Sticks and Stones
December 8, 2009
I’m just back from my walk to get fit when I see someone who doesn’t look fit at all. Maria. She is sitting outside the cafe in a slant of sunlight, her face plumper than last time I saw her, her arm in a sling.
My heart sinks. It looks like she is back with her husband and her arm is his handy work.
She beckons for me to join her so I do. We kiss each other on both cheeks and she smells of good perfume. Her hair is glossy and professionally cut, her walking stick is nowhere in sight.
“You look well,” I say, for despite my initial assessment, it is only her arm that doesn’t look good. The rest of her is better than I have ever seen her.
I don’t know how to start this conversation. The last time I saw Maria I was trying to leave the car park and was stopped by armed Gendarmes. They had surrounded her apartment and there was a lot of negotiating going on. The kind that takes place over a loudspeaker and is one-sided.
“Come out with your hands in the air!”
Then unintelligible drunken rants from within.
“Put down your weapon, Monsieur”.
I am a captive audience. I am not allowed to move, the area is surrounded.
Some paramedics emerge carrying Maria on a stretcher, her arm slung across her face. I turn my eyes away so as not to strip her further.
There is more shouting and a sniper team move in. They emerge with Jose (real name used so as not to protect the guilty).
He is led away in handcuffs and stays away until a month ago. He has served a two year sentence for waving the dangerous end of a shotgun in the face of an upholder of the law. The irony is not lost on me that he goes to prison for two years for inflicting a moment’s fear on a burley, brave policeman and nothing for inflicting a lifetime of it on his wife.
“It is good to see you,” I say.
“But what are you doing here? Are you safe?”
Maria juts her jaw out slightly and says,
“I am quite safe, he cannot come within 50 meters of me, the judge said so.”
I resist craning my neck to see if Jose is sitting in his usual place at a bar not 30 meters away.
“He has beaten me for thirty years,” she says.
“The only person who knew was the doctor.”
“One time he wanted me to press charges. He had kicked me in the stomach and I had a lot of internal bleeding.”
“I said no. If I complain he will beat me even more.”
“After that I didn’t go back to the doctor. I used to run away if I could and I would sleep in the cemetery.”
I think of the small cemetery in the center of the village. I see it every day. I can’t imagine where she would sleep. The cemetery is crammed with the cold stone of the long-dead. The only space is the narrow dirt paths that lead between them and the only shelter is given by aged conifers circled by dog dirt.
I feel bad. I feel guilty. At the time I lived a stone’s throw from the cemetery. What was I doing while a battered woman cowered behind a tombstone, not more than a hop, skip and a jump away? Helping with homework? Cooking dinner? Working on human rights cases coming in from Africa, without opening my eyes to my immediate surroundings?
I am ashamed, and tell her so. She shrugs and says that is all in the past and that she hadn’t wanted anyone to know.
“He’s been in jail before,” she says.
“He broke my friend’s arm – I paid his bail,” she looks at the tops of the plane trees as if they may know why she had been so foolhardy.
“He is thin now,” she says, as if this is the source of great amusement for her.
“He used to say I was only good for punching and cooking!”
She looks at me sideways. Coyly.
“I’ve met someone,” she says, testing the water.
“He is 74 and I am only 50 but he is wonderful!”
“I have just moved to his house. My divorce became final on 19th November and on 22nd I moved in with him.”
She picks up a crumb of croissant and smiles at her coffee cup.
“Of course he tells me he adores me so much it gets on my nerves,” but the sigh she emits tells me the contrary.
Just then a sprightly man with a round face and kind brown eyes approaches the table.
“This is Jean,” she says.
“Enchante” he replies and pulls up a chair.
“Congratulations!” I say.
“I am so pleased for you both and wish you much happiness.”
“He has rabbits and chickens!” says Maria.
“And a garden where I can finally grow vegetables!”
“You should see how she feeds me!” exclaims Jean, patting his decidedly round belly contentedly.
“What happened to your arm?” I ask
“Oh, just repairing the reminders of her husband,” says Jean.
“I had to have an operation to repair the bones in my hand,” says Maria, and I am hoping she was injured by fighting back.
“He used to slam my hand in the car door.”
Jean pats the good hand and Maria smiles at him.
“So where am I taking you for lunch?” he asks her.
“I was thinking La Terrace,” she says, as though she is used to being invited to lunch. As though she is used to basking in the warmth of love.