Everyday the snow looked different. First, the sugary glitter of crushed diamonds, then shards of glass. Lastly, the papery surface of flakey skin.
Like a film exposed for hours, it’s ribboned lines revealed what happened in my absence. Lone walkers and dog walkers. The crazy quilting of little birds, a double machine stitch in the white wadding. A tractor taking hay to three white horses, it’s tires leaving a liquorice all sort track of snow and mud.
Our usual brand of brioche is “Harry’s”, last week we bought “Pasquier” instead. Most found it an ordeal to swallow even a mouthful, the only one not revolted by the taste was the four year old, J. Everyday I’d cajole him to eat as much of our brioche mountain as he could get down. I’ve now looked at the ingredients. The bizarre, medicinal flavour we hate is down to the Rum in it.
The English are teased for queuing but I’ve always thought “How else is a civilized person going to wait their turn for a bus/toilet/Neil Diamond ticket?” Now I know. I am buying some, admittedly unconfidential, stamps at the post office when a lady enters with a cheery “Bonjour!” She positions herself on my right, if not thigh to thigh, at least elbow to elbow. A second lady enters, Bonjours and slides up against my left. We stand together like books on an overfilled shelf. As the post office Madame starts to pass my change over the counter, lady number one leans forward and begins her transaction. I have to turn sideways to get out.
Everywhere we go, huge walls of logs are trustingly stacked up to dry, not simply for this winter, but for two more to come. Everywhere. G and I never buy wood in England but through resourcefulness and opportunism get fuel for free. I say “we” get wood but G finds the tree, chops it down, cuts it into rings, puts it in a trailer, drives it home, carries it into our back garden, hacks it into chunks, stacks it, fills a basket, carries it in and puts it by the fire. That he has laid. I am a feminist poster girl. Here everyone assured us such self sufficiency would be impossible. We would have to (gulp) buy some.
Being surrounded by wood left us feeling complacent and we were virtually out of the stuff before we went on a family stomp round the village to investigate who our local dealer might be. We asked seven people who pretty much responded the same way. With a befuddled frown they would look skywards, straining to recall anything that might be helpful. But no, they had no idea how to get wood. They knew it had to be bought, they undoubtably had some, but how to get it….
On June 10th 1944, German troops arrived at the village of Oradour sur Glane. The villagers were rounded up outside cafe Chez Compain. The women and children were taken to the church. The men were taken in groups to various garages and barns. Grenades, then submachine gun fire. 642 people died. The village was set on fire.
Apart from the burial of the dead, the village has been left untouched. The open topped ruins slope down the hill, looking like giant gravestones. We walked round, reading discreet plaques that gave profession first, name second. Oradour had two hotels, two blacksmiths, two clog makers, several hairdressers, more than half a dozen cafes, two accountants, a garage, two carpenters, a tiled butchers, patisseries, an undertaker, and about 25 cars. We saw little brass beds, ironwork tables and chairs and countless sewing machines. Whispered echoes of bustling life. Any emotion I paddled in was inadequate to the brutal horror of what had passed.
Only not really. In this moment someone is being separated from their family, someone is walking towards a barn, someone is smelling the smoke.
- Baking Powder. It’s nonexistent here.
- Oats. Of a price higher than rubies. In England we feed it to horses.
Shops don’t open on Sunday and all but the most jumbo supermarkets shut for a couple of hours to lunch. Thanks to Tesco “24 hours” I had come to believe that shopping at two in the morning for a 42” flatscreen, some pesto and bath salts was a universal human right, burning eternal. For the French, it seems, shopping is what you do to get something you need, it hasn’t yet evolved into a hobby in it’s own right.
I am walking most days for about 45 minutes. We are now in France, so I start in the village. I feel slightly shamefaced if people in doorways watch me, as if I have no right to be shambling by on their street, as if the battle against morbid obesity and the certainty of adult onset diabetes wasn’t reason enough.
Then I get out into the fields and am more at ease, French turnip tops looking much like English ones. After about twenty minutes I am in the middle of nowhere. I have become one of those people I drive past wondering “How did they get here? Where are they going? Why are they not weeping under the iron yoke of going somewhere not in a car?”
One summer years back we stayed with friends in a beach hut on a spit of land, the northest of Norfolk. Sand and seals one side of us, an ebbing and flowing marshy maze the other. We, including six children, were without electricity and running water. And an inside loo. I am sofabound by inclination so I was surprised how much I didn’t mind going outside after dinner to wash the plates beside the huge rain water butt, nothing in my head but the murmuring grass. There was no light in the outside loo, so when I popped out for a wee just before bed I would sit with the door open, looking at the village a mile or two distant, the twinkling lights distant company.
I hope no one was looking back.
A friend told G that before the advent of radiators family members would automatically gather round the fire, the only warm spot in the house. After central heating you could afford to be off alone in any room of the house. People spread out, in a bad way.
I love modern comforts, especially in winter, but we are unknowingly making exchanges. Unconscious patterns that sometimes enhanced our lives are lost.