My sister, Deborah

I just want to sing the praises of Deborah, who has just spent a week staying with me. Why should one wait till someone is dead before publicly appreciating them?

We have led very different, almost separate lives. When I returned, aged eight, from my long sojourn first in hospital and then in a TB sanatorium, my poor younger sister and brother – Deb and Dan – had to put up with their lives being disrupted by a cosseted big sister they did not know. They continued to play together, while I either ignored them or bossed them around.

Deborah followed me first to grammar school and then to Oxford, in both cases with better academic results, but less confident socially. Sixty years on I remember with little pride my unwillingness to take her along to my youth group and when she turned up at Oxford (taking a year less to get there than me) I made little effort to involve her in my social life.

Deborah was always kind and I remember her sitting up the night before Chris and I got married, painstakingly making my wedding dress.

She is also clever: she followed Oxford by several years as a social researcher, first for a professor at the LSE and then in the DHSS (Department of Health and Social Services). And she has always read widely and retains a phenomenal range of information. (I was the only non-reader in the family)

Then she dropped out – without telling the family – and became a gardener, something she still does when not looking after my grandchildren. I don’t really know why and nor have I ever asked her, for Deborah is a very private person. I do remember her describing clashing with her boss over how to quantify sickness, refusing to accept his notion that there could be objective statistics.

So, clever, kind, private, very principled and, it has to be said, increasingly eccentric! There is a dignified determination in her complete indifference to what the world thinks of how she looks (invariably wearing large gardening shoes and crumpled raincoats – often at the same time  wearing a lovely necklace which once belonged to our mother).  I won’t get started on the subject of her large Edwardian house.  The sitting room is best described as a furniture store, the kitchen uncomfy, the electricity not working in the loo, and no central heating. In fact a giant building project waiting to happen. Partly the result of limited resources, partly principles, partly indecision and as usual, partly generosity. (She provided a home for my brother for a few years before he died and her attic is/was full of my family’s possessions).

My grandchildren have experienced  all these qualities, as for the past eight years she has looked after them, one day a week in each house. She may lose keys (me too!), take them on the wrong underground or leave ballet things behind. But they know how much she loves them and have benefited from her wide knowledge. During a FaceTime session on Christmas Day, Maddie aged four, ignored me and cried out in pleasure “Deborah!”

It was Deborah who nursed my mother in her last two very painful years, gave a home when he needed it to my brother, and came to Montpellier when I had cancer to let the girls get back to work, and to be with me during the most unpleasant weeks.

Here she was again this year coming to spend Christmas with me. Given my postponed release we in fact had only a few hours together each day. In one week she cooked two big Christmas meals, tidied my garage, cleaned windows and absolutely thrashed me, day after day, at both Boggle and Scrabble!

Postscript. Deborah, on reading this, reminds me that obituaries invariably tell you more about the writer than the subject.


End of a chapter

I finally said goodbye to everyone in Les Chataigniers yesterday. I had mixed feelings: I can still only just raise my hand high enough to touch the top of my head. As Eric, the kiné, said, it will be a long haul before this shoulder and arm will work properly. I just hope he is right to be confident it will happen, as I have already spent over a year focussed on this problem.

My feelings are mixed both because I have left the support system of such a good re-education centre but also because I will miss the overwhelming friendliness of the staff. Who would have thought that of the five re-education centres I have passed through in France the one that gets my top votes is a small rural centre just ten minutes from my home!

As always in these centres there are plenty of inmates that can depress you – the sight of the old lost souls being fed at table or the sight of their line of wheelchairs in front of the lift as they waited to go back to their rooms, and more blankness – or irritate you, like the old man who held forth nonstop, always knowing all, or worst of all, the recent arrival of the very loud woman – the ‘vulgaire’ – who brought out the worst prejudices in me (and others). But there were so many, especially the very old, that filled me with emotions of respect or affection, like the little (they always seemed tiny) 96 year old in for a short break while her family were away for Christmas, who normally tries to walk down to my favorite cafe every afternoon. And the 86 year old former shepherdess with her cheerful, loud voice, thanking Eric for putting a warm pack on her very damaged knee.

Now back to three days a week treatment with a kinésithérapeute libéral (self employed physio) . I return next week to Patrice in Ganges but I am really hoping that one in le Vigan recommended by friends will find a place for me in February.

