October 29, 2009
Marie-Noelle has a feminine name for someone who only ever wears practical mens’ outerwear. She is wearing them now as the parents gather their excited children to them like so many whirling autumn leaves. The pre-school Christmas play is over and we are all wishing each other a happy festive season.
Marie-Noelle (Mary-Christmas) has a Christmasy name for someone who isn’t planning to celebrate. She has two small daughters of 3 and 1 and a St. Bernard. She is a single mother and a shepherdess. She takes pride in having sidestepped the mainstream, she treads lightly upon the earth.
Her hair is always clean but seldom cared for. Her daughters are loved and immaculate but always in 3rd or 4th hand clothes. Marie-Noelle has her flock in their winter quarters at her father’s house. Her mother died last spring and she does not get on very well with her father.
I know her father and like him. He is a larger than life man with a good education for people who are native to this part of France. A place of poor soil and hard life prior to the tsunami of tourism. His parents were peasant farmers, he was something big in export and import from the South America. Whatever he was mixed up in landed him in prison for 2 years for a crime it has since been proved he didn’t commit. I don’t know what it was – have only heard vague whisperings about merchandise stuffed with marijuana. Seems unlikely he knew about it.
What is certain is that when her mother was dying he was not there to help. Marie-Noelle has taken her own path and wishes he would just get back on his without any expectation of a family life.
I met her when she was heavily pregnant with her second child. I never saw a father present and she told me that he was a shepherd she had come to an arrangement with. He would give her children and she would let him be and ask nothing of him. He has since stepped so far off the grid that no-one has heard from him in a long while.
Marie-Noelle is a woman who seems to have few possessions but a wealth of calm. I have never seen her ruffled. Once when her second child was in daycare with my daughter she told me that people watched her and knew when her girls were not well and she could not tend her sheep. They seized the moment to steal some of her prize stock. This happened several times, each childhood illness carrying a higher cost than the one before. The chicken pox saw the loss of 4 animals she had counted on selling.
I ask if she has reported it to the police. She shrugs and says no, as if the thefts are part of some intricate plan being revealed to her.
I feel I want to help this woman but know that she has everything she feels she needs. Her children eat healthily and she is a good mother. I see her playing with her girls and she listens to them. Really listens. She has all the time in the world.
I think she is depriving them of something by not introducing them to the magic of Christmas but don’t want to intrude. I see her going to church sometimes but she is against the commercialism of the holiday season and I doubt there will be much in their stocking, or indeed, any stockings at all.
The wind carries a chill and it is time to go but I am somehow reluctant to leave. She does not have a camera so I promise to give her a few unasked-for snaps of her girls and ask her what she plans to do over the holidays. I have a half-formed idea of inviting them over. But would it be fair for the girls to see our Christmas tree and decorations and then go home to nothing?
The dilemma doesn’t arise because she tells me she will be driving up in to the Alps to speak to a farmer about her sheep grazing on his land in the summer. Every year in spring she walks her sheep up to the mountains. It takes her 3 days and 2 nights.
On Christmas day we eat too much and overindulge in every way. We decide to take the girls to the playground to get some fresh air and exercise. I do a doubletake for there on a bench is Marie-Noelle. She looks wonderful.
Her daughters come running to say hello and I notice they are dressed in beautiful clothes. Marie-Noelle is wearing a new coat and warm leather boots. I have never seen them looking so well-dressed and happy.
“Joyeux Noel!” I exclaim and she embraces me.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you, I thought you were going to the mountains?”
“We did!” she says “And the most wonderful thing happened, my van caught fire!”
I stare at her blankly wondering how this calamity could be good news.
“We were almost as high as we were going when Mathilde told me she could see fire!”
I raced through all the unthinkables that could have befallen them if she had been asleep.
“I had just enough time to jump out the car, unstrap the girls and run into a field when the whole thing went up” she continued
“It contained everything I owned”.
She says this with no regret. A statement.
“But that’s awful” I say, finally seeing a way I can rush to her aid.
“Well no” she says as if still telling herself the story.
“We walked up the track and came to a chalet. It was dark already and very cold.”
“Mathilde and I walked through the snow and I carried the baby on my back.”
“The house was a traditional wooden chalet and there were lights in all the windows.”
I could picture the scene straight off a postcard but had more difficulty imagining what kind of a reception they would receive.
“We could hear music and and an elderly couple were decorating a Christmas tree”.
“We knocked on the door and a woman opened it”.
“What did she look like?” I ask.
“Very chic looking with short-cropped gray hair. Bon-chic, bon genre from Paris”
I thought about this description used about people who wore Hermes silk and handmade shirts. Usually it is derogatory but here it was just the most economical description she could think of.
“Of course she hurried us inside after the slightest pause, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing”.
“I told them what had happened and her husband called the pompiers to put the fire out”.
“They were so kind, those people”.
“We ate dinner with them and settled the girls down to sleep for the night.”
“What about your van?”
“Once the girls were sleeping I walked out with the man just as the pompiers were finishing up. It was just a burned out wreck. It made me cry to see it.”
