Day 18 Lockdown in France

            Down in the valley, where I lived before moving here, at the turn of the road where the main road swerves right into the village, there is a cottage on the left-hand side. In fact, if you drove too fast, you would not even notice it. The cottage lies far back hidden behind tall pine trees and a bit of scruffy and overgrown weedy garden in front. The only way to notice this cottage would be to walk into the village. So few people seem to do that these days. The next village is about 7 kms down the road, past vast fields of wheat and barley, mainly grown as fodder up and over the gentle slopes of the hills. Wherever the field breaks into little forest areas, one can spot the high wooden raised stand for hunters. The only reason why one could walk into the village would be if one got lost in the forest and then found the way back by walking alongside the road. So, like I said, no one would notice the cottage. Neither did I, for a long time.

            It was while I was visiting a friend of mine who had a beautiful garden at the bottom of the village, that she asked me if I knew who lived in the cottage. I did not, of course. In fact I did not even know there was a cottage. Oh yes, there is, she said. It seems like the house is on sale and she just wondered. The next time I drove in the village I slowed down to take a look and sure enough, behind the tall trees was a house, completely darkened by the shade of the pines in front. It looked dark and uninviting and honestly, uninhabited. After some months, the same friend came excitedly to my house and said, we are invited! Where to? To the cottage. I forget the real reason why and how she secured an invitation, but there it was. So, on the appointed day, I opened a small gate and walked over slippery and broken flagstones to knock on a door, where the paint was fading and peeling off. I nervously held a small bouquet of flowers I had picked that morning in my garden. The door creaked open and there stood the oldest woman I have ever seen, or so I thought. Her entire body was bent over her walking stick, but she did not seem weak. Oh no, there was a fire, a strength, in spite of her extreme old age, that I found almost frightening at that point. Now, I have to stop and tell you that Hela, as she was called, is long gone and I feel comfortable telling you about her. Where were we? Ah yes, she opened the door and bid me in with my name, properly pronounced, which does not happen very often. I walked through a dark passage into a really bright and cozy living room. It was such a change from the front of the house. This room faced the back garden with a bit of lawn and shrubs, sunlight flooding in through huge windows that were flung open. The garden sloped down to the small creek and went up on the other side which was the back garden of the church. Perched at the edge of the sofa with a teacup in her hand was my friend. She smiled brightly, too brightly I thought, or maybe it was a triumphant yet pathetic smile. I don’t remember and anyway, that is not important. 

            To this day, I remember a lot of details of that first meeting. Hela had a kind face and very watery eyes, the wrinkles on her face and hands so numerous it was difficult to imagine how she must have been when she was younger. And yet, there were photographs on a sideboard. Hela, smiling, Hela, holding a small baby, her niece, Hela, in her wedding dress, her head turned to one side, arm in arm with a man in a suit and hat, all proud and happy and beaming. Yes, she was married, a long time ago, her husband died 10 years ago, or was it 12? She did not remember anymore. No, there were no children, but she had a family. Her sister, her brother who died in the war, her numerous nephews and nieces. All grown up now, with their own families. Oh yes, they visit, they call. She even has a mobile phone, but she does not use it much. She never uses the front door, there is another door through the back garden that led right up to the road through the side lane. Ah, that’s why she is not worried about the broken flagstones. And so I came to know Hela and her life and her stories. There was tea and cake that day. I remember the cups with their floral prints and golden rim. They were old too, just like her, and fragile. Time passed and I visited Hela a couple of times, but my friend always insisted on joining me. I don’t remember why she did, because she hardly said anything, merely sat on the sofa and smiled.

            That autumn when the storms began, we had a warning one day of a particularly severe hurricane coming our way. The children were sent home early that day, and I drove to the train station to pick them up. Already, on our drive back home, we saw the treetops sway madly and gusts of wind blowing twigs, leaves, branches on the road. We drove home and in the face of the storm that had already darkened the sky to an inky black I started to secure the door to the shed, locking it shut before putting in all the pots and tools lying around. Then I put heavy bricks on top of the dust bin lids to keep them from flying off. There was news on the radio that we might even lose electricity, so while the children searched the house for candles, I quickly warmed up soup and we ate, all the while listening to the wind pick up speed outside. It was at this point I remembered Hela. Hela, in her house, surrounded by giant pine trees that might just fall on the house and crush her and no one would know. What would happen should everything grow dark? I quickly collected some candles and poured some of the soup in a container. Are you really planning on going there? But I have too, she is all alone. It is not safe. I know. Call her. I don’t know her number. And I have my mobile.

            The short car ride was terrible, the branches whipping the air violently, dust circling around carrying all kinds of debris. I drove and parked the car away from the trees. Fighting my way through the wind, holding on to the bag of soup and candles, I banged on the front door. The pines were swaying dangerously, and I heard the branches rattle on the roof, the cones falling like rain. There was no answer, so I held on to my jacket, pulling the hood over my head and protecting the face as much as I could, ran to the side lane and saw light at the back window. Then I saw Hela. She was sitting on her armchair, her eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to everything around. She had a fire lit in the fireplace, the lamp by her chair adding light to the already bright room.  I did not knock. I watched for a moment at her calm and serene face, as if she was in a different place and time. And the world outside howled and bellowed and twisted and swayed. Was she asleep, was she dreaming, did she know of the storm, did she know of the danger of falling trees, was she afraid. I don’t know, I did not have a chance to ask. As I huddled back to my car and drove back home, I did not ask myself these questions. I was only relieved that she was okay. Only many years later, while thinking of this incident did I wonder what she felt. 

            A month after this, her house was sold, and she moved. She left her new address with my friend and expressed her wish that I should see her. But I never did. Life took its various twists and turns, and I did not get to see Hela again. Today, I can hear her voice asking me why I did not knock. I could have come in, sat by the fire and had some tea. She would have told me about her family, her nephews and nieces and how they are all grown up now. Do you hear the wind outside? It is quite loud today, isn’t it? 

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