I’m also trying not to think too hard about my arthritic knees which have definitely suffered from several hours a day standing while working on my shoulder. As I said to the staff at Les Châtaigniers: “A la prochaine” – see you next time!


My Christmas

My sister, Deborah, has come all the way from London to spend a week with me. A curious week as, apart from Christmas Eve, I have to return to the clinic for the night, observing a 9pm curfew.

On  Christmas Eve we went to Hans and Margaret for drinks. What a feast! Margaret presented a spread of nibbles like nobody else can do.  The two greedy sisters did it justice.

We then departed with Poppy, who has been living there since October, and to be quite honest, has a better life there- doted on by Margaret and Hans (who is guilty of discreet passing down of snacks), living in the centre of a village with a non stop parade of people, dogs and cats. And above all invaded by a plague of huge, fat but fast, rabbits, who have eaten everybody’s flowers and can be found – Poppy thinks – under every parked car. I felt guilty tearing Poppy away from this paradise, but at least at 2am on Christmas morning she had a great time leaping outside to bark ferociously and bravely at the sangliers (wild boar) which even I could hear moving around in the dark outside.

I had invited my friend Dessa to Christmas lunch and rashly planned a meal centred round a pintade (guinea fowl) cooked in calvados, cider and apples (Margaret’s recipe). What rash stupidity by a non- cook. The first step was to cut the pintade into four – something I had never done before. Even after some frantic googling and watching a couple of YouTube demonstrations, I (or rather, we, as Deb joined in) made a right hash of this. The cooking was further complicated by FaceTime sessions with the family just as I was browning and flambéing the pintade. But amazingly (helped by Deb quickly making a stock of the discarded bits and thus creating a delicious sauce) the meal was not elegant but delicious.

After Christmas pudding and, in my case, a disgustingly large helping of brandy butter, there was not much more we were capable of doing with the day!

We had another FaceTime session with the two families at the end of their Christmas lunch (cooked as usual by the star chef, Ed), but if success can be measured in noise levels, it was hard to make oneself heard. I did get one nugget of important information: Otto had managed to eat two Brussels sprouts.

Willow had already sent me a letter in November . Now Ella sent me a Christmas card (her own design) and a lovely message inside, Maddie sent one (also her own creation) to Deb, and Otto sent a letter – no prompting from grownups . I love his attempt at my address at the bottom.

Then, after being beaten once at Scrabble (in the penultimate move) and resoundingly twice at Boggle, it was time for me to meet the 9pm curfew. The is no holiday here on the day after Christmas. Back to work. In 20 minutes I will be warming up with a pulley (poulie in Frenchj in the physiotherapy room.

Salle de rééducation

I spend most of the day in the salle de rééducation, which is relatively small but usually teeming with activity. In the morning pretty well every treatment bed or table, the exercise bikes, pulleys, walking mat, and parallel bars for walking are occupied, while Eric passes round, massaging a knee, stretching a shoulder, giving advice on how to use equipment, or simply giving encouragement – or talking football, politics or about the Cévennes, depending on those present.

In the interests of personal privacy, these photos show an empty room. So you have to populate it with the inmates I have already described.


Sortie postponed

On Sunday evening, chatting to Mme A – in front of a nurse – I told the story of my fall. The nurse immediately sprang into action and said she would notify the doctor on duty.

Dr Martinez appeared in my room shortly afterwards. She is really nice and remembered visiting me when I had shingles in February. She said I should have an X-ray the next day as a precaution and we discussed the possibility of my staying longer.

Monday morning was spent going to and from a Ganges, a trip made pleasant by chats with Luc and various members of the Thiébaut family who run the taxi-ambulance service and are now all good friends of mine. As expected, no fractures and the prothèse has not moved.  However, it has been decided to extend my stay till 29th December.

So,  back to the usual routines – except that this morning, as I was finishing two hours with the usual electrodes, I  nearly fainted (avoir un malaise I think more accurately describes that sudden sensation that the clouds are closing in). Quick action by Ghislaine, Eric’s assistant, and I found myself on one of the physio tables, feet in the air. My blood pressure had tumbled to 8 over 5. Curious, I have never actually fainted in my life, but that is the third time in a year I have almost fainted.

By this afternoon I was more or less OK, enough to do nearly two hours of gentle exercises, so then I could return to worrying about how Christmas is going to pan out.

