• Joanna Seldon

  • Sur le Pont

    Sur le pont

    I see those children often, but this is the first time I’ve spotted Grandpa.  Maybe he’s visiting for the weekend.  The children are easy to recognise: as usual, the boy (about six years old, I’d guess – but it’s so difficult these days to work out the ages of the young) is dressed up as a knight, and today he’s even carrying a plastic sword.  His older sister wears a Crusader-style tunic over bare legs.  Last time she passed my window she was sporting a long pink dress.  That, I suppose, was her princess costume.  I wonder if Papillon has a dress like that.  She’d look much prettier in it than this tousle-haired bridge crosser does.  And Farida?  No, she’s more likely to be kitted out in something… what do they call it?  Ethnic.  That’s it: my ethnic younger grand-daughter.

    But let’s return to the family in front of me now – you could say the only family I have at this moment.  I experience a rush of indignation – call it fellow-feeling, if you like – when I notice that it’s old Grandpa doing all the work.  Grey-bearded, about my age, wearing a battered wide-brimmed straw hat, he’s the one painfully dragging child number three in a push-chair (which he pulls behind him) over the cobblestoned bridge.  Mother quickly checks on the baby (not on Grandpa), then calls for the other two offspring, who are prancing on the grass down by the river.  Father’s exclusive job seems to be to take photographs.  Brother and sister shoot up, hurtle past my window and charge over the bridge, plastic sword brandished.  Their parents scurry after them.


    ‘Regardez comme c’est belle, la rivière, quand on la voit du pont…’

    They have all overtaken Grandpa, who, disappearing from my view as he toils and trails behind them, calls out to his family in a reedy voice.  Fifteen minutes later (people hardly ever linger on the other side) I hear the chant of invisible children drift across the bridge.  Grandpa is still in charge of the push-chair, still pulling not pushing, and to his burdens has been added a large camera which he’s slung round his neck.  I spot the medieval family again later as they lunch at the café opposite, next to the mill.  The daughter has shed her Crusader tabard, and is now running around on the grass in green shorts and T-shirt.  Yes, it’s grown quite hot. 

    While they’ve been eating their lunch, I’ve remained sitting here, watching the world go past my window.  Being a Saturday in summer-time, it is of course particularly busy here.  But even during our cold wet weathers I glimpse the occasional tourist.  My neighbour, Madame Lebrun, tells me that winter is her favourite time of year: not so many tourists; everything is quiet – apart from the river, of course – and she snuggles up in her little stone house, warming herself by the wood-burning stove.  But I dislike the winter – for all sorts of reasons.  And when the roar of the river grows even louder, I can’t help remembering.  It doesn’t seem to get any better with the passing of the years.

    In February this year the river flooded.  The water came all the way up my garden, but didn’t touch the house.  The tiny little road that runs alongside was completely churned up by the floodwaters.  I went to the Mairie about it.  So Henri, the mayor, arranged for a huge roller to smooth down the surface.  Lots of noise first thing in the morning – and Mme Lebrun running around all upset.  Despite its clamour, the roller achieved nothing.  I think she’d placed a curse on it.  I keep my Renault parked up by the village shop these days, motor repair bills being out of the question.  The floods are less frequent ever since they built that sluice up-river.  But I’ve witnessed quite a few in my time.  I was born in this house.  I’ve lived here all my life.  I’m a direct descendant of the toll-keeper who lived and worked here during the nineteenth century.  This was the toll house, once upon a time.  Of course it’s many years now since people paid a toll to cross the bridge.  Cars aren’t allowed, needless to say.  But in the days of horse-drawn carts and carriages it must have played an important part in the life of St Denis de Gorse.  The house once had a name, my father told me: Lieu de Passage – Place of the Toll.  Now it’s just numéro 12.

