A helicopter, a murder and a suicide - quintessential French village life

Posted 19 June 2015

Much has changed in our little hamlet since I wrote Autumn Leave - unusual for a French “trou perdu” or “lost hole” - their word for “out in the sticks”. So here is an update on the cast of extraordinary characters:

The goat farmers went, and with them, the gorgeous cheeses filled with cranberries and the constant scent of manure on the breeze. A much younger couple took on their archaic property with its shower across the courtyard (interesting to see the goat farmer’s adult sons running past wrapped only in a towel when you were standing at the door), modernised it and a second, large farmhouse opposite, then sold both, the former to a Belgian family, the latter to a quaint couple with pony tails, a small-holding, and a horse and cart.

But before they took off they were the centre of a potentially disastrous drama involving their four-year old, Christelle.

One day the little girl ran out to call her 12 year old brother who was outside mowing the grass in for tea. As she ran she slipped and her leg shot under the mower. The volunteer “pompiers” or local firemen, who also serve the community as paramedics, were on the scene in minutes. A helicopter landed nearby shortly after, (a first for the tiny hamlet) and Christelle was flown to Limoges where an amazing new machine, designed to deal with the victims of war and terrorism, constantly aspirated and cleansed the wounds, kept infection at bay and slowly closed up the flesh.

Three times a week for four weeks the doctors painstakingly grafted skin from her head (without damaging any of the hair follicles), to her leg. In the end all she lost was her pinky - though she kept asking when, like her skin, it would grow again.

The doctors believe that by the time Christelle is a young woman, lasers will be advanced enough to repair much of the scarring. Would she have had such a response in the UK, I wonder? Oh, the medical staff would have done their best - but without the investment the French pour into drugs and technology it seems unlikely.

And what of Jean Lavale, whose fields border ours, and who caused us so much grief in the courts over a metre of boundary?

He still comes out to check any mowing Peter does anywhere near his land - even though he’s gone up in the world and doesn’t live nearby. X-ray eyes, or hidden cameras? We mosey along well together - because we are determined that is how it will be.

My old friend Marguerite, who rented his family home slowly became so enormous, she could barely get to the front door to open it, let alone get through it. I virtually had to break in if I wanted to see her. Not a problem. The windows were falling out anyway. The last time I saw her she whispered,

Zer has been ... a murder!

An elderly man living alone was beaten to death in his own home. As everyone knows everyone else, and the victim had been a farmhand for the father of Marie, who owns the Spar, the commune was buzzing with a shocked excitement. Several weeks later, “Inspector Clouseau” or whoever, arrested a gypsy - prejudice or brilliant detection, no one knew - or seemed to care. Then Marguerite went down south to live with her daughter, so no more “gos”. Lavale did up his property at last, hoping to attract - in vain to date - new tenants.

Little time for much gossip anyway last summer - too busy grandparenting. They land - and all at once the dining table metamorphoses into an art table, covered in bits of paper, glue bottles, crayons, paints, glitter, ribbons, string, cardboard and sellotape. At the end of the day, when they head for bath and bed, I play an adult game called “finding the tops of colouring pens”. I think there must be a pen top heaven, like there’s an odd sock heaven.

For the post-war generation of penny-pinching boomers like Peter and me, raised to “keep things nice” so they would last for posterity, it’s all a culture shock. We are indeed that dying breed of hard-working, forever-saving-for-a-rainy-day mules.

Welcome Gen x and y and z, for whom all has become expendable, replaceable. Not grandparents, at least!

At the village summer fete they tried out the dodgems, bungies, candy floss, chi-chis and everything else that denuded the adults of euros - things that satisfied for a minute or so, until the buzz faded, and back to the reliable art table.

As August gave way to early autumn, one of my favourite sunny afternoon jobs - collecting blackberries - even though the biggest and best are always just above my demoralising, meagre height. Blackberrying is one of the few free culinary commodities the French haven’t tumbled to yet. Beneath a vast canopy of bright blue sky, hidden from civilisation by six foot thorny bushes, a profound aloneness envelops the spirit and tranquillises the soul.

Silence save for the buzz and hum of the insect highway as they compete with me for the fruit. It is Sunday and occasional strains of sing-song French voices, animated by family togetherness and the lunchtime wine, float down from the nearest farms.

As long as this simple pleasure exists, this heady mix of benign isolation from, yet belonging to the local community, all must be well with the world. For no reason I can account, I think of one glorious September day like this almost eighty years ago, when, no matter how it seemed, all was not well, and I wonder how it must have felt to hear on the radio that Britain was at war.

Away from this still small space the world is still in turmoil, but I savour this peaceful moment all the same, then head for home itching from rogue nettle stings and torn by spines, wondering which neighbour needs the ministrations of my crumble making.

In fact, the crumble went to the family of our nearest neighbour - a dear old French farmer who used to grow the tastiest cabbages I had ever eaten - so big they lasted a week. Lately he had become frail and found it hard to manage the farm. His family did their best to look after him, but his health finally failed and a home was becoming inevitable.

Unable to face it, he took his own life - in hospital. Very hard for the nursing staff. And harder for his poor family. How can a parent inflict such guilt on a child?

Forget the kind of English funeral Peter was used to taking with a sad turn-out of a dozen or so. M. Paul had lived in the village all his 82 years, and his large extended family, friends, acquaintances, and passers-by, hundreds of them, squeezed into the village square to show their respect and solidarity in grief and mortality.

We stood around outside the church for ages, greeting each other in low voices, with solemn expressions. A reverent hush falls as the coffin arrived and around 250 people followed it into a church built for around 100, squeezing ourselves onto wooden benches, into every nook and cranny, long after there was standing room only and the undertaker closed the doors, leaving around another 100 or so outside.

Two lay women took the service, there being no priest for the village - women’s ministry by the back door, if you ask me. It seems a bit disingenuous to be forced into having it, then claim you don’t believe in it. They are professional, feeling, alternately speaking or chanting the words of the service, in which the congregation can’t participate, having no order of service to follow.

Overheads, let alone computers, haven’t yet arrived in the village church!

There are no hymns, and a chronology of the life of the deceased, born, married, became a farmer, a father, bereaved, is the nearest thing to a eulogy. No reference is made to the suicide. It manifestly isn’t the great sin it once was, despite the gossip in the village, and for his family’s sake, I am glad, There is no reference to the resurrection of the body either, only the cross as our sole hope of redemption. But the service ends with that wonderful reading from Job,

I know that my redeemer lives, and in my flesh I shall see God.

One of my favourite texts.

Finally, the church doors are flung open and the waiting hordes outside process endlessly down the aisle and round the coffin to pay their last respects, dropping a large quantity of tinkling coins into a collection plate at its head and sprinkling the coffin with holy water, under the watchful eyes of the bereaved. Then it’s our turn as the back rows are ushered after them.

I wasn’t terribly sure what to do when I arrived at the coffin, but didn’t feel comfortable with the holy water, so simply thanked M Paul silently for the wonderful cabbages.

If there’s a wake, and there probably is, we know nothing of it and slip away quietly. So now you are up-to-date. So many dramas in our little trou perdu. It makes daily life in the UK seem poisitively mundane!