, a supporter of the American cause. Huu was not sure whether he had been pro-American or not but he had a steady job that required him to put on a suit and ride to work every morning.
On April 30, 1975, the last of the Americans left. His father had been increasingly more worried and on that fateful morning had woken his family before dawn to try to get evacuated out. Huu helped carry his youngest sister, a baby, and the other three had to walk. They took very little and fled their home without a backward glance.
It seems though, that although Huu’s father was important enough to be singled out for punishment by the incoming Communist regime, he wasn’t important enough to be evacuated out with his family. Huu still remembers the last US helicopter taking off into the morning sky.
Thereafter followed a very dark time. Huu’s father was sent to a “correctional facility”, supposedly for a weekend, but for what turned out to be 3 years. He emerged a broken man. He had just enough strength left in him and just enough contacts left to get them onto one of the notorious boats. He placed responsibility for his family squarely on the shoulders of his fourteen year-old son and waved them goodbye. He did not have enough money for himself or his eldest daughter to go. Huu never saw them again.
I do not ask about the boat journey to Thailand or the two years in limbo that followed. Huu shakes his head and says that their greatest fear was being caught by Thai pirates. They were “lucky” and only had to endure empty stomachs with only raw fish to nourish them. cold, wet nights and the constant whimpering of hungry and suffering children.
“But now I am here!” he says, pointing at himself for clarification and grinning again.
“And I cut hair!”
It turns out Huu has always wanted to be a hairdresser. Not a barber, but a hairdresser. He has clung to that dream his whole life. He has put his sisters through school, married and educated his own children. He has put aside savings from his meager earnings and now he is at hairdressing school.
“Are you learning part time or full time?” I ask
“Part time”, he says, holding up his calloused hands,
“I work on the roads, digging with the loud machine,” he laughs.
He spins my chair round to show me my new haircut. It is a vast improvement – the layers have been artfully cut and I am pleased.
“Beautiful!” he exclaims
“Yes!” I say, to please him. But I am not talking about myself.
I will come back again and gladly lay my hair clippings at the altar of his life’s dream.
At home I look up his name and find it on the ever-useful internet:
Huu: “very much so”. amplifies the meaning of the first name, e.g., Phuoc Huu means “one who deserves to be lucky”.
I know he qualifies.
August 25, 2010
After years of planning and reams of paperwork, I moved to Toronto with my family two weeks ago.
Aside from two brief visits to Canada where I dipped my toe in the water and found the temperature to my liking, I don’t know much about our new home. I did some cursory reading about sites to see and gleaned some local knowledge from our good friends here, but always put off more in-depth research “until I had time”. Well that didn’t happen.
So now we are here. The last of the packing boxes have gone off to be recycled and we are more or less moved in. I have joined the library across the road and yesterday began my investigations into our new home.
Our cat, who made the journey from France with his customary aplomb, has taken to his new environment in a very limited and local way. He knows where his food is, he has found a particularly soft cushion to sleep on and has mustered as much disdain for the bird life as he had in France.
Having lived in a sleepy village in Provence for the last 11 years, the transition to big city life had me wary at first. I have two small girls and don’t let them out of my sight. But then again that goes with parenting wherever you are. I didn’t let them out of my sight in a village of 2000 souls.
I love the vibrancy of Toronto and the dynamic blend of cultures. We chose to live centrally and steps away from our apartment greek restaurants sidle up to ethiopian ones. Portuguese is spoken in the grocery door downstairs and there are some signs written in alphabets I can only guess at.
In the library I pick up a weighty tome which promises to tell me all about the history and politics of Canada. The book has a text book gravitas about it and is full of “facts” and statistics. It doesn’t contain a single story.
I would like to find out about the people who make up this society now, not the demographics of 15 years ago. I would like to hear their stories. My downstairs neighbors are korean, our landlord is portuguese. My new friend who runs the laundromat is greek and reminds me of the best kind of parisian concierge. The librarian who pointed me towards “The Politics and History of Canada” is russian. The woman I have just bought a bookcase from is iranian and the man who helped us carry it is hungarian.
There are many stories of immigration around me. I want to know them all.
I love my new life but miss my friends. I love the newness and buzz of the city but miss the nightingale song we enjoyed every morning and evening. The trundle of a tractor in the vineyards in front of our house has been replaced by the constant hum of things unidentified, the extractor fan at the italian restaurant next door, occasional sirens.
How many things are “missing” in the people around me. If I concentrate on the space around people instead of themselves what will I see? The auras of what they have left behind. Grandmothers who will never travel to such a far flung place? Nieces and nephews never met? Sunshine and beaches? Exotic fruit? History. Each of us has come here bearing our own history, the people and places that have shaped us.
Some immigrants have tried to recreate that here. Hence the plethora of ethnic restaurants, shops and newspapers.
There is a tower block down the road. Apparently it used to house refugees – mainly Somalis and Sudanese. It is now called “New Horizons” – a particularly uninspired name for a retirement home which will be the end of the line for many of its occupants. I see the inmates sitting on the benches outside, blinking perplexedly at the tide of newcomers around them.
I want to know about these people too. The ones who have always been here but don’t live in the same country any more. The changes in Canada over the last few decades have been significant and positive.
My plan is to go out and meet the mix that makes up my new home. One by one.
June 1, 2010
For the last few months I have been involved in writing a children’s book and have neglected this blog. This is also partly due to the fact that we are moving to Canada in two months and there is so much to do before leaving.
One of those things has been to enjoy spending times with the people who make this place what it is. This village is not the cliche from “A Year in Provence”, but rather a rich mix of people, from all over the world, bound by their ties to this magical place.
Most of the stories I have written have been a way of celebrating characters who would otherwise go unnoticed. I wanted other people to see that beneath a shy, or prickly exterior, often lives a beautiful soul. One I have come to know and would like the world to know about. These people never sing their own praises.