I waited for her to go on, thinking of nothing I could say.
“I cried so much. More tears than the ones for my old van and all my things. They were old anyway my things. Only things.”
“The man put his arm around me and walked me back to the house. I was embarrassed but I couldn’t stop crying. The man looked at the woman with words he wasn’t saying”.
I wondered what those words could be.
“Bang goes our cosy Christmas eve!” or
“Oh My God”.
“I said I was tired and went to bed. The sheets were expensive and the bed was so comfortable. I had eaten a lovely warm meal and but I couldn’t fall asleep. I don’t like to worry but I knew I would have to call my father in the morning.”
“The next morning was Christmas morning. The snow was pristine and my puffy eyes hurt to look at it. I didn’t want to look at the people either. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. I was embarrassed to be there on Christmas day.”
“They seemed to be in good spirits, they laughed and played with the girls. The woman had lost the sad lines under her eyes.”
“I called my father but I couldn’t speak. I just managed to ask him to come and fetch us and then the man took over and gave directions when he saw I couldn’t speak anymore”.
“The wife looked like she was hugging a secret to her and her husband kept looking at her to tell her not to spill it.”
“My father arrived 2 hours later. It felt strange to need someone to help me and good that he was there. I didn’t say much to him though.”
“I saw him speaking to the man but don’t know what they were saying because the woman wanted to tell me the thing that she had been holding to herself.”
“We have a daughter” she said
“And two granddaughters, the same age as your girls”.
I waited for her to go on.
“They live in Australia, we don’t see much of them”.
“I told her I hoped she would see them soon”.
“That is just it” she said.
“They were supposed to arrive last night in time for Christmas today but we heard, just before you arrived, that there is a strike and they will only be arriving tomorrow night”.
I could see that this had her puzzled. Why should this have been relevant.
“We left just after that.”
“When we arrived home we went inside for Christmas lunch. My grandmother had cooked and it was just as I remembered it as a little girl.”
“We ate our meal and I missed my mother but it was ok.”
I was so pleased that she had ended up with her family for Christmas after all.
“After lunch my father went out to the car and came back with a large bag. It was full of presents.”
“The people from the chalet had sent all the presents they had bought for their daughter and granddaughters.”
“It has been my best Christmas ever” she said.
October 28, 2009
It wasn’t something I ever gave a second thought. I took it for granted, like electricity or a roof over my head.
Thats the thing with becoming a grown-up. The mystery is peeled away. Electricity is not a given, it is linked to a small brown envelope or a direct assault on your bank account. It sometimes fails and involves tedious calls to a man who usually will not turn up when he says he will and then turns you into a fawning pathetically grateful creature when he does.
Sleep. Blessed sinking into crisp sheets and lavender-scented pillows. A small lamp casts a warm glow, light enough to read by but discreet enough not to be invasive. I know that such a place of repose exists because I have seen it in magazines or on the Martha Stewart website. There is sometimes an artfully placed wooden train (with all the pieces present) unobtrusively peeking out from under a healthy houseplant. This signifies that the inhabitants of this room have children.
Anyone who comes to our house knows that. And my bed does not look like that. It starts off ok after it has been hastily made and I do have a policy of basic hygiene such a requirement to change the sheets if a child has thrown up on them or generally leaked in any way. By the time I fall into bed, however, it has usually become a refuge for plastic farm animals or unidentified (and banned) foodstuffs. The pillows migrate into “houses” in other rooms and more than once I have been spooked when I have opened my eyes and met the glassy gaze of a doll.
As a student, lack of sleep was spoken about with a wry smile. It implied debauchery, a devil-may-care insouciance, 24 hour sprints of lessons, assignments, loud music and general cavorting. It involved tiptoeing over the messy business of catering, laundry and partially-read newspapers and incomplete assignments.
Here’s the thing: I may stretch to a glass of wine in the evening but usually don’t get to finish it before I fall asleep on the sofa.
I dream of sleep. That is the wrong way round I know but needs must. A friend of mine is about to give birth to her fourth child in six years. It makes me want to weep to think of it, this dear friend about to voluntarily expose herself to a recognized form of torture.
I have three teenagers who have no trouble with sleeping. They are champion sleepers, the only trouble is that their waking hours are filled with noise and electronic interaction that interrupts my sleep.
My two young daughters are 4 and 2. You would think that now I have limped through the baby phase, the night feeds, the teething, that things would be looking up on the slumber front. They are not. Apparently we have a wolf outside and monsters under the bed. We have a family of squirrely things called loires that have taken up residence in our roof and a neurotic cat. Hunting season has started and trigger-happy men in brand new camouflage fatigues call out to each other and swear at their dogs on their pre-dawn excursions behind our house.
It is not true to say that I never get a good nights sleep anymore. I recently had to go up to Paris for a meeting. Of course this was a wonderful opportunity to take in the sites, admire Hausmann’s architecture and reaquaint myself with the wondrous works of art at the Louvres and Musee D’Orsay or to sit and gaze at Rodin’s thinker. It could all be rounded off with a stroll alongside the Seine and a Kir Royale with the tinkling background laughter of sophisticated diners talking of politics and philosophy. I took the alternative and slept for 14 hours.
