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”.