I have been wondering lately, if there is anyone I know who is just the opposite? I decided, as an experiment, to go looking for an outwardly amiable, blight on humanity. So I went to one of the local cafes – the one frequented with the paint and plaster-splattered and camouflage wearing hard men who seemed a little of disdainful of me sitting in a quiet corner with my notebook and blank expression.
They say that what you think about, so you attract. A universal truth. And so I sat and sipped at my coffee waiting to see what the universe would send my way. It didn’t take long. A man I have always disliked despite his being friendly enough, approached my table and asked if he could join me. Who am I to argue with the laws of the universe.
I felt a bit mean obliging him. He had no idea that the only reason I would share a table with him was because of my project to find someone despicable.
I justified my decision by thinking if people take the path he has taken in life they deserve anything that comes at them.
You see, Pascal is an arms dealer.
I met him some years ago because he had lived in some of the same places in Africa that I had.
I took an instant dislike to him, despite our geographical bonds.
He looks like any number of European mercenaries who insinuate themselves into Africa for 20 pieces of silver. I am sure you have all seen them – a story a few pages in to the newspaper about a bungled coup. There is usually a stringy-haired white man in handcuffs surrounded by grim-faced African policemen.
Very often they don’t languish in African prisons for long, unlike their local sidekicks. It is all a big game. A greedy, dangerous game.
Within days of learning that I was from Zimbabwe he sidled up to me one day in the middle of the village:
“You don’t know anyone in Zimbabwe who would be interested in buying weapons do you?”
“Of course I do”, I replied, as calmly as my hectic heart rate would allow.
“Just read any Zimbabwean newspaper.”
He glanced left and right, took a drag on his ever-present cigarette and went on,
“It is just that my guy has been polished off. Pity.”
“I am kicking myself because I may have missed the boat on the Congo conflict.”
“I have worked for Amnesty International”, I said, incredulously.
“I know, I know, but everyone needs money and of course I would pay you.”
“Over my dead body” was my uninspired reply.
I have since come up with many cutting retorts but at the time was so dumbfounded, he was able to wander off with a shrug after having thrust a grubby card at me.
“In case you change your mind..” he said, in all seriousness.
Every time I have run into this man in the village he has been cheerful and friendly. He has asked me questions like,
“And how are things in Africa?” with a wry smile,
and I answer
“No better for the likes of you.”
“How do you sleep at night?”
The man has no conscience.
Over the years he has become a source of fascination to me. I gave his name to a friend whose job in life is to track arms deals and make sure they are legal.
“Arms dealing is not illegal unfortunately, but there are strict codes of conduct and that is where I come in” he explains.
His job is to make it as difficult as possible for these peddlers in misery and death.
I had Pascal traced on the database and sure enough he was there, in a far more minor role than he made out, but there nonetheless.
On a trip to Niger once I was worried about finding last-minute accommodation for a conference I was attending.
Given that Niger is one of the poorest countries on the planet and wracked with internal strife between warring factions, it suddenly occurred to me that Pascal would be a frequent visitor.
The next time I saw him I asked him and sure enough, he recommended a place on the edge of the Sahara where I could stay relatively inexpensively.
“Why don’t you just give me your itinerary for the next few months and I can tell some of my humanitarian worker friends to follow you around with a mop and bucket”.
He smiled and offered to pay for my drink.
I did stay in the scruffy motel of his choice and he was right about one thing: it was a lot cheaper than anywhere else.
A Central African jurist, Gabriel, befriended me and saved me from expiring of heat exhaustion, (48 C), food poisoning and overly friendly locals. I did comment to the waiter one morning in the dining room about how few clients seemed to have breakfast. There was only ever Gabriel and I.
“That is because people usually come here for a couple of hours” he said, matter-of-factly.
Since this happened Pascal is down on his luck. I don’t see him roaring around in a 4 x 4. He seems to wear less bling and his teeth are in need of attention. Relations are strained with his lovely wife and he seems to survive thanks to the generosity of the State. He has no money. He has traded his soul and has still ended up bankrupt in more ways than just morally.
He sits opposite me as I gear up to pounce. I file through the arsenal of snide comments I have in store. I think of how I can expose him in this blog. Somehow though, I don’t.
“You have the table,” I say,
“I was leaving anyway.”
A few days later I hear that his wife, someone who has flitted around the world and lived in luxury, is now looking for work as a cleaner. This deeply saddens me. I really do not believe she understood or condoned his actions.
Not long after this I speak to his charming daughter. She is back in the village after a temporary absence.
“Welcome back”, I say – “I thought you were at university?”
“I was” she says,
“I was studying History of Art and loving it but my father is in great difficulty and can’t afford it any more”.
“I’m sorry”, I say.
She shrugs but it is a shrug that is more of a sigh.
And I am sorry. That his victims have not been limited to the faceless poor in Africa. That was vile enough on its own.
I see though that he is not a happy man. He has been cavalier with other people’s lives and he has been cavalier with his own. It is just a sorry, woeful tale of cyclical unhappiness.
Today I met a couple in the village.
I ask what they do and the husband says,
“I work in the defence industry”.
“Here we go,” I think, hackles rising.
“Mobile clinics to be sent to Third world countries
“It is all about giving back”.
“Don’t know why this is classified as a defence industry but there we have it – can I pay for your drink.”
“Thank you,” I say.
Feeling knocked down to size.
I don’t understand. I don’t have the answers.
March 26, 2010
My image of militants usually includes basements and cigarettes. Usually there will be a hair thing going on too – dreds or at least rakish dishevelment. Michele and Rene are disappointingly well-groomed and when I visit, they kindly bestow upon me a home-made apple tart and some mango and fig chutney.