    Two Tour de France wannabes are bumping their wheels over the bridge, hunched over handlebars, heads professionally helmeted.  As they disappear over to the other side, three ladies of about my vintage stop a dark curly-headed young man, asking him to take a photo of them, backs against the bridge, the ageless river behind.  I’m very struck by the one in the middle: her bright red spotted dress and majestic frame fill the blue sky.  Unlike her companions, she seems to find it easy just to carry on smiling.  She has embraced the gathered years better than I have.  For an instant, I think she’s making eye contact with me through the window.  I turn away quickly.  When I look back, they have gone. 

    But the bridge doesn’t remain empty for long.  Here comes a familiar large black dog on a red lead.  He reminds me of Gaspard, though I’m sure this specimen passing me now, obediently trotting by its owner’s side (monsieur from the agence immobilier) is much better bred.  I miss Gaspard.  He was the last to go.  But I’m getting too old now for dog-walking.  My heart’s giving me trouble, and you can’t walk for long round here without encountering a hill.  No – best just to sit and watch.

    Another photographer, I see: boyfriend (he doesn’t, somehow, have that haunted husband look) stops and puts his green Michelin guide at his feet so he can photograph his beautiful companion.    She drops her bag and red cardigan behind her as she sits cross-legged on the edge of the bridge, smiling for the camera.  Her sunglasses remain in place.  I wonder what colour her eyes are.  Her long dark curly hair is gloriously unkempt: not many women can manage that successfully.  She wears a back strappy top.  I’m very struck by how revealing women’s clothes are these days.  Very nice for me, though – the unseen watcher.  The beauty of her throat is emphasised by her necklace of multi-coloured beads.

    It presents quite a hazard, this ancient cobbled bridge.  I gain much amusement from watching people struggle across it.  Now here comes a less attractive sample of womankind.  The lady passing now, who should not be wearing such a tight-fitting top and cropped trousers almost falls over on the cobblestones.  Her huge breasts sway as she bends over to steady herself.  She and her husband spend hardly any time at all on the other side.  Here they come waddling back over, their stumbling less now, as he’s put his arm through hers.  Why do some men wear their cap with its peak at the back?  I suppose it prevents the neck from getting sunburnt, but to me it looks like an affectation.  I ask myself what nationality they are.  I can’t make it out from the few words she breathlessly utters.  French they certainly are not.  They cross with a young woman walking the other way, her backside sticking out and a large baguette protruding from its paper bag, which she carries under her arm.  When she and her husband return, I notice her mannish black shorts.  The baguette has gone; he’s carrying a yoga mat.  But they don’t have that post-picnic glow of pleasure about them.

    A small boy dangling a security cloth from between his fingers hobbles over the bridge with his parents, moaning about something in that petulant pitch that children have always perfected.  He’s quietened down on the way back.  That blend of an irritating wail with an irresistible sweetness makes me think suddenly of Michel.  I wonder what Farida looks like these days.  Michel never sees her any more.  He sent me a photo taken on her first birthday.  It must have been just before her mother, no doubt donning her most bohemian outfit and most ostentatiously beaded sandals, upped and left, taking my grand-daughter with her, out into the Atlas Mountains or the Moroccan desert.  That was the only photo of Farida I saw.  I wouldn’t recognise her now.  Michel had to send the picture to Mme Lebrun’s mobile phone.  Naturally, I can’t see the point in having one.  Who would I call?  It’s up to Pierre to ring me from Brussels – on the land-line.  I expect he’ll grace me with his usual Sunday telephone call tomorrow.  Madeleine will put Papillon on the line, and I’ll pretend I can understand what the little one is saying.

    Ah, now there’s the charming little golden cocker spaniel which is part of the establishment at the café opposite.  This place, which I can just catch from my window, came under new ownership in the spring and seems to be doing well.  Huge white balls like ballerinas’ tulle float from the plane trees.  I’m not so sure about them.  The spaniel has scampered up onto the bridge, right outside my window.  Suddenly, he finds a friend.  And so there are two of them, identical golden cocker spaniels in sexual congress.  But they’re interrupted as a party of tourists starts its progress across the bridge.  They are led by a loud woman warning her disciples to walk with care on the cobbles.  The rear is brought up by a small grey fluffy dog on a bright red lead.  (Most dog leads I see from my window are red.)  The two spaniels try to interest it, but its rather ferocious owner, with a sharp tug, makes sure her little one keeps moving.  A moment later, however, an unaccompanied golden retriever – ash blonde, middle-aged, with a lumbering gait and that unbeatable doggy smile – approaches, eager to join in the frolics. 

