I write this week’s blog on the road from San Marino, where Gigi and I have been on international tennis duty! I hope I have managed to convey enough ‘scenery’ in a tale so different from normal hum-drum French life that you will not miss the appropriate imagery too much in the latter part of the story. It may be that you will not wish for imagery anyway, as you will find out! This is not a piece of fiction, I hasten to add, but I hope you take as much away from it as we did.
There is an old man in a village that we bicycle through occasionally who we have got quite fond of. It’s a typical French thing, I think, that we can acquaint a place with a person, whether it be someone in a shop, or perhaps someone who is always in their potager alongside one’s route. I can think too of another village where a man sells squash from a wheelbarrow in autumn, for example, and then another where it seems a farmer is always driving down the main road in his old 423 Massey Ferguson – a red one, of course. All of these happenings are but postcards of French life, but ones we remember and can associate with.
It was Millie who noticed this particular gentleman, perhaps a year ago; a small man with a weathered face who was sitting on his doorstep as we wheeled by, and who waved happily at us with a small grin as we then sped away. I clearly must have been looking the other way for it was not until the next time we went by, perhaps a month later,. and then stopped for a breather, that Millie said, “He was there again, what a sweet old man,” and when I asked for an explanation, I learnt of his previous appearance.
“Oh,” I mundanely replied, “I didn’t see him,” and I hadn’t, yet again.
But I did the next time, and then again, but as summer passed into autumn, his appearances became somewhat sporadic as the colder weather approached until finally we would cycle through, bundled up against the weather, and he was no longer there at all. Winter passed, and we no longer cycled through that particular village and I wondered absently if he would be there when spring came around.
He was. May was our first outing along that route, and our old familiar friend was there at a window as we slowly went past, and there was a wave and then a smile, a gesture that made me grin back in return. I had a glimpse into another life through the window, past the wrinkled face with alert eyes, into a dark room with serious furniture and a chequered tablecloth on a small table. I wanted to know more, and soon, unexpectedly, the opportunity arose. A friend bought a house in the same village, and we had a more definitive reason to go there, one which did not necessarily involve bicycles and we started to explore the hamlet better. A neighbour of our friend told us our old man’s name and as soon as we went past his door, we were able to stop and introduce ourselves, something I thought would be polite to do so we would no longer be on just ‘nodding’ terms.
We had found out his name was Louis, and our first brief exchange of information and greeting was polite and to the point, but then we became more familiar and our conversations started to go beyond the two words of “Bonjour, Louis!” as we pedalled past. We would pause for a minute, talk about the weather, mutter something about the seasonal produce and then perhaps add to our explanation of how our friend, who spoke little French, had come to buy a house in Louis’ village. It always amused us, in our shorts and t-shirts, how Louis could be muffled up against the sunshine, and it was an unspoken rule that we stopped for never too long as he might have something else to do, sitting there on his carefully swept doorstep – a large 16” high sandstone block that eased the way on a sloping hill for anyone entering the house.
And then, two weeks ago, I had the idea to take some cucumbers from our potager to him, since not only were our cucumbers breeding faster than we could consume them, but it had become obvious that Louis either did not have a potager, or perhaps no longer had the capacity to work it. Armed with our offerings, Millie, Gigi and I set off one Sunday afternoon and soon found Louis outside his house, talking to a neighbour. We bided our time, and when the conversation ended and he turned to us, Gigi shyly offered him our two cucumbers. Now, whether he needed them or not, or whether he even ate cucumber, Louis was a gentleman and he thanked us long and hard, his face beaming with gratitude. And then, with a step he turned towards his door and beckoned us to come in, out of the sun, and have a glass of water.
We gently parked our bikes against his wall, and one by one, trooped in through the dark doorway into his front room, which immediately became apparent was a kitchen, parlour and sitting room, all in one. Blinking to accustom myself to the darkness, I immediately recognised the plastic red and white tablecloth I’d once glimpsed through the window from the seat of my bike, and then I became aware of weathered plastic linoleum on the kitchen units, a huge dark Gothic sideboard against one wall, and then a dresser against another. There were photos, many of a smiling woman in a wheelchair, a tiny stove and oven tucked into a corner, and a fridge in another. The room was spotlessly clean, but busy with books, knick-knacks, cooking utensils and other miscellanea – this was a room that was lived in, where decades of life had been played out and where memories lingered in every nook and cranny. A smell of household cleaners and drying laundry hung in the air, redolent with the familiar aroma of cooked onions and garlic.
As Louis stooped to his fridge, I glanced at Gigi and Millie and saw they were quietly gazing around them, and I instinctively knew Millie was recognising pieces of the scene as fragments of a story already read, while Gigi was probably bubbling with curiosity at a room she would never have visited otherwise. Louis leant up from the fridge with an old orange-juice bottle that was full with cold water, and he put it on the table with three glasses. He told us all to sit down, and then produced a bowl which he proceeded to fill with cheese straws from a huge bag in a cupboard. It became clear this was a routine he must enact several times each day, as I suspect visitors to his domain pass by with regularity. And then he sat down and looked at us with steady eyes, and we told him our story, where we lived and what we were doing in France – Gigi and Millie made most of the small talk, as I was still struggling to understand Louis’ thick country accent.
As we sat there, with sunlight picking out motes of dust as they swirled in the doorway, I realised I was in a situation that made me very content; this was traditional country hospitality, but of a typically French sort, and had the hour been different I knew there was a pastis bottle somewhere that might have been produced, and our chairs might have felt the weight of farmers and artisans. Even as I though that, there was a shadow in the doorway and Didier, the neighbour of our friend with the house in the village, appeared with a lurch over the step.
