November 27, 2009
Collette has the eyes of spent love. She is 74 and has backed many a wrong horse in the love stakes.
I have mostly avoided her, or just not acknowledged her. For years I have done that. I have skirted around her snipes. She sits outside the cafe on market day with a glass of white wine. By lunchtime her glass has a queue of empty ones behind it. Sometimes she props one foot up on a chair, at least that way she has company.
Her blue eyes skip and flit from one passerby to another, searching for chinks. Sometimes she finds one and will call out,
“Jeanno! I see your wife has let you off the leash today!” to a man already bowed with the constraints of his body and the thousand indignities that age brings.
He barely looks up and it is possible his hearing aid does not capture this.
She turns to me and mutters, “He cannot leave that woman’s sight!”
Recently I have started to talk to Colette. She must once have been a beautiful woman in a wife-of-Bath way. She has a wry, gap-toothed smile on the right side of attractive and silver hair swept up into a chignon. She is curvy without being fat and wears aging clothes of good quality.
After each glass of wine Colette reaches into her bag and counts out exactly enough money for the next glass. A calibration of her day. This is her Tuesday ritual, a slow descent into blessed inebriation and a brief glimpse into other people’s lives.
Colette always invites me to join her. Mostly I don’t have the time but when I do I always leave with questions. So one day I sit down with her to really listen to what she has to say.
I soon realize that the unkind remarks are barbs on lines cast out to anyone she knows. Negative attention is better than no attention at all.
She is taken aback at having an attentive audience and lapses into uncharacteristic silence.
“Are you alright?” I ask, noting the yellow tinge to her paper skin.
“No. I don’t look very well these days” she says. She pulls her cardigan around her and she asks if we can sit inside, out of the cold.
“I was born in 1935, 9th of April”.
“I was born in Nancy, where I live for five years”.
“My mother was a housemother”
“A foster mother?” I ask
“No, she had enough of her own children”.
“My father was a forester”.
“At fifteen my mother joined the Marine Nationale”
“When I was five we moved to the Lot et Garonne, where I was schooled”.
“A village called Mas d’Agenne”
“How many siblings did you have?”
“I had 7 altogether, but one died at 6 months of meningitis”
“And where were you in the pecking order?”
“I was the seventh. I had a sister after me who died when she was forty one, she had cancer”.
“Where are they now?”
“I have two sisters in the Lot et Garonne, Yvette and Suzette. One is a widow and one is married and I have a third one, in the Gironde, but she is fully handicapped. Blind and deaf. Madeleine.”
This makes me think of Colette’s daughter, Giselle, a woman of formidable wit and intelligence inwardly and severe physical handicaps outwardly. She lives in England and visits twice a year. Colette’s favourite.
“Henri, Roland (that is the one who died), Suzette, Simone (with an e), Pirette, Colette and Ginette.” she extols, a roll call from another time. I notice that she leaves Madeleine out but don’t comment.
“In point of fact Ginette suffered so much that I believe they brought a specialist from Marseilles to inject her to finish her off. She wanted it.” I am shocked at the way Colette says this but her matter-of-fact tone belies an emotion her twisting hands reveal. Worrying at a handkerchief.
“And Henri?” I ask, taking it from the top.
“Henri is dead too”.
“He was a head man for Air France”.
“When he left the navy, he was a prisoner in Buchenwald for two years”.
“Because he worked underground for the French Resistance. He was caught by the Nazis”.
At this point in my writing I look up Buchenwald. A concentration camp with 56 000 victims , not counting 13 000 moved from other death camps. I am paralysed by the skeletal men staring out from my screen. Henri could have been one of them. I wonder what a man, released from such hell, chooses to do with the rest of his life.
“After he was released he joined Air Maroc and went to live in Rabat then he was with Air France at Orly in Paris. When he was the head man and a plane went down somewhere he was the number 1 sent to investigate the bad things about it”.
I take this to mean that he became an expert on the causes of catastrophes. You would think he would have stayed clear of them having experienced the worst that humanity has to offer, but no, he spent his time picking through the wreckage and trying to understand “Why?”.
“He had a very enviable position, but he didn’t enjoy his retirement at all. He retired at 62 and died 10 years later. He was married to a professor of English. They had three children: one is dead. She died when she was 40.”
Colette lapses into silence again. I don’t want to press these memories on her. I change direction.
“How did you end up here, all the way in the South?”
“Well, I went to England when I was 18. I did my studies as a nurse once I had grabbed the language properly”.
“Because I saw an advertisement with a friend. And that is what you do when you are 18”.
“At 21 I met my husband. We were married for 24 years and then divorced quite amicably. He would come on holiday to my house and I to his, but we were better each on our own side”.
“I organized his funeral. All Frank Sinatra. I was 70 when he died. He never wanted a church, only Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. So we arranged that with the children. His coffin went to incineration to the tunes of those singers”.
“You had three children with him?”
