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Stories & Scripts

Source: Adults

Author: Barry Gee

Title: A Year in Normandy? (3)

Most of the time I am undaunted by the prospect of moving to France and living in the country but there are moments when I question my hold on reality. I wonder if I am sentimentalising our project and only envisioning the good times. There are sure to be wonderful moments but they will arrive only occasionally and most of the time we will be occupied with humdrum, everyday living. From my week in France I can see that the two women will spend the majority of their time either sleeping or laying on their beds. They will be physically active for only a very few hours a day and spend most of that time sitting down. My mother-in-law is hard of hearing and her friend is virtually deaf so when we speak we automatically turn up the volume. This is not conducive to conversation so I tend to make statements rather than try to elicit a response.

During my week at the house the women frequently expressed the wish to die and, in fact, within minutes of arriving at the apartment in Paris, Sandra's mother said that she had had enough and was ready and willing to end it all. After a ten hour journey from Plymouth this is the last thing one wants to hear. I was to hear it several times a day in the country but that did not bother me as much as the first time I heard it. It was as though the desire to die was expressed more light-heartedly, if this is possible, as time passed until it became a rational decision rather than an emotional reaction to a bout of depression. The friend felt great shame and embarrassment over her incontinence, of which she was often unaware until it was pointed out by Sandra. She begged us to put her in a home on a daily basis and we reassured her that it was just a natural life for an old person and she should feel no shame. Sandra washed her soiled clothes and reminded her to wash herself and put on fresh clothing but, even so, she frequently smelled of the toilet. On the fourth day Sandra realised that she couldn't keep up and so I drove to town and bought a box of disposable nappies. The friend, out of pride, was reluctant to use these but she was quickly persuaded to comply with Sandra's instructions. In the attic we found an old commode which still had a roll of toilet paper in the bowl under the fold-down lid. We carried it down, dusted it off, and would have put it in the women's bedroom but my mother-in-law drew the line at having a toilet in her bedroom but agreed to it being placed outside the door. It was a great success. We had come to the realisation that many of the friend's incontinence problems stemmed from the fact that it took her ten minutes or more to walk to the toilet. She moved as fast as she could but each step was an effort of will. Sometimes I was tempted to pick her up and carry her to where she was going; she has lost a lot of weight and is almost skeletal and so it would have been a light burden. I resisted the temptation and rationalised that I must not take way her need to walk or she will lose the ability. For the same reason I wonder if my idea to get a wheel-chair for her when we move in together is a good idea. It would be wonderful for pushing her out into the park amongst the flowers and the trees but maybe detrimental to our goal of keeping the two women as mobile and alert as possible.

We are blessed in having Mr. and Mrs. Marteau living close by. They are a couple in their seventies but are as fit and healthy as sixty-year-olds. Mr. Marteau is ready to come at any time, day or night, if there is a problem and just a few months ago, before the women moved into Paris, he was called at midnight and was there five minutes later, drove the friend to the hospital 30 kilometres away and sat outside in his car for two hours while the woman received treatment for an eye problem. He is a very good handyman and his working life was spent fixing machines so he is able to repair most things around the house without the need for a professional. When the oven door fell off, a few years ago, Sandra's mother was ready to by a new oven but Mr. Marteau scoffed at the idea. He fixed it with one thick screw and it is still working fine today. If they wish to then I hope they will carry on playing the same role as now when we are living there. I would not want to take away the small income they receive and, I am sure, appreciate even though I am quite capable of mowing the lawns and tending the gardens. I performed these tasks the last time I lived at the house.

In Plymouth we live on a quiet, tree-lined, avenue with big gardens at the front. The back lane is wide, dotted with mature trees, and the nearest house is fifty yards away. People walk past all the time and there is an occasional car. In the country there will not be such distractions outside the door and I will miss it. There will be birds and squirrels and the occasional roe deer or wild boar early in the morning but it is not the same as seeing people. We have no real friends in the street but we have a lot of good neighbours with whom to pass the time of day. A few hundred yards away there is a shopping street with a small supermarket, several pubs and a couple banks. It is convenient when an important, or vital, ingredient for the evening meal has been forgotten. The solution is just minutes away. In the country the nearest town is five miles away and the journey is not taken lightly or, if one has had a couple glasses of wine, not at all. More planning has to be done, lists must be made, reserves of non-perishable goods must be stocked and we must be prepared for eventualities. There will be no 'popping out for five minutes' moments or impulsive behaviour late in the evening when one is overtaken by the craving for a Mars bar or some such thing. It is the distractions of living in a town that I will miss the most. In the country I will be left almost to my own devices and shall have to entertain myself and learn to live with the silence of open space but silence is a relative term. It is never completely silent in the country unless you have lost your hearing.