My sister, Deborah, arrives on Friday and I have not yet been able to spell out to her that her week here will have been turned upside down. I expect to be here for physio sessions, including Boxing Day, which is not a public holiday in France. Even if I have to return each night by the 9pm curfew, I would like to spend the afternoon and early evening with Deb . And I would like to be at home on Christmas Eve, when we are invited to Hans and Margaret’s.

I have tried to pin the doctor down to negotiate liberation times, but he says he will talk to me on Thursday. Awkward, since tomorrow afternoon is when I plan to nip out and do much of my Christmas food shopping.


The inmates

Time to update the cast of characters at Les Chataigniers.

Madame Bavarde went home, shuffling along with cheerful optimism on her déambulateur (zimmer frame). A sometimes tedious tablemate, with her repetitive stories, but an interesting and courageous 90-year-old.

Her neighbour at meals, a diminutive  87-year-old, has captivated the hearts of all.  She has a high pitched, loud voice, but it is full of cheerful optimism.  As Eric, the kiné, puts a warm patch on her very damaged knee, she says  “Ah, merci.  Ca me fait du bien” – as if he has given her a real treat.  She was a sheperdess and seems to have led her sheep over many of the hills of the Cévennes.  A simple soul who clearly loved her work and now makes the best of things, never complaining.

I at some stage got shifted to the next table (the talkative elderly primary school teacher disappeared – we think back to the hospital – and has only just been seen in les Chataigniers). The occupants opposite are not exactly a bundle of fun: one is in her late eighties, virtually blind, and has told me on several occasions, with a sad look and shrug of shoulders, that her husband died 26 years ago.

The other is possibly the most silent man in Les Chataigniers, with a pale, lugubrious face. My neigbour and I have tried to welcome him to the table with the usual questions like where do you come from, and have not only got only monosyllabic responses, but not the glimmer of a smile.  A strange man, all agree.

Now my neighbour beside me, Madame A, is quite different: she is friendly, forthcoming, and our chats to each other save us from desperation faced by the non-communication across the table.

On our day one together I asked her where she lived.  When she told me, I commented ah yes, Luc, one of the drivers with Thiebaut, the ambulance firm I always use, lives on that road too.  It turns out he is not only a neighbour but a sort of cousin, as is another of the drivers, Sonja.

Mme A must be one of the most well connected people in le Vigan.  One of her brothers, Alan Journet, represented the Departement of Gard in the Senate for ten years. Their father was the baker in Mandagout and was determined that all his children would have enough education to be able to choose not to become bakers. Alain Journet was a surveyor and politician, while all the others ended up as teachers.

Mme A was head of the le Vigan primary school, so if people don’t recognise her because they are related, it often turns out they were taught be her.

This business of the importance of establishing who you know and whom you are related to is terribly important here and is exemplified by one of my favourite characters Mme P. She is a strong willed Cévenol from Valleraugue, not afraid to speak her mind.  Her knee is clearly quite painful and she is given to announcing this on arrival.  Eric obviously enjoys the banter with her, but at the same time has discreetly given her lots of massages, trying to ease the pain.  I feel so sorry for her, as her husband, is blind and seems totally dependent on her physically and psychologically. He too has been given a bed here rather than leaving him alone st home (one of the things I like about the system here). But Mme P does moan about how much she has to do for him before coming for physiotherapy.

Thanks to some knowledge of the resistance in the Cévennes and some friends in Valleraugue, I have been able to swap names with Mme P. I also lent her my French copy of “Divided Loyalties”, the story of Janet Teissier du Cros, a Scottish woman, married to a local Frenchman, who spent the war years with her small children in Valleraugue.  She devoured it, giving me progress reports on where she was, such as “Je suis avec des Allemands à Valleraugue” – and finished the book in less than a week.

Another inmate whom I knew before is Paul, an Irishman who plays folk music and cuts trees,  Unfortunately he let one of his trees fall on him and is here with various broken bones.  I knew his ex-wife, an Englishwoman who lives in Molières, and I also know his current partner, F, a violinist with whom I have enjoyed playing in the past.

One day the woman opposite started to recount how her poor grandson was suffering after being abandoned by his wife.  I started to suspect that she was talking about F’s  ex-husband at about the same time as the person serving us soup (who knew all the people involved as well as having been taught by Mme Abric).  We quickly tried to turn the conversation away from her grandson, hoping Paul a few feet away had not heard!