“Yes. Two girls and one boy”.
“Corinne was born in ’59, Giselle in 62 and Martin in 69”.
“I never had any other children. I am so badly served by the ones I have left”.
A young man with an awkward gait and wide-eyed stare comes and sits at the next table. He fixes me with dilated pupils.
“This guy is giving me the creeps” I say to Colette.
“Who him, the one in the red shirt?” she says, indicating with a dismissive jutting of her jaw a squat man on his umpteenth Pastis.
I know that Red Shirt is her daughter’s new man. Colette calls him “the Garden Gnome”.
“I tell you something. He would give half of his fortune to know what we are talking about, and I enjoy every moment of it.”
“No, the other one,” I say.
“Oh, the other one, she says, fixing him with a rude glare. He is not with us. He is not finished.” she hisses conspiratorily.
“They say I am critical but I say things for what they are. That is the difference between I and other people.”
“Perhaps he fancies you” she says, with a mischevious glint.
“I should be so flattered” I say.
She laughs and says, “Not if you saw his wife.”
“She comes and drags him out of here, insults him, hits him. He is so stupid he lets her do it. In front of witnesses.”
I am thrown by this comment on many levels. A gulf yawns open between us. Our understanding of what is right. Our expectations. The differences between what happens in the open and what goes on behind closed doors. I feel there should be no difference. She has a skewed sense of propriety.
“I raised my children in England. In Exmouth.”
“When I left England I went to Ireland. Just outside Dublin. For twelve years. I loved Ireland”, she senses a movement at the table behind us as the Drug Man gets up.
“My God, he is approaching”, she laughs.
“He fancies you,” I say, and as she shoos him away.
“I have had many lovers” she says. Matter-of-factly.
“I have had many lovers and I have never been in jail”.
“Do you have any regrets?” I ask.
“No” she responds, without hesitation.
I am taken back to a time a few months ago. Giselle was here on holiday. It was a Tuesday. Colette was enjoying her white wine, Giselle a soft drink. Colette is proud.
“Here is my daughter – come to visit me” she seems to be saying.
Her other daughter has a drink problem and likes to keep a low profile. Her son has disappeared down the sinkhole of drug and alcohol abuse in England. But Giselle is here. She chats and jokes. She shares opinions with her opinionated mother and they have a good time. I stop for a hurried chat. We plan to meet up later in the week. This pleases Colette.
Except we don’t. We don’t meet up later in the week because I do not see Colette and when I do I ask where Giselle is.
“She is dead” she says.
Her daughter and the Garden Gnome had a party. Giselle was invited. Colette was against it. The Garden Gnome insulted her, saying
“A woman of 48 does not need your permission to attend a party, old woman!”
They get drunk. Giselle does not drink. She sits at the dinner table eating stew. Suddenly she is on the floor writhing about. An embarrassed circle forms around her. Someone staggers into the kitchen to call her sister.
“Your retarded sister is having some sort of fit” they say.
An ambulance is called. It is almost too late. She is airlifted to Marseille, inanimate. Colette is told the next morning. Her daughter drives her to Marseille in silence. Giselle is on a respirator. She is brain dead. She choked on a piece of meat and no-one knew that something so pedestrian could happen to someone with physical handicaps. They assumed it was yet another peculiar manifestation of her handicap, just one more thing to set her apart.
“I had them turn those machines off,” says Colette.
“She had many difficulties with her body but her mind, her mind was always sharp. Her intelligence made her who she was”.
She indicates to Annie that she would like another glass of wine.
“You know she smashed her car, my other daughter” she says, eyeing up Garden Gnome. He has propped himself against the bar and is smoking. He seems to inhale and exhale at the same time.
“Do you really think he is curious?” I ask her, he looks the picture of nonchalance to me.
“Oh my dear! But if you only knew the intensity of the curiosity you would be absolutely amazed! Do you know he comes to shake a cigarette that doesn’t need shaking if there is a person he doesn’t know at my table and it is usually people who speak English so he doesn’t gain anything by it.”
Now I understand why she has insisted on speaking English when I have only ever spoken to her in French before.
“One night he comes to my house at half past nine. Nobody ever comes to my house. It is a thing unheard of.”
“I said what do you want? Has my daughter had another accident?”
“He says no, I have brought you a piece of sanglier, and he gives me a piece of wild boar”.
“I let it hang for a long time. It must have weighed 3kg. I had pain in my arms lifting it to the sink. I cured it and cut it off the bone. But do you think I see somebody to whom I can give a piece? Nobody in sight! I was sitting with that beast for I don’t know how long!”
And so the world shrinks. A family of ten becomes a lone old woman sitting with a piece of meat and no-one to share it with. A life lived between England, France and Ireland has been reduced to a one-bedroomed apartment and a 50 m walk to a bar. A head full of ideas has narrowed down to the motives behind the shaking of a cigarette. Love has been peeled and pared down to a clutch of songs and the flicking of a switch.