October 27, 2009
Would you like to meet some “false friends”? These are similar words which exist in French and English I used to clamp on to when I was first learning the language. This was ill-advised and often resulted in varying levels of perplexity and mirth.
“Sensible”, now there is a word you can’t go wrong with, practical as socks and sandals. Except in French it means “sensitive” which doesn’t always equate to the same thing. “Sauvage” you would think approximates to “savage”, especially when a mother of a toddler is excusing her leg-clinging offspring from saying hello on the basis that he is a savage. Fair enough. We all have days like that. Our savage days when we would rather rip out someone’s throat than kiss them on both cheeks. Except when I say that she gives me a filthy look and stalks off, child in hand. It turns out “sauvage” means “shy”.
“Mutation” is another one that threw me. It often comes up in the classifieds advertising the urgent sale of household goods. “Everything must go! Fridge, stove, microwave, beds ‘a cause de mutation’. “ What an alarming prospect! What had these people mutated into and why did they no longer need furniture? Open any newspaper and you will see that it has reached epidemic proportions and still the government does not take action! Turns out that it means they have been transferred with work.
The richest seams are to be found in the personals. When I am waiting for a child to finish an activity, a bank teller to finish eating her lunch, a postal worker to stop flirting with his colleague, I read the personals in the free newspaper for our region.
“Man of 60, ‘correct’ physical condition, alive, is looking for a serious companion of indifferent origin”. This begs the question about what a constitutes a correct physical condition if this gentleman feels obliged to draw attention to one of his good points; the fact that he is still breathing. And “indifferent origin”, does that mean he is indifferent or that potential applicants need not apply if they feel strongly about their roots?
Note to self: if one of my most attractive qualities is that I am not yet a corpse I need to “see someone” and not someone I’ve met through the personals.
“Man, 64, “grande” (not grand but tall), mince (thin not effeminate), libre (terminally single not free, or free every Saturday night),seule (lonely) come as you are (?), smokers welcome (because he smokes like a chimney) looking for a life in a couple for a balanced relationship”. Balanced as in “balancing act” or as in the opposite of “imbalanced”? Moral of this story: this is truly sad. This man needs to give up smoking. Smoking is making him into a social pariah. He may as well have put “Smoker seeks person to smoke with. Anyone”. Poor guy. Bet he regrets that first puff behind the bicycle sheds. How cool does he look now? I should confer with his mother. Perhaps he could sue?
Lesson to be drawn from this one: never take up smoking – it will force you to lower your standards.
“Man, 54, sincere, serieux, fun-loving (hang on a minute, doesn’t one cancel out the other?). No. Another false friend. Serieuse doesn’t mean “serious”. Seriously. This means he can be counted on, we are talking about a reliable man here. He likes a party but he is reliable. He also likes to hang out in a camper van, has blue eyes and wants whoever he ends up to be totally independent (financially). Mmmm. Perhaps with a garden where he can park said van? She also needs to be young, good looking and “gaie”. Yes, he is a man looking for a gay female companion but rinse your brain out, he wants her to be jolly and good-humoured. Not that kind of gay. Beware English speakers settling in France.
“Octogenarian man seeks woman (max. 77 years old) near Frejus or St. Raphael, just to rupture my solitude”. This one breaks your heart. In any language.
October 26, 2009
I am not sure which I have been. The distinction is blurred. The degree of badness goes from off white to bruised gray/black. Each time I have been an accomplice – I prefer that, sounds more proactive and less decorative, I have been aware that I am breaking the law. I trained as a lawyer after all and know that we are either standing firmly on one side of the barbed wire or the other. But what if we are straddling it when the spotlight finds us and we are able to come up with a plausible story to divert attention while shadows squeeze themselves under the fence? What if I had a right to walk through the gate but was climbing over the fence anyway?
Is it a compliment or an indictment to be a law unto yourself?
I am lying on my bed, a narrow wooden bed representing my recently divorced status in a narrow bedroom. A bedroom that resembles Van Gogh’s when he was down on his luck. A chair, a chest of drawers, a narrow bed. My children are asleep downstairs. I am curled up in my place of safety watching the bowl of African sky through my curtainless window in my rented cottage.
Bats swoop with a suddenness I always find startling and the parliament of owls that have made my tin roof their meeting place scrape their claws as if along a blackboard. I am alive with tingling senses. I am alone with my children on the farm, a good distance away from the workers’ village.
The regular percussion of the tom toms is punctuated every now and then by a shrill festive cry, and I can picture the fireside scene I will never be a part of. I envy the inclusiveness of it, the ritual and ability to let go at the end of a gruelling day.
The birds in the acacia near the cottage lift up in a whoosh of indignation. They make no sound, just leave as one as they do when a snake is present. But snakes are asleep now. Something has disturbed them.
I hear a shuffling and a cough and a low moaning. Metal on metal right below my window. I am upstairs and the children downstairs. I pick up a baseball bat and tiptoe downstairs just as there is a strident knocking on my door. It must be past midnight.