The two women no longer hear the bird-song or the wind in communion with the trees or flying insects buzzing just above their heads. They do not hear the telephone ring unless it is in the same room and they do not have the television turned on. The friend has hearing aids but during the week we were there they were broken while my mother-in-law doesn't feel that she needs them and says she can hear as much as she needs to hear without apparatus in her ears. She has never tried them so how does she know? She still does not need spectacles in order to read but she doesn't read any more. A few years ago she was rarely seen without a book in her hand but it seems she has lost the ability to be transported to another, fictional, world and instead is creating her own. Maybe her memory is so bad that she does not remember what she has read just a few moments earlier and she is unable to follow plot direction, character development or story-line. I can imagine that this would really take most of the pleasure out of reading. Maybe audio-books are the answer but would she remember any more of what had gone on than she would with a paperback book in her hand?

Her friend still reads but not as much as she has done in the past. Her short-term memory is not what it was but she seems to be more in touch with the reality of their situation than my mother-in-law. She knows that she will never drive again, take holidays at her house in the south of France or even cook for herself. She has understood that she is now dependent on others to do things for her while my mother-in-law refuses to acknowledge this fact and talks as though she is capable of doing everything she pays professional helpers to do but chooses not to do herself. It must be very frustrating for her not to be able to do what she has done so capably in the past. Her organisational skills were finely honed, as you would expect from someone who had transported a family through Africa with few modern conveniences. She also had to arrange dinner parties for visiting diplomats and political figures using locally sourced ingredients and the scant supplies that were occasionally flown in from France. There were many servants but she claims that it was quicker for her to do a task herself than trying to teach an ignorant native to do the job. She refined her skills as a hostess at the house in the country where, not only did she have to serve up meals for twenty or more people but, she had to arrange bedrooms for all of them and supply towels and bed-linen. She was very organised, as she needed to be, and was coping quite well before I arrived in the family but as soon as I was settled I took over the cooking duties and she was able to concentrate on the visitors and guests. At eight in the morning she would drive to town and buy the food I had requested but she was always willing to go back again if there was something I had forgotten. She would, on impulse, buy pieces of venison or a couple hares and I would cook anything she brought home but she never interfered in how the food was prepared. She left it completely up to me and I was grateful for that. I was also thankful for the cookery books that lined the shelf as I had no idea how to cook some of the things she brought back. We made a very good team. Together we arranged a couple wedding feasts for more than fifty guests where I would cook whole suckling pig on a spit. Hotel rooms were rented in local towns for those guests who could not be accommodated at the house, sleeping arrangements had to be made for those who could and my mother-in-law organised it all, seemingly with ease. Nowadays she finds it hard enough to organise her own sleeping arrangements. Everything takes too much energy so only the essential things get done and sometimes not even that.

I wake in the night sometimes, most nights, in fact, and wonder if we have made a wise decision. There is no going back so it is a pointless exercise but it keeps me awake for some time and no conclusions are ever drawn. We are leaving secure, enjoyable, employment, moving to another country and proposing to completely change our lifestyle. There are many practical considerations such as health care, bank accounts, insurances and the need to retain residency in Britain. In the next few weeks we will talk to people who know about these things. Our intended moving date is August 1st so we have three months to arrange everything. It should be plenty of time but I still get nervous when I think about it.

The best laid plans etc. This morning we received the news that my mother-in-law had fallen in the street in Paris, banged her head, and is now in hospital. She has been stitched up and is bandaged but nothing is broken and a scan shows no effect on her brain. She is being kept in for forty-eight hours for observation. Sandra immediately expressed her readiness to leave at a moment's notice if it is necessary and today will inform her employers of this new development and prepare them for her possible departure. This is the final week of the semester before the exams at university so my leaving will not be a great incovenience for them. We should know in the next twenty four hours whether our presence is needed or desirable. Everything is up in the air and we feel ourselves in limbo at the moment not knowing where, or when, our future lies. There is a lot to think about as we have already made many plans for the next couple months and they will have to be altered or abandoned. A holiday in the south of France has been booked and paid for and we were eagerly expecting visits from our children. Postal delivery must be redirected and the proposed work on our house will have to be rearranged. I am sure there are many other things which we have not yet thought about.

(to be continued)

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