I met Michele at a breast-feeding support group for mothers of mewling newborns. I sat cross-legged on the floor with the other mothers who were swapping alarming tales of cracked nipples and breast ailments. My daughter lay on my lap and every now and then would wriggle and fuss. My answer to this was to nurse her and hope for the best.
After a while Michele leaned forward and suggested, in her diplomatic way I have come to know and love, that perhaps she wasn’t hungry. I needed to listen and observe. Michele has done a lot of listening and observing and a lot of Caring in her life. I have since learned to listen and observe what she teaches me. She is a wise woman indeed.
When Michele asks me why I want to interview her, I tell her that I am in search of people who spend their lives well. Typically, she all but looks over her shoulder to see if I am talking about someone else. But no. Michele is a true champion.
“I am what you call a ‘Petite Parisienne’, a term from my generation which does not really exist any more”.
“I was born in Paris to parents from the provinces. My father came to Paris from Chartres to seek work as a boulanger/patissier. He arrived in the big city with his old grandmother as his mother had died. They went into the first boulangerie they saw near the Gare du Nord railway station and he was offered work”.
“My mother came armed with her new diploma as a registered nurse. Her mother had been a matron in one of the big hospitals in Paris, which was quite an achievement in those days.”
“The hospital was a mix of a social welfare provider in the broad sense of the term rather than a place to treat illness, as it has become today”.
“I was forged by these two women, my mother and my grandmother; schooled in the concept of care”.
Very early on in their marriage Michele’s parents abandoned their former professions to run a Brasserie in Barbes, the heart of old Paris. I visited Paris in summer with my teenage son and through a complete inability to read maps (on my part), and an enthusiasm to explore Paris on hired bicycles (on my son’s part) I led him into the red light district of La Pigalle. We stopped in Barbesse en route to look at the “I Love You” wall, a modern blue-tiled wall with “I love you” scrawled on it in over 400 languages.
I digress. Barbesse is now, and was then, a rather lively quartier to find yourself born into. Michele chuckles as she recounts what she considers to be a blissfully happy childhood. Edith Piaff was a regular and outbreaks of song and dance were frequent.
“I remember ‘dancing afternoons’”.
“I must have been six or seven and I would watch people come in, plonk their bags and coats down and start to dance. They could be in couples or alone, it didn’t matter”.
“I was born into this cafe, this society. One day I would be pushed in my pram by a lovely prostitute, often the most charming and correct of women, and another by a wealthy politician’s wife from the Hotel de Ville next door”.
“I was born in 1945 and my parents doted on me”.
“Their first child died when my mother suffered a difficult labour. Paris was occupied by germans at the time and soldiers had taken over the hospital. On the night in question the doctor was drunk and did not react to her distressing labour. The baby died and had to be removed in pieces from her womb”.
“I am the result of one of the first medically-assisted pregnancies in France!”
“My mother was still working at the hospital when she was pregnant with me. She used to collect up all the empty tins of Nestle formula they used for the babies and lock herself in the toilets to scrape out anything that was left. Food was in such short supply.”
Some thoughts are occurring to me as Michele recounts this. Where was her father? This was during the war, after all, and menfolk were thin on the ground. It turns out that he had the good luck to be injured seriously enough to be sent home from the Front but not seriously enough to impede being able to live with and love his wife. The other thought that occurs to me is one would think that doctors had their hands full with injured soldiers without having to make the first tentative forays into infertility treatment. I am about to voice these questions when it occurs to me that there could be no better way of confronting the enemy than helping into the world a person such as Michele. A victor over adversity.
“My parents were married on a Friday and war was declared on the Saturday. When the mayor married them he paused at the part where he traditionally wishes them happiness for the future”.
Instead he said,
“Mes pauvres enfants, I would like to imagine a happy future for you but it will be difficult in these troubled times”.
Two days later, her father was dispatched to fight. Unhappy days indeed. Michele says with no trace of irony,
“He was lucky enough to be taken prisoner and then later was injured”.
It is hard to see Fate smiling on someone who was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp and then shot in the leg, but it did result in his return to Paris. He never spoke of his experiences, preferring not to burden his family with them.
“After the death of their first child, my mother was treated by one of the top obstetricians in Paris at the time.”
“He prescribed that they should have intercourse at a very precise time on specific days and then my father had to pick up my mother and run down the stairs with her. He then put her on the front of his bicycle with her legs in the air and took her to the hospital.”
A primitive procedure was then conducted to help the chemistry along and the result was the much-awaited Michele. I can’t shake the image of a bicycle flying along the cobbled streets of Barbesse, early-risers scratching their heads in puzzlement at the woman perched in a peculiar position on the front.
When Michele was born on 5 July 1945, she caused major celebrations in a hospital which had not had much cause for celebration in recent times.
From the age of 2 or 3 Michele spent holidays with her grandmother in the Pas-de-Calais. Her childhood playmate and sweetheart, Rene, lived across the road. They have always known each other and will have been married for 50 years this year.
“When he was 17 and I was 14 we decided we were going to get married. We married the month after I turned 21”.
Michele started life in the Brasserie frequented by all sorts,then was looked after by a nanny. She soon graduated to the other end of the spectrum and attended a preschool and school run by nuns.
An incident in kindergarten marks her first memory as a caregiver.
“A little girl in my class wet her pants. She was distraught and the nuns were furious. I said not to worry that I would take care of it. I walked with my friend across the huge and strangely empty playground, to the laundry on the other side. I cleaned her up and changed her”.
School provided a sharp contrast to her life outside the school grounds where many women “walked the streets”. One school friend was the daughter of one of these women and she lived with her mother in a rather splendid hotel. It didn’t occur to the girls that the rule that if the door was shut they had to wait on the stairs was unusual in any way and the woman in question was apparently kindness personified. The stair sitting was not frequent as men were not allowed to visit after school hours. If a man did dare to show his face when the children were around, the inmates of the hotel would boo him out the door. Michele felt cosseted by this and protected by her colorful quartier.
