As it was a lovely day today – chilly but sunny with an improbably blue sky – we decided to go for one of our favourite walks. It follows ancient paths lined with crumbling stone walls. In places, there are splendid views of the rolling green countryside that we are lucky enough to live in.
The walk passes near the small hamlet of S. Today, smoke curled up from the handful of chimneys and the pink-tiled roofs basked in the sun. Cows grazed on the hill below the hamlet: a peaceful, bucolic scene. I was reminded of one of the former inhabitants of the hamlet, who was less than peaceful. Monsieur Fabre (not his real name) was eccentric, or spécial as the French say. Born around 1925, he never married.
When we encountered him (met is not the right word), he didn’t live in his cottage but had strangely decided to rent a cottage in another village about 3km distant. To get from one to the other, he frequently drove up our lane (a no through road) and then across the field behind our house.
He explained, in his heavy regional accent, rendered even more difficult by his lack of teeth, “I used to own that field. So I open the gate, drive through and then close the gate again.” He felt that, even though the field now belonged to someone else, he had some kind of droit de seigneur over it. He also owned half of our house at one point, no doubt the result of the French system of partible inheritance, where 50 people can end up owning the same property.
He revelled in telling us about the quarrels he had had with other unfortunate locals. Other people confirmed that he was pugnacious and litigious, and that few people had escaped a run-in with him.
Stories about him are legion, and we have a few of our own. Sometimes he walked between one house and the other and passed by our house. One day, I was alone when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to M. Fabre, who asked me if I would like to accompany him on foot to his rented house. I politely declined. He seemed to accept this as fair enough and continued on his way. I locked the door. It’s not clear what was in his mind. I can’t believe it was an attempt at seduction; after all, it might have been my husband who opened the door. But that’s how he was.
On another occasion, my brother was staying and took a cup of early morning tea into the garden, dressed in his pyjamas and a woman’s dressing gown, which was the only garment of that nature that we had for guests’ use. M. Fabre walked by and my brother, mistaking him for our farmer neighbour, went over to greet him. The conversation was marked by total incomprehension on both sides, but a great deal of goodwill (unusually for M. Fabre). We concluded that he must have thought my brother was a visiting religious dignitary, clad in ecclesiastical robes.
A neighbour told us about the time, some years ago, that he was invited with his daughter to M. Fabre’s. The house was filthy and full of rubbish and swarms of flies. In honour of the occasion, M. Fabre opened a tin of pâté, which was soon covered with flies. He grabbed hold of a broom – which had plainly never been used for its original purpose – and brought it down with a crash on the table. “Excusez-moi, mademoiselle,” he said to our neighbour’s daughter.
As he got older, M. Fabre became ever more eccentric and his driving increasingly erratic; he was a hazard to other road users. He drove a tatty Peugeot 205, and I would be surprised if he had ever taken it for a contrôle technique (compulsory roadworthiness test). Driving between his house and the village, he often ended up in the ditch and had to be pulled out by passers-by. Sometimes he walked all the way, thumbing lifts when he got tired and making obscene gestures at motorists who didn’t stop.
Following one of his more serious accidents, which left him permanently bent, social services took charge, and he was consigned to a nursing home. The last we heard, he was trying to sell his house in the hamlet of S, but we don’t know if he succeeded. We don’t even know if he is still alive. But the local roads have certainly been safer since the day he was forbidden to drive.
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