“Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood. Say who are the people in your neighborhood – the people that you meet each day?”
For some reason I found myself singing this song with Lilas in the car yesterday. We’d been cruising, passing 20-odd tractors in full harvest mode, and I’d just filled up with gazole at Madame Marty’s in the village next to ours. On paying for the ‘gazoil’ I received a very cheery lesson from an old Frenchman on how to say ‘gazole’ instead of ‘gazoil’… “No, it’s not like how the Anglais say it!” he instructed. “She’s not exactly Anglais!” piped in Mme Marty with a nod at me. Oh I love the locals!
Mme Marty has been running the local ‘tabac’ (tobacco shop) and ‘station service’ (service station -as with a lot of things in French, just say it backwards and you will probably be right. I laughed so hard the day Benji asked me if I’d ever played with a ‘talkie-walkie’) for about thirty years. I don’t know a single person who isn’t fond of ‘La Souris’ (The Mouse) – the name the locals have affectionately bestowed upon her. In rain or shine, she is out there filling the cars, serving out the packs of cigarettes (they still smoke a lot around here), the cold beers from the fridge and the ‘bonbons’ to kids from her vast array at 1c a piece. Her beautiful dog Raya is either lying on the tiles obstructing your path or mooching around, taking a pause in the middle of the road near the petrol pumps.
Mme Marty has a brother Robert who also lives in the village, whose wife, Lilliane is responsible for what seems like all local children under the age of 10. She is the super-nanny with little ones constantly around her skirts, moving patiently at their pace with ther first steps, first bicycle ride etc. She has a play area at the side of Mme Marty’s station and you can see all the toys lined-up and waiting. This family are incredibly important assets to the village and it just wouldn’t be the same without them. I asked Mme Marty where she was from and she pointed upstairs. Born and bred on site, a true-blue local. And when I asked her how much longer she intended to keep running the tabac she told me in her inimitable husky voice, thick with its Southern accent “as long as this body will let me!”.
Living out here, to be honest, can sometimes do my head in. Everybody knows everyone’s business. There is no anonymity and rarely a kept secret. I’ve driven KILOMETRES from home in search of a pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test so that locals queueing behind me wouldn’t know of our plan. Haven’t I told you already about being observed at the recycled bottle bin? – ‘How much does that family drink with their ‘etranger’ guests!??’. Try buying suppositories on the quiet…
But (coming from a childhood in a city) ultimately, I have grown to appreciate living in a small community. There is a lovely sense of routine and an appreciation of Nature’s cycles in the country – and a wealth of information on offer on all sorts of subjects if you reach out for it. A smile and quick chat with Mme Marty can make my day, a wink from the butcher and an exchange of recipe ideas… life in the country can be rich.
And sometimes you have no idea where a conversation might lead you. As I was speaking with Mme Marty yesterday she mentioned that she’d known the former owner of our house. Tell me more!… She said that she knew the house well and had visited it when ‘the’ lady was living in it. The lady had been living there with her parents and when they died she stayed on but, being handicapped, had a live-in carer (a Spanish man) with her. After all these years! Suddenly my carefully-guarded scraps of beautiful purple-inked hand-written text – pages of a letter that Benji had retrieved from the mess of rats’ nests in the ceiling while renovating – from a young girl away at school to her ‘darling parents’, transformed from fiction into living history and real people! How many years I had struggled to read the lines (and marvel at how gorgeous the handwriting was) of ‘votre petite fille, Y’, amongst the nibbled pages and adored the little picture of a girl tending her farm animals in what may have been our home. This information was wonderful!
I’d so often wondered ‘who is she?’, ‘she must have lived here, as she is asking her parents how the weather in our hamlet is!’. I’d always felt incredibly moved by her tender words to her parents whom she obviously loved so much and wondered if she had slept in our home. I even kept pieces of the beautiful wallpaper (it wasn’t in a state to keep on the walls unfortunately) that I had painstakingly removed during work on the house. This might have even been from the little girl’s room…
And this little girl was called ‘Yvette’. The ‘Y’ was fully confirmed when Mme Marty said the lady’s name had been Yvette. She had existed. But with this came some sad information. Yvette had apparently fallen pregnant and her parents, unwilling to have their daughter unmarried and become a mother, forced her to terminate the pregnancy and with that, Mme Marty said, “elle a perdu sa tete” (she lost her mind). Heartbreaking. Whether it be village gossip, a myth or whatever, I am still thinking about that darling little girl, writing to her adored parents. In a way I wish I didn’t know the whole story.
I think I need to finish on a cheerier note…