“As we grew older and wiser, we came to understand that if a police whistle was blown, all the occupants the hotel would spill out onto the street and run in different directions; a hilarious sight to behold!”
“So we did what anyone would do under the circumstances: we bought a police whistle!”
It wasn’t long before they were caught and admonished but the joy of seeing the mayhem they caused has been remembered long after the punishment it attracted.
Michele pauses for a moment and her eyes sparkle.
“Wonderful memories,” she says,
“Wonderful memories from the heart of Paris.”
“I have always loved children. From the age of fourteen I was often looking after children and helping out at a centre for the handicapped. I decided to follow in my mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps and become a nurse”.
“For my eighteenth birthday my parents paid for me to go and see a friend in Antibes on the Cote d’Azur. I was going to see this friend who had also applied to study nursing. I can’t tell you more about her because I never did stay with her! Rene and a friend were staying in an apartment and I joined them there.”
“We played house but were very chaste. What a wonderful holiday we had!”
Michele and Rene currently live in a 3 bedroomed house about an hour inland from Antibes, in the hills of Les Mayons. They provide a base for their growing grandchildren and many friends but are starting to think about leaving this sleepy village for the lights of Antibes. They could live in a small apartment and complete the circle.
Michele and Rene have three grown children. They are all the successful, rounded people you would expect such parents to produce. Their youngest, Virginie, now a mover and shaker in the north of France did not show signs of having a bright future when she was born.
Within a few short months of her birth she was diagnosed with a serious heart and physical condition which looked like it would end in an early grave. Michele and Rene campaigned for the best treatment, pioneering treatment, and as one by one the children who surrounded their daughter in the children’s hospital succumbed to their ailments, Virginie lived on. I believe that she was fueled by the fierce love and determination of her parents.
You would think that young parents with two small children and a very sick baby, surviving on Rene’s meagre teacher’s salary would have their hands full. And they did. But it did not stop them from being the instigators in the provision of playrooms in hospitals for siblings of sick children. After sitting in drafty corridors with 2 toddlers for days on end they set about providing better settings in hospitals for the often-overlooked siblings of patients.
Virginie made painstaking progress and finally learned to walk at the age of seven. She proved to be an intelligent child and was more than ready to join her siblings at school. This proved to be impossible. Or would have done, if she were not the child of the Militants of Les Mayons.
After a nationwide campaign on behalf of children in the same predicament the law was finally changed and Virginie was able to walk through the school gates.
Michele and Rene had always dreamt of carrying out humanitarian work. In their teens they imagined traveling to far flung places where they could roll up their sleeves and practice their chosen professions. With Rene’s teaching skills and Michele’s qualifications in physiotherapy they would have indeed been an asset to any community.
With Virginie’s illness keeping them close to home, they decided to look inwards and see what could be done in their own community.
Their house became a haven for many South American refugees and by the sounds of things many lively evenings ensued. They are still in touch with their friends, many of whom are now re-established in their home countries. This is in no small way down to the help and generosity of Michele and Rene, not that they would ever say that.
When Virginie became a teenager and was doing well, this indefatigable pair thought it was really time they did something to help others. As if all that they had already achieved was not enough, they decided to be a place of love and safety for seriously compromised newborns.
Michele’s medical background and experience with her own child made her an ideal candidate to receive babies with serious handicaps who needed a new home. A bundle would be brought to the house at short notice and they would love and nurture him or her until they were adopted. This could take up to a year.
After they had made this life changing decision one weekend, they went for a stroll around the local market. Rene spotted something and bought it for Michele. A bunch of plastic keys on a ring, the kind babies like to chew on when they are teething. Michele shows it to me now. And indeed, there are little teeth marks, the gnawing of no fewer than 8 babies.
Each child left their home with a scrapbook made by Rene. Every day he recorded something of the time shared with their temporary charge. Photos, keepsakes and reflections.
These children are still part of their lives, in the ever-increasing circle of the lives touched by this incredible couple.
It has taken me a long time to tease out of them the things that they have done, like unraveling a reluctant ball of wool. I am sure that there is so much that I have don’t know about.
Michele and Rene are the honorary grandparents of my children and we will miss them so when we move to Canada.
Having spent their lives in the service of others has not proved to be financially rewarding. I will take this with me though: that sometimes a string of words written into a law and a chewed on bunch of keys is the best legacy anyone can leave.
February 20, 2010
Every so often I catch up with Edouard. We have just had coffee at the Gare de Lyon and it has gone as it always does: Edouard looks much the same, although this time he sports a rakish haircut for a part he is playing in a 1940s series. Filming starts tomorrow. He can’t tell me much more, just waves his hands about as if half-heartedly chasing a fly away when I ask him what it is about. He has learned his minor part, looks forward to collecting the cheque for his troubles and the rest is surplus to requirements.
The fact that we are here at all is down to Edouard’s telepathic powers. Each time I venture up to Paris (not often given the distance and shedding of responsibilities involved), he somehow knows and tracks me down.
Last night when I called home I was told that Edouard had called out of the blue and was likely to tap up at the hotel. He is just as hopeless as I am at keeping a mobile phone a) charged b) about his person c) with the same number, for any length of time. All things considered, we don’t do badly when it comes to communicating.
It goes something like this: E suddenly decides to call, he does so and finds that I have gone to Paris, he finds me. We drink coffee or wine, depending on the time of day and the quality of either depending on our cash flow. He rolls himself a cigarette and gesticulates wildly, updating me on politics and the hazy world of the arts he inhabits. We always laugh a lot and part happily, not knowing when we will meet again but somehow knowing that we will.
