Mme El and others

Icould see that she was full of powerless, mute anger: Léonine was there with her grandchildren, the youngest having just got up after her siesta and Léonine saying she was like ‘Mémé’, great-grandmother, having her siesta at the same time. And taking the same food, implied all mashed up for want of teeth. The little one’s big sister, six years old, added that she can’t walk as fast! That’s right, Léonine stressed, she can’t walk as fast. Don’t the little ones take it in! Mme El’s great-grand-daughter, six-year-old Adèle, came in, on her toes as most of the time, in a new striking dress, looking quite different. Mme El asked her who she was, her name, and the little girl tiptoed around not saying anything and then turning to me with a whisper ‘elle perd un peu la tête’, she’s losing her head a little. I said nobody is losing their head here and what’s your name? I made her repeat it, for it wasn’t clear the first time.
While we were all out in the relative warmth of the roofed yard, more visitors arrived: Mr and Mrs Blethen, distant neighbours, formerly customers for milk and parish members of long standing. Léonine took them to one side, a few steps away, and talked about the garden, mentioning her ‘belle-mère’, her mother-in-law. Mme El turned to me, wondering what had been said about her, but I hadn’t been listening and therefore didn’t know. These visitors left soon after, I stayed on for a while.
Little Adèle plays cat-and-mouse with great-grandmother Mémé, she being the cat, trying to trap the bewildered old lady by putting silly questions to her which will produce silly answers or eating pancakes in front of her, not only one but six for the sake of the game, knowing full well that Mme El loves food but is not allowed any in between meals. I have to step hard on Mme El’s foot to prevent her from imploring the child to let her have some. The wicked little thing then asks me whether I would like a pancake, she would bring me one, but I ignore the question. The child insists, doggedly repeating the same question three, four, five times until eventually I tell her to take Mme El’s coffee-tray into the kitchen. She picks up the tray, but before going demands yet again an answer to her question. I repeat my request to take the tray into the kitchen and she goes. When she hears me address Mme El who to her is Mémé, she mockingly repeats my words. I once heard Gerrer upraid the child when she was pushing past her great-grand-mother without apologizing.
On the afternoon following Lyn’s departure I went to see Mme El and told her about all our health troubles during the visit. She was concerned but confident that we would put them behind us. Then we went out under the hangar where I washed her feet for her as requested by Léonine, the pedicure lady being expected, Mme Lew. Her son turned up and laughed, it looked, I understood, like the apostles having their feet washed. Except that this is feminine, I replied. Mme Lew appeared and I took my leave.
Mme El’s, visitors turned up while I was there. They had come to see Gerrer and Léonine, but made a point of greeting Mme El, too, in her room. Two elderly men, my age and more, all bent and toothless one of them, but beaming when they saw me – we had met before at Mme El’s, I vaguely remembered when they pointed it out to me. Mme El’s memory was jerked into activity by the visitors. She recognized the old fellow peasants from the road to St Amans whom she had known all her life, later she even told me their names. ‘Bou Du!’, ‘Bon Dieu!’ she said ‘fancy seeing you again’.
The younger of the two remembered my nationality and asked, did I like to visit my country from time to time, but I replied that after nine years here I considered myself an authentic village citizen and preferred to stay here. Both agreed that here was the best place, good air and not too many people, very attractive to retired people – younger ones wouldn’t find any work – like the two couples from Marseille who had bought houses in St Amans and settled down happily, not to go back to the old city for anything. I don’t blame them.
Then he turned to Mme El, paying her compliments on her slimmed-down silhouette. He had remembered her more like a ‘barrel’ and he drew a generous circle with one arm around himself for demonstration. Léonine cottoned on to that and told him that ‘she’ would still be like a ‘cochon’, (a pig), if she got all the food she wanted. Gerrer, standing behind Léonine , raised his eyebrows. There are two ladies with the seniors, valuable sopranos in the choir, who most visibly do get all the food they want, but I haven’t heard any comment on that. Mme El will forget her desire to eat when she reads about ‘les morts’, the dead. The obituary in the local paper will hold her attention, even if reading is tiring. There is another option which doesn’t cost her any energy: I can put her hair brush to use, ‘penchena’ and she accompanies my activity by ‘aco es bou’, this is good, ‘aco me fa be’, this does me good and after a while ‘n’ i a prou’, that’s enough, not for her, but for me, she
reckons. Mme El is feeling better, she can use her left arm again which means that the much dreaded prospect of things medical, like the doctor’s visit and what might result from it, has gone away. She is back on top of life, strong enough to face that favourite column in the newspaper. Reading about all these dead of different ages, most of them quite old, gives her the shudders from a safe distance.