I peer though the window and see Fainos, one of the farm guards outside. I recognize him by the balaclava he wears every night and his army boots. I am so relieved to see it is someone I know, someone with an explanation.
I open the door and see another form crouched in the corner.
He keens and moans. He is hunched into himself and rocking. He is barefoot and wears an old overcoat against the African cold. I smell fear.
The keening gets louder and Fainos walks up to him and kicks him viciously in the ribs.
“Nyarara,” he says “Shut up!”
He shines his torch into the mans face and I am shocked to see his eye is swollen shut and his clothing covered with blood. He has been spattered with blood, some is own but mostly somebody else’s.
“I am sorry to disturb you” says Fainos before I have thought of a single thing to say.
“I am needing you to take this accused to the police station tomorrow morning, he has stabbed his friend with a broken bottle and now he is late. I have attached him to your house. Thank you very much.” With that he is swallowed up by the darkness, the only evidence of his presence a receding blob of yellow light.
I flip on the outside light and find that the man has indeed been attached to my house, he is handcuffed to the down pipe.
He is a picture of misery. His hair is standing up in tufts and he has a growing lump on his head as a result of Fainos’s overzealous attempts to subdue him. He is drunk in the poisoned way of kichasu, the local brew which destroys the brain at best and can be fatal at worst. He is cold and has wet his trousers. He smells of urine, sweat and fear. He is shaking and rocking. He is attached to my house for the night.
I go inside and do what my grandmother would have done. I make a cup of tea. One for him and one for me. He cannot hold it so I let it cool down then spoon it into him. I fetch a blanket and wrap it around him. I tell myself, this man has taken another man’s life. He is a murderer.
But I know he is not really a murderer. This falls into the ninety-five percent of murders in Zimbabwe we were told about in our first criminal law lecture. This was a “friendly” murder. “Tell that to the victim and his family” I hear you say. But there is more than one victim. This was a kichasu-fuelled altercation that got out of hand within reach of a deadly weapon, a broken bottle. He will be sorry in the morning. He is sorry now, on a cellular level. I can feel the horror seeping into him as the alcohol is leached out of him by the cold, by the beating, by the hot tea, by this strange white woman in a dressing gown with her hair standing up.
My children have slept through this. I check on them, make sure this unnamed man is as comfortable as he can be and I go upstairs to lie in my bed again. For a sleepless night. It must be at around 3 in the morning he starts to bang the handcuffs against the pipe.
Clang! Clang! Clang! clangclangclang clang Clang!
“It is better to kill me!”
“It is better to kill me!
He is as aware as I am no doubt that Zimbabwean courts still hand down the death sentence for cases of murder without extenuating circumstances. That is not the worst of it though, it is the festering overpopulated prisons which are the hell before the hell of a trial in understaffed courts. The overflowing bucket in a cell made for six and inhabited by thirty. The dysentery. The rape. The interminable wait. Years. The lost files and loss of interest. The Loss.
“It is better to Kill me”.
The down pipe is not happy. It was not designed to stand up to the shackles of a desperate man. The children are awake now, and afraid.
“I go outside and ask him not to do that, he is frightening the children, we will talk about everything in the morning.”
But his eyes go dead at the word “children”.
“My children! My children! My children!” he sobs.
He speaks in a low Shona, a lamentation my basic grasp of the language cannot untangle. A world divides us. He is poor and desperate and condemned. I have a good job, healthy children and possibilities beyond his wildest imaginings. I wear warm, clean pajamas, Pajamas! What does he know about such a useless piece of clothing! He wears urine-soaked, blood-spattered cast-offs.
What to do?
He is drunk, he is seeking escape and who can blame him? His mind is impaired by contemporary arsenic. He is not trying to improve his complexion, he is trying to get the hell out of his life. And his life is headed for a place where even the blessed relief of inebriation is beyond his grasp.
Dawn sees us all bleary-eyed and silent.
Fainos whistles his way up to the house. He shouts obscenities at his prisoner, I stand between them, remembering the attack from last night and noting the slight swagger and dangerous glint of a small amount of authority he is keen to exercise to the full.
He unlocks the handcuffs at my request. He wants to come with us in the car, on the school run with his prisoner still handcuffed. I tell him I will take this man to the police station myself and am sure he has more important things to do. He agrees with me that he is a man of some importance.
I load up the car with my wary children and give the man who’s name I do not want to know a change of clothing. A track suit given out to athletes as a pr drive by the company I work for. I wonder what they would think of their new ambassador?
I drive the children to school. The car smells of breathed out kichasu. They squirm on the back seat and I fix them with a steely glare.
I drive to work.
My companion is silent.
I park the car and walk round and open the door for him. He is almost catatonic. I take him to the park opposite my office. The flower sellers are out. He doesn’t see them. The winter sun is filtering through the jacarandas in a purple-hued haze. He is oblivious. I buy him some food and a cocacola from a vendor with a sign that says “Coke Adds Life!”. I tell him I will be back when I finish work and he can tell me what he wants to do.
