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.


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