I met Edouard in Zimbabwe through a friend. She had met him at a foreign film festival and he asked if she knew of a cottage to rent. He was in a traveling artist studying Shona sculpture in Zimbabwe. I had three young children at the French school in Harare and was happy to have a francophile around the place to keep up their French during the long summer holidays. We had a small cottage in the garden so Edouard became part of the family.
I have to be honest and say that there are a few stretches of the imagination peeking out from behind the above statements: Our cottage was more of a hut in the garden; the extent of Edouard’s knowledge of Shona sculpture thus far was what he had gleaned during the last five minutes of a program on TF1 television; his French certainly sent us on a linguistic adventure and raised eyebrows when repeated by my toddlers at school; Edouard was a fugitive from his own family.
It transpired that in the midst of marital strife, Edouard’s very beautiful but very temperemental wife had yanked a stilhetto shoe off her foot and struck him on the hand. Being an artist the said hand was a tool of his trade and he was incensed.
“I am leaving!” he exploded, no doubt with accompanying hand movements, injuries allowing.
“Oh yes, and where do you think you are going?”
Her wry smile had infuriated him and without a second thought he had spun around and pointed at the television.
“There!” he said
And suddenly that was the course his life would take.
His quivering finger was pointing at a young African man hunched over a hunk of stone from which he was liberating a smooth form. Later I discovered this was filmed at Tengenenge, a farm-turned-training-centre for Shona sculptors.
I don’t remember the name of the man who started the training centre, just that he was very charismatic with a big beard and a piece of rope holding up his trousers.
Edouard stormed out of his house, and with each step that took him closer to the bank his smile broadened and he was convinced he was on the right path. He cleaned our his account, more of a light dusting really as there was only just enough to cover his ticket and a few days in a hotel.
In all the time I have known him, Edouard has seldom been without a bright young thing on his arm, usually an aspiring actress or artist. Artiste. He soon established himself on the social circuit in Harare but I noticed that he never formed very strong attachments to these companions. It seems as if he can take or leave “la vie en couple” and I am astonished when I think I see a moistening of his eyes during our last meeting when he says,
“J’en ai mar, vraiment! I am really fed up with all this relationship stuff!”
He takes a drag on his cigarette and leans forward conspiratorily.
“Must be why we are still friends,”
“My little sister,”
“Never had any of that nonsense to deal with.”
I smile at the impossible thought of Edouard as anything other than an erratic and eccentric dear friend.
He notices the glint of amusement in my eye and stubs out his cigarette and smiles.
“D’accord. I know I am not easy. I am maybe a little complicated.”
And therein lies the understatement of the century.
There is one thing that is reasonably certain, and that is that Edouard is called Edouard. Things get a little shaky when it gets to his surname – he has a choice of two, spelling uncertain for both.
His parents must have been very determined to be together. His father was Jewish and his mother Catholic and their union was more than frowned upon. It is not clear if they were married or not, probably not, but what is sure is that churned out seven children and placed each of them in the care of the State as they made their appearances.
He was raised by foster carers, some kind, some not and by the time he was in his early teens, pretty much took care of himself. This probably explains why he is the freest spirit I have ever met, for better or for worse. I can quite understand why people are drawn to him and can quiet understand why they are sometimes driven to attack him with their shoes.
Not long after I left Zimbabwe for France, losing his ever-changing contact details along the way, he called. The last contact number he had for me was several defective Zimbabwean phones ago so I was somewhat astonished to hear from him. He was having an exhibition opening and invited me up to Paris. I had recently met Dan, now my husband, and we thought it would be a good excuse to travel across France from Provence.
Of course, being Edouard, the whole thing was all very last minute and the only seats on the train were in the smoking section of an overnighter. Nowadays smoking is banned thankfully and we are whizzed up to Paris in a sleek TGV bullet train.
We chugged our way up to Paris in a fug of exhaled carcinogens and arrived smelling like ashtrays. Generous-spirited as always, Edoaurd had said we could stay with him in his apartment. (And here I catch a glimpse of another misconception peeking our from behind that word). For “apartment”, which I will use out of courtesy to Edoaurd who will doubtless be reading this, please read “broom cupboard”.
Edoaurd’s generosity knows no bounds and he had extended the same invitation to a large and immaculate trucker he had grown up with and his latest conquest, a jangly Parisian jewelry designer.
We went directly to the gallery and changed into something less toxic and ventured into the exhibition to view his work with our bloodshot eyes. There were a lot of important-looking people there. I am astounded by all the connections Edouard has and the amount of dirt he has on the Great and the Good. He certainly doesn’t seem to be plagued with as many administrative woes as the rest of us, he usually just makes a phone call, shoots the breeze and all is sorted.
We mingled with Grandes Dames in fur coats with cigarette holders pursed between their lips, men in smart suits and others who were decidedly scruffy and almost had you rooting about in your pocket for spare change.
After the exhibition opening a motley mismatch of characters, including us, went to a small restaurant with tables outside. We joined them all together and had a riotous end of the evening. By this stage we were a bit jaded and looking forward to a good nights sleep.
Edouard apologized that conditions “would be a bit cramped” and led us down numerous alleyways near Montmartre. We were instructed to keep as quiet as possible as we climbed the creaky stairs, no mean feat for the rotund trucker, and I suspect the need to go undetected was probably related to unpaid rent. But then again, maybe it was out of concern for the sleeping concierge.
We had to squeeze through the door single file where two towers of records stood entry. Among his many talents, Edouard is a music producer and owns a label. As a teenager he ventured into the music business and signed two of his friends, Michel and Louis Petrucciani, now giants of jazz in France. Sadly Michel died very young due to a congenital disease and Edouard continues to be kept in money for black coffee and cigarettes thanks to the musical ability of his friends and his own wits. He has since had a square in the 18th Arrondisement named after Michel.