There are also bit players with whom I have an aimable superficial acquaintance, such as a large man with a red nose.  When I asked if anybody wanted any shopping when I was out for the weekend, he asked for some wine.  Hence the red nose…  I suspect I am not the only shopper for him.

The latest arrival is so far the most disastrous. On Friday she sat next to me at tea time and asked me a couple of questions – and then interrupted with a loud and long monologue.  When she asked, I said hastily that my table was full, rather grateful for the mournful man for the first time. When I got down to dinner I found her holding forth next to the lovely 86-year-old, who I think did not get a word in edgeways all evening.

If I were kind I would say simply that she was a simple soul without much education.  But I am not.  She is also one of those unappealing people whose physical appearance seems to match her personality.  She is large, with a series of ill-fitting garments one on top of another, prone to sit with legs far apart.  Her eyes are peculiar – dont know how to describe them – as is her small, irregular mouth.

Yesterday after the market, I was lunching with a friend in our favourite creperie, when a couple I know came to the next table.  The wife said that her 90-year-old aunt is I n Les Chataigniers and unfortunately has a new room companion who is driving the family in mad. Yes, the same.

It was my friend, not me, who said somewhat apologetically, that the only way to describe this woman was that she was ‘vulgaire’.

So in the last instalment of my stay, it will be interesting to see if the niece manages to persuade Les Chataigniers to liberate her aunt from this woman.


Une chute

Yesterday was not good for my wretched shoulder.  I was in the middle of a phone call while at market, decided to sit down on a nearby folding chair, and it collapsed and I fell onto my bad shoulder.

So far I think all I feel is normal bruising and twinges.  There was no point returning to the centre for a second opinion, as there is no doctor there at weekends. So I will know the damage tomorrow.

I also took my cello out of its case for the first time for months and I am afraid the answer there is I still have a long way to go.  I can play in the middle of the bow, but particularly when on the top string, there is no way I can play the full length of the bow.

Quelle m—-

La sortie

It has been decided. I leave here on Thursday 21st December and in the interim before the le Vigan kiné, Charlotte, I start the three day a week trip to Ganges, starting on Boxing Day (not a holiday here).

Eric has stressed that I have a long programme of physiotherapy ahead; my shoulder muscles, he said, had been more or less dead after a year or so of inactivity because of pain

The five or six hours of physiotherapy will probably drop to an hour – plus the work I have to do at home .

I view the future with mixed feelings. I know I could have done with more of Eric’s help, but have to recognise there is a queue of people wanting to come here. But it will be a relief to be home again – and for Poppy to return after her two-month holiday with Hans and Margaret.

I can’t yet touch the top of my head  so that, plus being able to use a cello bow are my two goals for  January.



What next?

  1. I’m making good progress with my shoulder, but it is slow, slow. And if I give up, that’s it – a right shoulder which doesn’t work properly.
    My theoretical departure date is 22nd December, the end of next week. I am nowhere near the normal level of mobility when people leave.
    What shall I do? Well, I have contacted a physio in le Vigan, who comes highly recommended by friends. She sounds really nice -and competent – on the phone. But she cannot take me before 5th February.
    My choice now seems to be to resume the 50 km round trip each day to Ganges, or to stay on here. This sounds possible, given the kine clearly recognizes there is still work to do. But what about Christmas?
    My sister, Deb, is coming for the week of Christmas. I asked tentatively if I could take a week off. The reply was a definite No. Two days seems to be the limit.
    So, I am sitting here trying to work out what to do.

No further on, but my current thinking is to go home on 22nd December, to do the daily trip to Ganges until February and then switch to the local kiné, Charlotte.

Another internet silence

Once again we have no internet service in the Clinique, but this time it has lasted three days and who knows when it will be restored.

On Monday this was forgivable as we were in the midst of a major inspection. But now it is hard to know whether the broken service is not repaired because of indifference by staff here or by the company in  Montpellier who manages the computers here.

Les Châtaigniers and the Clinique in Ganges have been acquired by a big group Oc Santé based in Montpellier, and I fear that like Maguelone last year we now have a service devised too remotely from its users. Here we are just a few internet users in a rural backwater.

I still have 3G internet access via my phone, but because of heavy usage while working on the Scottish Women database, I have used up my monthly credit. So I have just shelled out on a larger internet plan.

I’m writing this on my iPad (which has WiFi and Bluetooth, but no SIM card), and which is now ‘tethered’ to my phone (ie piggy backing on its 3g access) taking advantage of its access.