Low life

Back from the brink

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

The long table was set out under four beautifully pollarded plane trees festooned with coloured lanterns and red balloons. Twenty party guests. Above us the clear night sky was brightly peppered with stars.

Three and a half years ago, Catriona fled to France with a broken heart and shattered confidence. She returned to the village where she had spent family holidays in happier years; an expat family friend had offered his empty villa as a refuge. In that lonely time she used to stand at the bedroom window and look out at those pollarded planes, bare and dripping in the rain, and wonder what was going to become of her. It was winter and as wet, cold and miserable as Provence can be.

One day the housekeeper paid a visit. Ruth had done the same once — fled with nothing. She sympathised. Ruth had started again from scratch with cleaning work, then built up a small but successful house-rental business from a single property. Catriona was lonely and glad to talk to someone who spoke English. Moreover, Treena and Ruth liked one another. And Ruth knew the secret of how to turn on the heating.

The world turned, spring arrived, and the manicured planes on the terrace put out shoots. Ruth found Catriona a cheap house for rent. They went to look at it. It was a grey wet day and the house was run down and Catriona was depressed by it. But she went for a second look when the sun was shining, and Ruth said she knew a house painter who was fast and cheap. Catriona decided to make a home of it. She began helping Ruth with her rental business and Ruth did all that she reasonably could to give her an income.

During this time Treena was dealing with divorce lawyers. It was a traumatic business and she found that she was now ostracised by people she had thought of as close friends. In France she had made no other new friends yet. She didn’t know her way around. Her car was giving up. She had little or no French. But she plugged away. She took French lessons and, like Ruth, she took any sort of work that was offered, including cleaning and nursing the elderly.

It was a birthday party — Lily’s 26th. Early on I had swapped places with an animated young woman who preferred to be at the centre of things and now I was seated at the quiet, far end of the table with her parents. One was shy, the other spoke only country French. Both wore work clothes and their hands and fingernails were encrusted with dirt. We three had a conversation of sorts, then, exhausted by that, we tacitly agreed to give it a rest for a moment and I sat back and contemplated the scene under the pollarded planes.

At the opposite end of the table, at the other head, looking lovely and bridal in her voluminous white party dress, exuding joy from every pore, was Catriona. Three and a half years on from that lonely winter, there she was, absolutely in her element, among a new circle of friends. She speaks French now, not fluently but well enough to have a learning momentum that will make the rest come easily. A year ago she took up the paintbrush. She has discovered a talent and a pleasure that was inconceivable three years ago. Her paintings sell. There is an exhibition of them in one of the village bars. About 50 people came to the vernissage to cheer her on. The divorce papers are on their way. So is the settlement, with which she is buying the cave house situated high on a cliff overlooking medieval village roofs. You can look up from your morning croissant and coffee bowl and see for 30 miles — a romantic house for a romantic woman. Three years of anxiety and work and there she was at the opposite end of the table, radiant, confident, laughing, in the warm centre of a circle of new friends. She’d made it. She’d come through.

The expat who had helped by lending his house spotted me sitting alone with my thoughts. This kind and comical man leaned far back in his chair, and mouthed: ‘Are you all right?’ I nodded enthusiastically and tilted my glass at Catriona to draw his attention to the woman in white conspicuously radiating happiness among the gently bobbing red balloons. Above her, the party lanterns shed their primary colours among the plane trees, now in the full leaf of their summer pomp. In return, the first to notice it, he tilted his head at the moon, lying on its back and newly risen between the smooth tree trunks.

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