The apartment was what they call a “chambre de bonne”, or a maid’s quarters. It occupied the space under the eaves and was just big enough to contain a double bed, a chest of drawers, towers of records and books and the smallest bathroom known to man. Surprisingly it housed a washing machine in the bathroom too with a hastily written caution not to shower whilst it was in use and a jagged lightning symbol with a smiley face underneath it.
As the five of us crowded through the doorway, four of us had the same thought going through our heads. Where in the world were we going to sleep? The only unconcerned party pulled the mattress off the bed leaving the support below which he gallantly offered Dan and I along with 2 sleeping bags. The trucker looked doubtfully from his childhood friend to the mattress and bedding on the floor and Edouard shrugged and laughed making some comment about even if he were gay, he just wasn’t his type. The jewelry designer appeared to be in shock.
We fell into an exhausted sleep only to be awoken by what sounded like distinctly amorous sounds coming from the mattress, followed by the trucker leaping out of bed and crying,
“Try that once more and you are a dead man!”
The jewelry designer shrieked and once again, the only unconcerned party was our host .
“Calme-toi! It was an honest mistake! I had forgotten I had you in bed with me – thought I was cuddling up to my girlfriend in my sleep.” he chuckled.
It was all too much for the trucker. The light was flicked on and he hastily through his things in his bag and headed for the door.
So far Edoaurd has participated with varying levels of success in painting, sculpture, music and acting. His most recent foray was into stained glass restoration. From the bare facts of his life you would not say that my friend has been blessed by Providence. He has had to bring himself up and has to live by his wits. He does have extraordinary good luck sometimes too though, as if at birth he was handed a challenging life with a ‘get out of jail card’ to keep in his back pocket. He has never been in jail, and never will be but he has used that card to get out of some scrapes.
The ink was not dry on his Certificat de Competence as a stained glass restorer when a gale hit northern France and blasted helpful holes through many of God’s houses. A period of intense work followed until one day it came to an abrupt halt. Edoaurd turned up on my doorstep in Provence as if it were the most normal thing in the world. His timing wasn’t great as I was trying to put together a human rights proposal for a project in Rwanda and had a friend staying from London who had come to help me work on it. I asked him what had happened and he said that things were becoming “complicated” at the convent in that one of the nuns had become obsessed with him and kept pouncing on him in alleyways. He put in extra hours until the window he was working on was repaired and then high-tailed it out of there. I was assured that he had resisted her charms.
On another occasion he arrived at our house in London having just got out of Algeria by the skin of his teeth. I asked him what had happened and he said that it was just a massive overreaction on the part of his hosts, some Tuareg nomads he had been traveling with in the desert. He had been greatly amused that whenever evening prayers were called, one of the billy goats would prick up his ears and amble over to the men gathered on their prayer mats. As soon as heads were bowed and touching the sand the goat, who seemed to be enamored with one of the more senior members of the congregation, would wonder over and try to have his evil way with the praying man. Tradition did not permit the prayers to be broken to push the goat away and so his rude behavior was duly ignored. Until Edoaurd arrived. With his camera. The rest is history.
Aside from his artistic pursuits, Edoaurd has also enjoyed a brief political career. He had stumbled upon an abandoned village in Provence with the unfortunate name of Moncou. In French with a small stretch of the imagination, if you separate the words to read Mon Cou it translates to “My Arse”.
This was reason enough to go into politics and Edoaurd jumped through the various hoops to become the sole candidate, and indeed, sole resident, of Moncou. His ambition was to arrive at L’Elysee with pomp and ceremony and have to be announced as the Mayor of Mon Cou. One of his political connections dissuaded him from this in the strongest possible terms.
This time I was a little sad at our parting as we will be moving to Canada in summer. When I say this Edouard nods his head with a twinkle in his eye and I am heartened to know we have not seen the last of him.
January 21, 2010
Elisabeth had no sooner discovered the internet than she entered the realms of internet dating.
Having made three unsuccessful forays into marriage she had more-or-less given up on finding the elusive Mr Right until she answered a flashing icon on her screen. And a whole new world opened up.
At first she had thought her lack of suitable soulmate was down to the extra padding around her middle. In true French fashion, Zab can tell your weight to the gram from fifty paces. As she nibbles a biscuit she can tell you exactly when and where it will manifest itself on her frame.
In her quest for a partner she embarked on the Boiled Egg and White Cheese Diet until constipation stopped her in her tracks. The Cabbage Soup Diet followed and gave me cause to discreetly lower the car window on several occasions.
In a final bid to fit into a pair of miniscule white jeans for her 50th birthday party, Elisabeth went on a “detox”. On her list of things to avoid was only one item: food.
Sure enough, the weight was sloughed off her in great slabs as if she was a giant kebab being shaved down to size. She whittled her way into those jeans and for one brief shining moment her body was svelte, but to the consternation of all her friends, her face was sagging and sallow. All we wanted was to get a square meal into her.
We had known her as a smooth-skinned, buxom woman with a big heart and raucous laugh. She was shriveling up before our eyes. Whenever we met for a coffee, I would buy us a croissant each. She would make a show of refusing it but then would eat it in small torn off sections, each one a battle of its own.
The drastic weight loss had caused all sorts of health problems and after a stern talking to her from her (handsome) doctor, Elisabeth set off on a new track: Tarot cards, astrology and a number of charlatans who’s palms she crossed with paper.
She was looking for the perfect man. Where was he? They all had different opinions but were unanimous in one thing; he was just around the corner.
In the mean time, she restarted a liaison she had recently congratulated herself on giving up with a smug married man who fixed her plumbing. I must confess to wanting to throw a brick through his windshield every time I see him driving through the village. I don’t believe that she got anything positive out of these tristes. Funny that ‘triste” in French means “sad”. This is how she was left feeling by this man. I thought things were looking up when she told me she had joined an internet dating site.