He does not move for the whole day but he does eat his food.
I finish work and hope that he will have taken the problem that is himself off my hands. He is waiting on the same bench.
“Shall we go home” I say?
I tell him to tell Fainos he has been released on bail and is awaiting a court date. He is on remand. Three words that had previously not existed in his vocabulary. Three words to convince the invincible Fainos that his work has continued along an official and important track.
I am an accessory. I am an accomplice. I have diverted the course of justice. I have withheld information about one of the most serious of crimes. I am an officer of the court and have done everything in my power to keep a self-confessed murderer out of it.
A week later I see the Man with No Name working at the sawmill on the farm. He is standing atop a pile of logs. He is wielding another dangerous weapon, an axe. He watches me walk by from his lofty perch. I wave, hesitantly. He smiles, takes his hat off and waves back.
As good as a handshake.
October 15, 2009
The first time I noticed the car I almost stopped. I would have stopped had it not been for the beat box of a car revving impatiently behind me. I almost stopped to ask if everything was alright, if her car had broken down, if I could help, make a phone call.
My first question was “How could a car as new as that break down?”
And then I got to thinking that maybe she hadn’t broken down, she was waiting for somebody. But the questions wouldn’t stop.
“Why wait there, on a dangerous bend just before a bridge?”
And then the next time I saw her I only saw a part of her as I swung round the bend taking my son to rugby. Her car door was open and a shapely leg protruded.
“Who wears stilhettos around here?” was my next question. The leg was wearing an improbably high heeled shoe, tights and a shortish Ally McBeal type skirt.
The only person I have ever seen dressed like that in this rural area was a woman who had made the trip from a nearby town to sell me insurance.
The answers I arrived at shocked, amused and then saddened me.
“Who was this woman?” “Does she have a real name or has she discarded it?”
“Does she have a family?”
She is not there very frequently and there seems to be no pattern to her attendance.
“Does she have someone telling her what to do or is she self-employed so to speak?”
She parks her car in a pretty spot but one that would be hazardous to stop at, especially on impulse.
“Do people stop here on impulse? Like buying that bar of chocolate at the checkout that wasn’t part of your original agenda? Is it possible that someone can be pootling along not thinking anything very much and suddenly decide, in the split-second they have to stop on that blind bend, to partake of her services?”
“What exactly are her services?”
“How much does she charge?”
My wanting to rush in and save people streak is on high alert.
“What if she is being forced into this?”
“What if people like me drive by with nothing more than a crude thought, embarrassed reflection or judgement in their heads when the poor woman might need help?”
But even as I form this question, even before my synapses have granted it form, something central to me knows that this is not the case. The clues are in the relaxed slightly outward turn of that ankle, the shininess of the car, the music that sometimes drifts from it.
This is not someone acting under duress.
Her face always appears to be in the darkened interior of the car.
I notice that behind the spreading tree she camps out under there is a narrow dirt track. Someone later tells me that she has a caravan down that picturesque path. This repels me even more than the thought of, the thought of what? I don’t know.
I wonder if she has addiction problems. Is she doing this voluntarily but because she has to? “ How awful to live with such demanding demons that your body is up for grabs.
“This is such a small community. Would the police help her if she was in danger?” Sadly I think I know the answer to this. Once I ran to help a woman as she lay prone in the road having her head kicked by her husband. When I called the police they said they wouldn’t come because “those two were always fighting.”
I am open-minded so here is a question,
“Why shouldn’t she earn her living like this?” but something in me recoils and the idealist in me, the human in me, the woman in me, and most of all the mother in me cannot believe that she is happy. I wonder if she can ever come back from this place.
“What does she do for Christmas?”
“Does she have children?”
The questions don’t stop. And then I glimpse her face a few times as I pass by. The questions are drying up now. They have been replaced with others closer to home.
“What shall we have for dinner?”
“Who can pick up the girls when I’m at the dentist?” and my life edges hers out of my thoughts.
She is not a young woman, probably in her fifties or hard-worn late forties. Old enough to make her own decisions.
I do not judge her, I do not care about her, I do not worry when I see her sitting with a man with a cartoon mustache. She has become a blank space that fills a void.
No more questions.
But then one day I have one more. A question that makes me judge her, that makes me want to stop my car after all and speak to her. Makes me want to search for a glimmer of humanity in her.
There has been an accident. Five teenagers from the village have veered off that bridge. Two of them are dead. Two sixteen-year old girls. A vase of flowers sits on the side of the bridge. Cards and letters flutter in the wind. One has detached itself from under the vase and flits this way and that. It comes to rest near a foot. She kicks it away from her with the toe of her shoe, a foot tapping to the beat of music coming from her car.
I question her morals.
October 14, 2009
Senses are heightened when we’re in love. Skin is caress-ready and blissed out by the gentlest breeze. Coffee smells rich and full. Wine tastes of the vineyards and sunshine that nourished it. Everyone and everything is interesting. Light dances and glints, darkness embraces.
I love my children more than life – why is it then that morning coffee has become a ritual which passes unnoticed until I come across my unwashed cup?
