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Madame's New Chapter

by Jane Shortall

Years and years ago, while holidaying on a typical Greek island, I was talking to a lovely old man, a very wise islander, and expressing the notion that to live in such a place must be like waking up in paradise every day. He simply replied, as if there was nothing stopping me changing my life and staying on the island, ‘we have everything here, good food, good wine, sunshine, beautiful countryside and a sparkling sea. What more you want?’
I agreed that there was not a lot missing in this glorious place. He continued, telling me, ‘People here, they live forever. They live in the moment, not worrying about tomorrow. You should stay, live on our island.’
Well yes, of course I should, and I would have loved nothing more that to stay and live on that blue and white paradise. But at the time I was working, like all my friends and family, very hard indeed just to live and pay my bills, and, like most people, the very thought of just stopping the daily grind and going away to an island paradise, or indeed any paradise, was like some sort of wild, crazy dream.

However, not too many years later, thanks to my then partner, now my husband, organising his life and affairs with more than a casual thought for tomorrow, I found myself here in the Ariège Pyrénées, a spectacular area of southern France, where there is great food, excellent wine, lots of sunshine and life is enjoyed in a lush, green, unspoiled place. We do not, of course, have the sparkling sea, but life is, for the most part, perfect heaven.

For one of my dear neighbours though, it is, or rather was, quite obviously, perfect hell. He suddenly left us one morning, hanging himself in an outbuilding on his smallholding here in the hills.
Now, perhaps I am a bit too coldly efficient, but I did wonder, with the hills around here simply full of old barns, why on earth he couldn’t have chosen one further away, and saved his wife of over fifty years the utter horror of coming upon him when she opened the door to one of her ancient barns later that morning?

We, her neighbours here in the small hamlet, wondered what was the future for this small, mid seventies, robust, countrywoman?
Alone now in a large farmhouse, with its many rooms, enormous vegetable and flower gardens, its outdoor hutches and runs for the rabbits, chickens and ducks. Her future seemed daunting to us. She and Monsieur had been almost self-sufficient.

I knew she was finding sleeping very difficult, as she had told me that the vision of her husband as she had found him was the picture that came into her mind last thing every night. I felt helpless, useless; a sense of desolation seemed to descend on us.
However, life for Madame was about to improve. Her only child, a daughter, came back initially for a two-week stay, then upon deciding to renovate the house by creating a large apartment upstairs, she happily moved back in. A bonus was that her work is only a ten-minute drive away.

That, as trendies say, has been a win-win situation, and it is not the only one. A younger family member has decided to turn the top of one of the huge barns into a glamorous loft living area and use the ground floor as a garage and storage space. This good news will mean we shall have the welcome shrieks and laughter of children back in the hamlet. And there’s more.

A small silver Peugeot began to arrive in our hamlet once or twice a week. Work on the garden continued and the smallholding flourished. An old friend, a widower, expert gardener and former army comrade of Monsieur’s, no less, is now ably assisting Madame.
These two people, comfortable in each other’s company, friends now for half a century, work away happily together, mostly in warm sunshine under blue skies. They stop during the hottest part of the day and enjoy a three-course lunch, the preparations begun by Madame as early as ten-thirty, depending on how complicated her recipe is. This is followed, most days, by a little siesta.

Some Sundays our hero arrives dressed in best bib and tucker, stays for the really long Sunday lunch with other visiting family members and friends, takes a stroll in the late afternoon and then, after a light supper, the spotless Peugeot bumps off down the track to his own village. Shutters are closed and Madame is usually in bed at what seems to me to be a child’s bedtime.

A visiting friend of mine, very much a fast lane, city dweller, remarked that this place made him feel as if he had stepped back to the 1950's. He was amazed at the slow pace of life, the taking every day as it comes, the enjoyment of small things including the seasons and the focus on good food and wine.
I thought of my old man in Greece all those years ago, and his priorities being much the same. Yes, it must be admitted, this is a place where food and wine take prominence, every single day.
No one over a certain age appears to have heard of therapy of any sort. Without doubt — and I did make enquiries bereavement counselling seems to be something ‘other people’ need, it is certainly not part of life here in the hills.
I do not mean to suggest for a moment that my adorable neighbour and her family, now happily increased to include a great granddaughter, have not suffered dreadfully from this decision by her husband just before his eightieth birthday to leave this world.
I am astonished and thrilled at how life continued following such a tragedy. Whatever her private thoughts, outwardly Madame seems joyous, happy and smiling. She has shown stoicism that I can only marvel at and her will to continue living each day to the full is an inspiration.
Perhaps living fully in the present coupled with close family ties, and attention to lunch, dinner and proper rest every day, can get people through everything that life, and indeed death, puts in their path.



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