This revolutionized her life and very soon she was in almost constant contact with a pilot based in Nice. He was around the same age as her and flew private charter jets for the gliteratti who flit in and out of Nice and Monaco.
I asked if she had met him yet and before she could answer, her telephone chirped the arrival of a text message. She showed it to me: Proof of Life.
“Desole Ma Cherie. J’etais dans une Briefing”.
I have an immediate and visceral distrust of any French-speaker who peppers their language with throwaway English jargon.
“Does he speak English?” I ask, jolting her out of her reverie.
“No, just a few technical terms like ‘we have lift off’”.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this related more to rockets than Lear jets.
They agreed to meet a few days later for lunch which he insisted should take place at Elisabeth’s house.
She scrubbed and cleaned her house from top to bottom and squeezed herself into her white jeans. I thought of her on the day in question with a knot in my stomach and hoped she would be alright.
She came round for supper that night and seemed more-or-less ok with the way the meeting had gone. She had lied about her age but then so had he and they laughed about the fact that they had both lopped off the same number of years.
This left me feeling like a disapproving aunt. I wondered what was so funny about both of them unearthing fundamental untruths within minutes of meeting? How could anything that followed contain a shred of credibility?
“He wasn’t bad looking,” she said, in answer to my unasked question.
“He had this mustache though. You know, like Freddie Mercury.”
“And he was dressed all in white, with a crease ironed down the front of his trousers.”
“He spent five minutes hanging his blazer on the back of his chair, getting it just right.”
“A perfectionist?” I asked, because it was more polite than yelling “O.C.D!”
“Then he was very upset because he sat on a cushion that had one of Minnie’s hairs on it. He really was very angry.”
“When I walked into the kitchen I heard Minnie whimper as if he had kicked her but he wouldn’t do that would he?”
“No-one would kick a little old dog like Minnie?”
I didn’t answer. Just looked at her with all the question marks circling around her head, trying to make sense of this man, this meeting.
“How did the rest of the day go?” I asked.
“There was just this one other thing that was a little bit embarrassing but after he explained it as being so part of his pilot makeup, I understood it better.”
“What did he do?” I asked, almost not wanting to know.
“Nothing much. I shouldn’t really complain. It’s just that he does this hand thing.”
“He has very exaggerated hand movements.”
“We were driving into the village and had to stop where the workmen are fixing the bridge.”
“Jean and Lulu?” I asked
“Yes. Well they waved us forward and he did this thing signaling with both hands as if asking if we could proceed. Lulu stared at us because he had already said we could, for crying out loud, and then he did this double thumbs up and a big wink.”
“Lulu and Jean were very amused and I slunk down into my seat. I asked him why he did that and he said it was just so part of his pilot makeup from communicating with those men on the runway who wave little ping pong bats around. I suppose it makes some sense.”
I would have thought that technology would have overtaken the thumbs-up as a means of communicating at international airports but maybe I am wrong. My father, who was a respected fighter pilot, never felt the need to wave and wink at men at work.
My thoughts were interrupted by another chirruping. Elisabeth’s face clouded over and she said,
“That is him canceling our dinner tonight.”
“She sighed and handed me her telephone.”
“Desole ma cherie. Depart Nice pour New York ce soir, Tokyo demain. On peut manger demain soir?”
“I don’t know how he does it!” she said admiratively.
“Imagine! New York tonight, Tokyo tomorrow morning and still he is making time to meet me for dinner tomorrow night!”
“He doesn’t.” I said.
“He doesn’t what?” she asked, losing track.
“He doesn’t fly to New York and Tokyo and back to Nice in a little bitty aircraft and be back in time to take you out to dinner.”
Elisabeth looked at me as if I just didn’t understand and reached for her telephone again to show me the message.
“I know what he said.” I said.
“It is just that it can’t be true.”
“How do you know?” she said defensively.
“Elementary. Elementary geography and vague knowledge of flying regulations not allowing pilots to work non-stop for 36 hours.”
I felt bad about pointing this out but of course the man turned out to be a complete liar working as a butcher with his wife in a small village not far from here.
He was soon forgotten. A new man was found. He had a small farm where he kept goats and made cheese for sale on the markets. He was a bit rough around the edges apparently but Elisabeth seemed happy enough. One day she suggested I come to the farm for the day with my daughter who was just walking and my big tummy which contained my youngest.
It sounded like a good idea. I fancied the idea of an expedition on this lovely spring day and time with Amelie before a mewling newborn appeared. I pictured frolicking kid goats and a carefully prepared picnic with fresh goats cheese and hunks of the olive bread I had bought.
Off we set. I suffer from car sickness on small windy roads at the best of times but being pregnant made it all the worse. We climbed and swung around curves, Elisabeth talking excitedly about Michel, her new man, and gesticulating sometimes with both hands. When we arrived I was not disappointed.
The farm was at the top of a hill with a magnificent view. There were two houses, solidly traditional bastides having a standoff with a field between them. Amelie immediately toddled off to see the kid goats. Elisabeth called her back in a strangely hushed voice.
“Quoi?” I asked
“It is just that the neighbour is a very unfriendly man she said. A real bastard. Michel doesn’t want us to be outside at all – we have to either be in the goat shed or in the house.”
I scooped up my reluctant daughter and walked towards the goat shed.
“Don’t mind Michel,” she said,
“He is a bit shy and can sound gruff but he is really a sweetie underneath.”
As our eyes adjusted to the dark and our nostrils were accosted by the unkempt smell of the shed we heard the low bleats of a goat giving birth.