In a flush of love I used to plan my shopping trips according to who sold the plumpest, reddest tomatoes, the most aromatic basil. Now I plan my excursions like a join-the-dots game of who has the cleanest toilets and baby-changing facilities.
Light has become a thing of absolutes – harsh strip lighting of supermarkets or a black-out zone of tiptoe territory after bedtime. The sun touching the arch-backed mountain across the valley is not an indicator to reach for the corkscrew and regroup on the terrace for a glass of chilled rose. It is the starting gun to get the bath running, put the dinner on and disentangle the knot of squabbling, grimy children.
I used to remember everything. The curve of the hollow between collar bones AND the ever-so-slight kiss of shadow it contained. I sometimes hurriedly answer the telephone now and only just differentiate the voice of my own mother from that of a telemarketer.
I used to spend ages deciding what to wear. Ha! Now that is at once easier and more difficult. Easier: “What do I have that is clean AND ironed?” and more difficult: “What do I have that is clean AND ironed?”
I love you but I’m not in love with you. This love is something raw and primal. It is grubby and sticky and has given me a strong stomach. It smells of just-bathed baby and sweaty small child scalp. It is the glint of sunlight off one perfect curl. It has heightened all my senses on a permanent basis. It has sharpened my claws and softened my curves. I am not in love with you because that would place you outside my innermost circle. You are. I am. I am because You Are.
October 10, 2009
Kate told me about Corrine’s cupboard on one of our walks, or rather mentioned it in passing. The pebble plunked and the ripples continue.
I don’t know Corrine, have only met her twice and both times she made a good impression. Corrine is the only French woman I know over forty who doesn’t dye her hair. And she has a magnificent cupboard. And a ready smile.
Kate told me that Corrine has a treasure trove of things she has made herself in that cupboard. It is her lavender scented haven of hand-stitched, hand-sculpted and home cooked.
I met Corrine at the Fete de la Literature or some such thing. I was as heavily pregnant as the menacing clouds that threatened to ambush the event. She was surrounded by flags of phrases, a jolly bunting of other peoples inspiration and she asked me to write something.
I looked blankly at the page with its clothes peg next to it just waiting to flap around with the others. Nothing came. I reached into the mush that my brain had become, up to my elbows, and came away with nothing. I decided that this was the defining moment when, with one pregnancy too many, my body had dried up the words to use the energy for a more mundane task. Peeling potatoes perhaps. I paused for a moment longer, perversely fascinated by how vacuous that space had become and was saved by a flat plop of rain. I told her I would try to put some words on paper for her sometime and then tried to remember what I had come to the village to do in the first place.
Months later Kate told me about the cupboard and I was filled with admiration. I started to make a mental list of all the things I would put in such a wondrous place. Obviously old bleached linen would have to figure, as would hand made candles with an extravagantly high percentage of bees wax and secret essential oils.
I had a stab at making soap recently and would like to have my stockpile in my cupboard. I will have to have a section for baby soap and one for soap with coffee grounds and honey, witch hazel and rosemary and other soap-specific enclaves for spontaneous presents. Of course, once I have the cupboard I will be fiercely organised about birthdays with my stack of hand made cards from the recycled paper I regularly dry in frames in the garden.
As we currently live in a house without a garden we will need to move to accommodate the cupboard.
I am grateful to have kept the card from the goat-woman who sells mohair once a year in Cotignac. She has all the allure of one of her protégée but her hand spun wool is ethereal in its lightness and fabled for its jewel colours. Obviously the cupboard has an ample supply of her mohair and my knitting needles will stand to attention on the inside of the door in obedient size order.
I am not much of a bottler and pickler but think that some vin des noix would be mandatory. A neat row of bottles nestled in the bottom shelf gloom. Madame Poitevin has been telling me she will teach me how to make it for ages. She also wants to show me how to kill a defenceless rabbit with one graceful chop to the neck but I will pass up on that.
Each of my children will have their quilt made from treasured clothes they have not wanted to part with.
All the wool my mother asked me to bring back from Zimbabwe, the bottle green from my school jersey, the blues and pinks from successive grandchildren, will be magically transformed into a crocheted blanket of intricate balance and elegance.
My portfolio of photos will have to be on the top-shelf .
Family albums of course will all be kept in there. All 15 of them. I know there are 15 because they will be labelled and stacked chronologically.
I have a huge lock on this cupboard. In fact this is not a cupboard, it is just a faux-antique which is actually a safe. This is because it will contain pens, sellotape and a pair of scissors. These are all of the utmost value in our house.
I met Corrine for a second time just last week. I told her that I was going to write a story about her cupboard, the promised words. I will put the story in her letterbox. She was highly amused by this and invited me to see her cupboard.
I thanked her but said “No thanks”.
October 8, 2009
I have seen her around. She drops her son off at the ecole maternelle in the mornings and he plays with my daughter. She always seems to be in a hurry. This is the first time I have ever had a conversation with her. I see her negotiating a rather clapped-out stroller in and out of the boulangerie and poissonerie. She never tarries, I don’t see her enjoying a coffee at any of the cafes or catching up with gossip with the other mothers. What I never realized is that although she is self-contained she is lonely.
