Sunday, September 2, 2007

A week in the country, Part 1: L'enterrement

It was when I was ordering two pain a l'ancienne from the mobile bakery that arrives hooting through the village, that I heard of the death of Monsieur Didier. With one of my floured pains resting on the counter, the boulanger froze mid action as an elderly villageoise told of her neighbour's body only being discovered cold the following day. I stood there gasping and shaking my head, and feared the slender boulanger would cry. Every time there was pause in the neighbour's narration, the boulanger interjected that she had thought how very odd it was that she had received no answer when she had laid the pain on his doorstep as usual the previous Friday. Indeed. He was dead. Quel horreur.

I hung around long enough to gather as much information as possible and noted the time of the funeral the next day, before skipping back home in my flip-flops, but with a curiously heavy heart, to tell Bee and Dave and baby Hettie the news. They thought how sad it was but were less affected than I was. For me this death represented a mini-tragedy because Monsieur Didier's life had been such a pathetic one; death was not the culmination of a live lived, but of a life passed mostly indoors.

On the day of the funeral I saw a fit, white-haired man in a blue polo shirt cycle past our kitchen window and thought him a tourist. Hearing the sounds of movement in our normally still village, I wandered early down the hill to the church and saw a as yet small crowd of mourners. Alone and rather awkward I headed towards the only one I recognised: the young mayor and school-master Serge in a blue and red checked shirt. Not exactly sombre, but then I was still with my flip-flops. I fought against the idea of seeming foolish and courageously hung about looking uncertain what to do. Seeing a book of condolences to sign, I jumped at the opportunity for action, then headed into the little church and ended up in a pew rather near the front with the family, feeling how tight my pants were and how my pink knickers might show above if I had to kneel. The white-haired man who had sailed past our window was now at the front of the church morphing into the priest before our very eyes - pulling his cassock over his head as village women in pink or orange anoraks busied around him preparing the alter and his microphone.

There wasn't one elegantly dressed person in the church. The oldest generation are former farmers, their sons are technicians of one sort or another, and their children wear gold chains over sportswear. The pink anoraked lady first spoke: Andre Didier was born in 1933, and like his siblings worked on the land. The accidental death of his father when Andre was 16 déclenché sa maladie - literally set off his illness - a genetic skin disease that left his face disfigured. The woman added that this was hard for a teenager. (I thought - this was terrible, awful.) Nevertheless, she continued, he joined up and went to fight in Algeria in the late fifties before its independence from the French in '62. This explained his coffin draped in the French drapeau and adorned with three medals of honour. When Andre returned he worked on the railways for a number of years. First his mother, then aunt died and eventually he was alone in the house - his life lived in a painful solitude.

There was some hymn-singing and as usual I couldn't find where in the hymn book the hymn was as it was not in the damn book. So why do they place them on the bench? Then his niece went to the front and delivered a barely comprehensible eulogy to her departed uncle, Monsieur Didier. Through sobs she told of how he liked to give sweets to the children and how much he enjoyed chocolate and how he looked forward to decorating the tree every year.


Overwhelmingly I just felt there was something a bit shameful and hypocritical about the celebration of a rather wretched life. The church was full to bursting with sad people and yet he had virtually no visitors during the last 20 years of his life. It was the sobbing niece who had looked after him at the weekends.

Thank God for Annie Massenot who is the village gossip and whose opinions on everything from Sarkozy to crème de cassis I take very seriously... Over dinner two nights later Annie painted her own picture of the man, Andre Didier. He was mean. Quite simply he hated to spend his money and chose to ride a mobilette to work every day although he could well afford a car, and always turned down the chance to have a drink with his work mates every weekday evening, preferring to return straight home at 5.30pm just to save his wages. Imagine the absurdity of that, Annie asked me. I ventured that the poor man was too ashamed to show his deformed face in public. No, why should he be! she replied: he worked with these people all day. He could even have got married but he had said (or surely she made this up) that women were too expensive and used up all a man's salary.

I thank Annie for her gossip, for as unbalanced as it is, the image she proffers of a man too in love with his money to part with any of it, is still more spirited than the man who liked to give children chocolate. The man may have been disabled, but this is his life - so let him pass it as he pleases: riding his crappy mobilette to work, coming home to eat from his mother's table and counting his money, as well as succumbing to occasional acts of kindness. Whatever the degree of victimhood and downtrodden-ness, it seems that most humans can always be counted on to mistrust others and revere money!

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