A burley man in a thick woolen pullover had just delivered one and a twin followed suite. He must have heard us come in but didn’t turn around. He plonked the newborns in the pen next to their mother and proceeded to tug at afterbirth. I sympathized for her in my pregnant state and couldn’t bear the pathetic bleating for her babies. She hadn’t even been allowed to nuzzle them or clean them.
Elisabeth tapped him on the shoulder and he spun round.
“This is my friend I told you about,” she said waving in my direction
He stepped forward a put out his hand
“Gerard”, he said.
I had no alternative but to shake hands, placenta and all.
He did not seem to notice and asked Elisabeth if lunch was ready.
“Yes, I have it in the car.”
“Get on with it then. You’re late and you know it makes me angry when I am hungry.”
This was beginning to feel like a very bad idea.
“And walk around the back. You know the score.”
Elisabeth led us on a long loop to avoid the house on the right. The front door was very heavy and ancient. It had a brass knocker made in the shape of a hand – I have seen them before in this region and have been told it has some religious meaning but here it looked downright creepy.
The house was so dark it took a minute to adjust to the gloom. It was like stepping into a coldroom and the house smelled of old smoke. Every wall was draped with soot-laden cobwebs and in the middle of the room stood a solid table already set for lunch.
The plates were a jolly yellow with sunflowers and I thought at least he had something cheery in the place and had made an effort. The only source of light was a bare, dust-covered lightbulb dangling above the table. Two deepset, very high windows on one wall filtered in a trickle of light through their stiff grey lace curtains.
“I set the table for us last night before I left – what do you think of the plates I bought?” asked Elisabeth.
My usually outgoing toddler was clamped to me like a limpet and I didn’t blame her. All I wanted to do was leave.
I put a bottle of red wine on the table along with the olive bread. Elisabeth unpacked plastic containers with all sorts of delicacies in them but I had completely lost my appetite and set off to wash my hands. The place wanted me to stand under a hot shower for ten minutes, never mind wash my hands. There was no hot water as apparently the house had never really been modernized.
“I thought he was called Michel,” I said, as I helped Elisabeth make a salad.
“He is” she answered.
“Why did he say he was called Gerard when I met him?”
“Oh, well, he uses both sometimes. What is the difference? Gerard? Michel? People change their names all the time.”
The front door creaked open and he walked right in without wiping his boots. The fresh goat pellets joined their older compatriots on the floor. He sat at the table, smeared the last of the blood from his hands onto his pullover and said:
“Are we going to eat or what?”
Elisabeth seemed nervous and Amelie cowered next to me, eventually clambering onto my non-existent lap with the bump that was her sister.
I kept thinking of the myriad of germs leaping from his hands to his food and the colony of them breeding in his blood-smeared knitwear.
There was no way I was going to touch the goats cheese or allow Amelie to . Salmonella central.
“Have you told her?” Gerard/Michel nodded rudely in my direction.
Elisabeth cleared her throat.
“Michel is a bit of a musician,” she said glancing sideways at him for encouragement.
“He writes and sings his own stuff. We were wondering if Dan could get him some studio time somewhere?” she looked at me pleadingly.
My husband, Dan, has worked as a professional musician for years, primarily in London, but has some contacts here too. This was the seam that was being mined.
Gerard Michel got up and smeared the crumbs of goats cheese against his jeans. He put on a cassette tape. Something I hadn’t seen for years.
At first I thought it was on at the wrong speed. A low warbling tone was emitted but gradually I became accustomed to the tuneless drone and was able to pick out the lyrics. It was the story of a man in prison for a crime he hadn’t committed. Gerard listened throughout with his fists clenched and tears in his eyes.
He wiped his brow with the back of his hand and Amelie reached up to whisper in my ear,
“Why has that man got two heads?”
I looked at him and saw what she meant. He had a huge pulsating growth just below his hair line. We only glimpsed it for a moment before his grey hair flopped back over it.
I dutifully said I would speak to Dan and thanked him for his hospitality. I had a baby knocking on my bladder and was not brave enough to venture into his bathroom. Elisabeth could see this and soon we were on our way back.
“He is a fugitive from justice.” I said.
“If he is not running away from the police now, he certainly has been in the past.”
She did not respond at first and seemed unusually concentrated on her driving.
“It wasn’t his fault,” she said.
“It is just that he is a very kind person.”
I had a vision of the new little goats all but flung away from their mother and the bullying edge to his voice.
“He was in Italy and gave some hitchhikers a lift.”
“They asked him to stop outside a government building for five minutes and he did.”
“Because that is the kind of guy he is?” I asked.
“Well, one of them got out as a man was walking down the steps. He ran up to him and shot him in the head then ran back to the car.”
“Gerard, I mean Michel, had no option but to drive away with them as fast as he could.”
“They were all arrested and the other two lied and said he had planned the operation.”
“Liars!” I said.
“He spent ten years in prison in Italy until one day a sympathetic guard helped him escape. He came here and found this abandoned farmhouse and bought some goats.”
“Except the owners of the house came back?” I added, thinking of our instructions to give the other house a wide berth.
“Yes!”she said, so glad I understood.
“That poor guy does have some bad luck” I said.
“Yes he does,” she nodded in agreement.
Several weeks later Gerard/Michel was shot in the ass by his infuriated neighbour. The neighbour claimed poor eye sight and mistaking his identity for that of a (very large) wild boar. He was given 3 months in prison and Elisabeth said word had it he had sworn to kill her new man when he came out.
I think you should dump him, I said.
“That is what Eric says” she said forlornly.
“Eric has been such a friend. He cooked me a wonderful dinner after the pilot thing. I am seeing him this evening too, to thank him for looking after Minnie.”
I think of kindly Eric who dotes on Elisabeth. Recently divorced and staggeringly normal for someone in her entourage.
I smile to myself.
Hope at last.