One week in this centre and I have slipped into the routines of institutional life, one of which is learning to live with the fellow inmates.
Les Châtaigniers is primarily a place for convalescence and repos (people at home who need a break – or their families do). One or two are slightly younger – my next door neighbour, for example, an emaciated chain smoker. But most seem old and decrepit. I see them only at mealtimes, when those fit enough to come down, sit silently through the meal. After, there is a line of wheelchairs queued in front of the only lift, many of the occupants now dozing.
I do find this sight distressing, both because life is not much fun for these poor souls but also because it is a brutal reminder of what might be round the corner. As someone who always makes plans for the future, refusing to dwell on diminishing capabilities, this is disconcerting.
The minority, maybe about 20, who like me are in re-education after surgery, are on the whole slightly younger and in better shape. Even here I find it distressing watching two aides patiently propping up an old man while trying to get him to put his left foot forward.
I imagine that he, like other older patients, is here after a fall. That is what happened to the 90 year old who sits at my table for meals. She is called Madame Bavarde by the kitchen assistant and true to her nick-name she never stops talking. We are told daily that she is 90 years old and that her husband was a ‘brave type’ -a good guy – is who had never hit her, and that she had ‘connu la guerre’ – lived through the war.
She is also full of intriguing stories. We knew that she came from a family of tailors and had learnt her craft at an early age at home. When her mother died , in 1942, she started work in a large Parisian textile factory.
A year later the Germans requisitioned the factory and they were put to work producing uniforms for the German army. All girls of about 15-17, they had a military escort to and from their digs.
Madame Bavarde said the German put in charge knew his craft and was a decent employer. Towards the end of the war he was sent to the Russian front. A bad end for a decent man.
Sometimes Madame Bavarde can be irritatingly dogmatic, like when she insisted that Malta was a French speaking dependency of France at the end of the war. She can also be very rude. There is a very fat man in re-education and she keeps saying – in a loud voice – that he should eat less and if he was her husband she would divorce him.
The other two at my table are pleasant, and manage to add their tuppenceworth to the conversation. One lives locally, on her own in a remote hamlet, and as she does not drive I can’t begin to understand how she manages.
The other lives on the seventh floor of an HLM (council house). )I asked her if she had noise problems from the neighbours, but she replied the whole block is occupied by retired people. This is not really in the rules, but Alès, the big town where she lives, quietly fiddles allocation procedures to achieve this.
Our table of four is definitely the most animated and the last to leave the table. An elderly retired primary school teacher at the next table compared this, wistfully, with his inability to engage anyone at his table in conversation.
The other place one meets fellow patients is of course in the salle de re-education. There are usually about six people there at a time and it is small enough for conversation to sometimes become generalized – and for Eric to keep an eye on all activities.
I’ll talk about that another time!