“Ah, you have found an English family,” he joked at Louis while winking at the girls and I, and there was a babble of colloquial French that I had no chance of following. Louis then scraped back his chair and Didier sat down next to me; another glass then appeared on the table, quickly followed by the exact bottle of pastis I had only just been thinking about!
Ten minutes passed, and we learnt that Louis was the oldest man in the village, le doyen as Didier called him, and he had lived his entire life in the small house, born in a room upstairs some 89 years previously. Gigi and Millie’s eyes grew wide at this, and their hands sat quietly in their laps as they contemplated a life spent in one place. We then found out the smiling woman in the wheelchair was Louis’s wife, who had died some years previously. There were platitudes from the children and I at this, which Louis then dismissed with tales of how he had many friends and family too keep him company and look after him. He added he was very happy with his lot, and filled our water glasses again, and we all thanked him once more.
It was then, as Gigi’s hand hovered over the bowl of cheese straws, and I was thinking what to cook for supper, and as Millie (as she later told me) was wondering if she would ever be able to paint an old room such as this, that something quite extraordinary happened, something that was to make the girls and I think very hard for several days about life, our existence and both the past and present. Even today, I still wonder.
It started with a question, from Louis to Gigi. “Tell me, young girl, how old are you?”
Gig had dutifully replied, “Eleven years old, nearly twelve,” she had replied with a shy grin.
“Are you afraid of death, little one?” Louis had extraordinarily replied.
Gig took several seconds to wonder at the question, and then said, “Perhaps, but not yet,” and her answer filled me with pride, for it was a wise one.
Louis turned to look at a photo of his wife, and then looking back at Gigi, he uttered, ”I was half your age when I first encountered death. I saw a man die in front of me,” and he sat back with a thump.
Agog, I looked at Millie, who was watching the exchange with morbid fascination. Gigi had recoiled a little in horror, and Didier sat in his chair, with a wry grin, and I instinctively knew he had heard all this before.
Inevitably, I had to ask, “How? How did he die?”, expecting to hear of a tragic farm accident or perhaps a relative dying in bed.
Louis turned to me, “My father killed him,” he replied, and waited for the next question. I felt the earth tilt slightly under my chair, a dread of knowledge hovering heavily in the warm air as a floorboard creaked in the summer heat above me. I wondered why on earth Louis had even started this conversation, but then lucidly realised it had begun with our platitudes about his wife’s death.
I think my mouth must have hung open too long, for Louis forestalled my next question as he added “My father did kill him legally,” as though that knowledge would ease the shock I was feeling.
I mentally did sums in my head, my brain working overtime with some wartime excuse, but the years did not add up and so I had to eventually answer, “I don’t understand?”, aware that the girls were watching us intently.
Louis sat forward and said, “My father woke me once, when I was six, and dressed me before dawn before taking me to Saintes in a cart and horse. It’s only two hours or so, as you know. He was dressed all in black, and he told me he was taking me to a lesson, one that he said would teach me much about life, and how to live a good life.”
He paused and took, a sip of water as all of us waited, wondering at the revelations.
“There was a man, found guilty of murder, and he was going to be publicly executed in Saintes, as it was the official execution location for the department. There were several of us in the cart, and my mother had not wanted me to go, but my father over-ruled her. I had heard of the guillotine, of course, and part of me was excited perhaps, but most of me was filled with dread when I found out where we were going. However, it was not until we were in Saintes, that I finally knew the whole truth, that my father was the assistant to the executioner and I was to be an official witness.”
There was a silence in the room, and we sat there, waiting for the final part of the story. I found myself quite lost for words, but Millie and Gigi’s eyes were round and bright with fascination.
Louis continued, “My father said what I would see that day would teach me to never do anything bad, to always be a good man, and he was right. I will never forget what I saw, and I still have nightmares today even, but it was a good lesson – I never stole anything in my life, I never hurt anyone with murderous intent, and I will die an honest man.” and he sat back with another thump and watched us all.
Didier broke the silence by nonchalantly reaching for the pastis bottle and saying, “Quelle leçon, Louis, eh?” and I felt Gigi’s hand reach for mine under the table.
“Wow,” said Millie, as she sat upright, “what a way to be taught a lesson,” and I mentally had an image of a small boy with eyes tightly closed against the horrors unfolding before him. Looking up, I saw Louis was watching me, a clear meaningful glance that seemed to both apologise and explain at the same time. I looked away to my glass of water and wondered how many children over the years had heard the same story and taken something good away from a tale of death, to serve them appropriately when needed.
Much later, when we got home, and we told the rest of the family of our afternoon, there was much consensus of agreement about the way lives should be led and I realised that a lesson really had been learnt, from a small old man in a tiny house down a dusty lane in a lost French hamlet; that life must be led fairly and honestly, so we might all wait for death with a clear mind in later life, as Louis was so obviously doing, a photo of his dear wife in one hand and a bowl of cheese snacks close by the other.
I saw Didier at our friend’s house last week, and he asked me with a wry smile, “Quite a story, eh? Did your children talk about it? Louis told me that story when I was a small boy, too, and I think he told every child he ever met; it certainly worked for me and everyone else I know from the village.”
“Oh yes,” I fervently replied, “I think we all learnt something!”
And it’s true, for we’re all still talking about it even now. No one will forget Louis’ tale in a hurry, for it is a story of right and wrong, but with additional impact, for we now know a man who once saw a guillotine at work.
I have since found out that the execution Louis was witness to was one of the very last public executions in Saintes, even though France continued to use the guillotine until the 1970’s as a means of execution in prison.