    For some, the bridge is an unassailable passage.  On the grass a young woman in a wheelchair sits alone taking photos with a very professional-looking camera.  A foxy lapdog runs past her down to the river.  I am not worried.  Even a little scrap like that is safe in July, with the waters running so shallow.  I try to push such thoughts from my mind.  The presence of the wheelchair-bound woman makes it harder to forget.

    The church bell is striking four o’clock, sweet but insistent.  Once upon a time, when I was young, I found myself surprised by how quickly those melodious hour and half-hour hammer blows came.  Now it’s the other way round.  After the fourth stroke has faded, the bells start clanging again.  Are we being summoned to prayer?  I haven’t been to a service in St Denis since Mathilde died, but I don’t believe that four on a Saturday afternoon marks an invitation to pray.  Mme Lebrun usually tells me if anything special is taking place, but she hasn’t mentioned anything happening today.  Maybe she’s still cross with me about the noisy roller.

    Now here comes another stumbling woman.  In her case, the problem is her thin high-heeled sandals, which seem to be getting stuck between the cobbles.  She’s wearing a kaleidoscopic gaudy short cotton dress, and her dark hair has been styled into a neat bob.  Her smart husband – now he is definitely French – cool and self-contained in his long-sleeved white shirt, doesn’t stop to check whether she is coping.  A sigh catches my throat, and I’m thinking maybe it’s time to start work on dinner.  But in that instant I’m arrested by the sight of a European man with an oriental wife and a truly beautiful little daughter in a yellow dress carrying under her arm a toy dog.  When I was watching the world yesterday, I noticed another mixed-race couple (that’s the correct term nowadays, isn’t it?)  In their case, he was black and she white.  Their baby’s pushchair was so heavy the father was obviously struggling to get it over the bridge.  I couldn’t see the baby, hidden inside its magnificent chariot.  So this couple is an opposite version of Michel and…  And?  I can’t even remember her name any more.  But that doesn’t matter.  I’ll never again have contact with her.

    Yes, definitely time to begin preparing dinner.  As I pull myself up to leave, I can see the exquisite little girl in the yellow dress playing with a small matching ball by one of the café tables.  And then I’m stopped in my tracks by a sight that draws me straight back to the window.  A young mother in long white trousers and spotted black and white top is carefully carrying her tiny baby, wrapped in a shawl, back over the bridge towards the village centre.  I hadn’t noticed her going in the opposite direction earlier.  Perhaps she’s been visiting on the other side.  There is something so tender, so touching about the way she clasps the infant.  But – there again is that golden retriever.  I think it’s the same one I saw earlier, so keen to play with the mating spaniels.  He looks tired.  He must be thirsty as he ambles down to the river to take a drink.  The young mother turns, watching him.  Does he belong to her?  I want to tell her to take her baby away, fast, to go and sit at the café, or go back over the bridge and find her friends.  Don’t worry about the dog.  Abandon it, if necessary.  It’s better than the alternative.  I know, how can a large dog drown in a river where, at the moment, you can do no more than paddle your feet?

    But it was a golden retriever back then.  Like a coffin slammed into eternity, it hurtled round a bend in the river.  It was during one of those winter storms.  I did what I could.  Thank goodness that one didn’t have a baby.  I can still remember the way her hair stuck to her face, the horrible gasp and heave of her vanishing breath, the heaviness of her clothes.  And then the stillness.  I could have done no more.  I promise.

    The reason for all that chiming of bells is now apparent.  Men in dark suits and tasteful ties are gathering on the bridge with their smartly-dressed women, joining those two elegant heralds I noticed earlier.  On the grass below, where my life changed on that cold wet afternoon, the bride and groom are posing for photographs.

    Closing the shutters, I leave them to it.