We are sitting on a bench at the children’s playground. She unpacks a snack for her son. Everything about her is organized. My girls ferret about in my backpack for their snacks and run off to play.
Noemi is stocky, early forties with dark cropped, practical hair. She wears glasses that don’t suite her face and never wears makeup. She has 3 children spanning two marriages. Her son from her first marriage is 19 and learning to drive heavy plant and machinery at a school specializing in such things. He comes home at weekends when he is not with his girlfriend. Noemi is disappointed in the girlfriend. She considers her unfeminine and coarse. She shrugs and says that things are different now and that her husband says that it is normal for him to bring this girlfriend home and that it is normal too that they don’t seem to be madly in love. Noemi wears a faded t shirt, clean but greyed in the wash and advertising an event long past. She has a pair of mens long shorts on, the kind I’ve seen at the market for 5 euros with an elasticated waist.
Her second son is 3. Nicholas. He is a force of nature and Noemi finds it hard to keep up with the intensity of his energy. He seems far more of a baby than my two-year old daughter. He still has a pacifier when he is tired and is a sweet-natured boy. He loves my daughter and is particularly fascinated by her underwear. This turns Noemi scarlet and she admonishes him in her provencale accent. I think it is funny. “C’est l’age” I say but she is very flustered when Nicholas lifts up Ellie’s skirt to investigate.
I tell her that I am interested in people who are native to the village, a village with a disproportionate number of foreigners.
“Oh no, she says, I am not from here, I am from Montfort”.
Montfort is a five minute drive from here but she acts as if it is a different country. I ask her to tell me about her life.
“There is nothing to tell” she says, although clearly she welcomes the opportunity to talk to someone.
I tell her I am starting a blog about people from this village where I have spent the last 10 years. A way of taking them with me when we leave for Canada next year. She is amused by this.
“You can find far more interesting people than me in this village, oh yes”.
“You are interesting” I say.
Tell me about your life.
“I grew up in Montfort in a village house. Our house was next door to my grandparents house and doors had been knocked through between the two. My aunt live across the road”.
“Do you have any brothers and sisters?”
“I have a sister who lives in Montfort and works in Brignoles and a brother who lives in Montfort. HIs is a viticulteur, he has taken over my father’s vines”.
“Why do you live here?” I ask
She is silent for a minute and then points across the valley to a house on the other side of the main road.
“That is my house over there, the big one with the blue shutters, it was my grandmother’s house”.
“How did you come to live in it?” I ask.
My grandfather died and my grandmother was “fatigue”, she couldn’t live alone any more so she went to live with my mother in Montfort. I was married and living in Barjols and things were not easy. With my husband. Vincent was a baby and things were hard. I missed my family and we didn’t have much money. My husband had a good job with the Mairie in Barjols but he had a problem with alcohol. At first my mother tried to rent out my grandmothers house to tourists but that only lasted a month. They were always complaining.
I could imagine this. Noemi’s mother would not necessarily have decorated the house to travel brochure specifications and was likely to have popped round regularly out of curiosity.
“When that didn’t work out my family offered me the house”.
“Didn’t that cause problems?” I asked, calculating that a house like that would be worth a hefty sum in what has become a bijoux village.
She seems surprised at this and says”no, my sister got my grandparents house in Montfort and my brother got some vineyards, everyone was happy”.
I wonder if I should end this conversation, if I am prying too much. How do I explain that I am not being nosy but am interested. And then I wonder if there is any difference between the two.
Noemi has a beautiful baby girl. She is called Isabelle and has the dark-rimmed bright green eyes of the true provencales. She is eight months old and like her brother, is always immaculately dressed. Her ears are pierced and she wears a delicate gold bracelet around her chubby wrist. She is a jolly little thing and adored by her mother.
I remember seeing Noemi once at the cinema about two years ago. It was a cold February night and “Le Premier Cri” had been showing, a wonderful film about birth around the world. It was late and I hugged my coat around me to set off for the walk home. I had been to the cinema alone and so had she. She hovered, as if wanting to say something. I greeted her and asked if she had enjoyed the film. She said she never usually went to the cinema but had really wanted to see this film and had very much enjoyed it. I said I had too and “a bientot”. She clearly didn’t want me to go. We were the only two stragglers left.
“I want to have another baby!”, she said.
“I know you will think I am silly to say that, I am 42 now, but I want to have another baby. I have two sons and I have always wanted a little girl, I will call her Isabelle”.
Isabelle was already a secret part of Noemie. She looked at me apologetically and said she had to go.
I touched her arm lightly and smiled.
“I don’t think you’re silly at all. Isabelle. What a pretty name. I look forward to meeting her.”
And here we are sitting with Isabelle in a stroller next to us. And that secret conversation blurted out to me, an almost-stranger, some seasons ago, hovers between us.
I smile and say, “Isabelle, such a pretty name”.
Noemie smiles and sets about straightening Isabelle’s dress and generally fussing about, playing dolls.
“You must have married very young” I say.
“22, and I should have left him five years before I did”.
“Why didn’t you?”
“He kept leaving and coming back, saying he had given up drinking, would give up drinking and then there was our son. He was always very close to him you know”. she says this almost apologetically, sadly.
“Is he still around?” I ask, after all Barjols is only down the road.
“No. He is dead”.
I think the time has come for me to back off – I don’t want this to become a hard conversation for her to have. The children are squabbling over a trotinette and I wander over to break it up. I come back and offer her one of my sandwiches. She takes one. We eat them in silence for a while and then I say,
“Are you pleased with the harvest this year?”
and she says
“He killed himself in an accident. Drunk. With my son in the car.”
“I had been divorced for almost two years. I went to the beach with my cousin and his new girlfriend, one who had been at school with us and was now back in the village. Good for him after his divorce. We went to Hyeres and then I phoned Vincent to say we would be back a bit later because Alain wanted to go to le Lavandou, the beach was better there. Vincent was with his father like he was every weekend. I would drop him there after work on Saturday morning and his father would bring him back on Sunday night”.
“How old was he?”
“My father-in-law had phoned me to say I should not allow Vincent to stay with his father until I was sure he had stopped drinking. I said that I was only his ex-wife but that he was his father and could he tell him, God knows I had done everything I could. And Vincent loved his dad, they always enjoyed each other’s company at weekends.”
An unspoken exclamation has to be reined in by me – she may be an ex-wife but she should still have had some say about the safety of her son. I keep this to myself.
“My ex-husband was an only child. They were an angry family. They shouted a lot. They were paysans with a small vineyard on poor soil. They lived a closed life, never inviting anyone in and never wanting to accept invitations. Work and the house, work and the house, that’s all. My family are very close and always celebrating something, a birthday, a wedding, a baptism… His mother died a long time ago – she was diabetic. He told me if something happened to Vincent he would never forgive me and would hold me responsible. He was a “con”, stupid man, he still is. The next time I saw him was at the funeral. He came and stayed at the house for 3 days, with the body, and I haven’t seen him since. He has married a woman who works for the German army in Strasbourg and he has gone to live there now. He had never left the region and now he travels a lot, he even went to Morrocco.”
“Thank God Vincent was alright.”
“My phone rang even before we got to Le Lavandou, not a half an hour after I had spoken to him.”
“He said, Maman, don’t worry, I am not hurt, but there has been an accident. Papa has rolled the car, he missed the turning and swerved suddenly. I am at the side of the road.”
“I could not breathe”.
“Are you alone? We are coming”, but we were almost an hour away.
He said he was not alone, a young man who was a pompier was there and the ambulance was on its way.
As it happened they attended to his father for two hours near the side of the road trying to get him ready to move. A helicopter came. He was in a coma for a week and then he died.
“It was hard for Vincent”.
“It was hard for you too” I say.
“Yes” she says.
The children have started a water fight and Ellie comes running in distress, she hates having even a drop of water on her clothes and I start to change her. I am thinking it is almost time to go home. The autumn breeze is picking up and I am not equipped for the girls getting chilly.
“Where did you work?” I ask, changing direction.
“I worked at the fish counter at the supermarket in Barjols. I am on congee parentale”, (the three year maternity leave they have in France).
She smiles and I am relieved.
“That is where I met Michel. My husband.”
I have seen Michel, a handsome man who clearly works outdoors. Strong and capable. He is a viticulteur too it transpires.
“He used to come in every Thursday at 4 o’ clock to do his shopping. He would start at the poisonnerie. I told the other girls how handsome he was and how sad it was that he was obviously living alone and doing his own shopping”.
This comment bothers me on so many levels that don’t belong in this conversation that I let them go.
“So one day, just for a laugh, we all arranged that when he came in I would serve him at the fish counter, then I would swop places with my friend at the cheese counter and so on until I had served him four times! That is how he knew I must be interested in him”.
“That was the week before the accident”
“I took some time off to clear out the apartment in Barjols as he was alone my ex-husband, he had nobody. And I needed to spend some time with Vincent.”
“When I got back to work he came in on the Thursday and said “How was your holiday?”
and I said “It wasn’t really a holiday and I told him what had happened”.
“He told me what had happened to him. He had grown up not far from here – on the road to Barjols, and his father was a viticulteur. He met and married a beautiful woman who was older than him. She was from Aix-en-Provence and he moved there with her. He worked in a bicycle shop and hated the city. He had always wanted to take over the vines from his father. They had no children. He was sad about that. Then his father said he wanted to retire and was thinking of ploughing up the vines so he could get a payout from the EU and he could sell the land for development. Michel said “No” and that he would farm the land. His wife would not move and asked for a divorce. That is when I met him. His family don’t see much of each other either. I am his family now, with Vincent and Nicholas and Isabelle and all my aunts and cousins.”
A gust blows in and sends our children running back to us. Tired and complaining.
“Tomorrow?” I say
“Yes” she says and I kiss her on both cheeks “a bientot”.